Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 2 - Life in Business Houses

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IN nine cases out of ten a youth comes to London from the country, either to thoroughly learn some business, in order that he may then return to the provinces and devote his acquirements to the management of his father's shop, or to enter upon a career of his own, with the idea of thus slowly working his way to the fore in London. The former is by far the more happily situated, seeing that he is sure of succession to a business, and his only quest is experience. But whatever the object of the young man, his first place is in the "entering-room," probably on the basement of the premises, wh ere h e prepares th e invoices of the d ail y consignments of goods sent out. His hours are long and very irregular. In busy seasons he may be kept for several nights in succession until midnight. No especial talent is expected of him. He must display shrewdness and sharpness, that is all.
    The first move is into a "department." All the dep artments however widely they may differ from one another as to the hands employed and the emoluments to be earned, are constituted alike. The head is " the buyer" whose duty it is periodically to visit the manufactories and purchase all new goods [-17-] and who is directly responsible to the firm for the success of his branch of the business.
    The second in command is styled the first man. He does not initiate movements, but he follows up the buyer's policy. If he can lay no claim to daring or originality, he must be pushing and energetic. After him come the rank and file, as a rule moving up by seniority to the more coveted and lucrative positions. Once a year each assistant appears before the firm. His record is called over. He is advanced or retained in his position, according to circumstances, and his salary is settled for the next twelve months. But as the result of visits to most of the leading houses in the city, it is clear that a young man who has served a five years' apprenticeship in some retail house may expect to begin life on a salary of £25 a year, rising £10 annually, until he is in receipt of £120. After that he cannot reckon noon an regular or definite scale of annual increment. His future will depend upon his own good fortune. But should he be fortunate enough to rise to the position of first man or buyer, he may expect to receive from £300 up to £1,000 a ear and bey ond it, according to the standing of the house to which he belongs and to the value of the department in which he serves. But salaries of £1,000 a year are very few and far between. He may, however, elect to a "on the road," or become an "ambassador of commerce;" in other words, a "commercial." In this capacity he will probably receive as a start £150 a year and £1 1s. a day for expenses. His district will be assigned him, and in that given area he has to push the trade to the utmost of his power. His [- 18-] firm will expect a definite amount of business at his hands; and should he fall short of it, he will be cold-shouldered, Should, however, he exceed this standard, he will have a commission upon the excess. There are cases in which a traveller may net £1,000 a year over and above his stipend in the shape of commission, but they are not frequent. It follows, then, that if all goes well, if a lad behaves himself, learns his business, manifests ordinary capacity, and makes no stupid blunders, he may hope, upon reaching middle age, to be in receipt of £300 a year, perhaps even more. Such is the prospect the whole sale drapery trade, for instance, holds out to him.
    There is some difference of opinion as to whether salaries are rising or falling ; but it is generally agreed that there has been a distinct declension in business prospects, even though the actual salaries may remain little altered. For example, age does not tell as it used to do; indeed, it not infrequently goes to the wall; for empl oyers are making the young men do what used to be the peculiar province of the old, and, of course, are not giving them the same salaries as the old. They are expected to do, and to do better, for £300 or £400 a year, what their elders received £700 to £1,000 for doing. To add to this disadvantage, there is the German competition, which has pushed its way into most commercial fields now, saving, perhaps, the d rapery trade.
    But to return to the young man's novitiate. He is expected to "live in" - in other words, to make h is h ome on th e pre mise s of the firm. He will breakfast, dine, have tea, and sup at the warehouse [-19-] or shop, and probably sleep on some adjacent premises, where his leisure time must be spent. Of course the domestic accommodation varies greatly, but in the best firms nowadays it is, on the whole, very fair indeed. About 7.30 a.m every one is expected to have left the dormitory and to be at the warehouse. In some houses the junior hands will have to use the b room an sweep out th e floor; in almost all they will be expected to dust the goods. This work done, the young man changes his clothes, generally arranges his toilet, and goes to breakfast. Tea, coffee, and bread and butter are the invariable fare. Such luxuries as eggs, bacon, marmalade, etc., must be provided out of the individual's p rivate purse.
