London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Coalporters.

COALPORTERS are employed in filling the waggons of the merchants at their respective wharfs, and in conveying and delivering the coal at the residence of the customers. Their distinguishing dress is a fantail hat, and an outer garment—half smock-frock and half jacket—heavy and black with coal dust: this


garment is often left open at the breast, especially, I am told, on a Monday, when the porter generally has a clean shirt to display. The narrative I give, will show how the labour of these men is divided. The men themselves have many terms for the same employment. The man who drives the waggon I heard styled indifferently, the "waggoner," "carman," or "shooter." The man who accompanies him to aid in the delivery of the coals was described to me as the "trimmer," "trouncer," or "pull-back." There are also the "scurfs" and the "sifters," of whom a description will be given presently. The coalporters form a rude class; not, perhaps, from their manners being ruder than those of other classes of labourers, whose labour cannot be specified under the description of "skilled," (it is, indeed, but the exertion of animal strength—the work of thew and muscle), but from their being less educated. I was informed that not man in —the manager in a very large house in the coal-trade estimated it at but in —could read or write, however imperfectly. As a body, they have no fellowship or "union" among themselves, no general sick fund, no organization in rules for their guidance as an important branch (numerically) of an important traffic; indeed, as it was described to me by of the class, "no nothing." The coalporters thus present a striking contrast to the coalwhippers, who, out of means not exceeding those of the porters, have done so much for the sick among them, and for the instruction of their children. The number of men belonging to the Benefit Society of Coalwhippers is ; and there are about coalwhipers belonging to another society, that was instituted before the new office. There are more in connexion with other offices. There were sick men relieved by the Coalwhippers" Society last year. There were deaths out of the members. Each sick man receives a-week, and on death there is a payment of a man, and in the case of a wife. The amount of subscription to the fund is per week under years of age, to , to , and above that, On account of the want of any organization among the coalporters, it is not easy to get at their numbers with accuracy. No apprenticeship is necessary for the coalporter, no instruction even; so long as he can handle a shovel, or lift a sack of coals with tolerable celerity, he is perfect in his calling. The concurrent testimony of the best-informed parties, gave me the number of the porters (exclusive of those known as sifters, scurfs, or odd men,) as ; that is, employed thus: in large establishments on "the waterside," men are employed as backers and fillers— to fill the sacks, and to carry them on their backs from the barge to the waggon, (in smaller establishments there are only to carry). There are more then employed to conduct the load of coal to the residence of the purchaser—the waggoner (or carman), and the trimmer (or trouncer). Of these the waggoner is considered the picked man, for he is expected to be able to write his name. Sometimes he can write nothing else, and more frequently not even so much, carrying his name on the customer"s ticket ready written; and he has the care of the horses as driver, and frequently as groom.

At time, when their earnings were considerable, these coalporters spent large sums in drink. Now their means are limited, and their drunkenness is not in excess. The men, as I have said, are ill-informed. They have all a pre-conceived notion that beer sometimes in large quantities ( porter said he limited himself to a pint an hour, when at work), is necessary to them "for support." Even if facts were brought conclusively to bear upon the subject to prove that so much beer, or any allowance of beer, was injurious, it would, I think, be difficult to convince the porters, for an ignorant man will not part with a preconceived notion. I heard from man, more intelligent than his fellows, that a temperance lecturer once went among a body of the coalporters and talked about "alcohol" and "fermentation," and the like, until he was pronounced either mad or a Frenchman.

The question arises, Why is this ignorance allowed to continue, as a reproach to the men, to their employers, and to the community? Of the kindness of masters to the men, of discouragement of drunkenness, of persuasions to the men to care for the education of their children, I had the gratification of hearing frequently. But of any attempt to establish schools for the general instruction of the coalporters" children, of any talk of almshouses for the reception of the worn-out labourer, of any other provision for his old age, which is always premature through hard work,—of any movement for the amelioration of this class, I did not hear. Rude as these porters may be, machines as they may be accounted, they are the means of wealth to their employers, and deserve at least some care and regard on their part.

