London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Dredgers, or River Finders.


THE dredgermen of the Thames, or river finders, naturally occupy the same place with reference to the street-finders, as the purlmen or river beersellers do to those who get their living by selling in the streets. It would be in itself a curious inquiry to trace the origin of the manifold occupations in which men are found to be engaged in the present day, and to note how promptly every circumstance and occurrence was laid hold of, as it happened to arise, which appeared to have any tendency to open up a new occupation, and to mark the gradual progress, till it became a regularly-established employment, followed by a separate class of people, fenced round by rules and customs of their own, and who at length grew to be both in their habits and peculiarities plainly distinct from the other classes among whom they chanced to be located.

There has been no historian among the dredgers of the Thames to record the commencement of the business, and the utmost that any of the riverfinders can tell is that his father had been a dredger, and so had his father before him, and that the reason why they are dredgers also. But no such people as dredgers were known on the Thames in remote days; and before London had become an important trading port, where nothing was likely to be got for the searching, it is not probable that people would have been induced to search. In those days, the only things searched for in the river were the bodies of persons drowned, accidentally or otherwise. For this purpose, the Thames fishermen of all others, appeared to be the best adapted. They were on the spot at all times, and had various sorts of tackle, such as nets, lines, hooks, &c. The fishermen well understood everything connected with the river, such as the various sets of the tide, and the nature of the bottom, and they were therefore on such occasions invariably applied to for these purposes.

It is known to all who remember anything of Old , that at certain times of the tide, in consequence of the velocity with which the water rushed through the narrow apertures which the arches then afforded for its passage, to bring a boat in safety through the bridge was a feat to be attempted only by the skilful and experienced. This feat was known as "shooting" ; and it was no unusual thing for accidents to happen even to the most expert. In fact, numerous accidents occurred at this bridge, and at such times valuable articles were sometimes lost, for which high rewards were offered to the finder. Here again the fishermen came into requisition, the small drag-net, which they used while rowing, offering itself for the purpose; for, by fixing an iron frame round the mouth of the drag-net, this part of it, from its specific gravity, sunk to the bottom, and consequently scraped along as they pulled forward, collecting into the net everything that came in its way; when it was nearly filled, which the rower always knew by the weight, it was hauled up to the surface, its contents examined, and the object lost generally recovered.

It is thus apparent that the fishermen of the Thames were the men originally employed as dredgermen; though casually, indeed, at , and according as circumstances occurred requiring their services. By degrees, however, as the commerce of the river increased, and a greater number of articles fell overboard from the shipping, they came to be more frequently called into requisition, and so they were naturally led to adopt the dredging as part and parcel of their business. Thus it remains to the present day.

The fishermen all serve a regular apprenticeship, as they say themselves, "duly and truly" for years. During the time of their apprenticeship they are (or rather, in former times they ) obliged to sleep in their master's boat at night to take care of his property, and were subject to many other curious regulations, which are foreign to this subject.

I have said that the fishermen of the Thames to the present day unite the dredging to their proper calling. By this I mean that they employ themselves in fishing during the summer and autumn, either from Barking Creek downwards, or from Reach upwards, catching dabs, flounders, eels, and other sorts of fish for the London markets. But in winter when the days are short and cold, and the weather stormy, they prefer stopping at home, and dredging the bed of the river for anything they may chance to find. There are others, however, who have started wholly in the dredging line, there being no hindrance or impediment to any doing so, nor any licence required for the purpose: these dredge the river winter and summer alike, and are, in fact, the only real dredgermen of the present day living solely by that occupation.

There are in all about dredgermen at work on the river, and these are located as follows:—

 From Putney to Vauxhall there are . 20 
 From Vauxhall to London-bridge . . 40 
 From London-bridge to Deptford . . 20 
 And from Deptford to Gravesend . . 20 

All these reside, in general, on the south side of the Thames, the places most frequented by them being and . They do not, however, confine themselves to the neighbourhoods wherein they reside, but extend their operations to all parts of the river, where it is likely that they may pick up anything; and it is perfectly marvellous with what rapidity the intelligence of any accident calculated to afford them employment is spread among them; for should a loaded coal barge be sunk over night, by daylight the next morning every dredgerman would be sure to be upon the spot, prepared to collect what he could from the wreck at the bottom of the river.

