The (literal) suspension of a worker by his colleagues


Dulwich College c.1869

A large group of workmen were engaged, in October 1867, in work at Dulwich School (also know as Dulwich college). The college had been in existence since the early 17th century and in the late 1860s it moved to its present site in south east London and a purpose built school, designed by Charles Barry (jnr) was  constructed.

This was a large project and today’s case (from the Lambeth Police Court) reveals that somewhere around 30-40 carpenters and plasterers alone worked on it the buildings. In any large group of men it is likely that tensions will arise for time to time and this is exactly what happened here.

A ‘slater’s boy’ was climbing a long ladder carrying his slates on his head when he met George Saffell, another worker, wanting to come down. The older man insisted that the boy descend the ladder to make way for him.

This was ‘considered unfair conduct’ by Saffell’s workmates and they applied their own rules to ‘punish’ him. He was charged ‘half a gallon’ as a fine. The court reporter did not specify what that meant but it probably referred to his daily or weekly allowance of alcohol in some way or another. They thought he was out of order and they inflicted a small fine to show their collective displeasure.

Saffell was in no mood to accept his punishment however, but this was a mistake on his part.

One evening soon afterwards he was sent for by his ‘mates’ and taken to the ‘shop’ where he was seized and his legs tied together. The men then hauled him up on a beam and suspended him 15 feet above the shop floor for 25 minutes. Saffell complained that this had caused him to have a rupture and that he was now in pain and incapacitated.

The magistrate quizzed several fellow workmen who admitted (much to the shock of the justice) that this was ‘common practice’ for those that broke their rules or refused to pay the fines. When pressed Saffell admitted that he had already been carrying an injury so his vociferous complaints about his inability to work were somewhat diluted. Nevertheless, the magistrate agreed that (despite the ‘rules’ of the shop floor) he had clearly been ‘assaulted’ in some respects.

The problem was in formally identifying those responsible from out of a large group of work mates. For the time being the court had two men ( William Steer and Frederick Coffey) in custody and so these two were fully committed for trial.

No case seems to have reached the Old Bailey so I suspect it was heard at Southwark or at the Surrey Assizes, or perhaps dropped for lack of evidence. Whether Saffell ever returned to work – let alone to that workforce – is equally unclear, but had he done so I rather suspect he might have avoided ladders in the future.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, October 23, 1867]

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