    From 8 or 8.30 to 12 he follows the usual routine of warehouse life. Few customers have to be served before 11 o'clock. but there are cases to be unpacked, windows to be dressed, goods to be displayed, bales of stuff to be measured, and innumerable duties to be accomplished before the world comes to buy. At 1 2 o'clock the first party goes to dinner: in most city houses it goes up to the third, or fourth, or fifth floor; in suburban neighbourhoods it often goes down to the dismal gas-lit cellar or basement. The officer responsible for the catering of the establishment is the steward, generally one of the hands, who in some way or another has developed a capacity for domestic economy, and upon whose shoulders lies the responsibility of supplying according to strict regulation several hundreds of men. Beer-of a very indifferent quality - is put on the table in jugs, for all who choose to drink. It is [-20-] of the kind known in town as porter, and especially fancied by the charwomen of the metropolis. In some houses what may be termed the " aristocracy" of the establishment - that is, the heads and the principal buyers - dine by themselves, and are provided with their own table and their own menu; but in others all share alike, the prentice boy being as well catered for as the "head boss." After dinner most of the buying and selling is done, and from 12 to 5 are the busiest hours of the day. A quarter of an hour is allowed for tea, after which the day' s work is wound up. The place is closed to the public at 6, and, except in busy times, most of the employés are at liberty to leave about 7, and do what they like with the remaining hours until 11.
    Usually a housekeeper or " locker-up" presides over the dormitory, and hers is almost the only feminine influence vouchsafed to the youth of the establishment within its walls. She attends to the sick, reigns supreme over the bedrooms, and is at the call of any who have complaints or wants to make known. She is generally a lady, not only by courtesy, but by birth and behaviour, and often exerts a very wholesome, softening, and refining influence over those who come in contact with her. A large and well-appointed reading-room, supplied with most of the leading daily papers and p ossessing a library of general literature, is to be found in most houses, as well as a smoking-room. Some have a billiard-room also. There is often a spare room used for religious or club meetings where the business of the rowing, swimming, football, or cricket clubs is transacted, where prayer-meetings are held, [-21-] and other agencies find their temporary home. The bedrooms, which are after all the most important, are in many instances the most cheerless rooms in the establishment. It is true they are generally scrupulously clean, but they are monotonously plain. The number of beds in each room varies from three to fifteen; in some houses each bedroom is distinct. The furniture is sound and good. Spring mattresses are occasionally used. Chests of drawers, apportioned out to each occupant, and small cupboards, or - rather lockers, form the chief articles in addition to the beds, lavatories being often provided on each floor in lieu of the washhand-stand of private houses. There is little or no attempt at ornamentation. In some instances it is absolutely forbidden. After business hours the young man is thrown on his own resources, Life in the house is life in barracks, and lacks excitement, even interest, He is driven, therefore, to seek relief from its tedium outside; and it is thus that he meets his danger.
    Of course, in communities such as those we are speaking of, there must be order and regularity, and to ensure these there must be set rules. Some idea of the latter may be gained from the ensuing copy :-
    "1. No boots, clothes, or boxes are to be left about in the bedrooms.
    "2. No matches are allowed in any part of the house.
    "3. No pictures are to be placed upon the walls of the bedrooms, nor is any of the furniture to be moved from the position it now occupies.
"4. Reading in bed is strictly prohibited.
    "5. Smoking is permitted only in the smoking-room.
    [-22-] "6. All must have left the dormitory by 7.40 a.m on weekdays, and by 8.20 a.m on Sundays. On the latter day they must not return until 9.30 p.m
"7. The outer doors will be locked each evening at 11 pm., and all lights must be put out by 11.30. On the first and third Wednesday of each month young men may remain out until 12.00, on leaving their names with the locker-up. This does not apply to youths under sixteen years of age, who must be in by 10 p.m. each evening, unless they have obtained express permission to be out later.
    "8. Any man not complying with the above rules will be reported to the firm.
    "9. All cases of sickness must be reported to the housekeeper immediately."

