Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry/ General - Shoeblacks  

see also Garwood's The Million-Peopled City - click here

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877    

[back to menu for this book ...]


A LONG and uneven war has been waged for many years between the various members of the shoe-blacking fraternity. The factions that divide those who look to our boots for a mode of livelihood are wonderfully numerous. There are boys who maintain that no able-bodied man should seek to clean boots, that this work should be monopolized by children. Others, on the contrary, urge that the street should be free to all, and that if an able-bodied man chooses to devote himself to the art of blacking boots, as a free British subject, he has a right to follow this or any other calling, however humble it may be. Probably he is not fitted for anything better; and if so, it is to the interest of the community that he should be allowed to do, at least, that which he feels disposed to attempt. A third party will rejoin that this is altogether a false theory, that men who are capable of more worthy work should not be allowed to degrade themselves by menial offices,-a principle which, however, if universally applied, would soon revolutionize the whole face of society. So far as the London boot-blacks are concerned, this principle has, nevertheless, been carried out to a very great extent. The police authorities have taken upon themselves to interfere, indeed to destroy, the freedom of trade in the matter of cleaning gentlemen's boots, and the independent boot-black is consequently treated by the authorities as if he was little better than a smuggler. 
    Useful, though perhaps unfair, patronage is accorded to the members of the Boot-black Brigades. These are the orthodox or legitimate boot-blacks, and they consequently find favour in the eyes of the police. The policeman, who is essentially a lover of order, an admirer of discipline, cannot understand why, if a boy wants to manipulate brush and blacking for a living, he should not join one of the brigades. He is likely to forget that the real attraction of street life, the one advantage it offers in exchange for all the hardships and poverty to be endured, is precisely that sense of independence and absence from discipline which no member of the brigade can enjoy. The shoe-black brigades, though excellent institutions, have decidedly trespassed on the freedom of street industries. Their organized and disciplined boys have the monopoly of various "beats" and "pitches" given them, and their exclusive right to clean boots in the streets or at the corners in question is rigorously enforced by the police. Yet, notwithstanding such privileges, the brigades are unpopular among the classes they are supposed to serve, and this opinion I find confirmed by the last Annual Report of the Ragged School Union. 
    The author of this Report qualifies results achieved in the year 1876 as a success, because the number of boys employed in the nine societies has been augmented to the extent of twelve recruits! In this huge metropolis, with its rapidly-increasing population-in a year, too, of commercial depression, when the poor are naturally driven to such expedients-only twelve new boys were found willing to join the nine different societies. An augmentation of one and one-quarter of a boy per society during twelve months cannot be qualified as a success.
    The Boot-blacking Brigade movement was started in 1851, when 36 boys were enrolled, and they earned during the year £650. After labour extending over the whole metropolis, and unceasingly pursued during a quarter of a century, the number of boys has been increased to 385, and their annual earnings to £12,062. During the twenty-five years the boys have earned altogether £170,324; and the average benefits per week accruing to each boy, last year, amounted to twelve shillings. Considering the enormous influence brought to bear, the subscriptions, the patronage of the public, who generally prefer employing a boy wearing the brigade uniform, and, finally, the protection these boys receive from the police, I do not think that the above statistics are satisfactory. That independent boot-blacks should still be able and willing to wage war against the brigade boys, though the latter have every advantage, demonstrates how unpopular the movement is among the poor themselves. There is also the feeling that, if a boy is willing and sufficiently steady to submit to the discipline enforced by the managers of the brigades, he is worthy of some better employment than that of cleaning boots in the streets. This should be left to those who are less fortunate by reason of the bad education they have received, the bad instincts they have, through no fault of their own, inherited from vicious parents, and the disorderly disposition engendered by the bad company with which they have been surrounded from their youth upwards. In great towns, at least, there are always a large number of persons whom strict moralists-men who judge a fellow-man by his deeds, instead of taking into account his disposition and his surroundings-would condemn as altogether hopeless. Yet these persons, who are unfit for any good or steady work, must nevertheless live; if not in the streets, then, probably, in prison, or in the workhouse. But assuredly, instead of being supported by the rates or the taxes, it would be preferable that these unreliable and almost useless members of society should earn their living by cleaning boots, or carrying boards, or by any other similar catch-penny menial work. The police, however, are determined to debar this class from the free exercise of boot-cleaning in the streets.
