Report on the Truck System
by C.S.C. Bowen and A.C. Sellar, 1871
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General Description of the Truck System
Truck in Scotland in the coal and iron trade is also a very old institution. At one time it was common, both in the east and west, not merely in the coal and iron districts, but in public works generally where numbers of men were employed. Mr. Ralph Moore, government inspector of mines, believed that about the year 1831, the stores in the east of Scotland began to be abolished and died away gradually. Mention was made of one "store" (i.e. company shop) in Haddingtonshire, one or two in Mid Lothian, and several in West Lothian. As the border of Lanarkshire is approached, "stores" become more prevalent. Towards the west Scotland abounds in truck, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire being its chief centres. In the west there is in the mining districts more work and more demand for men. The wages in the west may be perhaps rather higher, but in comparing the average of wages in the east and in the west some allowance must be made for the fact that there are, as a rule, no monthly pays in the east, the pays there being either weekly or fortnightly, and also for the general absence, in the east, of any poundage on the advances given between pay days. The prices of provisions are about the same in both east and west. There are, according to Mr. Moore, few public works in the east of Scotland. On the whole, perhaps the mining population in the east is a more thriving population than that in the west.
Mr. McDonald, president of the Miners National Association contributed an approximate estimate of the numbers of miners and iron workers in Scotland affected by the truck system, he thought that the number of hands connected with works where there were stores or poundage, was about 25,000, and that there might be about 20,000 in works at which there are no stores. The following is his opinion as to the parts of Scotland where truck and poundage are most prevalent:-
Q Do you consider that the store system prevails to a greater extent in Lanarkshire than Ayrshire?
A Much more. I will tell you where the store system and the poundage system exists most. The store system exists chiefly and is more rampant in Lanarkshire than anywhere else. It also exists partly in Renfrewshire, in Ayrshire, in Stirlingshire, in Dumbartonshire, and in Linlithgowshire. In the latter county there are a few stores, and these are of a very grevious character. Stores do not exist in the county of Clackmannan. One, or two of a very modified character exist in Fife. There is no store in Mid or East-Lothian. There is no poundage in Mid-Lothian, so far as I know. There is no poundage in East-Lothian, so for as I know. Poundage may exist in a solitary case or two in Fife. It is totally unknown in Clackmannan. I may state that poundage had its origin, so far as I recollect, somewhere about 30 years ago. According to my knowledge I think it began first in Airdrie or near Airdrie ; and from that it has spread rapidly over other districts.
Mr. Macdonald's impression was that the system is more grievous in the small than in the larger works, but that in the branch establishments of the larger works it is quite as rigorous as even in the smaller. In the Scotch inquiry valuable assistance was derived from information supplied both by the evidence and the published reports of Mr. Cameron, special correspondent of the North British Daily Mail. It is owing not a little to this gentleman's reports that attention has been called to the subject of truck in Scotland, and his knowledge of its details was of much use.
In Scotland, the store or company's shop depends principally on the length of the pays, and on the inability of the men to live in the interim without assistance. In Lanarkshire and Ayrshire the pays are either fortnightly or monthly. A draw is given between, but generally either with a large deduction by way of poundage [commonly 6d. to 1s. in the pound], or else on the condition that the greater portion of the draw shall be taken to the shop ; a machinery to check sloping similar to that described in Wales being also adopted at Scotch works where there are stores. It will be remembered that in Wales the regular draw in the middle of the month is for the most part free, and the company's shop subsists not on the regular draw, but on the intermediate advances between. In Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, on the other hand, the periods of pay being on an average shorter, there is no free draw at all. All that is allowed before pay-day by way of draw or advance is furnished on the terms above mentioned. Thus fortnightly payments in Scotland are sufficient to sustain truck. The following extract is from the evidence of Mr. Moore :-
"Q Have you considered at all what recommendations you would make to produce a remedy for the state of things which you believe to exist ?
A I look upon the matter in this way. There are a very great number of men who cannot do without their wages for a fortnight, or even for a week. These men must either go to stores or pay poundage, and I think it is wrong that they should have to do so. But if it be the fact, and there is no doubt of it, that they cannot do without money for that length of time, I think it is only fair that they should have their money at such intervals as would enable them to pay their way as they go along. I think that whether the pays are made fortnightly, or monthly, or weekly, every workman should be able to ask and to get at least two thirds of his wages on the Mondays and Fridays of each week, and make the balance payable say at the end of the month."
