The Rag and Bone Man Comes Calling

Once upon a time, I grew up in a nice, quiet, middle class cul de sac where nothing ever happened. Then I moved down to London to commence my career on an extremely modest starting salary. I had no choice but to embrace the East End, where I could get a room to rent for £300 a month. I was surrounded by Afro Caribbean shops selling plantain, hippy cafes with rubber plants crowding the windows and Irish pubs whose walls were stained saffron with the thick fug of tobacco smoke. For the first few weeks I was scared. Then I got used to it.

I haven’t looked back since.

The noise, the mix, the characters – who wouldn’t love a life filled with people like the one snapped above?

This is the rag and bone man. Stuff of myth and legend to most of us, but about once a year I hear that bell ringing and think, Quick! What do I need to get rid of? London councils ask you to leave large items of rubbish in your front garden for a collection window of a week; the rag and bone man takes it straight away.

They used to have a horse and cart. Sadly, nothing as picturesque today:

Look at that lived-in face! And the pudgy fingers that could bunch into a fearsome fist!

This post has absolutely nothing to do with sewing. (Well, apart from the ‘rags’ element. Clothes were often shipped to India, if you’re to believe Wikipedia.) But what a glimpse of the old East End of London. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it.

If you do want a more sewing related post about the East End of London, I’d direct you to this fascinating blog post about the Spitalfield origins of Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.

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12 Responses to The Rag and Bone Man Comes Calling

  1. Debi says:

    Great post! And what a fabulous tradition!

  2. Pin Queen says:

    ah, you bring back memories… I remember the rag and bone man with a cart and what seemed to me a huge white shire horse – I was around 6 and living in Kent at the time. He always shouted “rag and bone” in a strange accent and we were allowed to go out and give the horse a carrott. My Grandad “cleared up” after the horse (for the roses) – all very Steptoe!

    • Oh, now you’re bringing back memories for me! My granddad out with a shovel whenever horses went down the street, clearing up the manure for his allotment. Allotments and outside loos. What a world we once lived in!

  3. Laura says:

    Wow, I had no idea they were still around. I grew up in Walthamstow, and although I remember the sound of the ice-cream van, I only have very hazy recollections of the rag and bone man coming round. Looks like he’s got quite the collection there. I love that it’s a tradition that’s still going on today, although I’m slightly disappointed that there’s no horse 😉

  4. Jane says:

    I remember the Steptoe type of Rag and Bone man too, with a horse and cart. This was in Liverpool and I was quite little at the time though, only about 6 or 7. He used to give us a balloon for our ‘rags’. x

  5. daisydonut says:

    Isn’t it great that some of our old traditions still live on, even though the horse and cart has been replaced with a truck!

  6. Karen says:

    here in Milwaukee, we have folks that cruise the alleys for good stuff before the city trash folks remove it. We’re careful to put stuff out with a few days leeway for the “alley gods”

  7. Clazzerati says:

    wow, i can’t believe there is still a rag and bone man, so cool!! xx

  8. SewOm says:

    How cool! I love reading about culture. Its my way of traveling without having to be far away from my sewing machine & crochet hooks.

  9. Tilly says:

    We need a rag and bone man in Brixton. Lambeth council’s new “waste strategy” just came into effect, meaning it costs £20 per item you want collected. Great that they’re encouraging people to be less wasteful, but a bit annoying. Luckily there’s Freecycle, the virtual rag and bone collective. Got rid of my ridiculous TV stand in 10 minutes!

  10. becky says:

    Just found your blog – it was very interesting to read about the rag &bone man. I also enjoyed reading about Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.

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