Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and the Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter LXI

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Thursday, July 18, 1850

 In my last communication I said that the carpenter's trade divided itself, like many others of the present day, into two distinct branches, viz., the "honourable" and the "dishonourable" masters - that is to say, those who have a regard for the welfare and comforts of their men, and those who care only for themselves, and seek to grow rich by underpaying the workmen in their employ.
    I then treated at some length of the "honourable" part of the trade, and I now come in due order to set forth the condition and earnings of the operatives belonging to the "dishonourable" portion of it.
    The journeymen in connection with the "honourable" trade amount, as I before stated, to 1,770, so that by far the greater number, or no less than 18,230 of the working carpenters and joiners in the metropolis belong to what is called the "dishonourable" class - that is to say, nearly 2,000 of the London journeymen are "society men," and object to work for less than the recognized wages of the trade, while upwards of 18,000 are unconnected with any of the trade societies, and the majority of them labour for little more than half the regular rates of pay. The "dishonourable" portion of the trade includes many varieties of workmen. In the first place, there are the class called "improvers," or inexperienced hands, who, having learnt their business in the country, come up to town to perfect themselves in the higher branches of the trade, and, while they are so improving themselves, consent to take less wages than the more experienced and skilful operative. These, it will be seen, now constitute a considerable portion of the London trade, and are largely employed by those "enterprising" firms who seek to extend their business merely by underselling their neighbours. Secondly, there are the countrymen, who without any essential view to improvement in their craft, flock to London, from the badly paid parts of the country, in the hope of obtaining higher wages in the metropolis, and who, on their arrival in town, willingly accept a less rate of pay than the superior handicraftsmen. Thirdly, there are what are called the "strapping-shops" - that is to say, establishments where an undue quantity of work is expected from a journeyman in the course of the day. Such shops, though not directly making use of cheap labour (for the wages paid in them are generally of the highest rate), still, by exacting more work, may of course be said, in strictness, to encourage the system now becoming general, of less pay and inferior skill. These strapping establishments sometimes go by the name of "scamping shops," on account of the time allowed for the manufacture of the different articles not being sufficient to admit of good workmanship.
    These appear to be the three principal means by which several even of the more honourable firms are now seeking to reduce the "standard rate of wages." The means employed by the dishonourable tradesman are the contract and sub-contract system, adopted by what are called the "speculative builders." It is this contract work, it will be seen, that constitutes the great evil of the carpenters' trade, as well as of many other trades at the present time; and as in those crafts, so in this, we find that the lower the wages are reduced the greater becomes the number of trading operatives or middlemen. For it is when workmen find the difficulty of living by their labour increased that they take to scheming and trading upon the labour of their fellow-operatives. In the slop trade, where the pay is the worst, these creatures abound the most; and so in the carpenters' trade, where the wages are the lowest - as among the speculative builders - there the system of contracting and sub-contracting is found in full force. I shall now proceed to set forth the effects of each of these several causes of low wages seriatim -  beginning with the means used by the more honourable masters, and concluding with an account of the practices pursued by the speculative builders. First, of the "strapping" system. Concerning this I received the following extraordinary account from a man after his heavy day's labour; and never in all my experience have I seen so sad an instance of overwork. The poor fellow was so fatigued that he could hardly rest in his seat. As he spoke he sighed deeply and heavily, and appeared almost spirit-broken with excessive labour:
    "I work at what is called a strapping shop," he said, "and have worked at nothing else for these many years past in London. I call 'strapping,' doing as much work as a human being or a horse possibly can in a day, and that without any hanging upon the collar, but with the foreman's eyes constantly fixed upon you, from six o'clock in the morning to six o'clock at night. The shop in which I work is for all the world like a prison - the silent system is as strictly carried out there as in a model gaol. If a man was to ask any common question of his neighbour, except it was connected with his trade, he would be discharged there and then. If a journeyman makes the least mistake, he is packed off just the same. A man working at such places is almost always in fear; for the most trifling things he's thrown out of work in an instant. And then the quantity of work that one is forced to get through is positively awful; if he can't do a plenty of it, he don't stop long where I am. No one would think it was possible to get so much out of blood and bones. No slaves work like we do. At some of the strapping shops the foreman keeps continually walking about with his eyes on all the men at once. At others the foreman is perched high up, so that he can have the whole of the men under his eye together. I suppose since I knew the trade that a man does four times the work that he did formerly. I know a man that's done four pairs of sashes in a day, and one is considered to be a good day's labour. What's worse than all, the men are everyone striving one against the other. Each is trying to get through the work quicker than his neighbours. Four or five men are set the same job so that they may be all pitted against one another, and then away they go every one striving his hardest for fear that the others should get finished first. They are all tearing along from the first thing in the morning to the last at night, as hard as they can go, and when the time comes to knock off they are ready to drop. I was hours after I got home last night before I could get a wink of sleep; the soles of my feet were on fire, and my arms ached to that degree that I could hardly lift my hand to my head. Often, too, when we get