Monday 16 May 2011


Street-cleaning was achieved in a variety of ways in mid-Victorian London, not least by the efforts of self-employed scavengers. The most unfortunate of this class were the 'pure' finders, whose life was devoted to scooping up dog-poo. They have been made immortal by this detailed interview recounted by Henry Mayhew, in London Labour and the London Poor (1851):-

DOGs'-DUNG is called "Pure," from its cleansing and purifying properties.
    The name of "Pure-finders," however, has been applied to the men engaged in collecting dogs' dung from the public streets only, within the last 20 or 30 years. Previous to this period there ap- pears to have been no men engaged in the business, old women alone gathered the substance, and they were known by the name of "bunters," which signifies properly gatherers of rags; and thus plainly intimates that the rag-gatherers originally added the collecting of "Pure" to their original and proper vocation. Hence it appears that the bone-grubbers, rag-gatherers, and pure-finders, constituted formerly but one class of people, and even now they have, as I have stated, kindred characteristics.
    The pure-finders meetwith a ready market for all the dogs'-dung they are able to collect, at the numerous tanyards in Bermondsey, where they sell it by the stable-bucket full, and get from 8d. to 10d. per bucket, and sometimes 1s. and 1s. 2d, for it, according to its quality. The "dry limy-looking, sort" fetches the highest price at some yards, as it is found to possess more of the alkaline, or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality. Strange as it may appear, the preference for a particular kind has suggested to the finders of Pure the idea of adulterating it to a very considerable extent; this is effected by means of mortar broken away from old walls, and mixed up with the whole mass, which it closely resembles; in some cases, however, the mortar is rolled into small balls similar to those found. Hence it would appear, that there is no business or trade, however insignificant or contemptible, without its own peculiar and appropriate tricks.
    The pure-finders are in their habits and mode of proceeding nearly similar to the bone-grubbers. Many of the pure-finders are, however, better in circumstances, the men especially, as they earn more money. They are also, to a certain extent, a better educated class. Some of the regular collectors of this substance have been mechanics, and others small tradesmen, who have been reduced. Those pure-finders who have "a good connection," and have been granted permission to cleanse some kennels, obtain a very fair living at the business, earning from 10s. to 15s. a week. These, however, are very few; the majority have to seek the article in the streets, and by such means they can obtain only from 6s. to 10s. a week. The average weekly earnings of this class are thought to be about 7s. 6d.
    From all the inquiries I have made on this subject, I have found that there cannot be less than from 200 to 300 persons constantly engaged solely in this business. There are about 30 tanyards large and small in Bermondsey, and these all have their regular Pure collectors from whom they obtain the article. Leomont and Roberts's, Bayingtons', Beech's, Murrell's, Cheeseman's, Powell's, Jones's, Jourdans', Kent's, Moorcroft's, and Davis's, are among the largest establishments, and some idea of the amount of business done in some of these yards may be formed from the fact, that the proprietors severally employ from 300 to 500 tanners. At Leomont and Roberts's there are 23 regular street-finders, who supply then, with pure, but this is a large establishment, and the number supplying them is considered far beyond the average quantity; moreover, Messrs. Leomont and Roberts do more business in the particular branch of tanning in which the article is principally used, viz., in dressing the leather for book-covers, kid-gloves, and a variety of other articles. Some of the other tanyards, especially the smaller ones, take the substance only as they happen to want it,  and others, again employ but a limited number of hands. If, therefore, we strike an average, and reduce the number supplying each of the several yards to eight, we shall have 240 persons regularly engaged in the business: besides these, it may be said that numbers of the starving destitute Irish have taken to picking up the material, but not knowing where to sell it, or how dispose of it, they part with it for 2d. or 3d. the pail-full to the regular purveyors of it to the tan yards, who of course make a considerable profi by the transaction. The children of the poor Irish are usually employed in this manner, but they also pick up rags and bones, and anything else which may fall in their way.
