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Tuesday. January 1st, 1850
Having finished with the different classes of Coal-labourers
in London—the whippers, backers, pull-backs, trimmers, and waggoners—I
purpose now dealing with the Ballast men—including the ballast-getters, the
ballast-lightermen, and the ballast-heavers of the Metropolis. My reason for
passing from the Coal to the Ballast labourers, is because the latter class of
workpeople are suffering under the same iniquitous and pernicious system of
employment as that from which the coal labourers have recently been ‘emancipated;”
and the transition will serve to show not only the present condition of the one
class of men, but the past state of the other.
After treating of the ballast labourers, I propose inquiring into the condition and income of the stevedores—or men engaged in the stowing and unstowing of vessels—and of the lumpers and riggers—or those engaged in the rigging and unrigging of them. It is then my intention to pass to the corn labourers—such as the corn porters, corn runners, and turners—touching incidentally upon the corn-meters. After this I mean to devote my attention to the timber labourers engaged at the different timber docks—as, for instance, the “Commercial,” the “Grand Surrey,” and the “East Country” Docks. Then, in due course, I shall come to the wharf labourers and porters, or men engaged at the different wharfs of London; thence I shall digress to the bargemen and Lightermen, or men engaged in the transport of the different cargoes from the ships to their several points of destination, up or down the river; and finally I shall treat of the watermen, the steamboat men, and pier men, or those engaged in the transit of passengers along the Thames. These—with the dock labourers, of whom I have before treated—will, I believe, exhaust the subject of the long-shore labourers; and the whole will, I trust, form, when completed, such a body of facts and information, in connection with this particular branch of labour, as has never before been collected. I am happy to say that, with some few exceptions, I receive from the different official gentlemen not only every courtesy and consideration, but all the assistance and co-operation that it lies in their power to afford me. Every class seems to look upon the present inquiry as an important undertaking, and all— save the Clerk of the Coal Exchange and the Deputy- Superintendent of the London Docks—appear to be not only willing but anxious to “lend a hand” towards expediting the result.
Before quitting the subject of the Coal Market, let me endeavour to arrive at an estimate as to the amount of wealth annually brought into the port of London by means of the “colliers,” and to set forth as far as possible the proportions in which it is distributed. In my last Letter certain statistics were given, which—notwithstanding the objection of a “Coal Merchant,” who, in a letter to this Journal, states that I have reckoned the number of ships at twice the real quantity—have been obtained from such sources, and, I may add, with so much care and caution, as to render them the most accurate information capable of being procured at present on the subject. The statistics of the number of tons of coals brought into the port of London in the year 1848, the number of vessels employed, of the voyages made by those vessels collectively, and of the seamen engaged in the traffic, were furnished by the Clerk of the Coal Exchange at the time of the opening of the new building. Had the “Coal Merchant,” therefore, made it his duty to devote the same time and care to the investigation of the truth of my statements as I give to the collection of them, he would not only have avoided committing the very errors he condemns, but would have displayed a more comprehensive knowledge of his business.
In 1848 there were imported into the London coal market 3,418,340 tons of coal. These were sold to the public at an average rate all the year round of 22s. 6d. per ton. Hence the sum expended in the metropolis for coal in that year was £3,845,632 10s.
There are 21,600 seamen engaged in the coal trade, and getting on an average £3 10s. per man per voyage. Each of these men makes between four and five voyages in the course of the year. Hence the average earnings of each man per year will be £15 18s. exclusive of his keep; calculating this at 5s. per week, or £13 per year, we have £28 18s. for the expense of each of the seamen employed. Hence, as there are 21,600 sailors in the trade, the total yearly cost would be £624,240
There are 170 coal-meters, earning, on an average, £2 per week, or £104 per year each man. This would make the total sum paid in the year to the coal-meters 17,680
There are 2,000 coal-whippers, earning 15s. 1½d. each per week, or £39 6s. 6d. per man. Hence the total sum paid in the course of last year to the coal-whippers was 78,650
There are 3,000 coal-porters, earning, on an average, £1 per week, or £52 per year, per man, so that they receive annually 156,000
hence the total amount paid per year to the working men engaged in bringing and delivering the coals in the London market is £876,570
The area of all the coal-fields of Great Britain has been
roughly estimated at 9,000 square miles. The produce is supposed to be about
32,000,000 tons annually, of which 10,000,000 tons are consumed in the
ironworks, 8,500,000 tons are shipped coastwise, 2.500,000 tons are exported to
foreign countries, and 11,000,000 tons distributed inland for miscellaneous
purposes. Near upon 4,000,000 tons were brought to London by ships and otherwise
in the year 1848; and it is computed that about one-eighth part of this, or
500,000 tons, were consumed by the gas works.
The price of coals, as quoted in the London market, is the price up to the time when the coals are whipped from the ships to the merchants’ barges. It includes—lst, the value of the coals at the pit’s mouth; 2nd, the expense of transit from the pit to the ship; 3rd, the freight of the ship to London; 4th, the Thames dues; and, 5th, the whipping. The difference between the market price and that paid by the consumer is made up of the expense incurred by the coal merchant for barges, wharfs, waggons, horses, wages to coal-porters, etc., together with his profit and risk. In 1836 the expenses incurred by the merchant from the time he bought a ship-load of coals to the deposition of them in the cellars of his customers, amounted, on an average, it was said, to 7s. per ton. These expenses comprise commission, lighterage, porterage, cartage, shootage, metage, market dues, land metage, and other items. At the present time the expenses must be considerably lower, the wages of the labourers and the meters having been lowered full 50 per cent., though the demand for and consumption of coal has increased at nearly the same rate—indeed the law of the Coal- market appears to be, that, in proportion as the demand for articles rises, so do the wages of the men engaged in the supply of it fall.
