London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
The London Dock.
BEFORE proceeding to give an account of the London Dock itself, let me thus publicly tender my thanks to Mr. Powles, the intelligent and obliging secretary, for the ready manner in which he placed the statistics of the company at my service. Had I experienced from the deputy-superintendent the same courtesy and consideration, the present exposition of the state of the labourers employed in the London Dock would, doubtless, have been more full and complete. But the gentleman seemed as anxious to withhold information as the other was to impart it. Indeed, I found in
|the instance, that the orders given by the deputy-superintendent throughout the dock to each of the different officers were, that no answers should be made to any inquiries I might put to them; and it was not until I had communicated my object to the secretary that I was able to obtain the least information concerning even the number of hands employed at different times, or the amount of wages paid to them.
I shall now give a brief statement of the character, condition, and capacity of the London Dock. After which, the description of the kind of labour performed there; and then the class of labourers performing it will follow in due order.
The London Dock occupies an area of acres, and is situated in the parishes of St. George, , and . The population of those parishes in was , and the number of inhabited houses , which covered a space equal to acres. This is in the proportion of inhabited houses to an acre and individuals to each house. The number of persons to each inhabited house is, despite of the crowded lodging-houses with which it abounds, not beyond the average for all London. I have already shown that Bethnalgreen, which is said to possess the greatest number of low-rented houses, had only, upon an average, inhabited houses to each acre, while the average through London was but . houses per acre. So that it appears that in the parishes of St. George"s-in-the- East, , and , the houses are more than times more crowded than in the other parts of London, and more numerous by half as many again than those even in the lowrented district of Bethnal-green. This affords us a good criterion as to the character of the neigh bourhood, and, consequently, of the people living in the vicinity of the London Dock.
The courts and alleys round about the dock swarm with low lodging-houses; and are inhabited either by the dock-labourers, sackmakers, watermen, or that peculiar class of the London poor who pick up a living by the water-side. The open streets themselves have all more or less a maritime character. Every other shop is either stocked with gear for the ship or for the sailor. The windows of house are filled with quadrants and bright brass sextants, chronometers, and huge mariners" compasses, with their cards trembling with the motion of the cabs and waggons passing in the street. Then comes the sailors" cheap shoe-mart, rejoicing in the attractive sign of "Jack and his Mother." Every public-house is a "Jolly Tar," or something equally taking. Then come sailmakers, their windows stowed with ropes and lines smelling of tar. All the grocers are provision-agents, and exhibit in their windows the cases of meat and biscuits; and every article is warranted to keep in any climate. The corners of the streets, too, are mostly monopolised by slopsellers; their windows parti-coloured with bright red-and-blue flannel shirts; the doors nearly blocked up with hammocks and "well-oiled nor"--westers;" and the front of the house itself nearly covered with canvas trousers, rough pilot-coats, and shiny black dreadnoughts. The passengers alone would tell you that you were in the maritime districts of London. Now you meet a satin-waistcoated mate, or a black sailor with his large fur cap, or else a Custom-house officer in his brass-buttoned jacket.
The London Dock can accommodate ships, and the warehouses will contain tons of goods. The entire structure cost in money: the tobacco warehouses alone cover acres of ground. The wall surrounding the dock cost of the wine-vaults has an area of acres, and in the whole of them there is room for stowing pipes of wine. The warehouses round the wharfs are exposing from their extent, but are much less lofty than those at St. Katherine"s; and being situated at some distance from the dock, goods cannot be craned out of the ship"s hold and stowed away at operation. According to the last half-yearly report, the number of ships which entered the dock during the months ending the last was , measuring upwards of tons. The amount of earnings during that period was and odd, and the amount of expenditure nearly The stock of goods in the warehouses last May was upwards of tons.
