During the 1870s, Mark W. Starling (1827 - 1894) was employed as a Coal Whipper.
The job of the coal whippers was to get the coal off the ships when it was delivered to the London Docks.
Coal was brought to the capital from the coal fields of the north and by the end of the nineteenth century over three million tons of coal were being transported by ship each year. It was the job of the coal whippers to get the coal out of the hold of the collier (ship used for transporting coal), into sacks and shifted on their backs onto the coal merchants' lighters (smaller vessels) for onward transport. It was hard, heavy, labour-intensive work which took its toll on the life expectancy of those involved.
There is a truly fascinating account of the life of a coal whipper in The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds. This was published in 1846 in weekly episodes. It was a "penny blood": one of the mass produced, cheap, sensationalist serials that were so popular in that era.
One of the characters in the story is a coal whipper and here he is describing his life to other drinkers in a pub The Dark House.
He explains that the coal whipper works for a local publican who acts as middle-man between the captain of the collier and the coal merchant. The publican contracts to move the coal and hires the whippers and pays them directly; what is extra shocking is the fact that out of his meagre wages the coal whipper had to pay substantial amounts to the publican for beer in order to be sure of getting a job!!!
This is what he said:
"My father was a coal whipper, and had three sons. He brought us all up to be coal whippers also. My eldest brother was drownded in the pool (Pool of London) one night when he was drunk, after only drinking about two pots of the publicans' beer: my other brother died of hunger in Cold-Bath Fields prison, where he was sent for three months for taking home a bit of coal one night to his family when he couldn't get his wages paid him by the publican that hired the gang in which he worked. My father died when he was forty - and any one to have seen him would have fancied he was sixty-five at least - so broke down was he with hard work and drinking. But no coal whipper lives to an old age: they all die off at about forty-old men in the wery prime of life….
….He doesn't get paid for his labour in a proper way. Wapping swarms with low public-houses, the landlords of which act as middle-men between the owners of the colliers and the men that a hired to unload 'em. A coal whipper can't get employment direct from the captain of the collier: the working of the collier is farmed by them landlords I speak of; and the whipper must apply at their houses. Those whippers as drinks the most always gets employment first; and whether a whipper chooses to drink beer or not, it's always sent three times a-day on board the colliers for the gangs. And, my eye! what stuff it is! Often and often have we throwed it away, 'cos we could'nt possibly drink it - and it must be queer liquor that a coal whipper won't drink!
Well, I used to earn from fifteen to eighteen shillings a-week; and out of that, eight was always stopped for the beer; and if I didn't spend another or two on Saturday night when I received the balance, the landlord set me down as a stingy feller and put a cross agin my name in his book….
….not give me any more work till he was either forced to do so for want of hands, or I made it up with him by standing a crown bowl of punch. So what with one thing and another, I had to keep myself, my wife, and three children, on about seven or eight shillings a-week - after working from light to dark."
There are some interesting images of life in the London Docks on a website shared by the Museum at Greenwich
and you can read more of The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds on a marvellous website about lots of aspects of Victorian London.
As I reported the other day, Mark Starling stopped being a coal whipper and lived until he was in his seventies although it does rather look like he died in the workhouse.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like this mention (towards the end of the blogpost) about Daniel Smith who was a Thames Policeman in the 1870s.