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Labouring in early modern London

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Although they are often referred to, labourers in early modern London are an ill defined and little studied group. They are usually taken to be the ‘unskilled’. This paper draws on business and institutional records to give long needed detail on labourers employment in London from the early seventeenth to the late eighteenth century. Using case studies from various sites around London it examines what sorts of work labourers did, in construction and elsewhere, how they were hired and deployed for it, how they were paid, and what their relationship to others working around them were.

The labourers that existing literature has referred to were semi-skilled assistants to craftsmen in the construction industry, such as masons, bricklayers and carpenters, and they worked in mixed teams in large firms. Many of them worked for the same firm or contractor for many years. This was not the only group, however. Large contracting firms of labourers deployed general or common labourers, who carried out digging and hauling work, across numerous sites for the Crown and City. Other unskilled men in brewing, maintenance, on the river, at docks, and in other trades were called ‘labourers’, and provided varying levels of strength and biological capital for varied levels of pay.

Labouring men were paid by the contracting firms who placed them, not by the institutions where they worked. Only a small elite of foremen earned the day wages of the traditional literature. The vast majority of London labourers earned substantially less, over unpredictable hours, lived without security of employment, and by the end of the eighteenth century were no better off than their predecessors a century and a half before.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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