London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


The Ballast-Getters.


OF these there are sub-classes, viz. those engaged in obtaining the ballast by steam power, and those who still procure it as of old by muscular power.

Of dredging-engines employed in the collecting of ballast from the bed of the Thames there are , the Hercules, the Goliath, and the Samson. These are now stationed respectively in Barking Reach, Half Reach near Dagenham, and the bottom of Half-way Reach off Rainham. Most persons who have proceeded up or down the Thames will have perceived black unshapely masses, with no visible indications that they may be classed with steam-vessels except a chimney and smoke. These are the dredging-vessels; they are of about tons burden. The engines of the Hercules and the Samson are of -horse power,—those of the Goliath are . When the process of dredging is carried on, the use of the dredging-vessel is obvious to any spectator; but I believe that most persons imagine the object to be merely to deepen the river by removing inequalities in its bed, and so to render its navigation easier by equalizing its depth, and in some degrees checking the power of cross-currents, Few are aware that an ulterior object is gained. I visited of these steam-dredgers, and was very courteously shown over it. The feeling was an impression of the order, regularity, and trimness that prevailed. In the engineers" department, too, there was an aspect, as well as a feeling, of extreme snugness, the more perceptible both to the eye and the body from its contrast with the intense cold on the muddy river outside, then running down in very strong ebb. In the engineers" department there was more than cleanliness; there was a brightness about the brass-handles attached to the machinery, and, indeed, about every portion of the apparatus at all susceptible of brightness, which indicated a constant and systematic attention by well-skilled hands. Each dredger carries men, the master (called the captain, commonly enough, on the river), engineers, an engineer"s assistant, legsmen (who attend to the ladders), and men for general purposes. They are all called engine-men. The master of the dredger I visited had the weather-beaten look of the experienced seaman, and the quiet way of talking of past voyages which is found generally in men who have really served, whether in the merchant service or royal navy. He resided on board the dredger with his wife and family, the principal cabin being a very comfortable parlour. All the men live on board, having their turns for visit to the shore from Saturday morning, noon, or evening (as their business permits), to Monday morning. Their sleeping-places are admirable for cleanliness. All the dredgers are under the control of the corporation of the Trinity House. They are, as it was worded to me, as strong as wood and iron can make them. But for secure anchorage these dredgers would soon go adrift. Colliers beating up or down occasionally run against the dredgers: this happens mostly in light winds, when the masters of these colliers are afraid to let go their anchors. The machinery consists of a steam-engine and spur-gear for directing the buckets. The application of the steam-power I need not minutely describe, as it does not differ from other applications where motion has to be communicated. It is connected with strong iron beams, having cogged and connected wheels, which when put into operation give upward and downward motion to the buckets. These buckets are placed on ladders as they are called, on each side the vessel. These ladders (or shafts) consist of heavy beams of wood, firmly bolted together and fitted with friction-wheels. To each ladder buckets are attached, each bucket holding cwt. of gravel. Each bucket is attached by joints to the next, and a series of holes permits the water drawn up with the deposit to ooze out. When the bucket touches the bottom of the river it dips, as it is called. A rotary motion being communicated, the construction ensures the buckets being brought up flat on the ladder until a due height is attained, when the rotary (or circular) motion again comes into play, and the contents of the bucket are emptied into a lighter moored alongside, and the empty bucket is driven down to be refilled. The contents so drawn up are disposed of for ballast, which is the ulterior purpose I have alluded to. Upon an average the buckets revolve once in minutes. That time, however, varies, from the nature of the bed of the river. The Goliath and the Samson being fitted up with marine engines drive the fastest. The vessels have for the last year worked within a circle of a mile. The quantity of ballast raised depends upon the demand, as well as upon the character of the deposit at the bottom of the river. Between and tons have been raised in hours, sometimes in a like period less than tons have been raised. The dredger I was on board of has taken in a year from to tons. A stratum of mud feet had been raised, then feet of gravel, and a chalk bottom was anticipated. In some places feet have been so cleared away to a chalk bottom. In others feet have been so worked off, and no bottom but gravel reached. The gravel lies in shoals. Sometimes the dredgers come to hard conglomerate gravel, as compact as a rock. No fossils have been found. In a few places a clay bottom has been met with. The men in the dredgers are paid according to the number of tons raised, the proceeds being


duly apportioned. They work as frequently by night as by day, their labour depending upon the time when an order for a supply of ballast is received. Each lighter holds tons of ballast. The dredgers above bridge are the property of individuals working with the concurrence of the civic corporation of London. Those below bridge are, as I have said, under the control of the corporation of the Trinity House. The Hercules was the Trinity House dredger worked by steam. Private individuals, however, employed steam sooner than the Trinity House authorities to draw up materials to mix with lime for building purposes. The Trinity House steam-dredger was started in .

