Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - The London Bus-man

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DURING the greater part of the journey, the two carpenters who sat to the left of the omnibus driver - I was seated on his right - talked of the strike among men of their craft; vehemently declaring that, but for the injudicious "caving in" of somebody or other, the contested nine hours a day at nine-pence an hour might have been won from the masters. More than once they appealed to the purple-visaged old person who held the reins, with a view to eliciting from him a confirmation of their opinion that nine hours a day was as much as any man should work; but his replies were brief and it was evident that he had no heart for the discussion. When the two carpenters at length got down, my old driver, with whom, as a frequent rider, I am on terms of considerable intimacy, delivered himself of a prolonged a-ah, and chirruped to his horses cheerfully as though now that the load which had oppressed his mind was removed they would find it easier going. As I was the only remaining "outside," he was at liberty to speak without restraint, and of this privilege he promptly proceeded to avail himself-indulging, however, in his sometimes embarrassing peculiarity of uttering aloud the terminanation of any mental reflection that might for the moment engage him.
    "Silver spoons! oh dear, no! not in these days. What do  you say, sir ?"
    [-158-] I was about to reply, that for my part silver spoons were as welcome in these days as in any, when he interrupted me by remarking,
    "Aye, aye; but in the mouth - being born with 'em there. Bless you, no; they're out of date. The lucky ones in these days are born with a handsaw or a trowel in their mouth - the unlucky ones, chaps of my breed, you understand, are born with a driver's badge in their mouths, and it would have been a mercy if it had choked 'em before they was weaned every man Jack of 'em."
    "Why would it ?"
    "Why? because then there wouldn't have been four or five thousand slaves in the shape of bus-men toiling over London stones more hours a day, than niggers were ever expected to work on a sugar plantation. I don't envy 'em - Lord forbid - them carpenter chaps, with their nine hours a day; but it does make a man lose his temper when he hears his fellow-creatures not only laying down the law, but holding fast on to it, that nine hours shall be the length of a working day, when all the while he thinks himself jolly well off if he gets nine hours to himself out of the twenty-four, and that Sunday and week day.
    "That's my case, sir, and the case of nine-tenths of the drivers and conductors. I don't call myself more ill-used than the rest, and yet it is as true as I've got this whip in my hand that for the last two months I've worked from a hundred and four to a hundred and ten hours a week  - that's fourteen to fifteen hours a day - and out of that time not so long off my box as many a working man is allowed as his dinner-time. Why don't we strike? It's all very well to talk about striking, but it won't do any good unless you fust see your way, and we don't see our way at present. If you go a-plucking apples before they're ripe you'll only get a bellyache for your pains.
    "Any body o' men can strike - they can have fust blow, as [-159-] the sayin' is; but unless they're strong enough to floor the enemy, or at least to stagger him, so as to lead him to believe that it may be judicious to knuckle under before he gets further damaged, they had better think twice before they begin sparring. You may catch a man a stinger; the weakest fellow that ever put the gloves on may do that, especially if he picks a time when the other's off his guard, or has got his hands tied somehow; but if he's strong, maybe you hurt him only just enough to rile him, and he hits back, and hits hard. Still, comparing of it to a boxing match - and wulgarly speaking - where the enemy hits you heaviest is in the bread-basket; and that's the tenderest part to hit a man who has got a wife and half-a-dozen youngsters depending for their food on his daily earnings. Besides, how can we strike? Ours isn't like a trade at which a man has to serve seven years before he is qualified. There are plenty of drivers of a sort hanging about the London yards, and if we were to throw down the reins to-morrow morning, there isn't a pair of 'em that wouldn't be snatched up before night."
    "That possibly is because the wages are tempting," I ventured to remark.
    He turned on me a look that was only redeemed from being witheringly scornful by the knowledge of our long-continued friendship.
