The working classes and the poor
- Article by: Liza Picard
- Published: 14 Oct 2009
The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow
Photograph of a Glasgow slum by Thomas Annan, 1868.
EarningsA skilled London coach-maker could earn up to five guineas (£5, five shillings) a week - considerably more than most middle class clerks. This was the top of the working class pyramid. The railways generated employment for porters and cab-drivers. The London omnibuses needed 16,000 drivers and conductors, by 1861. Conductors were allowed to keep four shillings a day out of the fares they collected, and drivers could count on 34 shillings a week, for a working day beginning at 7.45 and ending often past midnight. A labourer’s average wage was between 20 and 30 shillings a week in London, probably less in the provinces. This would just cover his rent, and a very sparse diet for him and his family.
Street incidents photographs
Photograph of omnibus coachmen by John Thomson, 1876-77.
CostermongersDuring the late 1800s there were probably about 30,000 street sellers (known as costermongers) in London, each selling his or her particular wares from a barrow or donkey-cart. The journalist Henry Mayhew recorded the array of goods for sale: oysters, hot-eels, pea soup, fried fish, pies and puddings, sheep’s trotters, pickled whelks, gingerbread, baked potatoes, crumpets, cough-drops, street-ices, ginger beer, cocoa and peppermint water as well as clothes, second-hand musical instruments, books, live birds and even birds nests. Some specialised in buying waste products such as broken metal, bottles, bones and ‘kitchen stuff’ such as dripping, broken candles and silver spoons. Most middle class and working class households depended on these street sellers, who had regular predictable beats, and made a fair living.
On the streetsMen could earn pennies as porters, as long as they stayed clear of the associations which had a monopoly of porterage in London. Boys could hold horses’ heads while the driver took a break, or sell newspapers or fast food in the streets. The ‘mudlarks’ of both sexes and all ages waded thigh‐deep in the filthy toxic Thames mud to retrieve anything they could sell. Dogs’ turds could be collected and sold to the tanneries. Discarded cigar butts could be recycled and marketed as new.
After workIf a man had enough initiative and energy after a long working day, he could attend evening courses on scientific subjects or Latin or shorthand at a Mechanics’ Institution, or at one of the Working Men’s Colleges founded in 1854. Newspapers such as The Penny Newsman were affordable, often shared between friends. Trade Unions needed intelligent self-educated men as Union officials. Massive civil engineering works such as railways and docks needed foremen, while factories needed overseers to keep the belts and wheels turning profitably. A working woman could learn French at a Working Women’s College. It might come in useful if she progressed up the ladder of domestic service to become a ladies’ maid.
WorkhousesWhen you have no prospect of a living wage, or sickness or disability or market forces prevent you from working, what are you to do?
Poster responding to the New Poor Law
Poster created in response to the controversial New Poor Law, estimated 1834.View images from this item (1)
Comic song about the workhouse
Illustration for a song about the workhouse contrasting a miserly and well-fed overseer with starving, ragged clothed inmates, estimated 1843.View images from this item (1)
Casual labourThe shipbuilding yards and the new docks in London and the north east required huge labour forces, but demand was unpredictable. Every morning crowds of men congregated at the gates hoping for a day’s work, at three pence an hour, but the docks or the shipyards might be closed for lack of orders, or by bitter weather and the men had no recourse but charity or the workhouse.
'The Distress in the East End of London' from The Graphic
Labourers at London docks waiting for employment from The Graphic, 1886.View images from this item (1)
The sweat shopsFor women, there were always places in the ‘slop trade’, producing cheap mass clothing and uniforms for the forces and for prisons. The pay was pitifully low. A woman might make one shirt in a long day, sewing by hand in poor light – she had to buy her own candles – and she would be lucky to earn six shillings for a dozen. After 1856 the advent of the sewing machine improved the lot of some women, but not all had access to a machine, and the new technique required was daunting.
'London Life at the East End - Sack making by the light of a street lamp' from the Graphic
Illustration of women sack-making in poor conditions in London's East End, from the Graphic, 3 April 1875.View images from this item (1)
ProstitutionIt was no wonder that so many women took to prostitution, when the alternatives were so grim. Entire streets in the slums of London were inhabited by prostitutes. Many girls viewed a few years ‘on the game’ as a sensible way to build up a little capital to invest in a small business later, but their future was often cut short by sexually transmitted diseases. Some of the great hospitals had a few beds for them in a ‘foul ward’. They might be admitted to a ‘Lock Hospital’ which specialized in such cases. But there was no known cure for the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. Once the acute phase was over and she was discharged, a woman had no choice but to return to the streets and take up her previous life, infecting a new wave of customers. There was a ready market for young virgins. In 1885 the journalist W. T. Stead ‘bought’ – under careful supervision – a 13‐year‐old girl, just to show his readers how easy it was. The girl was in due course returned to her parents, still a virgin, but Stead became famous and the public could no longer ignore this shameful trade. Three years later a series of gruesome murders began in the east end of London. The victims were all prostitutes. The murderer was never discovered, but the public named him ‘Jack the Ripper’ because of his habit of eviscerating his victims.
'Incidents relating to the East End murders' from the Illustrated Police News
Article about 'Jack the Ripper' from the Illustrated Police News, 1888.View images from this item (1)
PhilanthrophyA number of charitable individuals and societies attempted to 'save' prostitutes, who were mostly outcast and desperate. Novelist Charles Dickens had a try at setting up a home for 'fallen women', as prostitutes were known. This home, like other societies with high‐sounding titles, offered the girls a new life, work and a safe home in which they were treated with kindness, but only at the cost of giving up their personal freedom, which they would not always accept. The most celebrated redeemer of prostitutes was the Prime Minister, W. E. Gladstone, whose reputation was saved from unsavoury innuendoes only by his well-known personal integrity.
Article in the Liverpool Mercury about a meeting of the 'Fallen Women'
Article in the Liverpool Mercury about a meeting of the 'Fallen Women', 1860.