History of the British Museum and its collections, £6.00
Height: 7.000 cm
Width: 11.700 cm
Bequeathed by Sir Ambrose Heal (1959)
PD Heal 44.15
Prints and Drawings
Trade card of Philip Fruchard, Coal Merchant, an etching
London, around 1750
Philip Fruchard's trade card shows coal-heavers taking coal from a shallow barge and loading it onto a horse-drawn cart for delivery in London. In the background is the three-masted sailing ship that would have brought the coal from Newcastle. Coal was essential for heating and cooking in people's homes as well as for industrial furnaces. Burning coal caused London's smoky air and the black grime that coated every surface.
The coal-heavers worked in gangs of sixteen or eighteen. By the 1750s most were Irishmen employed by contractors called 'undertakers'. Their pay was good but work was intermittent, and workers were constantly in debt to the undertakers who advanced them cash while waiting for ships to arrive. The undertakers also deducted money from the pay for their commission, for renting shovels and for the gin and beer supplied while the coal was being unloaded.
In response to a petition from the coal-heavers against the undertakers, an act of 1758 gave responsibility for unloading coal to the alderman of Billingsgate Ward. But abuses of this system continued and resentment increased following the introduction of new equipment that required fewer workers. Matters came to a head in 1768 when food shortages led to unrest and riots throughout London, including a violent strike of river workers at Wapping and Shadwell led by the coal-heavers.
P. Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and C (Verso Books, 1991)