see Sketches in London - click here
CHARACTERS ABOUT TOWN
DRAWN BY KENNY MEADOWS
No.II - THE CROSSING-SWEEPER
BY THOMAS MILLER
THE Crossing-Sweeper cannot fairly be classed among our
bare-faced beggars, for he really does something for his livelihood, little
although it be; and there is a legitimate look about his broom stump far more
respectable in our eyes than that clumsy blind, a box of lucifers. Neither is
he, generally speaking, a very persevering supplicant; indeed, there is often
such a mixture of jest and earnest in the expression of his countenance, that
you throw him "a copper" for the fun of the thing, believing full that
he never expected it. No doubt he has a way of his own of "making up his
book;" of taking so many against the field, that, if a thousand pass him in
a given number of minutes, he can make sure of winning, so far as the odds of
999 go to one. Beside these chances he has his regular patrons, gentlemen who,
when they have no halfpence, recognise him by a nod, as if to say, "All
right; I have not forgotten; next time;" which calls forth a bow as low as
the upper rim of his stump. Then he has another appeal, which is irresistible,
and that is, the instant he sees a benevolent-looking gentleman approaching, of
commencing sweeping all the way before him, with short, quick, rapid strokes,
always contriving to keep about a yard ahead; and, having finished, he makes his
politest bend, as much as to say, "Can you resist that?" Should the
gentleman put his hand in his pocket and only pull out his handkerchief, the
Crossing-Sweeper is, of course, greatly disappointed. Then there are a class of
well-dressed "Gents," to whom he never deigns to take off his hat. He
knows them well - they pick out the cleanest spots, but never pay. Should any
remark by made about them by the neighbouring waterman, he either sticks out his
thumb, or placing his hand aside his mouth, gives spiteful utterance to the word
"Snobs!" He hates to see the road mended: a load of granite is to him,
for a few days, absolute ruin; he cannot sweep it, it is so loose; and no one
will walk over it who can find another path. All he can do is to fit the stones
together as soon as he can; and they require a good deal of coaxing to make them
lie lovingly together. A dry, fine day is another matter - he is at his post if
wanted - if it does not rain it is no fault of his. But he likes wet weather
uncommonly, for he seems to have a claim upon us then. For our part, when we are
short of halfpence, we often tramp bolding through the unswept mud at such a
season; and , as old Pepys would have said "this puzzles him
After all, we fear a great many of the Crossing-Sweepers are sad impostors; we always suspect those who either wear old soldiers' jackets, or plant themselves on Sunday facing the entrances of chapels. The latter, if interrogated, have mostly got old mothers laid up with typhus fever, or wives who have not been out of bed for no end of days: the one prays upon the lovers of peace, the other sticks close to practical piety; for who, after a good sermon on charity, can keep their hands out of their pockets? Your church or chapel Crossing-Sweeper has endless, short pithy prayers cut and dried, which seem admirably to suit all his customers; then he is so kind to poor old women and little children, handing them across gratis, and sending them home with no end of blessings, wishing within himself all the while (when the neighbouring public-house is open) that the clergyman would have a little consideration and cut his sermon shorter; for your bearer of the broom is always a thirsty subject. Still they are amongst the least of all necessary evils. They call a studious man suddenly to himself; and we know not how many times during the course of our lives we might have been run over but for the momentary pause, while we searched for the wandering halfpenny. They are life-preservers on a small scale, and touch you as gently as if they loved you, when they see danger near; especially if you are fishing for the needful. Then there is something in that bending of the body, and raising of the eyes, and looking up, as it were, underneath you, which seems to say "Mistake me not, I am but a deity of dirt - a monarch who rules over mud - a sovereign of soles and upper-leather; and although this is my daily walk and ancient neighbourhood, yet I levy not taxes when my subjects are unwilling to pay." They are also influential men in their way: let them once carry a crossing ashant (at an angle of forty-five), and woe be to the shopkeeper whose door they have shunned - respectable customers seldom walk wilfully into the mud. We know a fishmonger who was ruined through refusing to pay a Crossing-Sweeper. The broom-bearer carried his line ashant, into an opposition shop, and, as he said, "swept him clean out." Cheap omnibuses and an improved sewerage will eventually make it bad for the Street-Sweepers. Southwood Smith will come upon them like the "sweet south" breathing, &c., &c., and then London will lose another of its old picturesque characters, and the Crossing-Sweeper be numbered amongst the link-boys, whom the gas extinguished "with excessive light." We shall then have no one to look to our steps or rescue us from the jaws of Sanitary Sewers : the Corporation of London will give in, and the old prophecy be fulfilled, which foretold that the day would come when "A peck of dirt would be worth a King's ransom."
Illustrated London News, June 17, 1848
"George Ruby, a boy aged 14, was put
into the box to be sworn and the Testament was put in his hand. He looked quite
astonished upon taking hold of the book.
Ald. Humphrey. Well, do you know what you are about? Do you know what an oath is?
Ald. H. Do you know what a Testament is?
Ald. H. Can you read?
Ald. H. Do you ever say your prayers?
Boy. No, never.
Ald. H. Do you know what prayers are?
Ald. H. Do you know what God is?
Ald. H. Do you know what the Devil is?
Boy. I've heard of the Devil, but I don't know him.
Ald. H. What do you know, my poor boy?
Boy. I knows how to sweep the crossing.
Ald. H. And that's all?
Boy. That's all. I sweeps the crossing.
"The Alderman said, he, of course, could not take the evidence of a creature who knew nothing whatever of the obligation to tell the truth" Vide Times' Police Report of Wednesday, Jan. 9.
