Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter LXIII

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Thursday, August 1, 1850

Having now set forth the earnings and condition of the Wood-workers who are engaged in the construction of our houses, I shall treat of those who are engaged in the furnishing of them.
    Cabinet-making is the one generic term applied to the manufacture of every description of furniture. Upholstery is, however, a distinct art or handicraft, dealing with different materials. The cabinet-maker is a pure wood-worker; and that, perhaps, of the very highest order. Being generally engaged upon the most expensive woods, his work is required to be of the most finished and tasty description. The art is constantly calling forth a very high exercise of skill, ingenuity, and invention. It is a trade which perhaps, more intimately than any other, is mixed up with the fine arts. Marqueterie is mosaic work in wood; as wood-carving, in its higher branches, is sculpture in wood. The upholsterers, who confine themselves to their own proper branch, are the fitters-up of curtains and their hangings, either for beds or windows; they are also the stuffers of the chair and sofa cushions, and the makers of carpets and of beds; that is to say, they are the tradesmen who, in the language of the craft, "do the soft work" — or in other words, all connected with the cabinet-maker's art in which woven materials are the staple.
    The cabinet-maker's trade of the best class, where society-men are employed, is now divided into the General and Fancy Cabinet-makers. There are also the Chair-makers and the Bedstead-makers. The General Cabinet hand makes every description of furniture apart from chairs or bedsteads. "A general hand," I was told by an intelligent workman, "must be able to make everything, from the smallest comb-tray to the largest bookcase. If he can't do whatever he's put to, he must go." He is usually kept, however, to the manufacture of the larger articles of furniture — as tables, drawers, chiffoniers, sideboards, wardrobes, and the like.
    The Fancy Cabinet-maker, on the other hand, manufactures all the lighter or more portable articles of the trade, and such as scarcely come under the head of furniture. In the language of the craft he is a "small worker," and makes ladies work-boxes and tables, tea-caddies, portable desks, dressing cases, card, glove, gun, and pistol cases, cribbage-boards, and such like.
    The Chairmaker constructs every description of chairs and sofas, but only the framework: the finishing, when stuffed backs or cushions, or stuffing of any kind, is required, is the department of the upholsterer.
    The Bedstead-maker is employed in the making of bedsteads; but his work is considered less skilled than that of the other branches, as the woodcarver or the turner's art is that called upon for the formation of the handsome pillars of a bedstead of the best order.
    To estimate the numerical strength of the cabinet-makers as a distinct body is impossible, for unfortunately the census of 1841 lumps them with the upholsterers (who are a totally different class of workmen, operating upon different materials) because their arts happen to be locally associated. The two trades are certainly conjoined in commerce, but the two arts are essentially distinct; that is to say, the employers are master upholsterers as well as cabinet-makers, but the operatives themselves seldom or never follow both occupations. The circumstances which govern the classification of trades are totally different from those regulating the division of work. In trade the convenience of the purchaser is mainly studied, the sale or manufacture of such articles being associated as are usually required together. Hence the master coachmaker is frequently a harness manufacturer as well, for the purchaser of the one generally stands in need of the other. The painter and house decorator not only follows the trade of the glazier, but of the plumber, too, because these arts are one and all connected with the "doing up" of houses. For the same reason the builder combines the business of the plasterer with that of the bricklayer, and not unfrequently that of the carpenter and joiner in addition. In all of these businesses, however, a distinct set of workmen are required, according as the materials operated upon are different; for, as I before showed, it is the nature of the materials that regulates the character of the work.
    The cabinet-makers and upholsterers then, at the time of taking the last census, numbered altogether in Great Britain as many as 30,712; of these, 25,000 and odd were resident in England, 4,000 in Scotland, 650 in Wales, and 350 in the British Isles. Besides these, there were the chair-makers, who amounted throughout Great Britain to 5,123; of whom upwards of 4,800 belonged to England, and 218 to Scotland. The bedstead-makers in Great Britain were 396, and they were wholly located in England; so that, adding together these three classes, we arrive at the conclusion that there were in 1841 as many as 36,231 cabinet-makers, upholsterers, chair-makers, and bedstead-makers dispersed throughout Great Britain, and that upwards of 30,000, or five-sixths, of these resided in England.
