In Glasgow, Scotland in the late 1940s and into the 50s, the upscale brownstone apartments of today were tenements. Each building had a close, or courtyard, at the back. And some mornings, you could hear the ragman coming through the back lane with his cart, asking for cast-offs. We would wheedle old clothing from our parents to take down to the ragman, and we’d return, triumphant, with the paper windmill that he had given us in return.
London did not officially have rag-and-bone men until 1588 when Elizabeth I granted privileges to mudlarks and to those who collected rags for making paper. But, more than 400 years on, the once-thriving profession and a common sight on the capital’s streets and suburbs has all but vanished, though not without trace.
Yet finding someone who was willing to talk about the trade or “totters”, as rag-and-bone men are known, was harder than might be expected. “People don’t know, or at least they don’t want to say if they know,” says Christine Carey. “A lot of them have got stuff to hide. I haven’t got anything to hide. Many totters have now moved into scrap.”
Carey should know, as the Deptford warehouse – in which she runs a clothing recycling business – used to stable her parents’ horses. Her mother and father were, what she calls, “traditional” rag-and-bone traders. “1965 was the last time my dad went out with a horse and cart. I still remember being on the back of the cart. In them days we used to give people a goldfish for a bag of rags or a bag of clothing.”
Today Carey and her 116 employees collect and recycle old clothes, some of which are cleaned, and packaged into bales that are then sold to traders from the developing world. For Carey, totting has not died out but has moved with the times. “Now you got car boot sales, and secondhand markets all over the place,” she says. The image of a man with the horse and cart, ringing his bell, may have be consigned to history, but Carey tells me of someone who, until recently, tottered in the traditional way.
I managed to track down Alf Masterson, the last documented London rag-and-bone man. Masterson, who came to north London from Ireland as a boy, has been in the game for almost 50 years.
“In the Victorian days, totters used to get money for rags and bones,” says Masterson at his home in Kentish Town. “If people had roast joints, the rag-and-bone men would collect the leftovers to make glue and soap. Bones were used for oil and soap. People collected bottles. Bottles and bones. Anything was saleable: mattresses, rubber tyres, inner tubes. Iron was four shillings a hundredweight.”
Jack Russells are his choice of companion on his rounds. One dog, Pip, accompanied him for 16 years. “Russells love barrows,” says Masterson, who now has a new Jack Russell, a gift from a lady in Regent’s Park when Pip died.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Masterson is unsentimental about cart and horses. “I wouldn’t have a horse and cart now because you can’t get a farrier,” he says. “I had a horse and cart from 1972 to 1976, seven different horses. Anything was good in the 1970s; they called it the boom. Metals went sky-high – copper, lead.
“But your food and rent never goes down. The scrap business is unusual because it goes up and up and up, then down and down and down. So, the old totters have all packed up, and now I am the only one left.”
The horse and cart may have be relegated to ye olde London nostalgia and with it, at some point, totters such as Masterson. But the spirit of London’s rag-and-bone men continues in people like Carey who are turning what seem to be scraps into new sellable commodities or products.
Excerpted from Final Collection, Jeremy Kuper, Guardian, August 5, 2006.
Robert Reynolds, who died in 1912. Known as ‘Chipper’, this rag and bone man gave peep shows of re-enactments of the battles of Waterloo and Spion Kop in exchange for old clothes and scrap metal.
Rag and bone man, Dock Road, Liverpool, 1961