Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - How the Poor Live, by George R. Sims, 1883 - Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII.

    To get an odd job at the Docks is often the last hope of the labouring men who are out of regular employment, and to whom the acquisition of a few shillings for rent, and the means of subsistence for themselves and families, is a task fraught with as much difficulty as were some of the labours, the accomplishment of which added in no inconsiderable degree to the posthumous fame of Hercules.
    When it is borne in mind that sometimes at the West India Docks - taking one for example - as many as 2,500 hands can be taken on in the morning, it will be easily understood that the chance of employment draws an immense concourse of men daily to the gates.
    The time to see what I venture to think is one of the most remarkable sights in the world, is an hour at which the general public is not likely to be passing by.
    Sometimes the hands are engaged as early as four, but it is generally about six o'clock that the quay-gangers ascend the rostrums or elevated stands which are placed all along the outside wall, and survey the huge crowd in front of them, and commence to call them out for work and send them into the different docks where the good ships lie, with their vast cargoes, waiting for willing hands to unload them.
    The pay is fivepence an hour, and the day's work lasts for eight hours. It is miscellaneous, and a man is expected to put his hand to anything in the shape of loading or unloading that the occasion may require.
    Stand outside the dock gates any morning about six, and you will have plenty to study among the vast crowd of met more or less dilapidated and hungry-looking who fill all the approaches and line the banks in front of the rostrums.
    Many of them are regular men, who are called "Royals" and who are pretty sure to be taken on, their names being on the ganger's list and called out by him as a matter of course. These men show signs of regular employment, and differ very little from the ordinary labourer. The strangest part of the crowd are the ragged, wretched, wobegone-looking outcasts who are penniless, and whose last hope is that they may have the luck to be selected by the ganger. Many of these come from the distant parts of London, from the North, and the South, and the East, and the West.

    Some of them have tramped all night, and flung themselves down to sleep at the great dock gates in the early dawn, determined to be in the front rank.
    They are of all sorts, sizes, and conditions. Among them is the seedy clerk, the broken-down betting-man, the discharged soldier, the dismissed policeman, the ticket-of-leave man, the Jack-of-all-trades, the countryman, and the London rough. An enormous proportion of the regular men are Irish and of the ordinary labouring class, but now and then a foreigner or a neg ro crops up among the crowd. One man there is among them who wears his rough jacket and his old battered billycock with a certain air of gentility, and whose features are strangely refinecd when compared with the coarser lineaments of those around him.
    In the Docks they call him "the nobleman." He is a gentleman by birth and education; he can swear, I believe, in four languages ; and as a matter of fact is the son of a [-58-]

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[-59-] baronet, and has a right to be called "sir" if be chose to demand it. Into the sad story which has brought about this social wreck it is no business of mine to enter, though to the friendly Dock police and to the gangers the baronet is ready enough it to tell it.
    The baronet can work, in spite of his pedigree, as well as any of his mates, and the fivepence an hour is a god-send to him. Strange are the stories of vicissitude which many of these men can tell. I have said it is the last haven of the outcast, and by that I do not mean to imply that all dock labourers are destitute, but that among the huge crowd of outsiders who come daily to take their chance are many of those who form the absolutely most helpless and most hopeless of the London poor. No character is required for the work, no questions are asked; a man can call himself any name he likes so long as he has two hands and is willing to use them, that is all the Dock Company require. Among these men are hundreds of those whose cases are so difficult to deal with in respect of house accommodation. They are the men who have to pay exorbitant rents for the filthy single rooms of the slums, and whose fight with starvation is daily and hourly. They are the men earning precarious livelihoods who are objected to by the managers of all the new Industrial Dwellings, which have swept away acres of accommodation of an inferior class. A man who is a Dock labourer may earn a pound a week - he may earn only five shillings. Sometimes they get taken on every day in a week, and then for a fortnight they may have to go empty-handed from the gates day after day.
