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Friday, March 10, 2017

A Bed of Ashes

In Homer’s Odyssey, 18.327-328, Odysseus has returned to his hall in Ithaca, disguised as a scruffy, aged beggar, and is plotting his revenge upon Penelope’s suitors. In a conference with Penelope, he is addressed thus by Melantho, one of Penelope’s faithless handmaids:

“Wretched stranger, you must be out of your mind, unwilling to go to a smithy to sleep, or to a place of public resort…”

Now, at first sight, one might think this a bit odd. Obviously, a beggar is presumably too poor to find accommodation at an inn, even assuming such a thing to exist in Homeric Greece. But why a smithy of all things?  Would we not expect him to resort to a barn or manger, as did the parents of our Saviour? However, after a moment’s thought, one is sure to come up with the answer: a blacksmith’s workshop was likely to be warm. But another question then arises: Why should a ragged beggar be any more welcome in a blacksmith’s abode than he was in the hall? The answer is that he wouldn’t be. We must not assume that the beggar would be inside, sleeping by the forge.

We get clarity on this passage from Daniel Defoe. Exhibit A is the following passage from Defoe’s Colonel Jack (1722):

Those who know the Position of the Glass-houses, and the Arches where they Neal the Bottles after they are made, know that those Places where the Ashes are cast, and where the poor Boys lye, are Caveties in the Brick-work, perfectly close, except at the Entrance, and consequently warm as the Dressing-room of a Bagnio...(p. 16)

For the homeless children of Defoe’s London, a glass manufactory was similar to a smithy in ancient Greece, in that it relied on the constant operation of a furnace burning at high heat, and it used a lot of fuel, the spent remains of which would require to be regularly scooped out and disposed of. Homeless children would sleep in these still-warm piles of ashes, especially in the wintertime:

“in Winter we got into the Ash-holes and Nealing-Arches in the Glass-house, call’d Dallows’s Glass-house, near Rosemary-Lane, or at another Glass-house in Ratcliff-high-way.” (p. 9)

Actually, in these passages we see that it was not so much the ashes themselves, but rather the way they heated the surrounding brick enclosure, that created the ambient warmth. Although it’s not made entirely clear in the way Defoe describes it, it might be possible to surmise that the brickwork in question comprised the outer wall backing the forge itself, also providing warmth.

These homeless children in 18th- and 19th-century London came to be called “blackguard children” or simply “blackguards”. Consulting the OED and other sources, there seems to be some uncertainty around the origins of the term. It dates to the early 16th century, and seems originally to have been applied to the lower sort of servants who worked as scullions and kitchen knaves. But these sources also mention — without offering any evidence — that it may have originated from some military unit that wore black uniforms. That is taking the term too literally. More likely it was a mock-military term, which also had reference to servants’ livery.

The “black” part of the term “blackguard” should by now be obvious: kitchen knaves were grimy and sooty from being around fires, and homeless children would have been blackened by the ashes in which they slept. In the case of the latter, it also pointed to the fact that so many of them supported themselves as shoe blacks. Both of these reference points come together in this passage from Colonel Jack:

“As for my Person, while I was a dirty Glass-Bottle House Boy, sleeping in the Ashes, and dealing always in the Street Dirt, it cannot be expected but that I look’d like what I was, and so did we all; that is to say, like a Black your Shoes your Honour, a Beggar Boy, a Black-Guard Boy, or what you please…” (p. 7)

Of course, it was not just children that slept rough. We know from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744) that the poet Richard Savage also slept in the ashes of glass-houses during his creditor-dodging rambles and frequent bouts of homelessness:

“He lodged as much by Accident as he dined and passed the Night, sometimes in mean Houses, which are set open at Night to any casual Wanderers, sometimes in Cellars among the Riot and Filth of the meanest and most profligate of the Rabble; and sometimes, when he had no Money to support even the Expences of these Receptacles, walked about the Streets till he was weary, and lay down in the Summer upon a Bulk, or in the Winter with his Associates in Poverty, among the Ashes of a Glass-house.” (p. 97)

Here, in the words “meanest and most profligate of the rabble” we have the makings of the primary meaning of “blackguard” as it was typically used in the 19th century: “a low, contemptible person; a scoundrel.”


DEFOE, Daniel. Colonel Jack. Samuel Holt Monk (ed.). London: Oxford University Press, 1965.

HOMER. Odyssey (2 vols.). A. T. Murray (trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

JOHNSON, Samuel. Life of Savage. Clarence Tracy (ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

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