London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Bone-Grubbers and Rag-Gatherers.


THE habits of the bone-grubbers and raggather- ers, the "pure," or dogs'--dung collectors, and the cigar-end finders, are necessarily similar. All lead a wandering, unsettled sort of life, being compelled to be continually on foot, and to travel many miles every day in search of the articles in which they deal. They seldom have any fixed place of abode, and are mostly to be found at night in or other of the low lodging-houses throughout London. The majority are, moreover, persons who have been brought up to other employments, but who from some failing or mishap have been reduced to such a state of distress that they were obliged to take to their present occupation, and have never after been able to get away from it.

Of the whole class it is considered that there are from to resident in London, onehalf of whom, at the least, sleep in the cheap lodging-houses. The Government returns estimate the number of mendicants' lodging-houses in London to be upwards of . Allowing bone-grubbers and pure-finders to frequent each of these lodging-houses, there will be upwards of availing themselves of such nightly shelters. As many more, I am told, live in garrets and ill-furnished rooms in the lowest neighbourhoods. There is no instance on record of any of the class renting even the smallest house for himself.

Moreover there are in London during the winter a number of persons called "trampers," who employ themselves at that season in streetfinding. These people are in the summer country labourers of some sort, but as soon as the harvest and potato-getting and hop-picking are over, and they can find nothing else to do in the country, they come back to London to avail themselves of the shelter of the night asylums or refuges for the destitute (usually called "straw-yards" by the poor), for if they remained in the provinces at that period of the year they would be forced to have recourse to the unions, and as they can only stay night in each place they would be obliged to travel from to miles per day, to which in the winter they have a strong objection. They come up to London in the winter, not to look for any regular work or employment, but because they know that they can have a nightly shelter, and bread night and morning for nothing, during that season, and can during the day collect bones, rags, &c. As soon as the "straw-yards" close, which is generally about the beginning of April, the "trampers" again start off to the country in small bands of or , and without any fixed residence keep wandering about all the summer, sometimes begging their way through the villages and sleeping in the casual wards of the unions, and sometimes, when hard driven, working at hay-making or any other light labour.

Those among the bone-grubbers who do not belong to the regular "trampers" have been either navvies, or men who have not been able to obtain employment at their own business, and have been driven to it by necessity as a means of obtaining a little bread for the time being, and without any intention of pursuing the calling regularly; but, as I have said, when once in the


business they cannot leave it, for at least they make certain of getting a few halfpence by it, and their present necessity does not allow them time to look after other employment. There are many of the street-finders who are old men and women, and many very young children who have no other means of living. Since the famine in Ireland vast numbers of that unfortunate people, particularly boys and girls, have been engaged in gathering bones and rags in the streets.

The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy bag which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marinestore shop. The bone-grubber generally seeks out the narrow back streets, where dust and refuse are cast, or where any dust-bins are accessible. The articles for which he chiefly searches are rags and bones—rags he prefers—but waste metal, such as bits of lead, pewter, copper, brass, or old iron, he prizes above all. Whatever he meets with that he knows to be in any way saleable he puts into the bag at his back. He often finds large lumps of bread which have been thrown out as waste by the servants, and occasionally the housekeepers will give him some bones on which there is a little meat remaining; these constitute the morning meal of most of the class. of my informants had a large rump of beef bone given to him a few days previous to my seeing him, on which "there was not less than a pound of meat."

