Look out for the horse manure, lady!
In a London street crammed with horse-drawn carts, carriages and wagons, the result was horse poop. Heaps of it. Toss in mud and rain and crossing a street in decent boots or long skirts was hazardous indeed. So quick as a wink, armed with broom and speed, a ragged lad or gaunt woman swept clear the way across, hoping for some pennies for their trouble.
The profession of crossing sweeper was the “last chance to obtaining an honest crust.” All you needed was a broom and a likely street crossing to set up. Street urchins, lamed soldiers, workmen crippled by accidents, destitute women, all snapped up the work. Though they scraped the barest of existences, they could ask gratuities without appearing to beg.
Lucky regulars were under the protection of the police who helped fend off challengers to a busy crossing. Sometimes, the sweepers even grew familiar enough to the neighbourhood to earn a small, regular sum for their services. Their main expense was brooms which lasted about two weeks in dry weather and a week in wet. The worse the weather, the better the sweeper fared, though it certainly didn’t do much for their health.
Young sweepers clubbed together to defend their territory and share the take. Sometimes they made enough to buy a piece of cheap meat and boil it up, drawing lots for the biggest bit and doling out the broth in cupfuls until gone. Agile youngsters could sometimes supplement their meagre income by tumbling in the streets at night for the amusement of Opera goers or chasing after buses to grab for tossed coins.