Thursday 23 July 2009

Deptford dockyard chips

In the eighteenth century, the most valuable perquisite (perk) of the naval shipwright's job was the right to remove chips. The term referred to offcuts of timber up to six feet in length, which the shipwrights would carry home on their shoulders. There was allegedly abuse of this right, with shipwrights sawing down planks to just below the maximum length - in work time - before carrying them away. Quality may also have been affected, with allegations that workers took the seasoned wood, leaving green wood for the actual shipbuilding. The right also cost the Royal Dockyards a great deal, estimated by William Sutherland in 1726 at £93,000 per year. It is unsurprising, then, that the shipyards tried to control the taking of chips while the workers did their best to minimise restrictions on it.

The perk was jealously protected: in 1739, Deptford workers went on strike over an attempt to make them unbundle their loads when they left the shipyard. 1758 saw further unrest here when they were told to carry the chips out under their arms rather than on their shoulders. There was clearly a further threat to the privilege in 1786, and it caused such outrage among Deptford's Royal Dockyard workers that a riot nearly followed. On 25 October, it was reported that
On Friday afternoon a meeting of a very alarming nature took place at Deptford amongst the Shipwrights; we are given to understand it arose about their perquisites of chips. About four o’clock they were got to such a pitch of desperation, that the whole town was in the utmost consternation imaginable, and it seemed as if the whole place was struck with one general panic. But happy for the security of his Majesty’s subjects, an officer dispatched a messenger for a party of the guards, which fortunately arrived at Deptford at six o’clock, which secured the peace for the moment, but were soon found insufficient, and a second express was instantly disptatched for an additional supply, these were found not capable of keeping the peace; at eleven o’clock all the troops from the Savoy that could be spared arrived, which, happy for the town of Deptford, secured the place and restored peace.
However, whatever the unrest it might provoke, the perk had to be brought under control. This was finally achieved at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when in July 1801 the perquisite was replaced by 'chip money' of 6d a day for shipwrights and half that for labourers.

Further reading: there is a chapter on 'Ships and Chips' in Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged: crime and civil society in the eighteenth century.

1 comment:

. said...

The London Hanged is one of my favourite books, I met Peter Linebaugh briefly last year when he gave a talk at Goldsmiths.