London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
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:—
"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:—
This gives an average for the weeks above cited of per week.
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:—
An older man, in the same employ, said:—
From a stave-porter at the same dock I had the following account:—
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.
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.