So, says the law, which the Alderman has to administer. But are not these a conversation and a result worth noting, good people of this wonderful time of Railways, Ragged Schools, Model Lodging-houses, Soup-kitchens, Model Prisons, and other excellent crutches for helping along this society of ours, which still stumbles somehow, most sadly, in spite of them?
Punch, Jan-.Jun. 1850
see also Garwood's The Million-Peopled City - click here
THERE is no occupation in life, be it ever so humble, which is
justly worthy of contempt, if by it a man is enabled to administer to his necessities without becoming a burden to others,
or a plague to them, by the parade of shoeless feet, fluttering
rags, and a famished face. In the multitudinous drama of
life, which on the wide theatre of the metropolis is ever
enacting with so much intense earnestness, there is, and from
the very nature of things there always must be, a numerous
class of supernumeraries, who from time to time, by the force
of varying circumstances, are pushed and hustled off the stage,
and shuffled into the side-scenes, the drear and dusky background of the world's proscenium. Of the thousands and tens
of thousands thus rudely dealt with, he is surely not the
worst, who, wanting a better weapon, shoulders a birch-broom,
and goes forth to make his own way in the world, by removing the moist impediments of filth and refuse from the way
of his more fortunate fellows. Indeed, look upon him in what
light you may, he is in some sort a practical moralist. Though
far remote from the ivy chaplet on Wisdom's glorious brow,
yet his stump of withered birch inculcates a lesson of virtue,
by reminding us, that we should take heed to our steps in our
journeyings through the wilderness of life; and, so far as in
him lies, he helps us to do so, and by the exercise of a very
catholic faith, looks for his reward to the value he supposes us to entertain for that virtue which, from time immemorial,
has been in popular parlance classed as next to godliness.
Time was, it is said, when the profession of a street-sweeper in London was a certain road to competence and fortune - when the men of the broom were men of capital; when they lived well, and died rich, and left legacies behind them to their regular patrons. These palmy days, at any rate, are past now. Let no man, or woman either, expect a legacy at this time of day from the receiver of his copper dole. The labour of the modern sweeper is nothing compared with his of half a century ago. The channel of viscous mud, a foot deep, through which, so late as the time when George the Third was king, the carts and carriages had literally to plough their way, no longer exists, and the labour of the sweeper is reduced to a tithe of what it was. He has no longer to dig a trench in the morning, and wall up the sides of his fosse with stiff earth, hoarded for the purpose, as we have seen him doing in the days when "Boney" was a terror. The city scavengers have reduced his work to a minimum, and his pay has dwindled proportionately. The twopences which used to be thrown to a sweeper will now pay for a ride, and the smallest coin is considered a sufficient guerdon for a service so light. But what he has lost in substantial emolument, he has gained in morale; he is infinitely more polite and attentive than he was; he sweeps ten times as clean for a half-penny as he did for twopence or sixpence, and thanks you more heartily than was his wont in the days of yore. The truth is, that civility, as a speculation, is found to pay; and the want of it, even among the very lowest rank of industrials in London, is at the present moment not merely a rarity, but an actual phenomenon - always supposing that something is to be got by it.
The increase of vehicles of all descriptions, but more especially omnibuses, which are perpetually rushing along the main thoroughfares, has operated largely in shutting out the crossing-sweepers from what was at one period the principal theatre of their industry. Independent, too, of the unbroken stream of carriages which renders sweeping during the day impossible, and the collection of small coin from the crowd who dart impatiently across the road when a practicable breach presents itself, equally so, it is found that too dense a population is less favourable to the brotherhood of the broom than one ever so sparse and thin. Had the negro of Waithman's obelisk survived the advent of Shillibeer, he would have had to shift his quarters, or to have drawn upon his three-and-a-half per cents. to maintain his position. The sweepers who work on the great lines of traffic from Oxford Street west to Aldgate, are consequently not nearly so numerous as they once were, though the members of the profession have probably doubled their numbers within the last twenty years. They exercise considerable judgment in the choice of their locations, making frequent experiments in different spots, feeling the pulse of the neighbourhood, as it were, ere they finally settle down to establish a permanent connection.
We shall come to a better understanding of the true condition of these muddy nomads by considering them in various classes, as they actually exist, and each of which may be identified without much trouble. The first in the rank is he who is bred to the business, who has followed it from his earliest infancy, and never dreamed of pursuing any other calling. We must designate him as
No. 1. The Professional Sweeper.- He claims precedence before all others, as being to the manner born, and inheriting his broom, with all its concomitant advantages, from his father, or mother, as it might be. All his ideas, interests, and affections are centered in one spot of ground-the spot he sweeps, and has swept daily for the last twenty or thirty years, ever since it was bequeathed to him by his parent. The companion of his childhood, his youth, and his maturer age, is the post buttressed by the curb-stone at the corner of the street. To that post, indeed, he is a sort of younger brother. It has been his friend and support through many a stormy day and blustering night. It is the confidant of his hopes and his sorrows, and sometimes, too, his agent and cashier, for he has cut a small basin in the top of it, where a passing patron may deposit a coin if he choose, under the guardianship of the broom, which, while he is absent for a short half- hour discussing a red herring and a crust for his dinner, leans gracefully against his friend the post, and draws the attention of a generous public to that as the deputy-receiver of the exchequer. Our professional friend has a profound knowledge of character: he has studied the human face divine all his life, and can read at a glance, through the most rigid and rugged lineaments, the indications of benevolence or the want of it; and he knows what aspect and expression to assume, in order to arouse the sympathies of a hesitating giver. lie knows every inmate of every house in his immediate neighbourhood; and not only that, but he knows their private history and antecedents for the last twenty years. He has watched a whole generation growing up under his broom, and he looks upon them all as so