Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Little World of London, by Charles Manby Smith, 1857 - Genesis of the Workers

[... back to menu for this book]



THERE can be but few persons who have not occasionally remarked in the course of their dealings with the multifaced world of commerce, that certain trades and professions, and industrial employments, as well of the lowest as of the highest grade, have at least an apparent tendency to run, as it were, in certain channels, and to remain from one generation to another in the hands of a particular race, or of the inhabitants of a particular district - as though monopolised exclusively by them. Old clothes, and the trade in old clothes, is a case in point. A cast-off coat, a napless hat, a pair of seedy pantaloons, recalls the image of the perambulating Jew with his corpulent bag on his shoulders; and, it may be, seven several crowns to his hoary pate, and his familiar cry of "Old Clo," by which, from time immemorial, he has asserted his prescriptive right to all such exuviae. But this industrious and heavy-laden patriarch affords but a single illustration of a spirit, or a habit, or a destiny, or a something or other that perhaps Carlyle would call "an inevitable course of things," which does, in a rather singular and not very accountable manner, characterise the history of many of the various modes by which man transforms his industrial energies into a marketable commodity. No one well acquainted with the streets of Paris will have failed to observe the operation of a curious law, by which it would seem to be decreed, that the various out-door occupations of Parisian life are all severally monopolised by immigrants of the various departments, who come to the capital young, spend the best years of their lives in the [-298-] toilsome acquisition of just money enough to buy a couple of roods of ground in their native district, and that grand desideratum accomplished, retire to their homes where living upon the produce of their half-acre, with the reputation of landed proprietors, they spend the rest of their days. Every knife-grinder in Paris has the same "story to tell"; they all come from Auvergne, Savoy, Lorraine, or Piedmont ; and they gratify at once their nomadic taste and their ambition, by trundling their rickety misshapen machines through the by-streets of the capital, grinding for bread or broken food, upon which they live. and rarely spending a coin when they receive coin for their labours. The hare-skin dealers are all from Auvergne - the charcoal-porters from the same place; the water-carriers, once a most numerous race, are either from the Cantal of Auvergne, or from Normandy, "that other Auvergne," whence come so many of the ragged maids of the fruit, the flower, the vegetable, and the fish markets; the street-porters are invariably from the Puy-de-Dome. There is no mistaking any of these for Parisians - the abominable dialect they speak intelligible only to themselves, betraying their  origin, and effectually confining them to their own class. We have no exact parellel to this in any occupations carried on us our metropolis ; but we shall proceed, with the readers permission, to notice some facts bearing on the physiology of trades and employments in some degree analogous to it, and which will not perhaps be found useless or uninteresting.
    To begin with the bakers : an immensely disproportionate number of these are Scotchmen, who are said to be attracted to London by the margin of profit, which is a fraction wider here than it is in the north. They mostly do well ; do not generally affect low prices, which are the ruin of many bakers ; and the majority of the most respectable household bakeries are in their hands. Next to the Scotchmen, the most numerous are the men from Devonshire and the west of England. There are also a good many Germans, and one [-299-]  or two Frenchmen, in the trade - the latter figuring only at the West End, and catering principally for the wants of their own countrymen. Londoners, of course, are not wanting; but of the whole batch it may truly be said, they enjoy the least credit, and are most involved in difficulties with their factors. It may he worth while to remark, that the inhabitants of London will not eat wholesome bread; if it is not whiter than the best wheat-flour will make it, a Cockney disdains it ; so alum comes into use, causing about 10,000 indigestions a week; and then comes the doctor, to whom the baker is the best friend he has. We have a private opinion of our own that if London bread were nothing but bread, the London mortality-bills would decrease a remarkable percentage.
