London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Street-Buyers of Rags, Broken Metal, Bottles, Glass, and Bones.
I CLASS all these articles under head, for, on inquiry, I find no individual supporting himself by the trading in any of them. I shall, therefore, describe the buyers of rags, broken metal, bottles, glass, and bones, as a body of streettraders, but take the articles in which they traffic seriatim, pointing out in what degree they are, or have been, wholly or partially, the staple of several distinct callings.
The traders in these things are not unprosperous men. The poor creatures who may be seen picking up rags in the street are "streetfinders," and not buyers. It is the same with the poor old men who may be seen bending under an unsavoury sack of bones. The bones have been found, or have been given for charity, and are not purchased. feeble old man whom I met with, his eyes fixed on the middle of the carriage-way in the Old St. Pancras-road, and with whom I had some conversation, told me that the best friend he had in the world was a gentleman who lived in a large house near the Regent's-park, and gave him the bones which his dogs had done with! "If I can only see hisself, sir," said the old man, "he's sure to give me any coppers he has in his coat-pocket, and that's a very great thing to a poor man like me. O, yes, I'll buy bones, if I have any ha'pence, rather than go without them; but I pick them up, or have them given to me mostly."
The street-buyers, who are only buyers, have barrows, sometimes even carts with donkeys, and, as they themselves describe it, they "buy everything." These men are little seen in London, for they "work" the more secluded courts, streets, and alleys, when in town; but their most frequented rounds are the poorer parts of the populous suburbs. There are many in Croydon, Woolwich, Greenwich, and Deptford. "It's no use," a man who had been in the trade said to me, "such as us calling at fine houses to know if they've any old keys to sell! No, we trades with the poor." Often, however, they deal with the servants of the wealthy; and their usual mode of business in such cases is to leave a bill at the house a few hours previous to their visit. This document has frequently the royal arms at the head of it, and asserts that the "firm" has been established since the year ——, which is seldom less than half a century. The hand-bill usually consists of a short preface as to the increased demand for rags on the part of the papermakers, and this is followed by a liberal offer to give the very best prices for any old linen, or old metal, bottles, rope, stair-rods, locks, keys, dripping, carpeting, &c., "in fact, no rubbish or lumber, however worthless, will be refused;" and generally concludes with a request that this "bill" may be shown to the mistress of the house and preserved, as it will be called for in a couple of hours.
The papers are delivered by of the "firm," who marks on the door a sign indicative of the houses at which the bill has been taken in, and the probable reception there of the gentleman who is to follow him. The road taken is also pointed by marks before explained, see vol. i. pp. and . These men are residents in all quarters within miles of London, being most numerous in the places at no great distance from the Thames. They work their way from their suburban residences to London, which, of course, is the mart, or "exchange," for their wares. The reason why the suburbs are preferred is that in those parts the possessors of such things as broken metal, &c., cannot so readily resort to a marinestore dealer's as they can in town. I am informed, however, that the shops of the marinestore men are on the increase in the more denselypeopled suburbs; still the dwellings of the poor are often widely scattered in those parts, and few will go a mile to sell any old thing. They wait in preference, unless very needy, for the of the street-buyer.
A good many years ago—perhaps until years back—, and especially white and good linen rags, were among the things most zealously inquired for by street-buyers, and then a pound was a price readily paid. Subsequently the papermanufacturers brought to great and economical perfection the process of boiling rags in lye and bleaching them with chlorine, so that colour became less a desideratum. A few years after the peace of , moreover, the foreign trade in rags increased rapidly. At the present time, about tons of woollen rags, and upwards of tons of linen rags, are imported yearly. These tons give us but a vague notion of the real amount. I may therefore mention that, when reduced to a more definite quantity, they show a total of no less than millions . The woollen rags are imported the most largely from Hamburg and Bremen, the price being from to the ton. Linen rags, which average nearly the ton, are imported from the same places, and from several Italian ports, more especially those in Sicily. Among these ports are Palermo, Messina, Ancona, Leghorn, and Trieste (the Trieste rags being gathered in Hungary). The value of the rags annually brought to this country is no less than What the native rags may be worth, there are no facts on which to ground an estimate; but supposing each person of the in Great to produce of rags annually, then the rags of this country may be valued at very nearly the same price as the foreign ones, so that the gross value of the rags of Great imported and produced at home, would, in such a case, amount to From France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, and other continental kingdoms, the exportation of rags is prohibited, nor can so bulky and low-priced a commodity be smuggled to advantage.
