London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2
Of the Mud-Larks.
THERE is another class who may be termed riverfinders, although their occupation is connected only with the shore; they are commonly known by the name of "mud-larks," from being compelled, in order to obtain the articles they seek, to wade sometimes up to their middle through the mud left on the shore by the retiring tide. These poor creatures are certainly about the most deplorable in their appearance of any I have met with in the course of my inquiries. They may be seen of all ages, from mere childhood to positive decrepitude, crawling among the barges at the various wharfs along the river; it cannot be said that they are clad in rags, for they are scarcely half covered by the tattered indescribable things that serve them for clothing; their bodies are grimed with the foul soil of the river, and their torn garments stiffened up like boards with dirt of every possible description.
Among the mud-larks may be seen many old women, and it is indeed pitiable to behold them, especially during the winter, bent nearly double with age and infirmity, paddling and groping among the wet mud for small pieces of coal, chips of wood, or any sort of refuse washed up by the tide. These women always have with them an old basket or an old tin kettle, in which they put whatever they chance to find. It usually takes them a whole tide to fill this receptacle, but when filled, it is as much as the feeble old creatures are able to carry home.
The mud-larks generally live in some court or alley in the neighbourhood of the river, and, as the tide recedes, crowds of boys and little girls, some old men, and many old women, may be observed loitering about the various stairs, watching eagerly for the opportunity to commence their labours. When the tide is sufficiently low they scatter themselves along the shore, separating from each other, and soon disappear among the craft lying about in every direc- tion. This is the case on both sides of the river, as high up as there is anything to be found, extending as far as Vauxhall-bridge, and as low down as Woolwich. The mud-larks themselves, however, know only those who reside near them, and whom they are accustomed to meet in their daily pursuits; indeed, with but few exceptions, these people are dull, and apparently stupid; this is observable particularly among the boys and girls, who, when engaged in searching the mud, hold but little converse with another. The men and women may be passed and repassed, but they notice no ; they never speak, but with a stolid look of wretchedness they plash their way through the mire, their bodies bent down while they peer anxiously about, and occasionally stoop to pick up some paltry treasure that falls in their way.
The mud-larks collect whatever they happen to find, such as coals, bits of old-iron, rope, bones, and copper nails that drop from ships while lying or repairing along shore. Copper nails are the most valuable of all the articles they find, but these they seldom obtain, as they are always driven from the neighbourhood of a ship while being new-sheathed. Sometimes the younger and bolder mud-larks venture on sweeping some empty coal-barge, and little fellow with whom I spoke, having been lately caught in the act of so doing, had to undergo for the offence days' imprisonment in the : this, he says, he liked much better than mud-larking, for while he staid there he wore a coat and shoes and stockings, and though he had not over much to eat, he certainly was never afraid of going to bed without anything at all—as he often had to do when at liberty. He thought he would try it on again in the winter, he told me, saying, it would be so comfortable to have clothes and shoes and stockings then, and not be obliged to go into the cold wet mud of a morning.
The coals that the mud-larks find, they sell to the poor people of the neighbourhood at per pot, holding about lbs. The iron and bones and rope and copper nails which they collect, they sell at the rag-shops. They dispose of the iron at lbs. for , the bones at lbs. a , rope a per lb. wet, and per lb. dry, and copper nails at the rate of per lb. They occasionally pick up tools, such as saws and hammers; these they dispose of to the seamen for biscuit and meat, and sometimes sell them at the rag-shops for a few halfpence. In this manner they earn from to per day, but rarely the latter sum; their average gains may be estimated at about per day. The boys, after leaving the river, sometimes scrape their trousers, and frequent the cab-stands, and try to earn a trifle by opening the cab-doors for those who enter them, or by holding gentlemen's horses. Some of them go, in the evening, to a ragged school, in the neighbourhood of which they live; more, as they say, because other boys go there, than from any desire to learn.
