London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Master Scavengers in Former Times.


DEGRADED as the occupation of the scavenger may be in public estimation; though "I'd rather sweep the streets" may be a common remark expressive of the lowest deep of humiliation among those who never handled a besom in their lives; yet the very existence of a large body who are public cleansers betokens civilization. Their occupation, indeed, was defined, or rather was established or confirmed, in the early periods of our history, when municipal regulations were a sort of charter of civic protection, of civic liberties, and of general progress.

The noun is said by lexicographers to be derived from the German , to shave or scrape, "applied to those who scrape and clear away the filth from public streets or other places." The more direct derivation, however, is from the Danish verb , the Saxon equivalent of which is , whence the English Formerly the word was written , and meant simply who was engaged in removing the or (the working men, it will be seen, were termed also "rakers") from the surface of the streets. Hence it would appear that there is no authority for the verb to scavenge, which has lately come into use. The term from which the personal substantive is directly made, is , a word formed from the verb in the same manner as and (now fashionably corrupted into rubbish), and meaning the refuse which is or should be scraped away from the roads. The Latin equivalent from the Danish verb , is

I believe that the mention of a scavenger in our earlier classical literature, is by Bishop Hall, of the lights of the Reformation, in of his "Satires."

To see the Pope's blacke knight, a cloaked frere,

Sweating in the channel like a scavengere.

Many similar passages from the old poets and dramatists might be adduced, but I will content myself with from the "Martial Maid" of Beaumont and Fletcher, as bearing immediately on the topic I have to discuss:—

Do I not know thee for the alguazier,

Whose dunghil all the parish scavengers

Could never rid.

Johnson defines a scavenger to be "a petty


magistrate, whose province is to keep the streets clean;" and in the earlier times, certainly the scavenger was an officer to whom a certain authority was deputed, as to beadles and others.

or of these officials were appointed, according to the municipal or by-laws of the City of London, not to each parish, but to each ward. Of course, in the good old days, nothing could be done unless under "the sanction of an oath," and the scavengers were sworn accordingly on the Gospel, the following being the form as given in the black letter of the laws ielating to the city in the time of Henry VIII.


Ye shal swear, That ye shal wel and diligently oversee that the pavements in every Ward be wel and rightfully repaired, and not haunsed to the noyaunce of the neighbours; and that the Ways, Streets, and Lanes, be kept clean from Donge and other Filth, for the Honesty of the City. And that all the Chimneys, Redosses, and Furnaces, be made of Stone for Defence of Fire. And if ye know any such ye shall shew it to the Alderman, that he may make due Redress therefore. And this ye shall not lene. So help you God."

To aid the scavengers in their execution of the duties of the office, the following among others were the injunctions of the civic law. They indicate the former state of the streets of London better than any description. A "Goung (or dung) fermour" appears to be a nightman, a dung-carrier or bearer, the servant of the master or ward scavenger.

No Goungfermour shall spill any ordure in the Street, under pain of Thirteen Shillings and Four Pence.

No Goungfermour shall carry any ordure till after nine of the clock in the Night, under pain of Thirteen Shillings and Four Pence. No man shall cast any urine boles, or ordure boles, into the Streets by Day or Night, afore the Hour of nine in the Night. And also he shall not cast it out, but bring it down and lay it in the Canel, under Pain of Three Shillings and Four Pence. And if he do so cast it upon any Person's Head, the Person to have a lawful Recompense, if he have hurt thereby.

No man shall bury any Dung, or Goung, within the Liberties of this City, under Pain of Forty Shillings.

I will not dwell on the state of things which caused such enactments to be necessary, or on the barbarism of the law which ordered a lawful recompense to any person assailed in the manner intimated, only when he had "hurt thereby."

These laws were for the government of the city, where a body of scavengers was sometimes called a "street-ward." Until about the reign of Charles II., however, to legislate concerning such matters for the city was to legislate for the metropolis, as was then more or less under the city jurisdiction, and the houses of the nobility on the north bank of the Thames (the Strand), would hardly require the services of a public scavenger.

As new parishes or districts became populous, and established outside the city boundaries, the authorities seem to have regulated the public scavengery after the fashion of the city; but the whole, in every respect of cleanliness, propriety, regularity, or celerity, was most grievously defective.

Some time about the middle of the last century, the scavengers were considered and pronounced by the administrators or explainers of municipal law, to be " officers chosen yearly in each parish in London and the suburbs, by the constables, churchwardens, and other inhabitants," and their business was declared to be, that they should "hire persons called 'rakers,' with carts to clean the streets, and carry away the dirt and filth thereof, under a penalty of "

The scavengers thus appointed we should now term surveyors. There is little reason to doubt that in the old times the duly-appointed scavagers or scavengers, laboured in their vocation themselves, and employed such a number of additional hands as they accounted necessary; but how or when the master scavenger ceased to be a labourer, and how or when the office became merely nominal, I can find no information. So little attention appears to have been paid to this really important matter, that there are hardly any records concerning it. The law was satisfied to lay down provisions for street-cleansing, but to enforce these provisions was left to chance, or to some idle, corrupt, or inefficient officer or body.

Neither can I find any precise account of what was formerly done with the dirt swept and scraped from the streets, which seems always to have been left to the discretion of the scavenger to deal with as he pleased, and such is still the case in a great measure. Some of this dirt I find, however, promoted "the goodly nutriment of the land" about London, and some was "delivered in waste places apart from habitations." These waste places seem to have been the nuclei of the present dust-yards, and were sometimes "presented," that is, they were reported by a jury of nuisances (or under other titles), as "places of obscene resort," for lewd and disorderly persons, the lewd and disorderly persons consisting chiefly of the very poor, who came to search among the rubbish for anything that might be valuable or saleable; for there were frequent rumours of treasure or plate being temporarily hidden in such places by thieves. Some outcast wretches, moreover, slept within the shelter of these scavengers' places, and occasionally a vigilant officer—even down to our own times, or within these few years—apprehended such wretches, charged them with destitution, and had them punished accordingly. Much of the street refuse thus "delivered," especially the "dry rubbish," was thrown into the streets from


houses under repair, &c., (I now speak of the past century,) and no use seems to have been made of any part of it unless any requiring a load or of rubbish chose to cart it away.

I have given this sketch to show what master scavengers were in the olden times, and I now proceed to point out what is the present condition of the trade.


[] Haunsed" is explained by Strype to signify "made too high," and the "Redosses" to be "Reredoughs." A mason informed me that he believed these Redosses were what were known in some old countryhouses as "Back-Flues," or flues connecting any firegrate in the out-offices with the main chimney. The term "lene" is the Teutonic Lehn, and signifies "let, lease," or literally loan.

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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