Of this large sum of rags, which is independent of what is collected in the United Kingdom, the Americans are purchasers on an extensive scale. The wear of cotton is almost unknown in many parts of Italy, Germany, and Hungary; and al-
|although the linen in use is coarse and, compared to the Irish, Scotch, or English, rudely manufactured, the foreign rags generally linen, and therefore are preferred at the paper mills. The street-buyers in this country, however, make less distinction than ever, as regards price, between linen and cotton rags.|
The linen rag-buying is still prosecuted extensively by itinerant "gatherers" in the country, and in the further neighbourhoods of London, but the collection is not to the extent it was formerly. The price is lower, and, owing to the foreign trade, the demand is less urgent; so common, too, is now the wear of cotton, and so much smaller that of linen, that many people will not sell linen rags, but reserve them for use in case of cuts and wounds, or for giving to their poor neighbours on any such emergency. This was done doubtlessly to as great, or to a greater extent, in the old times, but linen rags were more plentiful then, for cotton shirting was not woven to the perfection seen at present, and many good country housewives spun their own linen sheetings and shirtings.
A street-buyer of the class I have described, upon presenting himself at any house, offers to buy rags, broken metal, or glass, and for rags especially there is often a serious bargaining, and sometimes, I was told by an itinerant street-seller, who had been an ear-witness, a little joking not of the most delicate kind. For coloured rags these men give a pound, or for ; for inferior white rags a pound, and up to ; for the best, the pound. It is common, however, and even more common, I am assured, among masters of the old rag and bottle shops, than among streetbuyers, to announce or , or even as much as , for the rags, but, somehow or other, the rags taken for sale to those buyers never are of the best. To offer a pound for rags is ridiculous, but such an offer may be seen at some ragshops, the figure , perhaps, crowning a painting of a large plum-pudding, as a representation of what may be a Christmas result, merely from the thrifty preservation of rags, grease, and dripping. Some of the street-buyers, when working the suburbs or the country, attach a similar "illustration" to their barrows or carts. I saw the winter placard of of these men, which he was reserving for a country excursion as far as Rochester, "when the plum-pudding time was a-coming." In this pictorial advertisement a man and woman, very florid and full-faced, were on the point of enjoying a huge plum-pudding, the man flourishing a large knife, and looking very hospitable. On a scroll which issued from his mouth were the words: "From our rags! The best prices given by —— ——, of London." The woman in like manner exclaimed: "From dripping and house fat! The best prices given by —— ——, of London."
This man told me that at some times, both in town and country, he did not buy a pound of rags in a week. He had heard the old hands in the trade say, that or years back they could "gather" (the word generally used for buying) twice and times as many rags as at present. My formant attributed this change to causes, depending more upon what he had heard from experienced street-buyers than upon his own knowledge. At time it was common for a mistress to allow her maid-servant to "keep a rag-bag," in which all refuse linen, &c., was collected for sale for the servant's behoof; a privilege now rarely accorded. The other cause was that working-people's wives had less money at their command now than they had formerly, so that instead of gathering a good heap for the man who called on them periodically, they ran to a marine storeshop and sold them by , , and pennyworths at a time. This related to all the things in the street-buyer's trade, as well as to rags.
My informant, the rag-dealer, belonged to the best order of costermongers; proof of this was in the evident care which he had bestowed on Jenny, his donkey. There were no loose hairs on her hide, and her harness was clean and whole, and I observed after a pause to transact business on his round, that the animal held her head towards her master to be scratched, and was petted with a mouthful of green grass and clover, which the costermonger had in a corner of his vehicle.
, which consist of cloth, satin, lining materials, fustian, waistcoatings, silk, &c., are among the things which the street-buyers are the most anxious to become possessed of on a country round; for, as will be easily understood by those who have read the accounts before given of the Old Clothes Exchange, and of Petticoat and Rosemary lanes, they are available for many purposes in London.
are also a portion of the street-buyer's country traffic, but to no great extent, and hardly ever, I am told, unless the streetbuyer, which is not often the case, be accompanied on his round by his wife. In town, tailor's cuttings are usually sold to the piece-brokers, who call or send men round to the shops or workshops for the purpose of buying them, and it is the same with the dressmaker's cuttings.
