Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper

Romance of London: Strange Stories, Scenes And Remarkable Person of the Great Town in 3 Volumes

John Timbs

John Timbs (1801-1875), who also wrote as Horace Welby, was an English author and aficionado of antiquities. Born in Clerkenwell, London, he was apprenticed at 16 to a druggist and printer, where he soon showed great literary promise. At 19, he began to write for Monthly Magazine, and a year later he was made secretary to the magazine’s proprietor and there began his career as a writer, editor, and antiquarian.

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What is a Crossing Sweeper?

From Wikipedia:

Crossing sweepers were a common sight on the streets of large cities during much of the 19th century. The predominance of horse-drawn vehicles—and the general uncleanliness of urban streets—entailed certain difficulties in crossing intersections. For example, the long dresses of many elite women might easily be soiled by horse droppings (among other forms of refuse). Crossing sweepers, by sweeping the pavement ahead of a person crossing the street and creating a path that was referred to as a “broom walk,” thus offered a service, particularly to the more affluent.


A Remarkable Tale

The Rev. Samuel Bache, Minister of the New Meeting House, Birmingham, received the following very remarkable story from a venerable friend, one of the principal members of his congregation, some five-and-twenty years hence.

child sweeper

The late Mr. Simcox, of Harbourne, near Birmingham, who was largely engaged in the nail trade, in one of his visits to London, on business, was suddenly overtaken by a heavy shower of rain, from which he sought shelter under an archway: the rain continued for a long time with unabated violence, and he was, consequently, obliged to remain his place of shelter. He was soon agreeably surprised by a footman approaching with an umbrella, with his master’s compliments, and that he had observed the gentleman standing so long under the archway, that he feared he might take cold, and therefore would be glad if he would come and take shelter in his house—an invitation which Mr. Simcox gladly accepted. He was ushered into a drawing-room, where the master of the house was sitting, and he received from him a friendly welcome.


Scarcely, however, had Mr. Simcox set eyes on his host, than he was struck with a vague remembrance of having seen him before; but where, or under what circumstances, he was altogether unable to call to mind. “You seem, sir,” said he, “to look at me as though you had seen me before.” Mr. Simcox acknowledged that his host was right in his conjectures, but confessed his entire inability to recall the occasion. “You are right, sir,” said the old gentleman; “and if you will pledge your word as a man of honour to keep my secret, and not to disclosed to anyone what I am now going to tell you until you have seen the notice of my death in the London papers, I have no objection to remind you where and how you have known me.”

In St. James’s Park, near Spring Gardens, you may pass every day an old man, who sweeps a crossing there, and whose begging is attended by this strange peculiarity—that whatever be the amount of the alms bestowed on him, he will retain only a halfpenny, and scrupulously return to the donor all the rest. Such an unusual proceeding naturally excites the curiosity of those who hear of it; and anyone who has himself made the experiment, when he happens to be walking by with a friend, is almost sure to say to him, ‘Do you see that old fellow there? He is the strangest beggar you ever saw in your life. If you give him sixpence, he will be sure to give you fivepence-halfpenny back again.’ Of course, his friend makes the experiment, which turns out as predicted; and as crowds of people are constantly passing, there are numbers of persons every day who make the same trial; and thus the old man gets many a halfpenny from the curiosity of the passers by, in addition to what he obtains from their compassion.”

“I, sir,” continued the old gentleman, “am that beggar. Many years ago, I first hit upon the expedient for the relief of my then pressing necessities; for I was at that time utterly destitute; but finding the scheme answer beyond my expectations, I was induced to carry it on until I had at last, and with the aid of profitable investment, realized a handsome fortune, enabling me to live in the comfort in which you find me this day. And now, sir, such is the force of habit, that, thought I am no longer under any necessity for continuing this plan, I find myself quite unable to give it up; and, accordingly, every morning I leave home, apparently for business purposes, and go to a room, where I put on my old beggar’s clothes, and continue sweeping my crossing in the park till a certain hour in the afternoon, when I go back to my room, resume my usual dress, and return home in time for dinner, as you see me this day.”

Mr. Simcox, as a gentleman and a man of honour, scrupulously fulfilled his pledge; but having seen in the London papers the announcement of the beggar’s death, he then communicated this strange story. The name of this eccentric person is not known; but the incidents are recollected by more than one narrator.

The crossing-sweeper nuisance.

Crossing-sweeping as a Career Choice?

Apparently some sweepers, even without gimmicks, made a good living from it.

The produce of a street crossing in London is sometimes considerable. At an inquest held on the body of a crossing sweeper, who had died suddenly, Mr. Wakley, the coroner, said that the sweeper of a crossing sold his interest in it for 40l. A juror observed that crosswings were freehold, by which many proprietors amassed, in former days, sums of 500l, 1,000l, 4,000l. Another juror alluded to the sweeper of the crossing at Bridge Street, Blackfriars, who bequeathed a large sum to Miss Waithman (daughter of the alderman) in gratitude for her benevolence in giving him his dinner every Sunday; and another gentleman said that the sweeper of a crossing near Hyde Park bequeathed 1,000l to a gentleman who was in the habit of giving him 6d whenever he passed his crossing.

Romance of London Series

  1. Romance of London: The Lord Mayor’s Fool… and a Dessert
  2. Romance of London: Carlton House and the Regency
  3. Romance of London: The Championship at George IV’s Coronation
  4. Romance of London: Mrs. Cornelys at Carlisle House
  5. Romance of London: The Bottle Conjuror
  6. Romance of London: Bartholomew Fair
  7. Romance of London: The May Fair and the Strong Woman
  8. Romance of London: Nancy Dawson, the Hornpipe Dancer
  9. Romance of London: Milkmaids on May-Day
  10. Romance of London: Lord Stowell’s Love of Sight-seeing
  11. Romance of London: The Mermaid Hoax
  12. Romance of London: The Bluestocking and the Sweeps’ Holiday
  13. Romance of London: Comments on Hogarth’s “Industries and Idle Apprentices”
  14. Romance of London: The Lansdowne Family
  15. Romance of London: St. Margaret’s Painted Window at Westminster
  16. Romance of London: Montague House and the British Museum
  17. Romance of London: The Bursting of the South Sea Bubble
  18. Romance of London: The Thames Tunnel
  19. Romance of London: Sir William Petty and the Lansdowne Family
  20. Romance of London: Marlborough House and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough
  21. Romance of London: The Duke of Newcastle’s Eccentricities
  22. Romance of London: Voltaire in London
  23. Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper
  24. Romance of London: Nathan Mayer Rothschild’s Fear of Assassination
  25. Romance of London: Samuel Rogers, the Banker Poet
  26. Romance of London: The Eccentricities of Lord Byron
  27. Romance of London: A London Recluse

3 thoughts on “Romance of London: The Crossing Sweeper

  1. It’s amazing that some made a fortune sweeping pathways for the elite. This story reminds me of celebrities today and their entourages. How they do everything for celebrities including holding umbrellas for them like in the story.

    This was a very interesting post. Thank you.


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