    "Yes; it looks pretty in print, doesn't it? to say that 'we pay our drivers two guineas a week, and at such wage we can command the best in London.' That's how the public are misled. If we were to strike for less hours the public would say that it was a shame to put 'em to inconvenience when we were taking such handsome salaries for our services. The public don't know how a poor driver's six shillings a day is nibbled at, and that in a way that he is quite unable to prevent. Every driver has his ostler at the yard, and unless he keeps 'well in' with him he'll suffer. This will cost [-160-] him sixpence a day at least. The man looks for it regular, and expects it to make up his paltry wages. Then there is twopence a day for his accident club, and another twopence for the 'night man' at the stables for putting away his horses at the end of the last journey. That makes tenpence a day he is bound to pay out of his pocket; and then at the beginning and end of each journey there is the waterman, who will look black unless he gets his regular coppers. Then again a driver must find his own whip, and his own driving-gloves, and his own rug. Reckon, atop of all, that the man who is compelled to buy his dinner, tea, and supper away from home is put to an extra expense of ninepence - and if you come to calculate it all up, you will find that the driver's six shillings a day is brought down to four; and four shillings for fifteen hours' labour is something like threepence farthing an hour. Scorching in the sun, soaking in the rain, blown on by every variety of wind that keeps a weathercock spinning, from eight in the morning till eleven at night, and all for wages that a scavenger, or a hod-carrier, would laugh at you if you offered them to him!
    "Nor is he even at this rate allowed to do his work quietly and peaceably. He is harassed by the police, and no driver can say at the end of a day's work that he can now go to bed on good terms with all men, including policemen. His name may have been booked that day for a summons. In unbuttoning and buttoning his coat he may without ever being aware of it, have for a few moments sinned against the law that says that he shall wear his badge conspicuously on his breast; he may not have pulled up to the near side as conveniently as in Mr. Policeman's judgment he should have done, to take up a passenger; the biting cold of a winter's night may have tempted him to risk the awful penalty attached to a bus-driver smoking a pipe or cigar - he is reported, and the Inspector summonses [-161-] him, and he is lucky if he is no more out of pocket than the cost of the summons and six shillings, his day's work.
    "Often enough he gets into trouble for 'squeezing' an odd bus that may venture to work his road. It is quite true, every driver is provided with a card, on which are printed the rules that are to regulate his conduct, and one of the said rules is that he shall not interfere with any other omnibus; but that's a rule he must shut his eyes to if he wishes to keep his situation. The road inspector will look pretty sharp after him, and make a note if he sees the opposition robbing his employers of a passenger when it can be avoided.
    "Are there many road inspectors ?"
    "Rather - quite a little army of 'em, and they change their dresses as often as detective policemen, so that they may not be known. A driver expects his conductor to keep a good look-out for inspectors. Did you never see em telegraphing to one another? You'd think that they was larking or gone cranky sometimes, if you wasn't in the secret. For instance, one conductor going his way will whistle to a mate going the other, and then go through the pantomime of opening his mouth very wide, placing his hand about a foot above his cap, holding his badge up to his eye, and lastly motioning to the left or right, and raising his hand to his mouth in imitation of drinking. You would be puzzled to know what all this means, but to a conductor, it's as plain as A B C. It means That tall, bullying chap, who wears spectacles - he's just by the next public-house on the left ; and then, in a word or two that none of the outsiders can understand, the conductor 'gives the office' to his driver, who sits the picter of good behaviour, you may depend, till the point of danger is passed."
    "For your threepence farthing an hour you are expected to be a perfect model of a coachman, but a precious little do the company care for  your comfort. Just see how we are left to shift for ourselves, and do the best we can in the way of getting a [-162-] bit of food in the little time we have off during the day. It is a public-house we start from, and at a public-house we make our journey's end; and we are at the mercy of the publicans for a seat and a shelter, and the use of a plate and a knife and fork, to get the hasty bit of dinner we swallows. Generally the taproom is the best dining-room that is at your service, and you mustn't be particular if the place is full of tobacco smoke, or if horse-play and larking is going on all the while. Some publicans give you more decent quarters, but not many. But, lor! for that matter, when a man fumbles his way down off his box in the winter time with his feet like lumps of ice, and his face feeling as though it had been warnished and froze dry, he isn't very particular what place he puts his head into, so long as it is warm and snug. What I wonder most about is, that the public stand those public-house stations, without a bit of decent accommodation for ladies or children. Why can't they have waiting rooms, with p'raps some tidy parted-off place, with a fire, and a few tables and chairs in it, for their servants to rest and eat in? Talk about the advantage of being a bus driver! I'd rather be a - a -"
    "A conductor ?" I suggested, seeing that my venerable Jehu was at a. loss for a word. But he nudged me with the butt end of his whip and glanced warily over his shoulder in the direction of the monkey-board; then, bending his head bow he whispered,
    "Have you ever seen that man who goes about in a black tarpaulin coat reachin' down to his heels, and a sou'wester, and he's writ all over in advertisements in jolly big white letters?"
