The hand-to-mouth existence of the garretmaster - conversations with slop-work cabinetmakers, hawking their wares to cheap furniture shops (slaughterhouses), on their work and home life.
Published in The Railway Review, 3 September 1880 - read the original article through our digital collectionLink opens in a new window.
Illustration: old furniture, from 'Street Life in London', 1877, by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith, available through the LSE Digital LibraryLink opens in a new window.
He was a man the sweat of whose brow had matted the red sawdust in his grey hair. His face was cadaverous, and his shirt-sleeves tattered and torn. I met him in the Whitechapel-road one Saturday night, as late as nine o'clock, and he was standing, with a boy, beside a barrow on which rested a chiffonier in an unpolished condition. The boy had been into the furniture shop just opposite.
"He says he can't be bothered now," said the boy, addressing his father; "you must wait half an hour if you want him to look at it. You should ha' took his money when he offered it to you, he says."
"Did you tell him I'd take it now, Dick?"
"Yes," replied Dick; "I told him that, and he said he would see about it."
"Ah, then I know what that means," said the cadaverous cabinetmaker; and, with rueful resignation on his haggard face, he sat on the barrow-handle to wait.
"It means just this, sir," he explained to me, when, a few minutes afterwards, we were beguiling the spare half hour, not sitting on the barrow, but within sight of it; "it means that he bid me seven-and-twenty-and-six for it at six o'clock to-night, and that now he'll make me take six-and-twenty, or perhaps twenty-five, or I shall have to wheel it back to the Waterloo-road, where I live. And he knows precious well I won't do that. That's his dodge in getting me to wait half an hour. He can as well see me now as then; but, don't you see, it is nine o'clock, and in half an hour the shops will be shutting up, and it will be all over with my chance. How comes it that I've got the chiffonier for sale? I've always got something for sale. Oh, yes; hawking it about like this on a barrow, or, if it's a bigger thing, in a cart. It's the garret-masters' way of doing business in our line. I'm a garretmaster — master, good Lord!" and he shrugged his shoulders under his tattered shirt — "and there are scores of us, hundreds, I might say, taking all of them in Spitalfields and Bethnal-green. We're called garret-masters because of the hole-and-corner way in which we live, I suppose, and our poverty compelling us to put up with sky lodgings. The garret-master in the cabinet trade works most exclusively for the slaughterhouses — I mean for the advertising shops. Half of 'em are slaughterhouses, as we call 'em. I could give you the names of some that would surprise you — houses that trade off hundreds of pounds of furniture in a week, and who depend on poor hand-to-mouth fellows like me to supply 'em. What shall I get out of that chiffonier if I let it go for five-and-twenty shillings? Well, it ain't quite fair to take it at that, because that's what we call a 'pole-axing' price — something wus than common slaughtering. I suppose I shall get twenty-six for it; that will pay me five-and-six for two days' work. Of how many hours? Oh, if you work for slaughterhouses you mustn't talk about hours. I started on this job on Thursday tea-time, and I worked till eleven, and I was up and at it at five, and I worked till a bit arter twelve a-Friday night, and I was up at five again this morning, and I polished him off about four in the afternoon. Thirty-five hours is it? Very likely. I never reckon it. What’s the use?"
"It seems a large piece of work to get through even in that time," I remarked.
"It is all a tight fit to squeeze it into the time, I can tell you," said the poor cabinetmaker, wiping his forehead at the mere recollection. "Course it's scamped. You wouldn't find it out if you was to take a candle and go over every inch of it, but I know it is, and the slaughterhouses know it is. They don't care. As long as a thing is 'viewy' they don't mind. There is a good solid week's work in that bit of furniture for a man to give his honest mind to it and allow himself time for sleep and wittles. But it's wonderful what a man can got through when he's spurred enough. It's like them walking and running men at the Agricultural Hall. One does a bit more than another, and that one a bit more than him, till blowed if the last 'un ain't done very nigh twice as much as the first. It's that what keeps the slop furniture trade what it is, worse luck. A man makes up a thing and he takes it to a slaughterhouse, and they hammer him down to their figure, and then p'r'aps they'll say, 'If you like to do 'em at a shilling each less, you can bring in a dozen in the next month.' Well, sir, you see the temptation. A man says to himself, 'If I don't do it another will, and I might manage it if I got up an hour earlier every morning;' and so he goes on, cuttin' it finer and finer, till he finds himself working almost all the hours God A'mighty made. What will that chiffonier sell for in the furniture shop? Two pun fifteen. If it goes out on the hiring system, three pun ten. It will cost about three shillings to polish, so that the slaughterman will get it for thirty shillings, say. A long profit? I should rather think so. It's awful the price they pay us. It wouldn't be so bad if they didn't know all about it; but they do. They could tell exactly what an article of furniture cost you in the shape of materials, even to the very brads and the glue, and it does seem cruel hard for 'em to offer a man a price sometimes that don't pay him a couple of shillings a day for his labour. We call 'em all slaughterhouses, but there's some not so bad as others. A man may get regular work at some of 'em, and earn his pound or three-and-twenty a week if he sticks to it from Sunday morning to Saturday night. Sunday — Ah! I ain't had a Sunday, 'cept that foggy one when the cough took me so bad, not for these five months. I don't mind. I'd sooner work than mope about and think. It might be different if I had Sunday clothes to go out for a walk into the country, but a man can't wear his apron on a Sunday, and mine, unfortinately, kivers more patches than I should care to make public." At which point of our conversation his boy looked in to say that Mr. -------- wanted to know whether he was to be kept waiting all night, or whether he was to shut his shop-door. "I must say good-night, then, sir," said the poor cabinetmaker, getting up in a hurry; "I shall have to close with him at any price if I want to see a bit of grub on the table tomorrow, and he's a nasty-tempered one."
