London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry
1851

The Dock-Labourers.

The Dock-Labourers.

I SHALL now pass to the labourers at the docks. This transition I am induced to make, not because there is any affinity between the kinds of work performed at the two places; but because the docks constitute, as it were, a sort of home colony to Spitalfields, to which the unemployed weaver migrates in the hope of bettering his condition. From this it would be generally imagined that the work at the docks was either better paid, less heavy, or more easily, and therefore more regularly, obtained. So far from such being the fact, however, the labour at the docks appears to be not only more onerous, but doubly as precarious as that of weaving; while the average earnings of the entire class seems to be less. What, then, it will be asked, constitutes the inducement for the change? Why does the weaver abandon the calling of his life, and forsake an occupation that at least appears to have, and actually had in the days of better prices, a refining and intellectual tendency? Why does he quit his graceful art for the mere muscular labour of the human animal? This, we shall find, arises purely from a desire for some outof-door employment. And it is a consequence of all skilled labour—since the acquirement of the skill is the result of long practice—that if the art to which the operative has been educated is abandoned, he must take to some unskilled labour as a means of subsistence. I pass, then, to the consideration of the incomings and condition of the dock-labourers of the metropolis, not because the class of labour is similar to that of weaving, but because the two classes of labourers are locally associated. I would rather have pursued some more systematic plan in my inquiries; but in the present state of ignorance as to the general occupation of the poor, system is impossible. I am unable to generalise, not being acquainted with the particulars; for each day"s investigation brings me incidentally into contact with a means of living utterly unknown among the well-fed portion of society. All I can at present assert is, that the poor appear to admit of being classified according to their employments under three heads—artizans, labourers, and petty traders; the first class consisting of skilled, and the second of unskilled workmen; while the third comprises hawkers, costermongers, and such other small dealers, who are contradistinguished from the larger ones by bringing their wares to the consumer instead of leaving the consumer to seek the wares. Of the skilled workmen few are so poorly paid for their labour as not to obtain a sufficiency for the satisfaction of their wants. The amount of wages is generally considered above the sum required for the positive necessaries of life; that is to say, for appeasing an appetite or allaying a pain, rather than gratifying a desire. The class of Spitalfields weavers, however, appear to constitute a striking exception to the rule, from what cause I do not even venture to conjecture. But with the unskilled labourer the amount of remuneration is seldom much above subsistence-point, if it be not very frequently below it. Such a labourer, commercially considered, is, as it were, a human steam-engine, supplied with so much fuel in the shape of food, merely to set him in motion. If he can be made to perform the same amount of work with half the consumption, why a saving of one-half the expense is supposed to be effected. Indeed, the grand object in the labour-market of the present day appears to be to economise human fuel. If the living steam-engine can be made to work as long and as well with a less amount of coal, just so much the better is the result considered.

The dock-labourers are a striking instance of mere brute force with brute appetites. This class of labour is as unskilled as the power of a hurricane. Mere muscle is all that is needed; hence every human locomotive is capable of working there. All that is wanted is the power of moving heavy bodies from one place to another. Mr. Stuart Mill tells us that labour in the physical world is always and solely employed in putting objects in motion; and assuredly, if this be the principle of physical labour, the docks exhibit the perfection of human action. Dock-work is precisely the office that every kind of man is fitted to perform, and there we find every kind of man performing it. Those who are unable to live by the occupation to which they have been educated, can obtain a living there without any previous training. Hence we find men of every calling labouring at the docks. There are decayed and bankrupt master-butchers, master-bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers" clerks, suspended government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves—indeed, every one who wants a loaf, and is willing to work for it. The London Dock is one of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation, so that the labourers employed there are naturally a most incongruous assembly. Each of the docks employs several hundred hands to ship and discharge the cargoes of the numerous vessels that enter; and as there are some six or seven of such docks attached to the metropolis, it may be imagined how large a number of individuals are dependent on them for their subsistence. At a rough calculation, there must be at least 20,000 souls getting their living by such means.