    The number of cabinet-makers and upholsterers located in the metropolis at the time of taking the last census was 6,956. The London chair-makers were 1,325, and the bedstead-makers 296: making altogether as many as 8,577 belonging to the different branches of the London trade. According to the "Post-office Directory" no less that, 1,008 of these were masters in business for themselves, so that it may be said that in 1841 the London operative cabinet-makers amounted to 7,500 and odd. Such are the Government returns of 1841; and on comparing them with those of 1831, we arrive at the following curious results as to the increase or decrease of the trade in the different countries during that time:
    The greatest increase of cabinet makers from 1831-41 occurred in the county of Sutherland, where in amounted to as much as 272 per cent. above the increase of the population. In Inverness, and in Orkney and Shetland, the increase was 130 per cent.; in Roxburgh, 110 per cent; in Huntingdonshire, 70 per cent.; in Bedfordshire, 62 per cent.; in Flintshire, 55 per cent.; in Banff, 54 per cent.; in York city and county, 35 per cent.; and in Buckinghamshire, 32 per cent. above the increase of the population. The greatest decrease, on the other hand, took place in Anglesey, where the number of the cabinet-makers, in comparison with the population, declined no less than 98 per cent. in the ten years. In Renfrew the decrease was 95 per cent.; in Linlithgow, 86 per cent.; in Derbyshire, 73 per cent.; in Cheshire and Cumberland, each 68 per cent.; in Merioneth, 67 per cent.; in Caithness, 66 per cent.; in the West Riding of Yorkshire, 62 per cent.; in Durham, 61 per cent.; and in Bute, 60 per cent. below that of the population. In England generally the cabinet-makers and upholsterers, twenty years of age and upwards, in comparison with the population of that age, decreased from 1831-41 as much as 22 per cent. In Wales there was also a decrease of 11 per cent., while in Scotland there was a still greater decrease — the number of cabinet-makers and upholsterers located there having diminished as much as 33 per cent. in the same space of time. The total for Great Britain shows a decrease in the cabinet makers and upholsterers, of 20 years and upwards, of 4 per cent.; and an increase in the population of the same age of 20 per cent., thus making, in comparison with the increase of the population, a total decrease of as much as 24 per cent. In the metropolis, with which we are here more particularly concerned, the decrease was 1 per cent. — whilst the population, above twenty years, increased as much as 32 per cent., making a decline in the numbers of this class (in comparison with the rest of the population) to the amount of 33 per cent.
The next question that naturally presents itself is, how has this reduction of the number of hands throughout the country affected the trade? According to the law of supply and demand, the decrease of workmen should have given rise to a proportionate increase in the wages, provided there was no corresponding diminution in the quantity of work to be done. As to the effect produced by the decrease of the hands upon the weekly income of the workmen in the provinces, I have no means of arriving at an accurate conclusions. Concerning the metropolis, however, I am differently situated, and to the kindness and consideration of the West-end branch of the General Cabinet-Makers' Society, I stand indebted for much important information. Of course the diminution in the number of workmen between 1831 and 1841 is a fact from which few or no deductions can be drawn, unless we can likewise arrive at some equally authentic facts concerning the increase or decrease of work during the same period. With a view, therefore, of obtaining the best information on this point, I applied to the Cabinetmakers' Society for an account of the number of their unemployed members for a series of years, as well as the number of days they had been out of employment, and the sum the society had paid them during that time. The committee immediately gave directions that I should be furnished with all the information I needed, and the secretary devoted himself for several days to the compilation of a tabular statement, in which the wished-for facts were given for every quarter of a year since 1834. This table, however, being much too long to print here, I have taken the average of the four quarters of each year, and the following is the result: -

  Number of Members Number of Unemployed Days Unemployed Paid to Unemployed
1831 342          
1832 290          
1833 318          
1834 371 40 632 £60 18
1835 435 41 748 67 7
1836 506 40 566 53 10
1837 527 90 1675 156 6 10½
1838 513 82 2025 185 13 3
1839 518 61 1321 120 13 11½
1840 504 77 1873 170 15 7
Average from 1834-40 482 62 1368 125 14 7
1841 516 102 2958 278 3
1842 464 110 3482 367 10 10Ύ
1843 412 85 2006 216 19 11Ό
1844 419 43 934 84 17
1845 460 26 383 35 12
1846 546 47 878 86 18
1847 506 98 2901 256 14 8
1848 413 125 4201 387 13
1849 340 98 2204 204 13
Average from 1840-49 452 81 1158 213 4 11½

A superficial glance at this account will not enable us to come to any conclusion with regard to the state of the trade of the cabinet-makers in the different years above mentioned. In order to do this, we must find out the ratio of the employment to the non-employment of the members of the society; for the number of the unemployed is of no value per se. Nor is the number of members out of work alone sufficient for this purpose, for, unless we know the number of days that they were collectively unoccupied in each quarter, the true ratio of the employment to the non-employment cannot be obtained. Again, the sum paid to the unemployed members during any particular quarter is no criterion, unless we ascertain the amount that the employed members would collectively earn in the same time. It is the ratio between these several facts that will alone enable us to arrive at any definite result with regard to the state of the trade. To show the reader at a glance, therefore, the proportion that these facts bear to each other, I have in the first column of the following table given the per centage of the ratio of the days unemployed to those employed. This has been arrived at by finding first the number of days that the whole of the members in the society would have worked in the quarter, provided they had had full employment, and then calculating the proportion between that amount and the aggregate number of days unemployed. In the second column of the same table, I have likewise shown the ratio of the loss to the society by the non-employment of some of its members in comparison with its gains by the employment of the others. This I have ascertained by estimating the value of the unemployed days at the regular wages of the trade, and adding this sum to the amount paid to the members out of work, and then finding the proportion that this sum bears to the amount that the whole of the members would have earned had they been fully employed.

  Ratio of days unemployed to those employed Ratio of loss by non-employment to gains by employment
1834 2.1 per cent. 2.9 per cent.
