London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Timber and Deal Trade.

I NOW come to the timber and deal trade. The labourers connected with this portion of the trade are rafters or raftsmen, and deal or stave-porters; these are either permanently or casually employed. I shall give an account of each, as well as of the system pursued at each of the docks, beginning with the Commercial, because it does the most extensive business in this branch of the wood-trade; and here let me acknowledge the obligations I am under to Mr. Jones, the intelligent and courteous superintendent, for much valuable information.

The working lumpers, as I before explained, are the labourers employed to discharge all wood-laden vessels, except foreign ships, which are discharged by their own crews; the vessels unladen by the lumpers are discharged sometimes in the dock, and sometimes (when too heavily laden) in the river. The cargoes of wood-laden vessels are termed either landed or rafted goods; the "landed" goods are deals, battens, sleepers, wainscot logs, and indeed all but hewn timber, which is "rafted." When a vessel is unladen in the river, the landed goods are discharged by lumpers, who also load the lighters, whereas in dock the lumpers discharge them into the company"s barges, which are loaded by them as well. With smaller vessels, however, which occasionally go alongside, the lumpers discharge directly to the shore, where the goods are received by the company"s porters. The lumpers never work on shore. Of the porters working on shore there are kinds, viz. deal and stave-porters, whose duty it is to receive the landed goods and to pile and sort them, either along the quay or in the building ground, if duty has to be paid upon them.

The hewn-timber, or rafted goods, the lumpers thrust through the porthole into the water, and there the raftsman receives them, puts them into lengths and sizes, and then arranges them in floats—there being eighteen pieces to a float. If the ship is discharged in the river, the rafter floats the timber to the docks, and then to the ponds of the company. If, however, the ship is discharged in dock, then the raftman floats the timber only from the main dock to the ponds.

The rafters are all freemen, for otherwise they could not work on the river; they must have served years to a waterman, and they are obliged to pay a-year to the Waterman"s Company for a license. There are or rafters (all preferable men) employed by the Commercial Dock Company, and in busy times there are occasionally as many as casual rafters, or "pokers," as they are called, from their poking about the docks for a job: these casual men are not capable of rafting a ship, nor are they free watermen, they are only employed to float the timber from the ship up to the ponds and stow it, or to attend to deliveries. The skill of the rafter lies in gauging and sorting the timber according to size, quality, and ownership, and making it up into floats. It is only an experienced rafter who can tell the different sizes, qualities, and owners of the timber; this the pokers, or casual rafters, are unable to do. The pokers, again, cannot float the timber from the river to the ponds; this is owing to reasons: , they are not allowed to do so on account of not being free watermen; and, secondly, they are unable to do so from


the difficulty of navigation. The pokers work exclusively in the docks; neither the rafters nor pokers work under contractors, but the deal and stave-porters invariably do.

The following statement of a rafter at the Commercial Dock I had from a prudent, wellbehaved, sober man. He was in company with another man, employed in the same capacity at the same docks, and they both belonged to the better class of labouring men:—

I am a rafter at the Commercial Dock. I have been working at that dock for the last six years, in the same capacity, and before that I was rafter at the Surrey Dock for between five and six years. I served my apprenticeship to a waterman. I was bound when I was sixteen. We are not allowed to work till we have served two years. In my apprenticeship I was continually engaged in timber-towing, lightering, and at times sculling; but that I did only when the other business was slack. After my time was out I went lightering; and about a dozen years after that I took to rafting. I had been a rafter at the Surrey Canal before then —while I was in my apprenticeship indeed. I had 18s. a-week when I first commenced rafting at the Surrey Canal; but that, of course, all went to my master. I was with the Surrey Canal about two years as rafter, and then I joined another party at 30s. a-week in the same capacity; this party rented a wharf of the Surrey Canal Company, and I still worked in the dock. There I worked longer time— four hours longer; the wages would have been as good at the Surrey Canal at outside work as they were with the second party I joined. The next place that I went to as rafter was the Commercial Dock, where I am now, and have been for the last six years. I am paid by the week. When I work at the dock I have 1l. 1s. a-week, and when I am rafting short-hour ships (i.e. ships from which we work only from eight till four) I get 4s. per day. When I am working long-hour ships (i.e. ships at which the working lasts from six till six) I get 5s. a-day; the other rafters employed by the company are paid the same. Our wages have remained the same ever since I have been in the business; all the other men have been lowered, such as carpenters, labourers, watchmen, deal-porters and the like; but we are not constant men, or else I dare say ours would have been reduced too. They have lowered the wages of the old hands, who have been there for years, 1s. a-week. Formerly they had 1l. 1s., now they get 1l.; the men are dissatisfied. The wages of the casual dockla- bourers have been reduced a great deal more than those of the constant men; three months ago they all had 18s. a-week, and now the highest wages paid to the casual labourers is 15s. The reason why the wages of the rafters have not been lowered is, I take it, because we are freemen, and there are not so many to be had who could supply our places. Not one of a hundred lightermen and watermen are able to raft. We are only employed at certain times of the year. Our busy time begins at July, and ends in October. We are fully employed about four months in the year, and get during that time from 1l. 1s. to 30s. a-week, or say 25s. upon an average. The rest of our time we fills up as we can. Some of the rafters has boats, and they look out for a job at sculling; but that"s poor enough now.

