Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

100: Crossing sweepers in 19th century England

When The Times reviewed an early appearance of African American actor Ira Aldridge (11 October 1825, p 2) its critic noted ‘we never remember to have heard of any sable candidate for histrionic distinction in England’ adding that Aldridge was not as dark as ‘the man who sweeps the crossings at the end of Fleet-market’. The numerous horses in British cities left droppings, street drainage was far from perfect, and women wore long dresses, so sweeping manure and debris for pedestrians was a common task. The size of the problem can be seen in the foot scrapers that still stand outside old buildings in British cities. The crossing sweepers would receive tips from grateful pedestrians.
Black and Asian people were crossing sweepers – a play at London’s Royal Victoria Hall in 1838 was called The Nigger What Sweeps the Crossings (Bristol University theatre collection OVP/71/123). In 1850 Henry Mayhew interviewed a Bengali who had been in Britain for five years, who commented ‘Dose who sweep crossing are Malay; some Bengal’.
The Morning Post (London) 24 January 1873 p 7 noted the ‘man of colour’ Frederick Wilson who swept the crossing at Burlington Gardens in central London, for he had lost over £1 entrusted to him for an errand, and so was to be tried at Marlbrough Street magistrate’s court. George Samuel Roach swept in Bristol but after attacking a policeman was sent to prison for three weeks in 1878 (Bristol Mercury 20 April 1878).
London’s Daily News on 8 December 1884 published a lengthy article on crossing sweepers, noting that ‘the old black man’ who swept a crossing in London’s Farringdon Street had bequeathed £800 to the daughter of an alderman who had befriended him, and that another who swept the crossing at Conduit Street and Regent Street was said to have owned two or three houses at the time of his death. ‘There is no doubt that, other things being equal, a black crossing-sweeper would take a great deal more than a white man. A negro is a stranger in a strange land; he is presumably friendless, and, being pretty certainly a native of a hot country, he may be supposed to suffer more from the wet and cold of our climate than an English-man. All these considerations would enable a steady blackman to make a good thing of a well-located crossing’.
These crossing sweepers were part of the streetscape, seen by thousands daily. Their identities can emerge when there are allegations of crime, and that is also why we know about another street personality, ‘Black Charley’ Cooper, the baked potato man of Bury St Edmunds for he charged two men with making him spill his wares onto the street (Bury and Norwich Post 13 December 1859).

Hazel Waters, Racism on the Victorian Stage, Cambridge University Press, 2007 pp 61, 109 for the Aldridge and 1838 play details.

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