C is for Crossing Sweeper

Crossing Sweeper


Continuing with the series on street life in Victorian London, the crossing sweeper was as much a part of this world as the costermongers, flower girls, mush-fakers, pure finders and the numerous other members of the London underclass.  Roads and pathways were filthy, covered in mud, rotting vegetable matter and the ever present problem of horse dung. It was estimated that by the end of the 19th century there were over 50,000 horses on the streets of London, and these just being those involved in transportation of people – the buses, hackney cabs, and private carriages – and not including those carrying goods and produce. A horse will produce something in the region of 15-30 pounds of horse dung a day, include into that the urine at around 2 pints per horse, and it isn’t difficult to imagine quite how much of a problem it was simply to cross the street without ending up covered in muck. This is without taking into consideration the health implications from the flies which passed on numerous diseases, including typhoid, and the rotting corpses of horses littering the streets until they could be dismembered and removed.  The problem was so great that by 1894 ‘The Great Horse Manure Crisis’ hit the headlines as The Times newspaper predicted… “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure


In order to allow the ‘better sort’ to cross the roads without covering their clothes and shoes in mud and manure crossing sweepers worked to clear paths through the debris.  The sweepers generally fell into two sorts – those who would move regularly, without a regular pitch and try to make money where they could, and those who had an allocated area which was, in theory, protected and the rights to sweep the paths open only to that person. The police were involved in this practice, moving on the vagrant sweepers and attempting to maintain some sort of order.  ‘Official’ locations were carefully managed – this excerpt from  Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England), Sunday, November 06, 1836 giving us an insight into how the positions were allocated upon the death of the current holder:



Punch, or the London Charivari (London, England), [Date Unknown]; pg. 41 wrote a guide on how best to become a crossing sweeper:

Punch's guide to becoming a crossing sweeper

Punch’s guide to becoming a crossing sweeper


Crossing Sweepers were regularly portrayed in contemporary images as young boys – a case in point being immortalised by Dickens’ Bleak House in the person of Jo, the crossing sweeper, a homeless boy who tried to make a living through crossing sweeping, but tragically died of pneumonia.

Jo the crossing sweeper - Dickens' Bleak House

Jo the crossing sweeper – Dickens’ Bleak House


The Boy Sweepers


Jo was typical of the lower class of crossing sweepers – many of the young boys took to sweeping the paths after the death of their parents, there are numerous reports in the newspapers and contemporary surveys of children as young as five being sent onto the streets, their impoverished parents being unable to support them.  In London Labour and the London Poor, Henry Mayhew interviewed a gang of these boys led by the ‘Captain’, a boy by the name of Gander.


“The boy’s clothing was in a shocking condition. He had no coat, and his blue-striped shirt was as dirty as a French-polisher’s rags, and so tattered, that the shoulder was completely bare, while the sleeve hung down over the hand like a big bag. From the fish-scales on the sleeves… it had evidently once belonged to some coster in the herring line. The nap was all worn off, so that the lines of the web were showing like a coarse carpet; and instead of buttons, string had been passed through holes pierced at the side. Of course he had no shoes on, and his black trousers, which, with the grease on them, were gradually assuming a tarpaulin look, were fastened over one shoulder by means of a brace and bits of string.”


The newspapers ran regular reports on the nuisance of these boy gangs of sweepers and they were considered something of a nuisance:


The Crossing Sweeper Nuisance

The Crossing Sweeper Nuisance


It becomes apparent that Gander, then aged 16, had taken to crossing sweeping at the age of 8, along with tumbling at which he appears to have been an expert, and gradually amassed a group of 13 young boys, eight living together in a rented room in a narrow back alley, such that ‘although they could not quite shake hands across the street, they could easily carry on a quiet conversation leaning on the upper room sills.’


“The room where the boys lodged was scarcely bigger than a coach-house; and so low was the ceiling that a fly-paper suspended from a clothes-line was on a level with my head…  One corner of the apartment was completely filled up by a big four post bedstead… Where so many persons (for there were about eight of them including the landlady, her daughter, and grandson) could all sleep puzzled me extremely.”