    We have given a brief outline of the daily round in a young clerk's life. The question now naturally arises, What moral forces play upon him, either from those in authority over him, or from his companions and coequals, or either from within or from without ? In some instances there are active agencies - put in motion by the head of the house. He takes an interest, not merely in the moral, but in the spiritual condition of his employés, and does all in his power, according to his light, to make them religious men.
    In some cases the heads of the firm are known to be worldly, irreligious or even immoral men, and the vicious influence surrounding them infects their dependents. Others, again, admit no principle into their relation about them but that of pure business. Their position towards their men is that of an employer seeking the best service at the lowest price. They are shrewd enough to value good services at a good price, and they are liberal in their [-23-] pay to those who are necessary to them, and are just to all; but philanthropy, benevolence, and all similar sentiments find no place in their consideration. In one great house it used to be the custom to pension off all old servants who got beyond their work. Under younger management it is now the rule to give a gratuity in the place of granting a pension, and it is expected soon to become a mere matter of dismissal for all whose age and infirmity prevent them being of further service.
    We add a few extracts from the statements lying before us - statements which relate to almost every house in the city or its neighbourhood :- 

    "Mr. V-, an assistant in a large wholesale drapery house in the city, says he has been there several years. There are between 800 and 900 dining on the premises every day. The firm encourages all religious movements, and engages the services of a clergyman as chaplain, who reads prayers every day immediately after breakfast. Attendance is voluntary, and the average number present is small. The dormitories and the recreation-rooms - such as the billiard, smoking and reading-rooms - are apart from the business premises. The employés are required to be in at 11p.m, except on one night in the week, when the doors are locked at 12. There is no one whose duty it is to exercise any oversight of the morals or behaviour of young men after hours. The quality of the food is fair, and the quantity is not stinted; but it is frequently spoiled in the cooking and serving, and is grievously monotonous, meat and potatoes, without pastry, puddings, or fruit, being the mid-day meal, and bread and butter being the fare for breakfast and tea. Supper consists of bread and cheese and ale."
[-24-] "Mr. S-, who has for eight years been in a large West End retail drapery firm, where over 500 men and women reside on the premises, at salaries from £25 upwards, says that almost all except the buyers sleep on the premises. No one is allowed to sleep out until he has been four years in the house. After that he may go out on Saturdays for the night, but on no other night, not even if his home is within walking distance. The hours are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on all days except Saturdays, when the majority get away between 2 and 3 p.m. Doors are locked at 11 p.m, except one night in the week. There is a very good library. The bedrooms accommodate from seven to eight each. In time a senior can have a bedroom to himself. Sunday is spent variously. Many go out for the day. About forty are Sunday school teachers, and a fair number attend church or chapel once in the day, but very few go twice. No religious services are provided by the firm, although they encourage religious meetings amongst the inmates, and little or no persecution need be feared by a religiously disposed lad. No restraint is put upon their behaviour out of doors. Sporting papers are in great request, and although no really vicious literature is in circulation, solid reading is the exception."
