London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Timber-Dock Labourers.


HAVING already given an account of the supply and consumption of timber throughout the country generally, I shall now speak of the importations into London, and more especially of the condition of the labourers connected with the foreign and colonial timber trade.

The quantity of colonial and foreign timber that has been brought into the port of London since the year has been as follows:—

   1844. 1845. 1846. 1847. 1848. 1849. 
 Colonial deals and battens (in pieces). . . 2,025,000 2,349,000 2,355,000 3,339,000 2,740,000 2,722,000 
 Foreign ditto (in ditto) 2,130,000 2,290,000 1,242,000 1,996,000 2,044,000 1,903,000 
   --------- --------- --------- --------- --------- --------- 
 Total pieces . 4,155,000 4,639,000 3,597,000 5,335,000 4,784,000 4,625,000 
 Colonial timber (in loads) 57,200 55,800 53,600 49,600 38,300 38,600 
 Foreign ditto (in do.) . 58,200 68,100 86,000 79,100 69,000 61,400 
   -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- -------- 
 Total loads . 115,400 123,900 139,600 128,700 107,300 100,000 

The consumption of the metropolis has been little less than the quantity imported. In the years above enumerated the total importation of foreign and colonial deals and battens was pieces, of which were consumed in London; and the total importation of foreign and colonial timber was loads, of which were consumed. This gives an average annual importation of deals and battens, of which only have been sent out of the country every year. Of timber, the average annual importation is loads, and the average annual exportation only loads.

The number of wood-laden ships that have entered the port of London since , together with the countries whence they came, is given below. By this we shall perceive that our trade with Norway in this respect has sunk to exactly -half of what it was years back, while that with Sweden and Finland has been very nearly doubled in the same time. The timber-ships from the Prussian ports have increased little less than -, while those from Russia have decreased in the same proportion. The trade with Quebec and Montreal also appears to be much greater than it was in , though compared with there has been a considerable falling off; that of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia remains very nearly the same as it was at the beginning of the decennial period. Altogether the great change appears to have been the decline of the Norwegian and Russian timber-trade, and the increase of that with Sweden and Prussia. It is also worthy of notice, that notwithstanding the increase of population, the number of wood-laden ships entering the port of London every year has not materially increased within the last years.

   1840. 1841. 1842. 1843. 1844. 1845. 1846. 1847. 1848. 1849. 
 Christiana and Christiansund . 49 50 47 27 36 27 22 32 39 23 
 Other ports of Norway . . 52 43 38 36 49 39 17 28 25 27 
 Gothenburg . . . . 61 64 49 59 59 66 30 67 55 41 
 Swedish ports and Finland . 85 84 85 102 90 149 103 101 138 154 
 Russian ports . . . . 181 108 130 119 163 115 146 91 113 134 
 Prussian ports . . . 70 70 52 104 143 124 109 167 108 100 
 Quebec and Montreal . . 168 224 188 230 206 206 166 216 179 195 
 New Brunswick and Nova Scotia 104 97 62 134 90 102 127 145 108 105 
 Sierra Leone, Maulmein, &c. . 16 20 29 31 5 10 20 21 13 20 
   786 760 681 842 841 838 740 868 778 799 



The next step in our inquiry is, What becomes of the wood-laden ships that annually enter the port of London? Whither do they go to be unladen? to what docks, or places of "special security," are they consigned to be discharged and to have their cargoes delivered or bonded?

For this purpose there are docks, of which lie on the Surrey side of the river. These are the , the Canal Dock, and the East Country Dock, and they are almost contiguous to each other, the Surrey Canal Dock lying immediately alongside the Commercial, and the East Country at the upper end of it. They are situated in, and indeed occupy, nearly the whole of that small cape of land which is formed by the bending of the river between the Pool and . The docks on the Middlesex side of the river, which are used for the reception and unlading of timber-ships, are the West India and the Regent"s Dock, or the entrance to the Regent"s Canal.

The number of wood-laden ships that have entered the principal docks for the last years is given below. I am informed by Mr. Jones of the , that for every ship above tons men are required to sort and pile away. Rafting from ships of the above burden requires or men daily, according to circumstances.