much material destined to enhance the value of his estate. He is the humble pensioner of a dozen families: he wears the shoes of one, the stockings of another, the shirts of a third, the coats of a fourth, and so on; and he knows the taste of everybody's cookery, and the temper of everybody's cookmaid, quite as well as those who daily devour the one and scold the other. lie is intimate with everybody's cat and everybody's dog, and will carry them home if he finds them straying. lie is on speaking terms with everybody's servant-maid, and does them all a thousand kind offices, which are repaid with interest by surreptitious scraps from the larder, and jorums of hot tea in the cold wintry afternoons. On the other hand, if he knows so much, he is equally well known: he is as familiar to sight as the Monument on Fish Street Hill to those who live opposite; he is part and parcel of the street view, and must make a part of the picture whenever it is painted, or else it wont be like. You cannot realize the idea of meeting him elsewhere; it would be shocking to your nerves to think of it; you would as soon think of seeing the Obelisk walking up Ludgate Hill, for instance, as of meeting him there - it could not be. Where be goes, when he leaves his station, you have not the least notion. He is there so soon as it is light in the morning, and till long after the gas is burning at night. He is a married man, of course, and his wife, a worthy helpmate, has no objection to pull in the same boat with him. When Goggs has a carpet to beat - he beats all the carpets on his estate - Mrs. Goggs comes to console the post in his absence. She usually signalizes her advent by a desperate assault with the broom upon the whole length of the crossing: it is plain she never thinks that Goggs keeps the place clean enough, and so she brushes him a hint. Goggs has a weakness for beer, and more than once we have seen him asleep on a hot thirsty afternoon, too palpably under the influence of John Barleycorn to admit of a doubt, his broom between his legs, and his back against his abstinent friend the post. Somehow, whenever this happens, Mrs G. is sure to hear of it, and she walks him off quietly, that the spectacle of a sweeper overtaken may not bring a disgrace upon the profession; and then, broom in hand, she takes her stand, and does his duty for the remainder of the day. The receipts of the professional sweeper do not vary throughout the year so much as might be supposed. They depend very little Oil chance contributions: these, there is no doubt, fall off considerably, if they do not fail altogether, during a continuance of dry weather, when there is no need of the sweeper's services; but the man is remunerated chiefly by regular donations from known patrons, who form his connection, and who, knowing that he must eat and drink be the weather wet or dry, bestow their periodical pittances accordingly.
No. 2. is the Morning Sweeper. - This is rather a knowing subject, one, at least, who is capable of drawing an inference from certain facts. There are numerous lines of route, both north and south of the great centres of commerce, and all converging towards the city as their nucleus, which are traversed, morning and evening, for two or three consecutive hours, by bands of gentlemanly-looking individuals: clerks, book-keepers, foremen, business-managers, and such like responsible functionaries, whose unimpeachable outer integuments testify to their regard for appearances. This current of respectability sets in towards the city at about half-past six in the morning, and continues its flow until just upon ten o'clock, when it may be said to be high-water. Though a large proportion of these agents of the world's traffic are daily borne to and from their destination in omnibuses, still the great majority, either for the sake of exercise or economy, are foot-passengers. For the accommodation of the latter, the crossing-sweeper stations himself upon the dirtiest portion of the route, and. clearing a broad and convenient path ere the sun is out of bed, awaits the inevitable tide, which must flow, and which can hardly fail of bringing him some remuneration for his labour. If we are to judge from the fact, that along one line of route which we have been in the habit of traversing for several years, we have counted as many as fourteen of these morning sweepers in a march of little more than two miles, the speculation cannot be altogether unprofitable. In traversing the same route in the middle of the day, not three of the sweepers would be found at their post; and the reason would be obvious enough, since the streets are then comparatively deserted, being populous in the morning only, because they are so many short-cuts or direct thoroughfares from the suburbs to the city. The morning sweeper is generally a lively and active young fellow; often a mere child, who is versed in the ways of London life, and who, knowing well the value of money, from the frequent want of it, is anxious to earn a penny by any honest means. Ten to one, he has been brought up in the country, and has been tutored by hard necessity, in this great wilderness of brick, to make the most of every hour, and of every chance it may afford him. He will be found in the middle of the day touting for a job at the railway stations, to carry a portmanteau or to wheel a truck; or he will be at Smithfield, helping a butcher to drive to the slaughter-house his bargain of sheep or cattle; or in some livery-yard, currying a horse or cleaning out a stable. If he can find nothing better to employ him, he will return to his sweeping in the evening, especially if it be summer-time, and should set in wet at five or six o'clock. When it is dark early, he knows that it won't pay to resume the broom; commercial gentlemen are not particular about the condition of their Wellingtons when nobody can see to criticise their polish, and all they want is to exchange them for slippers as soon as possible. If we were to follow the career of this industrious fellow up to manhood, we should in all probability find him occupying worthily a hard-working but decent and comfortable position in society.
No 3 is the Occasional Sweeper.- Now and then, in walking the interminable streets, one comes suddenly upon very questionable shapes, which, however, we don't question, but walk on and account for them mythically if we can. Among these singular apparitions which at times have startled us, not a few have borne a broom in their hands, and appealed to us for a reward for services which, to say the best of them, were extremely doubtful. Now an elderly gentleman in silver spectacles, with pumps on his feet, and a roquelaure with a fur-collar over his shoulders, and an expression of unutterable anguish in his countenance, holds out his hand and bows his head as we pass, and groans audibly the very instant we are within earshot of a groan; which is a distance of about ten inches in a London atmosphere. Now an old, old man, tall, meagre, and decrepit, with haggard eye and moonstruck visage, bares his aged head to the pattering rain-
"Loose his beard and hoary hair
Stream like a meteor to the troubled air."
