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  • Writer's pictureMona Neilson

"Sell your bones"

"Make haste and sell your bones”, is what the rag and bone man, totters and grubbers of London, would shout as they scrounged the streets for scraps and goods. The old profession was born alongside the invention of movable type. Lightweight, quickly produced, cheap paper was needed for printing - in the 16th century, that paper was made through the process of boiling rags and bones together. From this, a demand developed for those materials.

The totters

The totters were easy to spot. With their red silk scarves, horses and carts, shouting down the road for any unused rags or bits of bones that didn’t quite make it into the evening tea. Quickly, the collection of scraps evolved beyond the paper companies’ needs. Other industries needed other materials that could be collected amongst the junk abandoned in the street. So the totters began collecting scrap metal, unwanted utilities and other recyclable material that they could then sell on. Households got to clear their clutter and the streets remained virtually junk-free. This system was a delicate ecosystem of functional exchange. The rag and bone men were essential in the recycling and reusing of valuable materials and were commonly known amongst communities. Some say that some of them even offered goldfish as a reward for those that gave them scraps.

SE5's rag and bone man

SE5’s last rag and bone man was known on the streets of Camberwell as Pottsy. He earned his name from his side hustle as a potman. You could catch him collecting and returning empty glasses for the humble wage of a pint at the Old Dispensary, the Nag’s Head, Hermit’s Cave and the Silver Buckle. All of them rougher than the other, specifically the Silver Buckle, an emblem for the highwaymen and a go-to-spot for just about every criminal in the area. They all called him Pottsy and he would walk down the roads of Camberwell with his horse and cart.

He and other totters and grubbers, like Dave the Dog and Kenny the Ferret, would often hang out in Bob Welford’s shop. Most grubbers of south east London would keep their horses on Mechanic’s Lane in Deptford. When that street got redesigned, a lot of them were forced to adapt their occupation. Some got vans, some got shops, Pottsy got Bob’s backyard. The Architectural Salvage shop found in Loughborough Junction, SE5, owned by Bob Welford was specialized in refitting old Victorian fireplaces from torn-down homes into middle-class homes. The rag and bone man would sell their goods to Bob. Often enjoying hanging around for a cigarette and a chat in the main hall of the shop. Pottsy continued on for several years as the organic recycler of Camberwell. It wasn’t until his horse died in the 90s, that the last rag and bone man of Camberwell handed in his red silk scarf.

Though the totters no longer ring ears as they stroll down the streets, or entice you with glistening goldfish for scraps of iron. The necessity for these materials to be recycled and reused is still essential. The ever-pressing stress of the climate emergency constantly pushes us to think as a community about our waste. Though most of SE5 works on a three-way rubbish system; recycling, general waste and compost, the modern-day person goes through a bigger variety of waste. You cannot exactly chuck a broken toaster in the recycling bin.

Donate today

For the objects that have retained their functionality but lost their appeal, charities are dotted along the Camberwell high street willing to take those donations. The most obvious in SE5 are Crisis, Cancer Research Uk and Scope. A quick visit to their website or shop will give the necessary information on the best way to donate. An easy way to elongate the practical use of an object, while helping worthwhile charitable causes. For those that can’t trek down the street or consider your scraps too low quality for high street shops. A classic southeast London move would be to use one of SE5’s very own community Facebook groups: “FREE STUFF South East London”. This Facebook group encourages the recycling of belongings by allowing people to seek particular items as well as offering everything they no longer want. During the summer, or whenever the weather allows objects to survive outside, “FREE STUFF South East London” can be a platform for creating a secondhand treasure hunt! After a quick look on the page, one can easily map out a journey through SE5. Creating a darling exploration of the side streets of South East London all while shopping, for free!

The rag and bone man profession may no longer exist in its strict definition of horse and cart, but the spirit of reusing and exchanging continues to live on in SE5. For the music lovers, perched on the corner of Camberwell green, is the rockstar totter: Rat Records. They have been buying and selling second-hand records for over thirty years. An inspiring example of the excitement of recycling and reusing spirit continuing to live on in the heart of SE5.

A very special and warm thanks to John Bently, storyteller, writer, bookmaker, artist, and friend for telling me these stories and allowing me to share them with our community.



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