"Ah, very poor work, indeed," said an old weather-beaten man who was present, and had had years" experience at the business. "When I joined it, it was in the war time," he added, "and then I was scarcely a day idle, and now I can"t get work for better than half my time."

"For the other months," continued the other man, "I should think the rafters upon an average make a-week. Some of them has boats, and some gets a job at timber-towing; but some (and that"s the greatest number) has nothing at all to turn their hands to excepting the casual dock labour; that is, anything they can chance to get hold of. I don"t think those who depend upon the casual labour of the docks after the fall season is over (the fall ships are the last that come) make a-week, take man with another. I should say, more likely, their weekly earnings is about There are about rafters at the , and only single man among the number. They none of them save any money during the busy season. They are in debt when the brisk time comes, and it takes them all the summer to get clear; which perhaps they does by the time the fall ships have done, and then, of course, they begin going on in the old strain again. A rafter"s life is merely getting into debt and getting clear of it,— that is it—and that is a great part of the life of all the labourers along shore."

He then produced the following account of his earnings for the last year:—

 1st week . . . £ 1 1 0 
 2d " . . . 1 8 0Outside work. 
 3d " . . . 1 4 0 
 4th " . . . 1 5 6 
 5th " . . . 0 0 0 
 6th " . . . 1 1 0 
 7th " . . . 0 0 0 
 8th " . . . 1 1 0 
 9th " . . . 0 0 0 
 10th " . . . 1 1 0 
 11th " . . . 0 4 0Jobbing. 
 12th " . . . 1 1 0 
 13th " . . . 0 4 0Jobbing. 
 14th " . . . 0 7 6 
 15th " . . . 0 0 0 
 16th " . . . 0 0 0 
 17th " . . . 1 1 0 
 18th " . . . 0 10 0Jobbing. 
 19th " . . . 1 4 0 
 20th " . . . 0 17 6Jobbing. 
 21st week . . . £ 0 13 0 
 22d " . . . 0 7 0 
 23d " . . . 1 1 0 
 24th " . . . 0 10 0Jobbing. 
 25th " . . . 0 2 6 
 26th " . . . 0 4 0 
 27th " . . . 0 1 0 
 28th " . . . 1 1 0Busy time begins. 
 29th " . . . 1 4 0 
 30th " . . . 1 3 0 
 31st " . . . 1 1 0 
 32d " . . . 1 6 0 
 33d " . . . 1 3 0 
 34th " . . . 1 1 0 
 35th " . . . 0 14 0 
 36th " . . . 1 7 0 
 37th " . . . 2 0 0 
 38th " . . . 1 5 0Working Sunday and nights. 
 39th " . . . 1 0 6 
 40th " . . . 1 4 0 
 41st " . . . 1 10 0 
 42d " . . . 1 4 0 
 43d " . . . 1 10 0 
 44th " . . . 1 14 0 
 45th " . . . 1 5 6 
 46th " . . . 1 10 4 
 47th " . . . 0 5 0 
 48th " . . . 1 10 0 
 49th " . . . 1 10 0 
 50th " . . . 1 10 0 
 51st " . . . 1 7 0 
 52d " . . . 1 1 0 
 1st week . . . £ 1 10 0 
 2d " . . . 0 10 6 
 3d " . . . 1 1 0 
 4th " . . . 0 12 6 
 5th " . . . 2 10 6Contract job on river. 
 6th " . . . 1 1 0 
 7th " . . . 1 7 0 
 8th " . . . 1 8 0 
 9th " . . . 0 19 0 
 10th " . . . 1 1 0Dock work. 
 11th " . . . 0 3 0Jobbing.
 12th " . . . 0 18 0Dock work.
 13th " . . . 0 10 0Jobbing. 
 14th " . . . 0 0 0 
 15th " . . . 1 0 0 
 16th " . . . 0 12 0 
 17th " . . . 1 1 0 
 18th " . . . 1 5 0Dock work. 
 19th " . . . 1 0 0 
 20th " . . . 0 0 0 



This gives an average for the weeks above cited of per week.

