Today sometimes if you’re unlucky enough to be driving in London, you might get harassed in traffic jams around junctions to have your windscreen cleaned whether you want it or not by road-side workers who seem oblivious to the fact that cars have had washers for decades. 18th Century London had a whole wealth of informal trades that were similarly frowned upon by many tough a life-line to those actually performing the work. One such job was that of being a Crossing-Sweep.
As it came out in my recent radio appearance Crossing-Sweeps were not formally employed or paid a salary as such but were instead reliant on pennies from people grateful for their services.
There were plenty of potential customers. Ladies in long, pretty dresses and delicate shoes, or men in finely-tailored trousers with shiny boots would have had an impossible time of it if they’d been forced to trudge through the dung fields of London, had it been allowed to pile up.
Not everyone agreed, though. In his book London Labour and the London Poor , Henry Mayhew called them “private scavengers” and their occupation one that is “resorted to as an excuse for begging”, which is probably an easy comment to make while one’s shoes and trousers are dung-free.
That said, the crossing sweepers he interviewed seemed to agree, many describing the job as “the last chance left of obtaining an honest crust”.
Many crossing-sweepers were people who suffered from rheumatism, asthma or injuries that prevented them from other, harsher work, such as bricklaying.
It was common to run up to a rich-looking person and sweep the ground in front of them as they walked in hopes of perhaps a halfpenny. In busier areas, this would become a problem – it was cheaper to take the omnibus than pay every sweeper you met.
Many crossing sweepers, travelled to different areas on different days, but others pitched up in one area and stuck around. One such sweeper was Charles McGhee. Charles was born in Rio Bueno, Jamaica in 1744, and spent years sweeping the junction between Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill.
He became extremely well known – as one of the few Black people in London, but also by his distinctive appearance: a shock of frizzy white hair bunched at the back, sideburns, one eye missing – though no one knows how – and a smart frock coat.
Charles was described as “gentle” and a “philanthropist”. He was also a regular attendee at the meeting house of the Welsh preacher Roland Hill.
Charles was one of the “St Giles Blackbirds”, the first Black community in London to live inside the St Giles Rookery. The St Giles Blackbirds were freed slaves who had fought on the British side during the American War of Independence.
Not keen on remaining within the bondage of American slavery, many jumped out of the frying pan and were expatriated to the fire: London, where they became part of the poor and dispossessed underclass though at least not at risk of being enslaved as the practice did not exist in the U.K.
Charles was always found, day in day out, under the Ludgate Circus Obelisk. His patch was outside a successful linen-draper’s shop called Waithman & Co.
The owner, Robert Waithman, would go on to become MP of the City of London and eventually Lord Mayor – but his daughter was the one who befriended Charles.
She would see him out of the window, sweeping the crossing in all weathers. When she passed him she smiled and gave him pennies, and on cold days she arranged for him to be sent hot soup and bread.
One day some years later, she looked out of the window and noticed his absence, and asked around to find out where he might be and was saddened by the news that he had died.
Shortly afterwards, she received some astonishing news. Charles had left her all his savings, and according to the lengthy article published in the 8 December 1884 issue of London’s Daily News, the sum came to £800 – which today would be worth £83,600.
For some other British related Black history you might like The story of the first Black Man in the British Army or at the other end of the scale Mary Seacole – The Greatest Black Briton