John Firmin, Carman

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May 24, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

Aldgate street scene about 1862 by John Wykeham Archer.  c Trustees of the British Museum.

Aldgate street scene about 1862 by John Wykeham Archer. © Trustees of the British Museum

How does the document referencing John’s Freedom by Redemption fit with the other facts uncovered so far? We know from the baptism of the children that John listed his occupation as carman.  There’s no better place (in my opinion) to find out what that means than to read a chapter from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.  The chapter on London Carmen and London Porters is in volume 3; the whole book is fascinating, but I’ll summarize.  A Victorian carman was a cross between a modern truck-driver, moving-service and excursion bus owner-driver.

Mayhew published his book in 1851 but I think there’s enough continuity that we can make some educated guesses about how this applies to John.  First let’s take a look at a scene in Aldgate from 1862.  The driver of the dray is wearing a smock, as are so many drivers in other images that I suspect John & his staff could have dressed in a similar way as the smock served as a badge of their trade. Note that the vehicle is emerging from a passageway leading out from some type of yard into the main street.

Given John’s relative prosperity (based the properties he owned at his death) I believe that John was a business owner employing drivers to move goods.  Therefore, he had a large investment in the horses, wagons and associated tools of the trade that he would want to safeguard.  Especially in the years after his marriage to Sarah he very likely lived in a courtyard area reached through an archway from a main street with stables for the horses and living quarters upstairs.  So far, I haven’t found an image for the inside of such a yard that’s not intended to illustrate a run-down slum or industrial location.  While I don’t deny that much of the area might have been run down, especially by the time the Victorian reformers were producing images to support their positions, I have a hard time believing that all of Regency-era Wapping and Whitechapel was a pit of vice.  Even in 1889, Burr Street is shown as prosperous in the Booth maps.  I imagine that a decently-kept yard would resemble the interior of a courtyard-based coaching inn but I can’t illustrate that yet.

King Henry Yard, where the family lived from 1820 or so, would be a perfect location for a carman.   In John’s later years, he may have been able to delegate the care of the stock to others and reside in a separate location – possibly (but not very likely) a quieter one.

King Henry Yard, Wapping,

King Henry Yard (marked in orange), about 1804 from the Wallis map at

The orange street on the map shows the location of King Henry Yard (which appears as early as 1755 on the Rocque map.  Landmarks that are still visible are the Tower of London and Wellclose Square.  Rosemary Lane is now Royal Mint Street, Nightingale Lane is now Thomas More Street, and Burr Street survives as Burr Close.  You can see how close this was to the docks in Wapping.  Note that the London Dock is surrounded by a boundary wall to limit access to the valuable cargo being unloaded.

The new docks at Wapping, 1805 by William Daniell. © National Maritime Museum, London

The new docks at Wapping, 1805 by William Daniell.
© National Maritime Museum, London

Some of a carman’s business would have been moving goods from the docks or warehouses to workshops, retailers or residences.  Some of it would be hauling feed for the horses and disposing of the dung! There’s nothing I can point to, but lately I’ve begun to wonder if John Firmin may have specialized in moving lumber.  Given the amount of shipbuilding going on and his locations close to the docks and later the Grand Surrey Canal, that’s one possibility.  On the other hand, there were always lots of perishable food items to be moved and, according to Mayhew, carmen had close ties to victuallers and grocers.  John may have had some steady arrangement with a retailer for fresh food deliveries.  Given the mobility of the population in east London, John and his employees no doubt did their share of working as a moving service – it seems unlikely he would turn down a common source of work.

Again according to Mayhew, the wagons in use by carmen could be converted by taking down the covers on the weekends or holidays and cleaned up for use in carrying passengers on picnic excursions.  Some type of club or organization would make the arrangements and book the trip in advance.  Even people of relatively modest means would save up for an annual outing.  What I don’t know is how common this was in the east of London during the 1820’s and 1830’s.  It’s possible that John’s sons who became carmen conducted this type of business even if he did not.

I’ve not mentioned a very important issue that John had to address.  He was free to use his horses & wagons to haul what he liked, when he liked – outside the boundaries of the City.  Inside walls of London, he was required to belong to a Livery Company (any Livery Company) to if he were to pick up items.  I assume that’s why he became a Loriner.

Loriners make bits, bridles and other items that comprise a horse’s harness. The Worshipful Company of Loriners is still active. John didn’t need to know the trade of a loriner, he just needed to make a payment to join the company.  While there still were practicing loriners in 1830, many other members of the company were doing just as he did – joining the company to be eligible to obtain Freedom by Redemption.  Once John had the Freedom of the City, he could practice his trade within the city walls.

Of course, John could have joined the Worshipful Company of Carmen, the question is why didn’t he? There are a number of unknowns here.  Some diligent research might turn up the payment John made to join the Loriners and the comparative cost of joining the Carmen. What I don’t know are the unstated elements – for example, what kind of social connections might have been needed to join one company as opposed to the other?  It appears he learned his trade informally, probably from his father rather than by an apprenticeship.  One or the other of the companies may have had limits on the number of members they would accept outside of apprenticeship or the number of members they were eligible to submit for Freedom by Redemption in a given time period.

I hope to take some time in the future to browse more of the Old Bailey Online to catch glimpses of the life of carmen in east London and Deptford.  A quick look indicates that many carmen were witnesses in court cases or had goods or personal items stolen.  What I’m hoping to find is what types of loads might have been carried by independent carmen from the docklands area.

Update May 25, 2013:

A charming description of London carmen including habits and dress, and implying that most are illiterate can be found at the Victorian Dictionary under the title of “Carmen and Coal Heavers.”  We know that John signed his marriage document and I suspect he could read as well as sign his name.

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