 Year. West India Docks. Commercial Docks. Grand Surrey Docks. 
   Vessels. Tons. Vessels. Tons. Vessels. Tons. 
 1840 155 62,024 211 65,809 135 40,447 
 1841 201 82,196 265 70,438 114 34,594 
 1842 136 54,931 250 87,124 100 29,596 
 1843 169 71,211 368 121,846 108 31,299 
 1844 121 53,581 480 142,223 173 48,896 
 1845 149 70,514 424 137,047 155 43,211 
 1846 182 88,308 351 111,189 195 50,908 
 1847 228 124,114 423 143,966 226 62,433 
 1848 138 76,650 412 132,406 195 53,423 
 1849 138 67,860 410 136,329 212 58,780 
   ------ -------- ------ -------- ------ -------- 
 Total 1,617 751,389 3,544 1,148,377 1,613 453,587 
 Average Number of Ships per Year, and their Average Tonnage . . 161 4464 354 324 161 281 

The foreign and colonial timber trade is, then, confined to of the docks belonging to the port of London. Of these , —the Commercial, the Canal, and the East Country—are situate on the Surrey side of the river, occupying altogether an area of acres, of which are water and land, and offering accommodation and protection for no less than vessels. Here the principal part of the timber and deal trade is carried on, the Commercial receiving the greatest number of wood-laden vessels, perhaps greater than any other dock in the world. These, together with that portion of the West India Dock which is devoted to the same purpose, make the entire extent of the timber docks attached to the port of London about acres, of which upwards of are water—a space sufficient to give berths to no less than ships.

I now come to speak of the condition and earnings of the labourers connected with the timber and hard-wood trade. Of these, it appears there are men casually employed at all the timber docks, of whom only obtain work all the year round. How the casual deal-porters and rafters live during the months of the year that the slack season usually lasts in the timber trade, I cannot conceive. As not a sixpence of their earnings is saved in the brisk season, their fate in the winter is to suffer privations and afflictions which they only know.

I shall begin with the state of the docklabourers employed at the foreign and hardwood trade. This trade is confined mainly, if not solely, to the West India Dock.

Concerning this branch of the wood trade, I give below the statement of a man who has worked at it for many years, and in doing so, I wish to draw attention to the latter part of the narrative, as a proof of what I have repeatedly asserted respecting the regard exhibited by the authorities of the West India


Dock, and in particular by Mr. Knight, the superintendent, for the welfare of all the men, whether directly or even indirectly employed by them.

This indirect employment of workmen, however, is the great bane of the industrious classes. Whether the middleman goes by the name of sweater, chamber-master, lumper, or contractor, it is this trading operative who is the great means of reducing the wages of his fellow working-men. To make a profit out of the employment of his brother-operatives he must obtain a lower-class labour. He cares nothing about the quality of the work, so long as the workmen can get through it somehow, and will labour at a cheaper rate. Hence it becomes a business with him to hunt out the lowest grades of working men—the drunken, the dishonest, the idle, the vagabond, and the unskilful men—because these, being unable to obtain employment at the regular wages of the sober, honest, industrious, and skilful portion of the trade, he can obtain their labour at a lower rate than what is usually paid. "Boy-labour or thief-labour," said a middleman on a large scale, "what do I care, so long as I can get my work done cheap." I have already shown that the wives of the sweaters not only parade the streets of London on the look-out for youths raw from the country, but that they make periodical trips to the poorest provinces of Ireland, in order to obtain workmen at the lowest possible rate. I have shown, moreover, that foreigners are annually imported from the Continent for the same purpose, and that among the chamber-masters in the shoe trade, the child-market at Bethnal-green, as well as the workhouses, are continually ransacked for the means of obtaining a cheaper kind of labour. All my investigations go to prove that it is chiefly by means of the middlemansystem that the wages of the working men are reduced. This contractor—this trading operative—uses the most degraded of the class as a means of underselling the worthy and skilful labourers, and of ultimately dragging the better down to the abasement of the worst. If men cannot subsist on lower prices, then he takes apprentices or hires children; or if workmen of character and worth refuse to work at less than the ordinary rate, then he seeks out the moral refuse of the trade, those whom none else will employ; or else he flies to the workhouse and the gaol to find labour meet for his purpose. Backed by this cheap and refuse labour, he offers his work at lower prices, and so keeps on reducing and reducing the wages of his brethren until all sink in poverty, wretchedness, and vice. I am therefore the more anxious to impress upon the minds of those gentlemen who are actuated by a sincere regard for the interests and comforts of the men in their employ, the evils of such a system; for, however great may be the saving of trouble effected by it, yet, unless it be strictly watched (as I must confess it is at the West India and ) it can only be maintained by the employment of a cheaper and worse class labourer, and therefore must result in the degradation of the workmen. I have said thus much, because I find this contract system the general practice at all the wood-docks, and because I am convinced that the gentlemen to whom the management of those docks is entrusted, Mr. Knight, Mr. Jones, and Mr. Cannan, have the welfare of the men in their employ sincerely at heart.

