Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Service Industry / General - Cotton Merchants



    If a Papuan, or a Bosjesman, or an Ojibewayan, or any one not a smoke-dried townsman, stand by the Statue in Cheapside, and look up that busy mart, the turmoil would indicate to his mind business run mad.
    All the world knows of the enormity of London trade, yet few are prepared to appreciate the mag­nificence of its details. In the narrow byways, where the walls rear themselves so high, that, look­ing up, one might reasonably expect the stars to appear, as it is said they do when viewed from a deep well, many a house contains a community sufficient to make a German state. The ruler enumerates his subjects by hundreds, and maintains a complete machinery of government. Well may it have become trite to speak of merchant princes. It is traditional that some houses turn over’ a million, a million and a half or two millions a year; and their territories correspond with their revenues.
    It is so customary to associate cramped space with town, that visitors are not at all prepared to wander over acres in one of these establishments. Like the agriculturist, the princes of London trade tell their ground by acres; only the one metes his rent by the same rate, the other by the foot.
If the highly interesting personages with whom we began, are interested enough to seek one of these houses as a type, they will suffer their thoughts to send them forward, till on the left hand of Cheapside there is met with a lonely relic of living wood, still called, from veneration for age, a tree. It is the verdant decoration, for three weeks in the year, of Wood Street. Let our adventurous friends wonder, as they turn down, whether it gave the street its name. Again to the right, with Morley’s great hosiery house on one side, and Pickford’s mighty waggon-yards on the other; Swan with two Necks passed; Aldermanbury is reached; and, in it, a high, new-fronted edifice will furnish every requisite for a picture of London house, and at the same time be an exponent of the staple manufacture of the age. Of course we mean cotton. It needs a visit to Manchester to see the loom, and a visit to Man­chester or Glasgow to see it printed. how it is disposed of eventually we can learn here.
A coup d'oeuil takes in an infinity of ‘bales’ and ‘piles’ of every description-an intermingled array of bright goods open upon the counters, made brighter by the beams that come through the sky­light. A host of. gentlemanly-looking individuals, youths, and other folk, bustle about, full of animation and business. Talk of the Maze at Hampton Court, or of the Bower at Woodstock, we aver that Eleanor evinced no greater dexterity in winding Fair Rosa­mond’s Labyrinth, than we on the more peaceful mission of finding a friend to act as our cicerone. By the aid of one or two scouts, we discover him in distant nether realms, piling up innumerable packages in forms that would exhaust the devices of solid geometry. To the walls of an extensive area are flied wooden hutches, in which goods are comfortably housed to the depth of about ten feet; and here they remain till wanted. In the adjoining and upper departments, we shall learn what these parcels contain.
    Leaping through an open trap-door, to test our agility, we proceed, under guidance, on a circum­stantial tour. First of all, attention is claimed by the architecture of the interior. Very considerable skill has been exercised by the architect. Where each inch of room has appreciable value, it required a thorough knowledge of ‘space economy’ to make the best use of what space there was. Abundance of light, too, was a desideratum, and this in a house locked in on every side by others. A disposition of parts was also requisite, so as to allow of a general view of every department. Each floor forms a spacious rectangular gallery, rather than a room, for the central part is wanting. Elegant iron balustrades are fixed round these openings, and give the appearance, when viewed from the loftiest flight, of the staircase of some noble hall, but of yet more magnificent dimensions. The basement floor has its corresponding central part covered with glass, through which a glimpse may be got of the packers and the supervisors of the linen department beneath. At the further end of this fine area, is a double stair­case, communicating with the various galleries. Everything on this side conforms to its like on that. The pair of stairs in their zigzag upward course exactly correspond. Everything is clean and bright; everything is beautiful. On giving audible vent to our admiration, we are acquainted how extensive have been the alterations and embellishments. A few years ago, one house served for the business. Another has of late been added, and the two made into one. The wall between was demolished; an inclined plane skylight given a companion, which, together, form a ridge roof~; the old fronts replaced by a handsome and substantial new one, and ad­ditional space gained in every imaginable way. The eye will pierce a vista so far retiring as to produce, where not interfered with by the illimitable moun­tain ranges, hills, and hillocks of goods, all the pretty effect of the vanishing lines of perspective.
