You Were Born Too Soon

“De dorpstimmerman” by Tony Lodewijk George Offermans (1854-1911)

“I served my apprenticeship in the country as a carpenter, but have been 49 years in London this July. I am now 79. I have worked all the 49 years in London, except six months. Of course I can’t work now as well as I could. I was obliged about five years ago to wear spectacles, as my eyesight wasn’t as good. I could do the rougher work of carpentering as well as some years before, but then I can’t lift heavy weights up aloft as I could. In most shops the moment a man puts the glasses on it’s over with him. It wasn’t so when I first knew London. Masters then said, ‘Let me have an old man, one who knows something.’ Now it’s, ‘Let me have a young man, I must have a strong fellow, an old one won’t do.’ One master discharged two men when he saw them at work in glasses, though the foreman told him they worked as well with them, and as well every way as ever they did, but it was all no use; they went. I used to wear glasses in one employ, and others did the same, and the foreman was a good man to the men as well as to the master; and if the master was coming, he used to sing out ‘Take those sashes out of the way,’ and so we had time to whip off our glasses, and the master didn’t know we were forced to use them; but when he did find it out, by coming into the shop unawares, he discharged two men. I now work at jobbing and repairing in buildings. It’s no use my going to ask for work of any master, for if I hadn’t my glasses on he’d see from my appearance I was old, and must wear them, and wouldn’t hear of giving an old man a job. One master said to me, ‘Pooh, you won’t do – you were born too soon.’ ”

– From letter LXI, July 18, 1850, quoted in Henry Mayhew’s “London Labor and the London Poor”

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