Thursday, February 24, 2011

Whither the Mudlark, Rag and Boneman, the Tramp?

I had to look up 'whither' to make sure I had it right. It makes a great question.

I'm reading a new collection drawn from Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor in which he details the multitude of occupations of the city's poor in the middle of the 19th century. Mudlarks collected anything that could be sold from the tidal flats around the city. The cover of this collection features a rag man, seemingly taken by surprise as he sorts rags and bones from a small heap of garbage. I add 'tramp' to this list, because it is a term I grew up with, meaning somebody who traveled around, 'getting by'.I appreciate Mayhew's tone- sociological, journalistic in its reporting of the facts of these occupations, and the lives they support. Never maudlin, never scolding like his contemporary Dickens could be. Nevertheless, Mayhew makes it clear that most of London's labourers are frankly poor, no more than one illness (or other brief break from their work) away from the Poor House.

I also appreciate Mayhew's detailed 'testimonies' from his subjects, his recognition of their expertise in complex economic practices that make up their strategies for getting by. Imagine the complexity of making a living by picking rags, or being a mudlark, or more likely both?

But most of all, I am frankly overwhelmed to read such clear and deliberate accounts of the 'real' economy written a century and a half ago, when today... Well, when today the only 'economy' we hear anything about is the officially accounted economy that the government endeavors to control. When, today, such economic practices persist, here, everywhere, and yet are only acknowledged as the undifferentiated mass of the 'informal sector'.

The shadow economic activity of 'getting by' persists, it is apparent every garbage day when people come by, pulling wagons on their bikes, looking for scrap metal. In the summer, every morning at the river we meet people collecting empty beer and liquor bottles, for the deposit. We forage stuff ourselves, from seeds to cloth to metal for the stuff we do around here- planting gardens, making cloth, building birdhouses. We don't get by with our foraging- we don't need to- but it lets us get stuff we need within walking distance! And, ours is part of a strangely invisible economy that Mayhew recognized as part of the 'whole'.

And, I would add, built in small territories and with short journeys. There is always something small and intimate, minute and highly contextual in informal activities. As much as they are generally everywhere (I've seen them in every part of every country I've been in), they are always specific in their ingenuity.

Now, the work of 'getting by' can't be romanticized- but it can't be demeaned, either. It just needs to be noted for what it is- a mindset, an ethos, an ability. So, the answer to my question is 'no', the mudlark, rag man and tramp are still here. Invisible, but here.


  1. I was thinking that it was an earth-awareness and I see now that would fall into the category of mindset. Nice post, I enjoyed this. I grew up with the term, tramp, too.

  2. Interesting will have to read Mayhew too, I find the mudlarking a fascinating concept, having stumbled on it previously and felt akin to it. Think I may be descended from a line of folks that got by like that!
    Use what we materialism we have, before we use up anything fresh you know?
    Im in my purest element when Im foraging on the sea or river shores. My most favourite place is Spurn head where flotsam and jetsom arrive twice daily on the tides that flow onto this simply amazing spit of land, that juts into the North Sea in north east Uk.
    One clever artist has made a singular art of gathering the various man made clap trap that ends up there and has framed series of 24 dummies, 24 paint brush handles etc..... its a sad comment on our society today, but like as not little different to that of the mudlarkers on the Thames back then.
    I posted about this chap whsoe name escapes me now duhhh, will pop back with a link in case your interested.
    Being a tidal river the Humber estuary past Spurn Point also has a different kind of flotsam, so the entire area is such a joy to wander on.
    Mind you that Thames mud of old would have been largely human waste! So not at all romantic to sift through!
    Interestingly there are still metal detectors pottering along stretches of the Thames even now since there are such a lot of wrecks in the river!
    As a child I had a fascination for tips and rubbish dumps and how I didnt poison myself I dont know, because I sifted thru all sorts of detrius I realise now!
    I recall the dickensian 'tramps' from my youth too in the 1950s and now they are tagged as itinerants/homeless or 'living on the street'. None of which I suspect categorises them correctly as individuals with stories of their own.
    I suppose the gypsy... or in the Uk the Irish 'tinkers' are similar to those mudlarkers. Living off what they can find
    (and maybe benefits too lol)though in the Uk the tinkers leave a godawful mess of scrap behind them when they move on.
    Having said that here in Yorkshire, last summer, I frequently passed a single really old traditional covered wagon gypsy traveller couple and noticed they didnt leave a trail of debris behind them.
    I'd love to know their story, if they are gypsy stock or Banking hierachy on the run!

  3. Martin Waters
    spurn point wildlife reserve artist in residence blogspot

  4. Hi Wendy, thanks for your comment on boro cloth. That is a new group blog for when CWB is finished . Would you like to take part in it? Let me know and I will send you an invite - nat

  5. thank you for this post wendy. i love the
    term mudlark

  6. You know it is odd .... but in this weeks tv guide it advertised a programme on the HD channel which I guess is a SKY tv channel which I do not have!!! about 2 chaps mudlarking on the Thames!
    Apparently within a short space of time they find a preserved elizabthan shoe, a silver button and some other ancient old thing...they are archeologists in rubber gear and huge wellies!!
    Mind you it said the second half of the programme wasnt as much fun because they had moved onto someplace else and left the mud and goo of the river bank.
    So maybe look out for this programme on HD if you have access to it?
    Am awaiting my Mayhew book from Amazon by the way lol

  7. sounds like an interesting read. the term 'ragman' brought back a memory of my mom and grandma looking out the window and saying 'the ragman is here' but i cannot remember who that referred to. i guess he must have been selling something but i can't remember what it was.

  8. Thanks for this Deanna; I am always taken aback at how recently things like 'rag picking' were still common, and how completely they seem to have disappeared!


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