The Crossing Sweeper.
“Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don't know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don't know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don't find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can't spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What's home? Knows a broom's a broom, and knows it's wicked to tell a lie. Don't recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both.”
-‘A Bleak House’
By Charles Dickens.
Jennie Lee as Jo in 'Bleak House'
Last year during a module that consisted of study of London, I visited the Museum of London were I stumbled across the painting by William Powell Frith, ‘The Crossing Sweeper’ (1858 edition1). Till this day it has been imprinted in my mind as it vividly offers a contemporary reader an insight of the Victorian period. Frith exposes in this simplistically compelling oil painting; the Victorian social structure, culture and attitude. Upon initial glance from contemporary spectator, ‘The Crossing Sweeper’ is a deeply moving, dull and depressing image that depicts a solid focus on child poverty. However after further inspection of the Victorians, this image is a political one, one that reveals the treatment of children in the harsh nature of this society. This was not a commonly discussed topic in this period, however writers such as Dickens and Mayhew were disturbed by the lack of attention and concern of child poverty and labour in this period. This post will examine the role of a crossing sweeper and the way in which they were treated in the Victorian society using the painting by Frith and ‘Preston Mills’ by Ebenezer Elliot .
A crossing sweeper is “a person who sweeps a (street) crossing”. This is usually a child (boy), though some under privileged elderly or disabled were offering this service as well. Regardless of who the individuals were, they all had one thing in common and that was the fact they were the vulnerable people in society-due to their physical, social and educational circumstances. This meant that they were not able to make sufficient money the conventional way. Consequently, the only other option was to beg. To beg in this period was problematic in itself, not only was it difficult to collect money but beggars were scorned, detested and occasionally attacked. Yet at times sweeping was not far better, these individuals went out daily whether be day or night, rainy or sunny to the congested, dirty and dangerous roads in England. Could you imagine the poor quality of their lives?
Henry Mayhew ; London Labour and London Poor.
'The Crossing Sweeper' by William Powell Frith (1858)
The painting by Frith demonstrates child poverty, labour and class distinction within the Victorian era. He captures a moment which seems like a wealthy woman attempting to walk away from a child-boy sweeper. The posture and stature of the women appears to be tense, resembling someone who maybe slightly apprehensive or disgusted with being in the presences of a filthy commoner. Her form is shifted away from him and face held up high with a controlled expression, perhaps due to hygiene matters or plain arrogance. Whereas the poor child completely faces the woman and lifts his hand to cover the sun from obstructing the view of her -to virtually beg her to look and notice him for the individual he is, rather than another irritating sweeper. In this version of the painting it is clear that the boy stricken by the lack of compassion and attention shown by the woman. The child’s shock and disappointment is not at the slightest bit surprising for both a Victorian and modern spectator, as women were and currently are viewed as compassionate and considerate creatures-evoked by their natural maternal instincts. The deficiency of this instinct is a commentary on the upper class society especially criticising the females, on their lack of emotion. Somehow a question arises: can wealth and morality coexist?
'The Crossing Sweeper' by Frith (1893)
In 1893 Frith had reproduced ‘The Crossing Sweeper’ several times. The image below is the second most well-known image after the original. In this painting both the woman has been changed and her outfit. It vividly displays that fashion, carriages and buildings have drastically been altered within the space of thirty years (after the first edition 1858) and yet, society did nothing regarding child poverty and labour- in the form of crossing sweepers. This is symbolised through the use of the same child from the first painting with the same clothing.
Interestingly, in this edition (above) the woman has an umbrella as an accessory. Umbrella’s in this era is a whole topic of its own. It was used both as an accessory and a device to keep the rain or sun away. Here there is a powerful contrast between the umbrella and the broom held by the child. The ‘brolly’ as the Victorian’s would call it, represents luxury, wealth and leisure. While, the child’s broom could ultimately be the instrument that keeps him alive. This demonstrates that with different stations in life come different priorities.
Paintings visually helped uncover the conditions that working children faced on a day to day basis. Whilst literature allowed the Victorian’s understand the full extent of their emotions and what they had experienced. Elliot’s ‘Preston Mills’ is one of the many poems in the chartist period (a few years before ‘The Crossing Sweeper’) that observes the lack of concern for the factory children. He suggests that manual labour is not suitable for children as they are not physically built for it:
“ But from their lips the rose had fled,
Like ‘death-in-life’ they smiled;
And still, as each passed by, I said,
Alas! is that a child? ”
Elliot mentions that the children's health had deteriorated, leaving them almost at the brink of death. He sympathises with the children- that their childhood and innocence is snatched away as well as their youth. At the end of the poem he enquires where the working children’s mothers are. This a substantial question. Majority of the children who worked in factories or as sweepers were children who had no parents to look out for them or their families expected them to provide in any way they possibly could. Ultimately neither the families nor society cared enough about working children.