1835 2.2 2.9
1836 1.4 1.9
1837 4.0 55.5
1838 5.0 6.8
1839 3.2 4.3
1840 4.7 6.3
1841 7.1 9.9
1842 9.4 13.2
1843 6.4 8.9
1844 2.8 3.8
1845 1.0 1.4
1846 2.0 2.8
1847 7.3 9.7
1848 13.4 17.5
1849 8.3 11.2

    A glance at the above table will show us that the ratio of loss by non-employment rises and falls in the same manner, though not precisely to the same manner, though not precisely to the same extent as the ratio of days unemployed.
    We are now in a position to ascertain in what proportion the wages of a trade rise and fall, according as the hands and the work decrease or increase. It may however be said, that since the society-men of a trade never work for less than an established rate of pay, the earnings of its members cannot be influenced by any such means. This, however, we shall find, is far from the fact; for though it may be true individually, still collectively it is untrue. Even a moment's reflection is sufficient to ensure us that if a body of men contribute a certain sum in the quarter to the support of their unemployed members, it is the same as if their wages had been reduced precisely that sum. If their collective earnings amounted in the year to £40,000, and out of that they gave £250 per quarter to the maintenance of those members who might be out of work, of course their gross income must be reduced one-fortieth. Whether they receive the £40,000 in full and pay the thousand pounds out of it afterwards, or whether they receive collectively £1,000 less for their labour, the result is the same - their aggregate earnings or wages have fallen from £40,000 to £39,000 - the burden is only removed from one shoulder to the other; the pressure, it is true, may not be felt so severely by shifting it, but still there it is, not one atom the lighter, though more easily borne. We can, then, by comparing the ratio of the loss to the society by non-employment to its gains by employment, at one period with that existing at another, obtain an accurate account of the increase or decrease in the earnings of the trade at any given time. By doing the same with the ratio of the unemployed days to those employed, we can likewise ascertain the increase or decrease of work for the same period - while a comparison of the number of workmen belonging to the society in different years will further give us the increase or decrease of the workmen. We have thus a means of demonstrating whether the wages of a trade really depend on the quantity of work to be done and the number of hands to do it.

  Increase or decrease of hands. Increase or decrease of work Increase or decrease of wages
1835 +17.2 per cent -0.1 per cent 0.0 per cent
1836 +16.3 +0.8 -1.0
1837 +4.1 -2.6 -3.6
1838 -2.6 -1.0 -1.3
1839 +.9 +1.8 +2.5
1840 -2.7 -1.5 -2.0
1841 -2.3 -2.4 -3.6
1842 -10.0 -2.3 -3.3
1843 -11.2 +3.0 +4.3
1844 -1.7 +3.6 +5.1
1845 +9.7 +1.8 +2.4
1846 +18.6 -1.0 +1.4
1847 -7.3 -5.3 -6.9
1848 -18.3 -6.1 -7.8
1849 -17.6 +5.1 +6.3

By the above table we perceive that in the year 1835 there were 17 per cent. more hands, and one-tenth per cent. less work than in 1834, and yet the earnings remained the same in that year as in the previous one. In 1836 the hands increased 16 per cent., and the work only 8-10ths per cent., but still the gains rose 1 per cent. In 1842 the hands decreased 10.0 per cent., and the work only 2 per cent., and yet the earnings fell 3 percent. In 1849, however, the number of workmen declined no less than 17½ per cent., while the quantity of work rose 5 per cent.; the consequence was, that the gains of the members were upwards of 6 per cent. more than they were in the year before. Such facts as these show us that the principle of supply and demand, though undeniably true in general, still is not sufficient to account for all the fluctuations of wages. This will be even more evident when I come to treat of the Slop Cabinet Trade, for then I shall show that notwithstanding the number of cabinet-makers in the metropolis, compared with the rest of the population, decreased no less than 32 per cent.! between 1831 and 1841, still the wages of the non-society men (whose earnings are regulated solely by competition) have fallen as much as 400 per cent. - and this while the amount of work done has increased rather than decreased. The cause of this extraordinary decline will be found to be due chiefly to the rapid spread of what are called "Garret Masters" - a class of petty "trade-working-masters," who are precisely equivalent to the Chamber Masters among the boot and shoe makers, and to whom we found the decline of the wages in that trade were mainly attributable. This, indeed, appears to be the great evil likewise of the turner's trade, where, while hands have decreased, and work increased, wages have also fallen almost to the same extent as in the cabinet trade, and that from precisely the same reason, viz. - the increase of the "Small Masters," who are continually underselling each other.
    In the present Letter, however, I purpose confining myself to the "honourable" part of the general cabinet-makers' trade. I shall first give a description of the work executed by the cabinet-makers, and then state the regulations of the trade. After which I propose speaking of the social condition of the men generally employed in it, and concluding with the statements of some of the best informed members of the craft.
