Museum of Obsolete Professions: Crossing Sweepers

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.

Trying to earn a penny with a broom.

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.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

Skinning, A Victorian Crime

Well dressed target

Hold tight to your waistcoat, young Harry

Skinning was the crime of enticing or abducting a youngster away in order to strip it of its clothes.  This crime of desperation was a lot more frequent in the winter, with the need for warm garments,  than in summer. A stout wool coat or real shoes must have been a powerful temptation to the parents of shivering little ones with only some rags to their name.

Women were better at luring small, well-dressed children to some isolated corner where they could be stripped of boots and coat and other clothes.  Elderly women found themselves suited to the crime.  The child was often terrorized into silence while the thief made off with the booty.

Professional “skinners” could strike with lightning swiftness, leaving a child frozen with fright and practically naked while its mother or nurse, too slow to miss the child, frantically searched.  The purloined clothes were turned over for a profit on the street or taken to the pawn shop for a good handful of coin.  When practitioners were caught, there was sometimes a troop of children and their outraged parents at the trial, indignantly pointing out the guilty party.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

Museum of Obsolete Professions: Mud Lark

Or a very tough way to earn a pittance

In London, England, mud larks were the poor desperate enough to scrape a living scavenging off the mud of the Thames for anything of value.  Low tide exposed banks studded with whatever the day’s water had carried in or the dense river traffic had dropped.  By the 18th and 19th centuries, an existence could be scratched from collecting bits of coal to be sold to the neighbours, rag and bone for the rag and bone shop or bits of rope to sold wet or dry.  A great find would be a hammer or a saw or some copper nails from the boats that lay in the mud.

London Mud Lark

Kids between 8 and 15 were most frequent, mostly male, but some females took to it, as well as some driven to it in their old age.  Henry Mayhew, that chronicler of London’s, poor says many old women could be seen among them, bent nearly double with age and infirmity, especially pitiable in the winter, scouring the mud for some means to keep themselves alive.  When they had managed to fill an old basket or kettle with refuse from the tide, it was all they could do to carry it home.

Conditions were filthy.  Raw sewage washed through as well as corpses of dead animals and, all too frequently, those of human victims of suicide, crime, or misadventure.  The Thames was also a ready receptacle for unwanted babies.  Mud larks cut their feet on broken glass, nails and other refuse, suffering the resulting infection and disease.  They wore unspeakable rags that only half covered them.  Those that got themselves arrested, discovered that prison, with food and something to wear, was a surprisingly comfortable holiday.

By the end of the 19th century, mud larking was no longer acceptable.  No one regretted the disappearance of the occupation.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

The Average Canadian Spends $549 Per Year On Lotteries!

Multiply that by the population of the country and you will be boggled!  That’s $549 per person that is not going to local bakers and plumbers and playground drives.  No wonder the government is higher than a drunken turkey vulture on our cash.  How about yanking us back to the days when even an Irish Sweeps ticket was a wild forbiddenl risk.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

Next Novel In The Works!

If you liked The Tomorrow Country, you’ll be pleased to know I’m making progress on the next novel in the series.  Katie, Cully, Laura and Will, the Home children from England, have been shipped to Canada and scattered about rural Ontario.  How are they taking to such a strange new life?  With difficulty!

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Late Blooming Optimist?

My mock orange bush blooms profusely in June, it’s appointed time.  So what would possess the bush to suddenly produce a couple of blooms again in late October just in time to flirt with frost?  Is the bush a misquided optimist, utterly confused or is it bravely defying the dying of the light.  Too bad it can’t talk.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

The Joy of Hooping

Night hooping with lighted hoop

Did you know the hula hoop is back?  It was news to me but I have discovered there are hooping groups, hooping classes and free-for-all hooping jams in the parks.  For those of you who haven’t hooped since grade four, the key is an adult hoop of the proper weight and taped so as not to slip.  Oh, and they come with lights so you can really throw a surprise at passersby in the dark.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

In 1815, They Had 222 Reasons to Hang You.