I SHALL now pass to the labourers at the docks. This transition I am induced to make, not because there is any affinity between the kinds of work performed at the places; but because the docks constitute, as it were, a sort of home colony to Spitalfields, to which

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the unemployed weaver migrates in the hope of bettering his condition. From this it would be generally imagined that the work at the docks was either better paid, less heavy, or more easily, and therefore more regularly, obtained. So far from such being the fact, however, the labour at the docks appears to be not only more onerous, but doubly as precarious as that of weaving; while the average earnings of the entire class seems to be less. What, then, it will be asked, constitutes the inducement for the change? Why does the weaver abandon the calling of his life, and forsake an occupation that at least appears to have, and actually had in the days of better prices, a refining and intellectual tendency? Why does he quit his graceful art for the mere muscular labour of the human animal? This, we shall find, arises purely from a desire for some outof-door employment. And it is a consequence of all skilled labour—since the acquirement of the skill is the result of long practice—that if the art to which the operative has been educated is abandoned, he must take to some unskilled labour as a means of subsistence. I pass, then, to the consideration of the incomings and condition of the dock-labourers of the metropolis, not because the class of labour is similar to that of weaving, but because the classes of labourers are locally associated. I would rather have pursued some more systematic plan in my inquiries; but in the present state of ignorance as to the general occupation of the poor, system is impossible. I am unable to generalise, not being acquainted with the particulars; for each day"s investigation brings me incidentally into contact with a means of living utterly unknown among the well-fed portion of society. All I can at present assert is, that the poor appear to admit of being classified according to their employments under heads—artizans, labourers, and petty traders; the class consisting of skilled, and the of unskilled workmen; while the comprises hawkers, costermongers, and such other small dealers, who are contradistinguished from the larger ones by bringing their wares to the consumer instead of leaving the consumer to seek the wares. Of the skilled workmen few are so poorly paid for their labour as not to obtain a sufficiency for the satisfaction of their wants. The amount of wages is generally considered above the sum required for the positive necessaries of life; that is to say, for appeasing an appetite or allaying a pain, rather than gratifying a desire. The class of Spitalfields weavers, however, appear to constitute a striking exception to the rule, from what cause I do not even venture to conjecture. But with the unskilled labourer the amount of remuneration is seldom much above subsistence-point, if it be not very frequently below it. Such a labourer, commercially considered, is, as it were, a human steam-engine, supplied with so much fuel in the shape of food, merely to set him in motion. If he can be made to perform the same amount of work with half the consumption, why a saving of -half the expense is supposed to be effected. Indeed, the grand object in the labour-market of the present day appears to be to economise human fuel. If the living steam-engine can be made to work as long and as well with a less amount of coal, just so much the better is the result considered.

The dock-labourers are a striking instance of mere brute force with brute appetites. This class of labour is as unskilled as the power of a hurricane. Mere muscle is all that is needed; hence every human locomotive is capable of working there. All that is wanted is the power of moving heavy bodies from place to another. Mr. Stuart Mill tells us that labour in the physical world is always and solely employed in putting objects in motion; and assuredly, if this be the principle of physical labour, the docks exhibit the perfection of human action. Dock-work is precisely the office that every kind of man is fitted to perform, and there we find every kind of man performing it. Those who are unable to live by the occupation to which they have been educated, can obtain a living there without any previous training. Hence we find men of every calling labouring at the docks. There are decayed and bankrupt master-butchers, master-bakers, publicans, grocers, old soldiers, old sailors, Polish refugees, broken-down gentlemen, discharged lawyers" clerks, suspended government clerks, almsmen, pensioners, servants, thieves—indeed, every who wants a loaf, and is willing to work for it. The London Dock is of the few places in the metropolis where men can get employment without either character or recommendation, so that the labourers employed there are naturally a most incongruous assembly. Each of the docks employs several hands to ship and discharge the cargoes of the numerous vessels that enter; and as there are some or of such docks attached to the metropolis, it may be imagined how large a number of individuals are dependent on them for their subsistence. At a rough calculation, there must be at least souls getting their living by such means.

 
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 Title Page
collapseChapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
collapseOur Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
collapseChapter III: - Street Musicians
collapseChapter IV: - Street Vocalists
collapseChapter V: - Street Artists
collapseChapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
collapseChapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
collapseChapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
collapseChapter IX: - Ballast-Men
collapseChapter X: - Lumpers
collapseChapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
collapseChapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
collapseChapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
collapseChapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
collapseChapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
collapseChapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
collapseChapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men
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