As you enter the dock the sight of the forest of masts in the distance, and the tall chimneys vomiting clouds of black smoke, and the many coloured flags flying in the air, has a most peculiar effect; while the sheds with the monster wheels arching through the roofs look like the paddle-boxes of huge steamers. Along the quay you see, now men with their faces blue with indigo, and now gaugers, with their long brass-tipped rule dripping with spirit from the cask they have been probing. Then will come a group of flaxen-haired sailors chattering German; and next a black sailor, with a cotton handkerchief twisted turban-like round his head. Presently a blue-smocked butcher, with fresh meat and a bunch of cabbages in the tray on his shoulder; and shortly afterwards a mate, with green paroquets in a wooden cage. Here you will see sitting on a bench a sorrowful-looking woman, with new bright cooking tins at her feet, telling you she is an emigrant preparing for her voyage. As you pass along this quay the air is pungent with tobacco; on that it overpowers you with the fumes of rum; then you are nearly sickened with the stench of hides, and huge bins of horns; and shortly afterwards the atmosphere is fragrant with coffee and spice. Nearly everywhere you meet stacks of cork, or else yellow bins of sulphur, or lead-coloured copper-ore. As you enter this warehouse, the
|flooring is sticky, as if it had been newly tarred, with the sugar that has leaked through the casks; and as you descend into the dark vaults, you see long lines of lights hanging from the black arches, and lamps flitting about midway. Here you sniff the fumes of the wine, and there the peculiar fungus-smell of dry rot; then the jumble of sounds as you pass along the dock blends in anything but sweet concord. The sailors are singing boisterous nigger songs from the Yankee ship just entering; the cooper is hammering at the casks on the quay; the chains of the cranes, loosed of their weight, rattle as they fly up up again; the ropes splash in the water; some captain shouts his orders through his hands; a goat bleats from some ship in the basin; and empty casks roll along the stones with a heavy drum-like sound. Here the heavily-laden ships are down far below the quay, and you descend to them by ladders; whilst in another basin they are high up out of the water, so that their green copper sheathing is almost level with the eye of the passenger; while above his head a long line of bowsprits stretches far over the quay; and from them hang spars and planks as a gangway to each ship.
This immense establishment is worked by from to hands, according as the business is either brisk or slack. Out of this number there are always to permanent labourers, receiving on an average per week, with the exception of coopers, carpenters, smiths, and other mechanics, who are paid the usual wages of those crafts. Besides these are many —from to —casual labourers, who are engaged at the rate of per day in the summer and in the winter months. Frequently, in case of many arrivals, extra hands are hired in the course of the day, at the rate of per hour. For the permanent labourers a recommendation is required; but for the casual labourers no character is demanded. The number of the casual hands engaged by the day depends, of course, upon the amount of work to be done; and I find that the total number of labourers in the dock varies from to and odd. On the , the number of hands engaged, both permanent and casual, was ; on the of the same month it was ; and on the it was . These appear to be the extreme of the variation for that year: the fluctuation is due to a greater or less number of ships entering the dock. The lowest number of ships entering the dock in any week last year was , while the highest number was . This rise and fall is owing to the prevalence of easterly winds, which serve to keep the ships back, and so make the business slack. Now, deducting the lowest number of hands employed from the highest number, we have no less than individuals who obtain so precarious a subsistence by their labour at the docks, that by the mere shifting of the wind they may be all deprived of their daily bread. Calculating the wages at per day for each, the company would have paid to the hands employed on the ; while only would have been paid to the hands engaged on the of the same month. Hence, not only would hands have been thrown out of employ by the chopping of the wind, but the labouring men dependent upon the business of the docks for their subsistence would in day have been deprived of This will afford the reader some faint idea of the precarious character of the subsistence obtained by the labourers employed in this neighbourhood, and, consequently, as it has been well proved, that all men who obtain their livelihood by irregular employment are the most intemperate and improvident of all.
It will be easy to judge what may be the condition and morals of a class who to-day, as a body, may earn near upon , and tomorrow only I had hoped to have been able to have shown the fluctuations in the total amount of wages paid to the docklabour- ers for each week throughout the whole year; and so, by contrasting the comparative affluence and comfort of week with the distress and misery of the other, to have afforded the reader some more vivid idea of the body of men who are performing, perhaps, the heaviest labour, and getting the most fickle provision of all. But still I will endeavour to impress him with some faint idea of the struggle there is to gain the uncertain daily bread. Until I saw with my own eyes this scene of greedy despair, I could not have believed that there was so mad an eagerness to work, and so biting a want of it, among so vast a body of men. A day or before I had sat at midnight in the room of the starving weaver; and as I heard him tell his bitter story, there was a patience in his misery that gave it more an air of heroism than desperation. But in the scenes I have lately witnessed the want has been positively tragic, and the struggle for life partaking of the sublime. The reader must remember what kind of men the casual labourers generally are. They are men, it should be borne in mind, who are shut out from the usual means of life by the want of character. Hence, you are not astonished to hear from those who are best acquainted with the men, that there are hundreds among the body who are known thieves, and who go to the docks to seek a living; so that, if taken for any past offence, their late industry may plead for some little lenity in their punishment.