    Next door to our baker lives a barber, who tells us that half the barbers in London are London born, but that a good many of the fashionable hairdressers are from the watering-places and genteel towns. Both classes of workmen, he says, have a good character in town, and are sure of employment. People imagine that London sends hairdressers to all parts of the kingdom ; but the fact is that every barber in the country comes to London, at some time or other, to improve, working for nothing the while, for the sake of learning the ladies' department. "After their return," says our oracle, "they announce themselves as 'from London,' finding their account in so doing. Some of the London hairdressers dub themselves Professors, and make large incomes by grease, cosmetics, and hair-dye, which latter, if once used, must always be used, and is generally sold at half-a-guinea the bottle, and costs a premium of a guinea to be taught how to use it. Sometimes, from constitutional peculiarity, it turns the hair green ; and then, mayhap, a young lady of sixty requires to have her head shaved, and to shut herself up while a fresh crop is growing. Immense sums are made by hair-dye, some of the professors having a European con-[-300-]nection, and travelling express to foreign capitals, disseminating youthfulness and beauty wherever they go.''  Our communicative barber, who is not perpetuallv shaving, ekes out his time by retailing tobacco, snuff, and cigars; by weaving a wig occasionally, and by breeding, and teaching, and doctoring canary-birds; upon all of which matters he has something to say that may be worth hearing. The tobacco trade, he says, is in the hands of Londoners, but the best tobacco decidedly comes from Bristol. The Jews have a good deal to do with cheap cigars, which are manufactured both by men and women and some of them, he avers, may be made to smell uncommonly like a dish of cabbage by simply boiling them for an hour. In fine tobaccos and cigars, he adds, a most enormous trade is done; good tobacco ought to be smoked in a seasoned meerschaum. A meerschaum is seasoned in the following way :  it is first swaddled ten or twelve deep in flannel cases ; then it is consigned to the hands of a responsible life-guardsman, together with maybe twenty pounds of shag tobacco ; the soldier undertakes that, once lighted, the pipe shall not be suffered to grow cold for six months ; it becomes the pipe of perpetual peace in his keeping, and passes from comrade to comrade, day and night, till the whole period has expired, by which time it is burned to a deep Vandyke-brown, and thoroughly seasoned. It costs perhaps 30, and takes a whole regiment of soldiers to do it! As to wig-making, all he does is in human hair, for which, using but a small quantity, he does not go to the hair-merchants, of whom there are but two or three in London ; the hair is nearly all imported, as English girls are not fond of selling theirs a good deal comes from Brittany, where a girl will sell her head of hair to buy a wedding-dress. Touching the canaries, he knows all about them. The canary originally came from the Canary Islands ; but he wouldn't buy birds from those islands now if they were offered to him, as the most part of them cannot stand our [-301-] climate, and die in the first winter, There is a much stronger bird, and better in song, too, which comes from Germany, where millions of them are bred every year by the workmen and labouring-people, as well as by regular breeders. They are bred for exportation, and are shipped in immense numbers to Russia, where it is the fashion to keep them, and where they die when the winter comes on. You may see ships freighted with nothing but canary-birds lying at St. Petersburg - all sent from Germany. He thinks the climate would not kill them if they were properly looked after. Canaries live longest in a large cage, where they have room to run about, which they are fond of doing. They are subject to a kind of boil on the head, which is easily cured if attended to in time, but which kills them if neglected, as it generally is, because people are not aware of it. Vast numbers of them are bred in England, and excellent birds too. The Spitalfield weavers breed some of the best birds, and some of them make a living when work is slack by teaching them to sing. The canary is a very docile bird, and may be taught with certainty by any one who will take the necessary trouble, and should have at least four lessons a day. 