The way in which the barges are unladen to fill the waggons is the same in the rivers as in the canals. men standing in the barge fill the sacks, and (or ) carry them along planks, if the barge be not moored close ashore to the waggon, which is placed as near the water as possible. In the canals, this work is carried on most regularly, as the water is not influenced by the tide, and the work can go on all day long. I will describe, therefore, what I saw in the , Regent"s Canal. This canal has been opened about years. It commences at the Grand Junction at Paddington, and falls into the Thames above the . Its course is circuitous, and in it are tunnels — at , -quarters of a mile long; the other at the a quarter


of a mile long. If a merchant in the Regent"s Canal has purchased the cargo of a collier, such cargo is whipped into the barge. For the conducting of this laden, barge to the Basin of the canal, the merchant has to employ licensed lightermen, members of the Waterman"s Company, as none else are privileged to work on the river. The canal attained, the barge is taken into charge by men, who, not being regular "watermen," confine their labours to the canal. These men (a steerer and a driver) convey the barge,—suppose to the , , which, as it is about midway, gives a criterion as to the charge and the time when other distances are concerned. They go back with an empty barge. Each of these bargemen has a barge for conveyance to the . The conveyance of the loaded barge occupies hours, tons of coal being an average cargo. barges a-day, in fine weather, can be thus conducted, giving a weekly earning to each man in full work of This is subject to casualties and deductions, but it is not my present intention to give the condition of these bargemen. I reserve this for a future and more fitting occasion. In frosty weather, when the ice has caused many delays, as much as a-barge per man has been paid; and, I was told, hardearned money, too. A barge at such times has not been got into the in less than hours. The crowded state of the canal at the wharfs at this time of the year, gives it the appearance of a crowded thoroughfare, there being but just room for vessel to get along.

From the statement with which I was favoured by a house carrying on a very extensive business, it appears that the average earnings of the men in their employ was, the year through, upwards of I give the payments of men regularly employed as the criterion of their earnings, on the best paid description of coalporters" labour, for weeks at the busiest time:—

 December 22 . . £ 21 5 5 
 " 15 . . 21 17 3 
 " 8 . . 22 10 1 
 November 17 . . 28 8 0 

This gives an average of more than per man a-week for this period; but the slackness of trade in the summer, when coals are in smaller demand, reduces the average to the amount I have stated. In the weeks omitted in the above statement, viz. those ending and , men had to be employed, on account of the briskness of trade. Their joint earnings were week, and the other. By this firm each waggoner is paid a-week, and extra if he "do" tons; that is, between him and the trimmer. For every ton above carried out by their waggoner and trimmer, extra is paid, and sometimes are carried out, but only at a busy time; have been carried out, but that only was remembered as the greatest amount at the wharf in question. For each waggon sent out, the waggoner and the trimmer together receive for "beer money" from their employers. They frequently receive money (if not drink) from the customers, and so the average of and upwards is made up. I saw waggoners fully employed, and they fully corroborated this statement. Such payment, however, is not the rule. Many give the waggoner a-week, and employ him in doing whatever work may be required. A waggoner at what he called "poor work," or days a-week, told me he earned about on the average.

The scurfs are looked upon as, in many respects, the refuse of the trade. They are the men always hanging about the wharfs, waiting for any "odd job." They are generally coalporters who cannot be trusted with full and regular work, who were described to me as "tonguey, or drunken," anxious to get a job just to supply any pressing need, either for drink or meat, and careless of other consequences. Among them, however, are coalporters seeking employment, some with good characters. These scurfs, with the sifters, number, I understand, more than ; thus altogether making, with the coalbackers and other classes of coalporters, a body of more than .

