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The blockboys

The blockboys

Street life

Sydney before cars was a very different place. Horses, carts, and pedestrians travelled on streets paved with woodblocks. This was the blockboy’s domain.

Known as sparrow starvers, blockboys cleaned horse dung from the streets. Usually with little formal education, they started working for the City of Sydney as young as 14. In their heyday they were equipped with uniforms, scoops on wheels with long handles and brooms, while recessed receptacles in the footpath held the manure they collected until it was taken to a depot and sold to the public as fertiliser.

Blockboy in Elizabeth St 1909 Blockboy in Elizabeth Street, 25 August 1909. Picture from ArchivePix

At the end of World War I the City had more than 200 blockboys on its books. Despite its low status, many working-class, inner-city families keenly sought the work for their sons. Becoming a sparrow starver could lead to a job as a rubbish cart or dirt-box man. There was also an element of social distinction if you worked for the City.

Their low wages made blockboys attractive to the City. However, it was later difficult to absorb them into the adult workforce. Some became night broom sweepers and street flushers, which were regarded as jobs suitable for youths. Some would move to adult labouring work in the Cleansing Branch, but there was a limited number of vacancies.

Street flusher and blockboy on water cart Street flusher, blockboy and water cart, 1924. Bernard Leo Garland (sitting on water cart) drove one of the Council's first horse drawn water carts. The blockboy is on the right. Picture from ArchivePix

The blockboys were notorious larrikins. In 1919 complaints were made to the Town Clerk that they were playing cricket and two-up on the Druitt Street side of the Town Hall. '"The language to passers by is most objectionable," read one complaint. The City Surveyor issued instructions that the "playing of cricket by these youths in the Town Hall yard is to cease"'. City records are full of reports of blockboys swearing, loitering, drinking and leaving their block early.

Cleaners in front of shops on George St 1909-1913 A blockboy with broom can be seen in the centre of the photo talking to a fellow youth carrying a delivery basket. 586-594 George Street, c. 1909-1913. Picture from ArchivePix

The City attempted to smarten-up the blockboys in 1926 with new uniforms, as seen on the photograph below. But in the background is also the reason for the blockboys’ inevitable demise.

As horse-drawn vehicles gave way to motors, sparrow starvers were in declining demand, and their jobs became more dangerous. By the end of the 1920s there were only about 60 of them still employed, and over the next years the work was gradually incorporated into general street-cleaning procedures. Their demise was inevitable, but they would long be remembered, not for what they had done but for the lost way of urban living they represented.

Council blockboy, 1928 New Blockboy uniforms in 1926. (Report on the City Cleansing Engineer's Department, 27 May 1926. Proceedings of the Municipal Council of the City of Sydney, 1926). Picture from ArchivePix

Last updated: Tuesday, 4 December 2012