up of a morning, we are more tired than we went to bed, for we can't sleep many a night; but we mustn't let our employers know it, or else they'd be certain we couldn't do enough for them, and we'd get the sack. So, tired as we may be, we are obliged to look lively somehow or other at the shop of a morning. If we're not beside our bench the very moment the bell's done ringing, our time's docked - they won't give us a single minute out of the hour. If I was working for a fair master, I should do nearly one-third less work than I am now forced to get through, and sometimes a half less; and even to manage that much, I shouldn't be idle a second of my time. It's quite a mystery to me how they do contrive to get so much work out of the men. But they are very clever people. They know how to have the most out of a man, better than any one in the world. They are all picked men in the shop - regular "strappers", and no mistake. The most of them are five foot ten, and fine broad shouldered, strong backed fellows too - if they weren't they would not have them. Bless you, they make no words with the men, they sack them if they're not strong enough to do all they want; and they can pretty soon tell, the very first shaving a man strikes in the shop, what a chap is made of. Some men are done up at such work - quite old men and gray with spectacles on, by the time they are forty. I have seen fine strong men, of six-and-thirty, come in there and be bent double in two or three years. They are most all countrymen at the strapping shops. If they see a great strapping fellow who they think has got some stuff about him that will come out, they will give him a job directly. We are used for all the world like cab or omnibus horses. Directly they've had all the work out of us we are turned off, and I am sure after my day's work is over, my feelings must be very much the same as one of the London cab horses. As for Sunday, it is literally a day of rest with us, for the greater part of us lays abed all day, and even that will hardly take the aches and pains out of our bones and muscles. When I'm done and flung by, of course I must starve."
    After this the reader can readily imagine that "the old hands" have but little chance of employment in a trade where the strapping system is coming into vogue. Concerning the treatment of the elderly workmen, a well- looking man, cleanly, but poorly dressed, gave me the following account:
    "I served my apprenticeship in the country as a carpenter, but have been 49 years in London this July. I am now 79. I have worked all the 49 years in London, except six months. Of course I can't work now as well as I could. I was obliged about five years ago to wear spectacles, as my eyesight wasn't as good. I could do the rougher work of carpentering as well as some years before, but then I can't lift heavy weights up aloft as I could. In most shops the moment a man puts the glasses on it's over with him. It wasn't so when I first knew London. Masters then said, Let me have an old man, one who knows something.' Now its, 'Let me have a young man, I must have a strong fellow, an old one won't do.' One master discharged two men when he saw them at work in glasses, though the foreman told him they worked as well with them, and as well every way as ever they did, but it was all no use; they went. I used to wear glasses in one employ, and others did the same, and the foreman was a good man to the men as well as to the master; and if the master was coming, he used to sing out 'Take those sashes out of the way,' and so we had time to whip off our glasses, and the master didn't know we were forced to use them; but when he did find it out, by coming into the shop unawares, he discharged two men. I now work at jobbing and repairing in buildings. It's no use my going to ask for work of any master, for if I hadn't my glasses on he'd see from my appearance I was old, and must wear them, and wouldn't hear of giving an old man a job. One master said to me, 'Pooh, you won't do - you were born too soon.' The fact is, they want strong your fellows from the country, that they can sweat plenty of work out of, and these country hands will go to work for 21s. a week, so that the master has a double pull - more work out of him and less to pay for it. The work's inferior, but they don't look much after the quality of the work now. The old men have only the workhouse left. Few of us have saved money. We can't, with families to bring up, on 30s. a week. I know many old men that were in their day good workmen, now in the workhouse. I know six that's now in Marylebone workhouse that I've worked along with myself. I belong to a benefit club, or there would be nothing but the workhouse for me if I lost my jobbing. Old age coming on men in my way is a very great affliction. We try to hide our want of great strength and good sight as long as we can. I did it for two or three years, but it was found out at last, and I had to go. I average about 12s. a week at jobbing; work's so uncertain, or I could make more."
    Another old man corroborated this. He had written out a statement of what he thought his grievances, and called upon me with it. It is as follows: "Old carpenters are generally despised by master-builders; the failure of sight and wearing of spectacles is almost a death-blow to many a good old tradesman. And in many cases, masters will not give an elderly man employment at any price; the consequence is, that many have been compelled to go to the parish for relief, or into the workhouse. Employers instruct their foremen to deny a job to men above a certain age. When employers and clerks in their office are compelled to wear spectacles, it is considered with them an honourable badge; but to the poor workman it is a sudden death - he is no longer employed." "That's what I've experienced myself, sir," he added. "I was an apprentice in Bath, and have been 36 years in London. I am now 63, and strong and able to do a good day's work; but the answer always is, if I ask for work, 'You're too old.' I hadn't worn glasses many months before I was discharged from a place I'd been in a long time. We can't be employed at any price. The society rules allow us to work at reduced wages on account of our age. I job about among my friends, but I'm always in debt, for I have a sickly wife to keep and a sick daughter. Some weeks I make 20s., but many weeks I get not a stroke of work, and don't average altogether 12s. a week. There's not a farthing that's to be got by elderly men in general from masters that's had their youth and strength out of them. I'm in no benefit club. I was in two, but both failed. In case I was sick there's nothing but the parish for me and my family. I can't do work enough for a scamping master, or I might get one for one."