    Ting! ting! There goes a tall, round-faced German, with the still rounder face of a clock under his arm, whose tingling bell is his advertisement as he walks the streets. Dutch clocks once formed the staple of a great import business, which has latterly undergone a rapid decline, and is now almost in the last stage of a galloping consumption. That handsome German just gone by is the first of his craft we have seen for this month past, and is, we fear, gone on a vain quest for employment; his comrades have for the last few years almost totally disappeared from the streets. Their disappearance is due to the prodigious importation of American clocks, of which thousands are sold weekly in London alone, at a price varying from 8s. for a thirty-hour bracket-[-302-]clock, to from 15s. to 40s. for an eight-day one - even the lowest priced clock having a neat mahogany case. The cost of the wheel-work of a Dutch clock used to be 3s. 6d. to the makers, who had to procure cases, pendulums, bells. weights, catguts, dials, &c., from different manufacturers, so that a decent thirty-hour clock, with brass works, could not well be sold retail for much less than 1. Now the cost of the works of an American clock is said to be, to the producer, not more than a small fraction above the value of the metal, the whole being struck from a sheet of rolled brass by a single stroke of a die or press, which cuts the works of a clock at a blow. These clocks go remarkably well - rather better, upon an average, than a good lever watch - and do not get readily out of repair. The consequence is that they are driving the perambulating German from the streets, and may be seen by the dozen in the shop-windows even of his own countrymen - Jonathan having beaten the German out of his peculiar market.
    Watchmakers - by which is to be understood, not people who make watches, but who put them together - are mostly Londoners ; but a vast number of excellent movements (works) which receive the names of some of the best London makers, are really manufactured at Coventry. Gold and silver cases, and dial-plates are made in London, and, in the district of Clerkenwell, are chased and ornamented by means of the rose-engine, with which a clever workman can easily earn from 50s. to 60s. weekly, if he possesses an engine of his own. The state of our political relations with China considerably affects the watchmaking trade. Your respectable Chinese does exceedingly desire and covet a good English lever watch in a silver case, and will give anything like a reasonable price for it. We could point to one maker who, during the war which brought us the Sycee-silver, was compelled to diminish his production at the rate of above 1000 lever watches per annum. Working jewellers and [-303-] lapidaries also affect a district of Clerkenwell these are mostly of London origin and the latter, being very few in number, are particularly independent, working their own hours, without too much regard for their employers' convenience, and earning high wages.
    Five-and-twenty years ago, the looking-glass and picture-frame makers of the metropolis were nearly all Italians, some of whom carried on a large wholesale trade, having their working establishments in Leather Lane, and the courts and back-streets adjoining. Italian names are still visible in that district, and a few glittering shops, in bad keeping with the surrounding squalor, yet maintain the pretensions of Leather Lane as the nursery of this ornamental branch of industry. But the rapid growth of art within the last generation, combined with improvements in manufacture, has raised a demand for more picture-frames and mirrors than they could supply, and now the works of Englishmen in this way are at least quite as numerous, and, as far as we can judge, equally excellent in quality. But a marvellous difference in the kind of article produced characterises the trade of a picture-frame maker - one man making the same frame for 30s. for which another, with more fairness, considering the actual value of the article, will demand 5.
    The most remarkable instance of pertinacious adherence to a single occupation to be met with in England, and perhaps in the world, is that afforded by the Spitalfield weavers; who, though nearly all of foreign descent, being the descendants of the French emigrants driven over here by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, are more truly Londoners than any other class to whom we could refer. They are a patient and suffering race, who have from time to time been made the victims of foul oppression by their employers. The regulations to which they are forced to submit in the practice of their miserable calling are, as we have reason to know, such as no other class of English workmen would tolerate for [-304-] a day. Their wages have been ground down to the minimum point ; they work often, in their miserable dwellings, from sixteen to twenty hours out of the twenty -four and, although leading a life of semi-starvation, yet persist in training their children to follow the same unremunerative calling. As lately as the commencement of the present century, they retained the use of the French language, and their religious services were conducted in French within the memory of many yet living ; but their native tongue has at length died out even among the oldest of the race. Their dwellings are among the most squalid and ruinous to be found in tile metropolis ; they may be easily recognised by the pedestrian from the long and narrow windows, constructed to admit as much light as possible into their work-rooms.
