Living On Dustbins

Pearson’s Weekly, on Thursday the 27th of April 1911 took a close look at how the children of Whitechapel entered the City of London to search the dustbins for anything that could be sold or which might prove useful:-


Mr. P. Doubleyou Throws a Little Light on a Pitiful Business.

I wonder how many people have seen the ragged little army that invades the City of London every night after the City men have gone home.

The ages of the invaders are anything between six and twelve, and they come from the courts and alleys of Whitechapel, and the Borough, and King’s Cross, to poke among the dirt in the dust-bins for newspapers, envelopes, foreign stamps, cardboard boxes, old ink-cloths, pen-wipers, bottles, straw and similar refuse.

You and I would laugh at the very thought of the diet being useful, but the children tell touching tales of families contriving to struggle along on the proceeds of it, and of how the home fires are kept going with the cinders from City office grates.


The little toddlers – many are scarcely more – make a regular business of this refuse grubbing, and they have their particular districts just the same as the postman and the man who brings round the milk for the clerks’ afternoon tea.

They work in twos and threes. One stands on guard at the entrance to a building while the others explore the dust-bins which stand in the ground floor passages awaiting the refuse collectors who call in the early morning.

A group of people rummage amongst the detritus of a dust mound.
Women Working On Dust Heaps.


Now and again you come across mites so small that they have actually to climb up and balance themselves on the bin’s edge.

When one happens to fall head-first inside and a charwoman happens to come along, she calls a constable.

Robert wears a solemn look, takes out his notebook, and pretends to write down the child’s name and address. And then the tears come, and the big-hearted “bobby” gives the starved youngster a copper and sees that it is spent in much needed food.


I know a child who specialises in old newspapers,  which sell at threepence for twenty pounds, and she and her sister often gather sixpennyworth during an evening.

Another child has an arrangement with a marine store man to supply him with bottles – broken and whole – and it is amazing what a large number of bottles are found in the dust-bins.

Some children who know the offices of agents who have samples of china coming daily, make a point of taking only the straw in which the samples have been packed, and they sell the straw to costermongers, who use it for bedding down their donkeys.

A large number spend their time looking for foreign stamps.

When I inquired how the children managed to learn so much about the various businesses conducted in the various offices, I was astonished to hear that their parents make a habit of going carefully through the business directory before sending the youngsters out.


“I could spot a good many homes,” my informant remarked, “in which the fathers could tell you as much almost about business in certain parts of the City as the business men know themselves.”

They take the Directory, select a street, pick out blocks of offices, and, having satisfied themselves from the nature of the trade done there that good refuse may be expected, they stroll by the offices one evening in order to find out where the dust-bins are placed and the time when the cleaners are engaged overhead.

Then they give their children instructions, and the young poverty pickers turn out with sacks and begin to prowl.

It would never do, of course, for the parents to do the prowling – they would excite suspicion. The children, on the other hand, excite sympathy.


It is a sight of London – a sight that ought to be in the guide books. A tattered army – an army of white faces and expressive eyes. An army of children who talk and slouch along like hunted men and women.

Some are crippled, some are diseased; all arc products of the slums and of misfortune.

Perhaps one of the little invaders “falls out” beneath the weight of her sack and rolls over in the gutter near where, a few hours before, a millionaire’s motor glided up to receive its owner.

These are the type of children that the Fresh Air Fund seeks to raise by giving them a glimpse of God’s pure country.”