The boats of the dredgermen are of a peculiar shape. They have no stern, but are the same


fore and aft. They are called Peter boats, but not of the men with whom I spoke had the least idea as to the origin of the name. These boats are to be had at almost all prices, according to their condition and age—from to The boats used by the fishermen dredgermen are decidedly the most valuable. with the other, perhaps the whole may average each; and this sum will give as the value of the entire number. A complete set of tackle, including drags, will cost , which comes to for all hands; and thus we have the sum of as the amount of capital invested in the dredging of the Thames.

It is by no means an easy matter to form any estimate of the earnings of the dredgermen, as they are a matter of mere chance. In former years, when Indiamen and all the foreign shipping lay in the river, the river finders were in the habit of doing a good business, not only in their own line, through the greater quantities of rope, bones, and other things which then were thrown or fell overboard, but they also contrived to smuggle ashore great quantities of tobacco, tea, spirits, and other contraband articles, and thought it a bad day's work when they did not earn a pound independent of their dredging. An old dredger told me he had often in those days made before breakfast time. After the excavation of the various docks, and after the larger shipping had departed from the river, the finders were obliged to content themselves with the chances of mere dredging; and even then, I am informed, they were in the habit of earning week with another throughout the year, about per week, each, or per annum among all. Latterly, however, the earnings of these men have greatly fallen off, especially in the summer, for then they cannot get so good a price for the coal they find as in the winter— per bushel being the summer price; and, as they consider bushels a good day's work, their earnings at this period of the year amount only to per day, excepting when they happen to pick up some bones or pieces of metal, or to find a dead body for which there is a reward. In the winter, however, the dredgermen can readily get per bushel for all the coals they find; and far more coals are to be found then than in summer, for there are more colliers in the river, and far more accidents at that season. Coal barges are often sunk in the winter, and on such occasions they make a good harvest. Moreover there is the finding of bodies, for which they not only get the reward, but , which they call inquest money; together with many other chances, such as the finding of money and valuables among the rubbish they bring up from the bottom; but as the last-mentioned are accidents happening throughout the year, I am inclined to think that they have understated the amount which they are in the habit of realizing even in the summer.

The dredgers, as a class, may be said to be altogether uneducated, not half a dozen out of the whole number being able to read their own name, and only or to write it; this select few are considered by the rest as perfect prodigies. "Lor' bless you!" said , "I on'y wish you'd 'ear Bill S—— read; I on'y jist wish you'd 'ear him. Why that ere Bill can read faster nor a dog can trot. And, what's more, I seed him write an ole letter hisself, ev'ry word on it! What do you think o' that now?" The ignorance of the dredgermen may be accounted for by the men taking so early to the water; the bustle and excitement of the river being far more attractive to them than the routine of a school. Almost as soon as they are able to do anything, the dredgermen's boys are taken by their fathers afloat to assist in picking out the coals, bones, and other things of any use, from the midst of the rubbish brought up in their drag-nets; or else the lads are sent on board as assistants to or other of the fishermen during their fishing voyages. When once engaged in this way it has been found impossible afterwards to keep the youths from the water; and if they have learned anything previously they very soon forget it.