    The general Cabinet hands make the following articles, on which they are principally employed: - Pembroke Tables, which are square-cornered, with a wide "bed" (surface) and two small flaps. They are generally of solid mahogany. Loo Tables, which are generally round, though a few are oblong. The making of the highest branches of the cabinet-maker's art. The carving alone of one of the most beautiful ever made, for the Army and Navy Club, cost, I am assured,  £40. Loo tables are generally veneered; rosewood, maple, and mahogany being the most frequent materials. The Dining Table has a narrow bed, with two long "flaps." The "extensible" dining table has telescope slides. Dining tables are all solid. The Card Table turns on a frame, and folds over into half the space. There are also "library," "sofa." "occasional," and other tables, which I need not describe. For the furniture of drawing rooms oak is now a fashionable wood: the small tables in recesses, or for the display of any bust or ornament; are now often made of this material. Fine English oak for such a purpose is far costlier than mahogany. Chairs are the most changeable in their fashion of all the furniture formed by the cabinet-maker. The Louis Quatorze style, has now come again into fashion — a style which I am informed is always alternating, for, after some very opposite mode in style and form has been established for a limited period, "it works round again to the Louis Quatorze." Nearly all chairs are "worked solid," except that the "splat, " or top of the back, is sometimes veneered. Of dining-room chairs I need not speak. Drawing-room chairs are of rosewood, maple, or walnut, and are, in the present fashion (of which alone I speak), covered with rich silk tabaret, or elaborate needlework. The bedroom chairs are of polished or stained birch; sometimes they are japanned, with cane-work or osier bottoms. The chairmaker is, moreover, the artisan employed in the making of sofas. These are known as cabriole, couch, and tete-a-tete is the form of the letter S, and is adapted for two persons only, who occupy the respective bends. Sideboards are most frequently made of mahogany, solid or veneered, but in most cases solid. Oak, however, is now the fashionable material for a sideboard, and is elaborately carved. Cabinets also are now made, as in the old times, of oak and walnut. For a lady's apartment rosewood is often the material used for a cabinet. Cheffoniers are of rosewood or mahogany, solid or veneered. Drawers and Wardrobes are of the wood which is considered most en suite with the other furniture, and with the general decoration of the chamber. Book-case making of the best quality is accounted a highly skilled portion of the cabinet-maker's productions. One at the Carlton Club, for its beauty of proportion, and strength as well as delicacy of workmanship, is pronounced by the trade, I heard in several quarters, a perfect masterpiece. It extends 90 feet. The surface is mahogany, veneered; the inferior is the finest deal.
    In most large establishments the work is begun and completed on the premises; general cabinet-makers, bedstead-makers, upholsterers, wood carvers, French polishers, and sawyers, all being employed there.
    The mode of workmanship pursued by cabinet-makers is very remarkable, as showing a dependance on the skill of the individual workman unknown, perhaps, in any other trade. The best workman among the tailors in a large establishment has but to exert his skill to put together the materials which have been cut to the nicest proportions before they are placed in his hands. So it is with the boot-maker. With the cabinet-maker, however, it is different. The foreman gives him a sketch of the article he has to make, and points out the material in the yard or the ware-room which is to be used in its construction. The journeyman then measures, saws, and cuts the wood to the shape required, and is expected to do so with the greatest economy of stuff, and so to cut it that the best portion of the wood shall occupy the most prominent part of the furniture, and any defective part be placed where it is least visible, or, in the language of the trade, "he must put the best side to London." The journeyman cuts out every portion; not only the front of the article, but every shelf required for the interior, and the minutest partitions or drawers.- He then takes the material to his bench in the workshop, and puts it together without any subdivision of labour. The journeymen will assist one another in any elaborate article which is being made by piece-work, but this is an arrangement merely among themselves. The master, requires every workman to be able to complete whatever article he is told to make. In a large establishment, at a very busy time (and in some establishments at all times), a foreman, called a chalk foreman, is employed to mark or cut out, in order to facilitate the business; but the method I have described is that usually observed.
    The cabinet-makers find all their own tools, a complete set of which is worth from £30 to £40. They all work on the master's premises, which, in, establishments where many men are employed, are, with a few exceptions, spacious and well-ventilated rooms, open to the skylighted roof. Valuable timber is generally placed along the joists of the workshop, and there it remains a due time for "seasoning." When the men are at work there is seldom much conversation, as each man's attention is given to his own especial task, while the noise of the saw, the plane, or the hammer, is another impediment to conversation. Politics, beyond the mere news of the day, are, I am assured by experienced parties, little discussed in these workshops. I am told, also, that the cabinet-makers, as a body, care little about such matters.
    The operative cabinet-makers of the best class are, to speak generally, men possessed of a very high degree of intelligence. I must be understood to be here speaking of the best paid. Of the poor artisans of the East-end I have a different tale to tell. I was told by a cabinet-maker — and, judging by my own observations, with perfect correctness — that of all classes of mechanics the cabinet-makers have the most comfortable abodes. The same thing may be said also, if in a less degree, of the joiners and carpenters; and the reason is obvious — a steady workman occupies his leisure in making articles for his own use. Perhaps there are not many stronger contrasts than one I have remarked in the course of my present inquiry — that between the abode of the workman in a good West-end establishment, and the garret or cellar of the toiler for a "slaughter-house" at the East-end. In the one you have the warm, red glow of polished mahogany furniture; a clean carpet covers the floor; a few engravings in neat frames hang against the papered wall; and book-shelves or a bookcase have their appropriate furniture. Very white and bright-coloured pot ornaments, with sometimes a few roses in a small vase, are reflected in the mirror over the mantelshelf. The East-end cabinetmaker's room has one piece of furniture, which is generally the principal —the workman's bench. The walls are bare, and sometimes the half-black plaster is crumbling from them; all is dark and dingy, and of furniture there is very little, and that, it must be borne in mind, when the occupant is a furniture-maker. A drawer-maker whom I saw in Bethnal-green had never been able to afford a chest of drawers for his own use; "besides," he added, "what do I want with drawers? I've nothing to put in them." What is meant by a "slaughter-house" will be seen in my account of the non-society cabinet-makers in Spitalfields and the adjacent districts. The same establishments in the West-end are generally described as "linendrapers;" they are indeed the drapers who sell every description of furniture and upholstery, but the workmen from whom they receive their goods are the "East-enders." These "linendrapers," and indeed all masters who employ non-society men, are known in the trade as "black" masters. "He's nothing but a black," is a sentence expressive of supreme contempt in a cabinetmaker's mouth.