As the ballast-heavers are under the thraldom of the same demoralizing and oppressive system as that which the coal-whippers recently suffered under, it may be as well, before entering upon the immediate subject of this letter, to lay before the reader the following concise account of the terms on which the latter were engaged before the Coalwhippers’ office was established.
Until within the last few years, the coalwhippers suffered themselves to be duped in an extraordinary way by publicans and petty shopkeepers on shore. The custom was for the captain of a coal ship, when he required a cargo to be whipped, to apply to one of these publicans for a gang; and a gang was thereupon sent from the public-house. There was no professed or pre-arranged deduction from the price paid for the work; the captain paid the publican, and the publican paid the coal-whippers; but the middleman had his profit another way. The coal-whipper was expected to come to the public-house in the morning; to drink while waiting for work; to take drink with him to the ship; to drink again when the day’s work was done; and to linger about and in the public-house until almost bedtime before his day’s wages were paid. The consequence was, that an enormous ratio of his earnings went every week to the publican. The publicans were wont to rank their dependents into two classes—the “constant men,” and the “stragglers;” of whom the former were first served whenever a cargo was to be whipped; in return for this, they were expected to spend almost the whole of their spare time in the public-house, and even to take up their lodgings there.
The captains preferred applying to the publicans rather than engaging the men themselves, because it saved them trouble; and because (as was pretty well understood) the publicans curried favour with them by indirect means. Grocers and small shopkeepers did the same; and the coal-whippers had then to buy bad and dear groceries instead of bad and dear beer and gin. The Legislature tried by various means to protect the coal-whippers, but the publicans contrived means to evade the law. At length, in 1843, an act was passed, which has placed the coal-whippers in a far more advantageous position.
The transition from coal labour to ballast labour is gradual and easy, even if the labourers were not kindred in suffering.
The coal ships, when discharged by the whippers, must get back to the north; and as there are not cargoes enough from London to freight them, they must take in ballast to make the ships heavy enough to sail in safety. This ballast is chiefly gravel or sand, dredged up from the bed of the Thames, in and near Woolwich Reach. The Trinity House takes upon itself this duty. The captain, when he requires to sail, applies to the Ballast-Office, and the required weight of ballast is sent to the ship in lighters belonging to the Trinity House, the captain paying so much per ton for it. About eighty tons on an average are required for each vessel; and the quantity thus supplied by the Trinity House is about 10,000 tons per week. Some of the ships are ballasted with chalk taken from Purfleet; all ballast taken from higher up the river than that point must be supplied by the Trinity House. When the ship reaches the Tyne, the ballast is of no further use, but it must not be emptied into that river; it has therefore to be deposited on the banks of the river, where huge mounds are now collected, two or three hundred feet high.
New places on the banks of the river have to be discovered for this deposit, as the ballast mounds keep increasing, for it must be recollected that the vessels leave these parts, no matter for what destination, with coal, and may return in ballast. Indeed, a railway has been formed from the vicinity of South Shields to a waste place on the sea-shore, hard by the mouth of the Tyne. where the ballast may be conveyed at small cost, its further accumulation on the river bank being found an incumbrance. “It is hardly something more than a metaphor,” it has been said, “to designate this a transfer of the bed of the Thames to the banks of the Tyne.” We may add another characteristic. Some of the older ballast mounds are overgrown with herbage, and as the vessels from foreign ports, returning to the coal ports in ballast, have, not infrequently, to take soil on board for ballast, in which roots and seeds are contained—some of which struggle into vegetation—Italian flowers not infrequently attempt to bloom in Durham, Yorkshire, or Northumberland, while of these plants some have survived the climate and have spread around, and thus it is that botanists trace the history of plants which are called indigenous to the ballast hills.
Before treating of the ballast labourers themselves, I shall give a brief history of the ballast laws.
Ships are technically said to be in ballast when they sail without a cargo, having on board only the stores and other articles requisite for the use of the vessel and crew, as well as of any passengers who may be proceeding with her upon the voyage. In favour of vessels thus circumstanced it is usual to dispense with many formalities at the custom-houses of the ports, and to remit the payment of the dues and charges levied upon ships having cargoes on board. A foreign vessel proceeding from a British port may take chalk on board as ballast. Regulations have at various times been made in different ports and countries determining the modes in which ships may be supplied with ballast, and in what manner they may discharge the same; such regulations being necessary to prevent injury to harbours. Charles I published a proclamation in 1636, ordering “that none shall buy any ballast out of the river Thames but a person appointed by him for that purpose. and this appointment was sold for the King’s profit. Since then the soil of the river Thames has been vested in the corporation of the Trinity House, and a fine of £10 may be recovered for every ton of ballast taken out of the river without the authority of the corporation. Ships may take on board “land ballast” from any quarries or pits east of Woolwich, by paying ld. per ton to the Trinity House. For “river ballast” the corporation are authorised by act of Parliament to make other charges. The receipts of the Trinity House from this source were £33,591 in the year 1840, and their expenses were £31,622, leaving a clear profit of £1,969. The ballast of all ships or vessels coming into the Thames must be unladen into a lighter, and if any ballast be thrown into the river, the master of the vessel whence it is thrown is liable to a fine of £20. Some such regulation is usually enforced at every port.
