London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Penny Mouse-Trap Maker.


THIS man lived in a small cottage at the back of Bethnal Green-road, and the little railed space in front of the humble dwelling was littered with sundry evidences of the inmate"s ingenuity. Here was a mechanical carriage the crippled father had made to drive himself along, and a large thaumatrope, or dise of painted figures, that seemed to move while revolving rapidly before the eye; and this, I afterwards learnt, the ingenious cripple had made, as a street exhibition, for a poor man, whom he was anxious to put in the way of doing something for himself.

The principal apartment in the little tworoomed house was blocked up with carpenters" benches, and long planks were resting against the wall, while the walls themselves were partly covered with tools and patterns of the craft pursued; and in corner there were heaps of the penny mouse-traps and penny money-boxes, that formed the main articles of manufacture.

In a little room adjoining this, and about the size of a hen-house, I found the cripple himself in bed, but still sitting up with a small desk-like bench before him, and engaged in the act of cutting and arranging the wires for the little wooden traps in which he dealt. And as I sat by his bedside he told me the following story:—

I am," he said, "a white-wood toy-maker, in a small way; that is, I make a variety of cheap articles,—nothing beyond a penny,—in sawed and planed pine-wood. I manufacture penny and halfpenny money-boxes, penny and halfpenny toy bellows, penny carts, penny garden-rollers, penny and halfpenny dolls" tables and washhand-stands, chiefly for baby-houses; penny dressers, with drawers, for the same purpose; penny wheelbarrows and bedsteads; penny crossbows; and the mouse-trap that I am about now. I make all the things I have named for warehouses—for what are called the cheap Birmingham and Sheffield houses. I am paid the same price for whatever I make, with the exception of the mouse-trap. For the principal part of the penny articles that I make I get 7s. for twelve dozen, that is 7d. a--dozen; and for the halfpenny articles I get 3s. 6d., at the rate of 3 1/2d. a-dozen. For the penny mouse-traps, however, I am paid only 1l. for thirty-six dozen, and that"s a shilling less than I get for the same quantity of the other shilling articles; whilst for the penny boxes I"m paid only at the rate of a halfpenny each.