The bone-pickers and rag-gatherers are all early risers. They have all their separate beats or districts, and it is most important to them that they should reach their district before any else of the same class can go over the ground. Some of the beats lie as far as Peckham, Clapham, Hammersmith, Hampstead, Bow, , and indeed all parts within about miles of London. In summer time they rise at in the morning, and sometimes earlier. It is not quite light at this hour—but bones and rags can be discovered before daybreak. The "grubbers" scour all quarters of London, but abound more particularly in the suburbs. In the neighbourhood of and Ragfair, however, they are the most numerous on account of the greater quantity of rags which the Jews have to throw out. It usually takes the bone-picker from to hours to go over his rounds, during which time he travels from to miles with a quarter to a half hundredweight on his back. In the summer he usually reaches home about of the day, and in the winter about or . On his return home he proceeds to sort the contents of his bag. He separates the rags from the bones, and these again from the old metal (if he be luckly enough to have found any). He divides the rags into various lots, according as they are white or coloured; and if he have picked up any pieces of canvas or sacking, he makes these also into a separate parcel. When he has finished the sorting he takes his several lots to the ragshop or the marine-store dealer, and realizes upon them whatever they may be worth. For the white rags he gets from to per pound, according as they are clean or soiled. The white rags are very difficult to be found; they are mostly very dirty, and are therefore sold with the coloured ones at the rate of about lbs. for The bones are usually sold with the coloured rags at and the same price. For fragments of canvas or sacking the grubber gets about threefarthings a pound; and old brass, copper, and pewter about (the marine-store keepers say ), and old iron farthing per pound, or for The bone-grubber thinks he has done an excellent day's work if he can earn ; and some of them, especially the very old and the very young, do not earn more than from to a day. To make a day, at the present price of rags and bones, a man must be remarkably active and strong,—"ay! and lucky, too," adds my informant. The average amount of earnings, I am told, varies from about to per day, or from to a week; and the highest amount that a man, the most brisk and persevering at the business, can by any possibility earn in week is about , but this can only be accomplished by great good fortune and industry—the usual weekly gains are about half that sum. In bad weather the bone-grubber cannot do so well, because the rags are wet, and then they cannot sell them. The majority pick up bones only in wet weather; those who gather rags during or after rain are obliged to wash and dry them before they can sell them. The state of the shoes of the rag and bone-picker is a very important matter to him; for if he be well shod he can get quickly over the ground; but he is frequently lamed, and unable to make any progress from the blisters and gashes on his feet, occasioned by the want of proper shoes.

Sometimes the bone-grubbers will pick up a stray sixpence or a shilling that has been dropped in the street. "The handkerchief I have round my neck," said whom I saw, "I picked up with in the corner. The greatest prize I ever found was the brass cap of the nave of a coach-wheel; and I once find a quarter of a pound of tobacco in , Bishopsgate. The best bit of luck of all that I ever had was finding a cheque for lying in the gateway of the mourning-coach yard in Titchborne-street, . I was going to light my pipe with it, indeed I picked it up for that purpose, and then saw it was a cheque. It was on the London and County Bank, , . I took it there, and got for finding it. I went there in my rags, as I am now, and the cashier stared a bit at me. The cheque was drawn by a Mr. Knibb, and payable to a Mr. Cox. I think I should have got the odd though."

It has been stated that the average amount of the earnings of the bone-pickers is per day, or per week, being per annum for each person. It has also been shown that the number


of persons engaged in the business may be estimated at about ; hence the earnings of the entire number will amount to the sum of per day, or per week, which gives as the annual earnings of the bone-pickers and raggatherers of London. It may also be computed that each of the grubbers gathers on an average lbs. weight of bone and rags; and reckoning the bones to constitute -fourths of the entire weight, we thus find that the gross quantity of these articles gathered by the street-finders in the course of the year, amounts to lbs. of bones, and lbs. of rags.

Between the London and St. Katherine's Docks and , there is a large district interlaced with narrow lanes, courts, and alleys ramifying into each other in the most intricate and disorderly manner, insomuch that it would be no easy matter for a stranger to work his way through the interminable confusion without the aid of a guide, resident in and well conversant with the locality. The houses are of the poorest description, and seem as if they tumbled into their places at random. Foul channels, huge dust-heaps, and a variety of other unsightly objects, occupy every open space, and dabbling among these are crowds of ragged dirty children who grub and wallow, as if in their native element. None reside in these places but the poorest and most wretched of the population, and, as might almost be expected, this, the cheapest and filthiest locality of London, is the head-quarters of the bone-grubbers and other street-finders. I have ascertained on the best authority, that from the centre of this place, within a circle of a mile in diameter, there dwell not less than persons of this class. In this quarter I found a bone-grubber who gave me the following account of himself:—