Before proceeding further with my present subject, it is proper that I should express my acknowledgement of the ready courtesy with which the official information necessary for the full elucidation of my subject was supplied to me by the Secretary of the principal Ballast-office, at Trinity House, Tower-hill. I have always observed that when the heads of a department willingly supply information to go before the public, I find in the further course of my investigations that under such departments the claims of the labourers are not only acknowledged but practically allowed. On the other hand, if official gentlemen neglect (which is to refuse) to supply the returns and other information, it is because the inquiry is unpalatable to them, as the public in those departments will find that the fair claims of the labourer are not allowed. Were the poor ballast-heavers taken under the protection of the Corporation of the Trinity House (something in the same way that Parliament placed the coal-whippers under the guardianship of a hoard of commissioners), the good done would be great indeed. and the injury would be none, for it cannot be called an injury to prevent a publican forcing a man to buy and swallow bad drink.
By charter of Queen Elizabeth, in the thirty-sixth year of her reign. “the lastage and ballastage, and office of lastage and ballastage" of all ships, and other vessels betwixt the bridge of the city of London and the main sea, I am informed by the secretary of the Trinity Company, was granted to the master, wardens, and assistants of the Trinity House of Deptford Strond. This was renewed; and the gravel, sand, and soil of the River Thames granted to the said master, wardens, etc., for the ballasting of ships and vessels, in the fifteenth year of Charles the Second; and again in the seventeenth year of the reign of that Monarch. This last-named charter remains in force, and has been confirmed by acts of Parliament at different times; by which acts, also, various regulations in relation to the conduct of the ballast service, the control of the persons employed therein, and the prices of the ballast supplied have been established. The act now in force is the sixth and seventh Victoria, cap. 57.
The number of men employed in lighters as ballast-getters, or in barges conveying it from the dredgers, is 245, who are paid by the ton raised.
The number of vessels entered for ballast in the year 1848 was—
British merchant-vessels 2,690
Total vessels 11,224
The total quantity of ballast supplied to
shipping, in the year 1848, was 615,619 tons, or thereabouts; such ballast being
gravel raised from the bed of the River Thames, and delivered alongside of
vessels, either lying in the different docks, or being afloat in the stream
between London Bridge and Woolwich.
The number of craft employed in this service is 69, viz:—
3 steam dredging-vessels, having 8 men in each ... 24 men
43 lighters, having 4 men in each ... 172 men
9 lighters, having 5 men in each ... 45 men
14 barges, having 2 men in each ... 28 men
69 Total ... 269 men
The ballast is delivered into the vessels from the lighters
and barges by men called ballast-heavers, who are employed by the vessel, and
are not in the service of the Trinity House.
I now come to the nature of the ballast labour itself. This is divisible into three classes—the ballast-getters, or those who are engaged in raising it from the bed of the Thames; the ballast-lighters, or those who are engaged in carrying from the getters to the ships requiring it; and the ballast-heavers—or those who are engaged in putting it on board of such ships. The first and second of these classes have, even according to their own account, “nothing to complain of,” being employed by gentlemen who, judging by the wanton neglect of the labouring men by their masters. so general in London, certainly exhibit a most extraordinary consideration and regard for their workpeople, and the change from the indifference and callousness of the coal-merchants to the kindness of the Corporation of the Trinity-house is most gratifying. The ballast-heavers constitute an entirely different class. They have every one to a man deep and atrocious wrongs to complain of—such as I am sure are unknown, and which, when once made public, must at once demand some remedy.
I must, however, first deal with the ballast-getters. Of these there are two sub-classes, viz., those engaged in obtaining the ballast by steam power, and those who still procure it as of old, by muscular power.