He makes feeble and fitful efforts to sweep a pathway across the road, and the dashing cab pulls up suddenly just in time to save him from being hurled to the ground by the horse. Then he gives it up as a vain attempt, and leans, the model of despair, against the wall, and wrings his skeleton fingers in agony - when just as a compassionate matron is drawing the strings of her purse, stopping for her charitable purpose in a storm of wind and rain, the voice of the policeman is heard over her shoulder: "What, you are here at it again, old chap? Well, I'm blowed if I think anything'll cure you. You'd better put up your pus, marm: if he takes your money, I shall take him to the station-us, that's all. Now, old chap- trot, trot, trot !" And away walks the old impostor, with a show of activity perfectly marvellous for his years, the policeman following close at his heels till he vanishes in the arched entry of a court.
The next specimen is perhaps "a swell," out at elbows, a seedy and somewhat ragged remnant of a very questionable kind of gentility - a gentility engendered in "coal-holes," and "cider-cellars," in "shades," and such midnight "kens" - suckled with brandy-and-water and port-wine negus, and fed with deviled kidneys and toasted cheese. He has run to the end of his tether, is cleaned out even to the last disposable shred of his once well-stocked wardrobe; and after fifty high-flying and desperate resolves, and twice fifty mean and sneaking devices to victimize those who have the misfortune to be assailable by him, "to this complexion he has come at last." He has made a track across the road, rather a slovenly disturbance of the mud than a clearance of it; and having finished his performance in a style to indicate that he is a stranger to the business, being born to better things, he rears himself with front erect and arms a-kimbo, with one foot advanced after the most statuesque model, and exhibits a face of scornful brass to an unsympathizing world, before whom he stands a monument of neglected merit, and whom he doubtless expects to overwhelm with unutterable shame for their abominable treatment of a man and a brother-and a gentleman to boot. This sort of exhibition never lasts long, it being a kind of standing-dish for which the public have very little relish in this practical age. The "swell sweeper" generally subsides in a week or two, and vanishes from the stage, on which, however ornamental, he is of very little use.
The occasional sweeper is much oftener a poor countryman, who has wandered to London in search of employment, and, finding nothing else, has spent his last fourpence in the purchase of a besom, with which he hopes to earn a crust. Here his want of experience in town is very much against him. You may know him instantly from the habitué of the streets; he plants himself in the very thick and throng of the most crowded thoroughfare-the rapids, so to speak, of the human current - where he is of no earthly use, but, on the contrary, very much in the way, and where, while everybody wishes him at Jericho, he wonders that nobody gives him a copper; or he undertakes impossible, s uch as the sweeping of the whole width of Charing Cross from east to west, between the equestrian statue and Nelson's Pillar, where, if he sweep the whole, he can't collect, and if he collect, he can't sweep, and he breaks his heart and his back too in a fruitless vocation. He picks up experience in time; but he is pretty sure to find a better trade before he has learned to cultivate that of a crossing-sweeper to perfection. - Many of these occasional hands are Hindoos, Lascars, or Orientals of some sort, whose dark skins, contrasted with their white and scarlet drapery, render them conspicuous objects in a crowd; and from this cause they probably derive an extra profit, as they can scarcely be passed by without notice. The sudden promotion of one of this class, who was hailed by the Nepaulese ambassador, as he stood, broom in hand, in St. Paul's Churchyard, and engaged as dragoman to the embassy, will be in the recollection of the reader. It would be impossible to embrace in our category even a tithe of the various characters who figure in London as occasional sweepers. A broom is the last resort of neglected and unemployed industry, as well as of sudden and unfriended ill-fortune-the sanctuary to which a thousand victims fly from the fiends of want and starvation. The broken-down tradesman, the artisan out of work, the decayed gentleman, the ruined gambler, the starving scholar, - each and all we have indubitably seen brooming the muddy ways for the chance of a halfpenny or a penny. It is not very long since we were addressed in Water-street, Blackfriars, by a middle-aged man in a garb of seedy black, who handled his broom like one who played upon a strange instrument, and who, wearing the words Pauper et pedester written on a card stuck in his hat-band, told as, in good colloquial Latin, a tale of such horrifying misery and destitution, that we shrink from recording it here. We must pass on to the next on our list, who is - No. 4, the Lucus-a-non, or a sweeper who never sweeps. This fellow is a vagabond of the first-water, or of the first-mud rather. His stock in trade is an old worn-out broom- stump, which he has shouldered for these seven years past, and with which he has never displaced a pound of soil in the whole period. He abominates work with such a crowning intensity, that the very pretence of it is a torture to him. He is a beggar without a beggar's humbleness; and a thief, moreover, without a thief's hardihood. He crawls lazily about the public ways, and begs under the banner of his broom, which constitutes his protection against the police. He will collect alms at a crossing which he would not cleanse to save himself from starvation; or he will take up a position at one which a morning sweeper has deserted for the day, and glean the sorry remnants of another man's harvest. He is as insensible to shame as to the assaults of the weather; he will watch you picking your way through the mire over which he stands sentinel, and then impudently demand payment for the performance of a function which he never dreams of exercising; or he will stand in your path in the middle of the splashy channel, and pester you with whining supplications, while he kicks the mire over your garments, and bars your passage to the pavement. He is worth nothing, not even the short notice we have taken of him, or the trouble of a whipping, which he ought to get, instead of the coins that he contrives to extract from the heedless generosity of the public.
