If you've landed on this page looking for details of the opera - search again! Carmen in this context is to do with the 'Car-men' occupation. A very old trade - a Livery Company was established in the City of London in medieval times. By the nineteenth century the trade of carman was largely unregulated.
The same Charles Booth who wrote about Hoop Benders also wrote about carmen and their work in his Life and Labour of the People of London.
Even though it was written in 1903 it offers some interesting observations. Referring to statistics gathered in the 1891 census he wrote of the
"...43,801* Carmen, Carters, Van Boys etc... employed in driving or taking charge of vehicles which carry merchandise"
[* Figures for London]
and distinguished them -
"from those.... who drive or take charge of vehicles conveying passengers...... A large proportion of the carmen attend to their own horses. The vans driven and attended to by these men include an immense variety of vehicles, ranging from the iron trolley used to move heavy pieces of machinery and drawn by six or even eight horses, to the little spring cart and pony which is but one remove from a costermonger"s barrow. They include also a vast number of tradesmen's hooded carts and those mere boxes on wheels which are used when speed is the principal object, as in the distribution of letters and newspapers. With heavy traffic the pay and position of the driver primarily depends on whether he drives one horse or two. Beyond this the conditions of employment depend mainly on whether the employing firm has few or many carts. ..... the great bulk (of the trade) consists in the handling of vans and carts belonging to a multitude of businessmen in every part of London. Some ' Some firms even refuse to provide cloths for the horses, on the grounds that, if they did, the men would use them! ' trades require carts of a peculiar shape, as for example those used by brewers, specially suited to the carriage of barrels, or for the transport of the light mass of reeking 'grains', or again such as the hearse-like vehicles arranged to carry pianos. In other cases, as for instance with dealers in furniture or ironmongery, the goods to be moved are not packed, or hardly packed, and special carts and men are required to effect the delivery safely. Beyond this, even with those whose goods might be equally well carried by a parcel's delivery company, an advantage is found in the value of the van as a moving advertisment; and finally, if other considerations are nearly balanced, a tradesman likes to have his own cart and horse and his own man, for it is convenient in a hundred ways, besides being a source of pleasure at times on Sundays and holidays."
.... Competition as to rates of wages is practically absent. It is probable that the hours are long, and in some cases very long, but as a rule the work is not exhausting, nor such as to divorce the men from home life.
The main grievance in this trade concerns the length of the working day. There is no doubt that very long hours prevail. A week's work, inclusive of time occupied in the stable, will average from 96 to 100 hours. No overtime is paid in any systematic way, but 1s (ie 5p) may be allowed for an extra load. If,for instance, a man is ordered out at 3am in place of 6am he will usually get 1s (5p) or 1s 3d (6p) extra; and for starting at midnight and working on through the day an additional 2s (1Op) may be paid; but some employers do not give as much as this. On Sundays the horses have to be attended to. The vans are usually out all day, and every day during the week, except when laid up for repairs, or unless trade be very slack. The work, however, is seldom strenuous, and always involves more or less waiting. These intervals, which may be between jobs or when waiting in turn for a load, are of uncertain duration, from a few minutes to one or two hours. One informant says that about three hours is the average time occupied in "standing', and that this includes meal times, for which no regular provision is made. At times a man may 'put the nosebag on his horse' and go to sleep himself, but such occasions are said to be rare, and that on the whole the hours occupied are hours of work. The horses work the same length of time as the men. There is no change of team. This in itself would seem to be some guarantee that the number of hours of standing must be a considerable proportion of the whole. Except with the railway companies, and a few of the large contractors, the men have to clean and water their horses. Horse-keepers are employed to feed them.
For such long hours as prevail, the pay is low. There is perhaps no man's employment which yields so small a return per hour. To drive a cart demands but little skill, nor any exceptional intelligence, and there is nothing like the physical exhaustion which puts a natural limit to hours of work in many trades. Moreover, the hours in which goods are moved by road extend almost necessarily early and late, preceding or following the work of others. For one horse vans men's wages vary from 18s (9Op) to 24s (£1.2O), and boys are often employed at lower rates. Some of the heaviest work is paid no more than 18s (90p). for two-horse vans the pay varies from 22s (£1.10) to 26s (£1.3O) with a few at 28s (£1.40). For three or four horses no particular difference is made; 3Os (£1.50) per week is the maximum rate, and few employers pay as much. .......At one time tips were almost a system, but are no longer usual, excepting perhaps with the men engaged in parcels delivery, who may still substantially augment their wages in this way. Drink is given more often than money, and what money is received most frequently goes to the public-house. It is admitted that carmen are largely addicted to strong drink, but it is not supposed that it plays any considerable part in their sickness and mortality."
"The men suffer from rheumatism and bronchitis, and such illnesses are the most prevalent and dangerous, as on the whole the men are ill provided with warm clothes, presenting in this respect a striking contrast to cab and 'busmen. Old bags are a common makeshift for an overcoat. The railway companies and large private firms almost invariably supply aprons or rugs, but in many cases the men have to find their own, and then they are usually not provided at all. Some firms even refuse to provide cloths for the horses, on the grounds that, if they did, the men would use them!"
"If not incapacitated by actual illness or removed by death, men may continue long at this work. Men of seventy years of age may be found driving vans, and they have been known to work to within a few days of death. With carmen there is no such thing as partial loss of capacity affecting wages, but at sixty a man would find difficulty in getting a job if thrown out of work."
Of the 33,519* adult men (figures from the 1891 Census return) employed in these trades, about 23,850 are head of families. Comparing the earnings as indicated in the combined return with the scale of social conditions, we have 61% earning under 25s (£1.25) a week compared with 58% living in a more or less crowded condition (3 or more in each room). 29.5% earning from 25s (£1.25) to 35s (£1.75).... living one and less than two persons to a room and 9.5% earning over 35s (£1.75) with less than one person to a room."
[* Figures for London]