Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 6 - Riding London : Of the Parcels-Delivery Company and "Pickfords"

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YEARS ago, not merely when "this old cloak was new," but when this old cloak (which I never possessed, by-the-way, and which is a mere figurative garment to be hung on pegs of trope or hooks of metaphor) was a short jacket, ornamented with liquorice-marks and fruit-stains, and remarkably puffy in the region of the left breast with a concealed pegtop, half a munched apple, and a light trifle of flint-stone used in the performance of a game called "duck," I was presented with a serviceable copy of Shakespeare, and immediately entered on an enthusiastic study of the same. In a very little time I had made such progress as to identify very many persons with the characters in the plays ; thus, a hump-backed blacksmith, a morose ill-conditioned fellow, always snarling at us boys over the half-hatch door of his forge, stood for Caliban; the fat man with the bald head, who was always taking turnpike-tickets with one hand and mopping himself with the other, was obviously Falstaff; the headmaster was Prospero (somewhat hazy this, but if I remember rightly, a confused mixture of the former's cane and the latter's wand) ; the French usher was Dr. Caius; and Sneesh, the tobacconist and newsvendor, whose shop- door was graced by a wooden Highlander, a perfect [-54-] Tantalus, in the way he was always expecting a pinch of snuff and never got it, was Macbeth. Nor were the minor characters unfilled. I particularly remember that I identified the proprietor of the oil-and-pickle shop in the High Street as Rumour - perhaps on account of his establishment being "full of tongues;" while both the famous carriers of the Rochester Inn Yard, those good fellows who wanted Cut's saddle beaten, who so heartily abused the oats, who had a gammon of bacon and two razes of ginger to be delivered as far as Charing Cross, and who showed such an invincible disinclination to lend Gadshill a lantern, were embodied in Cokeham, who connected us with the metropolis. A sharp, clever, elite man, Cokeham, with a moist eye and a red nose, and an invariable crape hatband, respected by the masters, popular with the boys (we made a subscription for him when his gray mare was supposed to have staked herself in the night in Upton's fields, and bought him a fresh horse, ,only regretting our money when we learned that Cokeham himself had staked her to trot against a butcher's horse, and won the match, and had then sold her for fifteen pounds to the loser), punctual in his delivery of home-sent cakes and play-boxes, and never "telling" when a shower of stones would rattle against his tilted cart as he passed the playground wall. There was not very much difference, possibly, between the Rochester carriers of Henry the Fourth's time and Cokeham. Until very lately, "carrying" seems to have been a fine old Conservative institution, and with the exception of the substitution of a tilted-cart for Cut's pack-saddle, and a few other minor details of that kind, to have gone on in a very jog-trot fashion. In a small and very humble fashion the Rochester men, even to this day, have their descendants : walking through some behindhand suburb, one may still observe a parlour-window decorated with a small placard bearing a capital letter of the alphabet, a bouncing B, or a dropsical [-55-] and swollen S-the initial letter of Bolland, or Swubble, the village-carrier, who furnishes his clients with these mystic symbols of indication, to be placed in the window when his services are required.