Of course I don't know what the chiffonier realised; but I lingered long enough, I suppose I should be glad to say, to see the barrow wheeled empty away.
The following Saturday evening I started earlier — between six and seven in the evening — and began my exploration in the Blackfriars-road, making my way towards Camberwell. I very soon discovered convincing proof that the man I had talked with a week before had not exaggerated when he told me that there were scores of poor fellows of his trade driven to adopt this precarious method of gaining a livelihood. In less than three hours I counted thirteen different carts and barrows waiting with unpolished goods outside cheap furniture shops. And the poor hawkers were, as regards their hungry, haggard, and poverty-stricken appearance, as much like my unfortunate chiffoniermaker as if they were his brothers. Furniture of all kinds they had to dispose of — bookcases, sideboards, "loo" and other tables, chests of drawers, and chairs.
A glance sufficed to disclose the kind of dealing that was going on. The make-believe perfectly-indifferent and impatient-at-being-bothered demeanour of the furniture-dealer, as he stood at his shop-door, listening to the application of the poor garretmaster, and the painful eagerness of the latter as he endeavoured to bring the hard-bargain-driving to a successful issue, told the story as plain as spoken language.
I watched a man "rushing" two middle-sized mahogany loo tables, and when he came away from the furniture-shop I took the liberty of asking him what sort of "deal" he had made.
"About the same as usual, sir," he replied. "Oh, no; it ain't no secret. If the information will, as you say, serve a useful purpose, you are welcome to all I can tell you. Leastways, if it is a secret, I ain't paid for keeping it as such. Slaughter-work you calls it; call it murder-work, and you won't be far out, Eighteen shillings each is the price I got for them two tables, and the stuff in 'em, going the cheapest way to market, cost me four-and-twenty-and-ninepence. That gives me eleven and threepence, with three ha'pence an hour for the barrow to take off that, and I've been out three hours. How long did they take me to make? Not longer than I could help, you can take your oath. I began 'em yesterday morning early — me and my two 'prentices, which one is a man grown now, and takes his fifteen shillings a week oft' me. T'other one has only got to be fed, with sixpence a week pocket-money as yet. One way and another, I reckon that my share o' them two tables will be just upon six shillings. That's for two days' stiff work. Sometimes I make a bit more. Working Sundays, and reckoned all up, it might amount to two or three and twenty shillings. But look at the hours! Never less than thirteen, and oftener sixteen, a day. Couldn't I earn more in a good cabinetmaker's shop? One time I might, but they wouldn't have me now. 'Taint likely, unless I went into the country, where I wasn't known. And even if he had the chance of a good shop, a man gots so used to slapping things together, it would be a long time before he got out of the way. I've thought of getting out of the slaughter business lots of times; but don't you see how it is, sir? I'm in debt a bit for wood and things, and my earnings serve for hand to mouth at home, and barely that. I haven't got a hour to spare to seek a job in. It is all rattle and drive. Selling what you've got, and make haste back, calling on your way to buy fresh stuff, and slipping into it again as soon as you've had a mouthful of wittles. That's where a man is nailed to slop work. When once it gets tight hold on you it will never let you go. You're wuss off than a hunted rat; he can turn when things grow desperate and stand at bay. But there's no standing at bay agin slop work, sir. To stand against it is to starve, and so you may just as well let it go on huntin' you, in a manner of speaking; one ending being much about the same as t'other. No, I don't know of any way of making matters better for us. The regular cabinet-hands have their societies, of course, but there's nothing like that in our line. We're more anxious to spoil each other’s interests — in the way of trade, I mean — than to try and stick together for mutual benefit. It's precious hard, though, to be ground down so without there being occasion for it. The shopkeeper must have his profit, of course; but it's mean to take it all out of the likes of me, and give the public, who don't ask for it, and don't wish it, the bread out of the mouths of my young 'uns and the clothes off their backs. It's easy enough to explain how a man may drop into the slaughter