London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Working Flushermen.


WHEN the system of sewer cleansing became general, as I have detailed, the number of flushermen employed, I am assured, on good authority, was about . The sewers were, when this process was resorted to, full of deposit, often what might be called "coagulated" deposit, which could not be affected except by constantly repeated efforts. There are now only about flushermen, for the more regularly flushing is repeated, the easier becomes the operation.

Until about months ago, the flushermen were employed directly by the Court of Sewers, and were paid ("in Mr. Roe's time," man said, with a sigh) from to a week; now the work is There are some or contractors, all builders, who underdertake or are responsible for the whole work of flushing in the metropolitan districts (I do not speak of the City), and they pay the working flushermen a week, and the gangers This wage is always paid in money, without drawbacks, and without the intervention of any other middleman than the contractor middleman. The flushermen have no perquisites except what they may chance to find in a sewer. Their time of labour is hours daily.

The state of the tide, however, sometimes, as a matter of course, compels the flushermen to work at every hour of the day and night. At all times they carry lights, common oil lamps, with cotton wicks; only the inspectors carry Davy's safety-lamp. I met no man who could assign any reason for this distinction, except that "the Davy" gave "such a bad light."

The flushermen wear, when at work, strong blue overcoats, waterproofed (but not so much as used to be the case, the men then complaining of the perspiration induced by them), buttoned close over the chest, and descending almost to the knees, where it is met by huge leather boots, covering a part of the thigh, such as are worn by the fishermen on many of our coasts. Their hats are fan-tailed, like the dustmen's. The flushermen are well-conducted men generally, and, for the most part, fine stalwart good-looking specimens of the English labourer; were they not known or believed to be temperate, they would not be employed. They have, as a body, no benefit or sick clubs, but a of them, I was told, or perhaps nearly a , were members of general benefit societies. I found several intelligent men among them. They are engaged by the contractors, upon whom they call to solicit work.

"Since Mr. Roe's time," and Mr. Roe is evidently the popular man among the flushermen, or somewhat less than years ago, the flushermen have had to provide their own dresses, and even their own shovels to stir up the deposit. To contractors, the comforts or health of the labouring men must necessarily be a secondary consideration to the realization of a profit. New men can always be found; safe investments cannot.

The wages of the flushermen therefore have been not only decreased, but their expenses increased. A pair of flushing-boots, covering a part of the thigh, similar to those worn by sea-side fishermen, costs as a low price, and a flusherman wears out pairs in years. Boot stockings cost The jacket worn by the men at their work in the sewers, in the shape of a pilot-jacket, but fitting less loosely, is ; a blue smock, of coarse common cloth (generally), worn over the dress, costs ; a shovel is "Ay, sir," said man, who was greatly dissatisfied with this change, "they'll make soldiers find their own regimentals next; and, may be, their own guns, a'cause they can always get rucks of men for soldiers or labourers. I know there's plenty


would work for less than we get, but what of that? There always is. There's hundreds would do the work for half what the surveyors and inspectors gets; but it's all right among the nobs."

Nor is the labour of the flushermen at all times so easy or of such circumscribed hours as I have stated it to be in the regular way of flushing. When small branch-sewers have to be flushed, the deposit must be loosened, or the water, instead of sweeping it away, would flow over it, and in many of these sewers (most frequent in the Tower Hamlets) the height is not more than feet. Some of the flushermen are tall, bulky, strong fellows, and cannot stand upright in less than from feet inches to feet, and in loosening the deposit in low narrow sewers, "we go to work," said of them, "on our bellies, like frogs, with a rake between our legs. I've been blinded by steam in such sewers near from the brewhouses; I couldn't see for steam; it was a regular London fog. You must get out again into a main sewer on your belly; that's what makes it harder about the togs, they get worn so."

The division of labour among the flushermen appears to be as follows:—

The , whose duty it is to go round the several sewers and see which require to be flushed.

The , or head of the working gang, who receives his orders from the inspector, and directs the men accordingly.

The , or man who goes round to the sewers which are about to be flushed, and fixes the "penstocks" for retaining the water.

