London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Buyers of Waste (Paper).


BEYOND all others the street-purchase of waste paper is the most curious of any in the hands of the class I now treat of. Some may have formed the notion that waste paper is merely that which is soiled or torn, or old numbers of newspapers, or other periodical publications; but this is merely a portion of the trade, as the subsequent account will show.

The men engaged in this business have not unfrequently an apartment, or a large closet, or recess, for the reception of their purchases of paper. They collect their paper street by street, calling upon every publisher, coffee-shop keeper, printer, or publican (but rarely on a publican), who may be a seller of "waste." I heard the refuse paper called nothing but "waste" after the general elliptical fashion. Attorneys' offices are often visited by these buyers, as are the offices of public men, such as tax or rate collectors, generally.

man told me that until about years ago, and while he was a youth, he was employed by a relation in the trade to carry out waste paper sold to, or ordered by cheesemongers, &c., but that he never "collected," or bought paper himself. At last he thought he would start on his own account, and the person he called upon, he said, was a rich landlady, not far from Hungerford-market, whom he saw sometimes at her bar, and who was always very civil. He took an opportunity to ask her if she "happened to have any waste in the house, or would have any in a week or so?" Seeing the landlady look surprised and not very well pleased at what certainly appeared an impertinent inquiry, he hastened to explain that he meant old newspapers, or anything that way, which he would be glad to buy at so much a pound. The landlady however took in but daily and weekly paper (both sent into the country when a day or so old), and having had no dealings with men of my informant's avocation, could not understand his object in putting such questions.

Every kind of paper is purchased by the "waste-men." of these dealers said to me: "I've often in my time 'cleared out' a lawyer's office. I've bought old briefs, and other law papers, and 'forms' that weren't the regular forms then, and any d——d thing they had in my line. You'll excuse me, sir, but I couldn't help thinking what a lot of misery was caused, perhaps, by the cwts. of waste I've bought at such places. If my father hadn't got mixed up with law he wouldn't have been ruined, and his children wouldn't have had such a hard fight of it; so I hate law. All that happened when I was a child, and I never understood the rights or the wrongs of it, and don't like to think of people that's so foolish. I gave a pound for all I bought at the lawyers, and done pretty well with it, but very likely that's the only good turn such paper ever did any —unless it were the lawyers themselves."

The waste-dealers do not confine their purchases to the tradesmen I have mentioned. They buy of any , and sometimes act as middlemen or brokers. For instance, many small stationers and newsvendors, sometimes tobacconists in no extensive way of trade, sometimes chandlers, announce by a bill in their windows, "Waste Paper Bought and Sold in any Quantity," while more frequently perhaps the trade is carried on, as an understood part of these small shopmen's business, without any announcement. Thus the shop-buyers have much miscellaneous waste brought to them, and perhaps for only some particular kind have they a demand by their retail customers. The regular itinerant waste dealer then calls and "clears out everything" the "everything" being not an unmeaning word. man, who "did largely in waste," at my request endeavoured to enumerate all the kinds of paper he had purchased as waste, and the packages of paper he showed me, ready for delivery to his customers on the following day, confirmed all he said as he opened them and showed me of what they were composed. He had dealt, he said—and he took great pains and great interest in the inquiry, as very curious, and was a respectable and intelligent man—in "books on subject" [I give his own words] "on which a book can be written." After a little consideration he added: "Well, perhaps subject is a wide range; but if there are any exceptions, it's on subjects not known to a busy man like me, who is occupied from morning till night every week day. The only worldly labour I do on a Sunday is to take my family's dinner to the bakehouse, bring it home after chapel, and read I've had Bibles—the backs are taken off in the waste trade, or it wouldn't be fair weight— Testaments, Prayer-books, Companions to the Altar, and Sermons and religious works. Yes, I've had the Roman Catholic books, as is used in their public worship—at least so I suppose, for I never was in a Roman . Well, it's hard to say about proportions, but in my opinion, as far as it's good for anything, I've not had in anything like the proportion that I've had Prayer-books, and Watts' and Wesley's hymns. More shame; but you see, sir, perhaps a godly old man dies, and those that follow him care nothing for hymn-books, and so they come to such as me, for they're so cheap now they're not to be sold -hand at all, I fancy. I've dealt in tragedies and comedies, old and new, cut and uncut—they're best uncut, for you can make them into sheets then—and farces, and books of the opera. I've had scientific and medical works of every possible kind, and histories, and travels, and lives, and memoirs. I needn't go through them—everything, from a needle to an anchor, as the saying is. Poetry, ay, many a weight; Latin and Greek (sometimes), and French, and other foreign languages. Well now, sir, as you mention it, I think I never have a Hebrew work; I think not, and I know the Hebrew letters when I see them. Black letter, not once in a couple of years; no, nor in or years, when I think of it. I have met with it, but I always take anything I've got that way to Mr. ——, the


bookseller, who uses a poor man well. Don't you think, sir, I'm complaining of poverty; though I have been very poor, when I was recovering from cholera at the break-out of it, and I'm anything but rich now. Pamphlets I've had by the ton, in my time; I think we should both be tired if I could go through all they were about. Very many were religious, more's the pity. I've heard of a page round a quarter of cheese, though, touching a man's heart."