Of Steam Dredging-engines employed in the collecting of ballast from the bed of the Thames there are three—the “Hercules,” the “Goliath,” and the “Sampson.” These are now stationed respectively in Barking-Reach, Half-Reach, near Dagenham; and the bottom of Halfway-Reach, off Rainham. Most persons who have proceeded up or down the Thames will have perceived black unshapely masses, with no visible indications that they may be classed with steam-vessels, except a chimney and smoke. These are the dredging-vessels. They are of about 200 tons burden. The engines of the Hercules and the Sampson are of 20-horsepower; those of the Goliath are of 25. When the process of dredging is carried on, the use of the dredging-vessel is obvious to any spectator; but I believe that most persons imagine the object to be merely to deepen the river by removing inequalities in its bed, and so to render its navigation easier by equalising its depth, and in some degree checking the power of cross current. Few are aware that an ulterior object is attained. I visited one of these steam-dredgers, and was very courteously shown over it. The first feeling was an impression of the order, regularity, and trimness that prevailed. In the engineers’ department, too, there was an aspect, as well as a feeling, of extreme snugness, the more perceptible, both to the eye and the body, from its contrast with the intense cold on the muddy river outside, then running down in very strong ebb. in the engineers’ department there was more than cleanliness— there was a brightness about the brass handles attached to the machinery, and indeed about every portion of the apparatus at all susceptible of brightness, which indicated a constant and systematic attention by well-skilled hands. Each dredger carries eight men—the master (called “the captain” commonly enough on the river), two engineers, an engineer’s assistant, two legsmen (who attend to the ladders), and three men for general purposes. They are all called enginemen. The master of the dredger I visited had the weather-beaten look of the experienced seaman, and the quiet way of talking of past voyages which is found generally in men who have really served, whether in the merchant service or royal navy. He resided on board the dredger, with his wife and family. the principal cabin being a very comfortable parlour. All the men live on board, having their turns for visits to the shore from Saturday morning, noon, or evening (as their business permits). to Monday morning. Their sleeping-places are admirable for cleanliness. All the dredgers are under the control of the Corporation of the Trinity House. They are, as it was worded to me, “as strong as wood and iron can make them.” But for secure anchorage these dredgers would soon go adrift. Colliers beating up or down occasionally run against the dredgers; this happens mostly in light winds, when the masters of these colliers are afraid to let go their anchors. The machinery consists of a steam-engine and spur-gear for divesting the buckets. The application of the steam power I need not minutely describe, as it does not differ from other applications where motion has to be communicated. It is connected with strong iron beams, having cogged and connected wheels. which, when put into operation, give upward and downward motion to the buckets. These buckets are placed on ladders, as they are called, one on each side the vessel. These ladders (or shafts) consist of three heavy beams of wood, firmly bolted together, and fitted with friction wheels. To each ladder, 29 buckets are attached, each bucket holding 2½ cwt. of gravel. Each bucket is attached by joints to the next, and a series of holes permits the water drawn up with the deposit to ooze out. When the bucket touches the bottom of the river, it dips, as it is called. A rotary motion being communicated, the construction ensures the buckets being brought up flat on the ladder, until a due height is attained, when the rotatory (or circular) motion again comes into play, and the contents of the bucket are emptied into a lighter, moored alongside, and the empty bucket is driven down to be refilled. The contents so drawn up are disposed of for ballast, which is the ulterior purpose I have alluded to. Upon an average, the buckets revolve once in two minutes. That time, however, varies, from the nature of the bed of the river. The Goliath and the Sampson being fitted up with marine engines, drive the fastest. The three vessels have for the last year worked within a circle of a mile. The quantity of ballast raised depends upon the demand as well upon the character of the deposit at the bottom of the river. Between 900 and 1,000 tons have been raised in seven hours and a half; sometimes in a like period less than 300 tons have been raised. The dredger I was on board of has taken in a year from 180,000 to 190,000 tons. She was then at work to clear away a shoal of 10 feet. A stratum of mud (two-and-a-half feet) had been raised; then three feet of gravel and a chalk bottom was anticipated. In some places 15 feet have been so cleared away to a chalk bottom. In others 15 feet have been so worked off, and no bottom but gravel reached. The gravel lies in shoals. Sometimes the dredgers come to hard conglomerate gravel, as compact as rock. No fossils have been found. In a few places a clay bottom has been met with. The men in the dredgers are paid according to the number of tons raised, the proceeds being duly apportioned. They work as frequently by night as by day, their work depending upon the time when an order for a supply of ballast is received. Each lighter holds 60 tons of ballast. The dredgers above-bridge are the property of individuals working with the concurrence of the civic Corporation of London. Those below-bridge are, as I have said, under the control of the Corporation of the Trinity House. The Hercules was the first Trinity House dredger worked by steam. Private individuals, however, employed steam sooner than the Trinity House authorities, to draw up materials to mix with lime for building purposes. The first Trinity House steam-dredger was started in 1827.
Ihad some conversation with a man employed on one of the steam-dredgers. He described the process carried on there as I have given it, estimating the tons of ballast raised as about 4,000 a week. He expressed a sense of his good fortune in having the employment he had; he was well used, and wouldn’t like to change. He declined stating his earnings (otherwise than that he had his fair share) until he saw his master; and, of course, I did not press him further on the subject.