    I have stated that some of the pure-finders especially the men, earn a considerable sum of money per week ; their gains are sometimes as much as 15s.; indeed I am assured that seven years ago, when they got from 3s. to 4s. per pail for the pure, that many of them would not exchange their position with that of the best paid mechanic in London. Now, however, the case is altered, for there are twenty now at the business for every one who followed it then ; hence each collects so much the less in quantity, and, moreover, from the competition gets so much less for the article. Some of the collectors at present do not earn 3s. per week, but these are mostly old women who are feeble and unable to get over the ground quickly ; others make 5s. and 6s. in the course of the week, while the most active and those who clean out the kennels of the dog fanciers may occasionally make 9s. and 10s. and even 15s. a week still, but this is of very rare occurrence. Allowing the finders, one with the other, to earn. on an average 5s. per week, it would give the annual earnings of each to be 13l., while the income of the whole 200 would amount to 50l. a week, or 2600l. per annum. The kennel "pure" is not much valued, indeed many of the tanners will not even buy it, the reason is that the dogs of the " fanciers " are fed on almost anything, to save expense ; the kennel cleaners consequently take the precaution of mixing it with what is found in the street, previous to offering it for sale.
    The pure-finder may at once be distinguished from the bone-grubber and rag-gatherer ; the latter, as I have before mentioned, carries a bag, and usually a stick armed with a spike, while he is most frequently to be met with in back streets, narrow lanes, yards and other places, where dust and rubbish are likely to be thrown out from the adjacent houses. The pure-finder, on the contrary, is often found in the open streets, as dogs wander where they like. The pure-finders always carry a handle basket, generally with a cover, to hide the contents, and have their right hand covered with a black leather glove; many of them, however, dispense with the glove, as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use. The women generally have a large pocket for the reception of such rags as they may chance to fill in with, but they pick up those only of the very best quality, and will not go out of their way to search even for them. Thus equipped they may be seen pursuing their avocation in almost every street in and about London, excepting such streets as are now cleansed by the "street orderlies," of whom the pure-finders grievously complain, as being an unwarrantahle interference with the privileges of their class.
    The pure collected is used by leather-dressers and tanners, and more especially by those engaged in the manufacture of morocco and kid leather from the skins of old and young goats, of which skins great numbers are imported, and of the roans and lambskins which are the sham morocco and kids of the "slop" leather trade, and are used by the better class of shoemakers, bookbinders, and glovers, for the inferior requirements of their business. Pure is also used by tanners, as is pigeon's dung, for the tanning of the thinner kinds of leather, such as calf-skins, for which purpose it is placedi n pits with an admixture of lime and bark.
    In the manufacture of moroccos and roans the pure is rubbed by the hands of the workman into the skin he is dressing. This is done to "purify" the leather, I was told by an intelligent leather-dresser, and from that term the word "pure" has originated. The dung has astringent as well as highly alkaline, or, to use the expression of my informant, "scouring," qualities. When the pure has been rubbed into the flesh and grain of the skin (the "flesh" being originally the interior, and the "grain" the exterior part of the cuticle), and the skin, thus purified, has been hung up to be dried, the dung removes, as it were, all such moisture as, if allowed to remain, would tend to make the leather unsound or imperfectly dressed. This imperfect dressing, moreover, gives a disgreeable smell to the leather—and leather-buyers often use both nose and tongue in making their purchases—and would consequently prevent that agreeable odour being imparted to the skin which is found in some kinds of morocco and kid. The peculiar odour of the Russia leather, so agreeable in the libraries of the rich, is derived from the bark of young birch trees. It is now manufactured in Bermondsey.
    Among the morocco manufacturers, especially among the old operatives, there is often a scarcity of employment, and they then dress a few roans, which they hawk to the cheap warehouses, or sell to the wholesale shoemakers on their own account. These men usually reside in small garrets in the poorer parts of Bermondsey, and carry on their trade in their own rooms, using and keeping the pure there ; hence the " homes" of these poor men are peculiarly uncomfortable, if not unhealthy. Some of these poor fellows or their wives collect the pure themselves, often starting at daylight for the purpose ; they more frequently, however, buy it of a regular finder.
    The number of pure-finders I heard estimated, by a man well acquainted with the tanning and other departments of the leather trade, at from 200 to 250. The finders, I was informed by the same person, collected about a pail-full a day, clearing 6s. a week in the summer - 1s. and 1s. 2d. being the charge for a pail-full ; in the short days of winter, however, and in bad weather, they could not collect five pail-fulls in a week.
