Dockyard staff likened to beasts in a zoo

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On this day in 1853 a letter was published in the press with the heading Laziness in the Dockyard.

It condemned workers as ‘lazy drones’, lying around in the cabins of ships that were fitted out with similar scenes in the sail lofts and the boat houses.

They were, the writer concluded, ‘like beasts in the zoological garden, only waiting to be roused up for feeding time’. The letter was signed R Martell, Portsea.

The following week, the real Mr Martell wrote to the newspaper stating that the letter was not from him.

In another, anonymous, letter, a correspondent claimed to have visited Portsmouth dockyard for an hour during which ‘some 60 or 70 persons came under observation’.

Every one of them, he maintained, ‘official, or mechanic, appeared to move at the rate of about one-and-a-half miles per hour’.

This, he went on, ‘is not the usual rate outside the yard in Queen Street at the time the men go to dinner’.

He watched men sawing, using an adze, boring with an auger and mortising timber, all ‘in an idle, slothful way’.

Whether these letters were connected to a sawyers’ strike at the time, prompted by them having to do ‘a certain quantity of work before they were paid for it’, is not known – from John Sadden’s The Portsmouth Book of Days.