    An independent boot-black who has not secured a licence - for which, by the way, he must pay five shillings a year when, if ever, he does obtain it - is severely handled by the police. They will not allow him to stand in one place. If he deposits his box on the pavement, the policeman will kick it out in the street, among the carriages, where it will probably be broken, and the blacking spilt. The independent boot-black must be always on the move, carrying his box on his shoulders, and only putting it down when he has secured a customer. Even then, I have known cases of policemen who have interfered, and one actually kicked the box away from a gentleman's foot, while he was in the act of having his boots cleaned. This excess of authority was, I believe, illegal; and, I am glad to say, justly resented by the gentleman in question, who insisted that the independent boot-black should continue his work, and defied the police to arrest him. The policeman had evidently exceeded his orders, and this was proved by the fact that he did not dare accept the gentleman's challenge. Of course, if the shoe-black, though not belonging to a brigade, possesses a licence, he may do as he chooses, and need fear no interference, but the difficulty is to procure a licence. The police do not, I believe, absolutely refuse to give a licence to an able-bodied man, but they contrive to keep him waiting so long, probably twelve months, that he generally gives up the attempt, and turns his attention to some other sort of work, or else goes out with brush and blacking, but without the licence, and submits to the ill-treatment that results. On the other hand, an old man, a cripple, an infirm man, or youth who can draw up a petition and obtain the signature of four householders, will receive immediate attention at Scotland Yard, and have a licence given him gratuitously and without any delay. This clearly proves that the police seek, as far as they can, to make the cleaning of boots in the streets a matter of privilege, and to reserve that privilege for the exclusive use of members of the brigades, or for old men and cripples.
    Such a policy, which has certainly many reasons in its favour, has not, however, been brought into force without considerable opposition. The independent boot-black, whose photograph is before the reader, found by experience that the system instituted was not altogether pleasant. He has served in two brigades, the "blues" and the "reds," and found them both equally objectionable ; so, at last, he gave up the uniform, and became an independent boot-black. In this capacity, though free, he experienced all the persecutions to which I have alluded, and as he grew older and more tired of this life, he finally resolved to leave the narrow streets for the broader thoroughfares of the ocean. As a sailor, he promises to become a useful help to his captain and ship. His mother has to nurse an invalid husband, and must also provide for a large family. Under these circumstances, it was not always easy for her to spare the services of her son. But when he became an independent boot-black, he could go out at his own hours, and thus was of greater use to his mother in her trouble; and it was a great help to the family to know that whenever the boy had a few moments to spare, he might run out and hope to gain some pence by cleaning gentlemen's boots.
    The police have not been uniformly successful in stamping out unlicensed shoe- blacks. In some cases the tradesmen came out of their shops and spoke in their favour; they objected that the shoe-black had been standing outside their doors for many years, was well known to the neighbourhood, had proved himself useful in running errands, or lent his aid to put up the shutters in the evening, and that, consequently, the policeman would oblige them by leaving him alone. There are, therefore, a few independent boot-blacks who lead an easy life, and whom the police refrain from molesting, but these are the exception. Taking a broad view of the question, I may safely repeat that the freedom of trade has, in this respect, been destroyed. Only boys of the brigades and old men and cripples are welcome to practise the art of cleaning boots in the streets of the metropolis.