The Ballast-getters are men employed in raising ballast from the bed of the river by bodily labour. The apparatus by which this is effected consists of a long staff or pole, about thirty-five feet in length. At the end of this is an iron “spoon” or ring, underneath which is a leathern bag, holding about 20 cwt. The ballast is raised on board the working lighters by means of this spoon. The working lighters carry six hands—that is, a staffsman, whose duty it is to attend to the staff; a bagsman, who empties the bag; a chains-man, who hauls at the chain; a heelsman, who lets go the pall of the winch; and two trimmers, who trim the ballast in the lighter as fast as it comes in. Previous to the men getting at work, the staffsman takes hold of the spoon to feel whereabout the ballast-bed lies. When this is found he puts down his “sets,” as it is termed—that is to say, he drives the iron-tipped spars that he has with him in the lighter into the ground, so as to steady the craft. This done, the staffsman seizes hold of the middle of the staff. while the bagsman takes the bag and the chainsman the chain which is fastened to the iron ring or spoon. The staff is thus thrown overboard into the water, about midway of the lighter. and the tide carries the spoon down towards the stern. The staffs- man then fastens the staff to the lighter by means of the gaff-string or rope attached to the side of the vessel. At the same time the men go forward to heave at the winch, round the roll of which the chain attached to the spoon itself is wound. All the men, with the exception of the staffsman, then heave away, and so drag the spoon along the bed of the river. When the staffsman feels that the bag is full, he leaves go of the gaff-string, and goes forward to heave with the men as well. Immediately the gaff-string is undone, the top part of the staff falls back on an oar that projects from the after part of the vessel, and the bag is then raised by means of the winch and chain to the level of the gunwale of the craft. Then the bagsman hauls it in, and empties it into the lighter, while the two trimmers spread the ballast discharged. The spoon can only he worked when the tide is nearly down, because the water would he too deep for the sets to keep the craft steady. To hoist the 20 cwt. of ballast in the bag will require the whole force of the six men, and none but the very strongest are of use. The ballast- getters are all very powerful men. They are mostly very tall, big- honed, and muscular. Many of them are upwards of six feet high, and have backs two feet broad. “I lifted seven half-hundred weights with one of my hands,” said one whom I saw. He was a man of thirty-nine years of age, and stood half an inch over six feet high, while another was six feet two inches. They were indeed extraordinarily fine specimens of the English labourer, making our boasted life-guardsman appear almost weak and effeminate in comparison with them. Before the steam-dredging engines were introduced, I am informed the ballast-getters were even bigger and heavier men than they are now. The ballast-getters seldom or never fish up anything besides ballast. Four or five years back they were lucky enough to haul up a box of silver plate, but they consider a bit of old iron, or a bit of copper, very good luck now. The six men generally raise 60 ton 18 feet high in the course of the tide, which is at the rate of 22,400 lb. each man in three hours. This makes the quantity raised per hour by each man upwards of 7,400 lb. The price paid is 8d. per ton, or £2 for 60 ton. This is shared equally among five of the men, who receive 8s. apiece as their proportion, and out of this they pay 3s. 6d. a tide to the stern-trimmer whom they employ, the Trinity Company allowing only five men, and the ballast-getters engaging the sixth hand themselves. Upon an average, the ballast-getters do about three loads in the week throughout the year; this, deducting the money paid to the sixth man, makes the earnings of each ballast-getter come to about 22s. throughout the year. The staffsman is allowed £20 a year to keep the craft in gear. The ballast-getters usually work above the dredging-engines, mostly about Woolwich; there the cleanest ballast is to be got. The Trinity Company they speak most highly of; indeed the Corporation is universally spoken of as excellent masters. The men say they have nothing to complain of. They get their money every Friday night, and have no call to spend a farthing of their earnings with any man but what they please. They only wish, they add, that the ballast-heavers were as well off. “It would be a good job if they was, poor men,” say one and all.
The second class of ballast labourers are the Ballast-lightermen. These are men engaged by the Trinity Company to carry the ballast in the company’s barges and lighters from the steam dredging-engines to the ships’ side. The Corporation has 52 lighters and 14 barges—all 60 ton craft. Each lighter carries four men, and there are two men in each barge, so that altogether 108 lightermen and 28 bargemen are employed in bringing the ballast from the engines. These men are not required to have a license from the Watermen’s Company like other lightermen and bargemen on the Thames, and that is one of the reasons for my dealing with them in this place. They form a class of labourers by themselves, and I treat of them here because it appears the fittest place for a statement of their condition and earnings. Besides the lightermen and bargemen engaged in carrying the ballast from the steam dredging- engines, there are others employed on board what are called the “working-lighters.” These are vessels in which ballast is got up from the bed of the river by muscular labour. There are ten of these working-lighters, and six men engaged in each, or in all sixty men employed in raising ballast by such means. There are three steam dredging-engines, employing each eight men, or twenty- four in all; so that there are altogether 220 labouring men engaged in the ballast service of the Trinity Company. Each of the carrying lighters has a staffsman or master, and three men. The lighters all carry 60 tons of ballast, and make upon an average between three and four voyages a week, or about seven in the fortnight. There is no place of deposit for the ballast brought up the river from the engines. It is left in the lighters until required. The ballast chiefly consists of gravel; indeed, the ships will mostly refuse anything else. When there is a plentiful supply of ballast they will refuse clay in particular. Clayey ballast is what is termed bad ballast. Upon an average there are thirty loads, or 1,800 tons, of ballast brought up by the lighters every day from the engines. In the course of the year there are between 550,000 and 600,000 tons of ballast supplied by the three steam dredging-machines. “It is about three-and-twenty years since the steam dredging- engine first came out,” said the party who gave me the above information. “For the last twenty years, I should think the company have been raising about 500,000 tons of gravel from the bed of the river. Thirty years ago, I thought the ballast would soon he out, hut there appears to be little or no difference; and yet the shoals do not fill up again after being once taken away. In Barking-Reach, I am sure there is six feet more water now than there was thirty years ago. There was at that time a large shoal in that part of the