Gander was not only a good sweeper, but he had also learnt the art of ‘drawing in the mud’ and prided himself on being the first boy to do ornamental work in the mud at his crossings which was at the corner of ‘Regent-suckus’.   He described the various art work he had done, and how he had then decided to buy a farthing candle  and ‘stick it over it, and make it nice and comfortable, so that people could look at it easy.’  He faced an unending battle with carriage wheels who would drive through his artistic endeavours leaving him to do it again by hand. Although he claimed he was the first to light up his work at night it turned out to be his undoing:


I thought the gentleman coming from the play would like it, for it looked very pretty. The policeman said I was destructing [obstructing] the thoroughfare, and making too much row there, for the people used to stop in the crossing to look, it were so pretty. He took me in charge three times on one night, cause I wouldn’t go away; but let me go again, till at last I thought he would lock me up for the night, so I hooked it.  I was after this I went to St Martin’s church, and I haven’t done half as well there. Last night I took three-ha’pence, but I was larking, or I might have had more.’




Mary and the Old Dame


Young boys were not the only street workers involved in crossing sweeping – Mayhew tells us the story of two elderly ladies, one, Mary, had been a serving maid in her youth.

Mary the Crossing Sweeper

Mary the Crossing Sweeper

She lived in the top room of a two-storeyed house, and paid 1s a week to sleep with another woman who worked selling tapes in the streets.  Mary explained how winter was the best time for crossing sweepers – although standing in the snow and frost must have been extremely uncomfortable for a woman of her age.   She complained about how the neighbourhood had changed dramatically in the time she had been sweeping, the ‘good’ families having moved out to the suburbs to be replaced by people without the money to be able to pay for her services. She also pointed out how it was not the rich who paid the crossing sweepers, but the tradespeople and ‘specially gentlefolks who have situations.’  She had recently been very sick and had to spend 16 weeks in hospital after standing for so many hours caused her immense pain in her legs, their swelling resulting in her needing treatment. She had also developed a ‘gathering in my head’ from catching cold standing on the crossing. She explained how she had once made 2-3s a week from gathering and selling scraps, but now she was too ill to do so, and her pay from her sweeping barely covered her rent and the small amount of food she subsided upon.


 “A shilling a-day would be as much as I want, sir. I have stood in the square all day for a ha’penny, and I have stood here for nothing. One week after another I make 2s in the seven days after paying for my broom… Years ago I made a great deal more – nearly three times as much. I come about eight o’clock in the morning, and go away about six or seven; I am here every day.”



An ‘old Dame’ also spoke with Mayhew about how times had changed and how little she was now able to earn. She explained how all of her family were dead apart from a grandson who was living in New Orleans and who she hoped would return to her soon. She too worked every day for long hours (except Sunday, she explained that she went to Chapel on a Sunday) and would make just a few shillings a week to support herself and a sick, deaf elderly woman she lived with and cared for.



Edward Albert: Crossing Sweepers among the Minority populations of London


Crossing sweeping was common also among the minorities in London at this time. Mayhew interviewed ‘The Negro crossing-sweeper, who had lost both legs’ and described how for this man, Edward Albert,  it was only possible to work when the weather was cold enough to allow him to walk on is stumps – “The colder the better, he says, as it ‘numbs his stumps like’. He was unable to work in warm weather as it caused him too much pain and on those days he would have to resort to begging.   The man explained how he had lost his legs whilst working at sea. Having been born in Jamaica he had gained a position on board a ship – however, he had succumbed to frost bite in both feet – his crew mates felt it would help to place his legs in the ship’s oven to warm them up resulting in them bursting. On arrival at port he was taken to hospital where both legs had to be amputated.  He had had to resort to crossing sweeping as a way to make ends meet, although his heart was set on setting up a coffee stall.


I am married: my wife is the same colour as me, but an English-woman. I’ve been married two years… I couldn’t get on to do anything without her. Sometimes she goes out and sells things – fruit, and so on – but she don’t make much. With the assistance of my wife… if I had three pounds, I could do it [set up a coffee shop] I am not a common cook, either; I am a pastry cook… Even if I had a coffee-stall down at Covent-garden I should do.”


For Edward Albert crossing sweeping was only a way to attempt to gain enough capital to set up his coffee stall, and sadly it is unlikely that we will ever know if he managed to do so.  For these people who worked so hard, for so many hours, in all weathers in order to assist the ‘better classes’ to keep their dresses and shoes clean the situations in which they were living and the money they were able to make was a pittance and was seen as only one step up from begging.  That their income was already dropping considerably by the 1850s meant that this was a job only the poorest, youngest, most infirm and most vulnerable were employed in – yet still the rich simply walked on by on the freshly swept paths.


Punch cartoon all too true to life

Punch cartoon all too true to life

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