Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Street Life in London - by J.Thomson and Adolphe Smith, 1877    

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THE LONDON BOARDMEN.

FEW men who earn their living in the streets are better abused and more persistently jeered at than the unfortunate individuals who let themselves out for hire as walking advertisements. The work is so hopelessly simple, that any one who can put one foot before the other can undertake it, and the carrying of boards has therefore become a means of subsistence open to the most stupid and forlorn of individuals. These facts are so self-evident that the smallest street urchin is sensible of the absurd picture presented by a full-grown man carrying an advertisement "back and front" all day long. The boardmen have therefore become a general butt, and it is considered fair play to tease them in every conceivable manner. The old joke, the query as to the whereabouts of the mustard, has now died out, and it is considered better sport to bespatter the "sandwich men" with mud, or to tickle their faces with a straw when the paraphernalia on their backs prevents all attempt at self-defence. While the street boys indulge in these and various other practical jokes, omnibus conductors also relieve their feelings as they pass by kicking at the boards. These can be conveniently reached from the steps behind an omnibus, and give a jovial clattering sound in answer to a kick well administered with a hob-nail boot. The poor board- man, groaning under this insult, staggers forward, ploughing with his sorry boots the mire of the gutter, and is unable to recover his balance before the omnibus has driven far away. Pursuit is impossible, redress unattainable; the boardman must remain true to his boards, and patiently endure the trials inflicted upon him. But few have escaped receiving ugly cuts from the whips of irate coachmen. If they walk on the pavement the policemen indignantly thrust them off into the gutter, where they become entangled in the wheels of carriages, and where cabs and omnibuses are ruthlessly driven against them. If to these discomforts we add that the mud thrown up by the wheels must bespatter them from head to foot, and that they have no other shelter but the boards themselves to save them from the rain, we may safely conclude that their existence is not fraught with many comforts. Nor is the remuneration they earn sufficient to afford ample consolation for the hardships they undergo.
    As a rule, the services of boardmen are secured through the intermediary of contractors. A business firm, advertising on a large scale, could not incur the trouble of enlisting the band of boardmen. The organization, the superintendence, and payment, &c., of these men is a business in itself, and the intermediary is, therefore, almost indispensable. Boards have to be purchased, the correct advertisements pasted on them, the men must be enrolled, started at a fixed hour, and above all carefully watched, or they would simply deposit the boards in a corner and spend the day quietly reclining in the cosy nook of a favourite public-house. For all this work and organization the more respectable contractors generally charge two shillings per day per man to the advertiser, and reserve twenty-five per cent. as compensation for their trouble and responsibility. Thus a boardman will generally receive eighteenpence per day, but there are some contractors who only give one shilling and fourpence, and others, I believe, even less. Their hours, it is true, are short, that is to say from ten to five in winter, and ten to six in summer; but they must be constantly on the move during the whole of this time, and their employment is far from regular. For instance, during the cattle-market there is a great demand for boardmen. The pantomines are also largely advertised by their medium; but after Christmas there ensues a lull which is distressing in its effects on these men. Fortunately, even during the dullest seasons, new inventions constantly require new publicity, and thus, though the demand varies, it never entirely ceases. This year, for instance, an enterprising trunk-maker conceived the ingenious idea of placing a number of men inside some of his trunks, so that their heads and feet only appeared. Huge portmanteaus and boxes were thus seen slowly progressing along the streets in single file. Of course every one looked to ascertain from whence this eccentric procession came, and did not fail to find the name of the trunk-maker on each of the trunks. The accompanying photograph is another good specimen of this eccentric method of publicity, and does not fail to attract attention to the popular patent advertised, not only "back and front, but also on the head of the boardman.
    There is perhaps no more heterogeneous set in existence than the London board- men. Unlike many other street trades, this business is not followed by a special tribe. Costermongers, for instance, are almost a race apart, and differ both in their habits and even physically from the rest of the population, but boardmen are of all sizes, ages, shape, and complexion. Some are hopelessly vulgar and ignorant, others have received the education of gentlemen. They represent, to use a consecrated expression, all who have "gone to the wall." Any one who is temporarily in difficulties may offer to carry boards. Others, who are permanently incapable of helping themselves, live on, year after year, contentedly bearing this simple burden. Old men, grown grey in crime and drunkenness, may by a little dissimulation obtain employment as boardmen. There is not much chance of their stealing the boards; and a bout of drunkenness is the worst catastrophe that generally happens.