    The whole place is divided into distinct compart­ments occupying one of two sides or more of each of the floors, according to the magnitude of the transactions in the particular class of good with which it has to do. Each department is under the sole responsibility of a confidential person who undertakes purchases and sales to any amount, without reference to the other branches. At 'balancing day', every six months, it is the aim of the 'buyer', as he is called, to present a good 'balance sheet'. If the account bear favourable comparison with its antecedents, a step in advance is taken by him who has managed so well; if there be exhibited decrease, which change of fashion or fluctuations in trade will often occasion, he must be prepared with a satisfactory explanation. A 'buyer's' office is one that demands, sine qua non, trustworthiness, diligence, tact. It is the ultimatum of a youth's ambition, and the incentive to unremitting perseverance during the years of his novitiate. The pride with which the clerks identify themselves with the interests of their House is pleasing and commendable. Ability quickly displays itself with so great opportunity for its development. How services are valued by a good firm, may be judged by the fact that the buyers in the sixteen departments of this establishment receive salaries ranging between 300L and 100L a year. Indeed, there is much to excite interest and pride. Some of the departments think a balance-sheet showing 'returns' of 80,000L for the half-year, a good one; we think so too.
    More anon. We shall find amongst the first things to catch the eye, manifold ‘cotton prints,’ of every imaginable colour, and, as far as we in­dividually are concerned, of every unimaginable as well as imaginable design. They are the product chiefly of the Manchester loom. Cotton edifices reach from the ground to the floor above, and, in shape like the huge, massive pillars of coal left here and there to prevent a pit falling in, impress us with an edifying sense of their magnitude. By a sight of the piles of manufactured cotton, we alone can get the least apprehension of what is meant when the statistics of cotton wool imports point to a thousand millions of ‘poumds avoirdupois! More than a thousand tons of raw cotton are worked up in England every day! Pause a moment, and try to think what that means.
    A mark upon some of the goods shows us that they have come from the famous print-works of ‘Hoyle.’ Ask your sister, or your wife, or your mother, sir, ‘Who is he?’ You’ll find the name ‘familiar in their mouths as household words.’ Truly there is something in a name, for ‘Hoyle’ is a talisman that will beguile an extra price per yard from the most thrifty student of housewifery. The peculiar excellence of these goods is that the colours are fast-that is, so we cunningly opine, fixed fast, and won’t wash out. A metropolitan schoolboy would. call us ‘too fast’ for daring to explain so obvious a thing.
    Journeying onwards, we reach a neighbourhood that lets us into a good many of the secrets of a lady’s clothing. Without publishing all we learn, may it suffice that we do get extraordinary additions to our knowledge on that delicate subject. Corded slips and petticoats are seen in astounding numbers, and a variety of other things are disposed of by thousands at a time. The Scotch department, close at hand, exposes coloured handkerchiefs in numbers that would cause our interest to fag before we ended computing them. Then, again, we lose ourselves amongst fine fabrics, mousselines-de-laines, and goods that require a lady’s vocabulary to re­capitulate.
    Cotton goods form the bulk of the valuable stock of a house of this kind, yet very extensive business is carried on in other textile fabrics, both of home and foreign make. One long counter is hidden under the heavy heaps of shawls it bears, while, round about, a few are spread out with a most careful negligence, so as to show their. graceful folds and beautiful India borders. It is a sight to repay the reigning belle the exertion of dispelling May Fair lassitude, and the fatigue of an 'overland route' from Piccadilly to Aldermanbury. But it is forbidden ground. Wholesale dealers alone are to be enticed by the blandishments of colour and pattern. We dare not pronounce our private opinion upon their excellences, for the terror of the School of Design tri-censorship is as a frontlet between our eyes; nor have we the temerity to hazard anything against the ‘correct principles of taste.’ Despite us, when we reach a spot chequered with silks of the richest hues and most varied designs, our satisfaction cannot but find an ejaculatory vent. English silks do not stand comparison with French. Bright our own colours are, but they pale beside the produce of our neighbours. Harmony of colour, suitability of design (a bloominess, as the School of Art hath it), and a certain decisiveness in both pattern and colour, give French silks a richness and a glow which please the savant in these things as well as the illiterate, and contrast very strikingly with the inelegance of English goods. Not alone in silks is this seen. The cashmeres of English make are stiff and have the colours running one into another. The French, on the contrary, retain the silky softness of the Cashmere goat, and the brightness of colour charac­teristic of their silks.
    Another portion of their premises is a maison de deuil, the locality of crapes, and kindred vestments of woe; styles and textures varied, to denote every phase of grief.
    While making these rather irregular memoranda, we have reached as near as is possible the roof that separates us from the sky, not from daylight. To attain so great an elevation, we have perambulated ground enough to make us tired. When, therefore, our pioneer points to two recesses in the wall, and says we can reach the world again by either of those roads, without an effort, we only wait for an assurance of safety to feel thankful. Such assurance is quite requisite; for, peeping into them, we find them to be perpendicular shafts, extending to the ground, and which we should as soon think of trust­ing ourselves down headlong, as we should over the parapet wall. However much perplexed, thanks to our cultivated prudence, neither of these ideas tempted us.