    I now come to treat of the system pursued by the speculating builders of the metropolis. Of all the slop-trades that I have yet examined there appear to be greater evils connected with cheap building than with any other. It will be seen that from this the public derive no benefit whatsoever - house rent not even being reduced by it, while the journeymen are ground down to the same state of misery and degradation as in all other trades where the slop system flourishes. Of the 18,000 men working for the dishonourable portion of the building trade, it should be remembered that not one belongs to a society, and consequently they have no resource but the parish in case of sickness, accident, or old age. Consequently, as one of the more intelligent journeymen said to me, it is the master alone who, by reducing the wages of the workmen, is benefited, for though the house is built cheaper, the public have not only to pay the same rent, but to support the workmen out of the poor-rates. Moreover, it is by means of this system that the better, the more skilful, and more provident portion of the trade are being dragged down to the same wretched abasement as the unskilful and improvident workmen. In order, however, that I might not be misled by the journeymen, I thought it my duty to call upon some master-builders of the "honourable trade" - gentlemen of high character - as well as upon architects of equally high standing. I found the same opinion entertained by them all as to the ruinous effects of the kind of competition existing in their trade to a master who strives to be just to his customers and fair to his men. This competition, I was assured, was the worst in the contracts for building churches, chapels, and public institutions generally. "Honesty is now almost impossible among us," said one master-builder. "It is impossible in cheap contract work, for the competition puts all honourable trade out of the field; high character, and good material, and the best workmanship are of no avail. Capitalists can command any low-priced work, by letting and subletting, and all by the piece. Most of those speculating and contracting people think only how to make money; or they must raise money to stop a gap (a bill perhaps to be met), and they grasp at any offer of an advance of money on account of a building to be erected. Their proceedings are an encouragement to every kind of dishonesty. They fail continually, and they drag good men down with them."  Strong as these opinions are, I heard them fully confirmed by men who could not be mistaken in the matter. "Advertise for contract work," said another gentleman, "and you'll soon have a dozen applicants at all sorts of prices; and all tradesmen like myself, who calculate for a contract at a rate to pay the regular wages, and not to leave either the timber-merchant or anybody else in the lurch, and to yield us the smallest possible per centage for our risk and outlay, are regarded as a pack of extortionate men."

    The system of contract-work was known forty years ago, or earlier, among the tradesmen employed in the erection of houses of the best class; but it was known as an exception rather than as an established system. It was long before that, however, not unfrequent as regards the erection of public buildings. A customer would then obtain "estimates" of the probable cost from well-known firms, and so ascertain the lowest price at which a private house could be erected. Thirty years back this system had gained a strong hold on all building capitalists, and it has gone on increasing within these 10 or 12, or more years. No mansion is built otherwise than by contract, except in the rare instance of an old connection of an old firm. The introduction of stuccos, cements, &c., within these 25 years, has further encouraged the contract system, by supplying a low-priced exterior for our houses - while the introduction of cheap paper, and of cheaper wood-work, by means of machinery, supplied the materials of a cheap interior; and a tradesman of little skill or probity can speculate in a building where he is not called upon to make heavy outlays for superior stone or timber, and can employ underpaid labour.

    Respectable builders, I am informed, have often to submit to the most degrading terms in sending in their offers of contracts - terms which seem to presuppose every mode of knavery on the builder's part. One of the things in which competition is most ruinous, is, I am assured, in "contracting" for the new windows and embellishments, and the "alterations and improvements," required by competitive tradesmen, who are, at the same time, complaining of the unfair competition to which their particular trade is subject.
    The employers of builders on contract have not, however, always escaped loss, and heavy loss, by grasping at a low-priced offer. The dry rot is mouldering away many a house built within these ten years, where the situation is damp. To guard against this pest, a master in the "honourable" trade would have built on a body of concrete - a thing never thought of by a scamping master. "Unless," said one architect to me, "some check be given to this dishonest system, the honourable masters must be dragged down towards the level of the others, and the best artisans must sink with them. The low-priced builders of the worst class cannot possibly do their work in any way but by cheating the tradesman and robbing the artisan."
