Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Carmen and Coal-heavers

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life9.gif (42252 bytes)SWARTH, hard-handed Labour has more votaries in London than any other city in the whole wide- rounded compass of the world; great, grave, weighty men, with that old solid Saxon cast of countenance which gives such an earnest and serious appearance to all their actions, and who are no more capable of capering, shouting, and dancing round trees of Liberty, like our volatile neighbours, than elephants. Even drinking and smoking, with such men as these, is one of the sober businesses of life - rest after labour; and they look upon it to be as necessary as either eating or sleeping. A glance at their bulk, bone, and sinew, tells you that those limbs were "pastured in England." The loads some of these men carry would break an ordinary back - they might have served their apprenticeship with Atlas, and began business by first bearing heavy worlds upon their shoulders.
    First amongst these stands the Carman - the Mercury of our merchants; he brings the "gifts the gods provide us" to our very doors. To his keeping ships consign their cargoes, at his bidding the heavy railway trucks are emptied, and he bears into our streets luxuries for which the ocean has been ploughed, treasures for which the mine has been searched through its deep darkness, and comforts for which hill and valley, with [-66-]  all their waving corn, hanging fruit, and lowing flocks and herds, have been plundered. No marvel that with such a trust he walks erect, carries his whip somewhat jauntily, and looks with a proud eye at his horses - subjects who obey his very nod, and, unlike the human wicked world, never entertain a thought of dethroning him. Look at his boots - heavy although they are, they are neatly laced, and fit him like gloves; he prides himself on his r6unded and well-shaped leg; and there is a kind of natural dignity in his measured march, as he paces stride for stride beside his beautiful and high-fed horses. He seems to have been distinguished for his musical taste before the time of Shakspere, for the poet tells us that Shallow, when of Clement's Inn, sung such tunes as "the carmen whistled." In this he has not degenerated, and you may often catch a stray note while following him, though the tune, like his own pace, is solemn and slow. He is a good husband and an indulgent father, and when the weather is fine and his load light, and his journey extends to some distant suburb, you will often see his wife and children, who waited at some appointed place, accompanying him. Sometimes he lets his little son carry the long whip. and walk beside him for a short space, and his heart dilates as he pictures, in that chubby specimen of small humanity, a future Carman like himself. He seldom uses his whip, unless to crack it, for he has a brief, gruff, peculiar method of saying "Now, then," which never fails to quicken the pace of his horses when he sees them lagging. Even when his work is up-hill, and with a heavy load, he trusts more to a few encouraging words and friendly pats, at every necessary halt, than he does to the lash, for between him and his horses [-67-] there is somehow a silent understanding. If there is one thing more than another about which he makes a little extra display, it is his delivery-book, which fastens with a brass clasp, and is carried in a pocket, made purposely, within the left-hand side of his jacket. This book he is rather fond of pulling out, and apparently cogitating over its contents, although all the entries he has to look after are the signatures of the receivers. The marks and figures are strange puzzles to him at times, and convey no more notion of what he has delivered, than an hieroglyphic whose meaning is buried in the bye-gone nights of Egyptian darkness. He also takes great pride in furbishing the ornaments of his harness, and is as particular about not tarnishing the lustre of the respectable "House" to which he belongs, as the confidential clerk who presides over the office. He rarely calls his employers masters, but speaks of them as "Our Firm."
