Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blockboys/Sparrowstarvers

Pyrmont Bridge c 1904
(Click on the images to enlarge)

Until the advent of the motor vehicle, the principal means of transportation, whether of people or goods, was by horse.  Cabs, buses, carts and drays were all horse drawn.  This presented a problem: manure. 

Local Councils needed to clear the manure not only for health reasons, but also to keep the traffic moving. 

Sydney’s streets were washed down daily with water and disinfectant, which also assisted in keeping down the dust.

In the 1870’s, Sydney City Council made a profit on disposal of manure, selling it for 10 shillings ($1) per load.  In contrast, a labourer could be hired for 7 shillings (70 cents) per day.  By the 1890’s, the Council’s employment of adult males for such purpose had given way to the employment of young boys who darted in and out of the traffic shovelling up the manure and depositing it in containers.

Officially the boys were called “block boys”.  Unofficially they were known as “sparrow starvers”.


Block boys were mostly lads just out of school. Later equipped with uniforms, scoops on wheels with long handles and brooms, they shovelled horse manure from the streets and placed it in recessed receptacles in the footpath.  From there it was removed to a Council depot and sold to the public as fertiliser.

A blockboy can be seen at the extreme right of the photograph at the top.  He is wearing a white shirt and is easier to see if the image is enlarged.


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.

A block boy clears a path for a lady in Pitt Street, Sydney, unknown date.

A block boy at work in Elizabeth Street, 1908.

At the end of World War I there were more than 200 ‘sparrow starvers’ employed on the streets of the city of Sydney. 

Every boy dreamed of becoming a ‘sparrow starver’. This was the stepping stone to becoming a rubbish cart or a dirt box man. Besides this, there was the social distinction of being in the Council.
(Syd Mackey quoted in Shirley Fitzgerald, Sydney 1842-1992, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney 1992)

Youths hanging around and chatting, including a blockboy, in Pitt Street, c 1908.

Photo from 1926, promoting a new, uniformed look of block boys.  Note that the cause for the ultimate demise of block boys – the motor car – is shown in the background.

As horses were replaced by motor cars, the need for block boys diminished, as well as becoming more hazardous. By the end of the 1920s there were only about sixty of them still employed and their work was gradually incorporated into general street-cleaning procedures.


In 1928 the Sydney Commissioners introduced a new type of Block boy Cart to replace the Block boy Scoop. They reported:

The increasing density of the motor traffic has impaired the efficient use of the scoop, which is too small to afford any protection to the user and for the same reason holds a small quantity of refuse, which necessitates many visits to the street orderly bin, which is often inaccessible owing to parked vehicles


The Sydney City Council still employs street cleaners and street sweepers, as pictured above.  They are no longer referred to as sparrow starvers.






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1 comment:

  1. Amazing how once ubiquitous aspects of daily life can vanish from consciousness within mere decades. This also reminds me of an article on the Dog & Lemon website, about life before the motor car. It's titled 'A Long Way From Paradise'.

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