No. 5 is the Sunday Sweeper.- This neat, dapper, and cleanly variety of the genus besom, is usually a young fellow, who, pursuing some humble and ill-paid occupation during the week, ekes out his modest salary by labouring with the broom on the Sunday. He has his regular "place of worship," one entrance of which he monopolizes every Sabbath morning. Long before the church-going bell rings out the general invitation, he is on the spot, sweeping a series of paths all radiating from the church or chapel door to the different points of the compass. The business he has cut out for himself is no sinecure; he does his work so effectually, that you marvel at the achievement, and doubt if the floor of your dwelling be cleaner. Then he is himself as clean as a new pin, and wears a flower in his button-hole, and a smile on his face, and thanks you so becomingly, and bows so gracefully, that you cannot help wishing him a better office; and of course, to prove the sincerity of your wish, you pay him at a better rate. When the congregation are all met, and the service is commenced, he is religious enough, or knowing enough, to walk stealthily in, and set himself upon the poor bench, where he sits quietly, well behaved, and attentive to the end; for which very proper conduct he is pretty sure to meet an additional reward during the exit of the assembly, as they defile past him at the gate when all is over. In the afternoon, he is off to the immediate precinct of some park or public promenade; and selecting a well- frequented approach to the general rendezvous, will cleanse and purify the crossing or pathway in his own peculiar and elaborate style, vastly to the admiration of the gaily-dressed pedestrians, and it is to be supposed, to his own profit. Besides this really clever and enterprising genius, there is a. numerous tribe of a very different description, who must sally forth literally by the thousand every Sunday morning when the weather is fine, and who take possession of every gate, stile, and wicket, throughout the wide-spread suburban districts of the metropolis in all directions. They are of both sexes and all ages; and go where you will, it is impossible to go through a gate, or get over a stile, without the proffer of their assistance, for which, of course, you are expected to pay, whether you use it or not. Some of these fellows have a truly ruffianly aspect, and waylay you in secluded lanes and narrow pathways; and carrying a broom-stump, which looks marvellously like a bludgeon, no doubt often levy upon the apprehensions of the timorous pedestrian a contribution which his charity would not be so blind as to bestow. The whole of this tribe constitute a monster-nuisance, which ought to be abated by the exertions of the police.
No. 6 are the deformed, maimed, and crippled sweepers, of whom there is a considerable number constantly at work, and, to do them justice, they appear by no means the least energetic of the brotherhood. Nature frequently compensates bodily defects by the bestowal of a vigorous temperament. The sweeper of one leg or one arm, or the poor cripple who, but for the support of his broom, would be crawling on all-fours, is as active, industrious, and efficient as the best man on the road; and he takes a pride in the proof of his prowess, surveying his work when it is finished with a complacency too evident to escape notice. He considers, perhaps, that he has an extra claim upon the public on account of the afflictions he has undergone, and we imagine that such claim must be pretty extensively allowed: we know no other mode of accounting for the fact, that now and then one of these supposed maimed or halt performers turns out to be an impostor, who, considering a broken limb, or something tantamount to that, essential to the success of his broom, concocts an impromptu fracture or amputation to serve his purpose. Some few years ago, a lively, sailor-looking fellow appeared as a one-handed sweeper in a genteel square on the Surrey side of the water. The right sleeve of his jacket waved emptily in the wind, but he flourished his left arm so vigorously in the air, and completed the gyration of his weapon, when it stuck fast in the mud, so manfully by the impulse of his right leg, that he became quite a popular favourite, and won "copper opinions from all sorts of men," to say nothing of a shower of sixpences from the ladies in the square. Unfortunately for the continuance of his prosperity, a gentleman intimate with one of his numerous patronesses, while musing in the twilight at an upstairs window, saw the fellow enter his cottage after his day's work, release his right arm from the durance in which it had lain beneath his jacket for ten or twelve hours, and immediately put the power of the long-imprisoned limb to the test by belabouring his wife with it. That same night every tenant in the square was made acquainted with the disguised arm, and the use for which it was reserved, and the ingenious performer was the next morning delivered over to the police. The law, however, allows a man to dispose of his limbs as he chooses; and as the delinquent was never proved to have said that he had lost an arm; and as he urged that one arm being enough for the profession he had embraced, he considered he had a right to reserve the other until he had occasion for it - he was allowed to go about his business.
No. 7, and the last in our classification, are the Female Sweepers.- It is singular, that among these we rarely if ever meet with young women, properly so called. The calling of a crossing-sweeper, so far as it is carried on by females, is almost entirely divided between children or young girls, and women above the age of forty. The children are a very wandering and fickle race, rarely staying for many weeks together in a single spot. This love of change must militate much against their success, as they lose the advantage of the charitable interest they would excite in persons accustomed to meet them regularly in their walks. They are not, however, generally dependent upon the produce of their own labours for a living, being, for the most part, the children of parents in extremely low circumstances, who send them forth with a broom to pick up a few halfpence to assist them in the daily provision for the family. The older women, on the other hand, of whom there is a pretty stout staff scattered throughout the metropolis, are too much impressed with the importance of adhering constantly to one spot, capriciously to change their position. They would dread to lose a connection they have been many years in forming, and they will even cling to it after it has ceased to be a thoroughfare by the opening of a new route, unless they can discover the direction their patrons have taken. When a poor old creature, who has braved the rheumatism for thirty years or so, finds she can stand it no longer, we have known her induct a successor into her office by attending her for a fortnight or more, and introducing the new comer to the friendly regard of her old patrons. The exceptions to these two classes of the old and the very juvenile, will be found to consist mostly of young widows left with the charge of an infant family more or less numerous. Some few of these there are, and they meet with that considerate reception from the public which their distressing cases demand. The spectacle of a young mother, with an infant on one arm muffled up from the driving rain, while she plies a broom single-handed, is one which never appeals in vain to a London public. With a keen eye for imposture, and a general inclination to suspect it, the Londoner has yet compassion, and coin, too, to bestow upon a deserving object. It is these poor widows who, by rearing their orphaned offspring to wield the broom, supplement the ranks of the professional sweepers. They become the heads of sweeping families, who in time leave the maternal wing, and shift for themselves. We might point to one whom we have encountered almost daily for the last ten years. In 1841, she was left a widow with three small children, the eldest under four, and the youngest in arms. Clad in deep mourning, she took up a position at an angular crossing of a square, and was allowed to accommodate the two elder children upon some matting spread upon the steps of a door. With the infant in one arm, she plied her broom with the other, and held out a small white hand for the reception of such charity as the passers-by might choose to bestow. The children grew up strong and hearty, in spite of their exposure to the weather at all seasons. All three of them are at the present moment sweepers in the same line of route, at no great distance from the mother, who, during the whole period, has scarcely abandoned her post for a single day. Ten years' companionship with sun and wind, and frost and rain, have doubled her apparent age, hut her figure still shows the outline of gentility, and her face yet wears the aspect and expression of better days. We have frequently met the four returning home together in the deepening twilight, the elder boy carrying the four brooms strapped together on his shoulder.