    A thorough London Carman is very "knowing" in localities; and if a toll can be avoided, and he is not pressed for time, he is as sure to "do the pike" as a cabman who has bargained to carry his fare home and clear the gates. He is invariably attended by a dog, which might have been trained by Ducrow, for it is capable of riding upon anything, from a cask to the end of a sugar-cane, and all it seems to delight in is balancing itself on all kinds of imaginable things, and barking at every object that passes; for which purpose it is eternally running from one end of the vehicle to the other, like some poor fellow who is endeavouring to take up a dishonoured bill by getting his own acceptance discounted - with this difference, that the dog does all the barking and growling, while the other [-68-] finds it thrown in gratis. The Carman is fondly attached to his dog, and rarely takes a meal without allowing him to share in it. He is very kind to any poor brother of the whip whom he sees tugging up-hill in vain, with a weighty load and an ill-fed team; it needs but little persuasion to induce him to unyoke one or two of his own powerful horses and rush in to the rescue. We have seen many of these little kindnesses done in the hilly streets of the City; and we have drawn strange conclusions from them. In a few words, my rich and aristocratical masters! we have thought that if a few of you acted to your fellow-men as the Carmen do to one another in need, the foundations of Europe would not be jarring to the very centre, as they are now. Place a helping hand upon a willing heart, my friends, and the very beating of its gratitude will so stir your sluggish souls, that you will feel as if cutting your pen-feathers and getting ready-winged for immortality. We have seen a soul in the silent shaking of the hands between two Carmen, when one has rendered the other aid as we have described, which would have put to shame all the studied return of thanks ever showered forth after the "sacking" of England in Exeter Hall, to bring up unbelieving "black babbies" for gospel sucklings, and to pave the way to heaven with gold for the strong-haired "niggers." A poor old wayfarer has but to ask the Carman for a lift, and if he is one of those whose heart is in the right place, he will pull up by the roadside, and be thought none the worse of by his employers for his kindness. For passing to and fro, as he ever is doing, along the stirring streets, or in the dusty suburbs, he sees Splendour seated in her chariot and squalid Misery [-69-] crawling and bent with age and hunger upon the pavement; and although he says but little, he thinks the more, and thanks God that he is a Carman, and wishes that the poor people were as comfortable as his horses.
    He is an unmerciful denouncer of idleness, and thinks that those who are able and will not work ought not to eat. His politics are taken from the Advertiser and Dispatch; and although he is an out-and-out liberal in his notions, yet he is sensible enough to know that it is all nonsense about all men being equal. "Because as how," he says, "I knows them what if they had a thousand to-morrow would never do a hand-stir until every farthing of it was spent." Then he has no end of apt and homely illustrations - how Bill this, and Jack that, and Jem the other, had all such chances as no man had before, and although the bread was, "as the saying is, put into their mouths, howsomdever they were too lazy to eat it." He is gallant enough to say that he should not like to see his young "missus" go out to work, "because as how she s been brought up a lady, and shows so much feeling for the horses." There are touches of delicacy about his character, such as "not" seeing the poor fellows who drag trucks about the streets lay hold of his cart or waggon, or it maybe slackening the pace of his horses when the men come panting up behind, attempting in vain to overtake him; nor would they ever succeed were it not for the word "gently" which only the horses hear, for he pretends not to notice the party thus assisted. We are drawing one of the most favourable of the class - one who seldom changes masters. There are others who delight in carrying off a wheel, if they can manage it [-70-] nicely; who rap out an oath loud enough to electrify a nervous, man, and lay their whips on everything that comes in their way. Such as these the poet Gay describes running into the "gilded chariots, and
    Lashing on with spiteful rage
    His ponderous spokes the painted wheels engage;
    Crushed then is pride, down falls the shrieking beau,
    The slabby pavement crystal fragments strew;
    Black floods of mire the embroidered coat disgrace,
    And mud enwraps the honours of his face."