He who wishes to behold of the most extraordinary and least-known scenes of this metropolis, should wend his way to the London Dock gates at half-past in the morning. There he will see congregated within the principal entrance masses of men of all grades, looks, and kinds. Some in half-fashioned surtouts burst at the elbows, with the dirty shirts
|showing through. Others in greasy sporting jackets, with red pimpled faces. Others in the rags of their half-slang gentility, with the velvet collars of their paletots worn through to the canvas. Some in rusty black, with their waistcoats fastened tight up to the throat. Others, again, with the knowing thieves" curl on each side of the jaunty cap; whilst here and there you may see a big-whiskered Pole, with his hands in the pockets of his plaited French trousers. Some loll outside the gates, smoking the pipe which is forbidden within; but these are mostly Irish.
Presently you know, by the stream pouring through the gates and the rush towards particular spots, that the "calling foremen" have made their appearance. Then begins the scuffling and scrambling forth of countless hands high in the air, to catch the eye of him whose voice may give them work. As the foreman calls from a book the names, some men jump up on the backs of the others, so as to lift themselves high above the rest, and attract the notice of him who hires them. All are shouting. Some cry aloud his surname, some his christian name, others call out their own names, to remind him that they are there. Now the appeal is made in Irish blarney— now in broken English. Indeed, it is a sight to sadden the most callous, to see thousands of men struggling for only day"s hire; the scuffle being made the fiercer by the knowledge that hundreds out of the number there assembled must be left to idle the day out in want. To look in the faces of that hungry crowd is to see a sight that must be ever remembered. Some are smiling to the foreman to coax him into remembrance of them; others, with their protruding eyes, eager to snatch at the hoped--for pass. For weeks many have gone there, and gone through the same struggle —the same cries; and have gone away, after all, without the work they had screamed for.
From this it might be imagined that the work was of a peculiarly light and pleasant kind, and so, when I saw the scene, I could not help imagining myself. But, in reality, the labour is of that heavy and continuous character that you would fancy only the best fed could stand it. The work may be divided into classes. . Wheel-work, or that which is moved by the muscles of the legs and weight of the body; . jigger, or winch-work, or that which is moved by the muscles of the arm. In each of these the labourer is stationary; but in the truck work, which forms the class, the labourer has to travel over a space of ground greater or less in proportion to the distance which the goods have to be removed.
The wheel-work is performed somewhat on the system of the treadwheel, with the exception that the force is applied inside instead of outside the wheel. From to men enter a wooden cylinder or drum, upon which are nailed battens, and the men laying hold of ropes commence treading the wheel round, occasionally singing the while, and stamping time in a manner that is pleasant, from its novelty. The wheel is generally about feet in diameter and to feet broad; and the or men treading within it, will lift from to eighteen weight, and often a ton, times in an hour, an average of feet high. Other men will get out a cargo of from to casks of wine, each cask averaging about weight, and being lifted about eighteen feet, in a day and a half. At trucking each man is said to go on an average miles a-day, and -thirds of that time he is moving cwt. at miles and a-half per hour.
This labour, though requiring to be seen to be properly understood, must still appear so arduous that would imagine it was not of that tempting nature, that men could be found every day in London desperate enough to fight and battle for the privilege of getting by it; and even if they fail in "getting taken on" at the commencement of the day, that they should then retire to the appointed yard, there to remain hour after hour in the hope that the wind might blow them some stray ship, so that other gangs might be wanted, and the calling foreman seek them there. It is a curious sight to see the men waiting in these yards to be hired at per hour, for such are the terms given in the after part of the day. There, seated on long benches ranged against the wall, they remain, some telling their miseries and some their crimes to another, whilst others doze away their time. Rain or sunshine, there can always be found plenty ready to catch the stray or worth of work. By the size of the shed you can tell how many men sometimes remain there in the pouring rain, rather than run the chance of losing the stray hours" work. Some loiter on the bridges close by, and presently, as their practised eye or ear tells them that the calling foreman is in want of another gang, they rush forward in a stream towards the gate, though only or at most can be hired out of the or more that are waiting there. Again the same mad fight takes place as in the morning. There is the same jumping on benches, the same raising of hands, the same entreaties, and the same failure as before. It is strange to mark the change that takes place in the manner of the men when the foreman has left. Those that have been engaged go smiling to their labour. Indeed, I myself met on the quay just such a chuckling gang passing to their work. Those who are left behind give vent to their disappointment in abuse of him whom they had been supplicating and smiling at a few minutes before. Upon talking with some of the unsuccessful ones, they assured me that the men who had supplanted them had only gained their ends by bribing the foreman who had engaged them. This I made a point of inquiring into, and the deputy-warehousekeeper, of whom I
|sought the information, soon assured me, by the production of his book, that he himself was the person who chose the men, the foreman merely executing his orders: and this, indeed, I found to be the custom throughout the dock.
