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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

Chapter VIII. — Life in Liverpool.—the Curse of Casual Labour.—difficulties of a Modern Seaport

page 55

Chapter VIII.

Life in Liverpool.—the Curse of Casual Labour.—difficulties of a Modern Seaport.

A midsummer's morn was gleaming over the broad blue estuary of the Mersey. From the eminence of an embankment towering above Toxeth Dock, a panorama of river and sky unfolded in the sunlight, meeting away in the dim faint outline of the Birkenhead shore. The river palpitated with life and activity. A forest of mast and sail, grim smoking funnels, merchantmen, tramps, tugs dragging trains of fat barges in the swirl of the tide, and great liners pointing to the clouds and the smoke, gathered in a wonderful vista. They hovered between the flood and the sunlight, crowding into where the black irregular line of the shore was pierced by endless docks, landing stages, cranes, sheds, and all the paraphernalia that make up the complexity of Liverpool's maritime splendour. In the radiance of that summer morn, one beheld the city as the gate between the old world and the new. The traffic of a nation was clattering through its throbbing thoroughfares. The fabulous productions of the black, busy centres, toiling away beyond the hills in smoke and sweat, were speeding over its network of steel to the outgoing tide. Men, women horses, fire, steam, water, electricity, were caught up in the irresistible rush of its commerce. All the elements of human endeavour, of hope, and wretchedness were swamped in the ocean of lives beating against the stones of a great city—a city floating down far from the hills and ending abruptly in lofty piles of brick and steel against the silvered edge of the river. That was Liverpool on a bright midsummer's morn, and it only wanted a few minutes to the stroke of seven.

It is strange how a point of focus in the life of a city can become so vivid as to obliterate every other element of distraction. But with the stroke of seven, summer and winter, Liverpool presents a scene that is no more remarkable, no more astonishing or suggestive of the needs of the age than any other English city. Along the two miles of its stretch of docks and quays at seventeen different points armies of labour assemble. The men come in thousands every morn of the working day. The actual number that are gathered there in expectation of work ranges daily from 20,000 to 25,000. The streets are black with them, young and old, middle-aged, mostly grizzled, hulking specimens wearing the familiar greasy scarf and cap and clothes that speak for the dirt and the squalor from which many of them have emerged. At Toxeth docks the scene partakes of all the intensity of thousands of men lined up, mute and anxious, for the labour that means bread and physical satisfaction. With the coming of the hour, the steady stream of workers that began at 6.30 thickens. The side streets literally ooze with humanity that swarms under the elevated railways into the yards behind the gaunt stretch of sheds. The men gather into long lines at three separate stands or pools. It is like the marshalling of an army—an army of weaponless thousands in the dull drab uniform of the worker. In one corner, a crowd of idlers and the curious mingle, There are derelict specimens page 56 amongst them, watching this great economic process of supply responding to demand with a dull, hopeless stare. It seems almost a morbid curiosity on the part of the unemployable that they should assemble to see the unemployed gather there, still possessed of the hope and the determination to work.

"There won't be many taken on this morning," murmurs a policeman. "No, the usual thing, I suppose," drawls his mate as they saunter up and down at the gates. Suddenly the murmur of voices dies away. Two men, one carrying a small book, emerge from the sheds, and pass each to the three groups as the clocks clang seven through the city. A late arrival or two slip hurriedly into the lines. The whole army is silent. The foremen pass down the lines. They suddenly hold up a pencil and beckon. The line breaks, and a single individual darts away into the shed. The foremen finish their tour of the lines of men. They pass back again, and call out a few more. The number that pass into the shed seem infinitesimal to the assembled multitude. The lines are once more inspected, and as the foremen pass there is a palpable eagerness in the manner of the men to catch that favoured nod which means occupation for the day. The inspection is finished. The foremen make a sign, and turn to the sheds. The three lines break up in a chorus of grunts. A burst of cynical laughter goes up into the morning. "'Ow many d'ye saye; twenty out o' five 'undred," says a voice that is immediately lost in a widespread murmur. The men turned slowly away and filed out through the gates into the roadway. The quickened step and alert faces that passed into the lines was in vivid contrast to the figures that drifted aimlessly toward the city. Some merely shrugged their shoulders, others went off with set faces and hands rammed deeply into their empty pockets. One would suppose that years of this sort of thing would make these rough untutored men callous to disappointment. With their big frames, heavy hands, and slouching gait they remind one of the draught horse. They seem to share in common the dumb obedience, the blind strength of the animal. It is easy to picture them half brute, half human, credulous as children, and ruled by a coarseness of intellect that offends the finer intelligence. But the people who get into their lives, who go down to the heart of the submerged mass, say they are just as human as the best of the race. They have each their ambition, pride, fear, hate, faithfulness, kindness, hope, and love. The elements may be crude, but the difference with other men is only one of degree. It was a strange, sorry spectacle to see those thousand of men, unemployed, slouching off in groups, disappearing into narrow thoroughfares to face women and children, maybe, in that radiant summer [unclear: mors.] The exact figures of employment at the Toxeth Dock that morning for these casual unskilled labourers were as follows :—No. 1 group, 350 stevedores, 17 taken on; No. 2 group, 250 porters, 22 taken on; No. 3 group, 400 labourers, 100 taken on. This, however, it must be recalled, concerns only one out of the seventeen pools of labour from which the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board draws its daily supply of casual labour according to the demands of trade.

