Little Jock the Totter
I’ve just had a question from ‘Jock the Totter’ which has brought to mind something I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time. Rag and bone men. Originally they really did collect rags and bones – the rags were sold onto proto-recyclers to create a cheap fabric called shoddy; leftover bones from people’s dinners went to the glue factory. But totters never just stopped at that – they’d take anything, sometimes paying for stuff with cheap crocks instead of cash – or, as my gran used to smart, not paying at all. She never forgave the chap who took a bath she’d accidentally left in the front garden (no, I don’t know, either. It was the Olden Days…)
Back in the sixties Jock lived in Peckham, but he used to tot all around Greenwich, Woolwich, Charlton, Plumstead and Blackheath. He hired his horse from Bailey Dabin in the arches next to the Robin Hood and Little John pub (I’m not really sure where that was, but it could be an answer to a question I was asked years ago and couldn’t answer at the time ) where all the totters used to drink.
“I met some wonderful characters – in the sixties they would be that many totters passing the Broadway most days. There was a chap in Deptford, he went into the business of hiring out skip lorries and building materials, the last I heard of him he had a yard in Douglas Street, his name was Ron Welling (if you get in touch with him tell him that Little Jock is alive and kicking, mention Teddy Parnell – he will know, but it’s nearly 40 years since I last spoke to him.) I hope you will be able to find out if there is any totters left.”
Well, yes, we do still have them round my way, over in East Greenwich, though the romance has gone out of it all in my humble opinion. Nowadays they drive around in a beat-up old van (though they still ring a handbell, which is something) looking for old bikes, washing machines, lawn mowers etc. – no horse, no cart no ‘any old iron’ ( to be honest I’m not sure I personally remember any of that but sometimes shared memory is the strongest of all.) I sincerely doubt they’d be interested in either rags or bones. I guess they come round about once every six months or so. Perhaps less.
But that’s not to say that rag and bone men are dying. As materials become more scarce, as people lose work and recycling becomes more a necessity than a craze, who’s to say the totters’ won’t come back in force?
If I were starting out as a rag and bone phantom, I’d be going for jam jars (no not the rhyming slang variety). Apparently they’re all the rage among the cognoscenti…
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