    London, which is never to-day of the same extent as it was yesterday, demands the services of whole armies of builders. brickmakers, bricklayers, and their subordinate fellow-labourers. The builders, who but too rarely condescend to invoke the assistance of a professional architect, though mostly Londoners, are by no means exclusively so, but comprise among their number a host of speculators from all parts of the kingdom - the facilities for building with very little capital being perhaps greater in London than in any country town in England. The brickmakers are for the most part Londoners but they have had latterly to contend with new rivals from the neighbourhood of Liverpool and Manchester, as well as with a new kind of pierced brick, brought hither by rail in large quantities from brickfields situated at various distances north of the capital. The work-men at this trade invariably work by the piece ; and by labouring during the summer months with an intensity that would kill the strongest animal in a week, earn extravagant wages, sometimes amounting to from three to four guineas a week per man, which they spend as extravagantly, being often reduced to dismal straits in the winter, when they [-305-] cannot work. From three in the morning till nine at night is no uncommon day's work for a brickmaker in the height of summer. As a class, they occasion the police more trouble than any other that could be named and they are at once the support and the disgrace of the suburban public-houses. The bricklayers are a far more respectable, intelligent, and, indeed, educated class; simply, perhaps, because their profession requires the exercise of more capacity. It is not quite true that "by line and rule works many a fool;" a fool not being exactly the man to manage such simple tools, and certainly not the man for a bricklayer. These operatives are known as a provident class, familiar with the regulations of friendly societies and the value of the savings-bank. They, too, are mostly Londoners, associated, however, with many excellent workmen from the provinces. The bricklayers' labourers, hod-men, mortar-men, and so on, are almost exclusively Irish. Formerly, they were a wild and untamable set - the tyrants of the streets at night and the habitants of the drunken and disorderly cells at the stations ; but their intimacy with the police, and their prison experience, have wrought in them a considerable reform ; and though the occasionally break out into riot, it is oftener on religious grounds than from any other cause.
    The navvies, or navigators, who now form so large a section of our labouring-class, came originally from the fen districts, where, from their occupation, which consisted principally in raising banks to dam out the water, they were called "bankers." Since the formation of railways, Yorkshire and Lancashire have supplied the greatest number. They bear but an evil reputation. 
    Among the shoemakers, a great number are provincialists, and the far greater proportion of these are from Northamptonshire. They manufacture a prodigious quantity of shoes for exportation and for government contracts. It is a rather singular circumstance, which we can state on the best [-306-] authority, that the only really expert and accomplished workmen who ever find their way into a jail, are shoemakers.
    A good proportion of the tailors of London are Irish, Scotch, and German ; but the tailoring trade has suffered wofully within the last few lustres, from the enterprise of the ready-made clothes-merchants, from whose unlimited stock a large section of the public find it easier and more convenient to get fitted at once, than to run the risk of failure from an incompetent professor of the art. Their enormous increase throughout the kingdom is doubtless due to the convenience they afford, and the saving of time, now so important an article, effected by dealing with them. The largest establishments are those of the Jews ; and more of them, in fact, belong to the Jews than the public are aware of. An ignorant prejudice, which yet partially prevails, against dealing with Jews has induced many of them to disguise or change their names. Thus Moses sometimes becomes Moss, Abraham sinks into Braham, or expands into Tabraham, and Levi is anagramed into Evil, &c. But the tailor is by no means the only craftsman with whom the Jew interferes as a formidable rival. In Covent Garden he is well known as an importer of oranges and dried-fruits, nuts, dates, and so on he is noticed for doing business in these, the least perishable of vegetable commodities, at the lowest profit ; and he is the chief source from whence the perambulating dealers obtain their stock. Again, he is a manufacturing confectioner and preserver of fruits, and purveyor of jelly and jam, candying lemon-peel, and bottling lemon-juice, and dealing in cocoa-nuts and pine-apples ; he us a compositor in printing-offices, keeping only the Christian Sabbath, or none at all ; he is a furniture-broker and appraiser, and not unfrequently a pawnbroker; he is a picture-dealer to any extent you like, but makes no pretensions to a judgment of high art; and is also picture-cleaner and [-307-]  restorer as well. In short, he is extending his energies rapidly into fresh departments of trade, and at every step he takes is overcoming old prejudices, and rising higher in the regard of his Christian brethren.
