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THE LONDON DOCKS.

THE PINCH OP POVERTY.

[“ MICAWBER ” IN THE MELBOURNE ‘Evening Standard.’] Just now, when the mammoth strike of the dock laborers in London is attracting widespread interest, a few reminiscences of one who endured the ordeal of a week’s work in the St, Katherine Docks, London, may prove not uninteresting. I shall not descant on the circumstances which compelled me to seek this last resort of the unemployed, but shall merely content myself by stating that was hard up, on my “upper,” “stone broke,” or any other phrase expressive of the state of an entire absence of the coin of the realm and the overwhelming conviction of the need of a square meal. I was living in the East End, and, having retired aupperless to bed on Sunday night, I determined to try my luck the following morning at the dock gate. I had been told tbat the time for selecting men was 8 o’clock a.m., but I thought I should have a better chance if I got to the scene of action early, and I accordingly was on the spot by six o'clock, thinking 1 should be the first arrival. Vain hope. At that early hour there were nearly fifty men gathered round the gates, and the number vi as momentarily being added to, and at 7.45 there must have been 150 men, of all sores and conditions, shapes and sizes, waiting to learn their fate, or, as a gentleman near me remarked, to try their bloomin’ (only he did not say bloomin’) luck. As I had indulged in the luxury of a breakfast before I set out I was able to bear my two hours’enforced idleness with something I like equanimity, and the observation of my neighbors afforded me ample food for reflection. To begin with, it was obvious to the 1 meanest capacity that the majority of those ' present had not breakfasted. There was a twitching expression aboutthe mouth of most of them that to this day always makes me feel ill when I see it. It is a sure sign of hunger. No matter what a man’s ordinary expression is, or however strong his inward resolve may be to conceal his state, if he is hungry—really hungry—bis under lip will inevitably drop and twitch. Well the prevalent expression was hunger: but pretty nearly every other phase of a certain class of suffering the suffering which arises from the conviction of the Hopelessness of the. struggle for existence—was visible. Wo were standing upon the pavement and roadway in knots and groups, not fighting and pushing to get near the gates; it was not time for that yet, although it was to come soon enough, and 1 had an opportunity of not only observing, but speaking to, some of my companions in misfortune. My right hand neighbor was a man in the prime of life, of Herculean proportions. He was dressed in well - worn corduroys, and had the appearance of a navvy, which, in fact, he was. He wore a surly look of resigna- , tion, and began the conversation with “ Come far, mate ? ” On telling him where I had come from, he remarked that I was lucky, as he had tramped it from Deptford, a distance of something like nine miles. To my query, did he expect to “ get on ? ” No, he didn’t. “ Who could ?—there’s so many of us.” But he intended to have a blank blank try. If he did not get on at the docks, then be meant to go to the Surrey Commercial Basin, some four miles down, and see if he could get a job at unloading a timber ship which had just arrived; and if he could not get on there, why he would tramp back to Deptford, and pray for better luck next time. The next man I spoke to was a very old fellow, apparently on the wrong side of sixty, but he told me himself he was only fifty-four. He was small and thin, and looked quite unfitted for the heavy work of dock laboring, bnt he said he could lift “ three bunder ” on his back quite easily, and I was afterwards astonished at the weights these undersized little Cockneys could struggle under. To my query as to whether he had come far, he told me from the East India Dock road—a mere trifle of four miles. He did not expect to “geton,” because there were so many “young uns ” to compete against, and he added, “I hope I don’t.” I stared. Who was this man, dressed in shabby clothes, and obviously who did not want to work ? Was he a millionaire disguised, who had come down to see “life,” or an eccentric student of human nature, or a maniac? He was not any of the three, as his own words soon proved to me. He had noticed my stare of surprise, and said: “ Ah, you may look, mate, but in my heart I hope I don’t get a job this morning. If I do, I am booked for the day, and I reckon by the time I get home my little Annie will be dead. The doctor says she can’t live through to-day. She’s down with convulsions, and I should like to see her once more.” All this was said calmly and nncomplainingly, as if his Annie’s death would be aa unfortunate incident, but struggling for a day’s hard work was a thing ordered, expected, and not to be resisted. There was. no pathos about his little speech ; the only pathos was in the man’s settled look of misery when he remembered his child’s name. Oh, shades of Dickens, here is a theme for a novelist! Struggling and fighting for 8s for a hard day’s work, and wishing that he may not get in, in order that he may be present at his daughter’s death. What a subject for Hogarth that man’s face! White, pinched, and hungerstruck, and cowed, with a certain nndefinable expression of determination shining through—the determination to be there and take his chance for his 3s, nomatter how great bis desire to see fais> child might be. Surely the bitter sarcasm of a man in the crowd, though blasphemous, might seem true to these poor wretches. “ God sees everyone,” said he in a tone of mock religion, “ except; dock laborers.” The next man I spoke to bad an absurdly hopeful disposition, I should say. Be had come from Bow Greek (nine miles distant), and had not tasted, food since the previous day at five o’clock, Ha had been at the dock gates every day for the last ten days, and expected to “ get on that morning, as he reckoned it was about his turn; and,” said he, with what I thought uncalled for cheerfulness, “ even if 1 do not, I ain’t like some of them, as my eldest boy brings home 7s on Wednesday, and after paying 4s for the rent, I reckon me and the missis and the kids can rnl> along for a few days,” Great Scott! who shall probe the depths of poverty when s man rejoices over his less fortunate fellowcreatures because he can rob along for a few days on 3s with a wife and family. Surely there is humor in everything. Bat, indeed, 1 found no lack of wit in the crowd, strange as It may seem, looking at their wretched circumstances. One old gentleman was a constant source of merriment, having quite a Sam Wellerish supply of smart sayings, “ What,” said he, with withering irony, to another old fellow, who looked even more wretched, if that were possible, than himself, “ you here again ! I am surprised at you hexposin’ of yourself to the cold mornin* hair, when you’ve got a nice comfortable public of yonr hovn to stop im hup ’Ackney way,’ Then he knocked at the small wicket door of the dock gate, and called “ Constable ” with such an air of authority tbat that functionary immediately opened It. “ TeU the guv’nor I ain’t in no particular hurry for a hour or two, and don’t mind waiting at ail and Robert retired amid sounds of merriment, which, however, had a very huncrv sound. 6 J As a quarter to eight o’clock wore on everyone began to look serious. The knots and groups broke up and formed into one solid mass round the gates. There was & gentle pushing and shoving, the young ■and strong forcing themselves into commanding positions Immediately outside the gates, and the old and weak being lefton the outside of the crowd.. It was, indeed, a struggle of the survival of the fittest, for a good position might mean food’ for the little ones, medicine and comforts forthe sick, or the warding off of actual starvation for a few days by the aid of thetremendous sum of 3s per day. As the bands of the big dock clock slowly ap preached eight o’clock a book might be written on the expressions of the sea of ap turned faces. Hope, fear, doubt, misery, hunger were all too plainly visible, and the of that scene and the op,?, y<iloh, followed it wiß never fade mm my memory. It wanted’ but two minutes to eight when a big

