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and doors, cupboards, staircases, and other joiner's work was always going on, and the men employed all lived in the small streets surrounding the shop. The working hours were from six to half-past five, with one and a half hours out for meals, leaving a working day of ten hours.
Having nothing else to do, I used to spend the greater part of my time in the shop, seeing the men work, doing little jobs occasionally, and listening to their conversation. These were no doubt an average sample of London mechanics, and were on the whole quite as respectable a set of men as any in a similar position to-day. I soon became quite at home in the shop, and got to know the peculiarities of each of the men. I heard their talk together, their jokes and chaff, their wishes and their ideas, and all those little touches of character which come out in the familiar intercourse of the workshop. My general impression is that there was very little swearing among them, much less than became common thirty years later, and perhaps about as much as among a similar class of men to-day. Neither was there much coarseness or indecency in their talk, far less indeed than I met with among professional young men a few years afterwards. One of the best of the workmen was a very loose character-a kind of Lothario or Don Juan by his own account—who would often talk about his adventures, and boast of them as the very essence of his life. He was a very good and amusing talker, and helped to make the time pass in the monotony of the shop; but occasionally, when he became too explicit or too boastful, the foreman, who was a rather serious though very agreeable man, would gently call him to order, and repudiate altogether his praises of the joys of immorality. But I never once heard such foul language as was not uncommonly used among themselves by young men of a much higher class and much more education.
Of course, I heard incidentally a good deal about how they lived, and knew exactly what they earned, and I am thus enabled to correct some very erroneous statements which have been made of late years as to the condition of artisans in the early part of the nineteenth century, before the repeal
of the corn-laws. Perhaps the most glaring and the most numerous of these errors are due to Sir Robert Giffen, who, being considered an official statistical authority, continues to be quoted to the present day as if his statements were to be absolutely relied on. More often quoted than any other of his writings is his “ Progress of the Working Classes in the last Half Century,” given as a Presidential Address to the Statistical Society in 1883, and issued as a pamphlet, price threepence, in 1884, at the request of several friends, including Mr. Gladstone, who styled it “a masterly paper.” It would occupy a whole chapter to expose the errors and the fallacies that pervade this paper, and I must therefore confine myself to two points only, that of the rise of wages and of the food of skilled artisans.
Mr. Giffen gives the weekly wages of carpenters at Manchester as 24s. fifty years ago and 348. in 1883, an increase of 42 per cent, but he omits to give prices for London. In the Report of the Industrial Remuneration Conference, Mr. J. G. Hutchinson gives the wages at Greenwich in 1832 as 325. 6d., and in 1876 as 398. 8d., a rise of only 22 per cent. Again, Mrs. Ellis, a Huddersfield pattern-weaver, told the conference that Mr. Giffen's statements in the same table, of the earnings of her fellow-workers, were grossly inaccurate. He gave them as 255. a week against 16s. fifty years earlier, whereas they were only earning an average of 2os. in 1883. The wages where my brother worked were 30s. a week for all the men employed. We see, therefore, that Mr. Giffen's general statement that wages have risen “in most cases from 50 to 100 per cent." is open to the gravest doubt; while even if it were nearly accurate, it would not by any means prove what he claims—that these workers are very much better off than they were fifty years earlier. He certainly saves himself, verbally, by terming it an “apparent rise,” but he never attempts to get at the real rise, and throughout his argument hardly refers to this point again. Yet it is a most important one, on account of the fact which he notices, that, at the date of his paper as now, in all the building trades wages are reckoned and paid by the hour, instead of by the day as at the
earlier period, when also men were rarely discharged except at the week end. Then, again, Mr. Giffen speaks of the shorter hours of work which from “one or two scattered notices" he estimates at nearly 20 per cent., and then adds, “ The workman gets from 50 to 100 per cent. more money for 20 per cent. less work; in round figures, he has gained from 70 to 120 per cent. in fifty years in money return." What a conclusion for a statistician, from a very limited comparison of wages obtained almost wholly from the masters, and from “one or two scattered notices," as regards hours of work!
