Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - A Coal "Marriage"

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IT is a fact generally known, that by far the greater part of the tens of thousands of tons of coal brought to London finds its way thither via the Great Northern, the North Western, and the Midland lines of railway, but it is questionable if one consumer in a score is aware of the vast and peculiar facilities that exist for the cheap and speedy discharge of the contents of the great trucks into the horse wagons which bear the valuable mineral to our coal-cellars. Any information that helps to put the "coal question" fairly and squarely before the public should be acceptable at the present time, and it was with this view that I recently paid a visit to the little known "coal bays" at St. Pancras.
    To speak of a "bay" in connection with coal is to suggest the sea-borne article, but the bays of St. Pancras are not spaces of ocean hemmed in by land, but plots of land bounded by bricks and mortar. They are, in fact, railway arches, the feet of which are planted in the Queen's highway, while their respective crowns, for a length and breadth of scores and scores of acres, serve to support an intricate network of rails that, branching away from the various main lines, combine to form the most important of our metropolitan coal depots. At the spot in question, which is within a few minutes' walk of King's-cross Railway Station, there are hundreds of these arches, or bays, [-204-] each inscribed with the name of the merchant who rents it - ten or a dozen in some cases, appearing as the property of one proprietor. The jetty combustible is not stored in the bays, however. It is true they are capacious, and would probably hold each a hundred tons or more; but such small peddling is quite beneath the notice of our modern princes of the coal trade, who not unfrequently send out two and three hundred tons a day. They must have a supply laid on direct and constantly from the main, or, what is the same thing, the mine; and by an ingenious contrivance, this is managed quite easily. It is a fact that speaks forcibly in favour of those who insist that there is no reason why coal at the present season should be at two guineas a ton, that the distance from the coal-field to the domestic coal-cellar is spanned by a single bridge, as it were. Under the existing system of transit it is quite possible that coal haled out of a pit two hundred miles away last night may, by noon to-day, be blazing in our fire grates.
    The flow of coal to the London depot, and thence to the vessels prepared for its reception is as trustworthy and manageable as the water which is supplied to our domestic cisterns by means of the New River Company's underground conduits. As already stated, the so-called bays are the arches of the railway on the rails of which stand the coal trucks that have been shunted from the main lines. Penetrating the roof of each arch is a capacious "spout," the upper mouth of which is open at the tailboard of a coal truck. The lower mouth of the spout is below in the arch where the coal wagons draw in to get their loads, and is guarded by a lid that is easily managed by means of a lever. Immediately beneath this lid are the scales on which the coal is weighed. An empty sack is held upright on the scale, the lid which guards the fully charged spout is shifted aside and when the sack is filled, which is the work of not more than half a minute, the lid is thrust back and the stream shut off. All that remains to be Cone is to see to the exact balanc-[-205-]ing of the two hundredweight of coal, which is at once transferred to the wagon.
    It is a very rapid operation, as, having timed it, I am able to vouch. An empty wagon drew into a "bay," and two tons of coal were deposited in it, and the vehicle drawn out to make room for another, in less than fifteen minutes. On either side of the thoroughfare, which is wider than and quite as long as Fleet-street, there are bays from one end to the other, and, business being at full blast, the downpour of coal from above must have been at the rate of several tons per minute; whilst, thanks to the admirable management above described, the waste of the precious mineral was scarcely worth mentioning. A fog of sparkling, gritty dust made each bay as gloomy as though it was already night, and set the horses in the wagons sneezing at an alarming rate. But the brimming over of coal bits of any size was rare. On the river and at the wharf where the coal is discharged from barges and carried ashore a sack at a time, so considerable is the spilling that the "mudlarks" who hover about Thames-bank with their bags and baskets make a livelihood by picking out of the ooze the lumps that have fallen there. In the neighbourhood of the St. Pancras bays, however, there was but one old woman, a privileged gleaner evidently, and during the hour I was there she had not more than half filled the small handbag she carried.
    Perhaps the custodians of the spout are less careful when coal is at a more reasonable price, and she then does better. It makes a difference to every one, their being so dear. The excessive cost of the article has, it is said, nearly ruined the dust contractors. Seven years ago, a successor of the renowned Adam Bell, whose celebrated cinder heap, as recorded in song, cumbered the soil of Maiden-lane, which is close at hand, paid to the parish of St. Pancras the handsome sum of 1,500 per annum for the privilege of carting away and appropriating the contents of the dust bins of the inhabitants. At present, [-206-] however, and for some time past, he deems the job so unremunerative that he declines it under a less payment than 4,000 a year for his services. Coal at a guinea and a half the ton has taught the consumer to be economical, and to avail himself more industriously than of old of the saving "sifter." It is said by dust contractors that the amount of cinders committed with the dust to the "bin" is not more than a third of what it used to be, and that even these are of such a poor quality as to be worth next to nothing at all for brickmaking purposes.
