Tuesday 10 August 2010

Street Orderlies

Another Victorian trade I've never heard about, in the professionalised late-Victorian world of rubbish collection - the street orderly ...

That the city is so clean - and it is by far the cleanest part of the huge territory of London - is in a large measure due to the "street-orderlies," officially so called - the "city collectors" of the commercial humorists. The horse-waste is by them cleared off at once; were it allowed to remain the enormous traffic would squeeze it into "grease," which it would almost take scrubbing with soap and water to get off. A more seemingly dangerous occupation than that of a street-orderly boy it would be difficult to find. With his handbrush and peculiar scoop - invented by Mr. Swale, the superintendent - in which the handle bends forwards instead of backwards, so as to bring the weight when full or empty always under the centre of the hand, the boy glides about under the horses' heads and among the crowding wheels in a way that is nothing less than miraculous to the timid on the footway. From his "bin" by the kerb as his centre, he works right and left and across the street, his object being to remove every atom of dirt within the area assigned to him before it has been run over by a wheel. That is his object, but in the throng of London vehicles he is lucky if he manages to clean the road before the dirt has been run over twice or thrice.
    Every morning these boys, about a hundred and fifty in number, muster at Stoney Lane for breakfast. The yard is not a large one. On the left is the office; on the right is what looks like a school-room; on the outer walls of each range in the central yard the numbered racks on which the boys keep their tools. After breakfast the boys file off to work, armed generally with brush and scoop, but sometimes with scraper or squeegee; and from the main thoroughfares they break off into the crossing roads, and thence into the minor streets and courts, each boy with a definite task allotted to him, and most of them anxious to have done with the task as early as possible, and return to the risky work on the main thoroughfares. To control all these boys, scattered off in all ways like rabbits in a warren, is not an easy task, but it is rarely that they give trouble, and a good worker is sure of recognition. The best boy is the one who needs least looking after, and the inspector, very naturally, soon discovers him, and puts him on the list for increased wages. He begins with six shillings a week; he soon gets seven shillings and sixpence a week; he may pass through the hobbledyhoyhood into manhood, and thence into old age, by turns handling scraper and broom, and sorting in the yard, and driving a van, and making himself useful about the wharf, and in some few cases may work through to the end, and retire on a pension of fifteen shillings a week. For there is a " career" open even in the city dust yard, nearly all in the service having entered it as boys, and worked up to fair wages step by step. It is not a career in which refinement or high educational qualifications are in demand, and of this the boys are well aware, to judge by the ill-success which has attended every effort to school them after hours. The day is long, the work requires constant alertness, and when evening comes the street-orderlies are only too glad to hurry home and get to bed.
    Scavengers do not belong so often to a class by themselves as formerly. Not so very long ago scavenging and sorting in the dust yards was a hereditary occupation, whose secrets were transmitted from father to son and from mother to daughter. But now that the municipalities are withdrawing their work from contractors and doing it themselves, they take their labourers from a wider area. One result of this is that woman's work is discouraged, and the woman on the dustheap is yearly becoming rarer.

Here's the full article, from 1889's Leisure Hour.


  1. Really interesting, so these were kind of more skilled and more specialized crossing sweepers, but clearing the whole road of manure and not a certain section.

    Interesting also that there was a chance of progression in the trade and even a pension, something a crossing sweeper could only dream of.

    Where do you find 121yr old copies of Leisure Hour anyway!?

  2. Yep, I didn't realise that a 'professional' body of sweepers was developed (or so it seems). As for the the Leisure Hour, I'm affiliated to a university through my pt work, which opens access to all sorts of stuff not widely available. These articles were, I think, also published in book form by W.J.Gordon, although the title escapes me.