Warehouses Waterloo Dock, the Graphic, 1877




Liverpool Journal, December 1st, 1849.


Review of the conditions of the operative porters and dock labourers of Liverpool

A class ever willing to work hard when work is to be had, and who are hence, when in distress, entitled to the warmest sympathy.

They are, "Who toil not, nether do they spin." It will be difficult to awaken in their minds much interest in the, "Battle of life," which theses poor sons of toil have continually to wage.

The generic term, "dock Labourer," applies to only a small amount of labourers employed here. The grand division into "operative porters" and "lumpers." There are from 12,000 to 14,000 of the former and 3,000 of the latter. The lumpers province is simply to discharge or load vessels, the cargo being deposited on the dock quay, the porters province is to receive, weigh, and load off goods when so deposited, - his duty extends to their stowage in a warehouse and delivery to parties to whom they are designed. The porters are of a superior class, the majority being able on occasion to, "handle a pen." Yet the wages scarcely differ, - maximum wages for both being, 3/6d a day. On a guinea a week a labourer and his family can in sobriety, subsist in comparative comfort, but alas, it is a petty minority who can boast constant employment, on average dock workers are employed an average, 2 days a week, earning only 7s a week. Many of course make more.

On Exchange Flags, dustered round or statuary proclaiming on monumental metal, the victories of our greatest naval hero's, are daily standing or longing, a number of operative porters waiting for work. Labour is scarce and often the poor fellows return to a cheerless home, disheartened and without pence to procure the necessary meal.

I address, Charles CASSIDY, an elderly man, of Bent St, who had worked for, 30 yrs as a porter. He was formerly employed by, Messers COOK and BIGLANDS, "But I have not," he said, "earned a days wage for the last 7 weeks. James LORIMER, an elderly man, 20 yrs a porter, replied, "I'm altogether out now, I may say." "Indeed," cried an emaciated fellow at my elbow. "Many a fine fellow has died from want, I'm ashamed to go home, time after time, with nothing. Thomas SMITH had been a porter for 40 yrs. For the last 10 wks he had, had only 2 half days each week. Peter REGAN, of 20 court, Bond St, a porter for 24 yrs, says he used to make a guinea a week, working for different merchants and brokers. "For the last 2yrs," he remarked, "I have not been with 5s a week, for the last 12 mths only half a crown a week." "Yes," said a bystander. "He understands all the different kinds of porterage and he has a wife and 3 children to keep."

I turned my attention to the docks, and shall describe first the conditions of the labourers who are not porters. The loading and discharging of a vessel is contracted for by a Master lumper [stevedore]. He bargains with the Captains of the vessels [who the power of making the contract is invariably left] as to the sum for the work to be done and employs the lumpers to do it. Any a person having an interest with the Captain can act as stevedore, it was only necessary to employ an experienced, "Boss", to superintend the operations.

10d per ton, [ a measure of 40 cubic ft] is the usual rate for stowing a ship, - chains and other heavy materials being put in by weight. This pays well, but by discharging a vessel scarcely any advantage can be made. Profits for the stevedores depend on the despatch, he can induce on those he employs, to get through the work, and when their utmost strength is exerted a variety of devices to attempt still more, this includes cruel goading.

"I have often," said a Hercules of a man, "been so tired in an evening, that I could not lift my hand to my head."

There are about 100 stevedores or Master lumpers of theses only 5 pay their men 3/6d a day, here I must note these men, Messers, Philip RILEY, John DURANT, Thomas PLUNKETT, James MC ANALLY and Daniel GRIBBIN. The rule is 3s, but often new and inexperienced hands, ["Grecians" they are called] from Ireland or elsewhere are picked up willing to work for less One lumper gives 18d I am told, “Oh but they are boys," was interposed, "Never mind," was the response "they have to do men's work."

It has often happened a stevedore has taken a job for a less figure than it was possible could renumerate, drawn the money, and ran off without paying the poor labourers he has employed.

Abuses have been greatly abated by a sort of moral influence brought by placards, issued from the Dock Labourers Trade Union. Several of the stevedores keep public houses and beer shops, and pay on them. "The Grecians" are suited only for some kinds of work, such as, heaving of windlass, and their inexperience has filled the hospitals in the town, as a result of accidents.

A fact highly creditable is that, the American Captains pay the stevedores they employ, 3/6d a day, while the English vessels are discharged for less.

The, "Boss," or foreman of a stevedore, a man well versed in the stowage of vessels gets 5/6d a day. There are more labourers who can earn twice this amount, known as, "corn-porter's lumpers," their duty consisted of bringing ashore sacks of grain, packed by other men working below in the hold, 2 allowed to each vessel. They work by piece and get 14d,[it was once 20d] for delivery on the quay of 100 bags of Indian corn. The sacks are heavy, and it takes the strength of an Ajax, to keep continually at work during the day. The sack fillers below get only 3s, and often on the worst terms, with the lumpers above who working by piece, keep a brisker demand, than they [probably short handed] are able to supply.

"Bushelling," as it is termed is an unwholesome occupation, the dust gets in the lungs, and an old busheller is rarely to be met with.

Corn porter's lumpers, to are very short lived, the exhausting character of the labour induces the desire for strong drinks and between drink and toil are soon killed off.

Other commodities are dealt with by piece work, block salt and coals are loaded for, 1d a ton.

The hours of a lumper are modified by the season, 6am-6pm, those working in bond have shorter hours, but are allowed 20mins for dinner. The operation of unloading cannot proceed after, Custom house, hours, and the Landing-waiters have left, but the men are nearly always kept in the hold, forwarding and loosening cargo for the next day.

It is common practice to load after dark, candles are not allowed below for safety reasons, in case of fire, but iron is material needing little care in stowage, as when thrown sets itself. Many an accident has occurred from this practice.