I now come to the following statement, made by a gentleman who for more than years has been familiar with all matters connected with the coal-merchants" trade. "I cannot say," he began, "that the condition of the coalporter (not referring to his earnings, but to his moral and intellectual improvement) is much amended now, for he is about the same sort of man that he was years ago. There may be, and I have no doubt is, a greater degree of sobriety, but I fear chiefly on account of the men"s earnings being now smaller, and their having less means at their command. years ago, before the general peace, labourers were scarce, and the coalporters then had full and ready employment, earning from to a-week. I have heard a coalporter say that week he earned ; indeed, I have heard several say so. After the peace, the supply of labour for the coal-trade greatly increased, and the coalporters" earnings fell gradually. The men employed in a good establishment years ago, judging from the payments in our own establishment as a fair criterion, were in the receipt of nearly a-week on the average. At that time coal was delivered by the chaldron. A chaldron was composed of sacks containing bushels, and weighing about cwt. (a ton and aquarter). For the loading of the waggons a gang of men, called "fillers," was, and is, employed. They were paid per chal-


dron; that is, per man. This was for measuring the coal, putting it into sacks, and putting the sacks into the waggon. The men in this gang had nothing to do with the conveyance of the coal to the customers. For that purpose other men were employed; a "waggoner," and a man known as a "trimmer," or "trouncer," who accompanied the waggoner, and aided him in carrying the sacks from the waggon to the customers" coal-cellar, and in arranging the coal when delivered, so as properly to assort the small with the large, or indeed making any arrangement with them required by the purchaser. The waggoner and the trimmer were paid each per chaldron for delivery, but when the coal had to be carried up or down-stairs any distance, their charge was an extra shilling— Many of the men have at that time, when work was brisk, filled and delivered chaldrons day by day, provided the distance for delivery was not very far. Drink was sometimes given by the customers to the waggoner and trimmer who had charge of the coal sent to their houses— perhaps generally given; and I believe it was always asked for, unless it happened to be given without asking. At that time I did not know teetotaler; I do not know personally among those parties now. Some took the pledge, but I believe none kept it. In this establishment we discourage drunkenness all that we possibly can. In , wages having varied from the time of the peace until then, a great change took place. Previous to that time a reduction of per ton had been made in the payment of the men who filled the waggons (the fillers), but not in that of the waggoner or the trimmer. The change I allude to was that established by Act of Parliament, providing for the sale of all coal by the merchant being by weight instead of by measure. This change, it was believed, would benefit the public, by ensuring them the full quantity for which they bargained. I think it has benefited them. Coal was, under the former system, measured by the bushel, and there were frequently objections as to the way in which the bushel was filled. Some dealers were accused of packing the measure, so as to block it up with large pieces of coal, preventing the full space being filled with the coal. The then Act provided that the bushel measure should be heaped up with the coal so as to form a cone inches above the rim of the measure. When the new Act came into operation the coalporters were paid a-ton among the gang of fillers, and the same to the waggoner and trimmer. Before years this became reduced generally to The gang could load tons a-day without extra toil; tons, and perhaps more, have been loaded by a gang: but such labour continued would exhaust strong men. With extra work there was always extra drink, for the men fancy that their work requires beer "for support." My opinion is that a moderate allowance of good malt liquor, say pints a-day when work is going on all day, is of advantage to a coalporter. In the winter they fancy it necessary to drink gin to warm them. At time all the men drank more than now. I estimate the average earnings of a coalporter fully employed now at a-week. There are far more employed at present than when I knew the trade, and the trade itself has been greatly extended by the new wharfs on the Regent"s Canal, and up and down the river."

I had heard from so many quarters that "beer" was a necessity of the coal-labourers" work, that finding the coalwhippers the most intelligent of the whole class, I thought it best to call the men together, and to take their opinion generally on the subject. Accordingly I returned to the basketmen"s waiting-room at the coalwhippers" office, and, as before, it was soon crowded. There were present. Wishing to know whether the coalbacker"s statement already given, that the drinking of beer was a necessity of hard labour, was a correct , I put the question to the men there assembled: "Is the drinking of fermented liquors necessary for performing hard work? How many present believe that you can work without beer?" Those who were of opinion that it was necessary for the performance of their labour, were requested to hold up their hands, and out of the did so.