    Such are the opinions of the honourable masters in connection with the building trade, as to the ruinous effects of the slop or contract system. I shall now subjoin the statements, first, of the foremen, and lastly, of the workmen in connection with this part of the trade:
    "I am a foreman to speculating builder. My employer is not in a very large way: he has about ten carpenters and joiners. He does not let the work, he employs all the men by the day. The highest wages he gives is 28s. a week; this sum he pays to three of his men. He gives 24s. to three others: and two more have ?1 a week. Besides these employs two apprentices. To the oldest of these he gives 15s. a week, and to the youngest 6s. The men who have 28s. are superior hands - such men as at either of the C----'s would get their 6s. a day. The 24s. men are good skilful carpenters, fairly worth 30s.; and those in the receipt of ?1 are young men fresh from the country - principally from Devonshire. The wages in the west of England are from 12s. to l5s., and these low wages send alot of lads to town every year, in the hope of bettering their condition. They mostly obtain work among the speculating builders. I suppose there are more carpenters in London from Devonshire and Cornwall than from any other counties in England. At least half of the carpenters and joiners employed by the speculating builders here are lads fresh up from the country. Apprentices are not employed by the speculators as a rule. Most of the speculators have no fixed shops. Their work is carried on chiefly in, what we term, camp shops - that is in sheds erected in the field where the building are going on, and that's one reason why apprentices are not generally taken by speculating builders. The speculators find plenty of cheap labour among the country lads. A hand fresh up from the West of England can't get employment at the best of shops, unless he's got some friends, and so, after walking all London, he generally is driven to look for a job among the speculators at low wages. What few good hands are employed by the speculators are kept only to look after the countrymen. As a rule, I think young hands are mostly preferred, because there is more work in them. It is one of the chief evils of the carpenter's trade that as soon as a man turns of forty masters won't keep him on. The master whom I work for pays much better prices than most of the speculators . The average wages of the inferior hands employed in building is about 15s.; that is, I think, one- half of the hands don't receive more than that, and the other half about 24s. But day-pay is the exception with the speculators. The way in which the work is done is mostly by letting and sub-letting. The masters usually prefer to let work, because it takes all the trouble off their hands. They know what they are to get for the job, and of course they let it as much under that figure as they possibly can, all of which is clear gain without the least trouble. How the work is done, or by whom, it's no matter to them, so long as they can makes what they want out of the job, and have no bother about it. Some of our largest builders are taking to this plan, and a party who used to have one of the largest shops in London has within the last three years discharged all the men in his employ (he had 200 at least), and has now merely an office, and none but clerks and accountants in his pay. He has taken to letting his work out instead of doing it at home. The parties to whom the work is let by the speculating builders are generally working men, and these men in their turn look out for other working men, who will take the job cheaper than they will, and so I leave you, sir, and the public to judge what the party who really executes the work gets for his labour, and what is the quality of work that he is likely to put into it. The speculating builder generally employs an overlooker to see that the work is done sufficently well to pass the surveyor. That's all he cares about. Whether it's done by thieves, or drunkards, or boys, it's no matter to him. The overlooker, of course, sees after the first party to whom the work is let, and this party in his turn looks after the several hands that he has sub-let it to. The first man who agrees to the job takes it in the lump, and he again lets it to others in the piece. I have known instances of its having been let again a third time, but this is not usual. The party who takes the job in the lump from the speculator usually employs a foreman, whose duty it is to give out the materials, and to make working drawings. The men to whom it is sub-let only find labour, while the 'lumper,' or first contractor, agrees for both labour and materials. It is usual in contract work, for the first party who takes the job to be bound in a large sum for the due and faithful performance of his contract. He then in his turn finds out a sub-contractor, who is mostly a small builder, who will also bind himself that the work shall be properly executed, and there the binding ceases - those parties to whom the job is afterwards let, or sub-let, employing foremen or overlookers to see that their contract is carried out. The first contractor has scarcely any trouble whatsoever; he merely engages a gentleman, who rides about in a gig, to see that what is done is likely to pass muster. The sub-contractor has a little more trouble; and so it goes on as it gets down and down. Of course I need not tell you that the first contractor, who does the least of all, gets the most of all; while the poor wretch of a working man, who positively executes the job, is obliged to slave away every hour night after night to get a bare living out of it; and this is the contract system. The public are fleeced by it to an extent that builders alone can know. Work is scamped in such a way that the houses are not safe to live in. Our name for them in the trade is 'bird cages,' and really nine-tenths of the houses built now-a-days are very little stronger. Again, the houses built by the speculators are almost all damp. There is no concrete ever placed at the foundation to make them dry and prevent them from sinking. Further, they are all badly drained. Many of the walls of the houses built by the speculators are much less in thickness than the Building Act requires. I'll tell you how this is done. In a third-rate house the wall should be, according to the Act, two bricks thick at least, and in a second-rate house, two bricks and a half. The speculators build up the third-rates a brick and-a-half thick, and the second-rates only two bricks, and behind this they run up another half brick, so that they can throw that part down immediately after the surveyor has inspected it. Many of the chimney breasts too, are filled up with rubbish, instead of being solid brickwork. The surveyor is frequently hand in hand with the speculator, and can't for the life of him discover any of these defects but you know there's none so blind as those that won't see. And yet, notwithstanding all this trickery and swindling, and starving of the workmen, rents in the suburbs do not come down. Who, then, are the gainers by it all? Certainly not the public, for all they get are damp, ill- drained, and unsafe houses, at the same prices as they formerly paid for sound, wholesome, and dry ones. And most certainly the working men gain nothing by it. And what is even worse than all is that the better class of masters are obliged to compete with the worse, and to resort to the same means to keep up with the times, so that if things go on much longer the better class of mechanics must pass away altogether.