    But so far as London and what is commonly known as the London district are concerned, the old body of carriers has been entirely superseded by the London Parcels-Delivery Company, which was established in 1837, and which, after many severe struggles at the outset, has become a recognised and necessary institution, admirably conducted, serviceable to the public, and remunerative to its shareholders. Its principal establishment is in Rolls' Yard, Fetter Lane, where the whole of the practical detail is devised and carried out under the superintendence of a manager, who has been in the company's service since its earliest days. The plan originated by the Post Office, and in force therein until the recent division of London into districts, is followed by the Parcels-Delivery Company. Every parcel collected for delivery is brought into Rolls' Yard, and sent out thence, even though it was originally only going from one street in the suburb to another a hundred yards off and this is found to afford the only efficient system of check. In all respectable and thriving neighbourhoods, at gradiated distances according to the amount of business to be done, the company has its agents for the receipt of the parcels to be conveyed. These agents, who are paid by a percentage on the number and amount of their transactions, were at the outset nearly all keepers of Post-office Receiving-houses. It was naturally thought that such persons would be the most respectable in their various neighbourhoods, and their holding their little government appointments was a guarantee of their position. But, like other great creatures, the Post Office has its weakness, one of which is found to be an overweening jealousy; it ill [-56-] brooked the divided attention which its receivers bestowed upon the Parcels-Delivery Company ; but when rivals started up and called themselves the Parcel Post and Parcel Mail, then St. Martin-le-Grand rose up in fury, called to his aid the services of the redoubtable Mr. Peacock, well known in connection with dishonest postmen and mornings at Bow Street; and having, with the great hammer of the law, smashed the rash innovators who had dared to appropriate those sacred words "post" and "mail," which a sagacious legislature has dedicated solely to St. Martin's use, St. Martin issued an edict forbidding his servants to have anything to do with receipt or despatch of parcels for whatsoever company, and commanding them to serve him and him alone. So since then the company have selected the best agents they could find, furnishing them with a blue board, with a well-executed picture of a delivery-cart proceeding at a rapid rate-which board, in many instances, is imitated as closely as possible by the carrier of the vicinity, who places it at the door of a neighbouring shop, and, thanks to the heedlessness and ignorance of domestic servants generally, obtains a certain share of the patronage intended for the company.
    Again, following the example of the Post Office, the Parcels-Delivery company have an inner and an outer circle, one not exceeding three miles from Rolls' Yard, the other extending somewhat over twelve miles from the same point. The farthest places embraced are Twickenham Common in the south-west, and Plumstead in the southeast. In the far-lying districts there are two deliveries a day; nearer localities have four deliveries. There is a small difference in the rates charged between the two "circles;" but in both the collection and delivery are made by the ordinary carts, though in the City, where the general class of parcels is cumbrous and weighty, the collections are made by pair-horse vans.
    The Company possesses about eighty carts and about a [-57-] hundred and sixty horses. Although there are some thirty stables scattered about London belonging to it, the majority of the horses, about a hundred, are stabled in Rolls' Yard. They are good serviceable-looking animals, better in stamp and shape than either the omnibus or the cab-horses, being larger boned, stronger, and altogether less "weedy"-looking; they cost more too, averaging forty pounds apiece. Each horse works five days out of the seven, and covers in his journeys about thirty miles a day. To every cart are attached a driver, and a boy who acts as deliverer the former with wages of twenty-five shillings a week, the latter fourteen shillings, with such little perquisites as they map obtain from the public. The general conduct of these men and lads is, I was told, excellent, and never - save at Christmas, when the generosity of the public takes the form of gin - is there any irregularity. Then, looking at the extra work imposed on them, the rigidity of discipline is wholesomely relaxed, and the superintending eye suffers itself to wink a little. For at Christmas the labour in Rolls' Yard is tremendous. During the four days preceeding Christmas Day last year (1864), upwards of thirty-two thousand parcels, principally of geese, turkeys, game, oyster barrels, and cheeses, were conveyed by the company. At such a time the manager does not take off his clothes, and looks upon sleep as an exceptional luxury.
    I had proceeded thus far in my "carrying" experiences, and was debating where to turn for further information, when the question was settled for me - as many questions are - by my friends, enterprising creatures who rushed at me, crying " Pickford's!"  Old gentlemen told me how this very firm of Pickford's had been carriers by land upwards of a century, even before canals were introduced by the Duke of Bridgewater in 1758 ; how that they then commenced the water-traffic, and carried it on with the same regularity as they do their present business, but in rather a different manner, as it then took five days to convey goods [-58-] from London to Manchester - a feat which is now performed in twelve hours. Young gentlemen were full of the reckless daring of Pickford's drivers, the power of Pickford's horses, and the weight of' Pickford generally. Ladies, young and old, agreed in condemning Pickford as a "horrid" person, who blocked up the road perpetually, and prevented cabs and carriages drawing up at shop-doors. So I decided on calling upon Pickford - who, by-the-way, is not Pickford at all - and having been most courteously received, and accredited for all the information I required to a practical gentleman, whose kindness and readily-given information I hereby acknowledge, I set to work to take Pickford's measure, and to find out all about him.