    The Coal-heaver is the next who figures upon our picturesque stage - the knight of the fan-tail and shovel - the man whose body must be like the face of the moon, full of hills and holes, caused by lumps of coal of every size, which fit to his back as if made for it. Look how he holds the quart-pot! You can see at a glance that the half left will just be enough for one moderate draught: if he drinks first, he never takes his lips away until he sees a small portion of the bottom of the tankard, for that is a Coal-heaver's calculation of a fair share - a little of the best of it. You should see him breakfast at the front of the bar, about five o'clock of a summer's morning. A pound and a half of bread, with half that weight of meat, the fatter the better, form his common rations. He uses no plate, but with his huge clasp-knife cuts under and over, until the whole is consumed. He then draws the back of his hand across his mouth, and is silent for nearly a minute, while he takes a "pull" at the foaming pot; a deep, long-drawn "ah!" proclaims the return of breath, which seems to come back like the rush of an express train, through the Watford tunnel. He then takes off his fan-tail, and passes his jacket-sleeve across [-71-] his forehead, for such eating and drinking is almost as hard work as carrying coals. He pulls his short pipe from somewhere among the hills and valleys of his dress, then his steel tobacco-box from another "deep profound," and having filled, he closes the lid with a loud snap; he then applies a light to the fragrant weed, and with one eye closed whiffs at his "own sweet will" until he hears the first stroke of the six o'clock bell. It has often puzzled him why that bell tolls, morning after morning, at the same hour; and he has asked Jem, and Jem has asked Ned, who is rather "cute," and the conclusion they have arrived at is that "it's the six-o'clock bell." You would, after his hearty meal and quiet smoke, to look at him when he first arises from his seat at the front of the public-house bar, take him for a dull, half-asleep sort-of-a man, and such he seems as he enters the gates of the capacious coal-wharf. But once see him plant his foot upon the elastic plank that stretches across to the coal barge, and he is in a moment a new man. Unlike others, whose countenances are lighted up by the expression of the thought within, he looks more intellectual at every step he takes, as if his feet, which are so accustomed to action, had assumed the command both over the mind and the other members of the body, and that they alone looked to his steps, and took heed of his ways. As if conscious of this, he takes a particular pride in his legs, and clothes them at times in white stockings and well-fitting shoes or boots; above droops the dingy fan-tail and the dusty jacket, which seem but made as cushions for heavy burdens - for the upper part is but a mere resting-place for coal-sacks. Below all is free, and clean, and uncumbered; there lie the will and the com-[-72-]mand; it is their duty to see that the load is carried away safely and deposited in its allotted place; they are all eye, all life, all watchfulness. If they make a false step all is ever with "him," for they alone have the charge of the man. It is their look-out to see that he stumbles not, or is carried away by the current to be deposited under one of the arches of the bridge, or per-adventure borne onward to become a mere covering for the archway over the Thames Tunnel. No marvel he pats them at times, and that we err in supposing he is only beating out the coal-dust. He best knows how much he is beholden to them, and doubtless has his own way of expressing gratitude.
    Only try to use his sharp-pointed concave shovel, and just fill single sack, and ten to one at the very first attempt you would strike upon a large lump of coal with such a blow as would make every fibre of the arm jar again; while he, by some peculiar turn of the elbow, throws up one shovel-ful after the other as if the whole barge was laden with smooth sand, and no such obstacles as lumps were to be found in the cargo. It would twist the spine of an unpractised man only to place one of those heavy sacks either upon the weighing-machine or in the waggon; while he, with his accustomed jerk, drops his burden with as much ease and safety as a gipsy-woman slides down her little sun-tanned brat from her back. A true Coal-heaver must be "to the manner born" to excel.
    The toys he buys for his children are tiny shovels and little waggons filled with coal-sacks; and sometimes he purchases for his son and heir a juvenile fantail, with which the embryo Coal-heaver is delighted. He is fond of folding his arms when he is not busy, [-73-]and watching the craft as they pass up and down the river, or having a gossip with "our bargemen." If anybody talks about the power of steam, he takes a long pull at his pipe, and wonders what it would be without coals. He pities the poor creatures who come prowling about the barges, at low-water mark, to pick up the pieces of coal that have fallen overboard; and, no doubt, were to make an open confession, he has occasionally let a lump or two fall on purpose, as waif and stray for these half-clad human "amphibiousnesses." He ever likes low situations. If he goes as far as Greenwich, he rarely ascends the breezy summits of the park, but loiters about beside the piers, trying to discover what "Coalliers" are coming into Pool. If he speaks about the large houses in London, his remarks are chiefly confined to the roomy cellarage, and the number of tons he and his "Butty" have shot into them during a twelve-month. He wonders how people can live at all in France, where he has heard they burn nothing but wood, and have so few gridirons. When he is clean shaved you can tell he is a Coal-heaver, dress however he may, for a crop of coal-dust still vegetates in the roots of his beard: he calls it new seed, and prides himself on taking off the edge of his barber's razor. The barber himself says that a Coal- heaver is as hard to shave as a sand-bag.
