In Chapter 13, Jack London concentrated on the plight of one individual among the countless unfortunates within the East End of the city of London. Dan Cullen was a lumper by trade. Lumpers unload the cargo from ships. In America, we would call them dock workers or stevedores. Dan Cullen could read and write (self-taught), and because of that, his fellow dock workers called upon him to help them organize against the master lumpers and the system that kept wages at poverty levels.
While writing my first Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Of Thimble and Threat, I learned something about lumpers from an article written in 1850 by Henry Mayhew that appeared in Morning Chronicle. In it, Mayhew interviewed a lumper about the politics of the profession. The man he interviewed didn’t give his name and expressed several times during the course of the conversation that he feared that if he was identified after telling his tale, he’d become a marked man and have no work.
A gang of lumpers were organized by a master lumper through a local pub. Sometimes the master lumper was the publican who ran the pub. If the master lumper didn’t run the pub, he was paying for the right to organize there. To work for a master lumper, one was obliged to make purchases of beer from the pub through which he organized. Therefore, some of one’s pay went to supporting the pub. The master lumper would not give work to one who didn’t adhere to that obligation. Plenty of men not associated with any particular lumper or pub stood by to take whatever jobs became available, so the master lumper could always replace a man who didn’t fall in line.
At one point the man Mayhew interviewed referred to a week in which he’d earned 20 shillings, but his take home pay after buying the required drink in the pub was only 3 shillings. He said that he’d payed as much as 25 shillings on drink in a week at a cost 3 times that of what the man on the street would pay in the same pub. He said, “I must spend my money in drink some way,” which gives me the impression that he was either not capable of drinking all that he was paying for or that, with an eye toward paying his bills, he had to somehow find a way to set aside the funds required to buy all that drink. He said he had a wife and children, and that they barely got by. His wife sewed for a living.
He said that a master lumper who ran the pub through which he organized his dock workers could make his fortune within a few short years. If a lumper gave offense in any manner, if he failed to meet his obligations in any way, he would be refused work.
That was 52 years before Jack London looked into the life of Dan Cullen, but no doubt the fundamentals of the master lumper system were still in place. Yet by 1902 socialists had begun to have some success in organizing workers. Cullen had joined their ranks. Unions were on the rise. Dan Cullen used his literacy to help his fellow dock workers to organize. For that, he was refused work and fell on hard times. Fellow dock workers could not associated with him for fear of losing their livelihoods. After ten years of little or no work, Dan Cullen died a lonely death in a squalid 7’x8’ room.
—Alan M. Clark
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