It might be expected that the dredgers, in a manner depending on chance for their livelihood, and leading a restless sort of life on the water, would closely resemble the costermongers in their habits; but it is far otherwise. There can be no classes more dissimilar, except in their hatred of restraint. The dredgers are sober and steady; gambling is unknown amongst them; and they are, to an extraordinary degree, laborious, persevering, and patient. They are in general men of short stature, but square built, strong, and capable of enduring great fatigue, and have a silent and thoughtful look. Being almost always alone, and studying how they may best succeed in finding what they seek, marking the various sets of the tide, and the direction in which things falling into the water at a particular place must necessarily be carried, they become the very opposite to the other river people, especially to the watermen, who are brawling and clamorous, and delight in continually "chaffing" each other. In consequence of the sober and industrious habits of the dredgermen their homes are, as they say, "pretty fair" for working men, though there is nothing very luxurious to be found in them, nor indeed anything beyond what is absolutely necessary. After their day's work, especially if they have "done well," these men smoke a pipe over a pint or of beer at the nearest publichouse, get home early to bed, and if the tide answers may be found on the river patiently dredging away at or o'clock in the morning.

Whenever a loaded coal barge happens to sink, as I have already intimated, it is surprising how short a time elapses before that part of the river is alive with the dredgers. They flock thither from all parts. The river on such occasions presents a very animated appearance. At they are all in a group, and apparently in confusion, crossing and re-crossing each other's course; some with their oars pulled in while they examine the contents of their nets, and empty the coals into the bottom of their boats; others rowing and tugging against the stream, to obtain an advan-


tageous position for the next cast; and when they consider they have found this, down go the dredging-nets to the bottom, and away they row again with the stream, as if pulling for a wager, till they find by the weight of their net that it is full; then they at once stop, haul it to the surface, and commence another course. Others who have been successful in getting their boats loaded may be seen pushing away from the main body, and making towards the shore. Here they busily employ themselves, with what help they can get, in emptying the boat of her cargo—carrying it ashore in old coal baskets, bushel measures, or anything else which will suit their purpose; and when this is completed they pull out again to join their comrades, and commence afresh. They continue working thus till the returning tide puts an end to their labours, but these are resumed after the tide has fallen to a certain depth; and so they go on, working night and day while there is anything to be got.

The dredgerman and his boat may be immediately distinguished from all others; there is nothing similar to them on the river. The sharp cutwater fore and aft, and short rounded appearance of the vessel, marks it out at once from the skiff or wherry of the waterman. There is, too, always the appearance of labour about the boat, like a ship returning after a long voyage, daubed and filthy, and looking sadly in need of a thorough cleansing. The grappling irons are over the bow, resting on a coil of rope; while the other end of the boat is filled with coals, bones, and old rope, mixed with the mud of the river. The ropes of the dredging-net hang over the side. A short stout figure, with a face soiled and blackened with perspiration, and surmounted by a tarred sou'--wester, the body habited in a soiled check shirt, with the sleeves turned up above the elbows, and exhibiting a pair of sunburnt brawny arms, is pulling at the sculls, not with the ease and lightness of the waterman, but toiling and tugging away like a galley slave, as he scours the bed of the river with his dredging-net in search of some hoped--for prize.

The dredgers, as was before stated, are the men who find almost all the bodies of persons drowned. If there be a reward offered for the recovery of a body, numbers of the dredgers will at once endeavour to obtain it, while if there be no reward, there is at least the inquest money to be had— beside other chances. What these chances are may be inferred from the well-known fact, that no body recovered by a dredgerman ever happens to have any money about it, when brought to shore. There may, indeed, be a watch in the fob or waistcoat pocket, for that article would be likely to be traced. There may, too, be a purse or pocket-book forthcoming, but somehow it is invariably empty. The dredgers cannot by any reasoning or argument be made to comprehend that there is anything like dishonesty in emptying the pockets of a dead man. They consider them as their just perquisites. They say that any who finds a body does precisely the same, and that if they did not do so the police would. After having had all the trouble and labour, they allege that they have a much better right to whatever is to be got, than the police who have had nothing whatever to do with it. There are also people who shrewdly suspect that some of the coals from the barges lying in the river, very often find their way into the dredgers' boats, especially when the dredgers are engaged in night-work; and there are even some who do not hold them guiltless of, now and then, when opportunity offers, smuggling things ashore from many of the steamers coming from foreign parts. But such things, I repeat, the dredgers consider in the fair way of their business.

of the most industrious, and I believe of the most skilful and successful of this peculiar class, gave me the following epitome of his history.