A basketman who had been working at the business for years, and for of those years had been a whipper, and so doing the heaviest labour, said that in the course of the day he had been of a gang who had delivered as many as tons. For this he had required no drink at all; cocoa was all he had taken. men in the room had likewise done without beer at the heaviest work. was a coalwhipper, and had abstained for years. Some difference of opinion seemed to exist as to the number in the trade that worked without beer. Some said , others not . man stated that it was impossible to do without malt liquor. " a day properly spent in drink would prolong life full years," he said. This was received with applause. Many present declared that they had tried to do without beer, and had injured themselves greatly by the attempt. Out of the present, had tried teetotalism, and had thrown it up after a time on account of its injuring their health. man, on the other hand, said he had given the total-abstinence principle a fair trial for months, and had never found himself in such good health before. Another man stated, that to do a day"s work of turns, pints of beer were requisite. All but believed this. The pints were declared to be requisite in winter time, and pints, or pots, were considered to be not too much in a hot summer"s day. Before the present office was instituted, each man, they


told me, drank half-a-pint of gin and pots of beer daily. That was the average—many drank more. Then they could not do their work so well; they were weaker from not having so much food. The money went for drink instead of meat. They were always quarrelling on board a ship. Drunken men could never agree. A portion of beer is good, but too much is worse than none at all." This was the unanimous declaration.

Since this meeting I have been at considerable pains to collect a large amount of evidence in connexion with this most important question. The opinion of the most intelligent of the class seems to be, that no kind of fermented drink is necessary for the performance of the hardest labour; but I have sought for and obtained the sentiments of all classes, temperate and intemperate, with the view of fairly discussing the subject. These statements I must reserve till my next letter. At present I shall conclude with the following story of the sufferings of the wife of of the intemperate class:—

I have been married nineteen or twenty years. I was married at Penton, in Oxfordshire. We came to London fifteen years ago. My husband first worked as a sawyer. For eleven years he was in the coal-trade. He was in all sorts of work, and for the last six months he was a "scurf." What he earned all the time I never knew. He gave me what he liked, sometimes nothing at all. In May last he only gave me 2s. 8d. for the whole month, for myself and two children. I buried four children. I can"t tell how we lived then. I can"t express what we"ve suffered, all through drink. He gave me twenty years of misery through drink. [This was repeated four or five times.] Some days that May we had neither bit nor sup; the water was too bad to drink cold, and I had to live on water put through a few leaves in the teapot— old leaves. Poor people, you know, sir, helps poor people; and but for the poor neighbours we might have been found dead some day. He cared nothing. Many a time I have gone without bread to give it to the children. Was he ever kind to them, do you say, sir? No; they trembled when they heard his step; they were afraid of their very lives, he knocked them about so; drink made him a savage; drink took the father out of him." This was said with a flush and a rapid tone, in strong contrast with the poor woman"s generally subdued demeanour. She resumed:—"Twenty miserable years through drink! I"ve often gone to bring him from the public-house, but he seldom would come. He would abuse me, and would drink more because I"d gone for him. I"ve often whispered to him that his children was starving: but I durstn"t say that aloud when his mates was by. We seldom had a fire. He often beat me. I"ve 9s. in pawn now. Since we came to London I"ve lost 20l. in the pawnshop.

This man had died a fortnight before, hav- ing ruptured a blood-vessel. He lay ill days. The parish doctor attended him. His comrades "gathered" for his burial, but the widow had still some funeral expenses to pay by instalments. The room she and the children occupied was the same as in the husband"s lifetime. There was about the room a cold damp smell, arising from bad ventilation and the chilliness of the weather. wretched beds almost filled the place. No article was worth a penny, nor could a penny have been obtained at a sale or a pawnshop. The woman was cleanly clad, but looked sadly pinched, miserable, and feeble. She earns a little as a washerwoman, and did earn it while her husband lived. She bears an excellent character. Her repetition of the words, "," was very pitiful. I refrained from a prolonged questioning, as it seemed to excite her in her weak state.

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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