Q In point of fact, you think that a system of periodical payments at longer intervals than a week is impossible, considering the necessities of the mining population ?
A I think so, considering the necessities not only of the mining population, but of many others of the poorer classes
On the draws or advances so obtained, and on the system of lengthened pays which necessitates them, the store relies. Mr. Henderson, one of the proprietors of the 'Drumpellier Ironworks, admitted that to a great extent his store is kept up by the system of advances, the understanding being that the men should spend their advances there. "The store is supported," said Mr. Henderson's cashier, "by those who are compelled to go to it." The storekeeper at Calder acknowledged in like manner that the store subsisted to a great extent on the advance-men, and he could not carry it on without them. The general manager of the Monklands Iron Company stated that but for the system of cash advances the store would come to the ground. Similar evidence will be found elsewhere. Truck in Scotland does not, however, end here. The immunity of the pay-men from subjection to truck which was found in South Wales, in many places of the west of Scotland does not exist. Of late years, it is true that the system of compulsion has been more confined to the advance men than formerly may have been the case. But the evidence shows that coercion of a severe description, both as regards the drawmen and the pay men is not unfrequent in the west of Scotland. Owing in Scotland to the absence of reticence among the men, and to the assistance afforded to the Commission by many of the masters whose interests were threatened by the inquiry, the case of the men was more fully presented. Making allowance for this, then: is more direct coercion in Scotland than in South Wales. Possibly the men are less timid and require stronger pressure. The general penalty for sloping is no doubt, in both countries, the stoppage of future draws. But in Scotland severer punishments are not unusual. The influence of gaffers and oversmen is put in motion to obtain for the store the custom of the men. Black lists are often kept of slopers ; threats of dismissal were repeatedly proved; and cases of actual dismissal for not dealing at the store are not rare. These acts of rigour, when they occur in the largest works, are practised, no doubt, without the privity of the proprietors, and are due to the great latitude left to the subordinates by their principals, But this latitude is part of the natural evil of the shop or store system. One of the most striking features connected with Scotch truck, is the admitted absence of all guarantee that the store will not be worked oppressively to the men. The history of the Carnbroe store, belonging to Messrs. Merry and Cunninghame, proves how little security there is against abuses.
The system here, as explained by Mr. Gavin Whitelaw, the storeman, was one of the worst in Scotland. The cash office was 50 to 70 yards from the store, and it was expected when the workmen got advances, that unless they did a little in the store they would get no more advances. By "doing a little" was meant "leaving part of what they got" in the advance office. "We made it our endeavour," Mr. Gavin Whitelaw said, "to get about three-fourths, but we never attained to it." Black lists were kept, made out in the following way. Slips sent from the cash office to the store, containing the names of the workmen and the amount advanced, were compared with the store books, and from these a list of the slopers was made out by the clerk in the store. The store-keeper considered this list, decided on the bad cases, and put a cross; against them. It was therefore the storekeeper, and not the advance clerk, who stopped the advances. The former, consequently, has had a firm hold over the men. At times - once a week or once a fortnight - he has had occasion to speak to them to come more frequently to the store, and has also spoken to the pay clerk and the oversmen about the men going more frequently for advances. The men, therefore, at this store have not merely been expected to pay their advances to the store, they have also been urged to go for advances before pay-day.
"Q Has it not often happened that once or twice a week at least you have spoken to people about their going more frequently for advances ?
A I may have done it some weeks, but there have been several weeks that I have never done it."
It appeared from Mr. Whitelaw's admissions, that even more rigorous measures had been taken to bring custom. The oversman, Mr. Brown, informed Mr. Whitelaw that he had used his influence with the men to get them to deal, and Mr. Whitelaw and Mr. Brown have consulted together as to what men should be turned off in depressed times, the men so selected being those who did not usually have advances. Further, men have been asked and recommended to go to the store in order to save themselves from being dismissed. Four or five years ago it had been the custom for Mr. Brown, the oversman, and Mr. Whitelaw, the storekeeper, to arrange together what men should and what men should not be dismissed, and men have been threatened with this fate for not dealing at the store.