You will please to look at that, sir," he said, handing me his account-book with one of his employers for the last year; "you will see there that what I am saying is perfectly correct, for there is the price put to every article; and it is but right that you should have proof that what I"m a-telling you is the truth. I took of one master, for penny mouse-traps alone, you perceive, 36l. 10s. from January to December, 1849; but that is not all gain, you"ll understand. Out of that I have to pay above one half for material. I think, altogether, my receipts of the different masters I worked for last year came to about 120l.—I can"t lay my hands on the bills just now.— Yes, it"s about 120l. I know, for our income,— that is, my clear gains is about 1l. to 1l. 5s. every week. So, calculating more than one half what I take to go for the expense for material, that will bring it to just about to what I state. To earn the 25s. a-week, you"ll understand, there are four of us engaged,—myself, my wife, my daughter, and son. My daughter is eighteen, and my son eleven: that is my boy, sir; he"s reading the Family Friend just now. It"s a little work I take in for my girl, for her future benefit. My girl is as fond of reading as I am, and always was. My boy goes to school every evening, and twice on a Sunday. I am willing that they should find as much pleasure from reading as I have in my illness. I found books often lull my pain. Yes, I have, indeed, for many hours. For nine months I couldn"t handle a tool; and my only comfort was the love of my family, and my books. I can"t afford them now, for I have no wish to incur any extraneous expense, while the weight of the labour lies on my family more than it does on myself. Over and over again, when I have been in acute pain with my thigh, a scientific book, or a work on history, or a volume of travels, would carry my thoughts far away, and I should be happy in all my misery—hardly conscious that I had a trouble, a care, or a pang to vex me. I always had love of solid works. For an hour"s light reading, I have often turned to a work of imagination, such as Milton"s Paradise Lost, and Shakspeare"s Plays; but I prefer science to poetry. I think every working man ought to be acquainted with general science. If he is a mechanic—let his station be ever so simple,—he will be sure to find the benefit of it. It gives a man a greater insight into the world and creation, and it makes his labour a pleasure and a pride to him, when he can work with his head as well as his hands. I think I have made, altogether, about one hundred and six gross of mouse-traps for the master whose account I have given you, and as many more for other employers, in the course of the last year. I calculate that I made more than thirty thousand mouse-traps from January to December, 1849. There are three or four other people in London making penny mouse-traps, besides myself. I reckon they may make among them near upon half as many as I do; and that would give about forty-five or fifty thousand penny mouse-traps made in London in the course of the year. I myself brought out the penny mouse-trap in its improved shape, and with the improved lever spring. I have no calculations as to the number of mice in the country, or how soon we should have caught them if we go on at this rate; but I think my traps have to do with that. They are bought more for toys than for use, though they are good for mice as well as children; and though we have so many dozen mousetraps about the house, I can assure you we are more troubled with mice here than most people. The four of us here can make twenty-four dozen traps in the day, but that is all we can get through comfortable. For eighteen dozen we get about 10s. at the warehouse, and out of that I reckon our clear gains are near upon 4s., or a little less than 1s. a head. Take one with the other, we can earn about a penny an hour; and if it wasn"t for me having been a tailor originally, and applying some of my old tools to the business, we shouldn"t get on so quick as we do. With my shears I can cut twenty-four wires at a time, and with my thimble I thread the wires through the holes in the sides. I make the springs, cut the wires, and put them in the traps. My daughter planes the wood and gauges out the sides and bottom, bores the wire-holes and makes the door as well. My wife nails the frames ready for wiring, and my son fixes the wires in their places when I have entered them; then the wife springs them, after which the daughter puts in the doors and so completes them. I can"t form an idea as to how many penny and halfpenny money-boxes I made last year. I might have made, altogether, eight thousand, or five thousand halfpenny and three thousand penny ones. I was originally brought up to the tailoring business, but my master failed, and my sight kept growing weaker every year; so, as I found a good deal of trouble in getting employment at my own trade, I thought I would take to the bird-cage making—I had been doing a little at it before, as a pastime. I was fond of birds, and fonder still of mechanics, so I was always practising my hands at some craft or other in my over-time. I used to make dissected maps and puzzles, and so, when standing for employment, I managed to get through the slack of the year. I think it is solely due to my taste for mechanics and my love of reading scientific books that I am able to live so comfortably as I do in my affliction. After I took to bird-cage making, I found the employment at it so casual that I could not support my family at it. This led my mind to toy making, for I found that cheap toys were articles of more general sale. Then I got my children and my wife to help me, and we managed to get along somehow, for you see they were learning the business, and I myself was not in much of a condition to toach them, being almost as inexperienced at the trade as they were; and, besides that, we were continually changing the description of toy that we manufactured, so we had no time to perfect ourselves. One day we were all at work at garden-rollers; the next, perhaps, we should be upon little carts; then, may-be, we should have to go to dolls" tables or wheelbarrows: so that, with the continual changing the description of toy that we manufactured from one thing to another, we had a great difficulty in getting practised in anything. While we were all learning you may imagine that, not being so quick then as we are now, we found a great difficulty in making a living at the penny-toy business: often we had merely dry bread for breakfast, tea, and supper, but we ate it with a light heart, for I knew repining wouldn"t mend it, and I always taught myself and those about me to bear our trials with fortitude. At last I got to work regularly at the mouse-traps, and having less changing we learnt to turn them out of hand quicker, and to make more money at the business: that was about four years ago, and then I was laid up with a strumous abscess in the thigh. This caused necrosis, or decay of the thighbone, to take place, and it was necessary that I should be confined to my bed until such time as a new thigh-bone was formed, and the old decayed one had sloughed away. Before I lay up I stood at the bench until I was ready to drop, for I had no one who could plane the boards for me; and what could I do? If I didn"t keep up, I thought we should all starve. The pain was dreadful, and the anxiety of mind I suffered for