Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 13 - A Dock-Labourer's Wife

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A DOCK-LABOURER'S WIFE.

    A sailor's life is a hard one; but it is not the hardest. After looking in upon the Jacks ashore, taking their plentiful, well-cooked midday meal in the light, clean, warm, comfortable dining-hall of the Home in Dock Street,. go down to the bottom of the street, and see the poor, greasy, ragged, depressed creatures, who hang, almost all, day long, about the chief entrance of the London Docks, in lingering hope-often a vain hope, and often so long deferred that the heart grows sick-of getting work,-a casual job.
    The men who man the craft inside are better off than those who load and unload them. 
    [-187-] See them mustering in force in the raw mornings, - the residuum of many callings, and many nationalities, - clamorous for work as gulls or rooks for food; and oh, how far less clean and sleek ! Watch them, waiting within the yards for hours; call to mind that an eastwind throws thousands of these from-hand-to-mouth-living paraihs of industry instantly out of employment, and a dock-labourer's lot will not seem a very enviable one.
    It is hard work they have to do when they do get employed ; but so long as a man's strength is not over-taxed, or his life made a dreary burden to him - one long drudgery without a glimpse of pleasure or hope - the mere fact that a man is worked hard is no ground for lavishing pity upon him. It is to be feared that a spirit of laziness is spreading amongst our band-workers, at least the best paid amongst them. Our ancestors of a generation or two back, who were at their business early and late, no doubt overdid the thing; but they would lift up their hands in very natural astonishment if they could come back and witness the short hours which many mechanics work now-a-days, the way in which they dawdle over their work when paid by time, and drop their tools as if made of hot iron at the first stroke of the knocking-off hour, and then hear of the wages they get for their leisurely performances.
    [-188-] It is not for the hardness of his work, nor even for time poorness of his pay, that the dock. labourer is so much to be pitied, as for its precariousness. When remuneration is uncertain, providence is impossible. Those, and there are many such, who have been reduced to the necessity of working in the docks by bad habits, grow worse and worse; and those who have been beaten down by misfortune rather than their own fault have a hard fight to keep themselves from sinking to the level of their demoralized fellows,-a fight which very often is not successful.
    "My husband was a dear fellow once," said a poor woman whose history may be summed up as nearly as possible in her own words, without troubling the reader with the questions which drew forth parts of the information. "My husband was a dear fellow once: aye, and he's a good fellow now at times, when he can keep off the accursed drink. His luck has beaten him down, poor chap, and now and again he'll take a drop to keep his heart up a bit; and I'm sure I wouldn't grudge it to him if it did him any good, but it don't. It only makes him glummer, and then he goes on drinking, and gets savage, and says what ho neither thinks nor means. He never laid a hand on me or the children: thank God, at his worst, he's too fond of us for that. But the timings he says at times is very bitter, - I don't [-189-] know but what I'd rather he should beat me ; for, spite of all that's come and gone, - and nobody can deny but I've had a deal to cross me, - I can't help loving of him true ; and we might all of us live happy together yet, if he could but get a chance, poor fellow. But there you see, when he comes to himself and finds that he's drunk up all his money, he's so angry with himself and ashamed to look us in the face, that as soon as ho has earned a bit more, he begins drinking to forget himself, and it's the old story over again.
    "Other times he won't spend scarce a ha'- penny on himself, work all day long and not touch a drop of beer, or p'r'aps even a bite of food, so that he may have all the money to bring home to me. If he's got an old pipe half-full in his pocket, he'll just take a puff at dinner-time to dull his hunger, and then work on till lie's ready to drop. And what's queer is that he's steadiest when his work's most regular. It's far oftener lie breaks out when we've to hook at every farthing, and often, too to look for farthings and not find 'em, than, when he's taking his money every day and it wouldn't matter quite so much if lie did take an extra half-pint now and again: then as I'm telling you, he sometimes won't take scarce enough to keep body and soul together. I've seen him come in that dead beat that when I've cooked him a herring or two, or a bit of [-190-] meat if we could run to it, lie's been so sick he couldn't eat it. But food doesn't long go begging in this house. We've none so much that we can afford to waste: if one don't want it there's plenty that do. It's cruel the little the children have to eat at times, and it cuts me when my poor Tom takes it into his head to starve himself, for he wants his food as much as most men, to keep his strength up. I wish he'd never take to the drink instead. lie had. plenty of spirit when he was a young man; he'd lift heavy weights andi things like that, just to show he wouldn't be beat ; but he was never what you may call strong, and it isn't child's play they give 'em to do at. the docks. They've to strain away at winches till you'd think their loins would crack, and keep on walking up the inside of a wheel just as if they were on the treadmill, and lug about loaded trucks and iron rods, and great heavy pieces of timber. I'm pretty well past all that now, but I used to feel it, I did, that my husband should have to demean himself to work like that.