    The two shafts are used for the ascent and descent of goods. Their utility will be seen soon. Our friend turns a handle, and immediately a com motion is made amongst a number of ropes which are observed in the opening, and a noise as of some great body struggling to ascend. It proves to be a table, or rather an open box, into which we get, and by dexterous control descend to the bottom. A lad is engaged at frequent intervals with one or other of these machines. He controls the apparatus, unas­sisted; rises, makes a stoppage at each floor to collect the parcels sold in the departments, and descends with them to the ‘Packers;’ to whose tenderness we have also consigned ourselves. The scheme is just after the fashion of conveying a dinner at the Reform Club to the top of the building, where all the appurtenances of a tête-a-tête banquet are brought up at once. Practice makes the lad in charge expert. If in­expert or forgetful, a sudden, not very gentle bump upon reaching the bottom will restore him to con­sciousness, and teach him care for the rest of the day.
    We find ourselves precipitated amongst a species of strong and cheap goods, with the euphonious name ‘Derries.’ They are of Scotch manufacture, and seem to be in great favour. This one house, in the busy season, disposes of the enormous quantity of 1000L worth a day. It is made up into morning dresses, a piece for which purpose costs about 8s. or 3s. 6d. But here it is only sold in parcels contain­ing many, pieces. A small order for a retail customer would be refused, partly from a sense of injustice to the trade, and partly because of the trouble it would give. Many small wholesale houses do a retail trade, but it is always under a silent protest from the regular retailers, and what one of the princely houses would regard as infra dig., and unbusiness-like.
    One of the partners is the ‘buyer’ for the Derry department, a man of the class unmatched elsewhere than in London for business energy and tact. All the members of the firm, indeed, seem to revel and delight in business. Generally, before the rising race are out of their snug beds, these hearty gentlemen have reached their place of business, and are in full activity. Throughout the day, with scarcely an intermission, they are engaged in the duty of super­vision, and of receiving their customers. Such attention is the talisman of success. The house has taken strides apace with the cotton trade. Its early history was that of a respectable small house; now it has but few peers. One of the merchant partners rose from the ranks, and traces his present influen­tial position entirely to worth and pre-eminent ability.
    Leaving the Derries, on our route we pass through a space appropriated to the ‘packers ‘-a band of thirty or forty men, who are hard at work, ‘from morn to dewy eve,’ packing, in canvas or wooden cases, the goods as they come down the shafts. All articles sold are cleared out before the day closes. Packing is quite an art; and excellence often shows itself in one workman, which another dare hardly emulate. Projecting from a tolerably lengthy wall are many low benches, at each of which are two packers, making cubes and parallelopipedons of all dimensions, from the varied stores around. The geniality and considerateness of the employers extend to the humblest of their subjects. Length of service, as well as ability, is acknowledged by increased pay. The patriarch of the ‘packers’ has been packing for the space of nearly thirty years.
    When we entered the premises, the tout ensemble was so striking, that a number of fancy wares, well deserving a memorandum, escaped special attention. Let us pay our devoirs to them. If we evoke a word of reprehension, may it fall upon the right shoulders. We are glad to be irresponsible for even a gentle rub upon the ‘gentle race.’ While rapt in admiration of really beautiful cartoons that adorn the boxes of cambric handkerchiefs, and other fancy articles that have to perform the double duty of utility and decoration, the ‘salesman’ most ma­liciously insinuates, that they are designed to catch the eyes of ladies, who buy not the dozen handker­chiefs, but the pretty picture outside.
    At the back of the building, retired from the commotion of buying and selling, we may peep in, and see a designer or two at work. He it is who devises the countless patterns that captivate a purchaser be his taste however fastidious or fickle. If a dealer have an idea of a new pattern, he seeks to communicate with the designer, who, by his skill, draws it out, and suggests alterations and improvements. A ‘proof copy’ is then struck off; if approved, a revise is sent back, and the order executed; if not, the design is destroyed.
    The printing of cotton, of course, does not go on here. A small quantity is printed in the neighbourhood of London, but the bulk in Manchester and Glasgow. Most people are aware, that it is done by means of ‘blocks,’ like to the method of staining paper; -rather was done, for though a large quantity, considered in itself, is even now thus printed, yet it is a very small decimal of the length printed by revolving cylinders.
