John, Henry and John – Views of Carmen

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September 18, 2013 by auntkatefirmin

What did the world of John Firmin and his sons look like? I’ll save the wharfs and docks for another day and focus on the streets and yards to try and capture some views that would have been familiar to them along with some sketches of typical wagons and a short detour into clothing.

The East London streets they drove were often narrow, and very likely cobbled.  No doubt they were muddy or dusty in turn and smelly to boot. The sounds of horses & carts, street vendors, and the like, would have made a very different soundscape.

As carmen, the Firmins would see not only the streets but the interior spaces, or yards, like that of the Red Lion Brewhouse show below.

Red Lion Brewhouse, East Smithfield.

Red Lion Brewhouse in East Smithfield.
© Trustees of the British Museum

My search for views of back alleys and yards has turned up only a few items that might give the flavor of the work-a-day world of a carman. The courtyard of the Blue Boar Inn as depicted by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd is representative of one type of enclosed yard reached by a narrow passage from the street – a kind of space that might have been familiar to John or his sons.

I envision the Firmins returning to a courtyard about the size of the inn in the illustration below at the end of a long day, stabling their horses and perhaps settling down for the night in a room overlooking the same yard – maybe after a detour to the local public house. Certainly many in East Smithfield lived in more cramped quarters, but a carman’s business required sufficient space to accommodate horses, wagons, feed, spare equipment and similar bulky items.

Courtyard of the Blue Boar Inn, Aldgate.

Courtyard of the Blue Boar Inn, Aldgate, about 1855.
© Trustees of the British Museum

I appreciate these two views for their contrasts.  Hosmer’s inn yard is bright, airy and clean, while the Red Lion Brewhouse is depicted as dark and clouded with the smoke of industry. The blinkered horse at the Blue Boar in Aldgate is well-groomed and obedient, but the powerful draft horse at the brewery is acting up.  Reality, I suspect, is somewhere in between – although the dark & Dickensian views seem to be easier to find for the mid to late nineteenth century (think Gustave Dore).

John Firmin’s world was possibly closer to the gritty brewhouse in East Smithfield although both the elder John and his son Henry, with their Freedom of the City, would have travelled along Aldgate and other London streets as well.  I imagine John with a wagon looking something like the one in this view in Whitechapel – this was definitely his neighborhood!

View of St Mary, Whitechapel about 1830

View of St Mary, Whitechapel about 1830, after Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.

FYI, according to Wikipedia a wagon has four wheels, and a cart two – John may have owned both.  Here is a sketch from about 1784 of a wagon similar to the one above loaded with lumber.

Timber wagon.

Timber Wagon, by Rowlandson about 1784.
© Trustees of the British Museum

And another wagon, this time with the sides and cover in place, illustration from about 1807.

Carrier's Wagon.

Carrier’s Wagon about 1807.
© Trustees of the British Museum

I have a fancy that John Firmin and his employees wore a smock when they were at work.  Take a look at the man walking beside the wagon in this illustration (just a few blocks from the other Whitechapel scene but looking towards London).

Whitechapel High Street

Carman in Whitechapel High Street about 1837.
c Trustees of the British Museum.

Compare him to this close-up of the driver from the Red Lion yard.

Close up of carman.

Close up of Red Lion Brewery wagon driver.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Also, take a look at the driver of the cart emerging from the passage into the street in Aldgate.


Aldgate Street Scene about 1862.
c Trustees of the British Museum

While smocks were generally associated with rural occupations, I think in the case of carmen they served as both a practical garment that protected the driver’s clothing and an advertisement of his trade.  My guess is bolstered by the following description found at the Dictionary of Victorian London, taken from a chapter written in 1842 on “Public Vehicles” in the book Lights and Shadows of London Life by James Grant.

The “appearance of the driver of the team, walking with whip in hand within a few feet of the horses, and rejoicing in the peculiar conformation of his hat, his smock frock, and quarter boots, tightly laced, and boasting soles half an inch thick, exclusive of the huge hob-nails with which they are studded from heel to toe; —  to see all this is to witness a picture of a decidedly interesting and national character.”

The context of the chapter implies that the wagons are generally owned by merchants rather than independent haulers.  Other contemporary articles from the same and other sites lead me to conclude that most individuals in the hauling business were closely associated with grocers, importers, coopers and other businessmen (including dairymen). No direct evidence has turned up that associates John Firmin with the moving of any particular type of goods or being contracted to any specific firm.  Based on the predominant trades in East Smithfield, much of his business may have come from brewers or coopers.  Other than location, our only other clue to any focus for his business is that his son George married the daughter of a “cow keeper.” If John didn’t transport fresh milk, his associates included other carmen who did.

I’m still looking for more views of carmen at work – please comment if you find a good source.

For more details on specific locations of John’s work see John Firmin, Carman.  See John Firmin, Freedom of the City for a transcript of the document that allowed him to carry out his business inside the City walls.


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