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Posts Tagged ‘Henry Mayhew’

When horses drew every imaginable wagon in London, crossing sweepers were a common sight. In some areas of town they were regarded a nuisance, for often young boys would pester a pedestrian and sweep a clear path whether that person wanted their help or not. The practice of using crossing sweepers to clean the streets of horse manure, dust, and clinging mud lasted into the early 20th century. In the mid-19th century, Henry Mayhew chronicled the lives of working people in a series of volumes entitled London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew described a system of cleaning streets, introduced by Charles Cochrane in 1843, that instituted a more orderly system than crossing sweepers, and in which former paupers were hired so that they could support themselves.

Crossing Sweepers, 1856

Crossing Sweepers, 1856

The first demonstration or display of the street orderly system took place in Regent street between the Quadrant and the Regent circus and in Oxford street between Vert street and Charles street The streets were thoroughly swept in the morning and then each man or boy provided with a hand broom and dust pan removed any dirt as soon as it was deposited The demonstration was pronounced highly successful and the system effective in the opinion of eighteen influential inhabitants of the locality who acted as a committee and who publicly and with the authority of their names testified their conviction that the most efficient means of keeping streets clean and more especially great thoroughfares was to prevent the accumulation of dirt by removing the manure within a few minutes after it has been deposited by the passing cattle the same having hitherto remained during several days. – London Labour and the London Poor, p. 259

street sweeper

The groups of orderlies not only swept the street and removed dirt in a particular area of London (500 linear yards of a busy street, 2,000 yards of a quieter section, and 9 men in a busy intersection, like Cheapside), but they also acted as “the watchman of house property shop goods, the guardian of reticule,s pocket books, purses and watch pockets, the experienced observer and detector of pickpockets … more, he is always at hand to render assistance to both equestrian and pedestrian.” The report concluded that the street-orderly system would keep the streets of London and Westminster clean in a most satisfactory way. In return, the street-orderlies would earn a wage of 12s. Although this was a lower living wage than other workmen earned, the money lifted them out of their lives of squalor.

The system did not entirely replace the crossing sweepers, many of whom were depicted in caricatures as hounding pedestrians for services rendered. Read my article on Crossing Sweepers at this link.

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…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:

Click here for an interesting backlink to this post.

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