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

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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.