At o"clock the hours" labour ceases, and then comes the paying. The names of the men are called out of the muster-book, and each man, as he answers to the cry, has half-a-crown given to him. So rapidly is this done that, in a quarter of an hour, the whole of the men have had their wages paid them. They then pour towards the gate. Here constables stand, and as each man passes through the wicket, he takes his hat off, and is felt from head to foot by the dock-officers and attendant: and yet, with all the want, misery, and temptation, the millions of pounds of property amid which they work, and the thousands of pipes and hogsheads of wines and spirits about the docks, I am informed, upon the best authority, that there are on an average but charges of drunkenness in the course of the year, and only of dishonesty every month. This may, perhaps, arise from the vigilance of the superintendents; but to see the distressed condition of the men who seek and gain employment in the London Dock, it appears almost incredible, that out of so vast a body of men, without means and without character, there should be so little vice or crime. There still remains curious circumstance to be added in connexion with the destitution of the dockla- bourers. Close to the gate by which they are obliged to leave, sits on a coping-stone the refreshment man, with his large canvas pockets tied in front of him, and filled with silver and copper, ready to give change to those whom he has trusted with their dinner that day until they were paid.
As the men passed slowly on in a double file towards the gate, I sat beside the victualler, and asked him what constituted the general dinner of the labourers. He told me that he supplied them with pea-soup, bread and cheese, saveloys, and beer. "Some," he said, "had twice as much as others. Some had a pennyworth, some had eatables and a pint of beer; others, pints, and others , and some spend their whole half-crown in eating and drinking." This gave me a more clear insight into the destitution of the men who stood there each morning. Many of them, it was clear, came to the gate without the means of a day"s meal, and, being hired, were obliged to go on credit for the very food they worked upon. What wonder, then, that the calling foreman should be often carried many yards away by the struggle and rush of the men around him seeking employment at his hands! gentleman assured me that he had been taken off his feet and hurried a distance of a quarter of a mile by the eagerness of the impatient crowd around him.
Having made myself acquainted with the character and amount of the labour performed, I next proceeded to make inquiries into the condition of the labourers themselves, and thus to learn the average amount of their wages from so precarious an occupation. For this purpose, hearing that there were several cheap lodging-houses in the neighbourhood, I thought I should be better enabled to arrive at an average result by conversing with the inmates of them, and thus endeavouring to elicit from them some such statements of their earnings at time and at another, as would enable me to judge what was their average amount throughout the year. I had heard the most pathetic accounts from men in the waiting-yard; how they had been weeks without a day"s hire. I had been told of others who had been known to come there day after day in the hope of getting sixpence, and who lived upon the stray pieces of bread given to them in charity by their fellowla- bourers. Of person I was informed by a gentleman who had sought out his history in pure sympathy, from the wretchedness of the man"s appearance. The man had once been possessed of a-year, and had squandered it all away; and through some act or acts that I do not feel myself at liberty to state, had lost caste, character, friends, and everything that could make life easy to him. From that time he had sunk and sunk in the world, until, at last, he had found him, with a lodging-house for his dwelling-place, the associate of thieves and pickpockets. His only means of living at this time was bones and rag-grubbing; and for this purpose the man would wander through the streets at every morning, to see what little bits of old iron, or rag, or refuse bone he could find in the roads. His principal source of income I am informed, from such a source as precludes the possibility of doubt, was by picking up the refuse ends of cigars, drying them, and selling them at onehalfpenny per ounce, as tobacco, to the thieves with whom he lodged.