    "We used to be respectable, both of us, though you mightn't think it. There isn't much to show for it. My poor children, some of them with not a shoe to their foot., and me with scarce a gown to my back,-me that my poor old father used to dress so smart. I wouldn't mind what I did for my children,- [-191-] no, nor to help my poor Tom neither; but I· declare to you when I've bad the chance of work I haven't been able to take it, because I'd nothing decent to go in. I'm ashamed to stand talking to any decent person in such an old rag as I've got on. And then, there's my poor children : as nice children as any lord's, if they were only properly fed, and washed and dressed. I haven't to pay anything for their schooling. That would have gone against my pride once, and now I don't like to send 'em with not a shoe to their foot, and scarce a rag to their back ; and sometimes I want them to help me, and sometimes I think, What's the good of bothering them with lessons, filling their heads and leaving their backs bare and their bellies empty ? It's coals, and clothes, and boots and stockings, and bread, and beef,-not books, they want, poor dears.'
    "I was a farmer's daughter: more than 300 acres my father farmed. Ah, when I changed my name to Fison, little did I think that I should ever live to be stived up in a dark, dirty hole like this,-only one room for such a family as us,-and not a stick of furniture in it a broker would give sixpence for, and often nothing to eat!
    "Why, at time farm, we seemed to get house room and fire and food for next to nothing. The house went with the farm, and a fine old place it was, big enough for a squire. Now and [-192-] then father bought a load of coals, but it was chiefly wood we used. We'd to buy butcher's meat and flour; but then father had sold the beasts and the corn, so that that didn't seem like buying, and we made our own bread, and butter, and cheese, and hams, and bacon, and brewed our own beer; and then we'd milk, and cream, and eggs, and honey, and fresh pork and poultry, and fruit and vegetables, just as much as we wanted.
    "Ah, don't I wish my poor children had the old house and orchard and garden to run about in ! It's red herrings they've got to smell, - and think themselves lucky, too,-instead of roses. All sorts of flowers we'd got: great hollyhocks up to the bedroom windows, and roses all over the house, and standards as well; there must have been pretty nigh 200 of them. Shouldn't I like to see my poor dears poking about in the ditches for eggs, as I used; and time horsemen lifting them up for a ride when the horses were coming home from the plough?
    "Everything there was so green and clean, and bright and quiet,-so different from this great, black, nasty, noisy place. When you pushed the window open in the morning, the roses knocked against it, and rattled the dew down on the laurels; and you could smell the cows' breath, and the honeysuckles; and Sunday mornings - we used to get up a bit later of a Sunday-you could hear the church bells.  [-193-] They ring 'em here at eight ; but it don't sound a bit like the same, and the churches all look so grimy: outside, anyways; I can scarce remember what the inside of a church is like, it's so long since I've been in one. What clothes have I or the poor dear children to go to church in? However, I've not brought em up quite heathens; I've taught them their prayers, and read 'em to them now and again out of an old Bible we've got left: I expect that's because it's so worn, and torn, and dirty, no one would give half a farthing for it. And I try to keep them from running about with other boys and girls in the streets on Sundays, and learning more bad words and ways than they can help, poor dears.
    "At our church at home there wasn't evening service,- only afternoon; so, on fine summer evenings, when we were little, mother used to take us girls, and some of the boys too if they were in the way and didn't mind coming, into the summer-house, and then we read a chapter, verse and verse about, and sang hymns. Sometimes we sat outside on the steps; there was one of them great crinkly stones, like ram's horns, on each side, and a lot of blue flags. 
    "Ah, deary me, dear mother and father have been lying in the grave-yard at home this ever so long. Mother went first; and then my brothers, who'd always been set against Tom, tried worse than ever to keep me from him. [-194-] I can't exactly say why. They called him 'Towney,' because he was assistant in a chemist's shop in the market town: sometimes they called him 'Lob-lolly boy.' He was good-looking then, poor fellow, and he dressed smarter, and talked nicer, and behaved prettier than they did. He knew a good deal more about moat things, but, of course, he didn't understand country matters as well; and so they used to call him 'Miss Nancy,' and try to make him look silly by egging him on to do things they thought he couldn't do; but sometimes Tom turned the tables on them there.
    "Mother always took to Tom: he'd a nice gentle way with her. Father didn't dislike him, like the boys, but still he never exactly took to him. He said he'd nothing to say against the young man, but still he couldn't believe he'd ever do much in the world for all his cleverness. Our family was all very keen for getting on in the world, and uncommonly well some of them have done,-they ought to be ashamed to leave my children to starve as they do! Many a meal my father's given, and many a pound he's lent their fathers, ay, and themselves too, when they weren't as well off as they are now.
    "However, mother won father over; besides, he never liked to thwart me; so when poor mother died be wouldn't let the boys persuade him against Tom. 
    [-195-] "I can't say exactly what it was that made me fancy Tom so much,-perhaps because my brothers went against him. I'd as comfortable a home as a girl could wish to have, and my own way in it. My father wouldn't deny me anything he could get for me, and my brothers were very kind too, in everything except about Tom; and even that they meant for kindness. They were always bragging about my good looks (much good they did me, and much there's left of them), and my butter ( taint often I taste a bit now), and I don't know what all; and so they said poor Torn wasn't good enough for me, and there were plenty of their young farmer friends who were willing enough to snap me up.