    Germans in London have several departments of trade, if not entirely in their own hands, nearly so. Sugar-refining is almost exclusively carried on by Germans, and their refineries are nearly all congregated together in Whitechapel and the immediate neighbourhood. The workmen mix but little with the English, but frequent mostly their own houses-of-call, The toy-trade is also very much monopolised by Germans they import large cargoes of toys from their own country, and supply the London dealers with them at a cheap rate. There are, moreover, many German retailers of toys who affect the arcades of the metropolis, which, being sheltered from the weather, are admirablv fitted for their purpose. Myriads of toys are made by German peasants in their long winter evenings, and by shepherds and herdsmen in their solitudes, whose remuneration must be excessively small, looking to the low price at which their wares are retailed in England. In the article of lucifer-matches, the Germans beat the London makers hollow, and no end of them are imported into this country, where they meet a ready sale we have just lighted candles with one from a German box, containing 1000 matches, each perfectly cylindrical in shape, and lighting without noise ; said box being sold retail for a penny. Numbers of Germans in England pursue the occupation of farriery, and some years ago they were in high repute for the superiority of their practice but latterly, an educated class of Englishmen have by degrees entered that profession, and the Germans are no longer in the ascendant. Many Germans are importers of foreign fancy goods, especially baskets, in which an extensive trade is carried on these come over in packages as big as an Irishman's cabin, and have to be unpacked in the [-308-] street. Others import musical instruments and musical-boxes, which latter are to be bought in every street in London, at prices marvellously low. Others, again, import birds, particularly piping-bullfinches, which fetch prices sometimes beyond all reason, proportioned to their musical abilities. Besides the German traders, the whole of which we cannot pretend to enumerate, there is always in London a good staff of German professors of languages, and teachers of every accomplishment that a gentleman could wish to learn.
    As with respect to the provision-dealers in the metropolis, we may remark that London, with that regard for the genuine article which is a part of her idiosyncrasy, loves to supply her table from the best market. Thus, the elite of the dairymen are from Devonshire and Wales, the cheese-mongers from Yorkshire and Hampshire, while Wiltshire-men deal in pork and bacon, and her own market-gardeners sell the finest fruit and vegetables. Of eggs, London devours them by millions fresh, in the season, at the established cost of three-halfpence each; and by hundreds of millions, not too fresh, sent over by French egg-merchants, all the year round. For butcher-meat she trusts to her own butchers, who are mostly London-born ; and for fish, to the Billingsgate-men, who, like the oysters, are also natives. Her grocers, too, are principally her own citizens ; and so, for the most part, are her brewers, though she has a decided penchant for country ale, and holds out a welcome hand to the men of Burton, of Alton, and especially of Edinburgh.
    When she wants a close of physic, she runs to the chemist and druggist, who, in three cases out of four, is not a Loudoner at all, but an enterprising fellow from some country town, come hither to cure her of her maladies. If, being really ill she don't get better, be sure she will call in a London physician, because there is scarcely another to whom she can have recourse ; and if death comes in spite of him, [-309-] it is at least seven to one that a Londoner will play the part of undertaker, that being about the proportion that the Londoners of the mortuary profession bear to the provincials located among them.
    Of the linen-drapers in London, both wholesale and retail, a very large proportion are from. Scotland and the north of England, particularly from Manchester. Among their assistants, are a smaller proportion of Londoners than we should expect to find. A great number of them are Scotch, many come from Lancashire, not a few are Irish, but in a larger proportion than any of the above are the young men from Somerset, Devon, and the west country. Commercial travellers, as well in connection with this business as with others, are, the majority of them, north-country men. Many large millinery establishments in London are in the hands of men, and employ a large capital in carrying them on ; the young girls who do the work are, however, mostly from the country, whence they come in the capacity of "improvers," to learn experience, returning, after one or two years' practice, to commence business in their native place.