That’s how many offences carried the death penalty in the British penal code.  That the number had risen from the mere 50 death penalty charges in the brutal “Bloody Code” of 1660 showed how much fear of crime had also increased in the intervening years.

And there did appear to be an ever increasing crime wave.  With the vast movement of people from countryside to town for uncertain work in factories, desperate poverty shot up – and so did crime, from 5000 offenses a year in 1800 to 20,000 a year by 1840.  Victorians obsessed about this rising criminal threat and tried to stamp it out with a sledge hammer.  So, besides arson, treason, piracy  and murder, you could be done in for sheep stealing, consorting with gypsies, writing a threatening letter, stealing a letter, cutting down a tree, damaging Westminster Bridge, nicking a rabbit for dinner, begging without a license, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner or being a particularly malicious child aged 7-14..  Oh, and if you were caught skulking about with a blackened face, that meant you were up to no good and best hang you for that too.

Slowly, a more enlightened attitude crept in and, by the end of the 19th century,  this vast number of hanging offences was enormously reduced.   Hanging dead criminals in chains for months as a ghrisly warning was abolished in 1834, public executions in 1868, beheading and quartering executed traitors was stopped in 1870. Beheading as an execution method was finally abandoned in 1971.

Today, in Britain, there is no death penalty.  The last working gallows, tested faithfully ever six months until 1992, has been consigned to a museum of crime and punishment.  To the applause, no doubt, of thousands of ghosts with stretched necks or heads tucked underneath their arms.

Gail Hamilton’s books.

The Making of Red Nell. How to Create a Pit Bull Queen of Crime.

Challenge: To create female crime boss who could hold her own in Victorian London’s seething underworld.

Enter Red Nell. She sprang up, fully formed. A rough, wildly eccentric character so scary she could frighten the scales off a cobra.  She had to be potent, so I made her fireplug sturdy with a blunt face, and a presence that made innards congeal with the force of her green stare.

She needed to be colourful, so she wears a soldier’s battered scarlet tunic over layers of striped and tartan skirts.  Her hair, which gives her her name, is hennaed to shocking red in honour of the flaming tresses of her youth.  On her head, always perches one of the fantastic hats brought as tribute those daring to seek her favour.

She needed a crucible to forge her ferocity, so I made Red Nell a merry Irish tinker until her fierce drives for survival reared to life in the desperate Irish potato famines.   Driven, with her family, like hordes of other famished skeletons, up on the London docks, she had to win or die. Her empire began with a fence’s body buried in a cellar.  Illiterate though she was, she kept track of every penny skimmed from street vendors, every inch of territory wrenched from her bitter arch rival, Teapot, who had the face and instincts of a moray eel.

And, like any ambitious Victorian, Nell, eventually peeps over the limits of her slum domain at larger world, glimpsing unimaginably vaster opportunities for profit by doing things with ships and land and mines.  Her own illiteracy and ignorance may keep her down but the next generation, blood of her blood, must be taught.

So Red Nell embarks upon a madly unorthodox enterprise via Mrs. Gresham’s seedy Ladies’ Academy and unsuspecting Amelia Radmore’s charity dedicated to rescuing starving urchins from the streets….

You can meet Red Nell, if you dare, in The Tomorrow Country, my historical novel found at:  (Or

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Stamp Collectors – it’s not too late to get a commemorative Home Children stamp

In September, 2010, Canada Post issued a stamp honouring the contribution of the British Home Children to Canada.  This is what they said :

“Starting in 1869, and continuing into the years following the Second World War, more than 100,000 orphaned, abandoned and pauper children were sent to Canada by British churches and philanthropic organizations. They were welcomed by Canadian families as a source of farm labour, domestic help, and, in some cases, as children of their own. While some children some benefited from their new life, others were abused, neglected and overworked. The Government of Canada has recognized the experiences of Canada’s Home Children by proclaiming 2010 the Year of the British Home Child.”

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