    " Mr. F-, of the house of  -, drapers, Shoreditch, describes another class of business. He had been there nine years. There were twenty in all, most of whom slept on the premises, three being young women. If not both the partners, one of them was always on the premises. Salaries ran from £12 upwards, a man of twenty-five would be doing very well if he had £25 a year and his ' keep.' There was no restraint upon them after business hours, but there were no attractions to keep them indoors. They had a cricket-club, but the cricket-ground was a considerable distance away. An apprentice had to take his turn ' on the door'  - to mind the door, take in letters, admit incomers, and sleep in the shop. Apprentices were [-25-] expected to be in at 10 p.m. In other large firms of a similar character he knew that attendance at prayers was enforced, but he believed this had a worse effect than when there were no prayers."
    "Mr. W-, in the employ of a firm of upholsterers, said their business was much freer than the drapery. In fact, he looked upon ' drapery hands' as so many slaves. There were about 900 hands in their business, exclusive of porters and factory workers, A young man might rise to a fair position after six or seven years' work. He would then be able to marry, and no obstacle would be thrown in the way of his doing so. The employers were not professedly religious, nor did they encourage religion, but they were kind, just; more fair in dealing with their employés than many who professed religion. A voluntary Bible-class was, on the whole, well attended. He had noticed a great improvement in the moral tone of the great houses during the last ten years. He attributed it to voluntary effort, especially such as that of the Y.M.C.A. The food was good, but too little varied. Doors were locked at 11 p.m., and as in other cases, a late night was allowed. He could not see how any restraint could be placed upon their young hands. In fact, he believed that any attempt to coerce on the part of the authorities would issue in an increase of viciousness. Still, a young man with good principles would find the drawbacks inconsiderable. There was much to help him, and little directly to hinder him beyond the liberty such a vast city conferred. The lads of the Stockwell Orphanage were conspicuous for their good principles and satisfactory lives, as well as for their aptitude for business.
    Here is, however, a less favourable instance. Speaking of a large drapery house, an informant, who is one of the employés, says- 
    "It is a busy place, and the assistants have to work very [-26-] hard. No one is allowed to idle. Each assistant has to take complete charge of his own stock. He may not buy it, but if he does not sell the socks, or callicoes. or dress materials, whichever it may be, he is discharged, although the fault may lie with the buyer. If an assistant allows a customer to go out unserved for any number of times he is discharged, though a great many ladies come in with no intention of buying, but merely to spend an hour or two. We have to undertake, when we are engaged, to put up with instant dismissal, without explanation, at the will of the proprietors but we have to give a whole month's notice if we wish to leave. The shopwalker in my department is a sharp-tempered man. He takes a broad view of his importance in the place, and never forgets any shortcomings in the recognition of that importance. He it is who recommends us for increase of salary or for discharge, so we have to be on as good terms as possible whh him. Fines are inflicted for those mistakes which most ordinarily occur, and in spite of all one's care and exertion, the small salary is considerably reduced at the end of the week. The advertised hour for closing is 7 o'clock, but when the last customer has left and the doors are closed the hardest work of the day begins. We commence rearranging all the rolls of stuff, measuring the lengths, putting tickets on again, and getting things straight for the following day; and that, even in quiet times, will take a couple of hours."

