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.
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.
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