Thursday, February 17, 2011

London's Crossing Sweepers

Thursday, February 17, 2011
Loretta reports:

As was the case with so many bygone figures of the London Streets (blogs here and here), I first encountered a crossing sweeper in Dickens (Bleak House). A quick scan of Google Books offered a number of opinions about the profession, some favorable, but the majority not.  Mr. Grant, who seemed careful of his facts in discussing begging letter writers, gets so wacky on this subject that I began to doubt his "facts" elsewhere.

But here’s Dickens in non-fiction mode, in one of his magazines:
A CORRESPONDENT of the Standard has taken up his parable against the crossing-sweepers, whom he pronounces to be a nuisance, and whom he proposes to replace by the adoption by the Vestries of some "uniform plan of sweeping the crossings where really needed."

"WHERE really needed" means, in wet weather, everywhere, and all day long, for a crossing, once swept, cannot be expected to remain clean for any length of time. What sort of a staff of sweepers would the London Vestries have to employ, I wonder, with any sort of hope of carrying out this Augean labour effectually? Crossing-sweepers are undoubtedly a nuisance, sometimes, but I am afraid they are among the minor troubles which we must be content to set against the many advantages of living in a city, and we must make up our minds that there must always be some detail or another with which it is impossible for our rulers and governors to deal.

THE Standard's correspondent goes back to an old superstition in one of his arguments against crossing-sweepers, whom he accuses of earning considerably more than hard-working artizans. Thackeray once wrote a story the hero of which was a crossing sweeper who lived like a gentleman on the profits of his crossing opposite the Bank, and on the strength of this legend it has been very generally though vaguely assumed that the profession is a very remunerative one. So far as facts have ever come out I do not think that this idea has ever been justified, although, no doubt, there have been exceptional cases of sweepers doing very well. And, even if they do, there is not much to grumble at. The life cannot be one of many charms.
—Excerpt from Household words: a weekly journal, Volume 4, Charles Dickens.

There's more, from others, here and here.

Photograph of a Crossing Sweeper, holding broom in right hand,"  by RL Sirus, 1884.
"Sweepers cleared roadways for pedestrians in the hope of tips"—courtesy UK National Archives  


Anonymous said...

Can you explain please more about the picture and the date taken?

Anonymous said...

Are the crossing sweepers the ancestors of the guys who pounced on your car at red lights to wipe your windshield?

Miss Kirsten said...

The picture reminds me of the lamp-lighter boy you showed here awhile back. Poor little guy. This sounds like a hard life for anyone, but horrible for a kid.

Cassie said...

I've read Bleak House, but I'm afraid I really still don't have any idea what a Crossing Sweeper is.

LorettaChase said...

Sunny, picture a raggedy person, male or female, young or old, standing at the crosswalk (before there were crosswalks). Picture the street covered in horse manure--and that's the cleanest stuff there! Picture women in long dresses. Guys in their expensive boots. These raggedy people cleared a path through the dirt, and (yes, like the squeegee guys--but the street really was filthy) waited for you to give them a coin or two.

LorettaChase said...

Sorry about the failure to credit the photo. The end of my text got chopped off, probably due to fatigue--and then today the internet was playing hard to get.

KEHutchinson said...

There was a fabulous series that Tony Robinson (Baldrick of Blackadder) did a while ago called The Worst Jobs In History. A Crossing Sweeper popped up in one episode, although I can't remember which one. Here's the episode from the Georgian period!

Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket