Thursday, September 9, 2021


I mentioned in a post a few days ago that Victorian England wasn’t necessarily as depicted in Mary Poppins. I illustrated this by describing three Victorian occupations: mudlarks, toshers and grubbers.

That inspired one reader, Sandra J, to email me:
Reminds me of my childhood somewhat – We used to scavenge at Milperra/East Hills Tip. Not for food, just something we could use. Mine was always at year end all the rich families threw their coloured pencils, biros, stationery out, there was always books with blank pages which, I ripped out I scavenged as much as I could. I used to take everything home and clear the top of our singer treble sewing machine for my desk and set myself up with these pencils etc and pretend I worked in an office. We also looked for school bags, I started high school with a plastic bag, Mum had 4 children in high school, she worked in a factory Dad was a Boilermaker/Communist/Drinker. When my younger sister started high school 5 years later she had a briefcase. With us 4 out working, paying board, things were easier for her and my younger brother. BUT we never went hungry, we had 3 meals a day, and a piece of fruit.

To this day I love stationery although now I don’t have to scavenge, I can afford to go to Officeworks. I have passed my love of stationery onto my daughter, who in turn has passed it onto her daughter Zoe (my flower girl at the wedding)

One of us 6 children found a gaudy clock surround, like an ornament, my mother had that on her dressing table as a decoration forever.

Anyhow that’s my scavenger story….

Cheers Sandy
I responded:
Fascinating although hard times, yet you’re looking back on them with fondness.

We didn’t go to the tip but we did scavenge on Council clean up days. Some good stuff back then.
Sandy replied:

People still do that now Otto, Clean up days are luxury to some people.



Here are some other Victorian occupations to make us realise how fortunate we are to be living now and not back then . . .

Bone grubber:

Bone grubbers were people who collected bones of dead animals for sale to bone-boilers for use in everyday items — handles for toothbrushes, teething rings, knife handles, and cheap combs. Bones that could not be used were pulverized into fertilizers or boiled to make soaps.

Journalist Henry Mayhew published his London Labour and the London Poor in 1851, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London’s working classes and criminal underbelly. Mayhew recorded conversations and quotations from the people themselves as to their lives, jobs and activities.

According to a bone grubber:
There’s a great deal more than 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children. The winter is the best time for us, for there is more meat used, and then there are more bones. 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.

Rag and Bone Men:

Whereas the bone grubbers devoted themselves to finding and selling bones, rag and bone men were wider based.

Those of us getting on in years may recall Steptoe and Son, the 1960s sitcom of two rag and bone men eking out a living in Shepherd’s Bush, London – Harold, his father Albert and their cart horse Hercules. God that takes me back. Whereas Albert Steptoe, an old rag and bone man, is set in his grimy and grasping ways, Harold, with his social aspirations and pretensions, wants out of that life. Sadly, Albert, life and circumstances frustrate every attempt and Harold stays where he is.

I recall in one episode two escaped prisoners hold them hostage in winter. Without enough money for the meter for heat, no food, and no amenities, the convicts realise how well off they were in comparison. They depart to go surrender themselves and give the Steptoes some money. Watch that episode by clicking on:

Which is all by way of introduction to rag and bone men in Victorian days.  I used to wonder why Albert and Harold Steptoe were called rag and bone men, that was the days before the internet and google.

Rag and bone men collected unwanted household items for sale to merchants. Traditionally performed on foot, the scavenged materials included rags, bones and various metals, usually carried in a bag slung over the shoulder. Some used a cart pulled by a horse or pony.

In the 19th century, rag and bone men lived in extreme poverty, surviving only on the proceeds of what they collected each day. Although conditions improved following the Second World War, the trade declined during the latter half of the 20th century. In more recent years, partly as the result of the soaring price of scrap metal, rag-and-bone-style collection continues, particularly in the developing world. Typically now vans and lorries are used.

(Much like on garbage collection nights today, I see numerous people with baby strollers, shopping strollers and bags going through the bins on the street for cans and bottles for the cash refunds).

According to Mayhew:
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 marine-store shop.
An 1836 edition of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal describes how "street-grubber[s]" could be seen scraping away the dirt between the paving stones of non-macadamised roads, searching for horseshoe nails.

Mayhew's report indicates that many who worked as rag-and-bone men did so after falling on hard times, and generally lived in squalor.

Rag-and-bone man, with horse and cart. They would usually call out Rag n' Bone Rag n' Bone or ring a bell.

A rag-and-bone man with his horse and cart on the streets of Streatham, southwest London in 1985

A rag-and-bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011

More instalments to come.

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