As to what are the exact figures of the population in Liverpool that are known as dock labourers, there is nothing officially known. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board themselves cannot say with certainty. The most reliable estimate is that given by Councillor James Sexton, of the Liverpool City Council, general secretary of the National Union of Dock Labourers, who page 57 has been recognised as an authority on the subject by the British Government He estimates that last year there were 22.000 active dock labourers, apart from those who called themselves as such, but depended entirely on charitable relief for existence. Of this 22,000, in the business part of the year never more than 15,000 are employed at one time. The standing wage is 30s per week, but never more than 23 per cent. of the 15,000 receive that amount all the year round. Another 25 per cent. earn an average of 15s per week for the year, a further 25 per cent. make 7s 6d per further 25 per cent. make 7s 6d per of the workers only earn 3s or 4s per week in the year. The latter, according to the class of work, are the minimum rates of pay agreed to for half-a-day's work. That is to say, there is an average of 3750 casual labourers in Liverpool who receive half-a-day's work every week. "The children of these people," says Councillor Sexton, "trade on the streets, but are frequently packed off to the industrial schools. The wives go charing. Because of inability to pay the fees of the industrial school for the training of his children, the husband not infrequently is sent to goal. The children are picked up by the police off the streets for some petty offence and sent off to the industrial schools after investigation by the Education Committee of the City Council. The position of the children seems to me to be the worst feature in the whole unhappy business."

There is a very bad form of sweating in England by which women are paid a few shillings per week in numerous trades for work that is out of all proportion to the payment. None the less, the work is fairly regular. The worst form of sweating seems to be that of these armies of casual unskilled labourers, who each have to keep a family on four or five shillings a day, coming perhaps twice, perhaps three times a week. They are the people with whom most of the misery of the slums is associated in these waterside cities, and Liverpool has to within a year or so had the very worst slums in England.

Out of all the great mass of poor labour it presents in connection with its maritime areas, there are some remarkable facts to chronicle. The wages of these thousands are kept at the level they are by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, which, being a combination of shipping and railway interests, has subordinated the privileges associated with harbour rights and dues to commercial usage. Prior to 1857, the people of Liverpool, through their Corporation, possessed the full rights over the river and the dock trade, but for some inscrutable reason Parliament in that year consented to a Bill, promoted by big commercial and maritime interests in Manchester and the Great Western Railway Company, which gave the Board they constituted full power to step in and deprive the city of Liverpool of its ancient rights to control its own port. It was, in short, a monstrous piece of commercial ingenuity. The best that Liverpool could do under the circumstances was to extract, with great difficulty, the sum of £1,500,000 by way of compensation. What the value of the Dock dues of Liverpool represents is shown by the fact that in 1906 the total income was £1,305,509. Of this no less than £303,223 were town dues—money that should, according to ancient right, have gone to the benefit of the citizens.

Since the Board so successfully promoted its monopoly of what morally was a public service, it has steadfastly refused to admit the city any representation in its affairs. Nothwithstanding its enormous financial resources and powers to derive revenue for the purpose, the Board also steadfastly refuses to page 58 pay above the wages already mentioned to the thousands of unskilled casual labourers it keeps at its beck and call. It is part of economic phenomena that there is a large surplus of labour to draw on, and keep the supply well above the demand. Whether the municipality would have done better may be debatable: none the less it is difficult to conceive of it perpetrating an evil worse or more inhuman. It is one of the anomalies of public opinion in England that a private commercial body can keep thousands of men, women, and children at the point of starvation and demoralisation by chronic under-payment, whilst if a municipality dared to perpetrate the evil, there would be a horde of indignant ratepayers, bishops, clergymen, reformers, and journalists demanding to know what on earth the Council was about.

Casual unskilled labour is one of the things that are at the root of unemployment. The most recent investigations show that amongst the unemployed, the typical figure of the elderly labourer, "too old at forty," cast out of his work because of his grey hairs and failing years, hardly exists. Except in the more acute and abnormal periods of unemployment caused by trade depression, it has been found that no less than seventyfive per cent, of the out-of-works are young men ranging from twenty to fifty, all casual unskilled labourers. In some districts in Britain the percentage reaches 90. These men belong to all classes of dock and shipping labourers and various branches of the building and other trades, where elemental manual labour is in demand. In round numbers there are half a million of casual unskilled workmen in Britain whose weekly earnings never rise to the average wage of 24s per week. The uncertainty of work for these half a million makes it imperative on the wife to assist in winning the necessaries that existence demands. What her absence from the home entails for the children may easily be guessed. But when, under the stress of modern industrial conditions, she has to bear children, when under the defective and insanitary conditions she and her husband live, the only avenue of pleasure open to them, the only solace and companionship, is the dirty foetid slum gin palace, night after night, who is to say what such a condition of things will spell for the unborn child? That is as much the curse of casual labour in Liverpool as in any part of Britain. In the case of the great seaport, however, the existence of a commercial monopoly has accentuated it.

The problem is characteristic of every department of British industrial activity where it is necessary to have a reserve of labour in call. It is an incident of modern industry just as sweating is. Both help to demoralise hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, and Britain is working toward the solution, just as, half a century ago, she began to solve the difficulties and the horror that were associated with excessively long hours, in sanitary workplaces and dangerous processes in her factory life. What the solution may be cannot be discussed here. The only outstanding question that remains is how much of the misery, the degradation and the social waste might have been saved to Liverpool's black army of casual labour had the city not been deprived of its right to determine for its workers what was a living wage and what was starvation pay?

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Plan of the village of Port Sunlight

Plan of the village of Port Sunlight