    Concerning ground rents, I had the following account from one well acquainted with the tricks of the speculators: -
    "The party for whom I am foreman has just taken a large estate, and he contemplates making some thousands of pounds by means of the improved ground rents alone. There are several with him in the speculation, and this is the way in which such affairs are generally managed. A large plot of ground (six or seven meadows, may be) somewhere in the suburbs is selected by the speculators as likely to be an eligible spot for building - that is to say, they think that a few squares, villas, and terraces about that part would be likely to let as soon as run up. Then the speculators go to the freeholder or his solicitor, and offer to take the ground of him on a ninety-nine years' lease at a rent of about ?50 a-year per acre, and may be they take as many as fifty acres at this rate. At the same time they make a proviso that the rent shall not commerce until either so many houses are built, or perhaps before a twelvemonth has elapsed. If they didn't do this the enormous rent most likely would swallow them up before they had half got through their job. Well, maybe, they erect half or two-thirds of the number of houses that they have stipulated to do before paying rent. These are what we term 'call-birds,' and are done to decoy others to build on the ground. For this purpose a street is frequently cut, the ground turned up on each side, just to show the plan, and the corner house, and three others, perhaps, are built just to let the public see the style of thing that it's going to be. Occasionally a church is begun, for this is found to be a great attraction in a new neighbourhood. Well, when things are sufficiently ripe this way, and the field has been well mapped out into plots, aboard is stuck up, advertising 'THIS GROUND TO BE LET, ON BUILDING LEASES.' Several small builders then apply to take a portion of it, sufficient for two or three houses, maybe, for which they agree to pay about five guineas a year (they generally make it guineas these gentlemen) for the ground-rent of each house. And when the parties who originally took the meadows on lease have got a sufficient number of these plots let off, and the small builders have run up a few of the carcases, they advertise that 'a sale of well-secured rents will take place at the Mart on such a day.' Ground-rents, you must know, are considered to be one of the safest of all investments now-a-days; for if they are not paid, the ground landlord, you see, has the power of seizing the houses; so gentlemen with money are glad to lay it out this way, and there's a more ready sale for ground-rents than for anything else in the building line. There's sure to be strong competition for them, let the sale be whenever it will. Well, let us see now how the case stands. There are fifty acres taken on lease at ?50 an acre a year, and that is ?2,500 per annum. Upon each of these fifty acres fifty houses can be erected (including villas and streets, taking one with the other upon an average). The ground-rent of each of these houses is (at the least) ?5, and this gives for the 2,500 houses that are built upon the whole of the fifty acres ?12,500 per annum. Hence you see there is a clear net profit of ?10,000 a year made by the transaction. This is not at all an extraordinary case in building speculations."
    The subjoined supplies information concerning some other tricks of the speculators: -
    "For the last fifteen months I have been at work on the estate. You had better not say what estate, or I shall be known. My master was a bankrupt some time back. Since his bankruptcy, he has started in business again. His friends have taken him by the hand, and a speculating builder has no need of any capital. The agents and lawyers find whatever cash is required to pay the workmen on the Saturday night, and the builder makes a smash of it for the materials - as a matter of course. I'll tell you, sir, how this dodge is worked. A party of gentlemen who wishes to put their money into some building speculation that seems to promise well, agrees with a builder to find him all the cash to pay the workmen with, provided he will make himself answerable for the material, and for this they agree to give him a share in the profits if the spec turns out well. If, however, it should turn out bad, he is to be the party to go into the Gazette, for whatever may be owing. Of course everything is kept snug and secret among 'em, and if the builder goes to pieces, and doesn't let out who was his backers, why, directly he gets his certificate, they don't mind starting him again on the same terms. This is one of the ways in which building is carried on at the present time, on a large scale. The master I'm a speaking of never gives a carpenter or joiner, if they are at day work for him, less than five shillings a day; he takes it out of the timber merchant and brickmaker, instead of the journeymen."
