The rag and bone man
on old English streets
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This page spans a wide range of dates, but is inspired by the sketch from the early 1900s and the photograph below of a rag and bone cart from the mid-1930s.
Probably the only difference over the years would have been the clothes that people were wearing. I am sure that my mother must have seen something similar along with other street scenes in the early years of the 20th century, as the rag and bone man travelled the streets with his horse and cart ringing a brass hand-bell and shouting out "Bones!" and "Any old iron!".
How the rag and bone man operated before the Second World War
The rag and bone man would cover a district about once a week. So anything we thought he would take was put to one side for him. These were days of extreme hardship for many people. Nothing was wasted or thrown away.
He took anything that he could sell on: old metal for scrap; rabbit skins for trimmings on coats and gloves; empty glass jars for use in jam and pickled onion factories. He played an important role of taking away unwanted material.
We always referred to rag and bone men as Totters. Where this name came from have no idea.
The advantage of rag and bone men over dustmen was two-fold. They would take away large items and we got paid. The payment was not necessarily in money and never large. Sometimes it was sweets. I can even remember being paid with a goldfish and day-old chicks.
The rag and bone man's horse
When the rag and bone man came to our street, Bulwer Road, in Edmonton. the horse would stop and wait to see if any house holder appeared. We would take the horse some lumps of sugar. Over the years we got to know the man and his horse very well, Sometimes if the weather was hot the man would hand my mother his bucket which she would fill with water. We would stand and watch as the horse gulped it down. If the man was thirsty he would dip his mug into the same bucket.
The origin of the name 'rag and bone man'
Rag was any form of clothing. As this was before the days of synthetic yarn such as nylon, most cloths were either cotton or wool.
There was a vast market for the rags. Some of its uses included carpet underlay, mattress stuffing, and seating in trains and buses.
Bone was animal bone. As this was before the days of plastics, buttons on clothes were either bone or rubber. Also before World War Two most people bought meat on the bone such as a leg or shoulder of lamb, or a cut of leg of beef. The meat was roasted and fed the family for two or three days. Then the bones were boiled clean in a saucepan for soup, and then saved for the rag and bone man.
The market for the bones was for fertilizer. It was burnt into a powder and sold as bone meal. The origin of the word bonfire is 'bone fire'.
The demise of the rag and bone man
At the outbreak of war most of the younger rag and bone men were called up to serve in the armed forces and the older men transferred to work elsewhere for the war effort.
There was what was called the National War Effort where everybody was asked to donate glass, iron, aluminium, glass, old clothing and paper, as resources for fighting the war. We were asked to take whatever we had to a designated area at the end of the road where great heaps accumulated. This was donated for free and collected by designated contractors.
After the war rag and bone man did re-appear briefly, mainly using vans, although some clung to their horses. One only has to watch a box set of DVDs of Steptoe and Son to get a flavour of how they survived. Harold like his father had served in the army, but returned to the streets of London. Their old yards where the horses were stabled and they stockpiled their scrap materials had been taken over for housing.
Today we have Council rubbish tips and car boot sales to take all unwanted household articles, a service that rag and bone men had provided for hundreds of years.