Making Things of Beauty out of Found Materials… Under my Feet

Collections Assistant Joy wonders how pieces of broken Victorian china ended up in her back garden and discovers the answer lies in ‘The Dust Destructor’, used by the Victorians to sort domestic waste and recycle.

When I first moved to my present home in Hollingdean we had to clear our large garden, which was filled with rubbish after decades of neglect.

In amongst the rusty metal (including an entire buried bicycle!) and bucketfuls of broken glass from smashed greenhouses, I started to find little bits of broken china. Every time it rained, more came to the surface of the soil and each piece was unique, blowing my theory that the previous householders had just been very clumsy with their china tea sets! Over the years I’ve found hundreds of pretty pieces – each just a little scrap of a pattern. I’ve cleaned and saved them and eventually had enough of this treasure to use in mosaics, like this square mirror

My next door neighbour even saves the ones he finds for me, every so often there’s a tub of muddy bits handed over which though worthless to him, he knows will delight me!

So how did this broken china get there? Lots of people living near me find these bits too, I’ve even found them embedded in the paths through Hollingbury & Burstead woods and up on the ‘clinker’ paths round Hollingbury Hill Fort. The answer seems to lie with the Victorian management of rubbish and the history of the locality as farmland, smallholdings and allotments. In nearby Hollingdean Road the modern Council Waste Depot has a Recycling Centre and provides a home to the fleet of waste collection lorries with which we are all familiar, but on the site there also still stands the remnants of a Victorian building which was the base for the chimney of the ‘Dust Destructor’.

Dust Destructor Shaft

Roll back to the 1890s and Hollingdean was the edge of the countryside and a good place for all the ‘not so nice’ services necessary to support the growing town – far enough away to be out of sight, and being at the top of the hill, also out of smell! It was the site of the Abattoir, commercial laundries with their drying fields and the Council Dust yard. The Dust Destructor, built in 1895, processed ‘Household Dust’ and all manner of domestic waste which would be sorted and separated into materials, an early system of recycling. Throughout the Victorian era the Dust Yard system collected household waste by horse and cart, the ‘dust’ was mainly coal ash and would be separated manually by sieving to extract it from other rubbish. This was known as ‘soil’ and had commercial value to be sold to brick makers and to farmers as manure. The ‘dust’ men and women who did this worked in appalling conditions outside, I found a photograph from as late as 1901 of workers in a London Depot picking out rubbish from the piles of waste. Their job has endured in the term ‘dustbin men’.

So now I know how the broken china came to be in my garden – it has been swept up by Victorian maids and housewives, processed at the Dust Yard and travelled with the ‘soil’, the ash from their fires, to be spread on the farm land to improve it.

The Hollingdean Dust Destructor would have been the latest designs in 1895, initial sorting would still have been manual, but it comprised a massive furnace to burn anything combustible, with originally a 220 foot high brick chimney to direct the smoke away and up the hill.

Dust Destructor Furnaces

It would have been visible from all around until it was demolished in 1962. Anything that didn’t burn in the furnace left a hard reddish grey deposit, known as ‘clinker’ – this was also recycled into walls (there’s still a huge one opposite Hollingdean Depot) and paths (Hollingbury Hill Fort), look out for it around the City. Waste food went to the pig farms, rags and paper to be recycled, metal to be melted down – so there is nothing new in waste recycling, just the type of materials change.

As well as in my garden, years before I also found broken china pieces in another unexpected place – on holiday in Scotland. Exploring the tiny Island of Cumbrae we found a small beach which was littered with ‘treasure’, pieces of Victorian china, clay pipes, moulded glass and bottle tops, worn smooth by the seawater but still patterned and identifiable by part letters as ‘bloater paste’ and marmalade jars. These were too beautiful to leave and a bucketful came home. Some now live in my pond, where their worn colours are brightened by the water.

Locals on Cumbrae told us the bits regularly arrived on the ‘Treasure Beach’, brought by the tides from Glasgow down the Firth of Clyde, maybe from the site of an old Victorian Dust Yard……..

Joy Whittam, Collections Assistant

Discover More

Read about the Dust Destructor memories on the My Brighton and Hove website

Correction note 17/08/20

The last sentence on this post incorrectly referred to the ‘Firth of Forth’. This has been amended in response to two commenters who pointed out the error.

 

13 Responses

  1. Jeanny

    Gosh we just don’t realise what amazing treasures we have beneath our feet and how much fun it is to find and then recycle them into beautiful items that we can use today.

    A very interesting an eye opening article. Thank you.

  2. Jane Power

    Enjoyed reading this thank you – I live in Roundhill, just behind the Hollingdean depot. I also collect pottery from the garden but I thought it was buried there by the occupants.
    I wanted to share with you a picture of a piece of pottery I found on the beach ( don’t seem to be able to attach docs here) – it was so distinctive I managed to identify the plate it came from!

  3. pauline buck

    Brilliant and entertaining article – how fascinating to learn about Victorian recycling!

    Thank you !

  4. Lisa Ball

    What an fascinating story about the history of the China pieces in your garden, and made more interesting by how you use the little bits of treasure you find!

  5. Wendy

    What a lively read- so fascinating. I love that you have turned the pieces of china into treasure. I’ve always wondered why so much pottery turns up in garden and now I know!

  6. Annie Chester

    Enjoyed this article very much- such a variety of patterns and colours. Not much pottery turns up in my garden as the land was previously an orchard, but what there is is nearly all blue-and-white. There’s the occasional glass marble, a nugget of what I take to be an ore of some kind, and a beautiful piece of pale olive green translucent material. The latter looks like glass and has the iridescent colours of old glass, but is shaped like a flint tool – it’s 8cm long, 2cm wide and .5cm thick. I wonder if anyone reading this knows what it might be, or where I could get it identified?

  7. Gill Wales

    Great article and a fascinating insight into this aspect of historical daily life.

  8. Karen See

    I love this history of dust! When on holiday in Morocco we found lots of pretty pieces of turquoise glass rubbed smooth by the ocean. Little treasures of the past.
    Want to make pendants with them..

  9. Simon

    Sorry to be pedantic, but the the Cumbraes are in the Firth of Clyde, not the Firth of Forth.

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