Vanished London Street Jobs


When I was a child my father and I would go to the East End’s Petticoat Lane and see the canary sellers, who had dozens of caged birds on display in the street. The last time I went to Bermondsey Market they still had sarsaparilla sellers, and it made me wonder which other jobs have vanished and which survive.

The literary detective John Sutherland concludes that Jo the crossing sweeper in ‘Bleak House’ would have been clearing up horse dung for pennies. Without public utilities, private individuals set up business for themselves.

Mudlarks and toshers still abound along the Thames foreshore, and last year one discovered this unbroken Roman lamp there. (I mostly remember the foreshore being covered with broken glass, bits of pottery and car tyres, which have gone now.)

There have always been costermongers, of course. In some European countries it’s still hard to escape the noise of the gasman, who hits his canisters as he comes around with refillable gas bottles. We lost our last knife-grinder and wet-fish man in central London only recently, and there are no more Steptoe-like rag and bone men calling out as the clop along the streets because there are no more privately owned horses on city streets.

Women had street jobs too, including ‘knocker-uppers’, shooting peas at windows to act as alarm clocks, and selling flowers at stations, which they still do. Mooncursers were link boys who saw people to their destinations in unlit streets, and cursed the bright moon for putting them out of work. Last night at around midnight I waited in a backstreet for my taxi in heavy rain listening to songbirds who thought it was day, because London has no more night darkness and the link boys would now have no work.

Patterers shouted out the stories from the newspapers they were selling, adding as many vivid details as possible. Now they’ve been drowned out by buskers. ‘Pure’ finders collected dog shit for the tanning industry in an age before the plastic glove. The last sandwich man disappeared in the eighties (Michael Bentine’s film ‘The Sandwich Man’ features him in a morning suit and sandwich board walking around a very sunny London).

There are new jobs; freebie hander-outers, marketeers, data trawlers, mimes, acrobats, food sellers, singers and evangelists. There will always be someone on the street, where the money is, but with the move away from cash we have to adapt. Quite a few of the homeless people near me now take credit cards, which are government sponsored and can only be used for food and lodging.

13 comments on “Vanished London Street Jobs”

  1. Brooke says:

    I attended TED conference on disappearing objects. e.g. cash, hotel room keys, etc. Working in teams, mostly engineers of one sort or t’other, we decided how to accelerate disappearance or find more stuff to consign to oblivion. We didn’t give much thought to people. This post serves as a reminder of people impact, loss and costs.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    My husband’s comment to the above was, “Imagine, a bureaucrat who thought!” with regard to the above mentioned credit cards.
    There is a reduction in the number of unskilled jobs in general but the number of unskilled people is probably what it always was. There are only so many sheltered workshops or equivalent and they are usually for people with great difficulties in learning skills. Those who are just slow get left behind.
    Not that I am advocating a return to crossing sweepers, but the cost/benefit of change should include the people cost because they don’t disappear just because the job does.

  3. snowy says:

    To focus on the smallest details, like a laser-guided trivia seeking microtome. [It splits very small hairs.]

    Unravelling the mystery of the crossing sweepers trade, shouldn’t have taken much detective work, [it was common knowledge round these parts], female fashion for floor length skirts + every road that had to be crossed covered in an inch thick layer of horse leavings. The wealthy would travel exclusively by carriage and avoided getting soiled. While the sweepers have gone, there are still traces of horse transport left on some old buildings in the form of elaborate cast iron boot-scrapers.

    Similarly the current theory around ‘pure’ has always seemed to be a bit dubious, [to me at least].

    The numbers don’t seem to tally, you’d need tons of the stuff, picking it up in the public street wouldn’t net you enough to make it pay. [Equiv. to picking up fizzy drink cans today, worth less than a penny ea. in scrap.] You could work all day and not earn enough to replace the calories expended.

    If you kept hounds for hunting, then your servants would be instructed to form a pile when they cleaned the yard and when enough had amassed it could be sold by the waggonload. But even then…

    * goes off for a poke about in some data *

    Not the easiest thing to search for. References that aren’t just Popular History – ‘cut and paste’, seem to mention hen and pidgeon as the major contributors, legal documents specifically mention those and ban all else in that part of the process, [Oak bark did the actual tanning].

    That makes much more sense, [to me!], available by the ton everywhere as a by-product of food production. [By the time Vicky was getting ‘sticky’ with Albert, inorganic chemical solutions were taking over with all the new problems they would cause.]

    [Stop before you get into the complete difference in attitudes to Human and Animal waste pre/post ‘Miasma Theory’ for Heavens sake! … Ed.]

    Oh, what was the subject again?? Oops!

  4. Vivienne says:

    They may not call out the news but the Evening Standard people are still keen to get you to take a paper – there must be something for them. A chap at Leicester Square puts two copies of Time Out together so he doubles his sales. Are there still Golf Sales placard holders near Oxford Street? On the loss side, haven’t been offered lucky white heather recently.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, white heather. There used to be White Heather concerts – an annual affair with Scottish musicians and singers.

  6. Ian Luck says:

    There was, when I was a kid, a TV show called ‘The White Heather Club’, which was basically a televised ceiledh. To a child, it was intolerable torture, as, being English, we had no point of reference, and it just seemed to be an awful din. It’s still probably an awful din, but it brings joy to a lot of people, to whom my enjoyment of the German metal band ‘Rammstein’ might seem unusual, and their music, an awful din.
    However. This:
    What is the difference between a trampoline and an accordion?
    You take your boots off to jump on a trampoline.
    You didn’t need to know that, so I’llswiftly leave the stage.

  7. davem says:

    I lived in Charlton when I was a kid and well remember a number of those you mention passing our house: knife-grinder, rag and bone man, wet-fish man, please of course the ubiquitous coal man.

  8. Jan says:

    there were Sandwich men well beyond the eighties I’m sure.

  9. Catherine Courte says:

    A job that came and went in my lifetime was the Corona man, delivering bottles of pop.

  10. admin says:

    You’re right, Jan – Golf placard holders on Oxford St were there because Westminster Council doesn’t allow unapproved ad sites, but you could get away with it if you were mobile.

  11. Tony brown says:

    I live in Galicia, Spain and we still have knife sharpeners on the outskirts of the city and in rural areas. They often have their contraptions connected to a bicycle and the spinning wheel spins a grinding disk. Of course one of the most common street jobs were delivery boys, now they are men driving vans for the likes of Ocado etc.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Night Soil men, or ‘Gong Fermors’ vanished, thankfully. Mediaeval workmen who would rake out cesspits at night, and sell the contents as fertilizer. ‘Gong’ being mediaeval slang for a toilet, and ‘Fermor’ being a corruption of ‘Farmer’.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Jan, there was a ‘Sandwich Man’ wandering about my town last summer, advertising gigs at a local venue. If it had been in Victorian times, he would have been advertising Gigs at a local coachmakers.

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