    "Within my recollection," said an intelligent cabinet-maker, "there was much drinking, very much drinking, among cabinet-makers. This was fifteen years back. Now I'm satisfied that at least seven-eighths of all who are in society are sober and temperate men. Indeed, good masters won't have tipplers now-a-days." According to the Metropolitan Police returns, the cabinet-makers and the turners are two of the least criminal of all the artizans; I speak not of any one year, but from an average taken for the last ten.
    The great majority of the cabinet-makers are married men, and were described to me by the best informed parties as generally domestic men, living, whenever it was possible, near their workshops, and going home to every meal. They are not much of play-goers, a Christmas pantomime or any holiday spectacle being exceptions, especially where there is a family. "I don't know a card-player," said a man who had every means of knowing, "amongst us. I think you'll find more cabinet-makers than any other trade members of mechanics' institutes and literary institutions, and attenders at lectures." Some journeymen cabinet-makers have saved money, and I found them all speak highly of the advantages they, as well as their masters, derive from their trade society." The majority of the cabinet-makers in London are countrymen. There are some very good workmen from Scotland. One who has been an apprentice to a good London master however, considered to rank with the very highest as a skilled workman.
    In the honourable trade bonuses to foremen, and "improvers," and "contracts," and "sub-letting," among the journeymen, are at present unknown. "I don't know," it was said to me, "that we have any great grievances to complain of except one — and that's the East-end." I find, however, that the "strapping system," known in this trade as the "cut and run" work is becoming very general among the trade working masters —while any of the more respectable shops are beginning to give out their work by the "lump," instead of the "piece." To the non-existence of contracts, however, there is one exception — in the cabinet work of a great pianoforte and musical instrument maker. There the letting and sub-letting is carried on through the several grades, to the complete or comparative impoverishment of a great majority of the workmen, and the enriching of a few contractors.
    The cabinet-maker's trade is generally learned by apprenticeship, and the apprentices to superior masters are often the sons of tradesmen, and are well-educated lads. There is no limit to the number a master may take, but the great firms in the honourable trade take very few, while the masters not in the honourable trade will, I am informed, take very many (one has eleven), and even put run-away apprentices to work. "They go for one thing, sir," a cabinet-maker said to me, "to get things done for half-price; it's little matter how." A journeyman can have his own son apprenticed to him, but only one at a time.
    The payment of the journeyman cabinet-maker is, both by the piece and by the week, 32s. a week, being the minimum allowed by the rules of the society as the remuneration for a week's labour, or six days of ten hours each. The prices by piece are regulated by a book, which is really a remarkable production. It is a thick quarto volume, containing some 600 pages. Under the respective heads the piece-work price of every article of furniture is specified; and immediately after what is called the "start" price, or the price for the plain article, follows an elaborate enumeration of extras, according as the article may be ordered to be ornamented in any particular manner. There are also engravings of all the principal articles in the trade, which further facilitate the clear understanding of all the regulations contained in the work. The date of this book of prices is 1811, and the wages of the society men have been unchanged since then. The preparation of this ample and minute statement of prices occupied a committee of masters and of journeymen between two and three years. The committee were paid for their loss of time from the masters' and the journeymen's funds respectively; and what with these payments, what with the expense of attending the meetings and consultations, the making and remaking of models, the cost of printing and engravings, the cabinet-makers' book of prices was not compiled, I am assured, at a less cost than from £4,000 to £5,000.
The trade societies in connection with this branch of art, are those of the cabinet, chair, and bedstead makers. They are divided into three districts, viz., West-end, Middle, and East-end. These districts contain five societies — one at the West-end, another in the centre of the metropolis, and the others at the East-end. Three of these societies are in connection with the cabinet makers' trade; the remaining two belong to the bedstead makers and the chair-makers. The following table shows the number of men in connection with each society, together with the non-society men appertaining to each branch:

  Society Men Non-Society Men Total of Society and non-Society
West-end General Cabinet-makers 300 1400 1700
East-end ditto 1140 1000 1140
Fancy Cabinet-makers 47 500 547
Chair-makers 130 1428 1558
Bedstead-makers 25 238 263
  642 4566 5208

    Thus we perceive that the society men constitute not quite one-seventh part of the trade, from which it should be remembered that the upholsterers are here excluded.