my wife and children made it a thousand times worse. I couldn"t bear the idea of going to the workhouse, and I kept on my feet until I couldn"t stand no longer. My daughter was only sixteen then, and I saw no means of escape. It was at that time my office to prepare the boards for my family, and without that they could do nothing. Well, sir, I saw utter ruin and starvation before us. The doctor told me it would take four years before a new bone would be formed, and that I must lay up all the while. What was to become of us all in the mean time I could not tell. Then it was that my daughter, seeing the pain I suffered both in body and mind, came to me, and told me not to grieve, for that she would do all the heavy work for me, and plane up the boards and cut out the work as I had done; but I thought it impossible for her to get through such hard work, even for my sake. I knew she could do almost anything that she set her mind to, but I little dreamt that she would be able to compass that. However, with the instinct of her affection— I can"t call it anything else (for she learnt at once what it had taken me months to acquire), she planed and shaped the boards as well as I myself could have done after years of practice. The first board she did was as cleanly done as she can do it now, and when you think of the difficulties she had to overcome, what a mere child she was, and that she had never handled a plane before, how she had the grain of the wood to find out, to learn the right handling of her tools, and a many little niceties of touch that workmen only can understand, it does seem to me as if some superior Power had inspired her to aid me. I have often heard of birds building their nests of the most beautiful structure, without ever having seen one built before, and my daughter"s handiwork seemed to me exactly like that. It was a thing not learnt by practice, but done in an instant, without teaching or experience of any kind. She is the best creature I ever knew or ever heard tell of on earth—at least, so she has been to me all her life; aye, without a single exception. If it hadn"t been for her devotion I must have gone to the workhouse, and perhaps never been able to have got away from it, and had my children brought up as paupers. Where she got the strength to do it is as much a mystery to me as how she did it. Though she was but a mere child, so to speak, she did the work of a grown man, and I assure you the labour of working at the bench all day is heavy, even for the strongest workman, and my girl is not over-strong now; indeed she was always delicate from a baby: nevertheless she went through the labour, and would stand to the bench the whole of the day, and with such cheerful good humour too that I cannot but see the hand of the Almighty in it all. I never knew her to complain of fatigue, or ever go to her work without a smile on her face. Her only anxiety was to get done, and to afford me every comfort in my affliction that she could. For three years and two months now have I been confined to my bed, and for two years and a half of that time I have not left it, even to breathe the fresh open air. Almost all that period I have been suffering intense and continued pain from the formation of abscesses in my thigh previous to the sloughing away of the decayed bones. I have taken out of the sores at least two hundred pieces, some as small as needles and some not less than an inch and a half long, which required to be pulled out with tweezers from the wound. Often, when I was getting a bit better and able to go about in the cart you see there outside, with the gravel in it—(I made that on this bed here, so as to be able to move about on it; the two front wheels I made myself, and the two back were old ones that I repaired here. I made the whole of the body, and my daughter planed up the boards for me)—well, often when I could just get along in that, have I gone about with a large piece of decayed bone projecting through my thigh, in hopes that the jolting would force it through the wound. The pain before the bone came away was often intense, especially when it had to work its way through the thick of the muscle. Night after night have I laid awake here. I didn"t wish, of course, to distress the minds of my family any more than I could help. It would not have been fair; so I bore all with patience, and since I have been here I have got through a great deal of work in my little way. In bed, as I sit with my little bench, I do my share of eight dozen of these penny traps a-day. Last August I made a "thaumatrope" for a young man that I had known since a lad of twelve years of age; he got off work and couldn"t find anything to turn his hand to, so I advised him to get up an exhibition: anything was better than starving. He had a wife and two children, and I can"t bear to see any one want, let alone the young ones; and so, cripple as I was, I set to work here in my bed and made him a large set of magic circles. I painted all the figures myself in this place, though I had never handled a brush before, and that has kept him in bread up to this time. I did it to cause him to exert himself, but now he has got a situation, and is doing middling to what he has been: there"s one thing though, a little money, with care, will go farther than a great deal without it. I shall never be able to get about as I used, for you see the knee is set stiff and the thigh-bone is arched with the hip, so that the one leg is three inches shorter than the other. The bone broke spontaneously, like a bit of rotten wood, the other day, while I was rubbing my hand down my thigh, and in growing together again it got out of straight. I am just able to stir about now with a crutch and stick. I can sometimes treat myself to a walk about the house and yard, but that is not often, and last Saturday night I did make a struggle to get out in the Bethnal Green-road, and there, as I was coming along, my stick tripped against a stone and I fell. If it hadn"t been for my crutch throwing me forward, I might have fallen on my new bone and broken it again. But as it was, the crutch threw me forward and saved me. My doctor tells me my new bone would bear a blow, but I shouldn"t like to try after all I have gone through. I shall not be about again till I get my carriage done, and that I intend to construct so as to drive it with one hand, by means of a new ratchet lever motion.

The daughter of the toy-maker, with whom I spoke afterwards, and who was rather "goodlooking," in the literal sense of the word, than beautiful, said that she could not describe how it was that she had learnt to plane and gauge the boards. It seemed to come to her all of a sudden—quite natural-like, she told me; though, she added, it was most likely her affection for her poor father that made her take to it so quick. "I felt it deeply" she said, "to see him take to his bed, and knew that I alone could save him from the workhouse. No! I never felt tired over the work," she continued, in answer to my questions, "because I know that it is to make him comfortable."

I should add, that I was taken to this man by the surgeon who attended him during his long suffering, and that gentleman not only fully corroborated all I heard from his ingenious and heroic patient, but spoke in the highest possible terms of both father and daughter.

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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