Father was a dredger, and grandfather afore him; grandfather was a dredger and a fisherman too. A'most as soon as I was able to crawl, father took me with him in the boat to help him to pick the coals, and bones, and other things out of the net, and to use me to the water. When I got bigger and stronger, I was sent to the parish school, but I didn't like it half as well as the boat, and couldn't be got to stay two days together. At last I went above bridge, and went along with a fisherman, and used to sleep in the boat every night. I liked to sleep in the boat; I used to be as comfortable as could be. Lor bless you! there's a tilt to them boats, and no rain can't git at you. I used to lie awake of a night in them times, and listen to the water slapping ag'in the boat, and think it fine fun. I might a got bound 'prentice, but I got aboard a smack, where I stayed three or four year, and if I'd a stayed there, I'd a liked it much better. But I heerd as how father was ill, so I com'd home, and took to the dredging, and am at it off and on ever since. I got no larnin', how could I? There's on'y one or two of us dredgers as knows anything of larnin', and they're no better off than the rest. Larnin's no use to a dredger, he hasn't got no time to read; and if he had, why it wouldn't tell him where the holes and furrows is at the bottom of the river, and where things is to be found. To be sure there's holes and furrows at the bottom. I know a good many. I know a furrow off Lime'us Point, no wider nor the dredge, and I can go there, and when others can't git anything but stones and mud, I can git four or five bushel o' coal. You see they lay there; they get in with the set of the tide, and can't git out so easy like. Dredgers don't do so well now as they used to do. You know Pelican Stairs? well, before the Docks was built, when the ships lay there, I could go under Pelican Pier and pick up four or five shilling of a morning. What was that tho' to father? I hear him say he often made 5l. afore breakfast, and nobody ever the wiser. Them were fine times! there was a good livin' to be picked up on the water them days. About ten year ago, the fishermen at Lambeth, them as sarves their time 'duly and truly' thought to put us off the water, and went afore the Lord Mayor, but they couldn't do nothink after all. They do better nor us, as they go fishin' all the summer, when the dredgin' is bad, and come back in winter. Some on us down here" [Rotherhithe] "go a deal-portering in the summer, or unloading 'tatoes, or anything else we can get; when we have nothin' else to do, we go on the river. Father don't dredge now, he's too old for that; it takes a man to be strong to dredge, so father goes to ship scrapin'. He on'y sits on a plank outside the ship, and scrapes off the old tar with a scraper. We does very well for all that—why he can make his half a bull a day [2s. 6d.] when he gits work, but that's not always; howsomever I helps the old man at times, when I'm able. I've found a good many bodies. I got a many rewards, and a tidy bit of inquest money. There's 5s. 6d. inquest money at Rotherhithe, and on'y a shillin' at Deptford; I can't make out how that is, but that's all they give, I know. I never finds anythink on the bodies. Lor bless you! people don't have anythink in their pockets when they gits drowned, they are not such fools as all that. Do you see them two marks there on the back of my hand? Well, one day—I was on'y young then—I was grabblin' for old rope in Church Hole, when I brings up a body, and just as I was fixing the rope on his leg to tow him ashore, two swells comes down in a skiff, and lays hold of the painter of my boat, and tows me ashore. The hook of the drag went right thro' the trowsers of the drowned man and my hand, and I couldn't let go no how, and tho' I roared out like mad, the swells didn't care, but dragged me into the stairs. When I got there, my arm, and the corpse's shoe and trowsers, was all kivered with my blood. What do you think the gents said?—why, they told me as how they had done me good, in towin' the body in, and ran away up the stairs. Tho' times ain't near so good as they was, I manages purty tidy, and hasn't got no occasion to hollor much; but there's some of the dredgers as would hollor, if they was ever so well off.

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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