The sweeper does better at holiday seasons than at any other time. If he is blessed with a post for a companion, he decks it with a flower or sprig of green, and sweeps a clear stage round it, which is said to be a difficult exploit, though we have never tried it. At Christmas, he expects a double fee from his old patrons, and gets it too, and a substantial slice of plum-pudding from the old lady in the first floor opposite. He decks the entrance to his walk with laurel and holly, in honour of the day, and of his company, who walk under a triumphal arch of green, got up for that occasion only. He is sure of a good collection on that day, and he goes home with his pocket heavy and his heart light, and treats himself to a pot of old ale, warmed over a fire kindled with his old broom, and sipped sparingly to the melody of a good old song about the good old times, when crossing-sweepers grew rich, and bequeathed fortunes to their patrons.
see also Richard Rowe in Episodes in an Obscure Life - click here
30 December.. . A girl named Margaret Cochrane is a crossing-sweeper at
Charing Cross, and has been so, to my knowledge for several years. She says she
is but fourteen, but she looks much older - quite a young woman, indeed. She
sweeps a path from King Charles's statue to Spring Gardens; the densest part of
the wide throng of hurrying carriages. She plies her daring broom under the
wheels, which bespatter her with mire as they fly; she dodges under the horses'
heads, and is ever ready to conduct the timid lady or nervous old gentle-. man
through the perils of the crossing; she is wet through her thin clothing when it
rains; she is in the street all day, the lowest and least protected of that
roaring buffeting crowd. And she is a well-grown and really pretty girl; with a
delicate complexion and refined features and bright eyes: her mud-stained frock
and bonnet are neat, though shabby; and even in her dirt she is attractive, as
she drops you a quiet curtsy and says 'Please Sir', holding out her hand and
leaning on her well-worn broom. Yet I never - and I have often watched her among
her companions-saw any rudeness, levity, nor immodesty in her behaviour: nor did
I ever see her insulted by any passerby. Tonight in giving her a penny I asked
her if she meant to remain a crossing sweeper; and she said 'No Sir - I think I
shall take to selling oranges when I grow up.'
Whether it be modesty or love of change, it is the fact that crossing-sweeper girls seldom stay at their calling after they pass the age of puberty. . .
Arthur Munby, Diary, 30 December 1862
[--back to main for this book--]
"PARSON," THE CROSSING-SWEEPER
IF anyone wants to realize, as the phrase goes, the little
army of crossing-sweepers we have in London, let him take a walk - say for a
mile or two - on a muddy day, and give a penny to every one who touches hat,
makes a bob, as if shutting up like a spy-glass, or trots after him, trailing
broom in one hand, and tugging at tangled forelock with the other. I remember
when it would have cost anyone, disposed to give in this way, between a shilling
and eighteen- pence to walk from the Archway Tavern, Highgate Hill, to Highbury
Cock and back. For anyone of a squeezable temperament, therefore, it was
decidedly cheaper to take the bus.
It is simply as a statistical experiment, just for once in a way, that I recommend this penny-giving. It would be a great misfortune if all crossing-sweepers had pennies given them indiscriminately. I would not make a clean sweep of the sweepers, but I should like to see their ranks thinned considerably - viz., by the elimination of the adults who are able, and the young who might be trained to do something better than what, in the most favourable instances, is little better than a make-believe of work, as a pretext for begging, either directly or by suggestion.
[-149-] Still, there are people for whom crossing-sweeping seems to have been provided as an occupation by "pre-established harmony" - cripples, and old men and women, shrivelled like dry wrinkled apples, who are just strong enough to give the public that real convenience, a clean crossing, and who at the same times tottering and shivering day after day at the same post, have a chance of attracting substantial sympathy from which they would be shut out if they burrowed all day in the holes to which they retire at night to hide. It seems to me that alms-giving, regular or occasional, to these poor people, can scarcely be called demoralising. They shrink from the degradation as well as the dreary confinement of the workhouse - try to fancy, at any rate, that they are working for their living. After all, the chance coppers and the little allowances they receive do not come to much. In bygone days, one or two crossing-sweepers may perhaps have died in possession of considerable sums. I am inclined to believe, however, that even in these cases the amount has been exaggerated. Mnemonical is very different from optical perspective. Things of the past loom larger than they were. At any rate, crossing-sweepers of the present day leave no wills. If they did, the amounts under which the personalty would have to be sworn would be comico-pathetic.