    Were we accompanied by a lady, we are sure the sight that next presents itself would excite and justify her ire. A man has a number of beautiful muslins lying by him, which he seizes one by one and remorselessly shears into strips’. A few feet further off, we get an explication of this wanton waste. A little mountain of envelopes, addressed to some hundreds or even thousands of customers, will soon be despatched by post, each containing a variety of these small pieces, as samples for an approaching 'season'. These seasons are, in themselves, worthy of remark. They naturally occur in spring and autumn when 'linsey-woolseys' are courted, or ungratefully cast aside; when 'gossamer' is doffed or donned. During the rush of business, extending from March to the beginning of May, and again at the fall of the leaf, little breathing time is allowed in a 'general house'. Every one, from the master to the errand-boy is indefagitably catering for the comfort of his fellow citizens of the world. It is an established rule, and one that alone could save inextricable confusion, that the business of a day is to be a complete thing in itself. Each department is made square before the head of it leaves. The 'entering clerks' are still more hard worked. Whatever be the time those who have to do with the buying and selling may finish their allotted tasks, the entering clerks must of necessity be after them.
    A stock so valuable and extensive as that by which we are environed, demands every care to insure its safety from fire. A few years ago the place was burned down. In its re-erection, every part was made fire-proof. If fire did occur, the catastrophe could never again be very calamitous. The various portions of the house are securely divided from each other by double iron doors. The doors roll back on wheels, and are concealed throughout the day. When moved forward into their places at night (a feat easily accomplished, despite their weight), there is a space of eighteen inches, or two feet, between them; so that, if one were red hot, the heat could not extend to any injurious degree to the next compartment. The walls also are very thick, being, in fact, the same as the space between the doors; for, when the doors are closed, they appear but as the continuation, on either side, of the wall.
    We have portrayed the daily routine of a hundred houses of business, while sketching the routine of one. The same devotion to work, the same inde­fatigability, the same preciseness and system, may be recognized in any great London house. A type has been presented of a class -a class engaging many thousands; but it is only one phase of city occupation. To complete a knowledge of business life, we should have to explore the recesses of a thousand, hidden acres. London is great in manufactures; it rules the monetary world; it abounds with govern­ment offices, all of which would give a ‘type’ of business. Leaving these things, we conclude with the rest of what we have to say.
    A goodly number of the employed dwell in the house. Most houses accommodate a fair proportion of their young men; some, the whole of them. The arrangements for their comfort are as pleasing as any feature in the place. An adjoining house is given up to kitchens, dining-hall, reading-room, and dormitories. The kitchen has a side occupied almost entirely by a huge fire, large as the one before which Sinbad’s companions were day by day spitted, or ‘large enough,’ as the glossy personification of what a real English cook ought to be avouches, ‘to scorch a woman’s eyes out.’ From the fire, a good part of a bullock, done to a turn, has just been re­moved. The buxom cuisiniere removes the lid from a mighty saucepan, and reveals a companion piece being cooked by steam. ‘She isn’t so sure that steam is best; for her part, she likes the old way. They are going to cook with gas soon, and then, at any rate, the fire won’t scorch so much.’ Pardon us, good dame, for culling the flowers of your eloquence!
    Above-stairs are arranged tables for dinner. Parties of thirty or forty take in turn their quantum. - Every one employed boards in the house, although only the youngest members reside there altogether. It is the hospitable custom to entertain at dinner what customers happen to be in the house at the time. If a great assortment of wine and stout bottles, all empty, could, they would probably whisper that the banquet is a genial one.
    An adjoining room contains a stock of books, for the mental improvement of the young men. When the continued activity of the day and the un­limited hours are thought of, that must seem a little bit of a joke. We have beard of quite an original method in vogue at a neighbouring house, of getting knowledge from the books into the head. In fact it is by ‘chucking’ them at one another’s heads when a curator is not by. It is not surprising for a day of thorough business is enough to cause complete physical prostration -a state not at all disposable to mental exertion. The cry of mental improvement of the young men of business’ has been, and is, a prominent rallying point of the progressionists. Very much good has resulted from their efforts. ‘Early closing’ has become fashion able. Were early closing always synonymous with early leaving-off work, there is little doubt that in numerable ‘mental improvement classes would spring up of natural growth, and need no philan­thropic forcing upon a hotbed of subscriptions.
    The dormitories up-stairs contain each five beds, and a space to squeeze between them. They would be better ventilated if there were fewer beds or if the rooms were larger. Still they are clean, and comfortable as circumstances will admit. A young clerk resides in the house for three years That ordeal passed, he becomes identified with his occupation, and allowed to live out of the house. Around the rooms are hung decorations of various kinds exemplifying the peculiar tastes of the embryo merchants. Over one bed a pair of fencing foils over another a small home-manufactured set of book shelves, and an assortment of books. In one or two of the rooms, a placard, on which is printed a series of characteristics of the man of business, ,very edifying to ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.’
    Before the windows at the back, Guildhall rears its walls, from which the sounds of revelry, presided over by the supreme magnate of the city, oftentimes steal. How many Dick Whittingtons have had, at such hours, premonitions of the chief City dignity, we know not. However many they be, we take our leave with a cordial wish, that every one of them will realise his aspirations.

The Busy Hives Around Us, 1861