Argyle Square: an insalubrious history

Argyle Square, King's Cross

“Where there’s muck, there’s brass” might be an expression to encapsulate Argyle Square, past and present.

Argyle Square

Argyle Square is the Bloomsbury Square closest to King’s Cross, only a short walk away from the two SOAS student halls of residence at Dinwiddy House and Paul Robeson House.  Today the Square has a small, but well maintained central lawn, surrounded by a pedestrian path and planted borders.  The buildings surrounding the Square are formal Georgian terraced properties, echoing the grander architectural designs of some of Bloomsbury’s larger squares.  The majority of the terraces are now occupied by small hotels, although few of the hotel’s modern guests would be likely to guess the Square’s less than glamorous history.

Georgian terraces surround Argyle Square
Georgian terraces surround Argyle Square

In the late 18th Century, Argyle Square was the site of one of London’s most infamous Dust Heaps.  Today, it is hard to imagine the scale of these mountains of refuse, which provided both a health hazard and an eyesore to the centre of London.

Dust Heaps and Dickens

The phenomenon of Victorian Dust Heaps form an integral part of Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend, where entrepreneurial dustman, Mr Boffin, makes a fortune out of the detritus of his fellow Londoners.  Dickens got his idea for the book after reading the essay Dust: or Ugliness Redeemed, written by R. H. Horne, and which was published in Household Words in 1850.

A good description of the Dust Heaps comes from this essay:

“…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…”

However, for some enterprising individuals, who didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, there were huge profits to be achieved from these vast piles of rubbish.  Armies of ‘sifters’ and ‘searchers’ would be employed on the heap to sort and hunt out items, which could be sold on for profit.  Even dead cats had a market value:

“Dealers come to the dust-field every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a coloured cat, and for a black one according to her quality.”

Knowledge Quarter

In recent years, the entire King’s Cross area has benefitted from its own massive influx of investment.

The railway station has been revamped, new shops and restaurants have sprung up, and a large track of derelict land has been transformed into the Knowledge Quarter, of which SOAS is a partner.

Of course, there is still plenty of money to be made from muck today, although deliberately muddied designer jeans selling for over three hundred pounds seem like a no better deal than a dead cat for fourpence!

Argyle Square
Argyle Square

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