Children Scavenging in Bins: The Return of the 19th century Bone-Picker

Mudlark pic

A mudlark from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor: a child that lived by scavenging in the mud of the Thames.

Earlier today I reblogged a truly shocking piece from Mike’s site, over at Vox Political. This reported that children in Stoke-on-Trent had been reduced to such a level of poverty and starvation that they were taking food from rubbish bins.

The Tories have always boasted about ‘Victorian values’, ever since Maggie Thatcher made it her mantra. The Daily Heil even once ran an article praising the ‘new Victorians’, who valued hard work and thrift over their parent’s profligacy. This is very much a return to the Victorian age, and urban poor, who tried to make a living scouring the streets and sewers for anything they could sell.

Henry Mayhew included them in his encyclopaedic description of the lives of the labouring poor, London Labour and the London Poor, of 1851. They included bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers, ‘pure’ finders – actually people who collected and sold dog excrement, cigar-end finders, old wood gatherers, dredgers, or river finders, sewer-hunters and mudlarks. These last were boys, who searched in the mud of the Thames for anything remotely valuable.
There is an obvious parallel here to the desperately poor children in Mike’s article. This becomes particularly clear in this passage from Mayhew’s description of the lives of the bone-pickers and rag-gatherers.

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. The bone-grubber generally seeks out the narrow back streets, where dust and refuse are cast, or where any dust-bins are accessible. The articles for which he chiefly searches are rags and bones – rags he prefers – but waste metal, such as bits of lead, pewter, copper, brass, or old iron, he prizes above all. Whatever he meets with that he knows to be in any way saleable he puts into the bag at his back. He often finds large lumps of bread which have been thrown out as waste by the servants, and occasionally the house-keepers will give him some bones on which there is a little meat remaining; these constitute the morning meal of most of this class. One of my informants had a large lump of beef given to him a few days previous to my seeing him, on which ‘there was not less than a pound of meat’.

Peter Quennell, ed., Henry Mayhew: Mayhew’s London (London: Bracken Books 1984) 302.

A few pages further on Mayhew describes the squalid, revolting conditions in which the bone-grubbers, including many children, work, searching through refuse.

Between the London and St. Katherine’s Docks and Rosemary Lane, there is a large district interlaced with narrow lanes, courts, and alleys ramifying into each other in the most intricate and disorderly manner, insomuch that it would be no easy matter for a stranger to work his way through the interminable confusion without the aid of a guide, resident and well conversant with the locality. The houses are of the poorest description, and seem as if they tumbled into their places at random. Foul channels, huge dust-heaps, and a variety of other unsightly objects, occupy every open space, and dabbling among these are crowds of ragged, dirty children who grub and wallow, as if in their native element. None reside in these places but the poorest and most wretched of the population, and, as might be expected, this, the cheapest and filthiest locality of London, is the head-quarters of the bone-grubbers and other street-finders. I have ascertained on the best authority, that from the centre of this place, within a circle of a mile in diameter, there dwell not less than 200 persons of this class.

pp. 304-5.

That was London in the mid-19th century. Welcome to the brave new Victorian Age Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and IDS have brought us to.

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6 Responses to “Children Scavenging in Bins: The Return of the 19th century Bone-Picker”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    I think the horrors of the New Victorian Age, into which we are being pushed by the usual suspects, will continue for just as long as there are people willing to vote for the likes of Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and …Smith without understanding the philosophy behind everything they do.

  2. Nick Says:

    very true mike nothing to add 🙂

  3. amnesiaclinic Says:

    Many girls were sold into prostitution as the age of consent was 14.
    The hypocrisy of the solid victorian father was incredible and many servant girls were made pregnant by the males in the middle and upper class families and then cast out by them and their own families for being fallen women (girls). I suppose now they might pay for an abortion but very unwillingly.
    Yes, we are on target to roll back to the workfare houses as Mike says and all the attendant perks for the rich.
    Unless we stop it!

  4. untynewear Says:

    The 1970s Jamaican film ‘The Harder They Come’ has scenes that might have come out of Victorian Britain, and may yet return – people picking over rubbish dumps for anything reusable / sellable, and shanty towns – all filmed from real life.

    In the following trailer you get a brief glimpse of the rubbish dump near the start, and shanty town action a bit later (the scenes are extended in the full film, of course).

    Excellent film (and soundtrack) and well worth seeing anyway – and a warning of the paths people may take if they have no other choices.

  5. Bring back immediately women's state pension at 60 / Loss of state pension for life from 2016 Says:

    Have also spread this article found on Vox Political around.

    But the school should have a breakfast club.

    Bearing in mind that teachers throughout England are bringing in food to school to feed hungry kids, according to NASUWT teachers union, who collected donations for food banks in their national conference.

    Stoke council is Labour, who just gave themselves a 9 per cent increase in expenses to their 44 councillors, whilst only £1 per hour raise to basic minimum wage council staff, after a wage freeze for 3 years.

    Perhaps Mr Miliband could ask Stoke’s Council Leader, why all schools in Stoke do not have breakfast clubs, as the whole of Stoke is listed as a deprived area by the EU?

    I can’t understand Labour. They have huge amounts of ammunition to pull away from the measily few points poll lead ahead of Tory, by setting up in Labour controlled council wards, breakfast clubs in all state schools and free cafes for adults, especially with letters of notification of sanctioned benefits or lost benefits to disabled / chronic sick, who may also be the same people who have lost state pension payout from 2013
    All women born on or after 6 April 1953 from age 60 and
    every man born on or after 6 April 1951 from age 65

    There are over a million pensioners not realising they are eligible for pension credit, a benefit that ends in 2016.

    Old, young, young families, are going hungry, going to food banks.

    As Gandhi observed, People’s Politics Are Their Daily Bread.

    No wonder when Mr Miliband asked a group of factory workers if they had any questions, after his speech to them, nobody asked him a thing.

    From 2016 women born on or after 6 April 1953 whose only money in life is a share of their husband’s NI contributions, so they get a 60 per cent state pension, is lost altogether, as wife, civil partner, widow or divorcee. Left with no money, no benefit.

    As from 2016 everyone with less than 10 years NI credits, gets no benefit (hope I am wrong in that) and no state pension, whereas at the moment a man or woman with minimum 12 months NI credits in life gets the basic pension pro rata.

    So not even the grandparents of these kids going hungry can help their own grandkids.

  6. stewilko Says:

    Reblogged this on stewilko's Blog.

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