Where I get 1l." the man continued, after I had copied his accounts, "many don"t get 5s. I know many friends on the river, and I get a number of odd jobs which others can"t. In the last six years my earnings have been much about the same; but others, I am sure, don"t make half what I do—I have earned 1l. 8s. when I know they have been walking about and not earned a penny. In busy times, as many as forty pokers are employed; sometimes for as many as five weeks in the year. They get 3s. 6d. a-day from six to six. After they are out of work they do as best they can. It"s impossible to tell how one-half of them live. Half their time they are starving. The wives of the rafters go some of them charing; some are glove-makers, and others dressmakers. None that I know of do slopwork.

I now come to the deal and stave-porters. , as to those employed at the .

From a man who has an excellent character given to him by his employers I had the following account:—

At our dock," he said, "timber and corn are the principal articles; but they are distinct branches and have distinct labourers. I am in the deal part; when a foreign timber-ship comes to the dock, the timber is heaved out of the porthole by the crew themselves. The deal ships, too, are sometimes unloaded by the foreigners themselves, but not often; three or four out of a dozen may. Ours is very dangerous work: we pile the deals sometimes ninety deals high—higher at the busiest time, and we walk along planks, with no hold, carrying the deals in our hands, and only our firm tread and our eye to depend upon. We work in foggy weather, and never stop for a fog; at least, we haven"t for eight or nine years, to my knowledge. In that sort of weather accidents are frequent. There was last year, I believe, about thirty-five falls, but no deaths. If it"s a bad accident, the deal-porters give 6d. a-piece on Saturday night, to help the man that"s had it. There"s no fund for sickness. We work in gangs of five usually, sometimes more. We are paid for carrying 100 of 12-feet deals, 1s. 9d.; 14 feet, 2s. 2d.; 20 and 21 feet, 3s.; 22 feet, 3s. 8d.; and from 24 to 27 feet, 4s. 3d. That"s at piece-work. We used to have 3d. per 100 more for every sort, but it was reduced three or four months back,—or more, may be. In a general way we are paid nothing extra for having to carry the deals beyond an average distance, except for what we call long runs: that"s as far, or about as far, as the dock extends from the place we start to carry the deals from. One week with another, the year through, we make from 12s. to 15s.; the 15s. by men who have the preference when work is slack. We"re busiest from July to Christmas. I"m the head of a gang or team of five, and I"m only paid as they are; but I have the preference if work is slack, and so have the men in my team. Five men must work at the Commercial, or none at all. We are paid in the dock at the contractor"s office (there are three contractors), at four o"clock every Saturday evening. Drinking is kept down in our dock, and with my contractor drunkards are discharged. The men are all satisfied but for the lowering of their wages. No doubt they can get labour cheaper still, there"s so many idlers about. A dozen years back, or so, they did pay us in a public-house. Our deal-porters are generally sober men. The beer-men only come into the dock twice a-day—ten in the morning, and half-past three in the afternoon—and the men never exceed a pint at a time.

An older man, in the same employ, said:—

I"ve known deal-portering for twenty years back, and then, at the Commercial Dock, men was paid in a public-house, and there was a good deal of drunkenness. The men weren"t compelled to drink, but was expected to. In that point it"s far better now. When I was first a deal porter I could make half as much more as I do now. I don"t complain of any body about the dock; it ain"t their fault; but I do complain uncommon about the times, there"s so little work and so many to snap at it.

From a stave-porter at the same dock I had the following account:—

We are paid by the piece, and the price varies according to size from 1s. 6d. to 10s. the thousand. Quebec staves, 6 feet long by 2 inches thick and a few inches broad, are 10s. the thousand; and other sizes are paid in the same proportion, down to 1s. 6d. We pack the bigger staves about our shoulders, resting one stave on another, more like a Jack-in-the-green than anything else, as our head comes out in the middle of "em. Of the biggest, five is a good load, and we pack all sizes alike, folding our arms to hold the smaller staves better. Take it altogether, we make at stave-work what the deal-porters do at their work; and, indeed, we are deal--porters when staves isn"t in. There"s most staves comes to the Surrey Canal Dock.