business. He loses his job in a regular shop, and is out o' work for a month or so. Well, he's got his tools, and for a few shillings he can buy a bit o' wood and set to work. Half a loaf is better than none, and he'll be earning something, anyhow. P'raps he's a young fellow and strong, and he says to himself, I can easily make up the difference in price by working a few hours more every day. But p'raps at first he'll keep himself quiet and pay a man to hawk his things round, so that his old masters and shopmates mayn't know what he's up to. But he's sure to be found out, and then he's made desperate by being sneered and jeered at, and he goes in for doing the best he can for himself, in spite of everybody. The worst of it is that everybody else is doing the same thing in the swim he goes in for, and he soon finds that the best he can do for himself and them depending on him is to keep a loaf on the table and steer clear of the broker's man."
I observed another unfortunate, who bore on his face, and on his attenuated, ill-clad carcase the stamp of "garret-master" as plainly as though he were branded all over in six-inch letters, turning away disconsolate from the doors of a slaughterhouse in the neighbourhood of the Elephant and Castle, a handsome shop, extensively stocked, and presenting every indication of a flourishing and profitable business. The slaughter-work in this case took the shape of three chests of mahogany drawers, unpolished, as usual, and comprising a load for a horse rather than for the slim, elderly man and the undersized boy who were hauling at it.
"I'm out o' luck, an' that's where it is," said the maker of the drawers, with marvellous resignation under the circumstances. "I'm a bit late with 'em, and others have been here afore me. I run a chisel into the back o' my thumb last night" (the member in question was wrapped round with a bit of old stocking), "and chucked me out this morning. Yes, it's a bad job, but we must make the best of it. They ought to go at the price. How much do you think, sir? I'll take five-and-twenty shillings apiece for 'em. They offered me three pun ten for the lot over the way, but I'll wheel 'em back to Spitalfields before I'll take it. What do they cost me — each, you mean? Well, since you don't ask in idleness, and it may be as you can do us a good turn, I'll lay it out fair to you. They're four-posters, they are. Your cedar for ends will stand you in four shillings, and your veneers for the five drawers and for the top runs into three-and-six. Then there's your stuff for the body, and a bit o' clean deal for your drawer fronts, there's six-and-six; and your locks and knobs, and a set of four turned feet is as good as four-and-threepence more. That makes nineteen-and-three altogether. I don't say that I'd always take five-and-twenty each for 'em. I'd expect and very likely get seven-and-twenty if it was earlier; but every half-hour makes a difference when it's growing late. You wouldn't buy 'em of me if anybody else would have bought 'em. You're told they're duffing goods, of course, or you wouldn't find it so hard to get rid of 'em. I'll take 'em off your hands at a price; but I'd sooner you took 'em away. I always make chests of drawers. Leastways, we make 'em — me and my wife and daughter. Bless you, yes. They can both use a rip-saw or a plane as well as I can. We made them three chests atween us this week. That's one towards next week, and all over cost-price is earnings. Are there many French cabinetmakers? Not many that I know of; but there, you see, I mightn't know of 'em any more than they know of me. I dare say there's a good deal of it done on the quiet. Yes, if I take five-and-twenty for each of these, we earn nineteen-and-six — which is a bad week — we count on making a pound; but then, you know, we've got to work for it. Heart alive, I thould think so; so you'd say if you saw all three of us pegging away in our little crib with hardly room to move, and that long before the first milkman in the morning until lamplight at night. But we don't care so as we make a pound. That's four-and-six for our rooms and eighteenpence for our work shed, and gives us fourteen shillings to live on. But then, see, it ain't every man has got my advantages in having a old woman, and a gal turned of eighteen, and strong as a little mule, able and willing to cut their own grass. No, and we never work on Sundays. I shouldn't expect to get as much as I do to be thankful for if we did. No, I don't go to church. The old lady and Liz goes to chapel in the morning, and I stays at home and cooks the dinner for 'em, which is a change for me, and makes it comfortable all round."