In exchange for a gratuity, a crossing sweeper swept a path — known as a “broom” walk — ahead of pedestrians as they walked down the street. A job as a crossing sweeper was one step above being considered a beggar and the last chance for an individual to earn an “honest crust.” Those who performed the job of a crossing sweeper included not only children but also the infirmed, the elderly, and the limbless (similar to the one-legged crossing sweeper shown at the left). The author of Life in the London Streets: Or, Struggles for Daily Bread described crossing sweepers as “cripples, and old men and women, shriveled like dry wrinkled apples, who are just strong enough to give the public that real convenience, a clean crossing.”
Crossing sweepers had an important job. That was because nineteenth century urban streets, stoops, and sidewalks were dirty, mucky, and filthy. Aristocrats and the rich were eager to pay to prevent clothing, such as long skirts, trains, or dainty slippers, from contacting animal manure, undesirable refuse, or snow or slush. Therefore, crossing sweepers worked every season of the year, “tottering and shivering day after day.”
But crossing sweepers did more than just clean pathways. Sometimes they were called tumblers because they also performed acrobatic tumbling for money. In fact, they constituted a large class of London’s poor, and according to Henry Matthew in his multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor:
“We can scarcely walk along a street of any extend, or pass through a square of the least pretensions to ‘gentilty’, without meeting one or more of these private scavengers.”
Crossing sweepers found advantages to doing their job. First, they were their own masters and not considered a beggar; second, it cost nothing more than a broom to establish the business; and, third, once established, the consistency of being seen in the same spot encouraged weekly allowances from regular customers. Another advantage was crossing sweepers often created a partnership amongst themselves. In fact, youthful sweepers even crowned one 11-year-old tumbler “King.” They also appointed captains, governed themselves with rules, and established a private language banding together to avoid their arch-enemy the policeman. That was because crossing sweepers could be arrested if they were a nuisance, asked for money, or behaved impertinently to any passersby who refused to tip them.
There were two types of sweepers: the casual and the regular. The causal sweeper worked certain days of the week and traveled from spot to spot, sometimes staying no longer than an hour here or an hour there, depending on the gratuities earned. The regular sweeper had an established post. They would appear bright and early, stay for the day, and establish friendships. Over time, regular sweepers usually increased their business.
For all their hard work, crossing sweepers and tumblers did not earn much claimed the “King” of the crossing sweepers. “Sometimes … a shilling, sometimes sixpence, and sometimes less.” One boy named Jack claimed he earned most of his money at night, after the Opera, when a gentleman was escorting a lady home. That was because gentlemen in their efforts to impress their lady friends were more likely to give him “a penny, … [or] threepence, sometimes a sixpence or a shilling, and sometimes a halfpenny.”
The best crossing sweepers were said to be discreet individuals. Moreover, they functioned as a form of security because they saw and heard the day-to-day domestic affairs within their local neighborhoods. Sometimes they even took on the position of safe-guarding a community: They knew when people left their homes, what servants did when they were out, and even how much meat a family might consume in a week. This safeguarding paid off in one instance. “The missing link in Lady Dedlock’s tragedy … [would have] never been supplied [to] Inspector Buckett” if a sharp-eyed crossing sweeper had not been watching and later reported what he knew to the inspector. This enabled Inspector Buckett to catch Lady Dedlock’s murderer.
In the 1800s, crossing sweeps were so well-known and such an everyday part of Victorian life, numerous references, sometimes even whole books, were written about them. For instance, there was The Crossing-sweeper by Julia A. Mathews, The Hunchback Crossing-sweeper by James Hooper, and Bob, the Crossing Sweeper by Ruth Alan. There were also poems and songs regaling the life of a crossing sweeper. In The Universal Songster, or, Museum of Mirth, a book of ancient and modern songs, one song, titled “The Crossing Sweeper,” went like this
“At my crossing each morning I take my abode,
To sweep the path clean for each creeper;
While my pockets with rhino most richly I load,
And they call me the gay crossing sweeper.
And, though our circumstances are but narrow, we manage to keep it up abroad.
Thus on through life
Most gaily we brush,
And don’t care a rush
For care, for, at night, sirs, we drown it in lush.”
- Barnado, Thomas John, The Children’s Treasury, 1876
- Frank Leslie’s New Family Magazine, 1859
- Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1, 1864
- Rowe, Richard, Life in the London Streets, 1881
- The Universal Songster, or, Museum of Mirth, 1834
- Turnovers From the Globe, 1884