Monday, June 20, 2011

The real "Great Heap of Dust"

This 1837 water colour of The Great Dust Heap at King's Cross forms part of an exhibition currently on at the Wellcome Collection in London.

A number of newspapers and other history bloggers have already reviewed and written about this exhibition on Victorian "dirt" at length and I will not repeat what they had to say here, except the story that the Great Heap was cleared to make way for the building of King's Cross Station in 1848 is at odds with an entry in British History Online which states that it was removed much earlier: "... in 1826 when the ground was sold to the Panharmonium Company". Apparently the Heap itself was exported to Moscow to make bricks for new streets.

The year 1826 sounds far more plausible as this would have been only 14 years after Moscow was burned by Napoleon and surely the worthy Muscovites wouldn't wait over 30 years for a pile of British dirt? And why would a country the size of Russia have to import cinders and dirt anyhow? Didn't they have enough of their own?

If anyone reading this knows more about the processes involved in shifting and exporting the Great Heap to Russia, I'd love to hear from them.

And who or what was the Panharmonium Company? Like so many speculative enterprises before or since, it collapsed and came to nothing. Here are the relevant extracts:

Some reference should be made to an ambitious scheme projected ... by Signor Gesualdo (Gemaldo) Lanza (1779–1859), an Italian teacher of music, to provide a centre for music and the drama on an island site facing Euston Road and contained within Birkenhead Street and Argyle Street. Lanza had a deserved reputation as a singing master, and with the help of the architect, Stephen Geary, a plan was produced, a copy of which is in the Crace Collection at the British Museum. In the centre of the site was a large building styled the Grand Panharmonium Theatre, facing north, with a refreshment room to the east and a ballroom to the west, stretching together across the whole site. The space south of the theatre was to be occupied by pleasure gardens, with a music gallery built against the theatre itself. In front of the theatre was a courtyard with two approaches from Euston Road on the site of the present Crestfield and Belgrove Streets. Residences were to be built on the Euston Road frontage and in other parts of the site. A dramatic school was also to be built facing Birkenhead Street. There were to be picture galleries, reading rooms and many other features as well.
As far as can be gathered the only building actually erected was the little theatre in Birkenhead Street  ... which may have been that first intended as a dramatic school. But there seems to have been some preparation of the grounds which were furnished with an overhead railway from which cars were suspended [The image can be seen here.]
The opening day was on Thursday, 4th March, 1830, but the project was short lived. On 28th February, 1832, particulars of sale were published concerning bricks, balustrades, gates, plaster figures and unfinished buildings, "late the Panarmonion Gardens." The ground was to be carved into plots and laid into "a new square called Argyle Square." Demolition must have followed immediately, for a newspaper cutting of 20th March, 1832, refers to an accident when an arch was being pulled down "at the Piano Gardens near Battle Bridge." A plan drawn by Ebenezer Perry in 1832 for a re-distribution of the property shows the lay-out of the streets that exist to-day.
From: 'Battle Bridge Estate', Survey of London: volume 24: The parish of St Pancras part 4: King’s Cross Neighbourhood (1952), pp. 102-113. URL: 

R.H. Horne's famous description of what could be recycled from Great Heaps also makes for fascinating reading, although I'm somewhat unnerved by the trade in dead cats. Presumably they were made into fur trims for muffs, hats, etc. for women who probably wouldn't be as fussy as modern fashionistas when it comes to the method of manufacture or the ethics or dangers to health involved.

The image below comes from a 1908 issue of the Illustrated London News and shows a stall selling items recycled from great heaps. Note the alligator!

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