However, to arrive at a fair estimate as to the character and the earnings of labourers generally, I directed my guide, after the closing of the docks, to take me to of the largest lodging-houses in the neighbourhood. The young man who was with me happened to know of the labourers who was lodging there, and having called him out, I told him the object of my visit, and requested to be allowed to obtain information from the labourers assembled within. The man assented, and directing me to follow him, he led me through a narrow passage into a small room on the ground floor, in which sat, I should think, at least or of the most wretched objects I ever beheld. Some were shoeless—some coatless—others shirtless; and from all these came so rank and foul a stench, that I was sickened with a moment"s inhalation of the fetid atmosphere.
|Some of the men were seated in front of a table, eating soup out of yellow basins. As they saw me enter, they gathered round me; and I was proceeding to tell them what information I wished to gather from them, when in swaggered a drunken man, in a white canvas suit, who announced himself as the landlord of the place, asking whether there had been a robbery in the house, that people should come in without saying "with your leave" or "by your leave." I explained to him that I had mistaken the person who had introduced me for the proprietor of the house, when he grew very abusive, and declared I should not remain there. Some of the men, however, swore as lustily that I should; and after a time succeeded in pacifying him. He then bade me let him hear what I wanted, and I again briefly stated the object of my visit. I told him I wished to publish the state of the dock-labourers in the newspapers, on which the man burst into an ironical laugh, and vowed with an oath that knowed me, and that the men were a set of b——y flats to be done in that way. "I know who you are well enough," he shouted. I requested to be informed for whom he took me. "Take you for!" he cried; "why, for a b——y spy! You come here from the Secretary of State, you know you do, to see how many men I"ve got in the house, and what kind they are." This caused a great stir among the company, and I could see that I was mistaken for of the detective police. I was located in so wretched a court, and so far removed from the street, with a dead wall opposite, that I knew any atrocity might be committed there almost unheard: indeed, the young man who had brought me to the house had warned me of its dangerous character before I went; but, from the kind reception I had met with from other labourers, I had no fear. At last the landlord flung the door wide open, and shouted from his clenched teeth, "By G—! if you ain"t soon mizzled, I"ll crack your b——y skull open for you!" And so saying, he prepared to make a rush towards me, but was held back by the youth who had brought me to the place. I felt that it would be dangerous to remain; and rising, informed the man that I would not trouble him to proceed to extremities.
It was now so late that I felt it would be imprudent to venture into another such house that night; so, having heard of the case of a dock-labourer who had formerly been a clerk in a Government office, I made the best of my way to the place where he resided.
He lived in a top back-room in a small house, in another dismal court. I was told by the woman who answered the door to mount the steep stairs, as the shrieked out to the man"s wife to show me a light. I found the man seated on the edge of a bed, with young children grouped round him. They were all shoeless, and playing on the bed was an infant with only a shirt to cover it. The room was about feet square, and, with the man and his wife, there were human creatures living in it. In the middle of the apartment, upon a chair, stood a washing-tub foaming with fresh suds, and from the white crinkled hands of the wife it was plain that I had interrupted her in her washing. On chair, close by, was a heap of dirty linen, and on another was flung the newly-washed. There was a saucepan on the handful of fire, and the only ornaments on the mantelpiece were flat-irons and a broken shaving-glass. On the table at which I took my notes there was the bottom of a broken ginger-beer bottle filled with soda. The man was without a coat, and wore an old tattered and greasy black satin waistcoat. Across the ceiling ran strings to hang clothes upon. On my observing to the woman that I supposed she dried the clothes in that room, she told me that they were obliged to do so, and it gave them all colds and bad eyes. On the floor was a little bit of matting, and on the shelves in the corner or plates. In answer to my questionings the man told me he had been a dock-labourer for or years. He was in Her Majesty"s Stationery Office. When there he had a-year. Left through accepting a bill of exchange for He was suspended years ago, and had petitioned the Lords of the Treasury, but never could get any answer. After that he was out for or years, going about doing what he could get, such as writing letters. "Then," said the wife, "you went into Mr. What"shis- name"s shop." "Oh, yes," answered the man, "I had months" employment at Camberwell. I had a-week and my board there."
Before this they had lived upon their things. He had a good stock of furniture and clothing at that time. The wife used to go out for a day"s work when she could get it. She used to go out shelling peas in the pea season— washing or charing—anything she could get to do. His father was a farmer, well to do. He should say the old man was worth a good bit of money, and he would have some property at his death.
