London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
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:—
To this must be added
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:—