In corroboration of my informant's statement, I may mention that in the course of my inquiry into the condition of the fancy cabinet-makers of the metropolis, elderly and very intelligent man, a -rate artisan in skill, told me he had been so reduced in the world by the underselling of slopmasters (called "butchers" or "slaughterers," by the workmen in the trade), that though in his youth he could take in the and papers (each he believed at that time, but was not certain), he could afford, and enjoyed, no reading when I saw him last autumn, beyond the book-leaves in which he received his quarter of cheese, his small piece of bacon or fresh meat, or his saveloys; and his wife schemed to go to the shops who "wrapped up their things from books," in order that he might have something to read after his day's work.

My informant went on with his specification: "Missionary papers of all kinds. Parliamentary papers, but not so often new ones, very largely. Railway prospectuses, with plans to some of them, nice engravings; and the same with other jointstock companies. Children's copy-books, and cyphering-books. Old account-books of every kind. A good many years ago, I had some that must have belonged to a West End perfumer, there was such French items for Lady this, or the Honourable Captain that. I remember there was an Hon. Capt. G., and almost at every page was ' tooth-picks, ' I think it was ; in arranging this sort of waste now and then gives a glance to it. Dictionaries of every sort, I've had, but not so commonly. Music books, lots of them. Manuscripts, but only if they're rather old; well, or years or so: I call that old. Letters on every possible subject, but not, in my experience, any very modern ones. An old man dies, you see, and his papers are sold off, letters and all; that's the way; get rid of all the old rubbish, as soon as the old boy's pointing his toes to the sky. What's old letters worth, when the writers are dead and buried? why, perhaps a pound, and it's a rattling big letter that will weigh half-an-ounce. O, it's a queer trade, but there's many worse."

The letters which I saw in another wastedealer's possession were in number, a small collection, I was told; for the most part they were very dull and common-place. Among them, however, was the following, in an elegant, and I presume a female hand, but not in the modern fashionable style of handwriting. The letter is evidently old, the address is of West-end gentility, but I leave out name and other particularities:—

Mrs. —— [it is not easy to judge whether the flourished letters are 'Mrs.' or 'Miss,' but certainly more like 'Mrs.'] Mrs. —— (Zoological Artist) presents her compliments to Mr. ——, and being commissioned to communicate with a gentleman of the name, recently arrived at Charing-cross, and presumed by description to be himself, in a matter of delicacy and confidence, indispensably verbal; begs to say, that if interested in the ecclaircissement and necessary to the same, she may be found in attendance, any afternoon of the current week, from 3 to 6 o'clock, and no other hours.

—— street, —— square.

Monday Morn. for the aftn., at hom.

Among the books destined to a butcher, I found perfect numbers of a sixpenny periodical, published a few years back. , or rather and a half, numbers of a shilling periodical, with "coloured engravings of the fashions." (imperfect) volumes of French Plays, an excellent edition; among the plays were Athalie, Iphigánie, Phèdre, Les Frères Ennemis, Alexandre, Andromaque, Les Plaideurs, and Esther. A music sheet, headed "A lonely thing I would not be." A few pages of what seems to have been a book of tales: "Album d'un Sourd-Muet" ( pages in the pamphlet form, quite new). All these constituted about twopennyworth to the butcher. Notwithstanding the variety of sources from which the supply is derived, I heard from several quarters that "waste never was so scarce" as at present; it was hardly to be had at all.

The purchasers of the waste-paper from the collectors are cheesemongers, buttermen, butchers, fishmongers, poulterers, pork and sausage-sellers, sweet-stuff-sellers, tobacconists, chandlers—and indeed all who sell provisions or such luxuries as I have mentioned in retail. Some of the wholesale provision houses buy very largely and sell the waste again to their customers, who pay more for it by such a medium of purchase, but they have it thus on credit. Any retail trader in provisions at all "in a large way," will readily buy or cwt. at a time. The price given by them varies from to the pound, but it is very rarely either so low or so high. The average price may be taken at the cwt., which is not quite a pound, and at this rate I learn from the best-informed parties there are tons sold weekly, or tons yearly ( lbs.), at the cost of man in the trade was confident the value of the waste paper sold could not be less than in a year.

There are about men in this trade, nearly of whom live entirely, as it was described to me, "by their waste," and bring up their families upon it. The others unite some other avocation with it. The earnings of the regular collectors vary from weekly to accordingly as they meet with a supply on favourable terms, or, as they call it, "a good pull in a lot of waste." They usually reside in a private room with a recess, or a room, in which they sort, pack, and keep their paper.

of these traders told me that he was satisfied that stolen paper seldom found its way, directly, into the collectors' hands, "particularly publisher's paper," he added. "Why, not long since there was a lot of sheets stolen from Alder-


man Kelly's warehouse, and the thief didn't take them to a waste dealer; he knew better. He took them, sir, to a tradesman in a large respectable way over the water—a man that uses great lots of waste—and sold them at just what was handed to him: I suppose no questions asked. The thief was tried and convicted, but nothing was done to the buyer."

It must not be supposed that the waste-paper used by the London tradesmen costs no more than in a year. A large quantity is bought direct by butchers and others from poor persons going to them with a small quantity of their own accumulating, or with such things as copybooks.

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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