February 1854

A perfect storm

We believe there are about 3,000 stone masons in London. In the Picture Handbook of London the number is stated to be 3,471. The term of apprenticeship ranges from five to seven years. But that custom seems to have fallen into disuse. The wages of masons are from 5s to 5s 6d per day. For more than 30 years, there has been no fluctuation in the rate of wages. At the building of the Vauxhall bridge the day's wages were exactly 5s per day; and they have stood at that rate pretty evenly up to this year.

In the 1850s the standard rate paid by Charles Dickens for contributions to Household Words and All The Year Round was 10s 6d a column or 21s a page. His staff members were generally paid £5 5s a week.

On the whole we believe that masons are now better off than they were during any part of their history since the termination of the war; their wages are higher and their hours of work shorter, for they mostly leave off work on Saturdays at four o'clock - a system of work recently introduced into the trade. Throughout the winter months the London masons work after dusk by gas light; and their wages suffer no diminution. But in the country the men suffer their wages to be reduced 2s per week rather than work by candlelight. Masons supply their own tools. A good average kit may be obtained for £2. The masters sometimes pay for sharpening the tools: some only pay for sharpening the tools on sandstone and some do not pay for this at all. This has frequently been the cause of much angry feeling and was one of the grievances preferred by the masons at the Houses of Parliament against their employers.

It is now upwards of 20 years since the masons of England formed themselves into a national and general trade union. The number of members we have heard computed at 8,000. The rate of subscription is 6d a week, or 26s per annum - a rate sufficient to insure a man's life for £100 sterling; or at least any man's life but a mason's. The general union was not in existence for 18 months before its existence was heralded by a severe strike.

This was called the "Document Strike". The master builders peremptorily enjoined their foremen to dismiss all those hands who were known or suspected to be connected to the union. Had they confined themselves to this, it is probable that the spirit of resistance would have remained in peaceful oblivion at "Bricklayer's Arms" or the "Hole in the Wall" in Fleet Street. But they did not.

They prepared a document expressing their disapproval of the workmen's combination and this was sent round to every mason's shed in London for the signatures of the men. Its influence was soon felt. It created a perfect storm.