ANSWER: Whatever happened to Rag and Bone men in Lancashire'?

Thanks to Billy for this question. Sorry for delay in posting


What a good question in this day of modern recycling and waste efficiency. The answer lies on a few levels I suppose.

First, one has to go back to around the late 1970’s to actually locate and or remember these extraordinary characters. The BBC sitcom, Steptoe and Son, was a great caricature of Rag and Bone men but many people can still remember them today. The Lancashire Telegraphed featured an article about Darwen’s famous Rag and Bone man, Val De Ree, aka Tommy Thompson, in an article in June 2001 and local artist, Bob Lakey featured Val De Ree in one of his art exhibitions at the time. I too can personally recollect the days of these fellows; their cart and donkey, the inevitable faithful mongrel dog and their familiar if not harrowing cry of ‘Ragggg Boooneee’. I for one kept a safe distance from the R and B man with his dark sodden overcoat, dirty flat black cap and his peculiar aroma.

From an historical perspective, Rag and Bone men have been in existence from the Middle Ages onwards. Known by many names; bone-grubbers, bone-picker, rag-gatherer, bag board and totters, the twentieth century R and B men were the precursors of modern day recycling. Rags were collected and reused as ‘shoddy’ mainly as wash cloths and bones were boiled down to make glue or fertilizer. Such was the need for R and B men that Manchester and Salford could register around 60 such merchants post 1945. By 1978, the same City district registered only 12.

The fate of the Rag and Bone men inevitably was interconnected with the gradual development and awareness of a more modern approach to recycling and waste disposal. As more governmental intrusion imposed itself on how waste was managed, the ‘craft’ of the Bone men came more and more under threat. A typical ploy of the Bone men was to give goldfish and balloons away in exchange for unwanted wares, but the Public Health Act of 1925 made this exchange illegal and six cases were brought to court in Coventry only three years later. However, as more local councils began to engage in providing better access to recycling and the price of scrap metal rescinded in the late 1970’s, the writing was on the wall for the Rag men. Like so many parts of history, their usage had been made redundant by the passage of time and infrastructural change in how we live our lives.

A quick search on the internet turns up even more information on Rag and Bone men and a sad if somewhat stereotyped depiction of these men in Lancashire can be found by Sandra Crook at

Put the kettle on mum!

Peter John Fyles

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