The , which consists of from to men, who loosen the deposit from the bottom of the sewer. Among these there is generally a "for'ard man," whose duty it is to remove the penstocks.

The ganger gets a week over and above the wages of the men.

 DISTRICTS. Paid by the Commissioners of Sewers. Paid by Contractors. 
 Clerks of Works. Assist. Clerks of WorksThese officers are paid only during the period of service, and are chiefly engaged on special works. The corresponding officers for London are under the City Commissioners.. Inspectors of Flushings. Flap & Sluice Keepers. Aggregate Total. Gangers. Flushers. Aggregate Total. 
 No. Annual Salary of the whole. No. Rate of Annual Salary. No. Annual Salary of the whole. No. Yearly Wages of the whole. No. Weekly Wage of each. No. Weekly Wage of each. 
     £   £   £   £ £   s.     £ s. 
 Fulham and Hammersmith.—Counter's Creek and Ranelagh Districts 3 450 4 400 1 120 .. .. 970 2 22 13 21 824 4 
 Westminster Sewers.—Western Division, Eastern Division, Regentstreet District, Holborn Division 4 600 3 300 1 80 6 390 1370 3 22 30 21 1809 12 
 Finsbury Division.— Tower Hamlets Levels, and Poplar and Blackwall Districts ........ 3 450 2 200 3 280 1 70 1000 3 22 27 21 1645 16 
 Districts south of the Thames...... 3 450 6 600 4 320 12 374 1744 2 22 22 21 1315 12 
 Total ............ 13 1950 15 1500 9 800 19 834 5084 10 .. 92 .. 5595 4 
 CITY .............. .. .. .. .. 1 80 3 148 228 1 22 9 21 548 12 
 Total cost of flushing the sewers . . . . . £ 12,000 per annum. 

*** The above division of districts is the adopted by the Commissioners of Sewers, but the districts of the Flushermen are more numerous than those above given, being as follows:—

     Ganger.   Flushermen.   
 Fulham and Hammersmith . . . employing 1 and 6 1st District of Commissioners. 
 Counter's Creek and Ranelagh Districts . " 1 " 7 
 Westminster (Western Division) . . " 1 " 10 2nd District of Commissioners. 
 Ditto (Eastern Division) . . " 1 " 12 
 Holborn Division . . . . . " 1 " 8 
 Finsbury Division . . . . . " 1 " 9 3rd District of Commissioners. 
 Tower Hamlets Levels . . . . " 1 " 10 
 Poplar and Blackwall . . . . . " 1 " 8 
 Districts south of the Thames . . . " 2 " 22 4th District of Commissioners. 
 City . . . . . . . . " 1 " 9   

and Finsbury districts are under contractor, and so are the divisions of . The same men who flush flush the Finsbury district also, being the average number employed; but the Finsbury district requires rather more men than the ; and the same men who work on the western division of flush also the eastern, the number of flushers in the western district being more, on account of its being the larger division.



The inspector receives per annum.

The table on p. shows the number of clerks of the works, inspectors of flushing, flap and sluice keepers, gangers, and flushermen employed in the several districts throughout the metropolis, as well as the salaries and wages of each and the whole.

None of the flushermen can be said to have been "brought up to the business," for boys are never employed in the sewers. Neither had the labourers been confined in their youth to any branch of trade in particular, which would appear to be consonant to such employment. There are now among the flushermen men who have been accustomed to "all sorts of ground work:" tailors, pot-boys, painters, jeweller (some time ago there was also gentleman), and shoemakers. "You see, sir," said informant, "many of such like mechanics can't live above ground, so they tries to get their bread underneath it. There used to be a great many pensioners flushermen, which weren't right," said man, "when so many honest working men haven't a penny, and don't know which way to turn theirselves; but pensioners have often good friends and good interest. I don't hear any complaints that way now."

Among the flushermen are some or men who have been engaged in sewer-work of kind or another between and years. The cholera, I heard from several quarters, did not (in ) attack any of the flushermen. The answer to an inquiry on the subject generally was, "Not that I know of."