A man who had worked at the West India Dock as a deal-porter informed me that the prices paid were the same as were paid by the Commercial and East Country Dock Companies before the reduction; but the supply of labour was uncertain and irregular, chiefly at the spring and fall, and in British-American ships. As many as men, however, my informant stated, had been so employed at this dock, making from to a-week, or as much as on occasions, and without the drawback of any compulsory or "expected drinking." Such, as far as I could learn, is the condition of the labourers employed at these timber docks, where the drinking system and the payment of men in public-houses are not allowed. Concerning the state of the men employed at the other docks where the public-house system still continues, I had the following details.

A deal-porter at the Surrey Canal Dock stated: "I have worked a good many years in the Surrey Dock. There were contractors at the Surrey Canal, but now there"s , and he pays the publican where we gets our beer all that"s owing to us deal-porters, and the publican pays us every Saturday night. I can"t say that we are compelled to take beer, certainly not when at our work in the dock, but we"re expected to take it when we"re waiting. I can"t say either that we are discharged if we don"t drink, but if we don"t we are kept waiting late on a Saturday night, on an excuse of the publican"s having no change, or something like that; and we feel that, somehow or other, if we don"t drink we"ll be left in the back-ground. Why don"t the superintendent see us paid in the dock? He pays the company"s labourers in the dock; they"re corn-turners and rafters, and they are paid early, too. We now have a day of from to , and from to . It used to be, till months back, I think, and In slack times, say months in the year, we earns from to a-week; in the brisk time , and sometimes more; but is about the average. We are all paid at the public-house. We gathers from after or so on the Saturday night. We are kept now and then till , and after , and it has been Sunday morning before we"ve got paid. There is more money spent, in course, up to than up to . To get away at past is very early. I should say that half our earnings, except in our best weeks, goes to the publican for drink—more than half oft enough; if it"s a bad week, all our earnings, or more. When it waxes late the wives, who"ve very likely been without Saturday"s dinner or tea, will go to the publican"s for their husbands, and they"ll get to scold very likely, and then they"ll get beaten very likely. We are chiefly married men with families. Pretty well all the deal-porters at the dock are drunkards; so there is misery enough for their families. The publican gives credit following weeks, and encourages drinking, in course; but he does it quietly. He"ll advance any man at work a night in money, besides trusting him for drink. I don"t know how many we are; I should say from to . In old age or accident, in course, we comes to the parish."

Other men whom I saw corroborated this statement, and some of their wives expressed great indignation at the system pursued in paying the labourers. None of them objected to their husbands having pints of beer when actually at their work in the dock; it was against the publicans" temptations on Saturday and other nights that they bitterly inveighed.

At the earnest entreaty of a deal-porter"s wife, I called on Saturday evening at the public house where the men were waiting to be paid. I walked into the tap-room as if I had called casually, and I was then unknown to all the deal-porters. The tap-room I found small, dark, dirty, and ill-ventilated. What with the tobacco-smoke and the heat of the weather, the room was most disagreeably close and hot. As well as I could count—for although it was a bright summer"s evening the smoke and gloom rendered it somewhat difficult—there


were men in this tap-room, which is fitted up with boxes, and the number completely filled the apartment. In an adjoining room, where was a small bar, there were some or more deal-porters lounging about. These numbers, however, fluctuated, for men kept coming in and going out; but all the time I was present there might have been men in the hot, dirty little rooms. They were strong-looking men enough, and all sun-burnt; but amongst them were some with pinched features and white lips. There they sat, each man with his beer before him; there was not the slightest hilarity amongst them: there was not the least semblance of a convivial Saturday-night"s gathering. The majority sat in silence. Some dozed; others drank or sipped at their pint measures, as if they must do it to while away the time. These dealporters were generally dressed in corduroy, fustian, or strong, coarse, blue woollen jackets, with trousers of similar material, open big woollen waistcoats, and with coloured cotton handkerchiefs rolled round some thick substance in the way of a stock, and tied loosely round their necks over a striped cotton or loose linen shirt. All had rough bristly beards, intimating that their shaving was confined to the Sunday mornings. With respect to the system pursued at this dock in the payment of the deal-porters, it is right that I should state that I heard from many deal-porters praises of the superintendent, though certainly not of the contractor or the publican. I am glad to be able to state, however, that it is the determination of the company to attempt— and that, indeed, they are now attempting— the abolition of the system of public-house payment. Mr. M"Cannan, the superintendent of these docks, to whom I am indebted for many favours and courtesies, informed me that an arrangement was once made for the payment of the deal-porters in "an old box" (a sort of wooden office) within the dock; but the impatience and struggling of the men who had to wait a little while for their week"s earnings almost demolished the frail timbers of the old box, and the attempt was abandoned. Within the dock the supply of beer is now limited to times a-day, with a "vend" of half-a-pint a man each visit.