I had some conversation with a man employed on of the steam-dredgers. He described the process carried on there as I have given it, estimating the tons of ballast raised at about a-week. He expressed a sense of his good fortune in having the employment he had; he was well used, and wouldn"t like to change. He declined stating his earnings (otherwise than that he had his fair share) until he saw his master, and of course I did not press him further on the subject.

The ballast-getters are men employed in raising ballast from the bed of the river by bodily labour. The apparatus by which this is effected consists of a long staff or pole, about feet in length. At the end of this is an iron "spoon" or ring, underneath which is a leathern bag holding about cwt. The ballast is raised on board the working-lighters by means of this spoon. The working-lighters carry hands: that is, a staffsman whose duty it is to attend to the staff; a bagman, who empties the bag; a chainsman, who hauls at the chain; a heelsman, who lets go the pall of the winch; and trimmers, who trim the ballast in the lighter as fast as it comes in. Previous to the men getting at work, the staffsman takes hold of the spoon to feel whereabout the ballast-bed lies. When this is found, he puts down his "sets," as it is termed,—that is to say, he drives the iron-tipped spars that he has with him in the lighter into the ground, so as to steady the craft. This done, the staffsman seizes hold of the middle of the staff, while the bargeman takes the bag and the chainsman the chain, which is fastened to the iron ring or spoon; the staff is thus thrown overboard into the water, about midway of the lighter, and the tide carries the spoon down towards the stern. The staffsman then fastens the staff to the lighter by means of the gaffstring or rope attached to the side of the vessel. At the same time the men go forward to heave at the winch, round the roll of which the chain attached to the spoon itself is wound. All the men, with the exception of the staffsman, then heave away, and so drag the spoon along the bed of the river. When the staffsman feels that the bag is full, he leaves go of the gaff- string and goes forward to heave with the men as well. Immediately the gaff string is undone the top part of the staff falls back on an oar that projects from the after part of the vessel, and the bag is then raised by means of the winch and chain to the level of the gunwale of the craft; then the bagsman hauls it in and empties it into the lighter, while the trimmers spread the ballast discharged. The spoon can only be worked when the tide is nearly down, because the water would be too deep for the set to bring the craft steady. To hoist the cwt. of ballast in the bag will require the whole force of the men; and none but the very strongest are of use. The ballast-getters are all very powerful men; they are mostly very tall, big-boned, and muscular. Many of them are upwards of feet high, and have backs feet broad. "I lifted half-hundredweights with of my hands," said whom I saw. He was a man of thirtynine years of age, and stood half an inch over feet, while another was feet inches. They were indeed extraordinarily fine specimens of the English labourer, making our boasted Life-guardsman appear almost weak and effeminate in comparison with them. Before the steam dredging-engines were introduced, I am informed the ballast-getters were even bigger and heavier men than they are now. The ballast-getters seldom or never fish up anything besides ballast. or years back they were lucky enough to haul up a box of silver plate; but they consider a bit of old iron or a bit of copper very good luck now. The men generally raise tons eighteen feet high in the course of the tide, which is at the rate of lbs. each man in hours: this makes the quantity raised per hour by each man upwards of lbs. The price paid is per ton, or for tons; this is shared equally among of the men, who receive a-piece as their proportion, and out of this they pay a tide to the sterntrimmer, whom they employ—the Trinity Company allowing only men and the ballastgetters engaging the man themselves. Upon an average the ballast-getters do about loads in the week throughout the year, —this, deducting the money paid to the man, makes the earnings of each ballast-getter come to about throughout the year. The staffsman is allowed a-year to keep the craft in gear. The ballast-getters usually work above the dredging-engines, mostly about Woolwich; there the cleanest ballast is to be got. The Trinity Company they speak most highly of; indeed the corporation are universally spoken of as excellent masters: the men say they have nothing to complain of. They get their money on every Friday night, and have no call to spend a farthing of their earnings otherwise than as they please. They only wish, they add, that the ballast-heavers were as well off. "It would be a good job if they was, poor men," say and all.



The class of ballast-labourers are

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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