The end of the road for the rag-and-bone man

Real rag-and-bone men are a rare and dying breed in London. Their sons have traded in the horses and carts and now own junk shops, house clearance or scrap metal businesses. You do still see the odd totter, in Mitcham, Deptford, or around Shepherd's Bush, looking out-of-place in the heavy late 20th-century traffic.

Deptford, the legendary birthplace of the totter, boasts four such survivors: Grimsby, Tom Davies, Taffy and Corky.

The woman in the cafe on Brookmill Road tells me that they're an odd bunch, and don't say much, even to people they know. Corky's usually the friendliest. Corky goes out most days, and will roam for hours. Him and his black and white pony, Sarah, are known as far from home as Stockwell. The others are older, and aren't seen so regularly; it's a tough job, especially in bad weather.

She directs me down to the second-hand electrical goods shop, telling me its proprietor, the Major, would know where I could find Corky.

It's 8.30am and the Major's opening up, dragging cookers out onto the pavement. He tells me where Corky keeps Sarah, and says I should catch him about now. But he warns me that the totters are all as daft as brushes, especially Corky.

'I used to have to go out totting when I was a boy,' the Major tells me. 'My dad used to make me. I couldn't stand the cold and the wet, I was scared of the horse; and all that shouting made my throat hurt. I got a bell to ring instead, one of those big Victorian bells. It was so heavy it made my wrist hurt. I got out as soon as I could, and joined the Army. That's why I'm called The Major.'

The totters stop regularly at the Major's shop, sometimes in the hope of flogging him a crippled fridge or cooker. But changes in safety regulations mean that the Major can't lawfully sell on anything more than 20 years old because the wiring's all wrong. More often they've come to ask if he'll give them some old parts to make their load up for the scrap metal yard. There's very little money in it, but as the Major says, they don't know nothing else, so they just keep going.

Corky, for instance, he never went to school, so he can't read or write, according to the Major. He can't make more than a few quid a week, after he's paid for Sarah's stable and her hay, but he lives with his old mum still, hasn't got kids to support. The Major reckons he's happy as long as he's got enough for a couple of brown ales.

The stables are five minutes away from the Major's shop. When I arrive, there's a couple of men already there. John and Billy are getting breakfast ready for their horses. They tell me Corky's normally here by now, and his absence is a bit of a mystery until John remembers that Corky's mum is away on her holiday. 'He'll have done himself some damage with the brown ale last night,' John grins.

John and Billy tell me they too used to be totters, but they got out years ago. They've kept their horses on as a hobby. They remember when there were over 300 working horses in Deptford. There was practically a farrier on every street corner. These days you have to wait for the bloke from Sevenoaks to come up, and he charges the earth. Luckily for Corky, Sarah's light on her feet and only needs shoeing once every six weeks.

John says that the cost of stabling and feeding a horse has also risen dramatically. He holds 'those young birds' responsible - middle-class female adolescents who pay through the nose for the care of their beloved pets.

Billy's dad was a totter, and his grandad, and even his gran. Billy used to go out with her as a small boy, collecting cast-offs and bric-a-brac in a battered pram.

Billy's grandad collected actual bones and took them down to the soap factory on Giffen Street. He'd get pounds 2 for a hundredweight. Textiles would be handed over to the women to sort. Any decent clothes could be sold on to the market stall-holders. Clothes they couldn't get rid of and didn't want themselves went to the textile banks, to be sold on to the Third World countries by the ton.

The rags were sorted into wipers, white net, linen and wool. The wipers would go to the industries, for the manual workers to clean their hands on, much more economical than paper towels.

Corky turns up at about 10am, in a bit of a bad mood. He can't decide whether he can be bothered to harness Sarah up to the trolley and actually go out. 'It's a gamble,' he explains. 'I might go to the trouble and finish empty-handed. But then you never know what gem some daft bint might throw out.'

He tells me that some people round there have more money than sense. 'The stuff these yuppies throw away could make them a fortune at a car boot sale, but they can't be bothered. They love the idea of recycling though, and when they think of it, handing things on to the local rag-and-bone man really appeals. They love the horse and trolley lark, the bell ringing, the shouting. So every now and then you'll catch one of them in, and they'll bring out some electrical thing they think's broken, clean forgetting it runs on batteries. Even dafter than me, they are.

'But mostly they're out at work. It's only their cleaning ladies or their nannies that are in. They might come out for a bit of a flirt, or to let the kids have a look, but that's about it. And, of course, we're in competition with the charity shops.'

The only thing he can rely on is finding a bit of old metal on a skip, or left out on the pavement for him, to take down to the yard. He gets a lot more for non-ferrous metal. Car batteries are great because of all the lead in them.

Corky sets off - he might as well, there isn't much else to do. A couple of hours later he's down at the Major's shop, distinctly less loquacious. His trolley now contains an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner, a wheel hub, an electric fan heater and a pair of ancient, clanking roller-skates. Not a good morning. The Major doesn't want the vacuum cleaner or fan heater, but gives

Corky an old boiler, heavy enough

to fetch him a fiver down at the

scrap metal yard.

The foreman at the scrap metal yard tells me they pay pounds 25 a ton for the lowest grade scrap metal, going up to pounds 65 a ton for high grade - constructional steel and car engines. A totter might get pounds 10 to pounds 15 a load, unless he's been lucky enough to get some non-ferrous metal. Copper fetches pounds 1,000 a ton. 'On average, a totter won't make more than pounds 40 a week. We regard them as a bit of a novelty to be honest.'

He points out that under the new European legislation the totters should be complying with London Waste Regulation Authority rules, be licensed and get or give a receipt on every transaction of metal, five copies of which should be made. Of course, the totters wouldn't be able to handle that kind of paperwork. In most cases their lack of compliance doesn't really present a threat to the environment, but the foreman shudders when he sees a car battery bouncing around loose on a totter's trolley. The legislation requires that they go straight into a plastic container. You're meant to give the authorities three days' written notice before you transport a battery into a different borough or county.

Corky pockets his fiver and heads straight for the pub. He grabs his pint almost before it's quite pulled and stalks off without a word.

The barman shakes his head. 'No manners at all,' he mutters. 'That lot keep themselves to themselves, they don't like anyone to know their business. I reckon they fancy themselves as freemasons or something, guarding some amazing secret, but the secret is there isn't no secret. They're just crazy old totters who don't know when to call it a day.'

(Photograph omitted)

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