Sheffield rag man’s life started at 12 for Derek

Pictures of rag and bone men working in Grimesthorpe, sent in by Retro regular contributor Gaz Clarke from Rotherham
Pictures of rag and bone men working in Grimesthorpe, sent in by Retro regular contributor Gaz Clarke from Rotherham
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Our popular back page columnist Monica’s memories of rag and bone men prompted a fantastic letter from a Sheffielder who was in that trade from being a youngster.

Derek Naylor wrote: “I am writing with regard to your article in last Saturday’s Sheffield Star and the picture of a rag man on the back page.

“I am now 80 years of age. I have lived and was brought up on the Wybourn Estate virtually all my life.

“I write to you because of your back page article about rag men, or tatters.

“My father was a rag man, amongst many other things, street hawker, chimney sweep etc, and from a very early age, so was I.

“Even at the age of nearly 81, I have a very good memory of the life and times of the war years and afterwards.

“I have looked at the picture of the man and his horse and cart and cannot say that I recognise him and I knew, and met, many of the rag men at that time, and the yards where we used to weigh in at the end of a working day, and, very strangely, many of them were called Collins and usually John.

“My father, over the years, had a succession of ‘turnouts’ (horse and flat carts) and we usually weighed in at a rag yard in West Bar Green where the West Bar police station used to be.

“A good day was anything over £2, plus a few sellers. 1cwt of rags was £1 and wool usually 7p lb. Hopefully you would have a bit of scrap or lead as well.

“We would get to the rag yard any time after 4pm and you might get weighed in and be away by 4.30-4.45pm, and always there would be other rag men doing the same.

“There would sometimes be others who had been out with a barrow, huge heavy things about 5ft long and cast iron wheels, sometimes with wringer machine handles.

“They really did earn their money but they didn’t want the responsibility of a horse and cart.

“The last two I knew that went out with a barrow were two brothers, one was Joe Slingsby, and I forget the other’s name.

“They had always lived in rooms but Joe got married late on to someone who had her own house and so put a roof over his head. Suffice to say I could go on and on, ad infinitum.

“As for myself, by the time I was 12 years old, when my father was ill (which was often), especially when it was raining, my dad would say that he wasn’t well and “tha’ll have to go out on thi own”.

“This was nothing new and I would go down to the stable, get the pony out and go down to the Setts behind the old Castle Fold wholesale market.

“I would go into the market or the old Woolworths store, buy half a dozen tea plates, a couple of basins etc to give away for rags, and off I would go.

“We usually had a few balloons, donkey stone etc, and sometimes a few windmills.

“Other good pullers were goldfish and day-old chicks but a lot of the chicks that we had left usually died overnight.

“By the time I was 12 years old I was fully experienced and a seasoned rag man.

“The downside was that I was hardly ever at school. The longest I was off school was 12 weeks.

“The school copper was always at our house, mostly because he always got a cup of tea and a warm by the fire.

“A lot of the other kids used to have a go at me and the teachers (one in particular) wopuld say sarcastically, “I suppose you’ve been out with your father’s rag cart again” and make me stand in front of the class and let the kids have a laugh.

“Only one of the teachers saw the real me, and said so.”

A fascinating glimpse into a trade that was once an everday sight and has now disappeared. Thanks, Derek, and we look forward to hearing more from you.