Carnbroe is not an exceptional instance of these evils, as may he seen from the evidence with respect to the Summerlee works (Messrs. Wilson & Co,). A special book, containing the names of those who slope the store, is kept here as one of the regular office books. The plan of stoppages is rigorously employed, and the worst are distinguished from the ordinary cases of "sloping" by a red cross being prefixed to the sloper's name. "They are people," Mr. Muir told us, "who do it perpetually." Besides this stoppage of advances, there are traces at outlying works belonging to this firm of direct compulsion of other and more serious kinds. There has been oppression in this respect in past years, it was asserted, in their works at Kipper. At Jerviston, also belonging to the Summerlee Company, every workman is expected, it would seem, not only to deal at the store but also to rent a house from the company, and it appears that many have had to leave Jerviston on this account. Howieson, a collier, deposed that a son of his who was living with him was required to rent an unnecessary house.
"Q Your sons were living with you in your house at Jerviston works ?
A They were all young men, and we were living together. Mr. Forbes, underground manager or oversman, said it was a rule that was laid down to him that every young man in the work had to lake a house, because they had a wheen houses standing empty in the square. I said I would not take it
"Plenty," said the witness, "have been dismissed at Jerviston for not going to the store, and taking a house.'' Another witness. John .Stark, said he had been dismissed partly for not dealing at the store and partly for not renting a house, and it was alleged that others shared a similar fate many years ago.
The store manager at Jerviston was examined, and admitted to having complained to the manager (though not in the last year) with reference to the men not taking their money to the store. The men were spoken to in consequence by the manager. "It is understood as a rule" he acknowledged "that any many who comes to the works must go to the store", and this rule applied to paymen and advance men alike. Only one kind of tea, at 3s. 4d. the pound and one kind of sugar, at 5d. the pound, is kept at this store. The men who wish to work at Jerviston must, therefore, as a rule, both rent their master's houses and buy their master's goods. At Mr. John Watson's collieries at Motherwell similar severity prevails. Forsyth, the storeman, avowed that he used to send men to the pay clerk when they sloped the store, in order that the pay clerk might threaten them.
The severity exercised at the different works is a matter that much depends on the discretion of the storekeeper. The oversmen and cash clerks are often in the same interest. Where this is the case, pressure on the men is an inevitable consequence.
In Scotland, as in Wales, the important part played in the daily life of a workman by his employer's store, may be illustrated by the way in which subscriptions got up among the miners for one another in distress are paid; William Dodds, one of the workmen at Carphin, who had been rather more than a year employed, in May 1870 had a boy that died. It was the rule in the pit when any man was. in trouble in that way for his fellow workmen to collect a subscription for him, to be raised if possible at the office, against the money coming to each of them upon next pay day. The subscription for Dodds came to £1 4s. but "the clerk when I went to him would only give me 12s. in cash and a 12s. line and nothing else, and I had to take that. In the same month, about a fortnight afterwards, I had another boy that died. The men gathered a subscription on that occasion, which came to £1 1s. 6d. ....... and when I went to the clerk he would give me nothing but a 15s. line and 6s. in cash .....I told the clerk that I wanted it to bury my child.......He declined to give it me ..... and he would not give it to me on the pay day either. He said if I would not take the line I might go and gather the money myself if I liked; but he said that it was all a humbug, and that he was not to be bothered with it. He said that I might either take the 18s. in cash and the lines or want ...... I was getting my goods out of another shop from fortnight to fortnight, and I paid them every fortnight. But in place of paying my shop, I had to keep the money which I intended for that purpose, and to bury my child with it. I was not in debt in the store at the time. I had my fortnight's pay lying in the office."
This description seemed strange, but the advance clerk substantially admitted it. "The workman," he said, "generally got one half of the subscriptions in money and one half in lines." He remembered Dodds' case; thought the man had got 15s. or 16s. in money and the rest in lines on the first occasion, did not remember what he got on the second, but his story might have been correct. Both the advance clerk and the head cashier were aware that the money was wanted for the burial of Dodds' child, and the head cashier told the clerk to give Dodds so much in money and so much in lines. It is, however, to be remembered that the advance of such subscriptions is an advance in respect of pay not actually payable, and is considered by the employer as a matter not of right but of favour. This remark will apply to other cases both in Scotland and in Wales, where, unless poundage be paid, these subscriptions must be taken partially in kind.
