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.