    Among the professions which the new arrivals from the provinces contest most successfully with the Londoners, would appear to be the pianoforte-makers, of whom the major part are men from the provinces ; the booksellers, especially those who deal in second-hand books, of which a good proportion are countrymen; the printers, whose working ranks would soon die out were they not continually supplemented by arrivals from the country, and many of whom, saving money, set up for themselves; the cabinetmakers, whose profession is extended much in the same way; the carpenters, who, if they succeed, invariably become builders on a small scale, in connection with the London bricklayers to which might be added many other trades not peculiar to London, but which, when fairly mastered by [-310-] clever country hands, are more completely understood by them than by the generality of London-trained workmen. It is a fact, that the London artisan rarely understands more than one department of the trade to which he serves his apprenticeship ; and although this doubtless tends to the proverbial perfection of London work, it often operates to prevent the workman from becoming a master. Country workmen, on the contrary, usually know all the branches of their profession ; and, when well skilled in them, naturally rise, us such a field as the metropolis affords, to the position of employers.
We find we are getting beyond our limits, and must proceed to notice a few remaining facts as briefly as possible. Engineers and millwrights are for the most part from Scotland, and the northern counties of England but not a few are to be met with, particularly on board the steamers, from the iron districts of Wales. Wheelwrights from the provinces are almost as numerous as the London hands. Horse-dealers come chiefly from Yorkshire and Hampshire but Irish horses are from time to time sold in town in considerable numbers. Cutlers are principally from Sheffield;  hard-waremen from Birmingham and there are few great firms originating in country towns, in any department of manufacture, who have not warehouses and show-rooms in London. Gardeners, especially those retained at the seats of the nobility and gentry, are very generally Scotchmen. In the jewellery trade there is a large admixture of Jews, who principally affect the manufacture of such articles in gold as do not imperatively require the sanction of Goldsmiths Hall - such as gold chains, and the flashy gold rings now exporting in large quantities to the "diggings,'' which cost in the London markets seven shillings each, and sell readily for four guineas in the land of gold. Cabmen are principally Londoners but a few civil countrymen, who know the town and can drive, find their account in following the cabman's [-311-] occupation. Furriers, and fur-dyers and dressers, are a good many of them Germans. Among the wine-merchants are an extra proportion of foreigners ; and foreigners almost monopolise the manufacture of many of the wind-instruments of music. Finishers of fine work, in almost all industrial trades, are in nearly every instance London-bred, and are sometimes heard to boast of their London blood. Every morsel of sponge in London passes through the hands of the Jews, who levy a contribution upon it, in some shape or other, before it comes into use. Brewers' draymen, though stalwart fellows to look at, are proverbially short-lived ; not a man of them, it is said, ever attaining the age of fifty from the inflamed state of their blood, accidents, however slight, become fatal to them. Some years back, a case was recorded of one who died in the apparent vigour of manhood, through slightly grazing his finger against the wheel of his dray. Lastly, the omniumgatherum shops, whose stock exhibits as delightful a confusion as the above paragraph, are invariably the property of thorough-bred Cockneys.
    We shall conclude with the notice of two facts, worthy at least of a passing remark. Something more than a century ago, there arrived in this country a very little colony of iron-workers from Sweden. They brought with them the art of preparing the Swedish iron, and they settled down in a small village in Northumberland, and begin practising it for their own advantage. They throve well; and repudiating all intimacy with the surrounding inhabitants, remained a distinct race, speaking their own tongue, and following their own customs, in a land of strangers. When one had achieved a competence, he withdrew to his native land, and sent over another ; and thus their number was kept up for three generations, when their secret having at length exploded or been discovered, they all simultaneously disappeared. - Twenty-five years ago, there were not above [-312-] half-a -dozen Greek merchants in London, and these were mostly of small capital and less note, but of indomitable energy, and first-rate business tact. At the present day, they have not only multiplied in numbers, but have succeeded in monopolising nearly the entire trade of the Mediterranean and the East. They have their business-houses at every port and station upon the coasts and rivers, and realise a profit annually hardly exceeded by that of any class of merchants upon the face of the earth.