I had heard about the local “Rag and Bone man” from several interviewees in Hull. They mentioned him when I asked what happened to their old bikes. While many people pass them to friends or family, others send them off for recycling and the way this happens in Hull is via this particular and unique method.
Rag and Bone men (and they were mostly men) are a century old fixture in Britain. They would travel by horse and cart through neighbourhoods collecting rags and bones. They practised the first entrepreneurial form of recycling and are interesting barometers of the shifts in what is viewed valuable/ waste in a society. From rags and bones, they moved into gathering metal, furniture and anything else people were happy to part with.
Rag and bone man is a British phrase for a junk dealer. Historically the phrase referred to an individual who would travel the streets of a city with a horsedrawn cart, and would collect old rags (for converting into fabric and paper), bones for making glue, scrap iron and other items, often trading them for other items of limited value.
I serendipitously met a Rag and Bone man on one of his neighbourhood tours during my last trip to Hull. I heard the sound of horses hooves on the road surface and a strange guttural call that sounded nothing like “Rag and bone” and more like “RaaaaaaaBooooooooonnnnne”.
They would use a distinctive call to alert householders to their presence, and/or ring a hand bell. The call was something similar to “rag-and-bone”, delivered in a sing-song fashion. Long usage tended to simplify the words, for instance down to “any raa-boh”, even to the point of incomprehensibility, although the locals could easily identify who was making the call. This was satirised by the comedian Marty Feldman in his “Ay-oh frye” sketch, where he played a rag-and-bone man who, when asked, had no idea what his call meant.
I ran along the quiet suburban street off Spring Bank West towards a brightly painted red and yellow wooden cart, complete with painted wheel hubs. It had no sides or seat for the driver; only the wooden back of the wagon and the slow speed of the vehicle prevented things from falling from the platform. The driver perched on the front of the platform. It did not take long for me to catch him up and stop him for a quick chat. The deliberate meandering speed of the horse and cart gives ample time for people to hear the call and accomplish exactly what I had done. The man said that he much prefers this method of transport in comparison to a van for this reason.
The back of the wagon was covered with an assortment of items. There was a child’s bike, parts of a car exhaust system, some steel gates, the inside of an old gas heater and other things I could not easily identify. The man said his family had been in the trade for as long as anyone could remember and that he knew many of the other Rag and Bone men operating in the city.