    In the wretched locality already referred to as lying between the Docks and Rosemary-lane, redolent of filth and pregnant with pestilential diseases, and whither all the outcasts of the metropolitan population seem to be drawn, either in the hope of finding fitting associates and companions in their wretchedness (for there is doubtlessly something attractive and agreeable to theni in such companionship), or else for the purpose of hiding themselves and their shifts and struggles for existence from the world - in this dismflal quarter, and branching from one of the many narrow lanes which interlace it, there is a little court with about half a-dozen houses of the very smallest dimensions, consisting of merely two rooms, one over the other. Here in one of the upper rooms (the lower one of the same house being occupied by another family and apparently filled with little ragged children), I discerned, after considerable difficulty, an old woman, a Pure-finder. When I opened the door the little light that struggled through the small window, the many broken panes of which were stuffed with old rags, was not sufficient to enable me to perceive who or what was in the room. After a short time, however, I began to make out an old chair standing near the fire-place, and then to discover a poor old woman resembling a bundle of rags and filth stretched on some dirty straw in the corner of the apartment. The place was bare and almost naked. There was nothing in it except a couple of old tin kettles and a basket, and some broken crockeryware in the recess of the window. To my astonishment I found this wretched creature to be, to a certain extent, a "superior" woman ; she could read and write well, spoke correctly, and appeared to have been a person of natural good sense, though broken up with age, want, and infirmity, so that she was characterized by all that dull and hardened stupidity of manner which I have noticed in the class. She made the following statement :-
    "I am about 60 years of age. My father was a milkman, and very well off; he had a barn and a great many cows. I was kept at school till I was thirteen or fourteen years of age ; about that time my father died, and then I was taken home to help my mother in the business. After a while things went wrong; the cows began to die, and mother, alleging she could not manage the business herself; married again. I soon found out the difference. Glad to get away, anywhere out of the house, I married a sailor, and was very comfortable with him for some, years; as he made short voyages, and was often at home, and always left me half his pay. At last he was pressed, when at home with me, and sent away ; I forget now where he was sent to, but I never saw him, from that day to this. The only thing I know is that some sailors came to me four or five years after, and told me that he deserted from the ship in which he had gone out, and got on board the Nepture, an East Indiaman, bound for Bombay, where he acted as boatswain's mate; some little time afterwards, he had got intoxicated while the ship was lying in harbour, and, going down the side to get into a bumboat, and buy more drink, he had fallen overhouid and was drowned. I got some money that was due to him from the India House, and, after that was all gone, I went into  service, in the Mile-end road. There I stayed for several years, till I met my second husband, who was bred to the water, too, but as a waterman on the river. We did very well together for a long time, till he lost his health. He became paralyzed like, and was deprived of the use of all one side, and nearly lost the sight of one of his eyes ; this was not very conspicuous at first, but when we came to get pinched, and to be badly off, then any one might have seen that there was something the matter with his eye. Then we parted with everything we had in the world ; and, at last, when we had no other means of living left, we were advised to take to gathering 'Pure.' At first I couldn't endure the business; I couldn't bear to eat a morsel, and I was obliged to discontinue it for a long time. My husband kept at it though, for he could do that well enough, only he couldn't walk as fast as he ought. He couldn't lift his hands as high as his head, but he managed to work under him, and so put the Pure in the basket. When I saw that he, poor fellow, couldn't make enough to keep us both, I took heart and went out again, and used to gather more than he did; that's fifteen years ago now; the times were good then, and we used to do very well. If we only gathered a pail-full in the day, we could live very well ; but we could do much more than that, for there wasn't near so many at the business then, and the Pure was easier to be had. For my part I can't tell where all the poor creatures have come from of late years ; the world seems growing worse and worse every day. They have pulled down the price of Pure, that's certain ; but the poor things must do something, they can't starve while there's anything to be got. Why, no later than six or seven years ago, it was as high as 3s. 6d. and 4s. a pail-full, and a ready sale for as much of it as you could get; but now you can only get 1s. and in some places 1s. 2d. a pail-full; and, as I said before, there are so many at it, that there is not much left for a poor old creature like me to find. The men that are strong and smart get the most, of course, and some of them do very well, at least they manage to