"I"ve got," said the husband, "about owing me down there now. It"s quite out of character to think of getting it. At Clerkenwell I got a job at a grocer"s shop. The
|master was in the Queen"s-bench Prison, and the mistress employed me at a-week until he went through the Insolvent Debtor"s Court. When he passed the Court the business was sold, and of course he didn"t want me after that. I"ve done nothing else but this docklabouring work for this long time. Took to it because I found there was no chance of anything else. The character with the bill transaction was very much against me: so, being unable to obtain employment in a wholesale house, or anywhere else, I applied to the docks. They require no character at all there. I think I may sometimes have had or days altogether. Then I was out for a fortnight or weeks perhaps; and then we might get a day or again, and on some occasion such a thing as—well, say July, August, September, and October. I was in work year almost the whole of those months— years ago I think that was. Then I did not get anything, excepting now and then, not more than about days" work until the next March; that was owing to the slack time. The year I might say that I might have been employed about - of the time. The year I was employed months. The year I was very unfortunate. I was laid up for months with bad eyes and a quinsey in the throat, through working in an ice ship. I"ve scarcely had anything to do since then. That is nearly months ago; and since then I have had casual employment, perhaps , and sometimes days a-week. It would average a-week the whole year. Within the last few weeks I have, through a friend, applied at a shipping-merchant"s, and within the month I have had days" work with them, and nothing else, except writing a letter, which I had for—that"s all the employment I"ve met with myself. My wife has been at employment for the last months, she has a place she goes to work at. She has a-week for washing, for charing, and for mangling: the party my wife works for has a mangle, and I go sometimes to help; for if she has got worth of washing to do at home, than I go to turn the mangle for an hour instead of her,—she"s not strong enough."
"We buy most bread," said the wife, "and a bit of firing, and I do manage on a Saturday night to get them a bit of meat for Sunday if I possibly can; but what with the soap, and thing and another, that"s the only day they do get a bit of meat, unless I"ve a bit given me. As for clothing, I"m sure I can"t get them any unless I have that given me, poor little things."
"Yes, but we have managed to get a little bread lately," said the man. "When bread was a loaf, that was the time when we was worse off. Of course we had the children alive then. We buried only months ago. She was an afflicted little creature for or months: it was person"s work to attend to her, and was very badly off for a few months then. We"ve known what it was sometimes to go without bread and coals in the depth of winter. Last Christmas years we did so for the whole day, until the wife came home in the evening and brought it might be or according how long she worked. I was looking after them. I was at home ill. I have known us to sit several days and not have more than to feed and warm the whole of us for the whole of the day. We"ll buy half-a-quartern loaf, that"ll be or sometimes , and then we have a penny for coals, that would be pretty nigh all that we could have for our money. Sometimes we get a little oatmeal and make gruel. We had hard work to keep the children warm at all. What with their clothes and what we had, we did as well as we could. My children is very contented; give"em bread, and they"re as happy as all the world. That"s comfort. For instance, to-day we"ve had halfa quartern loaf, and we had a piece left of last night"s after I had come home. I had been earning some money yesterday. We had oz. of butter, and I had this afternoon a quarter of an oz. of tea and a pennyworth of sugar. When I was ill I"ve had or of the children round me at a time, fretting for want of food. That was at the time I was ill. A friend gave me half a sovereign to bury my child. The parish provided me with a coffin, and it cost me about besides. We didn"t have her taken away from here, not as a parish funeral exactly. I agreed that if he would fetch it, and let it stand in an open space that he had got there, near his shop, until the Saturday, which was the time, I would give the undertaker to let a man come with a pall to throw over the coffin, so that it should not be seen exactly it was a parish funeral. Even the people in the house don"t know, not of them, that it was buried in that way. I had to give for a pair of shoes before I could follow my child to the grave, and we paid for rent, all out of the half sovereign. I think there"s some people at the docks a great deal worse off than us. I should say there"s men go down there and stand at that gate from to , and then they may get called in and earn , and that only for or days in the week, after spending the whole of their time there."
The scenes witnessed at the London Dock were of so painful a description, the struggle for day"s work—the scramble for twentyfour hours" extra-subsistence and extra-life were of so tragic a character, that I was anxious to ascertain if possible the exact number of individuals in and around the metropolis who live by dock labour. I have said that at of the docks alone I found that stomachs would be deprived of food by the mere chopping of the breeze. "It"s an ill wind," says the proverb, "that blows nobody good;" and until I came to investigate the condition of the docklabourer I could not have believed it possible that near upon souls in place alone
|lived, chameleon-like, upon the air, or that an easterly wind, despite the wise saw, could deprive so many of bread. It is indeed "a nipping and an eager air." That the sustenance of thousands of families should be as fickle as the very breeze itself; that the weathercock should be the index of daily want or daily ease to such a vast number of men, women, and children, was a climax of misery and wretchedness that I could not have imagined to exist; and since that I have witnessed such scenes of squalor, and crime, and suffering, as oppress the mind even to a feeling of awe.
