Dog dung used to make books look good!

Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.

And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!

The people who collected dog dung for books

Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.

Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.

That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.

READ THIS STORY: The 18th century transgender diplomat who caused a scandal

Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.

So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.

The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.

Getting dog dung for books was good business

In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.

There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!

A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.

A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.

Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.

Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!

Boy Jones – stealing the underwear of Queen Victoria

What would possess any sane teenager to break into Buckingham Palace and steal the underwear of the reigning monarch. Queen Victoria has to suffer the indignity of a mischievous youth referred to as Boy Jones who kept doing exactly that.

Boy Jones had boasted many times to his workmates that he was going to stage a break in at the palace. Nobody really expected him to do it until….he was caught red handed, in the queen’s private chambers with her knickers stuffed down his front.

Why he targeted that particular garment – I’ll leave to your imagination. At the time, Queen Victoria was still a young woman of child bearing age. Not the dumpy old lady we see celebrated on countless statues and images. But a vivacious character deeply in love with Prince Albert.

Boy Jones and Queen Victoria

By all accounts, Jones was a very filthy and pretty ugly specimen. He was apparently mistaken for the chimney sweep. It’s not known exactly how many times he got into the palace but it’s like to have been more than the three times he confessed to.

DISCOVER: The Green Children of Wulpet

Scaling the walls became a strange obsession. It was a pattern of behaviour he didn’t seem able to break. Maybe he came to believe he had some kind of special relationship with the queen having got so close. And not even a spell in prison could stop the Boy Jones from coming back for more.

There were repeated attempts by the authorities to get rid of him – normally bundling Jones on to a ship bound for somewhere far away. But he kept returning.

Eventually, he ended up in Australia working as the town crier in Perth and with a big alcohol problem. It was during a drunk episode that he fell from a bridge and was sadly killed.

Here I am on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs discussing Jones:

Was Queen Victoria a drug addict?

It’s a strange question but…was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, the answer is she may not  have been amused – but she might have been flying high as a kite.

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Opium

The contents of Queen Victoria’s medicine cabinet are eyebrow raising to put it mildly. There was obviously opium, sold as a painkiller. But then we also find that Victorian favourite, Laudanum. This was a tonic consisting of opium dissolved in alcohol. One swig and one was ready to perform one’s public duties!

QUEEN VICTORIA DRUG ADDICT: Cocaine

To pep herself up, Her Majesty had chewing gum infused with cocaine. She was very fond of this treat. So much so that she even shared some Charlie laced chewies with a young Winston Churchill when he came to stay at Balmoral, her Scottish estate.

Marijuana for menstrual cramps

Menstrual cramps were eased with marijuana. How very forward looking!  It would be amusing to imagine Queen Victoria approving of those American states that have recently legalised dope for medicinal purposes. And as for labour pains during her many pregnancies, Victoria reached for the chloroform, which she said was “delightful beyond measure”.

DISCOVER: Dog dung used to make books look good

There is one claim, not proven at all, that she wrote an anonymous review in a newspaper for a popular drink called Vin Mariani. This concoction was a mix of alcohol and cocaine.

So – was Queen Victoria a drug addict? Well, we have to consider that the line between legal and illegal was more blurred in the 19th century. The stigma attached to cocaine today – and the criminal penalties – was largely absent. And morphine was viewed as a beneficial sedative – though clearly not taken to excess.