This job involved collecting dogs’ faeces which doubtless littered the streets of London. Dogs’ dung was known as pure because of its cleansing and purifying properties and was sold on to tanneries where it was used, principally, in the manufacture of leathers such as moroccos and roans. The pure – so much better than dog poop, I think – was rubbed by hand into the skin being worked upon. The dung removed all the moisture from the skin and the unpleasant odours associated with the natural skin.
Henry Mayhew spent a couple of decades observing the, to our eyes, strange trades practised on the streets of London for the News Chronicle and his articles were published in 1851 in a book entitled, London Labour and the London Poor. According to Mayhew men only practised the trade since the 1820s, it previously having been the preserve of women known as bunters who combined the collection of dog poop with their main stock in trade, the collection of rags.
Being a pure finder was a lucrative occupation as the tanneries in Bermondsey were voracious users of the stuff. They sold the dung on by the stable-bucket load and could get between 8d to 10d or even between 1s and 1s 2d a bucket, depending upon quality. Dry limy dung fetched the highest price at some yards because of its high alkaline content which made it a more effective purifying agent. Other yards, however, had a preference for the dark, moist sort. To satisfy the requirements of the latter type of customers Pure finders were not averse to adopting what might be termed tricks of the trade and adulterating what they had collected.
Tools of the trade consisted of a handle basket, usually with a cover, to hide the contents and a black leather glove for the right hand. Many Pure finders, however, dispensed with the glove on the basis that it was easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use.
Mayhew describes Pure finders as a better educated class than others who plied their trade from the detritus of the streets. Some finders who had attached themselves to kennels could earn as much as 10s to 15s a week but generally the average take-home pay was 10s at a time when the average wage was 7s 6d. However, Mayhew notes that the bottom had fallen out of the market – some years earlier, they could get as much as 3s to 4s a pail for the pure and would not have swapped their job for the best paid mechanic’s position in town. Around the mid-nineteenth century Mayhew estimated there were around two to three hundred finders servicing the 30 or so tanneries in Bermondsey. Earnings were seasonal – in the summer they would collect a pail-full a day but in the winter because of the foul weather and the shorter daylight hours they might only collect five a week.
The reduction in the number of tanneries and changes to the production processes associated with leather did for the Pure finder but for all its unpleasantness, it was at least lucrative while it lasted.