The docks of London are to a superficial observer the very focus of metropolitan wealth. The cranes creak with the mass of riches. In the warehouses are stored goods that are as it were ingots of untold gold. Above and below ground you see piles upon piles of treasure that the eye cannot compass. The wealth appears as boundless as the very sea it has traversed. The brain aches in an attempt to comprehend the amount of riches before, above, and beneath it. There are acres upon acres of treasure, more than enough, would fancy, to stay the cravings of the whole world, and yet you have but to visit the hovels grouped round about all this amazing excess of riches to witness the same amazing excess of poverty. If the incomprehensibility of the wealth rises to sublimity, assuredly the want that co-exists with it is equally incomprehensible and equally sublime. Pass from the quay and warehouses to the courts and alleys that surround them, and the mind is as bewildered with the destitution of the place as it is with the superabundance of the other. Many come to see the riches, but few the poverty, abounding in absolute masses round the far-famed port of London.
According to the official returns, there belonged to this port on the , very nearly ships, of the aggregate burden of tons. Besides that there were steamers, of tons burden; and the crews of the entire number of ships and steamers amounted to men and boys. The number of British and foreign ships that entered the port of London during the same year was and odd, whose capacity was upwards of a million and a quarter of tons, and the gross amount of customs duly collected upon their cargoes was very nearly of money. So vast an amount of shipping and commerce, it has been truly said, was never concentrated in any other single port.
Now, against this we must set the amount of misery that co-exists with it. We have shown that the mass of men dependent for their bread upon the business of only of the docks are, by the shifting of the breeze, occasionally deprived in day of no less than , the labourers at the London Dock earning as a body near upon to-day, and to-morrow scarcely These docks, however, are but of similar establishments — being on the north and on the south side of the Thames—and all employing a greater or less number of hands, equally dependent upon the winds for their subsistence. Deducting, then, the highest from the lowest number of labourers engaged at the London Dock—the extremes according to the books are under and over —we have as many as individuals deprived of a day"s work and a living by the prevalence of an easterly wind; and calculating that the same effect takes place at the other docks— the East and West India for instance, St. Katherine"s, Commercial, , and East Country, to a greater or less extent, and that the hands employed to load and unload the vessels entering and quitting all these places are only times more than those required at the London Dock, we have as many as individuals or families whose daily bread is as fickle as the wind itself; whose wages, in fact, are day collectively as much as and the next as low as , so that men are frequently thrown out of employ, while the earnings of the class to day amount to less than they did yesterday.
It would be curious to take an average number of days that easterly winds prevail in London throughout the year, and so arrive at an estimate of the exact time that the above men are unemployed in the course of months. This would give us some idea of the amount of their average weekly earnings. By the labourers themselves I am assured that, taking week with another, they do not gain weekly throughout the year. I have made a point of visiting and interrogating a large number of them, in order to obtain some definite information respecting the extent of their income, and have found in only instance an account kept of the individual earnings. In that case the wages averaged within a fraction of per week, the total sum gained since the beginning of the year being odd. I should state, however, that the man earning thus much was pointed out to me as of the most provident of the casual labourers, and , moreover, who is generally employed. "If it is possible to get work, he"ll have it," was said of him; "there"s not a lazy bone in his skin." Besides this he had done a considerable quantity of piece-work, so that altogether the man"s earnings might be taken as the very extreme made by the best kind of "extra hands."