    These several societies, as is usually the case, have for their object the upholding of the standard rate of wages, and providing such assistance to their members as has been found to best suit the peculiar circumstances in which the workman is placed. They are mostly offered by a secretary, president, and committee, who are differently paid, according to the importance of the body and the nature of the duties required, while the payments of the members partake of the same variable character. The West-end cabinet-makers meet weekly, and pay 6d. per week as their regular trade contribution, and the members who are unemployed obtain for a given time 10s. per week from the funds, and when on strike 16s. There is also a payment for the insurance of tools, for which 1 s. 6d. is paid every quarter. The West-end General Cabinet-Makers' Society have paid no less than Ј11,000 to the unemployed members within the last sixteen years, which is at the rate of very nearly £700 a year. They have also expended in the insurance of tools, since 1836, £1,758, and have received during that time Ј708 for loss of them by fire.
    The members of the East-end body differ from those at the West-end in their rate of pay. They receive 30s. instead of 32s. per week, and when on piece-work they are paid by the job, or in the "lump;" that is to say, a given labour-value is put upon the entire article, whereas the West-end workman receives an additional price, for everything which can be considered as coming under the denomination of an "extra." In the East-end, the members likewise meet weekly, but pay the less contribution of 4d. The unemployed members get 8s. per week, and when on strike 15s. The tools of the members are also insured by the society, but at a less rate than in the West-end.
    The contributions of the fancy cabinet-makers are lower than in either of the foregoing instances, being but 3d. per week. They in like manner meet weekly. The assistance received by the unemployed, however, is mainly dependent on the state of the society's funds, 2s. per week being the lowest amount to be granted and 6s. the highest. They also have a legitimate weekly wage of 30s.; but this at present is very rarely to be obtained. The generality of this class work in their own homes, and take out the work in the "lump," the custom of paying for extras in the fancy cabinet trade being virtually extinct.
    The chair-maker's weekly contribution is 6d., the same as that of the West-end cabinet maker; he gets, also, 10s. a week when unemployed; while, in cases of strike, the pay is as high as £1 per week for four weeks, and 16s. for another four weeks. Their standard wages are 32s. per week, while their piece work is regulated by their book of prices, with every description of extra or additional work carefully specified. Like the general cabinet makers, they prefer this mode of employment to being paid by the week. An insurance is also taken out by this society for the tools of the members.
    The bedstead-makers only meet once a month, and pay their contributions by the month, which is 1s. 4d. When employed by the week they get 32s.; but they receive 3s. 6d. per day when sent out to a gentleman's house, to do such repairing (including cleaning) as may be required in their line of trade. This society also insures the tools of members, at the optional values of £12, £18, or £25, the latter sum being the highest. No payments have been made by this body either to the unemployed, or to parties on strike, for so long a time now that the custom in these cases has fallen into total disuse.
As a general rule the members of all the above societies are opposed to strikes, preferring the system of arbitration.
    There is no superannuation or sick fund in connection with any of these societies. When the societies of cabinet-makers first commenced, the houses of call were established upon the same principle as the tailors' — that is to say, as the labour market of the trade; but now it is oftener the case that a man calls upon the master or his foreman, instead of receiving a call from the society house. Sometimes a man gets recommended to a master or foreman by a brother workman, and so obtains employment. The non-society men call upon the masters and ask for work.
    Tramps are not encouraged, as these societies have no correspondence with the country societies. If, perchance, a tramp should call at a shop, he may get a few halfpence, but that is all. The brisk season continues during the spring and summer, and the autumn and winter months are the slack period of the trade. The following table shows the average ratio of non-employment at different seasons from 1834 to 1849. It will here be seen that the periods of greatest slackness are the first and last quarters, and the period of the greatest briskness the second quarter of the year:


  August 1st Quarter August 2d Quarter August 3d Quarter August 4th Quarter
1834-40 4.5 per cent 3.0 per cent 3.9 per cent 3.8 per cent
1840-49 8.3 4.6 6.0 6.2
1834-49 6.9 3.9 5.1 5.1

    A good-looking man, who spoke with a hardly perceptible Scotch accent, gave me the following account of his experience as a general cabinet-maker of the best class. His room was one of the sort I have described in my preliminary remarks:
    "I am a native of , in Scotland," he said, "and have been in London a dozen years or so. My mother was left a widow when I was very young, and supported herself and me as a laundress. She got me the very best schooling she could, and a cabinet-maker without some education is a very poor creature. I got to be apprenticed to Mr. —, who took me because he knew my father. I got on very well with him, and lived at home with my mother. When I had been five years or so at the business I went with my master to Lord —'s a few miles off, to do some work, and among other things we had to unpack some furniture that had come from London, and to see that it wasn't injured. My lord came in when he had unpacked a beautiful rosewood loo table, and said to my master, 'you can't make a table like that.' `I think I can, my lord,' said my master, and he got an order for one, and set me to make it as I had seen the London table, but he overlooked me, and it gave great satisfaction, and that first made me think of coming to London, as it gave me confidence in my work. I had only occasional employment from my master when I was out of my time, and as my mother was then dead I started off for London before I got through my bit of money. I walked to Carlisle and was getting very tired of the road, and very footsore. What a lot of thoughts pass through a countryman's mind when he's first walking up to London! At Carlisle I had about a month's work, or better, as an order had just come in to Mr.