London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Lightermen and Bargemen.


THESE are also licensed watermen. The London watermen rarely apply the term bargemen to any persons working on the river; they confine the appellation to those who work in the barges in the canals, and who need not be free of the river, though some of them are so, many of them being also seamen or old men-of-war"s men. The river lightermen (as the watermen style them all, no matter what the craft) are, however, so far a distinct class, that they convey goods only, and not passengers: while the watermen convey only passengers, or such light goods as passengers may take with them in the way of luggage. The lighters are the large boats used to carry the goods which form the cargo to the vessels in the river or the docks, or from the vessels to the shore. The barge is a kind of larger lighter, built deeper and stronger, and is confined principally to the conveyance of coal. men are generally employed in the management of a barge. The lighters are adapted for the conveyance of corn, timber, stone, groceries and general merchandise: and the several vessels are usually confined to such purposes—a corn lighter being seldom used, for instance, to carry sugar. The lighters and barges in present use are built to carry from to tons, the greater weight being that of the huge coal barges. A lighter carrying tons of merchandise costs, when new, —and this is an average size and price. Some of these lighters are the property of the men who drive them, and who are a prosperous class compared with the poor watermen. The lightermen cannot be said to apply for hire in the way of the watermen, but they are always what they call "on the look out." If a vessel arrives, some of them go on board and offer their services to the captain in case he be concerned in having his cargo transported ashore; or they ascertain to what merchant or grocer goods may be consigned, and apply to them for employment in lighterage, unless they know that some particular lighterman is regularly employed by the consignee. There are no settled charges—each tradesman has his regular scale, or drives his own bargains for lighterage, as he does for the supply of any other commodity. I heard no complaints of underselling among the lightermen, but the men who drive their own boats themselves sometimes submit to very hard bargains. Laden lighters, I was told on all hands, ought not, in "anything like weather," to be worked by fewer than men; but the hard bargains I have spoken of induce some working lightermen to attempt feats beyond their strength, in driving a laden lighter unassisted. Sometimes the watermen have to put off to render assistance, when they see a lighter unmanageable. Lighters can only proceed with the tide, and are often moored in the middle of the river, waiting the turn of the tide, more especially when their load consists of heavy articles. The lighters, when not employed, are moored alongshore, often close to a waterman"s stairs. Most masterlighter- men have offices by the waterside, and all have places where "they may always be heard of." Many lightermen are capitalists, and employ a number of hands. The "London Directory" gives the names of masterlightermen. If a ship has to be laden or unladen in a hurry, of them is usually employed, and he sets a series of lighters "on the job," so that there is no cessation in the work. Most lightermen are occasionally employers; sometimes engaging watermen to assist them, sometimes hiring a lighter, in addition to their own, from some lighterman. A man employed occasionally by of the greater masters made the following statement:—

I work for Mr. ——, and drive a lighter that cost above 100l., mostly at merchandise. I have 28s. a-week, and 2s. extra every night when there"s nightwork. I should be right well off if that lasted all the year through, but it don"t. On a Saturday night, when we"ve waited for our money till ten or eleven perhaps, master will say, "I have nothing for you on Monday, but you can look in." He"ll say that to a dozen of us, and we may not have a job till the week"s half over, or not one at all. That"s the mischief of our trade. I haven"t means to get a lighter of my own, though I can"t say I"m badly off, and I"m a single man; and if I had a lighter I"ve no connexion. There"s very few of the great lightermen that one has a regular berth under. I suppose I make 14s. or 15s. the year through, lumping it all like.

The lightermen who are employed in the conveyance of goods chargeable with duty are licensed by the , as a check against the conveyance of contraband articles. Both the proprietors of the lighter and the persons he employs must be licensed for this conveyance, the cost being yearly. A licensed man thus employed casually by the masterlighterman is known as a jobber, and has a-day; the average payment of the regular labourers of the lighterman is a-week; but some employers, whom I heard warmly extolled as the old masters, give a-week. In addition to this or , as the case may be, nightwork ensures or extra. Thus the permanent labourers under the lightermen appear to be fairly paid.

The master-lightermen, as I said before, are, according to the " Directory," in number. I am told that the number may be taken (as the Directory gives only those that have offices) at at the least, and that of this number half employ, on an average, man each. The proprietors of the lighters who average hands in their employ cannot be reckoned among men working on the river, except perhaps - of their number, but of the other class all work themselves. The annual number of actual labourers in this department of metropolitan industry will thus be proprietors to non-proprietors, or in all, driving lighters at the least. The bargemen, who are also employed, when convenience requires, as lightermen, are or , driving more than half that number of barges; but in these are not included many coal-barges, which are the property of the coal-merchants having wharfs. The number of London boat-bargemen and lightermen given in the Occupation Abstract of was , which, allowing for the increase of population, will be found to differ but slightly from the numbers above given.

The lightermen differ little in character from the watermen, but, as far as their better circumstances have permitted them, they have more comfortable homes. I speak of the working lightermen, who are also proprietors; and they can all, with very few exceptions, read and write. They all reside near the river, and generally near the Docks—the great majority of them live on the Middlesex side. They are a sober class of men, both the working masters and the men they employ. A drunken lighterman, I was told, would hardly be trusted twice. The watermen and lightermen are licensed by the by-laws of the City, passed for the regulation of the freemen of the Company of Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, their widows and apprentices, to row or work boats, vessels, and other craft, in all parts of the river, from New Windsor, Berks, to Yantlet Creek (below Gravesend), Kent, and in all docks, canals, creeks, and harbours, of or out of the said river, so far as the tide flows therein. A rule of the corporation, in , specifies the construction and dimensions of the boats to be built, after that date, for the use of the watermen. A wherry to carry persons, was to be feet in length of keel, feet breadth in the midships, and of the burden of cwt. A skiff to carry persons was to be feet length of keel, feet breadth in the midships, and ton burden. The necessity of improved construction in the watermen"s boats, since the introduction of steamers caused swells on the river, was strongly insisted on by several of the witnesses before Parliament, who produced plans for improved craft, but the poverty of the watermen has made the regulations of the authorities all but a dead letter. These river labourers are unable to procure new boats, and they patch up the old craft.

The census of gives the following result as to the number of those employed in boatwork in the metropolis:—

 Boat and barge-men and women . 2516 
 Lightermen . . . . . 1503 
 Watermen . . . . . 1654 

The boat and barge-men and women thus enumerated are, I presume, those employed on the canals which centre in the metropolis; so that, deducting these from the labourers above given, we have , the total number of boat, bargemen, lightermen, and watermen, belong to the Thames.

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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