    As regards "Improvers," I had the subjoined information from a very intelligent and trustworthy man: -
    "I am a joiner, receiving the regular wages. I am familiar with all the systems carried on as regards 'improvers.' These improvers are frequently the sons of carpenters and joiners, who have been instructed by their parents, and then seek to complete their knowledge of the business without going through a course of apprenticeship. Or they are often the sons of tradesmen in the country, who comes to town for the name of the thing, and that they may put on their signs - 'So and So, from Messrs. ----- London.' A certain class of young men have been apprenticed, but not being perfect in their business, also go as improvers. The wages of improvers vary greatly - from 10s. to 23s. or 24s. a week. They generally have some interest to get into a shop. They know some friend of the master, or something of that kind. Then there can be no doubt that there are such things as bonuses to foremen. No doubt the introduction of these improvers is detrimental to the well-doing of the journeymen, who are driven, especially if they are past their prime, to work for lower wages. Masters don't like old men at all. Many masters are partial to improvers, and keep them on when they discharge journeymen. In the scamping (slop) shops, masters best like strong hearty young fellows from the country as improvers - men they can get plenty of work out of. Scamping masters soon discharge their improvers if they lose any of their strength and capability of hard work. Few improvers are kept on, as improvers, after they are twenty-five. Their ages run generally from sixteen to twenty-four. I have never known an improver become a journeyman in the shop in which he worked as an improver. Masters seem to distrust them. In speculating builders' employ there are generally more improvers than journeymen - thrice as many more. Speculating builders keep on only as few as possible journeymen, and those just to keep the work in decent order. Improvers can't be trusted by themselves. With some speculating builders the improver Works by the piece, and is then ground down very low in price. A man of 22 will then not make above half wages, 15s., and work more than the regular hours to do that. Improvers find their own tools, the same as journeymen. I believe that twenty years ago there was not such a thing as a scamping master in London, Ten years ago one in ten might be scamping masters, and now quite one-third are so. Take masters altogether at 1,300, and 430 of them are scamping masters. Some of them are in a very large way, and employ occasionally 200 hands; and altogether I fancy they rank, as to the number of hands, with the honourable trade. I think the system gets worse and worse. Mr.----, one of the best builders on London, is now obliged to give way to competition, and get up a more scamping sort of work, instead of the fine and beautiful work that that he used to supply.
    The next point to be noticed is the system of letting and subletting the work. From an experienced carpenter and his son, also an experienced man in his trade, I had the following account: -
    "I may say," said the father, "I have been seventy-five years in the carpentering trade, for that's my age, and I was born in the business. I worked nearly fifty years in Somersetshire, chiefly as a journeyman. Forty years ago the wages were 3s. a day in Taunton - that was the highest wages for the best men. When I left, five years since, it was a good man who got 2s. 6d.; many got 2s. a day. The decrease took place about thirty or thirty-five years back, when the competition and cheap estimates for contract work began. I remember the time, because a man came from Wellington and undertook some work which no tradesman in Taunton would undertake - the building of a market-house, which was put up to competition by the trustees. Immediately after that wages fell, for cheap contract work spread all over the neighbourhood . The man from Wellington cut down the wages directly; many worked for him at 2s. a day. Trade was dull then. It went on continually on the low system, and continues on that system still. The men that the market-house contractor employed were mostly inferior labourers, and he got them cheap. Of course it's the cheaper and worse labourers that first force the superior workmen to come down. Contracts have reduced good men as regards wages to the level of bad men, and good men must scamp it, for scamping is the rule now. I came to London five years ago to join my family, who were settled here. My family were then at work on a contract for a lawyer. "I knew nothing of the lawyer," said the son of my first informant, "but I saw a notice up that the carcases of six houses were to be finished, and made fit for inhabitants, and tenders were to be sent in; the lowest bidder of course to be accepted. The solicitor, that my brother and I had the contract from, was the agent of the ground landlord, who was anxious to have buildings erected on his property. The ground landlord had advertised that the land would be let on building leases, and that advances would be made, according to the usual dodge - for dodge it is, sir. A builder was soon found, one with little or no money, for money in such cases is no matter - that's an every-day affair. He agreed to erect six houses, and ?250 was to be advanced for each house, something more than half a much as would be required to complete each of them. The builder got the carcases up, and then the agent put the stopper on him, and seized the houses for the ground landlord. Each house, in the manner it was left by the builder, when he was stopped, had full ?300 expended on it of somebody's money, and materials. For this the builder became bankrupt and he was sent to prison. The houses were then advertised for sale and sold, the agent buying them, and just for the amount advanced - ?1,500. So that after full ?1,800 had been expended on the houses the agent got them for ?300 less. The wages paid to the men employed on the building were as low as contract work usually is, and some carpenters there earned only 2s. 6d. a day of twelve hours. The work was let - brick-work, smith's-work, and all - and at a very low rate. Had fair living wages been paid to all employed the value of the six carcases