, or , for I heard appellation used as frequently as the other, is bought by the same description of traders. This trade, however, is prosecuted in town by the street-buyers more largely than in the country, and so differs from the rag business. The carriage of old iron bolts and bars is exceedingly cumbersome; nor can metal be packed or stowed away like old clothes or rags. This makes the street-buyer indifferent as to the collecting of what I heard of them call "country iron." By "metal" the street-folk often mean copper (most especially), brass, or pewter, in contradistinction to the cheaper substances of iron or lead. In the country they are most anxious to buy "metal;" whereas, in town, they as readily purchase "iron." When the street-buyers give merely the worth of any metal by weight to be disposed of, in order to be remelted, or re-wrought in some manner, by the manufacturers, the following are the average prices:—Copper, per lb.; pewter, ; brass, ; iron, lbs. for , and lbs. for (a smaller quantity than lbs. is seldom bought); and and per lb. for lead. Old zinc is not a metal which "comes in the way" of the streetbuyer, nor—as of them told me with a laugh —old silver. Tin is never bought by weight in the streets.
It must be understood that the prices I have mentioned are those given for old or broken metal, valueless unless for re-working. When an old metal article is still available, or may be easily made available, for the use for which it was designed, the street-purchase is by "the piece," rather than the weight.
The broken pans, scuttles, kettles, &c., concerning of the uses of which I have quoted Mr. Babbage, in page of the present volume, as to the conversion of these worn-out vessels into the light and japanned edgings, or clasps, called "clamps," or "clips," by the trunk-makers, and used to protect or strengthen the corners of boxes and packing-cases, are purchased sometimes by the street-buyers, but fall more properly under the head of what constitutes a portion of the stockin- trade of the street-finder. They are not bought by weight, but so much for the pan, perhaps so much along with other things; a halfpenny, a penny, or occasionally , and often only a farthing, or pans for a penny. The uses for these things which the street-buyers have more especially in view, are not those mentioned by Mr. Babbage (the trunk clamps), but the conversion of them into the "iron shovels," or strong dustpans sold in the streets. street artisan supports himself and his family by the making of dustpans from such grimy old vessels.
As in the result of my inquiry among the street- of old metal, I am of opinion that the street- also are not generally mixed up with the receipt of stolen goods. That they may be so to some extent is probable enough; in the same proportion, perhaps, as highly respectable tradesmen have been known to buy the goods of fraudulent bankrupts, and others. The street-buyers are low itinerants, seen regularly by the police and easy to be traced, and therefore, for reason, cautious. In of my inquiries among the young thieves and pickpockets in the low lodging-houses, I heard frequent accounts of their selling the metal goods they stole, to "fences," and in particular instance, to the mistress of a lodging-house, who had conveniences for the melting of pewter pots (called "cats and kittens" by the young thieves, according to the size of the vessels), but I never heard them speak of any connection, or indeed any transactions, with streetfolk.