"It is a somewhat singular circumstance," says Mr. Haywood, the City Surveyor, in his Report, dated , "-. I do not state this to prove that the atmosphere of the sewers is not unhealthy—I by no means believe an impure atmosphere is healthy—but I state the naked fact, as it appears to me a somewhat singular circumstance, and leave it to pathologists to argue upon."

"I don't think flushing work disagrees with my husband," said a flusherman's wife to me, "for he eats about as much again at that work as he did at the other." "The smell underground is sometimes very bad," said the man, "but then we generally take a drop of rum , and something to eat. It wouldn't do to go into it on an empty stomach, 'cause it would get into our inside. But in some sewers there's scarcely any smell at all. "

The following statement contains the history of an individual flusherman:—

I was brought up to the sea," he said, "and served on board a man-of-war, the Racer, a 16-gun brig, laying off Cuba, in the West Indies, and thereaway, watching the slavers. I served seven years. We were paid off in '43 at Portsmouth, and a friend got me into the shores. It was a great change from the open sea to a close shore—great; and I didn't like it at all at first. But it suits a married man, as I am now, with a family, much better than being a seaman, for a man aboard a ship can hardly do his children justice in their schooling and such like. Well, I didn't much admire going down the man-hole at first—the 'man-hole' is a sort of iron trap-door that you unlock and pull up; it leads to a lot of steps, and so you get into the shore—but one soon gets accustomed to anything. I've been at flushing and shore work now since '43, all but eleven weeks, which was before I got engaged.

We work in gangs from three to five men." [Here I had an account of the process of flushing, such as I have given.] "I've been carried off my feet sometimes in the flush of a shore. Why, to-day," (a very rainy and windy day, Feb. 4,) "it came down Baker-street, when we flushed it, 4 foot plomb. It would have done for a mill-dam. One couldn't smoke or do anything. Oh, yes, we can have a pipe and a chat now and then in the shore. The tobacco checks the smell. No, I can't say I felt the smell very bad when I first was in a shore. I've felt it worse since. I've been made innocent drunk like in a shore by a drain from a distiller's. That happened me first in Vine-street shore, St. Giles's, from Mr. Rickett's distillery. It came into the shore like steam. No, I can't say it tasted like gin when you breathed it— only intoxicating like. It was the same in Whitechapel from Smith's distillery. One night I was forced to leave off there, the steam had such an effect. I was falling on my back, when a mate caught me. The breweries have something of the same effect, but nothing like so strong as the distilleries. It comes into the shore from the brewers' places in steam. I've known such a steam followed by bushels of grains; ay, sir, cart-loads washed into the shore.

Well, I never found anything in a shore worth picking up but once a half-crown. That was in the Buckingham Palace sewer. Another time I found 16s. 6d., and thought that was a haul; but every bit of it, every coin, shillings and sixpences and joeys, was bad—all smashers. Yes, of course it was a disappointment, naturally so. That happened in Brick-lane shore, Whitechapel. O, somebody or other had got frightened, I suppose, and had shied the coins down into the drains. I found them just by the chapel there.

A man gave me the following account of his experience in flushing:—

You remember, sir, that great storm on the 1st August, 1848. I was in three shores that fell in —Conduit-street and Foubert's-passage, Regentstreet. There was then a risk of being drowned in the shores, but no lives were lost. All the house-drains were blocked about Carnaby-market —that's the Foubert's-passage shore—and the poor people was what you might call houseless. We got in up to the neck in water in some places, 'cause we had to stoop, and knocked about the rubbish as well as we could, to give a way to the water. The police put up barriers to prevent any carts or carriages going that way along the streets. No, there was no lives lost in the shores. One man was so overcome that he was falling off into a sort of sleep in Milford-lane shore, but was pulled out. I helped to pull him. He was as heavy as lead with one thing or other—wet, and all that. Another time, six or seven year ago, Whitechapel High-street shore was almost choked with butchers' offal, and we had a great deal of trouble with 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