—  from a gentleman who was going to be married, and the furniture was wanted in a hurry. I gave satisfaction there and that encouraged me. I walked to London all the way, coming by Leeds and Sheffield, and Leicester, and the great towns, where I thought there was the best chance for a job. I didn't get one, though. In my opinion, sir, there ought to be a sort of lodging-house for mechanics and poor people travelling on their honest business. You must either go to a little public-house to sleep, and it's very seldom you can get a bed there under 6d., and many places ask 9d. and 1 s. — or you may go to a common lodging house for travellers, as they call it, and it would sicken a dog. Then, in a public-house, you can't sit by the fire on a wet or cold night without drinking something, whether you require or can afford it or not. I knew nobody in London except two or three seafaring people, and them I couldn't find. I went from place to place for three weeks, asking for work. I wasn't a society man then. At last I called at Mr. —'s, and met with the master himself. He asked me where I'd worked last, and I said at Mr. —'s, of , and Mr. —'s, of Carlisle. 'Very respectable men,' said he, 'I haven't a doubt of it, but I never heard their names before. And he then asked me some questions, and called his foreman and said, 'R— , we want hands; I think you might put on this young man; just try him.' So I was put on, and was there four or five years. I had many little things to learn in London ways, to enable a man to get on a little faster with his work, and I will say that I've asked many a good London hand for his opinion, and have had it given to me as a man should give it. I do the same myself now. A good workman needn't be afraid: he won't be hurt. I work by the piece. I have been very fortunate, never having been out of work more than a month or six weeks at a time — but that's great good fortune. These are my earnings for the last eight weeks. I've only lately begun to keep accounts, all at piecework, and a busy time: 32s. 2d., 41s. 3d., 40s. Id., 36s., 29s. 6d., 28s., 35s. 10d., 35s. 9d. An average of near 35s. is it? Well, no doubt I make that all the year round. I can keep a wife and child comfortably. I wouldn't hear of my wife working for a slop tailor. I'd rather live on bread and water myself than see it. Slop means slavery. In my opinion, if the black master, or the slaughtermen, as they call them at the other end, didn't keep men always going, or didn't force them to keep them always going, they'd be troubled to get hands. But when men are always struggling for a living, they have no time to think or talk, and so they submit, and, indeed, their wives and families make them submit."
    A young man, well spoken, and well dressed, gave me the following account as to the earnings of a chair-maker of the better class:
    "I was brought up as a general hand in the country, in Yorkshire, and in country towns a cabinet-maker makes everything in his own line, and sometimes does a little joiner's work. I came right away to London, between eight and nine years ago, as soon as I was out of my time. My master had seven apprentices, and didn't employ any journeymen. His was a 'cutting' shop, but he made very capital furniture, when he had a fair price. I have heard the old men in the trade say that when they were young, 40 or 50 years back, a cabinet-maker wanting work used to try York, or Leeds, or Sheffield, or Manchester, or Liverpool, before he thought of London; but now we all make for London. If a man asks for work at a country master's now, the first question generally is, 'Have you worked in London?' I was two months out of work in London, and then got on for a very good man who fitted up offices in the best style; such as for banks and insurance offices — that's cabinet-maker's work; but it's often done by joiners. We consider that they encroach on our department there. I was at this work about a year, making better than 30s. of a week, and then was out of work seven weeks. I knew a man who worked for a 'linendraper' just started in the tally system, in Westminster; and I went to make a few chairs along with him, just not to be idle. I worked a week alongside of him, and he hawked my chairs on the Saturday with his. For that week's hard work I got 7s. 3d. clear, and my chairs were abused by the tallyman as if they weren't good enough for his rubbishing place. But after he'd growled out his fault-finding, he said `You may bring the same next week, if you like, at is. the half dozen less.' I made a resolution just then and there that I'd starve before I'd touch a piece of slaughter-house stuff again; and I haven't – but then I was a single man, and am still. If I'd had a family, I suppose I must have `slaughter-housed' on. They couldn't have waited. By pawning my watch I raised 25s., and that kept me going for three weeks, until I got work at a good shop. I had joined the society before, and have been pretty lucky in keeping work ever since. I haven't kept any particular account, but I know I make about 34s. every week. I make nothing but chairs and sofa frames; chiefly drawing-room chairs. I can do best at them, and have been a chairman these four or five years. I'm afraid the linendrapers will pull down the good masters, and down with them must go the good men."
    Bedstead making is, as I have stated, a distinct branch of the cabinetmaker's business. It is, however, generally carried on in the same premises as the other branches, but in some establishments bedsteads are the principal manufacture. The bedstead-maker has not to cut out his material in the same way as the cabinet-maker, as the posts are fashioned by the turner or the wood-carver ready for his purpose, and the other portions of his work are prepared by the sawyers in the sizes he requires. He is the putter together of the article, in every part, except the insertion of the sacking bottom, which is the work of the porter.
    From a well-informed man, a member of "society," I had the following statement, which embodies information (which I found fully corroborated) of the social condition of the men, and the fashions of the trade. I am informed that in the society of bedstead-makers there is not one unmarried man.