    Once fix on your mind the wear and tear, the anxiety and doubt, the strain and harass, the ups and downs of a life like this, count the smallness of the gain and the uncertainty of employment, and you will understand why it is that the common body of men who are classed as "Dock labourers" are reckoned as among the poorest of the London poor who make an honest effort to keep out of the workhouse. Watch this crowd - there must be over two thousand present in the great outer circle. The gangers are getting into the rostrums - two tea ships have come in, and a large number of men will be required. Hope is on many faces now; the men who have been lying in hundreds sleeping on the bank opposite - so usual a bed that the grass is worn away - leap to their feet. The crowd surges close together, and every eye is fixed in the direction of the ganger, who, up in his pulpit, his big book with the list of the names of regular men, or " Royals," open before him, surveys the scene and prepares for business. He calls out name after name, the men go up and take a pass, present it to the police at the gate, and file in to be told off to the different vessels. It is when the "Royals " are exhausted that the real excitement begins. The men who are left are over a thousand strong - they have come on the chance. The ganger eyes them with a quick, searching glance, then points his finger to them, "You - and you - and you - and you." The extra men go thorough the usual formality and pass in. There is still hope for hundreds of them. The ganger keeps on engaging men - but presently he stops.
    You can almost hear a sigh run through the ragged crowd. There comes into some of the pale, pinched faces a look of unutterable woe - the hope that welled up in the heart has sunk back again. There is no chance now. All the men wanted are engaged.
    As you turn and look at these men and study them, these the unfortunate ones, you picture to yourself what the situation means to some of them. What are their thoughts as they turn away? Some of them perhaps have grown callous to suffering, hardened in despair. To-day's story is but the story of yesterday and will be the story of to-morrow. There is on many of their faces that look of vacant unconcern to everything that comes of long familiarity with adversity. They have the look of the man who came into the French Court of Justice to take his trial for murdering his colleague at the galleys, and who had branded on his arm his name. "Never a chance." Never a chance when a man gets that branded not on his arm but on his heart He takes bad luck very quietly. It is the good luck which would astonish and upset him.
    Some of the men, new comers most of these, and not used to the game yet, show a certain rough emotion. it is fair to say it generally takes the form of an expletive. Others, men who look as though they had sunk by degrees from better positions, go away with a quivering lip and a flush of disappointment. If we could follow the thoughts of some of them, we should see far away and perhaps where in some wretched room a wife and children sit cowering and shivering, waiting for the evening to come, when father will bring back the price of the day's work he has gone to seek. it must be with a heavy heart that his wife towards midday hears the sound of her husband's footsteps on the creaking stairs. This advent means no joy to her. That footstep tells its sad, cruel tale in one single creak. He has not been taken on at the Docks - another weary day of despair has to be sat through, another night she and the little ones must go hungry to bed.
    It must not be imagined that the men clear away directly who have not been engaged. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, and dozens of men still wait on in hope. It sometimes happens that a ship comes in late, or something happens, and more men are required. Then the ganger comes out and picks them from among the remaining crowd.
    Dozens of them hang about on the off-chance until two; after that it rarely happens any men are engaged, so the last brave few who have stood with wistful eyes for six or eight hours at the gate, turn slowly on their heels and go - God knows where.
    Some of them, I believe, are absolutely homeless and friendless, and hang about street corners, getting perhaps a bit of tobacco from one or another more fortunate in this world's goods than themselves, and with it stave off the gnawing pangs of hunger. They hang about up side streets and round corners till night comes, then fling themselves down and sleep where they can, and go back once more at dawn to the gates of their paradise, to wait and hope, and be disappointed perhaps again.
    This is the dark side of the Dock labourer's story. It has a brighter and better one inside, where on miles and miles of wharf hundreds of men, package and bale-laden, are hurrying to and fro, stowing the produce of the world in [-60-] shed after shed. Thousands of barrels of sugar are lying in one, and the air is perfectly sweet with it. The ground is treacly with it, and one's boots are saturated with it as one walks through a thick slime of what looks toffee gone wrong in a sweetstuff window on a hot summer day. Thousands of boxes of tea, just in from China are in another shed and their next door neighbours are myriads of bags of wheat. The steam cranes are going as far as the eye can see, whirling, and dragging, and swinging huge bale after bale greedily from the good ship's hold; lighters laden to the top are being piled higher still; whole regiments of men bent with precious burthens are filing from wharf to warehouse; the iron wheels of the trolley, as it is pushed rapidly over the asphalted floor, makes a music of its own; and the whole scene shut in with a background of shipping-argosies freighted with the wealth of the Indies, the produce of many a land beyond the seas;- all this goes to make up a picture of industry and enterprise and wealth, which gives just a little pardonable pride to the Englishman who contemplates it for the first time.