    I replied that I had not seen the interesting individual mentioned.
    "I have, and a queer figure he cuts; well, I'd rather be that man than a conductor."
    "And why?"
    "Because I consider that, take it altogether, if I was that [-163-] man I should have a better time of it. I don't say that I'd make more money - very likely not; but I should get better treatment. I've been eight-and-twenty years on the road, and I know conductors as well as drivers by the score; and it's my opinion that if the employers spent the thousands they now spend in spys and detectives in increasing the wages of their conductors, and making them understand that they treated them as honest men, and paid them fair pay, expecting fair treatment in return-why, many a decent chap would escape being tempted to picking and stealing, and the masters would be all the richer."
    The old bus driver's terrible hints concerning the miserable condition of conductors led me to make some inquiries on the subject, the result of which is hereto appended.
    They - the omnibus conductors of London - do not deny that it is a practice amongst them to make petty larcenous attacks on the money pouch of their employers; nay, they have no disposition to dispute that it is a very common practice But their bold argument amounts to this  - that perfect honesty is not expected of them, and that the wages arrangement between them and their masters is of such a nature as to make it impossible for them to render a fair account of their takings for the day; that the masters' standpoint in settling what their omnibus conductors' remuneration shall be, is, that all conductors are rogues, and that, since no amount of regular wages will induce them to abstain from picking and stealing, it behoves them, since a wages arrangement cannot well be done without, to fix the amount at the lowest possible figure. Finally, it is, rightly or wrongly, a common belief amongst omnibus conductors that so long as, to use a phrase of their own, they "draw it mild," and return reasonable "waybills," their known peculations are winked at and endured. It need not be said that the omnibus conductors' conclusions, however happily they may chime with the pleasant chinking of his increasing store, are [-164-] undoubtedly erroneous. It is impossible to believe that the directors of a company dealing with hundreds of thousands of pounds every year would for a moment countenance such alleged pollutions and wasteful leakages at the very founts from which alone its income can flow, to say nothing of the grave responsibility of entrusting men of tainted character with the persons and property of those who patronise their vehicles.
    It appears that the general pay of the class in question is, as the old driver had informed me, 4s. for what is called a day's work. The driver of the vehicle receives 6s. for the same time; and it is not improbable that it was while asking himself the reason why this wide difference should exist, that he first conceived the dangerous notion that his employers felt themselves compelled to provide against a weakness of human nature, which is as likely to develope in a conductor as any other mortal who has the handling of uncounted money, and who is inconstant in his prayers to be delivered from temptation. It is not easy to see to what other conclusion the man could arrive. As much skill at least is needful in civilly enticing customers, and in satisfactorily providing for them on the journey, as is required for driving a pair of horses; while, as for wearisomeness of work, there can be no question as to which side it is on. Anyhow, the conductor receives 4s. a day; or more properly, and, as above remarked, for what is called a day. As working men at the present period have a habit of computing time, it is nearly two days.
