RAG AND bone men, also known as ‘totters’, used to patrol central London as late as the early 1970s, but have now almost completely disappeared from the city. A correspondent tells me that one does the rounds somewhere in the borough of Sutton, and I’d be very grateful to learn of any other sightings.
This recording of a rag and bone man (BBC catalogue number 895977) was made in April 1957. There’s no indication it was intended for any specific broadcast and the catalogue entry is very brief:
Rag and bone man crying his trade. Band 1: Cry comes nearer and then breaks into patter to a customer asking for scrap metal, rags, etc. Band 2: Cry comes nearer and then goes away into the distance accompanied by the rattle of the man’s cart.
Both tracks or bands are short and so have been edited together here to make a single sound file. The ‘patter to a customer’ sounds as if performed solely for the benefit of the microphone. The rag and bone man asks for rags, scrap metal and old motor batteries. As the entry states, the noise of the cart can be heard clearly but there’s no sound of a horse’s hooves, so perhaps the cart was small enough for the rag and bone man to push by himself.
The ‘bone’ part of the cry had likely survived both as a tradition and for the ease with which its drawn-out o syllable could carry across a distance, even though bones themselves were no longer sought.
The BBC’s most famous rag-and-bone men were Steptoe and Son, but they were predated by the character of Sid Crier in the radio comedy series Band Waggon from 1938 to 1940. Crier, played by the Salford-born actor Syd Walker, took the role of agony uncle in which he’d meet troubled people on his rounds and give advice over a cup of tea.
Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.