"Parson" - so called from the long, shabby, [-150-] loose, once-black frock-coat he wore, so long that the tails, which mischievous street-boys were very fond of pulling on the sly, swept the ground like a lady's train - was a short, squat old man, with a wooden leg. His hair was the colour of an unwashed frosted carrot - the little of it that could be seen peeping from the dustman's fantail, reaching almost to his waist, with which he nearly extinguished his monkey-like face. At least, it was monkey-like in its wrinkles and its fun, but there was not a trace of monkey-malice in it. A more civil obliging little fellow than Parson there could not be. He would hop off on little errands for people from whom he expected, and got, no fee. The impish street-boys were the only persons who seemed able to sour greatly Parson's milk of human kindness. The police and the omnibus-men, the newsvendors and the miscellaneous loungers hanging about the inn in front of which Parson's crossing, or rather crossings, stretched, did their best to protect the old fellow, and soundly cuffed his persecutors when they chanced to run their way; but, nevertheless, he was shamefully tormented.
"Little pot, soon hot" says the proverb. That was not the case with Parson; but even he could not always keep his wrath from boiling over, and when wrought up to that pitch of exasperation, he would proceed to [-151-] take the law into his own hands. Brandishing his broom like a broadsword, he made fierce dot-and-go-one charges on the foe. Sometimes the poor little fellow tripped, and when he had picked himself up out of the mud, was obliged to slink back discomfited to his crossing before a hostile chorus of derisive laughter. At other times, perhaps, he succeeded in. mowing down a straggler in the rear of the retreating enemy. Generally, however, they escaped scot-free. Occasionally, when the old man saw that they were getting beyond his reach, he would hurl his broom after them like a javelin; a young varlet would snatch it up, and then poor Parson had to begin another weary dot-and-go-one chase.
On a foggy night, the old man was run over, breaking three or four of his ribs. Whilst he was laid up, I heard him relate his history.
"I'm a native of Whitechapel," he said; "Goodman's Fields is where I was born an' bred - sich breedin' as I hever 'ad, an' that worn't much. Peter's my name. I s'pose I must 'ave another somewheres, but that's the on'y name I hever went by, 'cept Parson, which them howdacious boys calls me. No, I can't say whether it's surname or chris' n name. Bless your part, I was never chris'ned. Father an' mother couldn't spare time for thinx like that. Father's name worn' t Peter. I'd a uncle [-152-] lived at Barking, an' they called him Peter. In the barge line or fishin' line, he were - I can't rec'llect which on 'em it was. Mother made hout as he was a-goin' to do summut for me, on'y he didn't - 'cept give me a clout on the 'ead one day. That was the on'y time I hever see him, an' that's all I hever got from Uncle Peter. An' tworn't much I hever got from anybody helse. Father worked at the docks, when he could git work, an' worn't too drunk to do it, an' that worn't allus.
"It's 'ard work, ye see, for a woman to keep on lovin' a man when he can't give her a gownd to her back, an' blackens 'er heyes as orfen as he gits drunk. Father was a decentish sort o' man when he worn't on the drink, but anythink he'd do - beg, borrer, or steal - to git old o' drink, an when it were hinside on 'im he were jest a brute; an' mother worn't much better. There were two young uns - and that was two too many - me an' Poll. I was very fond o' Poll, and so she were o' me though you mightn't think it to look at me. I never were a beauty; I s'pose it was becos we used both on us to git drubbed. Many an' many's the time we haint 'ad a bit to heat all day, 'cept it was some rubbage we'd picked up in the markit. Sometimes a-Sundays, when it was cold, we went to church -Whitechapel Church - in the evenink, jest to git a warm. Leastways, that's what I went for, but Poll was diff'rent [-153-] from me. She liked to 'ear what the parson said. No, the parson never took no notice on us. P'raps he would if he'd a-seen us, but he didn't. They say he was good to poor folks.
" Tworn't orfen we went. The people looked as if we 'adn't any right to. Pull in their clothes, they would, as if we'd give 'em ty'pus fever. That ain't pleasant. I ought to be pretty well used to it by this time, but I ain't. An' some o'them as gives theirselves sich hairs is no sich great shakes arter all. It's them as is the wust. I've been spoke to a deal kinder by them as was real gentlefolks than by them as wasn't much better than me, excep' they'd got better clothes; an' yet they've talked as it I was the dirt beneath their feet. A swell knows he's a swell, an' don't mind who he's seen a-talkin' to, but them stuck-up people don't know what they are. They want to be summut, and can't. I s'pose they thinks, if they speaks civil to me, folks'll think I'm their father; an' p'raps he worn't no better. But there, what's the good o' makin' a fuss about sich nonsense? What do it matter? It'll be all the same a 'underd 'ears to come.
"Mostly we went to the Lane a-Sundays, Poll an' me. The shops was all hopen, an' there's sich a crowd o' people. It was livelier than where the shops was shut, an' now an' ag'in we'd git a bit o' frjed fish give us, or the [-154-] like o' that. The Jews as a name for bein' ard at a barg'in, but some on 'em is very good to poor folks, 'specially kids. They're oncommon fond o' their own, an' so I s'pose they don't like to see t'others a-starvin'. No, I never stole nuffink. I should, though, if it 'adn't a-been for Poll. When yer inside's as hempty as a drum, it's 'ard work to see thinx layin' houtside the shops as you could heat, or sell to git summut to heat, an' keep your ands off 'em. It's heasy for ye to git rid o' a'most anythink you like to steal - find's their word - down Whitechapel way. One day I'd cotched 'old of a bit o' bacon that was put out with a ticket on it at a shop in Whitechapel High Street, but Poll snatched it hout o' my ands an' put it back. There was a long feller with a apron down to his toes watchin' an' shoutin' 'Buy, buy, buy!' houtside, but his back was turned. Jest then, though, he looked round. 'Lucky for you, you did,' says he to Poll; an' he shammed as if he was a-goin' to ketch us, an' off we went like a fire-engine. But it wasn't as she was afraid o' bein' nabbed that made or put it back. It's wonderful 'owever she picked it up, for she'd never been l'arnt nuffink good, 'cept the little bit she'd eared at church; but she'd a notion as she should like to do thinx on the square, so as she might git to 'eaven; an' she wanted to keep me straight, too, for says she, 'Peter,' she says, 'I should [sic] [-155-] like, if I was to git into the good place, an' they was to shut the door in yer face.'