    It seems almost incredible in these enlightened times that many of the omnibuses of London, which punctually appear at eight o'clock each morning, and remain visible and active from that time until midnight, and frequently beyond, are "worked" one driver and one conductor; that, under the blazing sun of by July and August, as well as in the teeth of the freezing winds of November and January, in fog, in rain, in snow, the unfortunate drudge of the monkey board, as well as he who occupies the [-165-] driver's seat, is commonly kept hard at it for fourteen, fifteen, and even sixteen hours with only such brief spells of rest between as are necessary for breakfast, dinner, and supper. Now 4s. a day is less than is received by the bricklayer's hod-man - it used to be 4s., but at the last general rise amongst the building crafts the hodman was generally conceded another halfpenny an hour. But the bricklayer's humble attendant works only as many hours as his master, and at half-past five in the evening may be seen smoking his pipe at leisure. After that time the bus conductor has still six and a half or severs hours of hard work before his hurrying homeward steps may waken the echoes of the dark and deserted street he lives in.
    That the poor fellow is desperately tried who can doubt? He is always on the alert, now in the bus, now in the road, now on the roof constantly climbing and stepping up and down, and never, excepting at his meals, enjoying the luxury of a seat for as long as five minutes. He works very hard and consequently, if he he a healthy man - as he needs must be to endure such a prodigious amount of labour - he has a keen appetite for food which must be satisfied. It is idle to talk of the regularly recognised three meals a day in the case of the omnibus conductor. Such an allowance may be all very well as regards a man who has but nine or ten hours' labour a day to perform, and that in most cases under cover and secure from blood-chilling and teeth-sharpening winds; but the individual who is exposed to the elements through fifteen hours out of the twenty-four requires much more liberal treatment. If the jog-trot ten hours a day man requires three meals, the busman should have at least five; or lacking the solid food, he must make up for it with liquid stimulant, and it is by no means difficult to see what an enormously great hole in his daily wage of forty-eight pence these natural cravings of his appetite must make. At the very least half-a-crown is expended in this manner, leaving just eighteenpence a day, or 9s. a week, [-166-] wherewith to meet his own necessary expenses, including, probably, the maintenance of a house and a wife and a few children.
    But he has many urgent demands on all that remains of his honest day's earnings before the last-mentioned responsibilities may be attended to. There are certain duties in the omnibus yard which he is compelled to engage to fulfil, but which at a cost of sixpence or so a day he performs by deputy. If he did not do this there would go another hour beyond the fifteen or sixteen which comprise his day's work. Then, if he would live in peace with his fellows and avoid making enemies, who have it in their power to make the situation too "hot" for him, he has this person, and that, and the other to fee and stand treat to, including the very policemen who are put on special duty to keep a sharp look-out that the much-harassed conductor is guilty of no kind of misbehaviour. He must, however, be decently attired; he must never appear in a threadbare coat or shabby boots, and for his life's sake he dare not be without a suit of serviceable "waterproofs." So that one way and another his 4s. a day are absolutely insufficient to pay his way from the time when he mounts his perch in the morning until he quits it at night, leaving home and its manifold obligations altogether out of the question.
    Under such circumstances it must be admitted that it is a little too much to expect that every custodian of an omnibus shall be a model of rectitude. To be sure were he heroically devoted to his occupation and his employers, he might perhaps do better than he does with his four shillings. He might abstain from "nips" of spirituous liquor and glasses of ale, and there are many cheap and pocketable nutritious substances he might carry with him and covertly munch on the way, and so save the expense of regular dinners, teas, and suppers. Further, by a fearless declaration of his intention to do his conducting on strictly moral principles, craving only a fair field, and favour of no man, it is not impossible but that yard [-167-] foremen, and time-keepers, and watchers-nay, even policemen, might in time cease to solicit him, and save him a shilling a day at least, and one way and another he might remain honest and yet be enabled to buy bread for his children, and keep the broker's man from pouncing on his household goods. Men, however, endowed with sufficient moral courage to act in this fashion are scarce, and if of the existing few any of them should turn conductors, they would speedily become scarcer still. Of course, there is no excuse for dishonesty in any shape or form. If omnibus conductors find that it is impossible to live on the wages at present paid them, they should quit their present employment and seek other. At the same time, it really would seem necessary that some move should be made towards amending the present state of things. No employer of servants can be blind to the fact that four shillings for fifteen hours of extremely fatiguing work night and day, and in every kind of weather, is hardly the sort of pay to attract upright and intelligent men.