London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Street-Sellers of Coke.


AMONG the occupations that have sprung up of late years is that of the purchase and distribution of the refuse cinders or coke obtained from the different gas-works, which are supplied at a much cheaper rate than coal. Several of the larger gas companies burn as many as tons of coals per annum, and some even more, and every ton thus burnt is stated to leave behind chaldrons of coke, returning to such companies per cent. of their outlay upon the coal. The distribution of coke is of the utmost importance to those whose poverty forces them to use it instead of coal.

It is supposed that the gas companies in and about the metropolis produce at least chaldrons of coke, which are distributed to the poorer classes by vans, -horse carts, donkey carts, trucks, and itinerant vendors who carry , and in some cases sacks lashed together on their backs, from house to house.

The van proprietors are those who, having capital, contract with the companies at a fixed rate per chaldron the year through, and supply the numerous retail shops at the current price, adding per chaldron for carriage; thus speculating upon the rise or fall of the article, and in most cases carrying on a very lucrative business. This class numbers about persons, and are to be distinguished by the words "coke contractor," painted on a showy ground on the exterior of their handsome well-made vehicles; they add to their ordinary business the occupation of conveying to their destination the coke that the companies sell from time to time. These men have generally a capital, or a reputation for capital, to the extent of or , and in some cases more, and they usually enter into their contracts with the companies in the summer, when but small quantities of fuel are required, and the gas-works are incommoded for want of space to contain the quantity made. They are consequently able, by their command of means, to make advantageous bargains, and several instances are known of men starting with a wheelbarrow in this calling and who are now the owners of the dwellings in which they reside, and have goods, vans, and carts besides.

Another class, to whom may be applied much that has been said of the van proprietors, are the possessors of -horse carts, who in many instances keep small shops for the sale of greens, coals, &c. These men are scattered over the whole metropolis, but as they do not exclusively obtain their


living by vending this article, they do not properly belong to this portion of the inquiry.

A very numerous portion of the distributors of coke are the donkey-cart men, who are to be seen in all the poorer localities with a quantity shot in the bottom of their cart, and or sacks on the top or fastened underneath—for it is of a light nature—ready to meet the demand, crying "Coke! coke! coke!" morning, noon, and night. This they sell as low as per bushel, coke having, in consequence of the cheapness of coals, been sold at the gas-works by the single sack as low as , and although there is here a seeming contradiction—that of a man selling and living by the loss—such is not in reality the case. It should be remembered that a bushel of good coke will weigh lbs., and that the bushels of these men rarely exceed lbs.; so that it will be seen that by this unprincipled mode of dealing they can seemingly sell for less than they give, and yet realize a good profit. The last classes are those who own a truck or wheelbarrow or are the fortunate possessors of an athletic frame and broad shoulders, who roam about near the vicinity of the gas-works, soliciting custom, obtaining ready cash if possible, but in most cases leaving sack on credit, and obtaining a profit of from , , , or more. These men are to be seen going from house to house cleverly regulating their arrival to such times as when the head of the family returns home with his weekly wage, and in possession of ready cash enough to make a bargain with the coke contractor. Another fact in connection with this class, many of whom are women, who employ boys to drag or carry their wares to their customers, is this: when they fail through any cause, they put their walk up for sale, and find no difficulty to obtain purchasers from to as high as , , and The streetsellers of coke number in all not less than persons, who may be thus divided: van proprietors, ; single horse carts, ; donkey-cart men, ; trucks, wheelbarrows, and "physical force men," ; and women about , who penetrate to all the densely-crowded districts about town distributing this useful article; the major portion of those who are of anything like sober habits, live in comfort; and in spite of the opinion held by many, that the consumption of coke is injurious to health and sight, they carry on a large and increasing business.

At the present time coke may be purchased at the gas factories at per chaldron; but in winter it generally rises to , so that, taking the average, , it will be found, that the gas factories of the metropolis realize no less a sum than per annum, by the produced in the course of their operations. And per chaldron being considered a fair profit, it will be found, that the total profit arising from its sale by the various vendors is

It is impossible to arrive with any degree of certainty at the actual amount of business done by each of the above-named classes, and the profits consequent on that business: by dividing the above amount equally among all the coke sellers, it will be found to give per annum to each person. But it will be at once seen, that the same rule holds good in the coke trade that has already been explained in connection with coals: those possessing vans reaping the largest amount of profit; the -horse cart men next; then the donkey carts, trucks, and wheelbarrows; and, least of all, the "backers," as they are sometimes called.