At of the stairs in the neighbourhood of the pool, I collected about a dozen of these unfortunate children; there was not of them
|over years of age, and many of them were but . It would be almost impossible to describe the wretched group, so motley was their appearance, so extraordinary their dress, and so stolid and inexpressive their countenances. Some carried baskets, filled with the produce of their morning's work, and others old tin kettles with iron handles. Some, for want of these articles, had old hats filled with the bones and coals they had picked up; and others, more needy still, had actually taken the caps from their own heads, and filled them with what they had happened to find. The muddy slush was dripping from their clothes and utensils, and forming a puddle in which they stood. There did not appear to be among the whole group as many filthy cotton rags to their backs as, when stitched together, would have been sufficient to form the material of shirt. There were the remnants of or jackets among them, but so begrimed and tattered that it would have been difficult to have determined either the original material or make of the garment. On questioning , he said his father was a coal-backer; he had been dead years; the boy was years old. His mother was alive; she went out charing and washing when she could get any such work to do. She had a day when she could get employment, but that was not often; he remembered once to have had a pair of shoes, but it was a long time since. "It is very cold in winter," he said, "to stand in the mud without shoes," but he did not mind it in summer. He had been years mud-larking, and supposed he should remain a mud-lark all his life. What else could he be? for there was nothing else that he knew to do. Some days he earned , and some days ; he never earned in day, that would have been a "jolly lot of money." He never found a saw or a hammer, he "only wished" he could, they would be glad to get hold of them at the dolly's. He had been month at school before he went mud-larking. Some time ago he had gone to the ragged-school; but he no longer went there, for he forgot it. He could neither read nor write, and did not think he could learn if he tried "ever so much." He didn't know what religion his father and mother were, nor did know what religion meant. God was God, he said. He had heard he was good, but didn't know what good he was to him. He thought he was a Christian, but he didn't know what a Christian was. He had heard of Jesus Christ once, when he went to a , but he never heard tell of who or what he was, and didn't "particular care" about knowing. His father and mother were born in Aberdeen, but he didn't know where Aberdeen was. London was England, and England, he said, was in London, but he couldn't tell in what part. He could not tell where he would go to when he died, and didn't believe any could tell Prayers, he told me, were what people said to themselves at night. never said any, and didn't know any; his mother sometimes used to speak to him about them, but he could never learn any. His mother didn't go to church or to chapel, because she had no clothes. All the money he got he gave to his mother, and she bought bread with it, and when they had no money they lived the best way they could.|
Such was the amount of intelligence manifested by this unfortunate child.
Another was only years old. He stated that his father was a sailor who had been hurt on board ship, and been unable to go to sea for the last years. He had brothers and a sister, of them older than himself; and his elder brother was a mud-lark like himself. The had been mud-larking more than a year; they went because they saw other boys go, and knew that they got money for the things they found. They were often hungry, and glad to do anything to get something to eat. Their father was not able to earn anything, and their mother could get but little to do. They gave all the money they earned to their mother. They didn't gamble, and play at pitch and toss when they had got some money, but some of the big boys did on the Sunday, when they didn't go a mud-larking. He couldn't tell why they did nothing on a Sunday, "only they didn't;" though sometimes they looked about to see where the best place would be on the next day. He didn't go to the ragged school; he should like to know how to read a book, though he couldn't tell what good it would do him. He didn't like mud larking, would be glad of something else, but didn't know anything else that he could do.
Another of the boys was the son of a dock labourer,—casually employed. He was between and years of age, and his sister, who was also a mud-lark, formed of the group. The mother of these was dead, and there were children younger than themselves.
The rest of the histories may easily be imagined, for there was a painful uniformity in the stories of all the children: they were either the children of the very poor, who, by their own improvidence or some overwhelming calamity, had been reduced to the extremity of distress, or else they were orphans, and compelled from utter destitution to seek for the means of appeasing their hunger in the mud of the river. That the majority of this class are ignorant, and without even the rudiments of education, and that many of them from time to time are committed to prison for petty thefts, cannot be wondered at. Nor can it even excite our astonishment that, once within the walls of a prison, and finding how much more comfortable it is than their previous condition, they should return to it repeatedly. As for the females growing up under such circumstances, the worst may be anticipated of them; and in proof of this I have found, upon inquiry, that very many of the unfortunate creatures who swell the tide of prostitution in Ratcliff-highway, and other low neighbourhoods in the East of London, have originally been mud-larks; and only remained at that occupation till such time as they were capable of adopting the more easy and more lucrative life of the prostitute.
As to the numbers and earnings of the mud-
|larks, the following calculations fall short of, rather than exceed, the truth. From to the lower part of Hole, there are stairs or landing-places, by which the mud-larks descend to the shore in order to pursue their employment. There are about as many on the opposite side of the water similarly frequented.|
At King James' Stairs, in , which is nearly a central position, from to mudlarks go down daily to the river; the mud-larks "using" the other stairs are not so numerous. If, therefore, we reckon the number of stairs on both sides of the river at , and the average number of mud-larks frequenting them at each, we shall have a total of . Each mud-lark, it has been shown, earns on an average a day, or per week; so that the annual earnings of each will be , or say , a year, and hence the gross earnings of the will amount to rather more than per annum.
But there are, in addition to the mud-larks employed in the neighbourhood of what may be called the pool, many others who work down the river at various places as far as , on the side, and at Deptford, Greenwich, and Woolwich, on the other. These frequent the neighbourhoods of the various "yards" along shore, where vessels are being built; and whence, at certain times, chips, small pieces of wood, bits of iron, and copper nails, are washed out into the river. There is but little doubt that this portion of the class earn much more than the mud-larks of the pool, seeing that they are especially convenient to the places where the iron vessels are constructed; so that the presumption is, that the number of mudlarks "at work" on the banks of the Thames (especially if we include those above bridge), and the value of the property extracted by them from the mud of the river, may be fairly estimated at double that which is stated above, or say gaining per annum.