Mr. Alexander, mining inspector for the lower ward of Lanarkshire, and Mr. Kyle, superintendent of county police in the Airdrie division of Lanarkshire, considered the price and quality of goods in stores equal to those of the shops about. Mr. Moore thought that the store gave men goods at reasonable prices, "indeed," said Mr. Moore, "I think the store is many a time much cheaper, and keeps the men out of the hands of the small hucksters." Mr. Moore, however, corroborated the view already expressed under the head of South Wales, that the stores, as a rule, set the prices of the articles for the shops round about them, and that if the stores charge high the probability is that the shops charge high too. But it would be difficult to resist the strong evidence in Scotland as to the habitually high prices and occasionally inferior quality of store goods. Although there are good and reasonable stores, the prices at most stores are irregular and the quality at several stores is bad. At Drumpeller the works manager informed us .that remonstrances as to the high prices and inferior articles sold were made to him almost every day, and that on one occasion he had "proved that they were well founded." The manager did not himself buy his goods at the store, but would do so if the store was as good and as cheap as the shops about. Odd farthings are not given back "at the store "; as Mary Garvin put it "They always keep the odd farthing; if you get half a thing at 6 1/2d. they charge 3 1/2d. for it." This grievance we found to be prevalent in Scotland and Wales. Of other accusations against the various stores, in respect of their goods, their prices, the want of choice given, the delays in the service, the civility, &c., &c., mention will be made under the title of each respective work.
As a rule, the weights and the measures of the stores are said to be fair. Drinking bars or cages exist at many, and at such beer and often spirits are to be had by lines or orders given by the company's store manager. South Wales has less of them than West Scotland, while on the other hand .tobacco and shop goods are oftener sold for drink in Wales. It is said that it is for the benefit of the workmen that he should drink, when he does drink, on premises kept to a certain extent under his master's care, and control.; The supervision exercised by the master over the cages is probably not always great, but in any case, the proximity of the cages to the works and also to the store where victuals are procured, affords dangerous facilities for drunkenness and the habit of giving orders at the store on the cage is a bad one. The scenes which occur at these places are said to be discreditable. But though the system is objectionable, we see no grounds for concluding that such scenes are worse than what might occur at other bars or public-houses. The lines or tickets given at many stores to the advance men are resold by them for drink in the same manner as the men re-sell goods from the store. At one place it was stated that a considerable trade is done by discounting lines. Mr. Cameron, who had seen a great many shop lines at different places was struck with their illegibility "I have seen a great many of them" - he added- "and there are very few of them in which I can make out items. The objection I have to that is, that people who are not very well able to read even well written invoices have not much opportunity of checking the correctness of these."
The dislike of the stores among the better class of men in Scotland is strong, and undeniable.
More than one manager of works with stores testified to the feeling among the men, and were strongly opposed, in the interest both of the men and of the works, to the store .system. Mr. Ferrie, the general manager of the Monklands Iron and Steel Company's Works, where stores are kept, expressed almost unqualified disapproval of it. " I disapprove," he said, "of the whole machinery of it altogether, it is a disagreeable system to work and I think it has the effect of interfering with proper men coming to the works generally."
Mr. Gray, manager of the collieries at Drumpellier, and whose individual opinion, like that of a number of managers in Scotland, is strongly against truck, told us that the "feeling among the managers was universal against the store system," and that the "workmen would be better without the stores." The best men, as was admitted by Mr. Henderson, the proprietor of the works, "never set their foot in it, they prefer to go elsewhere. They may think they do better elsewhere, and perhaps they do." And Mr. Gray told us that he had difficulty in getting good men to work at Messrs. Henderson and Dimmack's, owing to the store, and that the "better men never go to it." Mr. Cameron had found complaints as to the stores to be universal. " I don't think," he told us, "I met with a single instance in which the men spoke favourably of the system." George Armstrong, a workman of Messrs. Merry and Cunninghame, stated " that he had never heard,at any place where he had worked, any man say he liked the stores. I could not say which of them is most disliked, it is a general complaint."
