This has to be one of the most useful family history websites

coal whipper

If you enjoy family history but are sometimes perplexed by an ancestor’s occupation, here’s the solution.

Dictionary of Old Occupations: A-Z Index

This has to be one of the most useful  websites for family historians available free on the Internet.

The Dictionary of Old Occupations contains over two thousand entries so if you’re puzzled by the work undertaken by a Buddleboy you can easily find out that it was the person responsible for the upkeep of vats used to wash ore in the tin (or possibly lead) mining industry. Or how about a Cupel Maker which turns out to be a thrower in the pottery industry who made crucibles. Or was someone in your family a fripperer? Which means that they sold second hand clothes.

This really is one of the most fascinating and useful on-line dictionaries I’ve ever come across for both general interest and family history researching.

My husband’s great, great grandfather was a coal whipper in the 1870s and I used the Dictionary Of Old Occupations to help find out more about the job.

The job of the coal whippers was to get the coal off the ships when it was delivered to the London Docks.

Coal was brought to the capital from the coal fields of the north and by the end of the nineteenth century over three million tons of coal were being transported by ship each year. It was the job of the coal whippers to get the coal out of the hold of the collier (ship used for transporting coal), into sacks and shifted on their backs onto the coal merchants’ lighters (smaller vessels) for onward transport. It was hard, heavy, labour-intensive work which took its toll on the life expectancy of those involved.

I copied this fascinating account of the life of a coal whipper on my Family History blog a few years ago. It’s from The Mysteries of London by G.W.M. Reynolds. This was published in 1846 in weekly episodes. It was a “penny blood”: one of the mass produced, cheap, sensationalist serials that were so popular in that era.

One of the characters in the story is a coal whipper and here he is describing his life to other drinkers in a pub, The Dark House.

He explains that the coal whipper works for a local publican who acts as middle-man between the captain of the collier and the coal merchant. The publican contracts to move the coal and hires the whippers and pays them directly; what is extra shocking is the fact that out of his meagre wages the coal whipper had to pay substantial amounts to the publican for beer in order to be sure of getting a job!!!

This is what he said:

“My father was a coal whipper, and had three sons. He brought us all up to be coal whippers also. My eldest brother was drownded in the pool (Pool of London) one night when he was drunk, after only drinking about two pots of the publicans’ beer: my other brother died of hunger in Cold-Bath Fields prison, where he was sent for three months for taking home a bit of coal one night to his family when he couldn’t get his wages paid him by the publican that hired the gang in which he worked. My father died when he was forty – and any one to have seen him would have fancied he was sixty-five at least – so broke down was he with hard work and drinking. But no coal whipper lives to an old age: they all die off at about forty-old men in the wery prime of life….

….He doesn’t get paid for his labour in a proper way. Wapping swarms with low public-houses, the landlords of which act as middle-men between the owners of the colliers and the men that a hired to unload ’em. A coal whipper can’t get employment direct from the captain of the collier: the working of the collier is farmed by them landlords I speak of; and the whipper must apply at their houses. Those whippers as drinks the most always gets employment first; and whether a whipper chooses to drink beer or not, it’s always sent three times a-day on board the colliers for the gangs. And, my eye! what stuff it is! Often and often have we throwed it away, ‘cos we could’nt possibly drink it – and it must be queer liquor that a coal whipper won’t drink!

Well, I used to earn from fifteen to eighteen shillings a-week; and out of that, eight was always stopped for the beer; and if I didn’t spend another or two on Saturday night when I received the balance, the landlord set me down as a stingy feller and put a cross agin my name in his book….

….not give me any more work till he was either forced to do so for want of hands, or I made it up with him by standing a crown bowl of punch. So what with one thing and another, I had to keep myself, my wife, and three children, on about seven or eight shillings a-week – after working from light to dark.”

Tough times!

Our ancestor was Mark Starling  (1827 – 1894) who stopped working as a coal whipper and lived on into his seventies, although unfortunately he eventually died in the workhouse.

Thanks for reading my blog today.

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2 Comments

  1. That’s so interesting! How dreadful to be so beholden to the landlord. Sadly, not dissimilar to some of today’s gang masters!

    The comprehensive list of occupations is amazing! The most intriguing occupation I’ve come across while doing my family history research was a “saggar maker’s bottom knocker”. He was the apprentice who shaped the bottom of a saggar ( a clay vessel used in the pottery industry to hold items to be fired) on behalf of the saggar maker, which was a skilled job.

    Great post, fascinating stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

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