Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853

LONDON CROSSING-SWEEPERS.

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.