river, called Barking-Shelf. It was certainly a mile long and half a mile wide. The vessels would ground upon it long before low water. At some tides it used ‘to strip dry,’ and at low tide generally there was about six foot of water over it. That part of the river is now the deepest about Barking, and as deep as the best of places in the Thames. When I first came to London we were prevented from getting the ballast from anywhere else than Barking, on account of the great shoals there; but now the great ballast-bed is between four and five miles lower down. The river has been very nearly cleared of shoals, by the dredging- engines, from Limehouse-Reach to the bottom of Half-Reach. The only shoal in the way of the navigation below ‘the Pool’ is what is called Woolwich-Shelf. There is, indeed, another shoal, but this consists of stiff clay or conglomerate, and the engines cannot work through it. The men on board the carrying lighters are paid 5d. a ton for bringing the ballast from the dredging-engines to the ships. This is equally divided among the four men. The staffs- man, in addition to his fourth share, receives £10 a year for his extra duties, but out of this he has to buy oars for the boat and lighter, locks, ‘fenders,’ and shovels. Upon an average, the cost of these will be about 30s. a year. Each man’s share of the 60 ton load is 6s. 3d., and there are about seven loads brought up by each lighter in the fortnight. Some weeks the men can earn as much as 37s., but at others they cannot get more than 12s. 6d. “I did myself only two load last week,” said my informant. “When there is little or no ‘vent,’ as we call it, for the ballast—that is, but a slight demand for it—we have but little work. Upon an average each lighterman makes from 2ls. to 22s. a week. At the time of the strike among the pitmen in the North the lightermen generally only did about two load a week throughout the year, but then the following year we had as much as we could do. The Trinity Company, whom I serve and have served for thirty years, are excellent masters to us, when we’re sick or well. The Corporation of the Trinity House allow the married lightermen in their service 10s., and the single men 7s. 6d., a week so long as they are ill. I have known the allowance given to men for two years, and for this we pay nothing to any benefit society or provident fund. If we belong to any such society we have our sick money from them independent of that. The superannuation money is now £6 a year. but I understand,” said my informant, “that the Company intend increasing it next Tuesday. Some of the old men were ordered up to the House a little while ago, and were asked what they could live comfortably upon, and one of the gentlemen there promised them that no more of us should go to the workhouse. They do not provide any school for our children. A great many of the lighter-men cannot read or write. I never heard any talk of the Company erecting a school either for the instruction of their men or their men’s families. All I can say is, that in all my dealings with the Trinity Corporation I have found them very kind and considerate masters. They are always ready to listen to the men, and they have hospitals for the sick in their employ, and midwives for the wives of the labourers, and they bury free of expense most of the men that die in their service. To the widows of their deceased servants they allow £6 a year, and if there be any children, they give 2s. a month to each under fourteen years old. I never knew them to reduce the lightermen’s wages; they have rather increased than lowered them. After the introduction of the steam dredging- machines, we were better off than we were before. Previous to that time, the lightermen were ‘getters’ as well, and then the labour was so hard that the expenses of the men for living were more than they are now.”
I now come in due order to the ballast-heavers. Of these I can at present but give a description. The individual instances of oppression that I have sought out, I must reserve for my next letter, when I do most heartily hope that the publication of the iniquity of which these poor fellows are the prey, will he at least instrumental to putting an end to this most vile and wicked plan for the degradation and demoralization of our fellow creatures. The tales I have to tell are such as must rouse every heart not positively indurated by the love of gain. I must, however, be here content, as I said before, by merely describing the system: —
The duty of the ballast-heaver is to heave into the holds of the ship the ballast brought along-side the vessel by the Trinity lighters from the dredging engines. The ships take in ballast either in the Docks or in the Pool. When the ship is “cranky built,” and cannot stand steady after a portion of her cargo has been discharged. she usually takes in what is called “shifting” or “stiffening ballast.” The ballast is said to stiffen a cranky vessel, because it has the effect of making her firm or steady in the water. The quantity of ballast required by cranky vessels depends upon the build of the ships. Sixty tons of cargo will stiffen the most cranky vessel. I am informed by those who have been all their lives at the business. that they never knew a vessel, however cranky, but what sixty tons weight would stiffen her. Some vessels are so “stiff built” that they can discharge the whole of their cargo without taking in any ballast at all. These are generally flat-bottomed vessels, whereas cranky vessels are built sharp towards the keel. The “colliers” are mostly flat-bottomed vessels, and could in calm weather return to the north without either ballast or cargo in them. This, however, is not allowed by the owners. The generality of ships discharge all their cargo before they take in any ballast. The cranky-built ships form the exception, and they begin taking in ballast when they are about three parts discharged. When a ship requires ballast. the owner, or one of his agents or servants, applies at the Trinity- house for the quantity needed. If the ship belongs to the merchant service, and is lying in any of the docks, the owner has to pay 1s. 7d. per ton to the Trinity Company for the ballast supplied; but if the merchant vessel be lying in the Pool, then the price is 1s. 3d. per ton; and if the vessel be a collier, the price is 1s. per ton. On application being made at the “Ballast-office,” the party is supplied with a bill specifying the name and situation of the vessel, the quantity of ballast required for her, and the price that has been paid for it. This bill is then taken to the “Ruler’s-office,” where it is entered in a book, and the ship supplied with the ballast according to the place that she has on the books. If the weather is rough, a ship has often to remain three or four days without receiving the ballast she wants. The application for ballast is seldom made directly by the captain or shipowner himself. There are parties living in the neighbourhood of Wapping and Ratcliff who undertake for a certain sum per score of tons to have the requisite quantity of ballast put on board the ship. These parties are generally either publicans, grocers, butchers, lodging-house keepers, or watermen, and they have a number of labourers dealing with them whom they employ to heave the ballast on board. The publicans. butchers, grocers, or lodging-house keepers, are the ballast contractors, and they only employ those parties who are