Vic Keegan’s Lost London 109: The Great Dust Heap

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 109: The Great Dust Heap

For some of the biggest bits of lost London there is only one proper reaction. Good riddance. And of none is this more true than the Great Dust Heap – perhaps one should say mountain – which dominated the landscape in front of what today is King’s Cross station. It was the eyesore of eyesores and almost certainly the inspiration for the huge fortune that John Harmon made from dust in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend.

An article in Household Words by R H Horne describes it thus: “About a quarter of a mile distant, having a long ditch and a broken-down fence as a foreground, there rose against the muddled-grey sky, a huge Dust-heap of a dirty black colour – being, in fact, one of those immense mounds of cinders, ashes, and other emptyings from dust-holes and bins, which have conferred celebrity on certain suburban neighbourhoods of a great city…”

And where there’s muck, there’s brass. An army of foragers regularly descended to pillage broken pottery, earthenware, oyster shells, discarded pans anything which could be sold on to make a few pennies. But the main value of the dust heap was ignored. 

It was the cinders from household fires, which could be recycled into bricks and other valuable building materials. Contemporary accounts – including W J Pinks’s venerable survey of Clerkenwell – report that the dust heap was sold  – wait for it – to the government of Russia to help the re-building of Moscow after the war with Napoleon for an estimated price of £20,000.

Img 1770

The land on which it stood was sold to the Panharmonium Company whose owner, an Italian music teacher Gesualdo Lanza, planned to build a large theatre within specially laid out pleasure gardens with a music gallery, ballroom, drama school, picture galleries, reading rooms and other features including a refreshment area. There were even plans, years before King’s Cross was opened in 1852, to include an overhead railway from which carriages were to be suspended (image above). 

The site was roughly where Crestfield and Belgrove streets are today. If you look from the end of Argyle Square you will have most of the site stretching out before you. It appears that only a small theatre in Birkenhead Street – possibly the drama school – was completed. Bang went north London’s answer to Vauxhall Gardens.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here. is dedicated to providing fair and thorough coverage of London’s politics, development and culture. It depends on donations from readers. Follow this link. Thank you.

Categories: Culture, Lost London


  1. Fair enough.

    I had read Our Mutual Friend with Noddy Boffin owning ‘dust-heaps’.

    Ashes and cinders, OK. But some of those ‘dust-heaps’ would have been dry (or not so dry) horse-droppings — the standby of the market gradens which ran up the lea Valley. “Dust’ being euphemistic.

    By the turn of the century, London had tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles. Each horse was capable of producing 15 kilograms of dung a day.

    The result was the ‘Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894’, and the London ‘Times’ predicting that ‘In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure’.

  2. k madelyn says:

    Thank you so much! All this time, I’d ignorantly assumed that “dust heap” was like “inexpressibles” – just another weird Victorian euphemism, this time for general garbage. (The idea of entire communities using wood and coal as household fuel is so blessedly remote now that the minutiae of managing that fuel just didn’t occur to me).

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