would have been at least ?2,400; so that the lawyer you see, gains ?900 by this mode of management. These are the parties who thrive by the contract system. The public gains nothing, for the house is not let for a farthing less rent than if built on a fair wages system; but the owner of his people may get 15 or 16 per cent. for their money. There is the same system now being carried on, and to a very great extent, all over the same neighbourhood. Some as good mechanics as ever took a tool in hand work from four in the morning till eight or nine at night, and earn only 4s. a day. Before the contract system it was 5s. a day of ten hours. Now on this contract system men grow rich on the degradation and suffering of the working man, and on the swindling of the timber merchant, the iron merchant, and the other tradesmen out of the materials. Nineteen out of every twenty speculating builders become bankrupts. (I may add, that in the bankrupt lists of last year,  51 are returned as builders; the largest number in any trade, except drapers and victuallers.) "So that," continued my informant, "notwithstanding all the money that these speculating builders wring out of the men, they keep failing every day. The agent I've been speaking of stuck boards up over the neighbourhood, stating that the finishing of the carcases, as I've said, was to be let to the lowest bidder, on certain terms; advances were to be made on the surveyor's report, among other conditions. I knew, if a low figure wasn't sent in, it was no use trying for the job, so my brother and I bid for the work at the lowest possible sum. We reckoned on our own labour being serviceable, as we could do so much among ourselves, and save the expense of a foreman and such like. We hoped to make something, too, out of the extras, that is for extra work not included in the specification, for the specification is never correct. Men now bid very low in hopes of making their profit in this way. My father, my brother, and myself, didn't realize more than 4s. a day, working on an average 13 hours. If we'd been employed by a contractor, who took it at the rate we did, our wages couldnt have been more than 3s. a day, and that was the reason of our bidding for it. The journeymen in that neighbourhood now get 3s. a day, all the work being let and sub-let. A journeyman will undertake work to pay himself 4s. a day, and will hire men under him at 3s. - or even less - 14s. or l5s. a week. One man takes the windows, another the skirtings, another the doors, another the dwarf and high cupboards, another the stairs, another the mouldings, another the boxing shutters for the windows, and another the floors. The average price for labour in contract work windows is 6s. an opening for 25 feet, and according to Skyring's prices (which are low) the charge would be 10s. Doors, double moulded, are paid 2s. 6d. on an average, and they ought to be 5s.; of course, they must be scamped. On this work I must make two doors a day, while one properly made is a good long day's job. Some of these doors don't last above ten years. Staircases are done at ?3 a six-roomed houe; it ought to be from ?5 to ?5 10s. For boxing shutters ?1 4s. is the price, instead of from ?2 10s. to ?3. It's a fortnight's work to do it well; it's 40 feet work, a fair price (Skyring's) being 1s. 4?d. a foot. At Notting-hill, twelve years ago, I had ?2 10s. for this same work. Floors, on contract, are 2s. 6d. a square, though that's above the average, and they are honestly worth 5s.; Skyring gives 6s 6d. Skirtings, which they take by the house, are 15s., and ought to be ?2 10s. Mouldings, which are taken by the hundred feet sticking (working) are 1s. 6d. the hundred, running measure, the regular price being 4s. 2d. The dwarf and high cupboards are a shameful price by contract - 2s. 6d. each, with shelves folding doors, hanging, and everything complete. These prices are what I know of by my own experience; but when there's a further sub-letting by a journeyman contracting under the contract, and so getting hands at the lowest possible rates, they are even less than I have specified. Contracting altogether is a bad system; it's carried on for the benefit of a few at the cost of the working men, and out of their sweat, and at the cost too of respectable tradesmen many a time. Government contracts are carried on just the same way. I myself have worked at the Post-office, and the man next me had only 18s. a week. Since the present contractor has had it, only 12s. is paid; so you can see what it must all lead to. I reckon that there are from 18,000 to 20,000 working men in my trade in London; and I believe that full two-thirds of them at under wages. One half of the two-thirds will get 4s. a day, and the other third 2s. 6d. In London, as you have stated, sir, no doubt there are 6,405 houses built every year; and at least 6,000 of them are built by contract work, and speculating and scamping builders. All in the suburbs are. These would average (reckon the new houses erected to be chiefly in the suburbs) from ?30 to ?35 a year rent. One carpenter could frame and finish two such houses a year. That would give employment at the cheap built houses to 3,000 men. These houses are raised on the reduction of the working men's wages, and that reduction, as they now get 20s. where they did get 30s., makes the loss to each working man as much as 10s. a week, or ?25 a year, and that amounts in all to ?75,000 per annum, which somebody or other gets out of the journeymen carpenters alone. That somebody is not the public - that's very clear, for rents areas high if not higher, and since the majority of speculating builders become bankrupts, it's clear that the ground landlords, their solicitors and agents, are the only men benefited by the system. The effect of this reduction on the working men is, as I said, very bad indeed. Respectable masters, who would be fair and honest, are so cut down by competition, that they would almost as soon be without trade as with it. The consequence is, half of the men are unemployed, and when employed get not much more than half wages. If people only knew how the 200 miles of streets that have been built in London in the last ten years had been run up - through what sufferings to the working man and his family - they wouldn't think it quite so grand a thing."