customers at their houses. It is the owner or captain of the vessel who contracts with these “truckmen” for the ballasting of the ship at a certain price per score of tons, and the truckmen for that sum undertake not only to obtain the ballast from the Trinity Company, and save the owner or captain all the trouble of so doing, but to have it hove from the Trinity lighters on board the ship. The reason of the publicans, grocers, butchers, or lodging-house keepers undertaking the job, is to increase the custom at their shops, for they make it a rule to employ no heavers but those who purchase their goods from them. The price paid to these truckmen varies considerably. Their principal profit, however, is made out of the labourers they employ. The highest price paid to the contractors for putting the ballast on board “colliers” (exclusive of the cost of the ballast itself), is 10s. per score tons. Many contractors charge less than this; not a few, indeed, undertake to do it for 9s.; and there are one or two who will do it for 8s. the score. But these I am informed are “men who are trying to get the work away from the other contractors.” The highest price paid to the contractors for ballasting small merchant vessels is 12s. per score as well. For large vessels the price varies according to their size and the number of heavers consequently required to put the ballast on board. The lowest price paid per score to the contractors for small merchant vessels is 10s. Eight or nine years ago the price for ballasting small merchant vessels was much higher. Then the highest price paid to the contractor was 15s. Since that time the prices, both for merchant vessels and colliers, have been continually falling. This, I am told, arises from the number of contractors increasing, and their continual endeavours to underwork one another. Before the establishment of the Coalwhippers’-office, the contractors for ballast were solely publicans; and they not only undertook to put ballast on board, but to deliver the coals from the ships as well. At this time the publicans engaged in the business made rapid and large fortunes, and soon became shipowners themselves; but after the institution of the Coalwhippers’-office, the business of the publicans who had before been the contractors declined. Since that period the contracts for ballasting ships have been undertaken by butchers and grocers as well as the publicans. and the number of these has increased every year; and according as the number of the contractors has increased so have the prices decreased, for each one is anxious to undersell the other. In order to do this, the contractors have sought everywhere for fresh hands. and the lodging-house keepers in particular have introduced labouring men from the country, who will do the work at a less price than those who have been regularly brought up to the business~ and I am credibly informed that whereas nine or ten years ago every ballast-heaver was known to his mates, now the strangers have increased to such an extent, that at least two-thirds of the body are unacquainted with the rest. There is treble the number of hands at the work now, I am told, to what there was but a few years back. The prices paid by the contractors to the ballast- heavers are very little below what the owners pay to them; indeed. some of the publicans pay the heavers the same price as they themselves receive, and make their profit solely out of the beer and spirits supplied to the workmen. The butchers and grocers generally pay the men sixpence, and some a shilling, in the score, less than they themselves get; but, like the publicans, their chief profit is made out of the goods they supply. The lodging-house keepers seldom contract for the work. They are generally foremen employed by the publican, butcher, or grocer contracting; and they make it a rule that the ballast-heavers whom they hire shall lodge at their house, as well as procure their beer, meat, or grocery. as the case may be, from the shop of the contractor by whom they are employed. All the English ships that enter the port of London are supplied with ballast in this manner. The owners always make it a rule to contract with some publican, butcher, grocer, baker, or lodging-house keeper for the ballasting of their vessels, and it is impossible for a ballast-heaver to obtain employment at his calling. but by dealing at the shops of some or other of these parties. According to the Government returns, there were 170 ballast-heavers in the metropolis in 1841, and I am assured that there are more than double that number at present, or nearly four hundred labourers, engaged in the business. There are now twentyseven publicans who make a regular business of contracting for the supply of ballast. Besides these, there are four butchers, the same number of grocers, and as many lodging-house keepers. Further than this, there is a foreman attached to each of the public-houses, or butchers’, or grocers’ shops, and these foremen are mostly lodging-house keepers as well. The foremen in general have the engagement of the heavers, and the first hands they employ are those who lodge at their houses; these hands are expected also to deal with the contractor under whose foreman they serve. The heavers generally, therefore, are obliged to lodge at the house of some foreman, and to obtain their meat, beer, and grocery from the different ballast contractors, in order to obtain work; indeed, with the exception of clothing, the heaver is compelled to obtain almost every article he consumes through the medium of some contractor. The greater the number of contractors the heaver deals with, the greater is his chance of work. The rule with each of the contractors is to give credit to the hands they employ, and those who are the most in debt with them have the preference of labour. The butchers and grocers generally charge Id. per lb. extra for everything they sell to the heavers, and the publicans make it up in adulteration. Each of the publicans. butchers, and grocers who make a rule of contracting for the supply of ballast, has, on average, two gangs of men constantly dealing at his house, and if he has more ships to supply than his regular hands are capable of doing, then he sends the foreman to either of the places of call where the unemployed men wait for hire throughout the day. Each ship requires from four to six heavers to put the ballast on board, and the men generally ship about 50 tons in the course of the day. They often do as much as 100 tons, and sometimes only 20, in the day. The heavers are divided into “constant” and “casualty” men. The constant men are the first gang working out of the public-house or butcher’s or grocer’s shop. The constant men with the publicans are those that are the best customers. “If they didn’t drink,” said my informant. “they’d be thought of very little use.” These constant men make three times as much as the casualty men; or, in other words, they have three times as much to drink. Generally one-fifth part of what the publican’s constant men earn is spent in drink. The casualty men are those who belong to no regular house, but these, if taken on by a publican, are expected to spend the same amount in drink as the constant men. There are no ballast-heavers who are teetotallers—’ ‘Indeed, it would be madness,” says my informant, “for a man to think of it, for to sign the pledge would be to deprive himself and his family entirely of bread.”