    The eating-houses at the foot of those hilly streets beside the river, which are frequented by these men of the sack and shovel, display different and more substantial fare than you will find in any other quarter of London. Nowhere beside will you see briskets of beef so fat, or puddings containing such quantities of suet. Go in, and call for a Coal-heaver's plate of meat, even [-74-] after having fasted for a long summer-day, and then you will not be able to consume the half of it. A plate of mixed vegetables there is half an enormous cabbage, with three or four gigantic potatoes to match; while a half-quartern loaf cuts up into four "Coal-heaver's breads." If you want to find out a house where the best porter is drawn, look out for one patronized by the fraternity of fan-tails, and there you are as sure to get a superior tap as you are to find a pure spring by following in the wake of a flock of water-wag-tails.
    To the Carman and the Coal-heaver we are indebted for many comforts. Amid rain, blow, and snow, they cheerfully do their allotted duties. The fire that throws such a warm and summer-like look around the apartment, when outside "all around the wind doth blow," was placed under our very feet by their united labours. John's yellow-plush would burn like an ominous sunset, were he even trusted with the favourite horse and gig to fetch a sack of "black-diamonds" from the wharf; and Betty's face would out-redden the hue of her brightest copper coal-scuttle, if only sent to the nearest shed for a small supply. What a many bickerings and heart-burnings do these willing labourers save us from! The appearance of a laden coal-waggon gives a look of respectability to a man's house; and we have known a tax-gatherer put off his call for a month, and a landlord wait patiently until the end of the next quarter for his rent, through seeing a couple of fan-tails with their load at the door. A merry acquaintance of ours, though he can only afford to purchase a single sack at a time, always contrives to have it delivered when a full waggon is sent round. He says the look of the thing is well worth the pot of beer [-75-] he gives to the men, as they have to halt a short time while they drink it, and he knows not how many of his creditors may chance to pass at the time. It is whispered that, if he makes a promise to pay, and cannot keep it - it is generally when the waggon is likely to call - then he pleads as an excuse that he is "busy with the coals."
    But, to see a Coal-heaver to perfection, he must be visited in his "daily walks and ancient neighbourhood" - a water-side tap-room. The very name, we are well aware, is enough to make a pretty lady gather together her white flounces for fear of contamination. We, who look at mankind either through an opera-glass, or see the moving shadows mirrored deep down in a pot of half-and-half, care not for such trifles. A heavy-heeled boot makes a less-lasting impression on a floor strewn with sand or saw-dust than on a Turkey carpet: for the one is swept away with every new morrow, while the dent on the other remains until the very spot is worn thread-bare. There you may see him superintending the gridiron. What a steak! what a couple of chops! Either the one or the other would bump down a honest pound weight. He would draw the leg of a chicken through his teeth, and clear it at a single mouthful. His eye is on the great black clock, with its three inches in length figures, for it beats time like his own measured footsteps, in its dark unadorned case; and he knows to a second where the big hand ought to point after the process of cooking, when he has dined, and when he has lighted his pipe. He would back that old clock against all the watches in Europe; for it keeps his time, and has done so for years. The great sliding-box under the table he draws [-76-] out whenever he pleases, and throws the coals on the fire with as much freedom as if he were filling his own sacks from the barges - a piled-up shovel-ful goes on the fire at every throw. He "takes his ease at his inn," like Falstaff; and woe be to the landlord who dares to propose a reformation There his political opinions are law, and he would cuff even Cuffey himself if he dared to oppose him. He became a "special," to protect himself; and argued, "If so be's that a thief steals my governor's coals, why he gets no money for them; and if he gets no money whatsomdever, how can he pay I my wages, what is." So far he beats Louis Blanc, by hitting the nail at once on the head; for the Coal-heaver is a man who, when he finds a lump that will not go into his sack, breaks it up, and makes it to fit, whether or no.


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