Little Jock the Totter

This chap was snapped in Dublin in 2010 by John Lindie, but I guess this would have been a common sight in Greenwich for centuries. Sadly Jock lost all his Greenwich totting pics when he moved back to Scotland

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.

He remembers

“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…


the attachments to this post:

This chap was snapped in Dublin in 2010 by John Lindie, but I guess this would have been a common sight in Greenwich for centuries.
Rag and bone man dublin


5 Comments to “Little Jock the Totter”

  1. Steve says:

    The guys who cruise round in open-topped vans are round here (Charlton) pretty much every day. They perform quite a useful service actually – I put an old dishwasher out on my front drive ready to load into my car to take to the dump, but it was whisked away within a couple of days. Same with an old car battery.

  2. Meirion says:

    Moved to Devonshire Drive in mid 1990s and we still used to get proper horse-and-cart, any-old-iron, rag-and-bone men who lived under the carriage ramp at Deptford station until about 2000. Not sure any of the Steptoes made it into the 21st Century. Around here they’ve been replaced by fully motorised Stepoviches from successive countries as they made it into the European Union. And if any of them want to cart off the white Iveco van that’s been abandoned in the street since before Christmas they’d be doing us all a favour.

  3. cerletone says:

    Sounds like a spot of racism creeping in there Meirion.

    There are a fair few of them operating in Charlton, but I think these guys in pick up trucks do us all a favour. Greenwich council will remove stuff if you pay them a tenner; these guys do it for nothing. Win-win all round.

  4. Anon says:

    I found them (Transit based) very useful when I was renovating a house in Coleraine Road. I had removed an old boiler and put it outside ready to take to the tip when a van screeched to a halt and someone said, “Can I have that?”. Same again when I removed an old steel bath. Just left it leaning against a tree and it was gone in a couple of hours.

  5. Meirion says:

    Cerletone – you’re quick with the abuse – too quick perhaps? But you’re looking for racism where there is none – I too think they do a good job but find it interesting how successive waves of industrious immigrants start by making a living out of what we just throw away. Now about that Iveco van…