To complete the different classes of labourers, I will conclude with the statement of a “casualty man:
“I am now about 57 (said my informant, who was six feet high. and looked like a man far older than 57), and have been thirty- five years a ballast-heaver, with the exception of seven or eight years. when I had the care of some horses used in coal-waggons. When I first knew the trade, earnings was good. I might clear my £1 a week. On that I brought up four sons and one daughter—all now married. At that time—I mean when I first worked at ballast- heaving—the men were not so much employed by publicans and other tradesmen. A gang of men could get work on their own account a good deal easier than they can get it now through the tradesmen that supply the ballast. As the trade got more and more into the hands of the publicans and such like, it grew worse and worse for such as me. We earned less, and were not anything like to call free men. Instead of my £1, I had to stir myself to make 15s., or as low as l2s. a week. Lately I have been what is called a Casualty Man. There’s Constant Men and Casualties. Each publican has a foreman, to look out and get men, and see after them. These foremen—all of them that I know of—keeps lodgers, charging them 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week for a room they could get, but for this tie, for 2s.—aye, that they would. Suppose now, a publican has a ship to supply with ballast; he acquaints his foreman, and the foreman calls on his lodgers, and sets them to work. These are the Constant Men—they have always the first turn out of the house. If they return from work at four, and there’s another job at five, they get it. That’s interest, you see, sir. The more such men earn this way, the more they’re expected to spend with the publican. It’s only bad stuff they have to drink at a full price. It’s only when all the constant men are at work, and a job must he done at once, that me, and such as me, can get work. If I hear of a chance of a job. I call on the foreman. If I have the money, why I must drink myself, and treat the foreman with a drop of gin, or what he fancies. If I haven’t the money I have the worse chance for a job. Suppose I get a job, and earn 6s., out of 60 tons of ballast. Out of that 6s. I may have 4s., or at most 4s. 6d. to take home with me, after paying for what I must drink at the publican’s—what I’m forced to spend. Casualty men have sad trouble to get any work. Those that belong to the houses have all the call. Last week I was on the look-out every day, and couldn’t get a single job nor earn a single farthing. Last night I had to get a bite of supper at my son’s, and a bite of breakfast this morning as well, and I had to borrow a pair of shoes to come out in. The best week’s work I’ve had this winter was 15s. I had five days in one ship. For that five days’ work I was entitled, I fancy, to 20s., or may be 21s., so that the difference between that and 15s. went for drink. I only wanted a pint of beer now and then at my work-two or three a day. The worst of it is, we don’t get drink at our work so much as at the public-house we’re employed from. If we want to go home, some of the constant men want to have more and more, and so the money goes. Other weeks I’ve carried home 10s., 8s., 5s., and many a week nothing—living as I could. It would be a deal better for poor men like me. if tradesmen had nothing to do with ballast work. If the men that did the work were paid by the gentleman what wants the ballast, there might be a living for a poor man. As it is it’s a very bad, hateful system, and makes people badly off. There’s tidy and clean doings in a workhouse, but a ballast man may sit in a taproom, wet and cold and hungry (I’ve felt it many a time), and be forced to drink bad stuff, waiting to be paid. It always happens, unless they’re about shutting up. that we have to wait. We have no sick fund or benefit societies. I declare to you that if anything happened to me—if I was sick, I have nothing to call my own, but what I’ve on—and not all that. as I’ve told you—and there’s nothing but the parish to look to. [Here the man somewhat shuddered.] I pay 2s. a week rent. Then there’s the basket-men at the docks—all the docks. They’re as bad to a poor man as the publican, or worse. The way they do is this. They’re not in any trade, and they make it their business to go on board ships, foreign ships, Americans generally. In better times, 20 or 25 years ago, there used to be 1s., and as high as 1s. 6d. paid for a ton, from such ships, to a gang of six ballast-men. I’ve earned 6s., 7s., and 8s., a day myself then. We heaved the ballast out of the lighters with our shovels on to a stage, and from that it was heaved into the hold. Two men worked in the lighter, two on the stage, and two in the hold of the vessel. The basket-men manage to fill the hold now by heaving the ballast up from the lighter in baskets, by means of a windlass. The basket-man contracts with the captain, and then puts us poor men at the lowest rate he can get; he picks them up anywhere, anything in the shape of men. For every half-crown he pays these men he’ll get 9s. for himself and more. An American liner may require 300 tons of ballast, and may-be a captain will give a basket-man 8d. a ton, that would be £10. The basket-man employs six men, and he makes another. He never works himself—never, not a blow; but he goes swaggering about the ship when his men are at work, and he’s on the look out in the streets at other times. For the £10 he’ll get for the 300 tons he’ll pay his men each 2s. 6d. for 60 tons, that’s £3 15s., and so there’s £6 5s. profit for him. Isn’t that a shame, when so many poor men have to go without dinner or breakfast? There’s five basket-men to my knowledge. They are making money, all out of poor men that can’t help themselves. The poor suffers for all.”