    I first called on Pickford - who is not Pickford - in Wood Street, at the Castle Inn - which is not an inn, and which lies not the least appearance of ever having been one; for Pickford has so gutted it and twisted it for his own purposes ; has thrown out so much yard, constantly resounding with champing horses and lumbering vans; has enclosed so much gallery; has established so many offices, public and private; has so perforated it with speaking-tube and telegraph-wire; and has so completely steeped the place in business, doing away with any appearance of inn-comfort and hotel-luxury, that the idea of anybody's taking his ease in his Castle Inn is ridiculous on the face of it. Here Pickford, who is not Pickford, and of whom it may be further remarked that he is three gentlemen rolled into one, has his head-quarters for correspondence and general management;  but here he professes to have nothing to show us beyond the ordinary routine of a mercantile office, of course marked with the special individuality of the carrying business. Wanting to see Pickford in full work, I must go to one of his depots - Camden Town, City Basin, Haydon Square in the Minories, which will I visit ? I choose Camden Town.
    At Camden Town - invariably abbreviated in Pick-[-59-]fordian language into Camden - Pickford, who is the recognised agent of the London and North-Western Railway Company, has enormous premises adjoining the goods-station, and is to be seen in full swing. Employing more than nine hundred horses in London, he keeps three hundred of them at Camden. Going into these stables, we are at once struck with an air of substantiality in connection with Pickford, which is different from anything we have vet seen during this tour of inspection of the ways and means of Riding London. There is special potentiality in his stables, with their asphalte pavements and their large swinging oaken bars, in his big horses, in his strong men, in his enormous vans. Most of the horses are splendid animals, many of them standing over sixteen hands high, and all in excellent condition. They are all bought by one man, the recognised buyer for the establishment, who attends the principal fairs throughout the country; the average cost-price of each is forty-five pounds. They are fed on a mixture of bruised oats, crushed Indian corn, and peas, which is found to be capital forage. Each horse, when bought, is branded with a number on the front of his fore-feet hoofs, and is named ; name and number are entered in the horse-book and by them the horse's career, where he may be working, and anything special relating to him, is checked off until he dies or is sold. Pickford's horses last on an average seven or eight years, and then they are killed ; but in many instances, when no longer fit for roughing it over the stones - for what the dealer poetically described as the "'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer on the 'ard 'igh road" - they will be bought by some farmer for plough work; and, after a hard London life, will peacefully end their days in some secluded village. The last duty which some of them perform while in Pickford's service is to pull the trucks which arrive by the line under the shied. These trucks, arriving in long strings from all parts of the line, are shunted into an enormous covered space, and are then [-60-] unloaded on what is called the "bank," a broad landing-stage, on the other side of which are the empty vans ready to receive the goods, and carry them off to the various districts into which Pickford, in common with the Post Office, has divided London. On this bank are placed at intervals numerous desks, by each of which is a weigh-bridge. By the truck which is being unloaded stands a clerk, known as the "caller-off," with the invoice in his hand ; he shouts out the description, destination, and proper weight of each article to the clerk at the desk; the load is placed on the weigh-bridge, and, found correct, is freshly invoiced, and sent off by van. We observed a very miscellaneous collection of articles here-chairs, fenders, barrels, looking- glasses, pottery, and an open basket of Welsh mutton, merely covered by an old newspaper. There are very few accidents here, and, it is believed, very little undetected theft. Printed documents relating to the conviction of recently-discovered culprits -  one of whom we read was a "sheeter" - were freely stuck about the walls. The goods, being packed in vans, are then sent off to their destination. The vans are very strong, and, judged by the weight they carry, tolerably light. They are all built by one firm in the Borough, at a cost-price of about eighty pounds each. The foot-board for the driver folds