The man himself gives the following explanation as to the state of the labour-market at the London Dock. "He has had a good turn of work," he says, since he has been there. "Some don"t get half what he does. He"s not always employed, excepting when the business is in anyway brisk, but when a kind of a slack comes the recommended men get the prefer
ence of the work, and the extras have nothing to do. This is the best sumner he has had since he has been in London. Has had a good bit of piece-work. Obliged to live as he does because he can"t depend on work. Isn"t certain
of the day"s work. He"s paid off every night, and can"t say whether or not they"ll want him on the morrow." The account of his wages was written in pencil on the cover of an old memorandum-book, and ran as follows:
If, then, be the average amount of weekly earnings by the most provident, industrious, and fortunate of the casual labourers at the docks—and that at the best season— it may be safely asserted that the lowest grade of workmen there do not gain more than per week throughout the year. It should be remembered that the man himself says "some don"t get half what he does," and from a multiplicity of inquiries that I have made upon the subject this appears to be about the truth. Moreover, we should bear in mind that the average weekly wages of the dock-labourer, miserable as they are, are rendered even more wretched by the uncertain character of the work on which they depend. Were the income of the casual labourer at the docks per week from year"s end to another the workman would know exactly how much he had to subsist upon, and might therefore be expected to display some little providence and temperance in the expenditure of his wages. But where the means of subsistence occasionally rise to a-week, and occasionally sink to nothing, it is absurd to look for prudence, economy, or moderation. Regularity of habits are incompatible with irregularity of income; indeed, the very conditions necessary for the formation of any habit whatsoever are, that the act or thing to which we are to become habituated should be repeated at frequent and regular intervals. It is a moral impossibility that the class of labourers who are only occasionally employed should be either generally industrious or temperate—both industry and temperance being habits produced by constancy of employment and uniformity of income. Hence, where the greatest fluctuation occurs in the labour, there, of course, will be the greatest idleness and improvidence; where the greatest want generally is, there we shall find the greatest occasional excess; where from the uncertainty of the occupation prudence is most needed, there, strange to say, we shall meet with the highest imprudence of all. "Previous to the formation of a canal in the north of Ireland," says Mr. Porter, in "The Progress of the Nation," "the men were improvident even to recklessness. Such work as they got before came at uncertain intervals, the wages insufficient for the comfortable sustenance of their families were wasted at the whis- key-shop, and the men appeared to be sunk in a state of hopeless degradation. From the moment, however, that work was offered to them which was constant in its nature and certain in its duration, men who before had been idle and dissolute were converted into sober, hardwork- ing labourers, and proved themselves kind and careful husbands and fathers; and it is said that, notwithstanding the distribution of several weekly in wages, the whole of which must be considered as so much additional money placed in their hands, the consumption of whisky was absolutely and permanently diminished in the district. Indeed it is a fact worthy of notice, as illustrative of the tendency of the times of pressure, and consequently of deficient and uncertain employment, to increase spirit-drinking, that whilst in the year —a year of the greatest prosperity—the tax on British spirits amounted only to ; yet, under the privations of , the English poorer classes paid no less than in taxes upon the liquor they consumed—thus spending upwards of more in drink at a time when they were less able to afford it, and so proving that a fluctuation in the income of the workingclasses is almost invariably attended with an excess of improvidence in the expenditure. Moreover, with reference to the dock-labourers, we have been informed, upon unquestionable authority, that some years back there were near upon ships waiting to be discharged in dock alone; and such was the pressure of business then, that it became necessary to obtain leave of Her Majesty"s Customs to increase the usual time of daily labour from to hours. The men employed, therefore, earned per cent more than they were in the habit of doing at the briskest times; but so far from the extra amount of wages being devoted to increase the comforts of their homes, it was principally spent in public-houses. The riot and confusion thus created in the neighbourhood were such as had never been known before, and indeed were so general among the workmen, that every respectable person in the immediate vicinity expressed a hope that such a thing as "overtime" would never occur again.
It may then be safely asserted, that though the wages of the casual labourer at the docks
|average per week, still the weekly earnings are of so precarious and variable a nature, that when the time of the men is fully employed, the money which is gained over and above the amount absolutely required for subsistence is almost sure to be spent in intemperance, and that when there is little or no demand for their work, and their gains are consequently insufficient for the satisfaction of their appetites, they and those who depend upon their labour for their food must at least want, if not starve. The improvidence of the casual dock-labourer is due, therefore, not to any particular malformation of his moral constitution, but to the precarious character of his calling. His vices are the vices of ordinary human nature. in every similarly circumstanced would commit similar enormities. If the very winds could whistle away the food and firing of wife and children, I doubt much whether, after a week"s or a month"s privation, we should many of us be able to prevent ourselves from falling into the very same excesses.
It is consoling to moralise in our easy chairs, after a good dinner, and to assure ourselves that we should do differently. Selfdenial is not very difficult when our stomachs are full and our backs are warm; but let us live a month of hunger and cold, and assuredly we should be as self-indulgent as they.
I have devoted some time to the investigation of the state of the casual labourers at the other docks, and shall now proceed to set forth the result of my inquiries.