Sweeping S**t for a Living

If the title isn’t obvious, then substitute manure instead and you’ll get the idea. We need to go back to the Victorian era. The poor were very poor. Children were often at the bottom of the pile. And the streets of London as well as other towns and cities were completely ignored and uncared for. Now, if we then consider that the main form of transport other than walking, was on horseback, then there is soon going to be a problem of getting from one side of the street to the other without stepping in lots of you-know-what!

    Where there’s a problem that very few would want to tackle, then the poorest will step in and find a way to make a few pennies. The overheads were low. All you needed was a broom and a stiff constitution and you were ready. They were called crossing sweepers which sums up exactly what they did. They would find a suitable busy street and clear a pathway across it, hoping that the more-wealthy types might dip their hand in their pocket and give them a penny or even a farthing.

    You might think that these people were looked down on? And yes, many people I am sure did just that. However, the story I want to tell you is one that not only bucks the trend but has an intriguing twist at the end. The sweeper in question was Charles McGhee who also went by the title of Brutus Billy. I don’t know why. He was an elderly black man who had likely arrived in London from the West Indies at the beginning of the eighteen hundreds.

    The site he chose to sweep was just down from St Paul’s Cathedral where Ludgate Hill meets Fleet Street. As now, this was a busy street but also covered in horse manure. Charles chose a place near to a popular draper’s shop in Fleet Street and proceeded to keep a clear path open for pedestrians to cross. It was a full-time job, seven days a week. Apparently, horses didn’t control their bowel movements! And he did this every day.

    Now, the draper’s shop was owned by Robert Waithman who later became the member of Parliament for the City of London. And he had a daughter who often watched Charles from an upstairs window. She saw him working in all sorts of weather. She felt sorry for him and so, when the weather was cold, she sent a bowl of hot soup and bread out to him.

    Eventually, Charles died and it was found that being a crossing sweeper could earn you good money. He had over £700 in savings which was a great deal of money in those days. And what’s more, he left it all to the draper’s daughter who had shown him kindness over the years.

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