Friday 18 March 2011


Good corners for crossing-sweeping were kept in the family:

We might point to one whom we have encountered almost daily for the last ten years. In 1841, she was left a widow with three small children, the eldest under four, and the youngest in arms. Clad in deep mourning, she took up a position at an angular crossing of a square, and was allowed to accommodate the two elder children upon some matting spread upon the steps of a door. With the infant in one arm, she plied her broom with the other, and held out a small white hand for the reception of such charity as the passers-by might choose to bestow. The children grew up strong and hearty, in spite of their exposure to the weather at all seasons. All three of them are at the present moment sweepers in the same line of route, at no great distance from the mother, who, during the whole period, has scarcely abandoned her post for a single day. Ten years' companionship with sun and wind, and frost and rain, have doubled her apparent age, hut her figure still shows the outline of gentility, and her face yet wears the aspect and expression of better days. We have frequently met the four returning home together in the deepening twilight, the elder boy carrying the four brooms strapped together on his shoulder.
Charles Manby Smith, Curiosities of London Life, 1853


  1. Thanks for the article.

    It`s a very sad story. Whenever I hear about road sweepers I always think about Joe from Bleak house. It must have one of the jobs that made the poor/rich divide terribly obvious at the time.

  2. There was a real-life Jo, who appeared in the Times of 1850, which I guess Dickens noted:

    "George Ruby, a boy aged 14, was put into the box to be sworn and the Testament was put in his hand. He looked quite astonished upon taking hold of the book.
    Ald. Humphrey. Well, do you know what you are about? Do you know what an oath is?
    Boy. No.
    Ald. H. Do you know what a Testament is?
    Boy. No.
    Ald. H. Can you read?
    Boy. No.
    Ald. H. Do you ever say your prayers?
    Boy. No, never.
    Ald. H. Do you know what prayers are?
    Boy. No.
    Ald. H. Do you know what God is?
    Boy. No.
    Ald. H. Do you know what the Devil is?
    Boy. I've heard of the Devil, but I don't know him.
    Ald. H. What do you know, my poor boy?
    Boy. I knows how to sweep the crossing.
    Ald. H. And that's all?
    Boy. That's all. I sweeps the crossing."

  3. Thanks for that. Very interesting.

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