Of the evils of lumping, or discharging woodships by contract, I have already treated at considerable length. Under that system, it will be remembered, I showed that the contractor, who is commonly a publican, makes his profit, not by cheapening the labourer, but by intoxicating him. Like the contractor for ballast, he gets his money out of the drunkenness of the workmen, and by this means is enabled to undersell the dock proprietors; or, in other words, to discharge the wood-laden ships at a less rate than they could possibly afford to do it for by the fair and honourable employment of their men. Of the effects of this system—the drunkenness of the men, the starvation of the wives, the squalor and ignorance of the children, the wretchedness and desolation of the homes, I have already treated at some length: and it will be seen hereafter that in those docks where the supervision that is maintained at the West India and Commercial is not kept up, the labourers are reduced to almost the same state of poverty and destitution.

But to return. A man living in a small room in a poor neighbourhood, but in a tidy apartment, and with a well kept little garden at the back, gave me the following account of his earnings and labour in the mahogany department of the :—

I have worked in the West India Docks for eleven years, and for the last half of that time in the mahogany part of the wood-yard. Before that, I was eleven years in the merchant service as able seaman; but I got married, and thought I could do better in the docks; for, after all, what is 18l. a-year, supposing I had the luck to be at sea nine months every year at 2l. a-month—what is 18l. a-year, sir, to keep a wife and family on, as well as a man himself when he"s ashore? At the West India Docks, we unload the mahogany, or logwood, or fancy wood from the ships, and pile them wherever they"re ordered. We work in gangs of six or seven, with a master at the head of the gang; the logs are got out of the hold with a purchase and a jigger, and heaved ashore by a crane on to a truck, and we drag the truck to the place to stow the timber. In the woodyards a machine lifts the timber up, by us men turning handles to work the machine, and puts it into its place in the warehouse. We are paid 2s. 6d. a-day, working from eight to four. If only employed for four hours—and we"re not Lumpers Discharging Timber-Ship in Commercial Docks. [From a Sketch.] set to work for less than four hours—we have 1s. 4d. If I could get 2s. 6d. a-day all the year through, I"d be a happy man; but I can"t. Me, and such as me, earns 10s., 11s., or as far as 15s. a-week when we are wanted. But take the year through, I make between 9s. and 10s. a-week; out of that I have to keep a wife and four children. I"ve lost one child, and my wife can get little or nothing most times to do with her needle; and if she does get work, what can she make at five farthings or three-halfpence a shirt for the slop-shops? My eldest child, however, does make 1s. or 1s. 6d. a-week. I live on bread and butter, with a drop of beer now and then, six days out of the seven. On Sundays we mostly have a shilling"s worth of meat—bullock"s head generally. Sometimes our work is very hard, with heavy lifting. A weakly man"s no use, and I"ve wondered how I have the strength I have on bread and butter. We are all paid in the dock, and there"s nobody allowed to get the men to drink, or to traffic with them anyhow, but in a fair, regular way. There"s plenty hang about every day who would work a day"s work for 2s.: there"s a good many Irish. I don"t know that there"s any foreigners, without it be on the sugar side. Sometimes a hundred men are employed in our part of the business; to-day there was from forty to fifty at work, and a hundred more was to be had if they"d been wanted. Jobs often come in in a lump—all at once, or none at all; very often with the wind. We run backwards and forwards to the sugar-side or the Surrey Dock, as we expect to be wanted. We don"t know what the foremen of the gangs get, but the company won"t allow them to underpay us; and I have nothing to complain about, either of them or the company, though we"re bad off. The foreman can pick his men. Many of us has to go to the parish. Once I earned only 3s. in three weeks. Our best time is from June or July, continuing on for two, three, four, or five months, as happens. We live half the year and starve the t"other. There"s very few teetotalers among us—men want beer if they live upon bread and butter; there"s many I know lives on a meal a-day, and that"s bread and butter. There"s no drunkards among our men. We"re mostly married men with families; most poor men is married, I think. Poor as I am, a wife and family"s something to cling to like.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
TARC Citation Guide    EndNote
Detailed Rights
View all images in this book
 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men