A.W Todd: Yard Culture

Like any work place, Masonry had a culture of its own that existed within the confines of the working day and the work place. I’ve mentioned it briefly already in the form of the working men’s leisure and recreation and what they chose to spend their money on. However, I’m now going to take a broader view of the nuances of the mason yard as relayed by Todd. I wonder if any are recognizable to any one today who has worked in similar working-class, manual labor environments.

One of the more interesting examples of inclusive work place culture that Todd mentions is that of the different names used to describe different types of men. The two that he tells us about are “badgers” and “bellhorses”. The badgers were country men who came up to London to work a particular type of stone as their tools, that were suitable for the stone they normally worked on, could also be used here. The bellhorses were big strong men that Todd describes as hardworking and he tells us you could always spot them in a yard as they made a show of their work ethic. Though, he does allude to the fact that it was all a show as the more intelligent workers were probably sat off somewhere waiting for the bellhorses to catch up.

He also interestingly makes note of the tension caused by the badgers as they often talked about returning home for the weekend and other such freedoms that incited envy in the local workers. This kind of work place division might be apparent today also. By contrast, he mentions the friendships that he and the other workers made during their time in the yards and what we can really see is that even though on occasion there could be division, mostly work became a source of solidarity for Todd and the other men. It became a place to make friends.

Competition also formed a big part of yard culture. Todd tells us of how when a special order of stones came in and they were given to the best masons that “All the other men would take great interest in comparing the quality and speed of the individual men.” I found this quite an interesting concept and a familiar one as I feel we all identify people at work that we come to believe are the better people at the job and it can often be fun seeing them in head to head competition. Todd’s recalling of this type of competition, his choice to include this in the memoir probably suggests his interest in it as well.

Lastly, the remaining part of yard culture that I found interesting to write about was the idea of men who had spent most of their time working on sites but that came to work in the yards where the quality of work expected was higher. Todd tells us that some of these men could not produce the quality but made up for it by rubbing shoulders with the foreman and other important people down at the pub and offering tobacco perks to them also in a bid to keep their shoddy work under the radar! Quite clever, but undesirable behavior.

Do you recognize any of these behaviors in your work place? Or do you even take part in them yourself?! Something to reflect on maybe.


‘A.W. Todd’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:1030

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