up on a hinge - a very convenient arrangement - and immediately under the seat there is a "boot," for holding the macintosh cover for goods, with which each driver is supplied. In these vans a ton and a half in weight is allowed for each horse ; that is to say, a full three-horse van carries between four and five tons, never more. All the vans, entering or leaving the establishment, pass over a weigh-bridge, by which, in a glass case, sit two clerks. If the van prove too heavily loaded, it is sent back to be lightened. Each van has a number conspicuously painted on it ; and the number, the name of the driver, the number of his invoice, amid his place of destination, are all duly entered by the clerks in the glass-case. Each team of horses [-61-] takes out for delivery and returns with two loads of goods daily. The bulk of the goods arrive by night-trains, and are at once sent out; indeed, Manchester goods are at their consignee's door as soon as the invoice announcing their arrival is delivered by the morning's post. Every van has a driver and a "book-carrier," who acts as conductor and delivers the goods. At night, when his van is unloaded, arid after its final journey, the book-carrier goes to his head office, and "books" his work - which means giving a detailed and statistical account of his transactions during the day. These accounts are then sent to Wood Street, and there duly filed.
    Before leaving Camden I went into the vaults, now used as store-cellars for pale ale by Messrs. Bass, but formerly Pickford's stables. These stables, holding three hundred horses, were full on the night when a great fire broke out, some seven years ago (1857). The horse-keepers go off duty at eleven P.M. About half-an-hour before that time the foreman of the stables discovered that another portion of the premises was on fire. The stables were shut off by large gates still standing. The key of these gates the foreman had about him ; with great presence of mind he rushed off and unlocked the gates, and called to the horse-keepers to let loose all the horses. The order was obeyed, the horses were untied, and, amid the whoops and shouts of the helpers, came out three hundred strong, charging up the incline and tearing into the streets. Away they went, unfollowed and unsought for; but of all those horses not one was lost. All were brought in during the succeeding few days from all parts of London, whither they had fled in their fright ; but none were stolen, and none were damaged. Only one horse was burnt, a very big beast, known as a "waggon-sitter," and used for backing the waggons under cranes or against the "banks." He was a dangerous brute, and so violent that only one man could manage him. This man unloosed him, but he would not move, and he was burnt in his stall.
    [-62-] Pickford is at home in about ten other places in London, besides having country-houses agreeably situate at Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and where not. But I visited him at only one other residence - a little villa on the City Basin of the Regent's Canal, where, before railway times, all his principal business was transacted. Everything here was carried on much in the same manner as at Camden, the only noticeable feature being what is called the "order warehouse," corresponding very much to the "cloak-room" of a metropolitan railway-station, a receptacle for things left till called for. To this order warehouse are sent Manchester goods or silks bought at a favourable turn of the market, and left in store until required to be despatched for foreign consignment or country trade. Here, among this heterogeneous assemblage, we saw casks of glue from France; bales of stockings and hosiery from Leicester ; sewing-machines, their stands and cases, in vast numbers from America ; barrels of soda-ash; a large church-organ; the boiler of a steam-engine; baskets of shells ; piles of cheeses;  two or three hip-baths ; a bit of sacking full of bones; several spruce trunks; a sailor's chest; a packet of wire for bonnet-shapes; a parcel of theatrical wardrobes; a packet of vermin-destroying powder, etc. etc. All these wait either a long or a short time, as the case may he, in Pickford's custody; but it very rarely happens that they are not eventually reclaimed.
    When I took farewell of Pickford, who is not Pickford, I left him with a smile upon his face - a smile which seemed to say " You've got a smattering of me, a taste, a notion but it would take you months to learn all my business." I nodded in reply, on the Lord Burleigh principle, intending my nod to convey that I knew all that, but that I had got sufficient for my purpose ; the rest was his business, and very well he does it.