‘Oh Freddy, where’s mammy?’: a tragedy on the Hackney Marshes

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This is a very sad story which really seems to have been the result of an accident rather than any intent on the part of the perpetrator. However, it is a useful reminder that the oft maligned Health & Safety laws we have established today are there for a reason.

John Squibb was a 24 year-old carman (the nineteenth century’s equivalent of a modern van driver). He was taking dust to Hackney Marshes to dispose of it. This was a daily task as the capital’s fires produced tonnes of unwanted waste which was collected weekly by dustmen. These characters have all but disappeared from our streets but I can remember  them back in the early 1970s, now they have been replaced by modern refuse operatives with their high viz jackets and automated collection vehicles. Modern ‘rubbish’ is more varied than the dust from fires and stoves that occupied most the trade in the 1800s.

Squibb drove his cart to Hackney Marshes and began to unload it into a prepared hole. I suppose this was the Victorian version of landfill; literally filling the earth with unwanted ashes and coal dust. As he worked a small group of children watched him, probably fascinated by the process but also keen to see if they could glean anything of value from the ‘rubbish’. As the illustration at the top of the page shows our poorer ancestors were obliged to scavenge from the rubbish pits in just the same way as we see in modern developing countries.

One of the children, three year-old Henry Walton, was standing close to the cart, too close in fact. His older brother was with him but possibly not looking after him as he should have been. As Squibb turned the cart to finish unloading it the wheel clipped little Henry and knocked him over. Before anyone could react quickly enough the cart moved forward, crushing the boy under the wheel.

The carman realised what had happened and rushed to drag the child out but it was too late. Henry cried out to his brother: ‘Freddy, where’s mammy?’, and died in Squibb’s arms. It was terribly sad but probably an accident and at Worship Street Police court that is how Mr Hannay saw it. He remanded Squibb so that the necessary checks could be made by the police and the licensing authorities but it was unlikely that the man would be prosecuted.

You have to wonder at a three year old being able to be on Hackney Marshes on a Friday morning with only other small children to supervise. We may have become overprotective of our children (to the extent that they hardly seem to pay outdoors at all) but incidents like this remind us of why some laws and controls are necessary. It is also a reminder of the poverty that existed in late Victorian London; many of these children would have been sent out to find things the family could use, eat or sell – this was recycling nineteenth-century style.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, 14 November, 1885]

A rubbish thief in Westminster

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Parish Dustman, c.1820

Not for the first time I’m indebted to the curiosity of a fellow historian to make sense of a very short entry in the newspapers covering the Police Courts of the Metropolis in the early 19th century.

In February 1833 the Morning Post reported that John Stockton, ‘a well known flying dustman of Duck-lane, Westminster’ had appeared at the Queen’s Square Police Court charged with theft.

But Stockton hadn’t stolen valuables or money, or even food; he was accused of pinching ‘a quantity of dust’ from the Duke of Leeds in Whitehall. The report, sadly, gave no details of how much dust was stolen, or how the thief was caught. He was found guilty however, and the magistrate handed down a hefty financial penalty of £10.

Stockton didn’t have that kind of money and so he was sent to prison by default.

But what was a ‘flying dustman’?

I hadn’t a clue but I knew Lee Jackson would. His fascinating study of the ‘dirty trades’ of London is an excellent read and his Victorian London webpage is a resource I use all the time.

Dust was a by-product of the burning of fuels like coal and wood, and there was a lot of it. Ratepayers  demanded it was cleared away, and so parish officials employed men to take it away – sometimes carts passed streets twice a week in order to keep up with the mounds of dust and other refuse a huge city like London produced.

But dust also had a value. It could be mixed with other materials to make bricks and was employed for a variety of purposes. So its collection could be profitable and the capital soon spawned its own industry in waste removal. Flying dustmen were so called ‘from their habit of flying from one district to another’, a report into ‘Street Life in London’ from 1877 explained.

We still have ‘dustmen’ today of course, although they rarely collect ‘dust’ and are now given much more modern titles. They continue to remove the stuff we don’t want of course, and are part of wider recycling of materials and ‘rubbish’ that our Victorian ancestors would have understood and approved of.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, February 08, 1833]