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Plasterers’ work in the 19th and early 20th century


Traditionally, plasterers used a plaster made of lime, sand and water for indoor work. Sometimes horse or ox hair was added to give it more tensile strength and to stop it cracking.  The plaster was applied to laths, which were thin strips of wood nailed to the walls and ceiling.  There would be gaps between the laths to act as a ‘key’ for the plaster.  

The plasterer held his ‘hawk’ in one hand.  The hawk was a flat square wooden board with a handle attached to the middle of its underside.  The plaster was stacked up on the hawk.  In the other hand he held a trowel or flat, with which he would remove some plaster from the hawk and apply it to the surface being plastered.  

Dunfermline plaster ceiline

Page from the Plasterer and Cement Mason newsletter, July 1990, held in the Library. Dunfermline's 1903 Opera House was shipped to Chicago and its plasterwork restored by skilled ornamental plasterers

The skill was in applying even layers to vertical surfaces and ceilings without it falling off, ‘slumping’ i.e. gathering into lumps, or leaving the marks of his tools.  It usually took three layers of plaster for a good finish.  The lime plaster was left to ‘go off’ i.e. dry out and harden, a process that could take at least two to three weeks.

Exterior plaster work with hydraulic lime and granite or marble dust was even more challenging.

There was also a kind of specialist plaster work sometimes called pargeting in which the worker produced the elaborate mouldings, cornices, coving and bosses seen in town halls, public houses, libraries etc.  Pargeting can also be seen in 16th century half-timbered houses.

Plasterering is one of the trades represented in Robert Tressell's novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, with its searing early 20th century analysis of the relationship between working class people and their employers.  Tressell, real name Robert Noonan, was a house painter, and George Orwell praised his ability to convey 'the actual detail of manual work and the tiny things almost unimaginable to any comfortably situated person which make life a misery when one's income drops below a certain level'.

Chapter One sets the scene of the house, 'The Cave', where much of the novel is set. 'There were, altogether, about twenty-five men working there, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and painters, besides several unskilled labourers... The air was full of the sounds of hammering and sawing, the ringing of trowels, the rattle of pails, the splashing of water brushes, and the scraping of the stripping knives used by those who were removing the old wallpaper. Besides being full of these the air was heavily laden with dust and disease germs, powdered mortar, lime, plaster, and the dirt that had been accumulating within the old house for years'.

At one point in the book there is mention of an inquest into 'the third case of death from destitution that had occurred in the town within six weeks.  The evidence showed that the man was a plasterer who had walked from London with the hope of finding work somewhere in the country.  He had no money in his possession when he was found by the policeman; all that his pockets contained being several pawn tickets and a letter from his wife, which was not found until after he died, because it was in an inner pocket of his waistcoat.  A few days before this inquest was held, the man who had been arrested for stealing the turnips had been taken before the magistrates.  The poor wretch said he did it because he was starving, but Aldermen Sweater and Grinder, after telling him that starvation was no excuse for dishonesty, sentenced him to pay a fine of seven shillings and costs, or go to prison for seven days with hard labour.  As the convict had neither money nor friends, he had to go to jail, where he was, after all, better off than most of those who were still outside because they lacked either the courage or the opportunity to steal something to relieve their sufferings'.

For more information about plasterers' unions, click here.