…dirt accumulated faster than all measures to contain it: Cattle were still driven through the streets to and from Smithfield Market until the mid-nineteenth century and horse-drawn vehicles added to the labours of the sweepers stationed at street crossings. Smoke from brick kilns and thousands of sea coal fires polluted the air. In 1813 Henry Austen’s new home above his offices at No. 10 Henrietta Street appeared to Jane to be ‘all dirt & confusion.’ – Jane Austen in Context, Edited by Janet Todd, p 207-208
During Jane Austen’s time and into the earliest days of the twentieth century, crossing sweepers made a living sweeping pedestrian crossings, stoops, and sidewalks of horse manure and litter. Before motorized transport, London boasted over 100,000 horses traversing its streets daily, each one eating a fibrous diet. The crossing sweeper’s job was to shovel the muck, keeping the streets clean for ladies whose long dresses and delicate slippers might get soiled and for gentlemen in their fine raiments.
During “Boney’s” time of terror (Napoleonic Wars), the job of crossing sweeper was often strenuous, and it was said that crossing sweepers could build up a considerable fortune to dig a “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.” In those days, the crossing sweeper had to dig trenches to allow carriages and pedestrians to pass through poorly maintained and muddy roads. As the roads improved, so did the lot of the crossing sweeper, who earned less and less for a job that was to become relatively easier. A good crossing sweeper in an excellent location could still earn a decent living, however. – Chambers, Edinburgh Journal, No. 437, Volume 17, New Series, May 15, 1852
Henry Mayhew described the advantages of this lowly occupation for the London poor:
- 1st, the smallness of the capital required in order to commence the business;
- 2ndly, the excuse the apparent occupation it affords for soliciting gratuities without being considered in the light of a street-beggar;
- And 3rdly, the benefits arising from being constantly seen in the same place, and thus exciting the sympathy of the neighbouring householders, till small weekly allowances or “pensions” are obtained. – Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor: Volume 2, Crossing-Sweepers
According to the Leeds Industrial Museum, “Children often had more than one way to make money. When it was dry and the streets were not muddy the crossing sweepers, for instance, would do occasional work like catching and opening cabs for people. In the evening they would go outside theatres and operas and tumble for money. Girls mixed ballade singing or lace selling.”
At one time there were so many crossing sweepers that a pedestrian was accosted for money on every stoop and corner, and it would cost a pretty penny to walk from one end of town to another. In 1881, Richard Rowe wrote in London Streets:
IF anyone wants to realize, as the phrase goes, the little army of crossing-sweepers we have in London, let him take a walk – say for a mile or two – on a muddy day, and give a penny to every one who touches hat, makes a bob, as if shutting up like a spy-glass, or trots after him, trailing broom in one hand, and tugging at tangled forelock with the other. I remember when it would have cost anyone, disposed to give in this way, between a shilling and eighteen- pence to walk from the Archway Tavern, Highgate Hill, to Highbury Cock and back. For anyone of a squeezable temperament, therefore, it was decidedly cheaper to take the bus. It is simply as a statistical experiment, just for once in a way, that I recommend this penny-giving. It would be a great misfortune if all crossing-sweepers had pennies given them indiscriminately. I would not make a clean sweep of the sweepers, but I should like to see their ranks thinned considerably – viz., by the elimination of the adults who are able, and the young who might be trained to do something better than what, in the most favourable instances, is little better than a make-believe of work, as a pretext for begging, either directly or by suggestion.
Crossing sweepers worked diligently on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1882, a New York matron lamented in a letter to the editor of the New York Times about a new regulation that prevented crossing sweepers from working (double click on the image to read it) :
To read more about this fascinating topic, click on the following links:
- Working Children in Britain, Armley Mills, Leeds Industrial Museum
- Crossing Sweepers, Henry Mayhew
- Jo, The Crossing Sweeper: Ten Boys From Dickens, The Baldwin Project
- Jane Austen: Miseries of Life, Prints George
- Who Sweeps the Crossings? To the Editor of the New York Times, 1882
- London Crossing Sweepers, Edingburgh Journal, 1852
Click here for an interesting backlink to this post.