Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Furniture - Cabinet Makers

    An elderly man, with a heavy careworn look, whom I found at work with his wife and family, gave me the following information concerning his occupations as a Little master. He was then engaged in making tea-caddies, his wife and daughter being engaged in “lining” work-boxes for the husband’s next employment. They resided in a large room, a few steps underground, in a poor part of Spitalfields. It was very light, from large windows both back and front, and was very clean. A large bed stood in the centre, and what few tables and chairs there were were old and mean, while the highly-polished rosewood tea-caddies, which were placed on a bare deal table, showed in startling contrast with all the worn furniture around. The wife was well-spoken and well-looking; and the daughter, who was also well-looking, had that almost painful look of precocity which characterises those whose childhood is one of toil:
   
“I have been upwards of 40 years a fancy cabinet-maker,” the man said “making tea-caddies and everything in the line. When I first worked on my own account I could earn £3 a week. I worked for the trade then, for men in the toy. or small furniture, or cabinet line only. There was no slaughter-shops in those days. And good times continued till about 21 years ago, or not so much. I can’t tell exactly, but it was when the slaughter-houses came up. Before that, on a Saturday night, I could bring home, after getting my money, a new dress for my wife, for I was just married then, and something new for the children when they came, and a good joint for Sunday. Such a thing as a mechanic’s wife doing needlework for any but her own family wasn’t heard of then, as far as I know, There was no slop needlewomen in the wives of my trade. It’s different now. They must work some way or other. Me and my father before me. for he brought me up to the business, used to supply honourable tradesmen at a fair price, finding our own material; all the family of us is in the trade, but there was good times then. This part didn’t then swarm with slaughter-houses, as it does now. I think there’s fifty at this end of the town.
   
“I have to work harder than ever. Sometimes I don’t know how to lie down of a night to rest best, from tiredness. The slaughtermen give less and less. My wife and family help me. or I couldn’t live. I have only one daughter now at home, and she and my wife line the work-boxes as you see. I have to carry out my goods now, and have for 15 years or more hawked to the slaughter-houses. I carried them out on a sort of certainty, or to order, before that. I carry them out complete. or I needn’t carry them out at all. I’ve now been on tea-caddies, 12-inch, with raised tops. The materials—rosewood veneers, deal, locks, hinges, glue, and polish—cost me £1 for a dozen. I must work hard and very long hours. 13 or more a day, to make two dozen a week, and for them I only get at the warehouse 28s. a dozen, if I can sell them there. That’s 16s. a week for labour. Sometimes I’m forced to take 25s.—that’s l0s. a week for labour. Sometimes I bring them back unsold. Workboxes is no better pay, though my wife and daughter line them. If I get an order—and that’s very seldom, not once a year—for a number of tea- caddies. I must take them in at a certain time, because they’re mostly for shipping. and so I must have some help. But I can’t get a journeyman to help me unless I can show him he’ll make 15s. a week, because he knows I just want him for a turn, and can’t do without him, and so the profit goes off.
   
“Old men can’t work quick enough. They may be employed when there’s no particular hurry. If I’m not to time with a shipping order, it’s thrown on my hands. The slaughter-house men will often say to my asking 28s. for a dozen caddies. ‘Oh, we don’t want them; and we can get better at 25s.: but we don’t mind giving you that.’ Many a time, when trade’s been very slack. I’ve had 20s. offered, or 19s., which is less than the stuff cost. They knew that, but say they must make their harvest. And they know well enough that we have no society. and no benefit fund, and nothing to look to but the workhouse. I have to buy my materials at the great cabinet-makers and at the pianoforte-makers, such as is over in their work—the odds and ends. If any of the veneer’s flawed the slaughterer won’t have it—it’s flung on my hands, as many an article is, for pretended faults. No man on my earnings, which is 15s. some weeks, and l0s. others, and less sometimes. can bring up a family as a family ought to be brought up. Many a time I’ve had to pawn goods that I couldn’t sell on a Saturday night to rise a Sunday’s dinner.”
   
“Yes, indeed,” interposed the wife, “look you here, sir; here’s forty or fifty duplicates (producing them) of goods in pawn. If ever we shall get them out Lord above knows.” “Yes, sir.” said the man, taking up a ticket. “and look at this Here you see the pawnbroker has lent me 2s. 6d. on this box. It’s such as is sold in cheap shops at 5s. 6d. Well, after walking my feet off. I couldn’t get more than 24s. a dozen offered at a slaughter-house. That’s 2s. a piece, and I got 2s. 6d at a pawn-shop. And here’s another; it was the largest size, and the pawnbroker lent 5s. 6d. on it; more than I could get offered at a slaughter-house: though in Lowther Arcade, such an one will be marked 22s. 6d., just with the addition of a glass basin which costs only ls. wholesale. I haven’t any apprentices; it wouldn’t suit me be cause I haven’t any sure sale for my goods. The men that has apprentices is either slaughterers. or people they keep going.”
   
This man sent his daughter to show me a house I had next to call at, but had not been able to ascertain the number. She was quick, but told me she could neither read nor write. She couldn’t spare time to learn if she could be taught for nothing.
    She was eleven, and worked at the lining, and could work, she thought, as well as it her mother. She had been thus working since she was six years old

Henry Mayhew Morning Chronicle August 15th 1850

see also Henry Mayhew Letter to the Morning Chronicle LXIII - full text