London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Sellers of Tan-Turf.


TAN-TURF is oak bark made into turf after its virtues have been exhausted in the tan-pits. To make it into turf the manufacturers have a mill which is turned by horse-power, in which they grind the bark to a considerable degree of fineness, after which it is shaped by a mould into thin cakes about inches square, put out to dry and harden, and when thoroughly hardened it is fit for sale and for all the uses for which it is intended.

There is only place in London or its neighbourhood where there are tan-pits—in Bermondsey—and there only is the turf made. There are not more than a dozen persons in London engaged in the sale of this commodity in the streets, and they are all of the tribe of the costermongers. The usual capital necessary for starting in the line being a donkey and cart, with or to purchase a few hundreds of the turf.

There is a tradition extant, even at the present day, that during the prevalence of the plague in London the houses where the tan-turf was used in a great measure escaped that awful visitation; and to this moment many people purchase and burn it in their houses on account of the peculiar smell, and under the belief that it is efficacious in repelling infectious diseases from the localities in which it is used.

The other purposes for which it is used are for forming a sort of compost or manure for plants of the heath kind, which delight in a soil of this description, growing naturally among mosses and bogs where the peat fuel is obtained. It is used also by small bakers for heating their ovens, as preferable for their purposes, and more economical than any other description of fuel. Sometimes it is used for burning under coppers; and very often for keeping alight during the night, on account of the slowness of its decomposition by fire, for a single cake will continue burning for a whole night, will be found in the morning completely enveloped in a white ash, which, on being removed, discovers the live embers in the centre.

The rate at which the tan-turf is sold to the dealers, at the tan-pits, is from to per hun-


dred cakes. Those at per are perfect and unbroken, while those at have been injured in some way or other. The quality of the article, however, remains the same, and by purchasing some of each sort the vendors are able to make somewhat more profit, which may be, on an average, about per , as they sell it at

While seeking information on this subject I obtained the address of a person in T—— mews, T—— square, engaged in the business. Running out of the square is a narrow street, which, about mid-way through, leads on the right-hand side to a narrow alley, at the bottom of which is the mews, consisting of merely an oblong court, surrounded by stables of the very smallest dimensions, not of them being more than feet square. or men, in the long waistcoats and full breeches peculiar to persons engaged among horses, were lounging about, and, with the exception of the horses, appeared to be the only inhabitants of the place. On inquiring of of the loungers, I was shown a stable in corner of the court, the wide door of which stood open. On entering I found it occupied by a donkey-cart, containing a couple of cakes of tan-turf; another old donkey-cart was turned up opposite, the tailboard resting on the ground, the shafts pointing to the ceiling, while a cock and or draggle-tailed hens were composing themselves to roost on the front portion of the cart between the shafts. Within the space thus inclosed by the carts lay a donkey and dogs, that seemed keeping him company, and were busily engaged in mumbling and crunching some old bones. On the wall hung "Jack's harness." In corner of the ceiling was an opening giving access to the place above, which was reached by means of a long ladder. On ascending this I found myself in a very small attic, with a sloping ceiling on both sides. In the highest part, the middle of the room, it was not more than feet high, but at the sides it was not more than feet. In this confined apartment stood a stump bedstead, taking up the greater portion of the floor. In a corner alongside the fire-place I noticed what appeared to be a small turn--up bedstead. A little ricketty deal table, an old smoke-dried Dutch clock, and a poor old woman, withered and worn, were the only other things to be seen in the place. The old woman had been better off, and, as is not uncommon under such circumstances, she endeavoured to make her circumstances appear better than they really were. She made the following statement:—

My husband was 23 years selling the tan turf. There used to be a great deal more of it sold than there is now; people don't seem to think so much of it now, as they once did, but there are some who still use it. There's an old lady in Kentish-town, who must have it regularly; she burns it on account of the smell, and has burned it for many years: my husband used to serve her. There's an old doctor at Hampstead —or rather he was there, for he died a few days ago—he always bought a deal of it, but I don't know whether he burned it or not; he used to buy 500 or 600 at a time, he was a very good customer, and we miss him now. The gardeners buy some of it, for their plants, they say it makes good manure, though you wouldn't think so to look at it, it's so hard and dry. My husband is dead three years; we were better off when he was alive; he was a very sober and careful man, and never put anything to waste. My youngest son goes with the cart now; he don't do as well as his father, poor little fellow! he's only fourteen years of age, but he does very well for a boy of his age. He sometimes travels 30 miles of a day, and can't sell a load—sometimes not half a load; and then he comes home of a night so foot-sore that you'd pity him. Sometimes he's not able to stir out, for a day or two, but he must do something for a living; there's nothing to be got by idleness. The cart will hold 1000 or 1200, and if he could sell that every day we'd do very well; it would leave us about 3s. 6d. profit, after keeping the donkey. It costs 9d. a day to keep our donkey; he's young yet, but he promises to be a good strong animal, and I like to keep him well, even if I go short myself, for what could we do without him? I believe there are one or two persons selling tan-turf who use trucks, but they're strong; besides they can't do much with a truck, they can't travel as far with a truck as a donkey can, and they can't take as much out with them. My son goes of a morning to Bermondsey for a load, and is back by breakfast time; from this to Bermondsey is a long way—then he goes out and travels all round Kentish-town and Hampstead, and what with going up one street and down another, by the time he comes home at night, he don't travel less than from 25 to 30 miles a day. I have another son, the eldest. He used to go with his father when he was alive; he was reared to the business, but after he died he thought it was useless for both to go out with the cart, so he left it to the little fellow, and now the eldest works among horses. He don't do much, only gets an odd job now and then among the ostlers, and earns a shilling now and then. They're both good lads, and would do well if they could; they do as well as they can, and I have a right to be thankful for it.

The poor woman, notwithstanding the extraordinary place in which she lived, and the confined dimensions of her single apartment (I ascertained that the sons slept in the stump bedstead, while she used the turn-up), was nevertheless cleanly in her person and apparel, and superior in many respects to persons of the same class, and I give her statement verbatim, as it corroborates, in almost every particular, the statement of the unfortunate seller of salt, who is afflicted with a drunken disorderly wife, and who is also a man superior to the people with whom he is compelled to associate, but who in evident bitterness of spirit made this assertion: "Bad as I'm off now, if I had only a careful partner, I wouldn't want for anything."



Concerning the dogs that I have spoken of as being with the donkey, there is a curious story. During his rounds the donkey frequently met the bitch, and an extraordinary friendship grew up between the animals, so that the dog at last forsook its owner, and followed the donkey in all his travels. For some time back she has accompanied him home, together with her puppy, and they all sleep cozily together during the night, Jack taking especial care not to hurt the young . In the morning, when about to go out for the day's work, it is of no use to expect Jack to go without his friends, as he will not budge an inch, so he is humoured in his whim. The puppy, when tired, is put into the cart, and the mother forages for her living along the way; the poor woman not being able to feed them. The owner of the dogs came to see them on the day previous to my visit.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work