London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


In the foregoing narratives frequent mention has been made of the Casual Labourers at the timber-docks; and I now proceed to give some short account of the condition and earnings of this most wretched class. On the platform surrounding the Commercial Dock basins are a number whom I have heard described as "idlers," "pokers," and "casual labourers." These men are waiting in hopes of a job, which they rarely obtain until all the known hands have been set to work before them. The casual labourers confine themselves to no particular dock, but resort to the which they account the most likely to want hands; and some even of the more regularly employed deal-porters change their docks occasionally for the same reason. These changes of locality puzzle the regular dealporters in the estimation of the number of hands in their calling at the respective docks. On my visits the casual labourers were less numerous than usual, as the summer is the season when such persons consider that they have the best chance in the country. But I saw groups of and waiting about the docks; some standing alone, and some straggling in twos and threes, as they waited, all looking dull and listless. These men, thus wearisomely waiting, could not be called ragged, for they wore mostly strong canvas or fustian suits—large, and seemingly often washed jackets, predominating; and rents, and tatters are far less common in such attire than in woollen-cloth garments. From a man dressed in a large, coarse, canvas jacket, with worn corduroy trousers, and very heavy and very brown laced-leather boots, I had the following statement, in a somewhat provincial tone:—

My father was a small farmer in Dorsetshire. I was middling educated, and may thank the parson for it. I can read the Bible and spell most of the names there. I was left destitute, and I had to shift for myself— that"s nine year ago, I think. I"ve hungered, and I"ve ordered my bottle of wine since, sir. I got the wine when railways was all the go; and I was a navvy; but I didn"t like wine-drinking; I drank it just for the fun of the thing, or mayhap because gentlemen drink it. The port was like rather rough beer, but stronger, certainly. Sherry I only had once or twice, and liked good ale better. I shifted my quarters every now and then till within two or three years ago, and then I tried my hand in London. At first Mr. —— (a second cousin of my father he was) helped me now and then, and he gave me odd jobs at portering for himself, as he was a grocer, and he got me odd jobs from other people besides. When I was a navvy I should at the best time have had my 50s. a-week, and more if it hadn"t been for the tommy-shops; and I"ve had my 15s. a-week in portering in London for my cousin; but sometimes I came down to 10s., and sometimes to 5s. My cousin died sudden, and I was very hard up after that. I made nothing at portering some weeks. I had no one to help me; and in the spring of last year— and very cold it often was—I"ve walked after 10, 11, or 12 at night, many a mile to lie down and sleep in any bye-place. I never stole, but have been hard tempted. I"ve thought of drowning myself, and of hanging myself, but somehow a penny or two came in to stop that. Perhaps I didn"t seriously intend it. I begged sometimes of an evening. I stayed at lodging-houses, for one can"t sleep out in bad weather, till I heard from one lodger that he took his turn at the Commercial Dock. He worked at timber, or corn, or anything; and so I went, about the cholera time last year, and waited, and run from one dock to another, because I was new and hadn"t a chance like the old hands. I"ve had 14s. aweek sometimes; and many"s the week I"ve had three, and more"s the week I"ve had nothing at all. They"ve said, "I don"t know you." I"ve lived on penny loaves—one or two a-day, when there was no work, and then I"ve begged. I don"t know what the other people waiting at any of the docks got. I didn"t talk to them much, and they didn"t talk much to me.

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 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