Times were hard for sawyers in the English towns, and getting worse. While weavers were still decades away from experiencing the threat of steam powered looms, by 1830 steam powered saw mills had been working hard for twenty years to eliminate the need for the once-critical wood workers.
Edward Biggs, born in Kidderminster, England, in 1789, was a sawyer all of his life until his death in 1832, and his four sons worked as sawyers before heading to America. “We are nearly all married men with families,” one sawyer told a reporter in the early 1800’s. “Families seems a sort of gift to poor men, instead of to rich ones.”
Before 1830, a sawyer took on apprentices. One master sawyer would have as many as five apprentices. “I was an apprentice for seven years,” said a young sawyer. “And I worked alongside my father,” said another with 35 years of experience. “It was the rule of our trade that the eldest son was entitled to his father’s business. Now I don’t see a sawyer…who has one.”
We take for granted that powerful machinery can slice trees into usable lumber within seconds, but up until 1800 it was the sole job of a pair of men to pull a saw vertically through a piece of timber to cut each plank separately. It was semi-skilled labor, but work was abundant everywhere– in the lumber yards, on the docks, and cabinet shops, until machinery did the job better.
The sawyer’s work was specific. A piece of timber was laid on a brace straddling a trench in which one sawyer, called a pitman, would work the bottom of the long saw. A second sawyer, called a topman, would stand above and guide the saw as they cut lengthwise down the timber. Each cut sliced off a plank to be used as lumber or veneer.
Sawyers were often paid in the public house (tavern) where they were “obliged to take their beer every day…some of us had to go home with nothing on a Saturday night.” “I know of no teetotalers among us,” said one pitman. “Sawing is hard work, and requires four or five pints of beer a day to support a man, but many drink a great deal more. The public house system made men drunkards – I’m sure it did, sir.”
Another interjected, “Take sawyers altogether, they’re fond of a drop, but I don’t think them rougher than other people when they’re in liquor…I have known sawyers working at 70 years old, hard work as it is. We live as long as other people, I think.”
“In the year ’26 it was as good a time for sawyers as ever it was – there was a good demand for men, and good wages,” one sawyer remembered. He was 55 and in the trade 40 years. “About 1827, they [powered saw mills that once only cut veneer] began to get general and were used to cut timber, and as fast as the saw mills have been starting up so we have been going down,” he complained. “We have only rough work, and what the saw mills can’t or won’t do.”
The occupation of sawyer was hit hard by the changing technology of an Industrial Revolution we don’t think about. “Many that I am acquainted with have left it, and many more would be glad to get away from it,” said the topman. “Some few sawyers put their boys to the trade because they haven’t the means to apprentice them to anything else…All that the two earns then goes to one home.”
“After all this I leaves you to judge what our opinion is about machinery. Of course we looks upon it as a curse. We have no chance to compete with a machine; it isn’t taxed, you see, as we are,” said the old sawyer. “Even the machines, some of them, can’t hardly raise the price of the coals to get the fire up. Machinery’s are very powerful, sir, but competition is much stronger.”
Interviews taken from Henry Mayhew’s Voices of the Poor, a series of articles published by London’s Morning Chronicle between 1849 and 1851.
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