A middle-aged man, sunburnt and with much of the look of a seaman, gave me an account of his labour as a deal-porter at the East Country Dock. His room, and he with his wife and children had but , was very sparely furnished, the principal article being a large clean bed. He complained that his poverty compelled him to live in the neighbourhood of some low lodging-houses, which caused all sorts of bad characters to resort to the locality, while cries of "murder" were not uncommon in the night.

I have been a deal-porter," he said, "nearly twenty years, and for the last few years I have worked at the East Country Dock. Sometimes we work single-handed, sometimes in gangs of two, three, or four. The distance the deals have to be carried has a good deal to do with it, as to the number of the gang. We"re paid nothing extra for distance. Mr. —— contracts with the Dock Company to do all the dealportering. There are three gangs regularly employed, each with a master or foreman, or ganger, over them. They have always the preference. If three ships was to unload in one day, there would be one for each gang, and when more hands are wanted the men of the regular gangs are put over deal-porters such as me, who are not regularly employed, but on the look-out for piece-work or a day"s work. We reckon when that happens that the gangers" men have 9s. for our 4s. We are paid at a public-house. The house belongs to the company. We pay 4d. a-pot for our beer, and we"re expected to drink not less than four pints a-day. We"re not obliged, you understand, but we"re expected to drink this; and if we don"t do as we"re expected, why we"re not wanted next time, that"s all. But we"re only expected to take our regular beer when work"s brisk. We"re not encouraged to run into debt for drink and work it out. Indeed, if a man be 1s. or 1s. 6d. in debt to the publican, he can"t get credit for a bit of bread and cheese, or a drink of beer. We have good beer, but sometimes we"d rather be without it. But we can"t do without some. Many deal-porters, I know, are terrible drunkards. We are paid the same as at the Commercial Dock, and were reduced about the same time. If I had a regular week"s work now and no stop, I could make 26s., less by 8d. a-day, or 4s. a-week, for beer. We"re not expected to drink any gin. Before wages came down I could have made 30s. Our beer-money is stopped out of our earnings by the masters and paid to the publican. It"s very seldom, indeed, we get a regular week"s work, and take it the year through I don"t clear 12s. a-week. To-day, there was only 16 men at work, but sometimes there"s 80. From June to Christmas is the best time. Sometimes we may wait three or four days for a job. The regular pay for the Custom-house hours, from 8 to 4, is 4s. a-day to a dealpor- ter, but there"s plenty to do it for what they can catch. Lots of Irish, sir? they"ll work for anything, and is underselling all of us, because an Englishman and his family can"t live like them. In the winter my family and me lived on 4s. or 5s. a-week, but I kept clear of the parish, though plenty of us have to come on the parish. Much in pawn, sir? I have so; look at my place. It was a nice place once. Most of what you may call the regular hands has been brought up as deal-porters. I don"t know how many you may call regular at our dock, it varies; working and waiting for a turn; but we"ve no regular turn at work; there"s 100 perhaps, or near about it. Ours is very hard and very dangerous work. Last year one man was killed by a fall, and two had broken legs, and two had broken thighs; but it was an easy year for accidents. There is no fund to help or to bury us, only the parish. In a bad case we"re carried to the Dreadnought, or some hospital. We are all of us dissatisfied. I wish I could have 2s. 6d. a-day for regular work, and I"d live 20 years longer than I shall now, with nothing to do one day and tearing my soul out with slaving work the others.

The result of all my inquiries shows that the deal-porters in nowise exaggerated the hardness or the danger of their labours. I saw them at work, walking along planks, some sloping from an elevated pile of timber to somewhat more elevated, the plank vibrating as men carrying a deal trod slowly and in measure along it, and so they proceed from pile to another, beginning, perhaps, from the barge until the deals have been duly deposited. From a distance, when only the diminished thickness of the plank is visible, they appear to be walking on a mere stick; the space so traversed is generally short, but the mode of conveyance seems rude and primitive.

This object is in collection Temporal Permanent URL
Component ID:
To Cite:
DCA 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