    The life of porters is very hard. One writes to us that he commences work at 7 o'clock all the year round, working for four days a week till 11 o'clock, This prevents any attendance at classes, and is prohibitive of energy and time being given to self-improvement.
    And now we regret to say that though life in business houses where young men are lodged together [-27-] is made by many conscientious heads of houses as pleasant and as pure as they can, the universal testimony which has reached us from the best houses, as we as f rom the worst, is that it is d istinctl y less favourable to morality than life in lodgings; in fact, many large houses are truly described as "hot-beds of hell." From the letters that have been sent to us we make a f ew quotations.
    "One whose Lips have sometimes touched the rim of the cup, and who has found the drops bitter to the belly," writes- 

    "I am four-and-twenty years of age, and for the past three and a half years have been an accountant in a public institution. For three years I was in one of the big fashionable houses. I was a mere youngster, almost fresh from home, when I went to this place. There was a private house in the neighbourhood entirely devoted to male employés bedrooms and sitting-room. I used to sleep in a large room with eight beds in it. I remember it was called the ' barracks.' The fellows in this room were somewhat older than I was. It was of no use going to bed before closing time (11 p.m.). Many a time did I attempt it; but the drunken yells of the incomers to the room, when lights were turned out below, was a sufficient reason f or not getting to sleep before that hour, or indeed long after, as will appear. The language of these fellows was filthy beyond description. One might have wished they would swear more, so that they  might speak their obsencity less. 'Nap' would be played by candlelight for a few hours. I have known a knot of fellows to play ' Nap' from the beginning of a wet Saturday afternoon to Sunday evening, one of the number going out to buy victuals and drink. I remember the passionate homesick rears I used to shed at the thought of all this, and how I wrote to my lather pouring out my wretchedness, [-28-] but not giving a hint of the actual experiences I was undergoing. Fortunately, I often went home from Saturday to Monday morning. I can recall the form and feature of this and that one coming straight to the place from home as apprentices, falling naturally in a week or two into the habits of loose conversation, drinking in bars, smoking, theatre- going. Of course, worst of all, sooner or later most of them were tempted into still deeper evil. After a time I ingratiated myself with the housekeeper, and obtained a separate room, opening into a larger one, where there was my dear friend H-, before whom no man dared say a vile thing, a man of six feet two inches, who owed his conversion to the Salvation Army during my knowledge of him. Of course, as to the absolute effect of these surroundings I can only speak of myself: solemnly I say it - I must rue then to my last day."

    The following from a gentleman who is now an influential Baptist minister in the neighb ourhood of the metropolis :- 

    "When I left school I went to live in a large house of business. We closed about 9, and after a hurried supper, were all turned out to promenade the streets until 11, or to spend the time in a music-hall, dancing academy, or theatre. The men always looked upon a young man fresh from the country who made any profession of morality as a milksop, and they would set to work persistently, night after night, to drag him down to their own level, and they always succeeded. The first step was, ' Get him a little on' - that meant, of course, get him to the public-house. Dress, of course, is a great snare with the men, as with the women. Our young fellows were well paid-far higher than most; but stilt I have known them to lavish so much at the beginning of the quarter on clothes and gaieties as to be [-29-] compelled to sell all except the very clothes they wore before the quarter was ended."

    The following is another striking case of the evils of bad companionships :- 

    "I have now been five years in London, and well do I remember my first impression. I had had one situation, and then came into a London warehouse. My father and mother were Christians - good examples to me - but they never warned me of the temptations I should be subjected to. Prohahly parents think their example sufficient. It is a good thing, example, but not enough. A few words from them would have put me on my guard. I was not then a Christian. The house I went to, I suppose, is like many more in town - contained plenty of men who laughed at virtue and extolled vice. Such were my associates. For a time I stood my ground, but gradually got accustomed to many objectionable things, did not notice them, and then (although I detested swearing) I did not mind hearing or making a joke about vice. I then met an old schoolmate who was not particularly moral, and we attended several restaurants together. Luckily he gave me the cold shoulder subsequently, and I was thus, perhaps, prevented from going farther into dissipation. The chance, as some might call it, was, I am sure, the restraining grace of God in answer to a praying mother. As I look back I can now see plainly how it was I was not allowed to go my own way; the prayers of a believing mother were answered, and I was converted to Christ a month after her death. At the wish of my parents, I joined as an associate at Exeter Hall, but I was very quiet and retiring, and as no one spoke to me- I only used the reading-room - I soon left it. I have given some of Henry Varley's lectures to men to young fellows, and they have told me if they had only known what they [-30-] had been doing they would have avoided the evil. Ignorance must answer for so much unhappiness."

    These letters will serve to illustrate what we have stated. Perhaps the most fertile sources of temptation, in addition to the freedom from home restraint and the want of a healthy public opinion, are the monotony of the life young people have to lead and the influence of bad companions. Along with these may be named the impossibility of marriage. We need not wonder that the forces of temptation attacking a citadel so weakened are to so lamentable an extent victorious. Indeed, as has been said, religious influence is in the vast majority of cases the only hope. This is felt by other than religious men. A young man was taken to the Hall of Science by a sceptical associate, and was so impressed by the freethought doctines he listened to that at the close of the meeting he got up and said, " I renounce my fathers faith ; I renounce my mother's Bible." "Not so fast, young man; not quite so fast," interrupted one of the speakers.

source: Anon., Tempted England: Young Men, c.1889