Concerning the amount of capital invested in the street-sale of coals it may be estimated as follows:—

 If we allow 70l. for each of the 100 vans, it will give . . . . . £ 7,000 
 20l. for each of the horses . . 2,000 
 300 carts at 10l. each . . . 3,000 
 300 horses at 10l. each . . . 3,000 
 500 donkey-carts at 1l. each . . 500 
 500 donkeys at 1l. each . . . 500 
 200 trucks and barrows at 10s. each . 100 
 making a total of . . . . £ 16,000 

To this must be added

 4800 sacks for the 100 vans at 3s. 6d. each . . . . . . . . 840 0 0 
 3600 sacks for the 300 carts . 630 0 0 
 3000 " " 500 donkey carts . . . . . . . . . . 525 0 0 
 1652 " " 550 trucks and backers . . . . . . . 288 15 0 
 300 " " 50 women . 52 10 0 
   £ 18,336 5 0 

 Which being added to the value of vans, carts, and horses employed in the streetsale of coals, viz. . . . . 6,865 
 gives a capital of . . . . £ 252,015 
employed in the street-sale of coal and coke.

 The profits of both these trades added together, namely, that on coals . . 43,758 
 and the profit on coke . . . 280,000 
 shows a total profit of . . . £ 323,758 
to be divided among persons, who compose the class of itinerant coal and coke vendors of the metropolis.

The following statement as to the street-sale of coke was given by a man in good circumstances, who had been engaged in the business for many years:—

I am a native of the south of Ireland. More nor twenty years ago I came to London. I had friends here working in a gas factory, and afther a time they managed to get me into the work too. My business was to keep the coals to the stokers, and when they emptied the retorts to wheel the coke in barrows and empty it on the coke heap. I worked for four or five years, off and on, at this place. I was sometimes put out of work in the summer-time, because they don't want as many hands then. There's not near so much gas burned in summer, and then, of course, it takes less hands to make it. Well, at last I got to be a stoker; I had betther wages thin, and a couple of pots of beer in the day. It was dhreadful hard work, and as hot, aye, as if you were in the inside of an oven. I don't know how I ever stood it. Be me soul, I don't know how anybody stands it; it's the divil's place of all you ever saw in your life, standing there before them retorts with a long heavy rake, pullin out the red-hot coke for the bare life, and then there's the rake red-hot in your hands, and the hissin and the bubblin of the wather, and the smoke and the smell—it's fit to melt a man like a rowl of fresh butther. I wasn't a bit too fond of it, at any rate, for it 'ud kill a horse; so I ses to the wife, 'I can't stand this much longer, Peggy.' Well, behold you, Peggy begins to cry and wring her hands, thinkin we'd starve; but I knew a grate dale betther nor that, for I was two or three times dhrinkin with some of thim that carry the coke out of the yard in sacks to sell to the poor people, and they had twice as much money to spind as me, that was working like a horse from mornin to night. I had a pound or two by me, for I was always savin, and by this time I knew a grate many people round about; so off I goes, and asks one and another to take a sack of coke from me, and bein knoun in the yard, and standin a dhrop o' dhrink now and thin for the fillers, I alway got good measure, and so I used to make four sacks out of three, and often three out of two. Well, at last I got tired carryin sacks on me back all day, and now I know I was a fool for doin it at all, for it's asier to dhrag a thruck with five or six sacks than to carry one; so I got a second-hand thruck for little or nothin, and thin I was able to do five times as much work in half the time. At last, I took a notion of puttin so much every Sathurday night in the savin bank, and faith, sir, that was the lucky notion for me, although Peggy wouldn't hear of it at all at all. She swore the bank 'ud be broke, and said she could keep the goold safer in her own stockin; that thim gintlemin in banks were all a set of blickards, and only desaved the poor people into givin them their money to keep it thimselves. But in spite of Peggy I put the money in, and it was well for me that I did so, for in a short time I could count up 30 or 40 guineas in bank, and whin Peggy saw that the bank wasn't broke she was quite satisfied; so one day I ses to myself, What the divil's the use of me breakin my heart mornin, noon, and night, dhraggin a thruck behind me, whin ever so little a bit of a horse would dhrag ten time as much as I can? so off I set to Smithfield, and bought a stout stump of a horse for 12l. 10s., and thin wint to a sale and bought an ould cart for little or nothin, and in less nor a month I had every farthin back again in the bank. Well, afther this, I made more and more every day, and findin that I paid more for the coke in winther than in summer, I thought as I had money if I could only get a place to put a good lot in summer to sell in winther it would be a good thing; so I begun to look about, and found this house for sale, so I bought it out and out. It was an ould house to be sure; but it's sthrong enough, and dune up well enough for a poor man—besides there's the yard, and see in that yard there's a hape o'coke for the winther. I'm buyin it up now, an it'ill turn a nice pinny whin the could weather comes again. To make a long story short, I needn't call the king my cousin. I'm sure any one can do well, if he likes; but I don't mane that they can do well brakin their heart workin; divil a one that sticks to work 'ill ever be a hapenny above a beggar; and I know if I'd stuck to it myself I'd be a grate dale worse off now than the first day, for I'm not so young nor near so sthrong as I was thin, and if I hadn't lift it off in time I'd have nothin at all to look to in a few years more but to ind my days in the workhouse—bad luck to it.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work