[ ... back to main menu for this book]

Shoeblacks—The red uniform of the Shoeblack Brigade is now so familiar to Londoners that they are apt to forget how recently it has appeared in the streets, and to whom is due the initiation of the system which has worked so well. The first society to start the system of shoeblack brigades was that of the Ragged Schools Saffron-hill. The wants of London pedestrians are now supplied by nine such societies whose object it is, not only to find employment for poor and honest boys as shoeblacks, but also to educate them, and to give them a start in the world. The average earnings of the 400 boys on the list at these societies are nearly £12,000 a year a fourth of which amount is earned by the red-uniformed boys of the Saffron-hill brigade, which is about seventy or eighty strong. Of this number more than forty boys sleep on the premises. All the lads belonging to the societies are licensed by the chief commissioners of the Cit and Metropolitan Police, under the provisions of 30 & 31 Vict. c.134. Licenses are granted to boys not belonging to any society, and a guerilla horde of unlicensed shoeblacks, who are subject to no discipline or supervision, infest the streets and annoy the passenger.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton, London Town, 1883 

    The day has been a little showery, and the rain has made the roads and footpaths just wet and dirty enough for passengers, as they hurry along, to splash their boots with the mud; and those boots that are not splashed have been dulled with the showers, and so our SHOEBLACKS are as busy as bees. For a pair of dirty boots is one of the many things an Englishman really dislikes; and that especially if the day is fine, or when the sun suddenly comes out from behind the clouds, as it does on showery days, dazzling us with its brilliancy. True shoeblacks’ weather, that. For then they, as the old precept tells them, ‘make hay while the sun shines.’ Then it is that the specks of dirt and splashes of mud seem so large, so annoying, and dull boots seem so very dull. The shoeblack knows this; and it is not his fault if people walk about with dirty hoots on their feet. He singles out the dirty boots passing near him; with a smart salute he asks the wearer, ‘Clean your boots, Sir?’ and steps forward with brush ready for action. How vigorously he works, brushing the splashes of mud from our trousers! and then, turning them care­fully up all round, see how he briskly brushes away the dirt, rubs the blacking well in, and with polishing brushes in both hands, and not forgetting to use elbow-grease, makes the blood in our feet tingle again with warmth as he polishes the boots. Ah! and such a polish! If the old folks in ancient days could have got such a polish on their boots, I think many of them would have used them as looking-glasses.
    Early in 1851 people were anxiously looking forward to the month of May, when the Great Exhibition was to be held in Hyde Park. It was the first of its kind, and was got up at the suggestion of the late Prince Consort. People from all parts of the world were sending articles to it, and coming to see it. And some of the good people of London who wanted to do something for the outcast and destitute children, were thinking and talking too about the coming event; and amongst them were three Ragged-School teachers: Messrs. R. J. Snape, J. MacGregor (who has since become known as ‘Rob Roy‘), and J. R. Fowler. These gentlemen were walking together, when one of them, who had seen the shoeblacks of Paris, said, ‘Why not turn some of the boys into the streets as shoeblacks’?’ This was a good thought, and many were willing to help. Soon the lads, whom these good men wanted to rescue from a life of sin and crime, were gathered together into a room, where they were taught to polish boots; and on the last day of March, 1851, five boys, in their bright red jerseys, were sent out for the first time into the streets of London as shoeblacks. A penny only was the charge and it tempted many clerks, and merchants, and foreigners, to place their boots upon the boys’ boxes, and have them cleaned and polished in right good style.
    So the boys picked from the gutter, the street Arabs, the lads used to thieving, who were now the red-jacketed shoeblacks, commenced their new life of honesty and industry. At first they were very much annoyed by the idle boys, who threw flour into their blacking-boxes, and called them nick­names; but the red-jackets stuck manfully to their posts; and it was not long before those who teased and annoyed them, seeing the dignity of earning an honest living and having money placed in the bank, wanted also to join the brigade. And by July of that year there were thirty-three boys employed, ho, during the Exhibition, cleaned over a hundred thousand pairs of boots, ml earned between them five hundred pounds.
    Let us take a peep at the ‘Old Reds,’ or Central Shoeblacks’ Home. It is evening when we go there, just the time when the boys come trooping home from all directions, balancing their boxes skilfully on their heads. Asking at the door of the Home in Saffron Hill for Mr. Nichols, the Superintendent, we are soon in a large room, listening to all this gentleman has to tell us about the lads. Here in one corner is a sort of counter, where the boys, as they come in, buy what they want for tea, getting a good thick slice of bread and butter for a halfpenny, enough meat to cover the bread for a penny, and a half-pint of tea for a halfpenny. Seated at the long tables are several having their tea, while others who have finished are chatting, laughing, and joking, waiting to pay in their earnings. The room is well lighted, and upon the rafters there hang mottoes bidding ‘Welcome to all,’ and stating that ‘Honesty is the best policy.’
    And now the lads come to the little pay-window in the Superintendent’s Office to pay in their earnings. We are shown the nicely kept books, and notice that whatever the amount of earnings may be, or even if the lad brings in only two or three pence, sixpence is immediately given to him. If there is anything over, it is then divided into three equal portions: one of which is returned to the lad, another goes to the Society, and the other is put into the Savings Bank for the lad, and helps him to buy clothes, to be apprenticed, or to emigrate. Their average earnings are three shillings and sixpence per day, so that many of them get as much as fifteen or twenty pounds put into the bank during the year. Upstairs we are shown a beautifully large and clean schoolroom, with the Christmas decorations still up, where the schoolmaster, Mr. Bates, keeps perfect order, and that too although he has to teach sometimes A B C and other simple lessons to some of the roughest and worst lads that can be found in London. Four nights every week they must attend this school, as well as morning and evening school on Sunday; and every day is begun and ended with Bible reading and prayer. Upstairs again is the large, clean, and well-aired dormitory, where forty-five boys sleep.
   There are eight other Shoeblack Societies in London besides this; but in this one alone, since the beginning, there have been nearly six thousand boys, who have been started in life on the good old principle that ‘Honesty is the best policy.’

Uncle Jonathan, Walks in and Around London, 1895 (3 ed.)