policeman made his appearance outside the gates, evidently us a mutter of form only, for he could do nothing to stop the crowd of half-starved men who were pushing and struggling round the entrance. The method adopted by the Dock Company for selecting (?) men for employment is a singularly cruel one, even for large employers of labor at the smallest possible prices. The plan followed is this:—The men are told to assemble at a certain hour outside the gates, which are locked, and punctually at the time stated a ticket is held just over the big gate, and the man (or men) who gets it is taken on. The system, of course, is a simple one for the Dock Company, and saves them much valuable time and money; but for those men who happen to be impudent enough to be old or weak it is anything but satisfactory. On the stroke of eight o’clock a paper was held out over the gate, and then began a wild scramble, the like of which I hope never to see again. It was not like the scramble one sees at a theatre or football mutch, but a fierce, savage fight—a real struggle for bread. Those on the outside, although they knew they had no chance, made desperate attempts to get hold of the coveted paper, which meant so much to them ; and those in good positions near the gate struggled sternly amongst themselves for it. All the patience and resignation to be noticed whilst they were waiting had vanished now that the actual prospect of three trumpery shillings was actually before them, and no quarter was asked, none assuredly was given. My old friend, whose daughter was dying at home, was in the foremost of the fray. “He did not want to get on.” To look at him you would have thought that he did. His daughter must die, he knew that; but here was the means for the living—the starving wife and little ones and himself. At length a tall, powerful fellow obtained possession of the paper, and the contest ceased for a moment, only to be renewed again and again, till all the hands required (9 on that morning) were taken on. I had at first struggled with the rest, but despaired of grasping the prize after the first man had been taken on, and, besides, was so heart sick and weary at tho misery of the whole thing that I retired, and stood watching tho others. Tho last man taken on, I, in company with several others, made my way up Tower Hill, and as we passed a baker’s cart crammed with freshly baked rolls and bread, and smelling deliciously in the morning air to hungry men, a severe struggle between mum and laum must have taken place in many a breast besides my own. The next day I took my chance at the docks again, and was again unsuccessful. However, two days later it was imperative I should get some work. “ Not to put too fine a p’int on it,” I was starving, and I therefore fought my way to the front and managed to “get on.” I worked a week in the dock, at tho end of which time I was enabled to leave, circumstances having considerably altered. As far as the work goes, I can only say it is as hard as can possibly be imagined.

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Permanent link to this item

https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18890923.2.20

Bibliographic details

THE LONDON DOCKS., Issue 8019, 23 September 1889

Word Count
2,110

THE LONDON DOCKS. Issue 8019, 23 September 1889

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