But it is when he deals with the real value or purchasing power of this greatly exaggerated increase of wages that we find the grossest errors and the wildest declamation. After just remarking that "sugar and such articles " have decreased greatly in price, that clothing is also cheaper, and that though house-rent has gone up, “it cannot have gone up so much as to neutralize to any serious extent the great rise in the money wages of the workman," he admits that the increase in the price of meat is considerable. And then comes this amazing statement: “The truth is, however, that meat fifty years ago was not an article of the workman's diet as it has since become. He had little more concern with its price than with the price of diamonds."
I was so perfectly astounded at this statement that I at once made a few inquiries. A very intelligent man, a printer in the City, gave me facts from his own observation. About the time referred to, his father kept a public-house in or near Greenwich, much frequented by mechanics and other workmen, who came there in considerable numbers to have their dinner. He assured me that almost without exception they had fresh meat, which they either brought ready cooked, or had purchased on their way to work and cooked in a frying-pan or gridiron at the kitchen fire, many of them bringing large chops or steaks of good quality. Remembering the cheapness of meat when I was a boy, and remembering also the well-to-do appearance of the carpenters in Mr. Webster's shop, I wrote to ask my brother how they lived during the twelve years he was in London, the last six working
as a journeyman in large shops and living on journeyman's wages. His statement is as follows:
“Having been personally associated with the workers in the building trade about half a century ago (from 1835 to 1845), I feel qualified to describe the social condition of skilled mechanics at that period, more especially that of the carpenters and joiners. At that time every kind of work was done by hand, no machines except hand-tools were ever used, even boards of all thicknesses being sawn on the premises by hand labour out of thick planks from Northern Europe or Canada.
“The wages of good workmen were 5s. a day of ten hours; and 6d. an hour was added or deducted for any variation from that time. No wages were paid except for a fair amount of work, and if the work was temporarily suspended by rain or otherwise, no compensation was given or expected. All the joiner's work was done in shops, generally well lighted and with good sanitary conditions ; nothing but the rough carpenter's work was done in buildings before the roof was on. Working hours were from 6 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., with an hour and a half out for breakfast and dinner. Men were paid weekly on Saturday evening, and were generally discharged at that time, and the last two hours and a half were allowed for grinding tools.
“ The best workmen were seldom discharged unless in very dull times. At many shops men often worked for years without ever losing time except through sickness or accident;
There were but, of course, these were the very best men. always some out of work, especially in winter or in times of depression.
As regards their social condition, the skilled workman with his 305. a week, if a single man of steady and frugal habits, could save half his wages and have proper food, lodging, and clothing suitable to his position. His furnished lodging of one room would cost 45. a week, and his three meals a day, taken at the eating-houses and coffee-shops, would not cost more than 8s. a week; his working clothes were cheap, and he would have one
superior suit for Sundays and holidays. Of course, if he were of a gay disposition, he would spend more and save less, but that would not be the indispensable outlay of a working man.
"In the case of a married man with a family, it would, of course, be more difficult to save money, but I have known men live well and respectably, bring up a family, and put by regularly for the expected 'rainy day,' and eventually build their own house, and start in business, in a small way at first, and become masters and gain a competence; but these are exceptional cases.
“The generality of carpenters and joiners with a family would live in lodgings of two or three rooms with their own furniture (much of which the man could make in his spare time in the evening), paying 5s. or 6s, a week, and with a careful and industrious wife could live well on their wages, clothe and educate their children, and still have something to put by. I have never known a carpenter in work, whether married or single, that did not have a good dinner of meat and vegetables every day, and on Sundays something extra ; they always had beer for dinner and often at their work about ten o'clock, and sometimes in the afternoon.
"As near as I can recollect the prices of provisions were for meat from 6d. to 8d, a pound, bread 7d. the four-pound loaf, butter iod., cheese 8d., and sugar 6d. to 9d. The bricklayers had about the same wages as the carpenters, but owing to lost time during bad weather, they were generally not so well off, or generally so well housed and fed, but I never heard or knew of any destitution or want among them. Of the social condition of the plasterers, painters, and other house finishers I know less, but all appeared well satisfied with their condition, and, at all events, no general dissatisfaction was expressed."
It is, I think, quite clear from this statement of my brother's that the standard of comfort of the skilled artisan was as high fifty years ago as it is now, notwithstanding his somewhat lower wages and his working ten instead of nine hours a day.