As an illustration of the doctrines I have endeavoured to enforce throughout this publication, I cite the following history of of the above class. It may serve to teach those who are still sceptical as to the degrading influence of circumstances upon the poor, that many of the humbler classes, if placed in the same easy position as ourselves, would become, perhaps, quite as "respectable" members of society.
The lad of whom I speak was discovered by me now nearly years ago "mud-larking" on the banks of the river near the docks. He was a quick, intelligent little fellow, and had been at the business, he told me, about years. He had taken to mud-larking, he said, because his clothes were too bad for him to look for anything better. He worked every day, with or boys, who might all be seen at daybreak with their trowsers tucked up, groping about, and picking out the pieces of coal from the mud on the banks of the Thames. He went into the river up to his knees, and in searching the mud he often ran pieces of glass and long nails into his feet. When this was the case, he went home and dressed the wounds, but returned to the river-side directly, "for should the tide come up," he added, "without my having found something, why I must starve till next low tide." In the very cold weather he and his other shoeless companions used to stand in the hot water that ran down the river side from some of the steam-factories, to warm their frozen feet.
At he found it difficult to keep his footing in the mud, and he had known many beginners fall in. He came to my house, at my request, the morning after my meeting with him. It was the depth of winter, and the poor little fellow was nearly destitute of clothing. His trousers were worn away up to his knees, he had no shirt, and his legs and feet (which were bare) were covered with chilblains. On being questioned by me he gave the following account of his life:—
He was years old. He had sisters, and the other years of age. His father had been dead years. The man had been a coal-whipper, and, from getting his work from of the publican employers in those days, had become a confirmed drunkard. When he married he held a situation in a warehouse, where his wife managed the year to save out of her husband's earnings; but from the day he took to coal-whipping she had never saved halfpenny, indeed she and her children were often left to starve. The man (whilst in a state of intoxication) had fallen between barges, and the injuries he received had been so severe that he had lingered in a helpless state for years before his death. After her husband's decease the poor woman's neighbours subscribed for her; with this sum she opened a greengrocer's shop, and got on very well for years.
When the boy was years old his mother sent him to the school at Green-bank, near Old , Ratcliffe-highway; she paid a week for his learning. He remained there for a year; then the potato-rot came, and his mother lost upon all she bought. About the same time of her customers died in her debt; this loss, together with the potato-disease. completely ruined her, and the whole family had been in the greatest poverty from that period. Then she was obliged to take all her children from their school, that they might help to keep themselves as best they could. Her eldest girl sold fish in the streets, and the boy went to the river-side to "pick up" his living. The change, however, was so great that shortly afterwards the little fellow lay ill eighteen weeks with the ague. As soon as the boy recovered his mother and his sisters were "taken bad" with a fever. The poor woman went into the "Great House," and the children were taken to the . When the mother returned home she was too weak to work, and all she had to depend on was what her boy brought from the river. They had nothing to eat and no money until the little fellow had been down to the shore and picked up some coals, selling them for a trifle. "And hard enough he had to work for what he got, poor boy," said his mother to me on a future
|occasion, sobbing; "still he never complained, but was quite proud when he brought home enough for us to get a bit of meat with; and when he has sometimes seen me down-hearted, he has clung round my neck, and assured me that day God would see us cared for if I would put my trust in Him." As soon as his mother was well enough she sold fruit in the streets, or went out washing when she could get a day's work.|
The lad suffered much from the pieces of broken glass in the mud. Some little time before I met with him he had run a copper nail into his foot. This lamed him for months, and his mother was obliged to carry him on her back every morning to the doctor. As soon, however, as he could "hobble" (to use his mother's own words) he went back to the river, and often returned (after many hours' hard work in the mud) with only a few pieces of coal, not enough to sell even to get them a bit of bread. evening, as he was warming his feet in the water that ran from a steam factory, he heard some boys talking about the Ragged School in , .
I was so much struck with the boy's truthfulness of manner, that I asked him, , he really lead a different life, if he saw a means of so doing? He assured me he would, and begged me earnestly to try him. Upon his leaving me, were given him for his trouble. This small sum (I afterwards learned) kept the family for more than a fortnight. The girl laid it out in sprats (it being then winter-time); these she sold in the streets.
I mentioned the fact to a literary friend, who interested himself in the boy's welfare; and eventually succeeded in procuring him a situation at an eminent printer's. The subjoined letter will show how the lad conducted himself while there.
The same literary friend took the girl into his service. She is in a situation still, though not in the same family.
The boy now holds a good situation at of the daily newspaper offices. So well has he behaved himself, that, a few weeks since, his wages were increased from to per week. His mother (owing to the boy's exertions) has now a little shop, and is doing well.
This simple story requires no comments, and is narrated here in the hope that it may teach many to know how often the poor boys reared in the gutter are thieves, merely because society forbids them being honest lads.