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The meaning and origin of the expression: Rag-and-bone man

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Rag-and-bone man

What is a 'Rag-and-bone man'?

A rag-and-bone man is a collector of discarded clothes, bones and other low-value items that can be re-sold to merchants. Cloth was recycled to make shoddy and bones were used to make glue.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Rag-and-bone man'?

rag-and-bone manOf course, the expression 'Rag'n'bone Man' is known to most millennial as the stage name of the English singer/songwriter Rory Graham, who was awarded both British Breakthrough Act and Critics' Choice Award at the 2017 Brit Awards.

For people of an earlier generation, especially those in the UK, the image conjured up by the term 'rag and bone man' is of a down at heel gent with a horse and cart trawling around the streets calling out for any old discarded items of scrap, clothing or bones that he could resell for a few pennies. Their typical cry was 'any old iron' although the rag and bone man I recall from my youth in the UK's West Midlands used to call out 'rag bone, rag bone'.

Rag and bone men, or totters as they were sometimes known, first made an appearance in early 19th century England. An early reference to them in print is found in The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, July 1802:

"I had rather a suspicion of her; she is an old rag and bone picker in the street"

Early rag and bone men (or pickers or gatherers) were as likely to be women as men. The desperation implied by their attempts to scrape a living by scavenging discarded rubbish for anything of meagre value shows that they were from the very bottom of the social heap.

rag-and-bone manThe British folk memory of 'totters' is more rose-tinted than the harsh reality. This is in part the product of the fondness for the two most celebrated rag and bone men in popular fiction, Steptoe and Son. The bitter-sweet, kitchen sink comedy television series of two London totters was a hugely popular in the UK in the 1960 and 1970s.

Rory Graham chose 'Rag'n'bone Man' as his stage name as a reference to the TV series.

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