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CHAMBERS' EDINBURGH JOURNAL

CONDUCTED BY WILLIAM AND ROBERT CHAMBERS, EDITORS OF 'CHAMBERS'S
INFORMATION FOR THE PEOPLE,' 'CHAMBERS'S EDUCATIONAL COURSE,' &c.


No. 437. NEW SERIES. SATURDAY, MAY 15, 1852. PRICE 1-1/2_d._




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 brooms 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. He
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. He is intimate with everybody's
cat and everybody's dog, and will carry them home if he finds them
straying. He 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 realise 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 he
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 signalises 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 upon 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 highwater. 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 slaughterhouse his bargain of sheep or cattle; or in some
livery-yards, 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-like 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 victimise 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 approved statuesque model, and exhibits a face
of scornful brass to an unsympathising 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 old _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
things, such 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 half-penny 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 us, 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 monopolises 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 widespread
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 a 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,


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Online LibraryVariousChambers's Edinburgh Journal, No. 437 → online text (page 1 of 5)