It appeared at first a matter of surprise that strikes should not be oftener directed against the store system, as also that prosecutions are not more frequent under the Truck Act. The latter circumstance is alleged to be due to the fact that the Scotch procedure is ill adapted to proceedings under the Truck Act. An idea (countenanced as is believed, by a decision of the Court of Session) prevails in Scotland that the Truck Act is not infringed if the only pressure upon the advance men is the danger of the stoppage of future advances. Mr. Dykes, the Procurator Fiscal for the Hamilton district, pointed out moreover, that, he did not consider it his business to inquire whether the Truck Act was being evaded or infringed:-
Q Can you inform us whose duty it is ? - It is the duly of every man who is aggrieved
Q But of nobody in particular ? - Of nobody in particular.
Q Suppose a miner were aggrieved, would the information be given to you or the police? - To either, but I never had an information of the kind.
Q And I rather gather from what you have said, that you would not move in the matter although you had ? - I would not.
Q Then to whom ought a complaining miner to make his complaint? - He would require to employ an agent to conduct his case for him, and proceed in his own name.
Q Even if he was complaining of a criminal offence ? - If he was complaining of an offence against the Truck Act.
Q And wished to prosecute ?- Yes, and wished to prosecute.
Q I am not talking of a case in which he wished to recover money back ? - No, I am speaking of a contravention of the Truck Act.
Q Then he would have to employ an agent at his own expense, and proceed in his own name ?- Yes.
Q Suppose he were to complain to the police, what would they tell him ? - That he must proceed himself.
Q Is not that a very exceptional state of things in the law?- It is so ; I don't remember any other Act of Parliament in the same condition.
Mr. Fraser, sheriff of Renfrewshire, entertained a similar view as to the difficulties of working the present Act. ''The main defect in the Act," he stated, "seems to me to consist in the want of a public prosecutor .......The Truck Act is in abeyance altogether simply from the fact that it is nobody's business to challenge the violation of it." The difficulties of obtaining evidence from the men constitutes an additional obstacle. Mr. Cameron in seeking for information among the people has found a very greatt dislike on their part to run the risk of displeasing their employers by giving information. He accounted for the absence of civil proceedings under the Truck Act by the expense which the miner would incur, and of criminal cases by the dread of dismissal.
With regard to the absence of strikes Mr. Macdonald is of the opinion that into all Scotch strikes of any extent during the last 28 years the question of truck has largely entered. It was sometimes, he said, raised as an issue, but it always embittered the dispute. Mr. Macdonald also called attention to the numerous applications made by the men to Parliament on the subject for a number of years past. The real reason why strikes are not more common is perhaps that truck presses less upon the organized and intelligent than on the weak, the apathetic, and the depressed, and that where the working classes are thoroughly organized in trades unions or other bodies truck does not spring up. Perhaps the same explanation may be given of the fact that the wages do not seem to differ in districts where there are and where there are not stores. Yet it is not moral weakness only that brings a workman under the influence of his master's store. The accidents of life have the same effect. Mr. Cameron had noticed that the married people, are the greatest sufferers by the system; they are, he thought, more easily subjected to it as "They are more tied down to one place. Generally speaking, they have a house which they rent from their employers. They get their family about them, and with the impediment attendant on married life they cannot move about so easily. Generally speaking, it is on the married people that the greatest amount of pressure is brought to bear, and they are always the greatest sufferers, I am informed. If a married man displeases his employers by continuous sloping of the store, that man cannot move away so easily; he has his rent to pay and his family to move, and many other things to do that single men have not. I believe as a matter of fact, the single men are not so hardly dealt with as the married men"
The profits of a shop conducted upon the company's shop or store system must necessarily be very large. The following general considerations will show the advantage which companies' shops possess over an ordinary retail trader. The investment is a perfectly safe one. The shop buys in large quantities and on the best terms, for it has the credit of a large company behind it. When it purchases goods by bills, say at two months, it receives money out of its men's wages to pay for the goods before the bills fall due. It requires accordingly little or no capital to carry on its business. It has, or, with good management, need have few bad debts, being able to protect itself by the wages of the men. Constant and certain custom is secured to it in the advance men, on whom it depends. Lastly, it can and does fix its own prices, independently of the market.