Esoteric London

No. 539: Great Queen Street, WC2

Posted in Clubs, London Labour, Public Art by esotericlondon on March 22, 2012

Freemasons’ Hall, Great Queen Street, London, WC2. Photo © Roger Dean 2012

How the Poor Live – George R. Sims, 1883:

To get an odd job at the Docks is often the last hope of the labouring men who are out of regular employment, and to whom the acquisition of a few shillings for rent, and the means of subsistence for themselves and families, is a task fraught with as much difficulty as were some of the labours, the accomplishment of which added in no inconsiderable degree to the posthumous fame of Hercules.
When it is borne in mind that sometimes at the West India Docks – taking one for example – as many as 2,500 hands can be taken on in the morning, it will be easily understood that the chance of employment draws an immense concourse of men daily to the gates.
The time to see what I venture to think is one of the most remarkable sights in the world, is an hour at which the general public is not likely to be passing by.
Sometimes the hands are engaged as early as four, but it is generally about six o’clock that the quay-gangers ascend the rostrums or elevated stands which are placed all along the outside wall, and survey the huge crowd in front of them, and commence to call them out for work and send them into the different docks where the good ships lie, with their vast cargoes, waiting for willing hands to unload them.
The pay is fivepence an hour, and the day’s work lasts for eight hours. It is miscellaneous, and a man is expected to put his hand to anything in the shape of loading or unloading that the occasion may require.
Stand outside the dock gates any morning about six, and you will have plenty to study among the vast crowd of men more or less dilapidated and hungry-looking who fill all the approaches and line the banks in front of the rostrums.
Many of them are regular men, who are called ‘Royals’ and who are pretty sure to be taken on, their names being on the ganger’s list and called out by him as a matter of course. These men show signs of regular employment, and differ very little from the ordinary labourer. The strangest part of the crowd are the ragged, wretched, wobegone-looking outcasts who are penniless, and whose last hope is that they may have the luck to be selected by the ganger. Many of these come from the distant parts of London, from the North, and the South, and the East, and the West. Some of them have tramped all night, and flung themselves down to sleep at the great dock gates in the early dawn, determined to be in the front rank. They are of all sorts, sizes, and conditions. Among them is the seedy clerk, the broken-down betting-man, the discharged soldier, the dismissed policeman, the ticket-of-leave man, the Jack-of-all-trades, the countryman, and the London rough. An enormous proportion of the regular men are Irish and of the ordinary labouring class, but now and then a foreigner or a negro crops up among the crowd.

[ The photograph above is a detail of the relief on one of the internal doors in Freemasons’ Hall. R.D.]

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