In late February 1828 two young men were brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House charged with ‘having taken some bushels of corn’ from a loaded cargo vessel they were working on.
The pair (who were not named in the newspaper report) were employed as lightermen on the Thames river – ‘the people who have operated the boats on the Thames with a history going back hundreds of years’.
The prosecution was brought by a Mr Ashford, a corn factor (a trader in corn) who had sent the bushels as samples to his customers. Presumably if the quality (and price) were acceptable they would then enter into contracts to take regular deliveries from him.
Ashford told the Lord Mayor that it was becoming ‘a general practice with lightermen to plunder corn vessels’ and that while he was loath to press ‘to have any punishment inflicted’ he wanted something done to stop it.
He probably recognised that he needed the lightermen on side as it was, to convey his samples and future deliveries along the crowded waterway of the capital. He may also have been acknowledging that for hundreds of years those working on the river (as lightermen, dockers and warehousemen) had a long standing belief that they had rights to a part of the cargos they conveyed, unloaded or secured.
The concept of customary rights or perquisites (‘perks) has been understood by social historians to form part of the ‘economy of makeshifts’ of working men and women in the long eighteenth century and beyond. Carpenters working at the naval shipyards on the Thames took home offcuts of wood to build stairs in their homes, dock workers felt entitled to help themselves to plugs of tobacco or ‘sips’ of alcohol; while coal heavers swept up the dregs of coal from boats coming in from the North East and South Wales to use on their fires.
This alternative economy (which had its examples in almost all small industries and in agriculture) was increasingly suppressed as capitalism took hold in the 1700s and employers used the growing sheaf of property laws to prosecute for theft.
Perks still exist of course; who hasn’t taken home some office stationary for personal use, used the employer’s phone or surfed the internet on a work PC; or perhaps exploited staff discount for friends? We have a deep seated sense of entitlement to the benefits of working for this or that company, institution or individual and it is hard tom let go of (or police of course).
In the end the Lord Mayor decided not to proceed against the two lightermen, taking on board what the corn trader had requested. But he laid down a marker:
He said he was ‘perfectly aware of the practice, which, if not actual felony, came very near it; and, if after this warning, were not discontinued, he would, in any future case, recommend prosecution’.
He then sent the men away with a flea in their ears.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, February 25, 1828]