live. Six years ago, my husband complained that he was ill, in the evening, and lay down in the bed - we lived in Whitechapel then - he took a fit of coughing, and was smothered in his own blood. O dear " (the poor old soul here ejaculated), "what troubles I have gone through! I had eight children at one time, and there is not one of them alive now. My daughter lived to 30 years of age, and then she died in childbirth, and since them, I have had nobody iu the wide world to care for me - none but myself, all alone as I am. After my husband's death, I couldn't do much, and all my things went away, one by one, until I've nothing but bare walls, and that's the reason why I was vexed at first at your coming in, sir. I was yesterday out all day, and went round Aldgate, Whitechapel, St. George's East, Stepney, Bow and Bromley, and then came home; after that, I went over to Bermondsey, and there I got only 6d. for my pains. To-day I wasn't out at all; I wasn't well ; I had a bad headache, and I'm so much afraid of the fevers that are all about here—though I don't know why I should be afraid of them—I was lying down, when you came, to get rid of my pains. There's such a dizziness in my head now, I feel as if it didn't belong to me. No, I have earned no money to-day. I have had a piece of dried bread that I steeped in water to eat. I haven't eat anything else to-day ; but, pray, sir, don't tell anybody of it. I could never bear the thought of going into the 'great house' [workhouse]; I'm so used to the air, that I'd sooner die in the street, as many I know have done. I've known several of our people, who have sat down in the street with their basket alongside them, and died. I knew one not long ago, who took ill just as she was stooping down to gather up the Pure, and fell on her face ; she was taken to the London Hospital, and died at three o'clock in the morning. I 'd sooner die like them than be deprived of my liberty, and be prevented from going about where I liked. No, I'll never go into the workhouse ; my master is kind to me" [the tanner whom she supplies]. " When I'm ill, he sometimes gives me a sixpence ; but there's one gentleman has done us great harm, by forcing so many into the business. He's a poor-law guardian, and when any poor person applies for relief, he tells them to go and gather Pure, and that he'll buy it of them (for he's in the line), and so the parish, you see, don't have to give anything, and that's one way that so many have come into the trade of late, that the likes of me can do little or no good at it. Almost every one I 've ever known engaged at Pure-finding were people who were better off once. I knew a man who went by the name of Brown, who picked up Pure for years before I went to it; he was a very quiet man ; he used to lodge in Blue Anchor-yard, and seldom used to speak to anybody. We two used to talk together sometimes, but never much. One morning he was found dead in his bed ; it was of a Tuesday morning, and he was buried about 12 o'clock on the Friday following. About 6 o'clock on that afternoon, three or four gentlemen came searching all through this place, looking for a man named Brown, and offering a reward to any who would find him out ; there was a whole crowd about them when I came up. One of the gentlemen said that the man they wanted had lost the first finger of his right hand, and then I knew that it was the man that had been buried only that morning. Would you believe it, Mr. Brown was a real gentleman all the time, and had a large estate, of I don't know how many thousand pounds, just left him, and the lawyers had advertised and searched everywhere for him, but never found him, you may say, till he was dead. We discovered that his name was not Brown ; he had only taken that name to hide his real one, which, of course, be did not want any one to know. I've often thought of him, poor man, and all the misery ho might have been spared, if the good news had only come a year or two sooner."
Another informant, a Pure-collector, was originally in the Manchester cotton trade, and held a lucrative situation in a large country establishment. His salary one year exceeded 250l., and his regular income was 150l. "This," he says, "I lost through drink and neglect. My master was exceedingly kind to me, and has even assisted me since I left his employ. He bore with me patiently for many years, but the love of drink was so strong upon me that it was impossible for him to keep me any longer." He has often been drunk, he tells me, for three months together ; and he is now so reduced that he is ashamed to be seen. When at his master's it was his duty to carve and help the other assistants belonging to the establishment, and his hand used to shake so violently that he has been ashamed to lift the gravy spoon.
    At breakfast he has frequently waited till all the young men had left the table before he ventured to taste his tea ; and immediately, when he was alone, he has bent his head down to his cup to drink, being utterly incapable of raising it to his lips. He says he is a living example of the degrading influence of drink. All his friends have deserted him. He has suffered enough, he tells me, to make him give it up. He earned the week before I saw him 5s. 2d. ; and the week. before that, 6s.
    Before leaving me I prevailed upon the man to "take the pledge." This is now eighteen months ago, and I have not seen him since.

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