The story of Jo, the crossing sweeper in Bleak House, is one of Charles Dickens’s most searing indictments of child poverty. Jo exists at the very edge of human society, with no family and no home, relying on the charity of strangers. Utterly marginalised, his ignorance is so profound that he sees nothing odd in having only one short name. Even though it has only two letters, he cannot spell it, and he is unaware that is short for a longer name. When he dies of pneumonia, he is trying to say the Lord’s Prayer for the first time, led by the surgeon, Allan Woodcourt, but he expires before he can get very far. He is born of that extraordinary Dickensian combination of sentimentality and anger.
There were two real Jos. The first was an orphan boy Dickens encountered in the winter of 1852 when he visited the Ragged School in Farringdon for Household Words. The boy, never named, had “burning cheeks and great gaunt eager eyes”, and he was clutching a bottle of medicine that he had been given at a hospital too crowded to take him in. He was close to death, and, when he was led off to the workhouse, he seemed to Dickens to slip away into the night as if going to his grave. We can already see the wasted, wild-eyed Jo on his death bed, announcing that the time had come to “go down to that there berryin ground”.
But the second real Jo did have a name, and his name was George Ruby. He was born in about 1835, and what follows is his story.
THE REJECTED WITNESS
Early in 1850 a case of assault was tried at Guildhall before an Alderman Humphery. Two men were charged with a vicious attack on a policeman in Bishopsgate, having been identified not only by the victim, but also by a boy who had witnessed the crime. That boy was George Ruby. He had been taking some supper to his father, who was working in a warehouse, at the early hour of three in the morning.
When George was put in the witness-box, he was handed a copy of the Bible. Seeing the boy’s bewilderment, Alderman Humphery asked him if he knew what an oath was, and what it was that he was holding. George answered “no” to both questions. Shocked by these admissions, Humphery quizzed him further. “Can you read?” “No.” “Do you ever say your prayers?” “No.” “Do you know what prayers are?” “No.” “Do you know what the Devil is?” “I’ve heard of the Devil, but I don’t know him.” Finally, Humphery asked George what he did know, in response to which he said that he knew how to sweep the crossing. “And that’s all?” “That’s all. I sweeps the crossing.”
The incident was widely reported in the newspapers, and, when it emerged that the Alderman had refused to hear the boy’s evidence, on the grounds that he did not understand what it was to be under oath, there was a great deal of tut-tutting. The Examiner pointed out that, although the boy had not known that he was obliged to tell the truth, he still told the truth every time he answered “no” to the Alderman’s questions. He was
naked and not ashamed, and amongst the many things he did not know was to feign that he did know.
Put difficult questions to an Alderman, the argument went on, and he would have been at pains to conceal his ignorance. He would have been as dishonest as little George was honest.
As it happens, Dickens was working for The Examiner at the time, and it is quite possible that he wrote the article. He might also have written a similar piece in Household Narrative a few weeks later. At all events, he took a deep interest in the Guildhall trial, which found its fictional counterpart in the inquest into Nemo’s death in chapter 11 of Bleak House. Jo is summoned as a witness, and, like George Ruby, he proves to be so marginal, so unschooled, that he is dismissed by the coroner. Evidently the fictional Jo is based at least in part on the real George Ruby. But that is not the end of the story.
In about 1910, some forty years after the esteemed writer’s death, one of his four sons, Alfred D’Orsay Tennyson Dickens, embarked on a tour of England, giving lectures on the life and work of his father. He had recently returned from Australia, where he had been living since 1865. At the start of one these lectures, Alfred related an anecdote about his father that involved a crossing sweeper.
According to Alfred, the sweeper had worked at a street crossing near the family home in Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury. Alfred would have been a boy at the time, but he remembered that the sweeper had appeared about a year before Bleak House was written. The sweeper was young—about fourteen—and we can be forgiven for wondering if he too played a part in the creation of poor Jo. We may even wonder if he was in fact George Ruby.
To see why Dickens was so affected by the plight of crossing sweepers, we only have to read Mayhew’s observations in London Labour and the London Poor, which was published in 1851. They were wretchedly poor. Mayhew describes one—a boy with wildly unkempt hair called Mike—who had no shoes and only one sleeve on his coat. Another boy—Gander—kept his buttonless coat closed with string. But the saddest of Mayhew’s sweepers was surely the girl whose mother was dead, and whose father worked, and who therefore had to mind her little brother and sister. They were younger even than she, and, when she went sweeping, they would go with her. At five years of age her brother was just old enough to help her in her work. She hoped that he would “get something better than a crossing” when he grew up.
Dickens did more than write about his crossing sweeper. He befriended the boy, and, satisfied that he was honest, invited him into the house in Tavistock Square to eat in the kitchen. The story was known to a philanthropist by the name of John MacGregor, who tells us that Dickens sent the boy to the Ragged School, and from there to the Shoeblack Society. The last that MacGregor heard of the matter was that Dickens’s protégé had been kitted out with a smart red coat, and equipped with a blacking brush, and was happily earning his keep. The other redcoats knew him affectionately as “Smike”.
A HAPPY ENDING
Alas, there are no hard facts about young Ruby. We have his cameo appearance before Alderman Humphery, but beyond that he cannot be traced. The censuses are silent. Having briefly risen from the nameless condition of the Victorian poor, he has sunk back there again.
Or has he? Well, not if we are to believe Alfred Dickens, who told his audience that his father had in the end helped the young Tavistock Square sweeper—George Ruby?—to emigrate to Australia. What a happy ending that would make, if true! The boy went out “with a substantial outfit” that Dickens had paid for out of his own pocket. And there, on the other side of the world from the streets of London, he prospered. One day—and we can almost hear Alfred saying this with a catch in his throat—he sent Dickens a letter. And in that letter he thanked the great man for his kindness.
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