Dust, Victoria London, Housework and The Anthropocene


In the late 1980s and early 90s London gave itself a facial. On the facades of London’s grand buildings mud masks and latex were applied to peel off 300 hundred years of grime from the walls of the city. 

Artist, Jorge Otero-Pailos, collected the latex peelings, black with soot and centuries of fifth, and hung them like flayed skin in Westminster Hall, the British house of Parliament. He called the exposition The Ethics of Dust. His hope that by bringing 300 centuries of grime into the house of government politicians would be reminded of the mistakes their predecessors made. Mostly importantly though, the dark, eerie  soot, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, clinging to the sheets of latex would recall the politicians to the responsibility they have to the people they represent.  

When the latex peeled the thick coat of black soots from the walls of 10 Downing Street, the home of the British Prime Minister, yellow bricks were revealed. This was so shocking that the bricks were quickly covered up in thick black paint. 

The history of London’s dust is dark. Mills and factories, commonly referred to as satanic for their billowing black coal dust that was dense it blocked the sun, lined the Thames, not only polluting the air but releasing toxic effluent into the Thames. The dolphins and seals that could seen from London bridge frolicking in the great river’s waters disappeared. 

The noxious smoke of coal carrying flakes of black soot, the size of snowflakes at Christmas, also rose from the thousands of chimneys venting homes all over London. Every family used small coal fires to heat their homes, warm their food (few had kitchens where they cook, most relied on reheating take out), and bring a cheerful glow to the gloomy nights. 

The air quality was so bad that pollution is responsible for the London Cockney accent’s. To both avoid smelling the air and the inhaling the soot, Londoners breathed through their mouths. Even if they tried to breath through their nose, their sinuses and nostrils were clogged by the soot. The lack of air flow through nasal passages and always having to have their mouth open to breath shaped how Londoners made their word. 

A skilful London butcher, could spy sheep at the London slaughter houses who had been lingering in the stalk yards for a week. It is said that within three days of being in London a sheep’s fluffy white coat would be blotchy with dark patches. At the end of the week, the sheep would be black. 

Even though the British government did make a statement against the coal dust in 1819 calling it “against public health and comfort,” nothing was done. The plumes of pernicious smoke that was choking the breath of the city send up signals of productivity, thriving industry and jobs. Jobs satisfied hungry bellies. Hungry people is a bad situation for any government. During the French Revolution, a decade before the turn of the century, hungry masses beheaded the monarchy and those the monarch favoured. The British took notice, and were not about to shut down the industry that kept bread in peoples bellies. 

The women in London could see the harm the black soot was having on their families’ health. While no one kept records on the effects of burning fossil fuels to feed industry or to warm homes, lung disease was the killed more Londoners than any other disease. The worse lung disease was consumption. Consumption is now known as tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that can lay dormant in the lung tissue for years until there is a weakened state of being. The infection then blooms and offers a miserable death, bleeding out through the lungs. The constant breathing in the noxious soot would have created a perfect home for the bacterial to flourish. 

Sometimes the dust descended en mass in the form of toxic clouds. In 1873 a three day fog choked the life out of 700 people. In 1880, 1000 people died during a four day fog. A similar fog descended in 1892 killing another 1000. Most who died were babies, young children and the elderly. 

Women resolutely battled the inescapable toxic dust. They had little metal tabs installed over the key holes in doors to stop the dust from seeping into their homes from outside. They hung heavy curtains and kept them closed to discourage the dust from drifting through the windows. They strew wet tea leaves across floors to dampen down the dust before sweeping. They were weary of their brooms giving the dust an opportunity to once again become air borne. To get into tight corners, white bread was squished into little balls and pushed into tight place, the corners of picture frames and skirting boards, with the hope of collecting strays bits of soot. It was such a daunting, endless task that cleanliness became spiritualized. To have dust, or really dirt of any kind, lingering on the sideboard, hidden under the rug or heavens forbid on the linen, was both morally and socially unacceptable. Groups of women roamed through the thick muck of London streets, embroidered handkerchiefs held over their noses and mouths protecting themselves from the soot and stench, and knocked on doors to preach cleanliness to women in one of the filthiest city that has ever been built on Earth.  

It was all to no avail. No matter how the women of London scrubbed, swept, scoured and wrung out, the black soot was eternal and they watch the health of their families deteriorate year by year. The women of London, like Sisyphus back breaking eternal punishment of pushing a huge rock up a hill for eternity, struggle against a foe much bigger then themselves. 

Jack London, an American writer, in his book People of the Abyss, a mémoire of sorts about his life for a few months living in east London in 1903 wrote:

The air he breathes, and from which he never escapes, is sufficient to weaken him mentally and physically, so that he becomes unable to compete with the fresh virile life from the country hastening on to London Town to destroy and be destroyed. It is incontrovertible that the children grow up into rotten adults, without virility or stamina, a weak-kneed, narrow-chested, listless breed, that crumples up and goes down in the brute struggle for life with the invading hordes from the country. The railway men, carriers, omnibus drivers, corn and timber porters, and all those who require physical stamina are largely drawn from the country.

Some believe London during the 1800s was the birth place of the Anthropocene: the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Todays’ storms, droughts, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and mass extinction caused by the warming of the planet’s atmosphere due to burning fossil fuels were seeded in Victorian London by industries fatal gases and dust, and the indifference of politicians to the well being of the people and this beautiful planet we all live on.