    "They were all richer than Tom, and some were as good-looking, perhaps better; but somehow my heart stuck to Tom. You can't get away from your fate, you know. I can't honestly say I'm sorry I married him, even now, though I have often said so in my tempers, when he's aggravated me by saying he wished he'd never married me, and that he was dead, and all that, when he's been getting drunk to drown his care, instead of keeping quit of the cursed thing, and looking out to do the best he could for the woman he married and the children he brought into the world (they didn't ask to come, poor dears), as a man should.
    "You can't resist God's will, and it is God I [-196-] fancy that makes a man and woman love each other. If it ain't, it would often be hard to say what it is that makes 'em. No: though I've had as hard a life as any woman ever had, one I little thought I should ever have had,- some women brought up like me would say they didn't never ought to have had it,-but what's the sense of quarrelling with what can't be altered? It is God's will, and there's an end of it. Spite of my hard life, I can't downright say I'm sorry I married Tom. If I'd taken one with more money, or luck, I might have had to smart for it some other way. No : it's our fate; so why should there be words about it? Tom loves me, and I love him, though both of us have a queer way of showing on it sometimes.
    "But this I will say, that I've no patience with those idiots of servant girls that marry just for the sake of saying they've got a husband,-when there ain't a mite of love in. the case, give up good places just to get called 'Missis,'-good wages, good food, good treatment; not a care in the world, and not half enough work to do, or it would take some of the silly nonsense out of their lazy flesh and bones. It serves them right when their husbands drub them, and make drudges of them. A woman that gives up a comfortable home for the man she loves, often thinks she's been a fool; but a woman who gives one up just be[-197-] cause she wants to be married to somebody or other, is a downright idiot.
    When me and Tom married, my father and his put him up in business in his own line in a town about six miles from home, and lie did pretty well at first. Our eldest was born there, and we were very happy ; but things didn't look as bright, long before the second came I don't know how it was. Father and brothers said he wasn't a business man; anyhow, he was a real kind, good man in those days,-not a word against his character then, poor chap. Even them he owed a good bit of money too,- money they knew they'd never see again, best part of it,-said he was an honest well-meaning fellow. All they could say against him was that it was a pity he wasn't a bit sharper, and hadn't better luck. No doubt he'd have done better if he'd started in the market town; but he wouldn't hear of setting up in opposition to his old master.
    "Well, when we failed, Tom's father hadn't any more money to lend him, and pretty nigh called him a swindler, and me as bad. My father wasn't as savage as that, but he wasn't best pleased-for he'd paid down a good bit more than old Fison-that his money should have gone for nothing so soon. He was kind as ever to me, but he was very cold to Tom. Best thing he could do, father said, was to get a journeyman's place of some kind, and not [-198-] risk any more of other folks' money, when he hadn't the wit to make any for himself, nor them neither, out of it. But poor Tom, naturally enough, wanted to be in business for himself, and I wanted him to be myself, and talked father over, but it wasn't much he'd give. We got a little business in London: papers, and toys, and tobacco, and sweet-stuff, and such,- all mixed. We soon made an end of that, and then there was no one to help us. Tom's father wouldn't even answer his letter, and my father was dead, and my brothers said they might perhaps give something to keep me and my children from starving, if we were left by ourselves, but not a penny to support my good-for-nothing husband in idleness. That was kind, wasn't it? Ah, that's a true bit in the Bible about not going into your brother's house in the day of your calamity ! Neighbours are better than brothers, often. When my brothers wouldn't do anything for us, a neighbour, though he was almost a stranger, got Tom a dispenser's berth. We'd to pinch, as we thought then, to make the money hold out; but it's more than we ever got since, and we should think it a fortune now. Besides, it was respectable,-in the line Tom was brought up to. He plucked up heart a bit, and. said he'd study for a doctor; but, law bless you, what's the good of any man talking about studying for anything new in London, when he's to work from morn-[-199-]ing to night for his living, and has got a wife and children to support?
    "Torn lost that berth through being run over by an omnibus, and lay ever so long in hospital. While he was there I starved, and I sold pretty near everything we had, to keep us off the parish. I couldn't bear the thought of the House then, though I've often had to take relief since, - me, whose father was a church- warden and a guardian.
    When Tom came out, he had to take just anything he could get: he couldn't be a picker and chooser, poor fellow. Somehow he never kept anything long, though that wasn't his fault; for it was only odd jobs that he could get, for the most part, and them he did get less and less respectable. It was then he first took to drinking; though before he took so little that my brothers, and father, too, used to laugh at him for a milk-sop.
    "Drink did us no good, and down we came to what we are now. Seven or eight years, off and on, he's been working in the docks, one side of the river or the other. How we've lived I don't know; sometimes without the taste of meat in our mouths for weeks together, and sometimes with no food at all,-glad to jump at an old crust of dry bread.
    "It ain't to be called living. If it wasn't for the children, I shouldn't care how soon I was out of it. We've lost two,-our eldest [-200-] and our littlest; though it ain't a loss, but a happy release for the poor dears. Often, of a night, I wish that God would forgive us our sins, and then the gas would blow us up, or the roof tumble in and bury us all together. There don't seem any good in getting up of a morning to struggle on again in such a life as ours.

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