I was born in Liverpool, and when about 14 years of age, my father died. He used to work about the Docks, and I used to run on errands for any person who wanted me. I managed to live by this after my father's death for three or four years. I had a brother older than myself, who went to France to work on the railroads, and when I was about 18 he sent for me, and got me to work with himself on the Paris and Rouen Railway, under McKenzie and Brassy, who had the contract. I worked on the railroads in France for four years, till the disturbance broke out, and then we all got notice to leave the country. I lodged at that time with a countryman, and had 12l., which I had saved out of my earnings. This sum I gave to my countryman to keep for me till we got to London, as I did not like to have it about me, for fear I'd lose it. The French people paid our fare from Rouen to Havre by the railway, and there put us on board a steamer to Southampton. There was about 50 of us altogether. When we got to Southampton, we all went before the mayor; we told him about how we had been driven out of France, and he gave us a shilling a piece; he sent some one with us, too, to get us a lodging, and told us to come again the next day. In the morning the mayor gave every one who was able to walk half-a-crown, and for those who were not able he paid their fare to London on the railroad. I had a sore leg at the time, and I came up by the train, and when I gave up my ticket at the station, the gentleman gave me a shilling more. I couldn't find the man I had given my money to, because he had walked up; and I went before the Lord Mayor to ask his advice; he gave me 2s. 6d. I looked for work everywhere, but could get nothing to do; and when the 2s. 6d. was all spent, I heard that the man who had my money was on the London and York Railway in the country; however, I couldn't get that far for want of money then; so I went again before the Lord Mayor, and he gave me two more, but told me not to trouble him any further. I told the Lord Mayor about the money, and then he sent an officer with me, who put me into a carriage on the railway. When I got down to where the man was at work, he wouldn't give me a farthing; I had given him the money without any witness bring present, and he said I could do nothing, because it was done in another country. I staid down there more than a week trying to get work on the railroad, but could not. I had no money and was nearly starved, when two or three took pity on me, and made up four or five shillings for me, to take me back again to London. I tried all I could to get something to do, till the money was nearly gone; and then I took to selling lucifers, and the fly-papers that they use in the shops, and little things like that; but I could do no good at this work, there was too many at it before me, and they knew more about it than I did. At last, I got so had off I didn't know what to do; but seeing a great many about here gathering bones and rags, I thought I'd do so too—a poor fellow must do something. I was advised to do so, and I have been at it ever since. I forgot to tell you that my brother died in France. We had good wages there, four francs a day, or 3s. 4d. English; I don't make more than 3d. or 4d. and sometimes 6d. a day at bone-picking. I don't go out before daylight to gather anything, because the police takes my bag and throws all I've gathered about the street to see if I have anything stolen in it. I never stole anything in all my life, indeed I'd do anything before I'd steal. Many a night I've slept under an arch of the railway when I hadn't a penny to pay for my bed; but whenever the police find me that way, they make me and the rest get up, and drive us on, and tell us to keep moving. I don't go out on wet days, there's no use in it, as the things won't be bought. I can't wash and dry them, because I'm in a lodging-house. There's a great deal more than a 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children. The Jews in this lane and up in Petticoat-lane give a good deal of victuals away on the Saturday. They sometimes call one of us in from the street to light the fire for them, or take off the kettle, as they must not do anything themselves on the Sabbath; and then they put some food on the footpath, and throw rags and bones into the street for us, because they must not hand anything to us. There are some about here who get a couple of shillings' worth of goods, and go on board the ships in the Docks, and exchange them for bones and bits of old canvas among the sailors; I'd buy and do so too if I only had the money, but can't get it. The summer is the worst time for us, the winter is much better, for there is more meat used in winter, and then there are more bones." (Others say differently.) "I intend to go to the country this season, and try to get something to do at the hay-making and harvest. I make about 2s. 6d. a week, and the way I manage is this: sometimes I get a piece of bread about 12 o'clock, and I make my breakfast of that and cold water; very seldom I have any dinner,—unless I earn 6d. I can't get any,—and then I have a basin of nice soup, or a penn'orth of plum-pudding and a couple of baked 'tatoes. At night I get 1/4d. worth of coffee, 1/2d. worth of sugar, and 1 1/4d. worth of bread, and then I have 2d. a night left for my lodging; I always try to manage that, for I'd do anything sooner than stop out all night. I'm always happy the day when I make 4d., for then I know I won't have to sleep in the street. The winter before last, there was a straw-yard down in Black Jack's-alley, where we used to go after six o'clock in the evening, and get 1/2 lb. of bread, and another 1/2 lb. in the morning, and then we'd gather what we could in the daytime and buy victuals with what we got for it. We were well off then, but the straw-yard wasn't open at all last winter. There used to be 300 of us in there of a night, a great many of the dock-labourers and their families were there, for no work was to be got in the docks; so they weren't able to pay rent, and were obliged to go in. I've lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and cold in the winter, for I've scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes; this caused me last winter to be nine weeks in the hospital of the Whitechapel workhouse.

The narrator of this tale seemed so dejected and broken in spirit, that it was with difficulty his story was elicited from him. He was evidently labouring under incipient consumption. I have every reason to believe that he made a truthful statement,—indeed, he did not appear to me to have sufficient intellect to invent a falsehood. It is a curious fact, indeed, with reference to the London street-finders generally, that they seem to possess less rational power than any other class. They appear utterly incapable of trading even in the most trifling commodities, probably from the fact that buying articles for the purpose of selling them at a profit, requires an exercise of the mind to which they feel themselves incapable. Begging, too, requires some ingenuity or tact, in order to move the sympathies of the well-to-do, and the street-finders being incompetent for this, they work on day after day as long as they are able to crawl about in pursuit of their unprofitable calling. This cannot be fairly said of the younger members of this class, who are sent into the streets by their parents, and many of whom are afterwards able to find some more reputable and more lucrative employment. As a body of people, however, young and old, they mostly exhibit the same stupid, half-witted appearance.