    The system in the Docks is admirable. The strange men who are taken on are not taken entirely on trust. There is a uniform scale of pay for old hands and new, but there is an overlooker to see that all work well. If a man shirks or makes himself in any way objectionable, the process is short and summary: "Go to the office and take your money." The man is discharged-he is paid for the time he has worked, but no more; and he can leave the Docks out of the question as a field for his talents, if he has shown himself a duffer. A mark is put against his name on the ganger's book.
    At the door every man who leaves the Docks is searched. This is more of a preventive measure than anything else. The men handle many packages of valuable commodities which have been broken in transit, and could easily extract some for their private use.
    It would not be hard for a gentleman brought face to face with a broken chest of tea to fill his pockets with loose pound or two, for instance. The search at the gate stops that. Knowing that detection is certain, those men who would be dishonest if they could get a chance see the impossibility of escaping with their plunder, and so, making a virtue of necessity, respect the eighth commandment. The Docks are in the custody of a special body of Dock police, who maintain order, keep guard night and day over the goods on the warehouse, search the men, and check all the carts and vans passing out or in at the gates, and are generally responsible for everything.
    The boys employed as messengers between the Dock House in Billiter Street and the Docks themselves, and also the lads employed on the spot, are all dressed in a remark ably neat uniform, and add to the picturesqueness of the busy scene. All these boys are drilled, and come to attention and salute their superiors with the precision of old soldiers
    I have given a little space to the inside of the Docks because such numbers of the men whose homes we have visited in previous chapters are employed there, and it is there that unskilled labour finds the readiest market.
    But it is outside that one must search for the misery which those who know them best acknowledge to be the commonest lot of the Dock labourer.
    Inside, when the men are at work, the beer barrel on a stand with wheels is trundled merrily along at certain hours, and there is a contractor who supplies the men with food. It is outside that the beer barrel and the food contractor find their occupation gone.
    Poverty in its grimest form exists here, and it is for these men, struggling so bravely and waiting so patiently for the work their hands are only too willing to do, that philanthropists might look a little more earnestly into the question of house accommodation.

Looking at the uncertainty of employment, it is not hard for any one to see that a rent of five shillings for a single room is too much for these men to pay, and they cannot go out into the suburbs, where rents are cheaper, because they could not get to the Docks in anything like condition to work.
    These men must live within a reasonable distance of their labour, and to do so they have to pay exorbitant prices for vile accommodation. They are kept in the lowest depths of [-61-] poverty, because rent almost exhausts all the money - all that the luckiest can hope to earn.
    Honest sweat, the poet has told us, is a very noble decoration to a man's brow, and these men are plentifully decorated before their task is over, I can assure you. It is scandalous that having done all they can, .risked life and limb (for dock accidents are numerous and keep a hospital busy), and done their duty in that state of life to which it has pleased God to call them, they should have to creep home to fever dens and pestilential cellars - half the money they pay ought to go for food for themselves and their children, instead of into the well-lined pockets of those who are making fortunes out of the death-traps they call House Property.
    This short and hurried sketch of life in the Docks is necessarily incomplete. Its one great feature connected with the subject of these articles my readers can see for themselves at any time they like to take a long walk in the very early morning. No one who does not see the vast crowd can appreciate the character and pathetic elements it contains. I cannot write them with my pen, nor can my collaborator draw them with his pencil.
    But we can both of us gratefully acknowledge our indebtedness to Mr. A. T. A. Brownlow, of the London Offices, and Captain Sheppy, of the Dock Police, whose kindness enabled us to see under peculiar advantages this phase of
    "HOW THE POOR LIVE."