    Of the effects of the sub-contracting system an old man gave me the following statement: -
    "I have known the trade forty years as a general hand, doing both carpenter's and joiner's work. Things are wonderfully altered since I first knew it. Thirty-five or forty years ago there was no cutting under, and no small masters taking work at prices that wouldn't pay them, and getting it out of the men. Lately I have been working at staircasing, and in houses run up by speculating builders. A journeyman like myself has taken my present work at 18s. a storey for staircasing. Each storey for this house will have 13 steps. A fair price would be ?2, or ?2 2s. The man who undertakes it at 18s., gives me 4s. a day of ten hours, from six to six. He employs old men - too old for first-rate work - and boys, and anybody that he can get cheap, and they scamp' the work as much as they possibly can. The work aint fit to be seen, but anything will do for speculating builders, so as they have it done cheap, and plenty of it. He gives a youth of 17 only 6s. a week - 1s. a day. He finds his own tools, and so do I, and so, do we all; and reckon this boy spends 1s. a week on his tools, he has 5s. a week left for his labour, and he's a handy chap, too. My employer has one old man, and he makes four-pannel square doors, 2 feet 6 inches by 8 feet 6 inches, at 1s. 6d. the door. The regular charge by Skyring's prices, at 5d. a foot, and that for 16 feet, would be 6s. 8d. Of such men and boys he usually employs from 6 to 20. He has built 100 houses, I dare say, by this system of engaging the sort of hands I tell you of, and paying them as I've said. He drives these boys and men like niggers; his son acts as foreman, and sees that they cram 18 hours work into 12; if they don't they're discharged. One man 'stuck' (worked) 400 feet of moulding in a day (10 hours), and he got discharged for not doing more. According to the price-book, it would be 16s. 8d. - the charge being a halfpenny a foot, and his pay was 4s. a day for doing  16s. 8d. worth of work. The master expected 500 feet for 4s. I don't work for the same man, but for one who has taken the stairs of him. He has taken twelve houses of the sort. The speculating builder prefers to let all he can. The work's then let and sublet again. He's now got a man planing floor-boards. He don't get them done at the mills and I'll tell you what he give the man. There's 6 'square' to be done; a 'square' is 100 feet, ?-inch, white deal, edges shot; and through the proper price is 5s. 6d. a square, or 33s. altogether, he gives only 10s. for 6 square, or 20d. a square; that's for planing, shooting, and laying. A young man does it; he's only 30, and he can't earn more than 2s. a day; but what's a man to do when he's had his hands in his pockets out of work for two or three weeks, with a wife and two children? A man's then obligated to do it. These are the sort of men such as my employer always gets hold of. If I was paid fairly for my work it would come to 7s. a day from the quantity. I should get discharged if I didn't do that quantity of work, and at a moment's notice. When one's on by day there's no notice wanted - you must leave that night. The man who's taken the work I'm now upon was out a long time, and he was obligated to take it to get a crust, and so must put on men worse off than he is. If the staircase was sub-let to me, or such a man as me, I might get 12s. in the room of the 18s. Houses run up this way don't let for one farthing cheaper; they look well outside and a gentleman wouldn't know it was all badly done. It's like a rogue with a good suit of clothes on his back, the house is. These houses won't stand long, some are built without mortar; the builders get the lime that tanners have done with in their trade and make that do; all the nature's out of it; it's no more good than mud, only it's white. The cheapest timber is used, American spruce and that's certain to fill the place with bugs; it always does. The men that work in such buildings are never society men, and are generally given to drink, and can't get work any where else. When I was a young man I had 5s. and 5s. 6d. a day. For the last four years I have had only 4s. a day, and often not more than 3s. I'm now 60. I couldn't get work at the regular prices, and I was obliged to go to a speculating builder or starve. They know all about that. The number of men working low like me has increased greatly in these five years. Many hands come from the country, too, specially from the west of England, where wages are 15s. to 18s., so that lots of hands can be had at almost any price in London. To-day an Irish carpenter offered to go to work at 4s. a week rather than starve. Some speculating builders take numbers of apprentices. I've worked for one who had three apprentices and one good hand. This cheap sort of work will ruin the trade altogether if a stop's not put to it. Every year it gets worse and worse, and in time there'll be no good workmen left, as everybody will be forced to scamp it. In many places they won't employ a man turned forty, for fear he can't do work enough. They like strong country fellows. When I first knew the trade there were no contracts. They've been the ruin of the trade among men and masters, who've been cutting one against another for twenty years now. No gentleman will set the most respectable builder in London to work now-a-days without a contract, it's come to such a pitch. Before contracts came into use all in the trade was well off - masters and men. Masters did their work honestly and fairly, and men were comfortable in their homes, and had their good meat dinners on a Sunday, and lived well generally. Now three-fourths of the men are starving, if you could know all, and none of them are contented. If bread and meat weren't reasonable, men couldn't live at all. Our wives had no need to work formerly, except doing their house work; they could mind their homes and their families then properly. Now they must strive and strive, and earn only 4d. or 5d. a day at needlework, and often see their children starving for all that. I know whole families who have to work now, when formerly only the father had to work, and the children are barefoot all the week. Many of our wives go out charing or washing, or they're put to making soldiers' coats. We all do four times the work we once did, families and all, and yet we don't get one-fourth the money for it that we once did. I don't make more than 10s. a week, the year through. My daughter, who is a shoebinder, makes 6d. a day."
    In my next Letter I purpose describing the different kinds of machinery employed in the building trade - such as the planing, moulding, and morticing machines. I shall likewise give an account of the establishment of Mr. Thomas Cubitt, at Thames-bank, Pimlico, so that the public may have an opportunity of contrasting the present treatment of the operatives by the worse class of masters with that of the better.

Henry Mayhew, letters to the Morning Chronicle, 1849-1850