He is Hull’s “original Steptoe” whose life has proved that where there’s muck there’s brass.
And now George Norris, 78, has become the subject of a fascinating exhibition in Hull’s Streetlife museum, delving into the uncelebrated social history of the city’s ‘tatters’, whose evocative cry of “Rag bone” still rings out over the streets today.
While the trade has been diminished by bin collections, charity shops and the local dump, there’s still a few who ply their trade using a traditional horse and cart, among them some of George’s nephews.
Mr Norris, the city’s longest registered rag man, started out at 13 with a pram collecting cardboard which he would weigh in, and 65 years later he is still “plodding on”.
The Hessle Roader says he works to feed his beloved horses now, although he has long since swapped a cart for a van.
He recalls times when he might earn next to nothing or just a few quid “but I always had enough to keep me going and I was happy with what I got. It was lovely and always an absolute pleasure to get out in the summer time with the horse and cart.”
In the 1970s he’d go out shouting “Who’s buying?” to let housewives know he had secondhand clothes for sale.
But charity shops have taken over and rags aren’t worth anything these days. He still keeps a beady eye out for scrap iron, but complains that councils make it hard to dump fridges at the tip, and says the problem of flytipping is “self inflicted”.
Once he has used up his dozen permits for the year “they won’t let you take a fridge in – that’s why so many are dumped.”
Why has he kept at it so long? “I am free aren’t I? I can please myself. If I want to go to work I do, if I don’t, I don’t. It keeps me going.
“You’ll never get rich but I live alright. Who wants to be a millionaire?”
Pictures showing George Norris Jnr continuing his father’s tradition in the early 1980s and colour images of rag and bone men on the streets of Hull, taken over the past five years by Norris Jnr, also feature in the exhibition which opens today. The star exhibit is a lovingly restored 100-year-old rulley, or cart, owned by another relative, Carl Sharp.
Mr Norris Jnr, who co-curated the exhibition, said: “Scrap dealers are the original recyclers. My family have dealt with horses for the past hundred years and are a well-known family in Hull.”
Research assistant Jocelyn Anderson-Wood said people will still remember the days when as children they would be offered goldfish, and later balloons, in exchange for unwanted goods.
She said: “We’ve lost the habit of thriftiness. We don’t repair so much, we don’t take working bits out and put them in something that is not working as we would have done in the old days.
“It’s also highly regulated, you have to have all sorts of licences to collect scrap to dump.
“It’s quite an expensive thing to do because there’s not so much need – people have access to cars so they can take their own waste to the dump. There are charity shops and car boot sales, all sorts of other ways of getting rid of unwanted things.”
Any Old Rag Bone exhibition runs until June 7. Entry is free.
Where does rag and bone come from?
Although the cry “Rag bone” still goes up, neither has been collected for decades.
In the old days, rags were sought after by paper mills, while bone was wanted by glue manufacturers.
Around 50 rag and bone men still operate in Hull, where some still use a four-wheel cart, as opposed to Leeds, where lighter two-wheelers are better suited to going up and down hills.
The metal scrap George Norris collects goes to one of the 40 sites operated by recycling giant Sims.
Overall metal recycling is a £5bn UK industry, processing scrap into vital secondary raw material for the smelting of new metals.