"She's been there, if anybody is, many an' many a 'ear, pore gal. I was oncommon cut up when she died, but I'm glad now, for she was a pretty gal, an' a pretty face is a cuss to a pore gal like her. She'd ha' been sure to come to grief, though she was so good. It was becos she 'adn't enough to heat - that's 'ow pore little Poll come to die. The parish buried 'er, in course - there worn't no welvet palls an' feathers. She was put into the coffin, an' a chap carried or under is harm jest as if she was a parcel. She worn't much to carry, for she were pretty nigh next to nuffink but skin an' bone.
"They weren't long a-buryin' of 'er but what do it matter? She didn't git to 'eaven none the slower. I'm sometimes afeared I shan't never git there, but I'm suttin sure Poll's there, jest as safe as if she was Miss Coutts, an' she's a good lady, she is. But I didn't think about 'er bein' in 'eaven when I see 'em a-buryin' of 'er. When they shovelled in the hearth, I wished it was a-top o' me as well as 'er. I 'adn't a soul left in the world as cared for me, an' I haint 'ad since-not like Poll.
"I duuno what become o' father an' mother. - Poll an' me was left to shift for ourselves. All sort o' thinx I've been. Anythink as turned [-156-] up I'd do - anyways try at - 'cos if I didn't, yer see, I must ha' starved. Beggars can't be choosers. That's the wust o' bein' poor. You can't git the right vally o' yer work when you hain't nuffink to fall back on. Folks takes 'adwantage on yer. 'Take it or leave it,' they says, free an easy, when all the time they are glad to git 'old on yer, an' ud give ye yer own axin's, if yer could on'y 'old hout - but they know yer can't, ye see. I never did nuffink as was downright bad so as I could be pulled up for 't, but some o' the thinx I've been forced to do was oncommon shady. Poll wouldn't ha' liked it if she'd seen me at 'em. It was thinkin' o' 'er kep' me from wuss. Yes, an' keeps me now, p'r'aps, It's queer the way I can't forgit 'er - 'cos I'd never no one else to care for me, I guess. I can see her as plain now as I could sixty 'ear an' more ago - it's hall that since she died. She don't never seem to ha' growed, or altered one bit.
"She was a bit proud of 'er curly 'air, an' kep' it clean an' tidy, though twas hard work, for sometimes we'd nuffink better than cinders to go to bed on. There's a field they used to shoot rubbish in out by Bow - leastways, it ain't a field now, but covered with 'ouses as thick as they can stand. Poll an' me used to go there with the other folk to see what we could pick up, an' sometimes we slept there. We'd scoop out a 'ole, so that the wind couldn't git at us, [-157-] an' pick the softest place to put our 'eads on, an' kiver ourselves hup wi' any old rotten bit o' sacking, an' sich like, we could find, and sleep like tops we would. We looked like chimbley-sweeps when we woke in the mornin', but Poll allus went down to the ditch an' give 'erself a wash, an' combed 'er air hout, if she'd on'y got 'er fingers to do it with. An oncommon pretty gal she was, though she were 'alf starved, an' dressed pretty nigh like a scarecrow. If she'd been figged hout an' dressed proper, there aint a gal I hever see as could 'old a candle to 'er - not a patch on 'er back they wouldn't be. I should like to see or jist as she used to was for once in a way, but if hever I git along wi' 'er ag'in, I shouldn't like or to keep like that. If she was a child, she wouldn't be able to git on as we used wi' an' old chap like me.
"My luck seems to be gittin' runned hover - that's ow I lost my leg. I was a-'elpin' a drover in the Mile End Road. I'd gone out lookin' arter sumfink to do as fur as Romford, an' he picked me up at the markit there, an' give me a job to 'elp drive some ship to the Cattle Markit - it was in Smiffle then. Well, I'd run on to 'ead 'em back from the Cambridge 'Eath Road, when up come some fellers in a cart, 'alf sprung. The 'oss was goin' as fast as hever it could, but the chap as was drivin' kep' on leatherin' it wi' the hend o' the reins - he 'adn't got no whip. So I shouted to 'em [-158-] not to run over the ship, an' flung up my harms - but they never took no 'eed. On they come, an' down I went, an' the cart went hover me, an' scrunched my leg like a snail. They carried me to the Lon'on 'Orspital, an' arter a bit, the doctors cut off my leg - they said they couldn't mend it - an' I've been a hippety-hop hever since. I shall be glad, though, when I'm peggin' away on my timber-toe ag'in, for it's lonesome layin' on yer back wi' nuffink to do.
"Sundays is my best days. People ain't in sich a 'urry to git to church as they are to git to their business, an' then they're kinder a-Sundays. There's a sweet-lookin' lady goes hover my crossin', as true as the clock, hevery Sunday, with or three little gals, as like their mar as little peas is to a big 'un. They takes it in turns to give me my penny, an' they speaks so pretty to me. I reg'lar look hout for seein' of em. Real gentlefolks they are, I'll go bail, though they ain't dressed nigh so smart as a good many as goes by an' never gives me nuffink."
[-.--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.----]
see also Henry Vigar-Harris in London at Midnight - click here
Victorian London - Publications - Humour - Punch - cartoon 16
Sweeper (surprised at receiving a Shilling). "THANK YER 'ONOUR, AN' MAY THE BLISSED SAINTS PAY YER BACK A THOUSAND THOIMES!"
City Croesus (having "done the sum"). "PHOOUGH! ON'Y FIFTY POUNDS!"
Punch, 25th June 1887
see also A.R.Bennett in London and Londoners - click here