    "When I first knew the business, 40 years ago, I could earn at bedstead-making, by hard work, 50s. or 60s. I have heard men brag in a public-house that they could make more than 60s. and masters got to hear of it, and there was great dis-satisfaction. We always work by piece and did so when I was an apprentice in London. The prices paid to society men are, on the whole, the same as in 1811. We all find our own tools, and a good kit is worth £30. I consider the bedstead-makers an intelligent, sober class. I'm speaking of society men – gentlemen I may call them. I don't know much of the others. The majority of us are members of literary institutions, and some of us have saved money. There is great improvement since I first knew bedstead-makers, in point of temperance. There used to be hard drinking and less working. In 1810, when we met for society purposes, our allowance of fourpence a night per man that had to attend was drunk in an hour; now its rot consumed in the course of the meeting. Several of us are house-keepers, and can support our wives and families comfortably. I don't think one of he wives of the members of our society work in any way but for the family. I lave brought up seven children well, and now five are working at other trades, and two girls at home. Very few good hands now earn less than 30s. a week, and some 8s. or 9s. more I do that, and I've been very rarely out if work. There is no importation of French bedsteads now; there used to be, but they didn't stand. When I first made bedsteads, tents, four-posters, and half-testers were the run; now half testers and tents are never asked for. Then came the Waterloo bed, which turns up with a curtain over it. The French bedstead next came in, with and without canopies. The Arabian bed is the present fashion. It resembles a half-tester. The iron-work has interfered greatly with my trade. I remember when there were no iron bedsteads at all; now—sends out 60 or 70 in some weeks. The iron bedsteads came into more general use about ten years ago. People fancy they're free of vermin, but I have had to take some to pieces, and have found them full of bugs in the lath and sacking parts. We've no grievances – not a bit of them. I think workmen themselves might remedy some of their grievances. They should be united, and they shouldn't encourage low-priced shops of any kind by buying things there. I pay 12s. a pair for my shoes, and one of my sons tells me it's foolish to do so, but the shoemaker has as good a right to a good week's earnings as I have, and to encourage slop work is to help on our own trouble."
    I shall now concluded with the following statement, which I received from an elderly man, the second member, in point of seniority, of the present Cabinet-makers' Society of the eastern district of London. My informant is a freeman of the Ancient Joiners' Company of the City:
    "I went apprentice to a cabinet-maker," he said, "my friends paying £50 premium with me, a sum which very few can pay now. That was in 1812. Trade was then in full swing. There was a general war in Europe and men and subsidies were required to keep up the armies. When peace came, in 1815, and large armies came to be disbanded, the men naturally sought employment at the trades they were taken from. Then trade came to a stand still. To meet one declining markets, employers began to reduce wages; the corn-laws were passed, so that no great reduction in the price of provision took place. Workmen found they could not get so remunerative a price for their labour, and a great many commenced masters on their own account. Trade not improving caused further competition, so that by the time my term of apprenticeship expired, in 1819, I found the price of work reduced from 20 to 30 per cent. From that period to the present, fashion and style have been continually altering; while those alteration have generally thrown more work into jobs, with no proper remunerating pay for the same. Understand at the East-end there is no regular or fixed price to work for —the jobs are invariably what is called "lump" — little day-work employ, with few exceptions. From the above circumstances men have been induced, and especially those who do not belong to the society, to confine themselves to one line of work -- taking apprentices and employing youngsters from the country, who are not proficient workmen. Timberyards now carry on a profitable business by retailing small lots, so that a man can purchase stuff for a job in the same way one can for a pair of shoes —say, for a chest of drawers, the top ends, fronts, sides, &c., &c. So with a table, and other furniture. These articles are hawked from Bethnal-green, Curtain-road, and along Holborn, Fleet-street, taking the west route to Hammersmith and its vicinity, of a Saturday, the wood having been in the timber-yard the Saturday previous." (Here my informant gave an account of the system of hawking to the "slaughter" houses similar to what I have given, and to the injury they inflicted upon the masters in the honourable trade, as well as upon the men. He continued.) "As for me, I have before now been driven, in a slack time, to purchase material to make up a job; and in some instances I have not been able to realise the price of a day's work, say 5s., above the cost of materials, though upwards of a week has been consumed in manufacturing the article — the consequences being short fare, scanty clothing, a selling and pledging of all the necessary articles of home, neglect of children's education, and, should a longer continuance of want of employment have ensued, every vestige of home must have been swept away. The question seems to me, what are the remedies to be applied to this state of things? An attempt to regulate the price of labour, to legislate for supply and demand, would be to disturb an hornets' nest. Still the general impression of the working classes is, that if a properly constituted Labour Board was established by the Legislature, empowering employers and men to agree to a fair remunerating price of labour in their respective trades, great good would arise. The working classes, it is true, are not themselves free from blame, for they have yet a great power to ensure many advantages, if they would but unite for the best purposes."
    In my next Letter I shall give an account of the better-paid fancy cabinetmakers, the carvers, the buhl-cutters, the marqueterie-workers, &c., and I shall then pass on to describe the slop-trade in connection with these different branches of art.