Each stevedore has an appointed place in or outside the dock walls, where he takes on men, it is pitiable to see on every occasion the vast numbers who are turned back.

Much that has been said illustrating the condition of the dock labourers applies in equal force to the operative porters.

Their hours to are from 6am-6pm, and they are equally over worked, but their time is spent in warehouses and on the dock quays.

Before the system of Master porterage prevailed the poor fellows sought the bill of entry in the morning to learn what vessels had come in then hurried off to the office of the owner or consignee to sign on for work.

Now they are ignorant to what Master Porters may have got discharging vessels and so do not know in which way it will be best to move.

It is not my business to discuss the evils or benefits of Master porterage, but I must stress that all the operatives with whom I spoke deemed it had done them an injury and a great wrong. It had caused less labourers to be employed, and they argued the merchant had not gained.. Formerly where goods belonging to 5/6 different merchants arrived in a vessel he felt it in his interest to send 2/3 labourers to look after his property when it was delivered to the quay, the men were there for that purpose and if the goods didn't turn up after 2/3 days they still got their wages. Now under the new scheme, he to whom the greatest of cargo belongs can claim to discharge the whole.

He employs a master porter for the purpose, his job is to get the work done in the quickest time and for the lowest cost. Here the merchants lose, hands employed by the master porters are inexperienced and goods are thrown on the quay, barrels are burst and great waste ensues.

The uninitiated would say portering needs little skill, experience tells a different tale. I frequently heard the remark that, if the merchants saw the reckless way the work was driven through and the amount of waste, the system would be extinguished.

How? I asked were the merchants not aware of it? "Bless your simplicity" was the unflattering response. "The majority of merchants are little more than old women!"

The porters are bound to the charges they make by a "book of rates" the following instances show how the merchant loses.

Oil have to be discharged for 1s each pipe under 12 cwt, if a merchant had 40, the cost of porterage would be £2, 4 men can easily discharge, 40 pipes a day, their wages would be 14s. The merchant loses 1/6d. The profits of the master porters are considerable. I heard of one who cleared £30 in 3 days. In the old days the £30 would have gladdened 30 families, now at the point of starvation, instead it enriches one man.

Cotton pays worse, I believe. Synonymous with the change of the porterage system, was the abolition of duty on cotton, which has no longer to go on the scales at the dock quay. The rapidity at which it has now been ascribed, very Improperly to the facilities to the master porter system. There are 50 middlemen as master porters, many merchants had licensed themselves for self protection, preferring to discharge their own vessels. The petition for abolishing the system was signed by 370 merchant firms.

The wages of porters is small, but it is well know that the poor fellows pay a premium bribe to obtain a preference of work. They go to a warehouseman or Captain and offer 3-4s out of their wages for a weeks work.

This being the timber season, work is abundant in the Southern docks A porter in the discharge of timber gets 4s and 2 pints of ale a day. The work is laborious and the hours long. On the contary, owing to the easterly winds, there is little progress at the North docks and porters are idle. Cruel that the North East wind should act as a curfew in the labourers cottage and rob him of the ability to purchase fuel and food.

Inquired as to the wage as a porter, some men will not earn, £1 in 7 weeks.

How do they live?, I asked. "Some have credit at a shop, wives take in washing and they strive to live on one meal a day."I have not earned £3 in the last 3 mths," said a respectful man, the same tale was uttered from many a mouth

I went at random to the house of a porter in Heaton St, Vauxhall Rd, a fine, sinewy, honest looking man, he had, had no work for 3 wks, and for the past 6 mths had only had, half time.

He had a wife and child and the wife was labouring from a chronic illness. The family exist by pawning wearing apparel.

The next house I entered was occupied by a corn porter, [in both cases through a noble delicacy felt, I suppress the names]

The wages of a corn porter is 3s a day, he has at the outside 3-4days a week. How do you live on 9s a week?. I inquired, "Aye but how do we live on 6s and 5 of us." Says the good wife. "Well" said the lord of the mansion. "We just strive to live, we have not a shilling in the house, we trust a small shop, but if we don't meet the bill on Saturday night we have no more credit." They to had, had to pawn. The rent for the house was 3s-6d.

Everywhere the system of master porterage was condemned the operatives say they are driven to their tasks with a severity unknown before.

A person [name mentioned], once a rigger, master porter and stevedore, was very unpopular with the men. He pays low wages, a lumper told me, he worked for him some time ago, when he went for his pay to the office on Saturday night, he was given only 2s, If any man grumbled, he had a bully engaged at the pay table ready to knock him down.

All were in fear and apprehension, that any statements, made by them, might cause them to be victimised by their employers.

One poor fellow told me, he had given evidence as to a light being illegally used by a stevedore in stowing the cargo of the ill fated, OCEAN MONARCH, and he had not been able to obtain work for some time afterwards.

The fear of being consigned to starvation by the refusal of employment, induces slavish submission, and a system of petty terrorism prevails along the docks.

The dock labourers are not adverse to the Albert dock as it employs more workmen than any other.

They feel that in making the appointments, it would have been well, had fewer given to disregard gentlemen's servants, and more to licensed porters of the town

It to seems a mockery that they should be charged a shilling for a license and then much of the work they are licensed to do be given to other parties, unlicensed and less competent than themselves. It would prove difficult for dock rating advocates to show what ever employment they afford, the docks constantly invite poverty into the town.

We have seen the wages of a dock labourer are 3s to 3/6d a day. But 2s, would appear munificent payment to a poor half-starved peasant in Ireland. It is true that the work is constant, but each one supposes that he will be more fortunate than his fellow, and hence the half medicant migration continually pouring in.


Copyright 2002 / To date