Posts Tagged ‘Bone-Pickers’

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

July 3, 2014

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.