    In justice it should be stated that in the general aspect of this, one of the chief strongholds of the London inland coal trade, I discovered nothing that was glaringly suggestive of those bandit propensities of which many concerned in the "black diamond" trade have recently been accused. There is nothing in the least piratical in the appearance of the sooty crews who man the coal spouts and generally manage the business of thie bays. On the contrary they are a subdued and meek-looking class of men. In the old times when nearly all coal was sea-borne and Bankside was famous as being the haunt and home of the British coalheaver, there was a lawlessness that distinguished "fillers" and "backers" on board the wharfside barges that is altogether foreign to the modern family of inland "coaleys." One can without difficulty imagine the kneebreeched, broad-backed, beer-swigging Banksider of ancient times taking a malicious delight in the increased value of coal, and his tripping along the shore plank, laden with a couple of hundredweight, with all the more pride and satisfaction for the knowledge that every sack he carried was worth a silver crown. But none of this sort of spirit is displayed at the St. Pancras bays. There is a degree of morality in the atmosphere that goes far towards counteracting the gloom of coal dust. With a feeling similar to that which was probably experienced by a certain man who once upon a time went down to Jericho, I [-207-] entered on my exploration. Consequently I was the more amazed at the many evidences of a disposition towards probity that met me on every side. Over against many of the bays there were printed intimations to "dealers" to stand by the scales and see their coals weighed, and then - to make doubly sure - to see them weighed again on the weigh-bridge, before they were taken through the gates. Scores of coalheavers, off duty for the time, lounged about the bays, but they were neither brawling nor beer-drinking. Here, in one corner of a bay, might be seen half a dozen reclining picturesquely on coal sacks, and indulging in sober discourse were as many more, resting on their elbows and placidly puffing their pipes, as one Of the company read aloud from a weekly newspaper.
    But what was most noticeable and convincing, that the coal merchant, like other individuals that might be named, is not always as black as he is painted, was to be seen over against a coal bunk on which reposed a grey-haired heaver calmly enjoying his tobacco. The noticeable feature in question took the form of an inscription in chalk characters, very large and well written, and was a quotation from the Bible, "Be sure your sin will find you out." It was very extraordinary. To whom was the pious reminder addressed? Was it a modest and weak remonstrance having reference to the sin of slander indulged in during the past year or so by the general public against misjudged wholesale traffickers in coal? That could scarcely be, since it was improbable that half a dozen of the general public would pass that way in the course of a week. Was it intended as a warning hint to retail dealers who came there and, alter receiving fair weight and honest worth for their money, departed to play shabby tricks with their purchases, to bring discredit on the whole coal trading community? But it was idle to speculate, when possibly the individual reclining on the bunk beneath the inscription was placed there to answer the questions of the curious.
[-208-] The man was civil, and not averse to conversation. The Scriptural quotation was the handiwork of a good street-preacher, who occasionally visited the bays and held forth to a numerous and appreciative audience of coal carmen. He was not aware that any particular sin was alluded to, nor did he think that it bore especial reference to certain malpractices of the trade, which had of late been exposed in the newspapers, though, of course, there was no objection to any one wearing the cap if his conscience suggested that it wouldn't be a bad fit for him. I asked him how he found the coal trade just now, and whether he was getting an extra slice out of its exceptional prosperity. He sighed, and sadly shook his head, and replied,
    "Not a oat. I ain't gettin' a penny more wages than when Wallsends was at twenty-two. We don't get anything extra, not any of us carmen and carriers, I assure you, sir."
    "Perhaps you already have what you regard as sufficient wages ?" I suggested.
    "Well, I could do with a bit more, sir," replied the civil heaver; "four-and-twenty bob a week don't go far where there's a family, even when it's eked out with ticklers."
    "And do you eke out your family with - with ticklers ?"
    "Not the family; it's the wages that the ticklers ekes out. You know what I mean - the spiffs, the palm-oilers, what we has giv us when we deliver loads. And," continued my informant, with a sigh that sent quite a cloud of smoke out of his short black pipe, "they have come down miserable lately, 'pon my soul they have. 'Stead of bein' anything in by coals going up, it's all t'other way with us. You gets your nose bit off a'most every time you ask. 'Drop o' beer, mum,' ses you, after you've shot 'em and borrowed a broom and swept up all tidy - 'drop o' beer, please, mum!' 'What!' ses they, 'you ought to be ashamed to ask for such a thing with coals at two pound a ton.'"
    "The coal merchants must be doing remarkably well," I ventured.
    [-209-] "Eggstryorniary," replied the coal carman - "so is the dealers."
    "The retail trade, you mean - the shopkeepers who vend small quantities in poor neighbourhoods ?"
    "Well, they are doin' werry tidy, I should say, but nothing to what the nobblers are doing."
    "The nobblers !"
    "Ah - the advertising coves in the newspapers who offer to sell at about fifteen shillings a ton under the market price, and who make out a list as long as your arm of the different sorts they keep on their premises. Their premises, the wagabones! Why, it's only a back yard at best, with hardly room in it for marrying the few loads of low sorts they manage to lay in stock."
    "I beg pardon. Hardly room in the back yard for doing what did you say ?"
    "For marrying the rubbish they sell the public. Anybody as knows anything about coals could tell that such a mixshur ain't natural. They'll buy a truck load of slate and another of screenings and another of decent coal, say, as coal goes now, at about twenty-four, and then they marry the three sorts together with quantities of each, according if it's best Wallsends you orders, or only seconds. They're poor beggars, all them nobblers, and never keep their own wagons."
    "There you must be in error," said I, "it was only this morning that I saw a laden wagon bearing the name of one of the cheap advertising firms you speak of."
    "Ah," bearing the name, returned the grey-haired coalheaver, with a wink, that contrasted oddly with the inscription in chalk over his head, "you saw a wagon wearing a 'dicky' you mean - a false front plate, with a name on it what slips on and off like them on the wans that the pianoforte makers borrow. Whenever you see one of these kinds of wehicles, sir, you may pretty well reckon on the sort o' coal that's in the sacks."
    [-210-] I should like to have pursued the interesting conversation a little further, but at that moment my informant was hailed to join his gang, and, with one last glance at the Scriptural quotation, I came away.