To show how bone-grubbers occasionally manage to obtain shelter during the night, the following incident may not be out of place. A few mornings past I accidentally encountered of this class in a narrow back lane; his ragged coat—the colour of the rubbish among which he toiled—was greased over, probably with the fat of the bones he gathered, and being mixed with the dust it seemed as if the man were covered with bird-lime. His shoes—torn and tied on his feet with pieces of cord —had doubtlessly been picked out of some dust-bin, while his greasy bag and stick unmistakably announced his calling. Desirous of obtaining all the information possible on this subject, I asked him a few questions, took his address, which he gave without hesitation, and bade him call on me in the evening. At the time appointed, however, he did not appear; on the following day therefore I made way to the address he had given, and on reaching the spot I was astonished to find the house in which he had said he lived was uninhabited. A padlock was on the door, the boards of which were parting with age. There was not a whole pane of glass in any of the windows, and the frames of many of them were shattered or demolished. Some persons in the neighbourhood, noticing me eyeing the place, asked whom I wanted. On my telling the man's name, which it appeared he had not dreamt of disguising, I was informed that he had left the day before, saying he had met the landlord in the morning (for such it turned out he had fancied me to be), and that the gentleman had wanted him to come to his house, but he was afraid to go lest he should be sent to prison for breaking into the place. I found, on inspection, that the premises, though locked up, could be entered by the rear, of the window-frames having been removed, so that admission could be obtained through the aperture. Availing myself of the same mode of ingress, I proceeded to examine the premises. Nothing could well be more dismal or dreary than the interior. The floors were rotting with damp and mildew, especially near the windows, where the wet found easy entrance. The walls were even slimy and discoloured, and everything bore the appearance of desolation. In corner was strewn a bundle of dirty straw, which doubtlessly had served the bone-grubber for a bed, while scattered about the floor were pieces of bones, and small fragments of dirty rags, sufficient to indicate the calling of the late inmate. He had had but little difficulty in removing his property, seeing that it consisted solely of his bag and his stick.

The following paragraph concerning the chiffoniers or rag-gatherers of Paris appeared in the London journals a few weeks since:—

The fraternal association of rag-gatherers (chiffoniers) gave a grand banquet on Saturday last (21st of June). It took place at a publichouse called the Pot Tricolore, near the Barrière de Fontainbleau, which is frequented by the raggathering fraternity. In this house there are three rooms, each of which is specially devoted to the use of different classes of rag-gatherers: one, the least dirty, is called the 'Chamber of Peers,' and is occupied by the first class—that is, those who possess a basket in a good state, and a crook ornamented with copper; the second, called the 'Chamber of Deputies,' belonging to the second class, is much less comfortable, and those who attend it have baskets and crooks not of first-rate quality; the third room is in a dilapidated condition, and is frequented by the lowest class of rag-gatherers who have no basket or crook, and who place what they find in the streets in a piece of sackcloth. They call themselves the 'Ráunion des Vrais Prolátaires.' The name of each room is written in chalk above the door; and generally such strict etiquette is observed among the raggatherers that no one goes into the apartment not occupied by his own class. At Saturday's banquet, however, all distinctions of rank were laid aside, and delegates of each class united fraternally. The president was the oldest rag-gatherer in Paris; his age is 88, and he is called 'the Emperor.' The banquet consisted of a sort of olla podrida, which the master of the establishment pompously called gibelotte, though of what animal it was composed it was impossible to say. It was served up in huge earthen dishes, and before it was allowed to be touched payment was demanded and obtained; the other articles were also paid for as soon as they were brought in; and a deposit was exacted as a security for the plates, knives, and forks. The wine, or what did duty as such, was contained in an earthen pot called the Petit Père Noir, and was filled from a gigantic vessel named Le Moricaud. The dinner was concluded by each guest taking a small glass of brandy. Business was then proceeded to. It consisted in the reading and adoption of the statutes of the association, followed by the drinking of numerous toasts to the president, to the prosperity of rag-gathering, to the union of raggatherers, &c. A collection amounting to 6f. 75c. was raised for sick members of the fraternity. The guests then dispersed; but several of them remained at the counter until they had consumed in brandy the amount deposited as security for the crockery, knives, and forks.

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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