That familiar cry of yesteryear, whose echoes can still be heard to this day, reverberated through our poor living room that early morning. How those men, and sometimes women, made a living even today still confounds me but that piercing cry, so much a part of those days, heralded the arrival of those whose bread & butter depended upon discarded rubbish which by rights should’ve gone into the dustbin, never to be resurrected.
It was a health hazard sitting, as all the rubbish did, on the open cart. The Rag Man would take virtually anything that might raise a few coppers. God knows where he took the bottles, rags, stinking rabbit skins etc., etc., and rumour had it the Rag Men would also dispose of dead dogs & cats by selling them to people keeping pigs (and quite a lot of people did), to be boiled up in swill coppers along with tasty items like old cabbage leaves, rotten potatoes and discarded pieces of ‘gone off’ fish crawling with maggots, from the local chippy!
Please don’t mix ‘Rag & Bone’ people up with the itinerant tinkers around today who litter the countryside with their discarded junk. No! In the main these were ordinary people, the poorest of the poor, trying to earn a copper or two to buy a crust of bread, knowing that in the job market, they had no chance.
Usually, they would start with a rusty, worn out perambulator, (pram) the body of which tilted at a crazy angle due to one or more of the springs collapsing. This put all the dead weight onto the wheels, and so within a very short time the wheels would buckle alarmingly, squealing in protest through lack of oil, threatening at every turn to fall off, and often doing just that, leaving the sweating, cursing Rag Man to hammer it back as best as he could with a brick end.
For the irregular Rag Man, a small hand cart could be hired from the firm which hired carts out to the ‘Moonlight Flitters’ dodging the rent man! Sometimes, (but rarely) the Rag Man would make a go of it and graduate to a horse & cart.
Like most kiddies, Mais, Ron and I were great pet fanciers (that is until the novelty wore off) and be about right, you can’t do much with minnows or tadpoles which we knew would end up down the lavatory anyway when Mam got fed up with the mess we made with the water.
‘Ragga Bone, Ragga Bone, Goldfish for Ragga Bone!’
That did it, and so before the man could disappear up the street we dashed indoors, rushed to the bottom of the stairs and shouted up,
‘Mabel, have we got any old rags, (That’s a laugh, we were mostly wearing them!) We want to get a goldfish!?’
Mabel called back, ‘I don’t know!’ but then dragging herself to the top of the stairs and seeing our crestfallen faces said,
‘Have a look in the kitchen; Mam said she was going to put some old bits of cloth out for dusters!’
Into the kitchen we sped with Mabel’s, ‘And bring them back if there aren’t enough for a fish!’ ringing in our ears.
It was better than we’d ever imagined for there on the old kitchen table was quite a pile of cloths which were scooped up by one whilst the others hunted around for a jam jar to put the fish in should we have enough bits! Out into the street we sped, all out of breath!
‘Here Mister, please can we have a goldfish for these?’
The man took the small pile proffered, pawed over them whilst we waited with baited breath. No way was he going to push us off with one of those small celluloid whistles handed out to those unfortunates not able to provide the amount of rags for a fish! We had our orders from Mabel!!!!
With never a word said, the man pushed our items into a bag tied to the handlebars of the cart and scooped out one goldfish to be placed in our jam jar aquarium! We set off back home surrounded by a hoard of less fortunate who hadn’t been able to do business with the man, all oohing & ahhhing and crooning,
‘Let’s see your goldfish then?’
Fame at last!
It was too good to last though. Mabel met us at our gate, quite clearly upset and hanging onto the fence, ashen faced and trembling. We didn’t need to be told it wouldn’t take much to send her over the brink thus bringing on one of her terrible coughing and haemorrhaging bouts.
‘Have you moved any of my clothes?’ she asked!
‘No Mabel’ we chorused, ‘Do you want to see our goldfish?’
‘I can’t find my underclothes’ she went on, ‘I left them on the side of the kitchen sink; Mam was going to wash them out for me!’
‘We haven’t seen them Mabel, honest we haven’t; we’d tell you if we had, but we haven’t! All we did was take those old things off the kitchen table like you told us we could!’
It was at this point we realised……….now we knew why the Rag Man had so eagerly handed over the precious goldfish which in normal circumstances would’ve needed far more than our small pile of rags to claim!
I will explain…….. Before the bad times really hit us with the desertion of the old man, Mabel had spent many weeks at a time in the sanatorium where she began to develop an interest in and talent for embroidery. She’d graduated to working on her pure silk camiknickers, which were purchased for her as gifts by various aunts. The undies when finally finished were beautiful; worked with various coloured silk threads into rose buds, lily of the valley, violets and pansies. Today they’d be worth a lot of money but to her then, they were beyond price as they were the flowers she’d known and loved in the garden of the house from where we’d been evicted. She loved flowers so much but was never to see or smell them again in our reduced circumstances. Just in case our worst fears were groundless we turned that kitchen upside down, looking and hoping, but they weren’t there.
I can’t speak for the other two but I was terrified, for I could see Mabel was getting more and more upset and I dreaded the onset of another haemorrhage caused by grief and anger, not to mention fear of what our Mam would give us when she came home and discovered what we had done, however innocently!
We just flew out of the house! Up and down the street we ran, goldfish in the jar and its contents hugged tight. God, if we dropped it now! I bet the poor creature was seasick with the motion of our haste. Everyone we passed, received the same hurled question,
‘Please Mister/ Missus, has a Rag and Bone Man come this way?’
drawing a negative or ‘don’t know’, from the bemused recipient of our questioning, and then finally,
‘Yes! He’s in the next street!’
And he was, we’d found him! Frantically, we pushed the jam jar and its contents at him with,
‘Please mister, we made a mistake! You’ve got our Mabel’s best undies; they were only out for washing!’
He knew alright, for without even touching the trash in his cart, he reached into the sack tied to his handlebars and took out Mabel’s pretties, already tied together into a neat bundle. They were never going to go to the rag sorters with the rest of the rubbish!
Reluctantly, wistfully, we held out the jam jar with its precious contents in exchange for that little bundle of silk. He took the fish and the jar.
Now, jam jars would fetch a halfpenny if handed in….. and the halfpenny purchased two little farthing sweets, but he just took the jar and fish and said nothing.
‘Please mister……’ began our Ronnie!
‘Yes?’ snapped the Rag Man!’
‘We gave you some other bits of cloth with those things!’
No prizes for guessing who got a lousy little celluloid whistle, that didn’t whistle anyway!
Our luck was still holding; the bad luck that is……..!
(Norman: Through My Eyes. A social and personal history of Leicester – available from Amazon)
About the author
Jules registered at Leicester, Born and Raised. on Jul 16, 2020, 06:07 PM and has posted 1 posts in the boards since then. Last visit was Aug 25, 2023, 09:36 AM.
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