Browsing through old dictionaries, particularly dictionaries of slang, can often give you wonderful pictures of how things used to be, and what we are missing these days. I was flicking through Farmer and Henley's Dictionary of Slang yesterday, which was written at the end of the 19th century, and noticed heel-taps, defined as "a dance peculiar to London dustmen". Well, things certainly have changed. The last thing I could imagine my binmen aka dustmen doing these days is dancing.
Dustmen were once very jolly souls, and featured in many songs, plays, books and paintings. Dickens' Our Mutual Friend is about a dustman, and as recently as 1960 Lonnie Donegan's My Old Man's a Dustman was Number One in the charts. There's even a book devoted to the cultural history of dustmen - and from the snippets I've read, it looks fascinating; it's called Dusty Bob, and it's by Brian Maidment, who is a professor of English. Dusty Bob was a stereotype of Victorian times. He appeared as a minor character in a play by William Moncrieff entitled Tom and Jerry, and based on a novel entitled Life in London by Pierce Egan, and seems to have captured the public imagination. This is a print from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection, which shows him with his dancing partner African Sal. So, dustmen clearly did dance in those days.
The more common meaning of heel-tap in the singular (not that it's that common either these days, although I know it from crosswords) is the dregs left at the bottom of a glass after drinking. The original meaning of heel-tap is one of the layers of leather that goes to make the heel of a shoe, and I suppose that the dregs at the bottom of the glass look like a dark strip of leather, which is where that meaning came from. Bumpers all round and no heel-taps was once a sort of drinking toast, or exhortation to drink to the bottom of the glass (a bumper was a glass filled to the brim).