    By the side of these unreliable and disreputable characters, there are many boardmen whose case is more deserving of sympathy. I had, for instance, an occasion of discussing with two boardmen who seemed worthy of a better position. The first had been trained as a smith, and engaged in the making of iron bedsteads. Now, however, smiths are no longer employed for this sort of work. It has been found more expedient and economical to make bedsteads with cast iron, and this change in the mode of manufacture threw many men out of employment, and notably my informant, who gradually sank to that state of misery when street life becomes the only means of existence. The other boardman with whom I conversed was an old soldier, and had served nine years in the East Indies. He had shared in many glorious engagements, and was proud to relate that he had fought in Major-General Havelock's division at the relief of Lucknow. Probably his position in life would have been secured had he only received a good education; but he was not well enough read to occupy the post or undertake the business his friends were willing to offer him. He consequently dwindled down till he reached that point in life when anything that brings a few pence is heartily welcome. But the old soldier has still retained considerable energy. He is not content with carrying the boards during the day, but also seeks to make use of his evenings. He has, fortunately, often obtained a shilling a night at the Globe Theatre where he appeared as a supernumerary.
    Several attempts have been made to better the condition of London boardmen, and on one occasion a Co-operative Boardmen's Society was established. A missionary had opened a room where the poor and destitute might come and warm themselves gratuitously. The only condition exacted in exchange for this shelter was that the people should remain tolerably quiet, while the missionary engaged in extemporaneous prayers and exhortations. The poor people cared but little for preaching that apparently brought no result, and appreciated the heat of the stove more than the eloquence of the sermons. Some practical gentlemen who became acquainted with this little institution, at once suggested action, and that if any sermons at all were given they should be preached from the maxim that God helps those who help themselves. As an easy means of giving employment to all who came to the missionary's stove, it was proposed that they should be sent out as boardmen, for, whatever the nature of their previous occupation, none could pretend that they were incapable of carrying boards. This movement was the origin of the co-operative society, and at first some sixty members were enrolled. The idea that they were not only to be paid for their day's work, but would share once a year the profits that generally accrue to the contractor, was certainly very enticing, and the society was at first greeted with much applause and approbation. Unfortunately there is generally a wide difference between theory and practice. Skilled and educated artisans have not always succeeded in making co-operative enterprises succeed. Many institutions of this character have collapsed, though they have been managed by far more able persons than the motley crew gathered in the missionary's hall. In a very short time half the committee, in obedience to its own rules, had to be dismissed for drunkenness. The management fell into chaotic confusion, and an enterprising contractor gathered together the wrecks of this business, united them to his own, and thus disappeared the Co-operative Boardmen's Society.
    Taken as a body, it would be difficult to help these men to a better condition, and the only practical service that can be rendered is by the selection of individual and more worthy cases. In one instance, however, this system failed egregiously. A contractor discovered among the boardmen in his employ an individual who was not only a good grammarian, and wrote wel1, but was thoroughly conversant with three foreign languages. That so superior a person should, in the very prime of his life, waste his existence carrying boards about, seemed too great a loss of human ability. The contractor invited this boardman to enter his office, and at once gave him the position, the work, and emoluments of a clerk. He further, I believe, gave him a suit of clothes, so that the new clerk might not betray by his appearance the humble position from which he had been promoted. For a week or so the contractor had reason to congratulate himself several times on the wise selection he had made. No clerk had ever displayed so much business aptitude. No secretary could write a better letter, and he seemed with intuitive facility to understand all he was required to accomplish. The boardman's future was now insured. He had only to continue working with the same steadiness and aptitude, and every phase of prosperity was accessible-the most brilliant business career lay stretched before him. Never had so complete a transformation been accomplished in so short a time. The contractor was lost in admiration for the elegant, able, and gentlemanly clerk he had extracted from between the boards and raised to his office. But in one day all these illusions were dispelled. The model clerk made his appearance late one morning, his eyes were bloodshot, his new clothes all torn and dirty, and he was screaming and wildly gesticulating. Drink had brought him to the verge of madness. A strait-waistcoat alone could overcome the violence of his antics. No subsequent lecturing and kindly advice could persuade him to break off from the fatal vice. His promises were never observed; when sober he was as industrious, as grateful, as it was possible to expect, but about once a week he yielded to his passion for drink, and finally became so unmanageable that he had to be dismissed. This individual, if still alive, is probably wandering about the streets in a state of the most abject misery.

A.S.