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  • The East India Company's London Workers: Management of the Warehouse Labourers, 1800-1858
  • Cathryn J. Pearce
The East India Company's London Workers: Management of the Warehouse Labourers, 1800-1858. By Margaret Makepeace (Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2010. x plus 242 pp.).

After reading this book, one perhaps cannot be blamed for a little jealousy. As senior archivist for the East India Records at the British Library, Margaret Makepeace is in an enviable position to engage in extensive research, with masses of important documents and books at her fingertips. She has taken advantage of her situation to produce a well-argued, well-produced book on a little known area of East India Company history—that of the Company's London warehouse laborers. Her study draws attention to the East India Records, a rich source for organizational, political, social and cultural history, but which has been underutilized. By taking the viewpoint of "history from below," Makepeace has investigated the relationship of the Company's warehouse laborers with their employers, from the peak of the Company's business in 1800 to 1833 when the trading monopoly was dissolved by an Act of Parliament, closing the Company's commercial operations and forcing the redundancy of thousands of workers. By 1858, the Company's military powers were transferred to the India Office and the Company's remaining warehouses closed.

Makepeace begins her study by investigating the substantial warehousing complex that extended along the north bank of the River Thames, which consisted of "the most extensive commercial property held in London by one organization" (25). To manage this complex warehousing system and the vast volume of goods efficiently, the East India Company employed thousands of men, consequently becoming the largest employer of its day. The Company developed a recruitment process that was based on patronage and selectivity, as potential recruits had to be nominated by a director and then scrutinized for health and suitability based on height and age restrictions. Between 1796 and 1814, and then from 1820 to 1834, recruits also had to be willing to join the East India Company Volunteers for military duty in addition to their civilian duties, mainly to protect the Company warehouses and the metropolis in case of riots. [End Page 255] Makepeace emphasizes throughout her study that the Company employed patronage, paternalism and benevolence, practices apparent in Company management procedures from the beginning of their charter in the seventeenth century and refined through the turbulent labor conditions of the early nineteenth century. Thus what Makepeace convincingly shows is that the East India Company was in many ways ahead of its time with its benevolent labor practices—a fair wage paid regularly, a six-hour workday with paid overtime, a pension program, free medical care, and an early form of Workmen's Compensation through a contributory welfare fund, and even a bank so that the laborers could save for their retirement. The benefits, along with service in the East India Company Volunteers, were credited with creating in the laborers esprit de corps, loyalty, and a sense of "family." Indeed, there was no evidence of any strikes or significant threats of radicalism within the warehouses. However, these benefits also had a darker side, binding the laborer to the Company by denying access to pensions and the contributory Workman's Fund if anyone left work or was fired. The Company also controlled their lives outside of work, notably through required service in the Volunteers and by restrictions on where the workers could live. Makepeace argues that despite these strictures, laborers developed a loyalty to the Company that was reciprocated by the Company of Directors, as evidenced by the large numbers of petitions that were considered individually and empathetically. Unfortunately these benefits were not to last and were curtailed when the East India Company lost its license to trade commercially, which forced them to cope with yet another aspect of labor management, made even more difficult by the sheer size of their establishment—the forced redundancy of thousands of their warehouse workers. Most laborers were pensioned off with favorable pensions, while others found jobs in other dock companies. A skeleton crew continued on with the Company's two...


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pp. 255-257
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