Among the things purchased in great quantities by the street-buyers of old metal are keys. The
|keys so bought are of every size, are generally very rusty, and present every form of manufacture, from the simplest to the most complex wards. On my inquiring how such a number of keys without locks came to be offered for street-sale, I was informed that there were often duplicate or triplicate keys to lock, and that in sales of household furniture, for instance, there were often numbers of odd keys found about the premises and sold "in a lump;" that locks were often spoiled and unsaleable, wearing out long before the keys. Twopence a dozen is an usual price for a dozen "mixed keys," to a street-buyer. Bolts are also freely bought by the street-people, as are holdfasts, bed-keys, and screws, "and everything," I was told, "which some or other among the poor is always a-wanting."|
A little old man, who had been many years a street-buyer, gave me an account of his purchases of and This man had been a soldier in his youth; had known, as he said, "many ups and downs;" and occasionally wheels a barrow, somewhat larger and shallower than those used by masons, from which he vends iron and tin wares, such as cheap gridirons, stands for handirons, dust-pans, dripping trays, &c. As he sold these wares, he offered to buy, or swop for, any -hand commodities. "As to the bottle and glass buying, sir," he said, "it's dead and buried in the streets, and in the country too. I've known the day when I've cleared in a week by buying old things in a country round. How long was that ago, do you say, sir? Why perhaps years; yes, more than . Now, I'd hardly pick up odd glass in the street." [He called imperfect glass wares "odd glass."] "O, I don't know what's brought about such a change, but everything changes. I can't say anything about the duty on glass. No, I never paid any duty on my glass; it ain't likely. I buy glass still, certainly I do, but I think if I depended on it I should be wishing myself in the East Injes again, rather than such a poor consarn of a business—d——n me if I shouldn't. The last glass bargain I made about months back, down Limehouse-way, and about the Commercial-road, I cleared by; and then I had to wheel what I bought—it was chiefly bottles—about mile. It's a trade would starve a cat, the buying of old glass. I never bought glass by weight, but I've heard of some giving a halfpenny and a penny a pound. I always bought by the piece: from a halfpenny to a shilling (but that's long since) for a bottle; and farthings and halfpennies, and higher and sometimes lower, for wine and other glasses as was chipped or cracked, or damaged, for they could be sold in them days. People's got proud now, I fancy that's thing, and must have everything slap. O, I do middling: I live by thing or other, and when I die there 'll just be enough to bury the old man." [This is the street-trader I have met with who made such a statement as to having provided for his interment, though I have heard these men occasionally express repugnance at the thoughts of being buried by the parish.] "I have a daughter, that's all my family now; she does well as a laundress, and is a real good sort; I have my dinner with her every Sunday. She's a widow without any young ones. I often go to church, both with my daughter and by myself, on Sunday evenings. It does good. I'm fond of the music and singing too. The sermon I can very seldom make anything of, as I can't hear well if any 's a good way off me when he's saying anythink. I buy a little old metal sometimes, but it's coming to be all up with street glass-people; everybody seems to run with their things to the rag-and-bottle-shops."
The same body of traders buy also but the trade in them is sufficiently described in my account of the buying of rags, for it is carried on in the same way, so much per pound ( or or ), or so much for the lot.
Of I have already spoken. They are bought by any street-collector with a cart, on his round in town, at a halfpenny a pound, or for a penny; but it is a trade, on account of the awkwardness of carriage, little cared for by the regular street-buyers. Men, connected with some bone-grinding-mill, go round with a horse and cart to the knackers and butchers to collect bones; but this is a portion, not of street, but of the mill-owner's, business. These bones are ground for manure, which is extensively used by the agriculturists, having been introduced in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire about years ago. The importation of bones is now very great; more than times as much as it was years back. The value of the foreign bones imported is estimated at upwards of yearly. They are brought from South America (along with hides), from Germany, Holland, and Belgium.
The men who most care to collect bones in the streets of London are old and infirm, and they barter toys for them with poor children; for those children sometimes gather bones in the streets and put them on side, or get them from dustholes, for the sake of exchanging them for a plaything; or, indeed, for selling them to any shopkeeper, and many of the rag-and-bottle-tradesmen buy bones. The toys most used for this barter are paper "wind-mills." These toy-barterers, when they have a few pence, will buy bones of children or any others, if they cannot become possessed of them otherwise; but the carriage of the bones is a great obstacle to much being done in this business.
In the regular way of street-buying, such as I have described it, there are about men in London and the suburbs. Some buy only during a portion of the year, and none perhaps (except in the way of barter) the year round. They are chiefly of the costermonger class, some of the street-buyers however, have been carmen's servants, or connected with trades in which they had the care of a horse and cart, and so became habituated to a street-life.
There are still many other ways in which the commerce in refuse and the -hand street-trade is supplied. As the windmill-seller for bones, so will the puppet-show man for old bottles or broken table-spoons, or almost any old trifle, allow children to regale their eyes on the beauties of his exhibition.
The trade expenditure of the street-buyers it is not easy to estimate. Their calling is so mixed with selling and bartering, that very probably not among them can tell what he expends in , as a separate branch of his business. If men expend each weekly, in the purchase of rags, old metal, &c., and if this trade be prosecuted for weeks of the year, we find so expended. The profits of the buyers range from to per cent.