‘jerry-builder’: meaning and origin



The noun jerry-builder designates a speculating builder who constructs cheap houses, flats, etc., with materials of poor quality, for a quick profit.




In Slang and its Analogues Past and Present ([London]: Printed for subscribers only, 1896), the British lexicographer John Stephen Farmer (1854-1916) and the British author William Ernest Henley (1849-1903) wrote the following about the noun jerry-builder and the adjective jerry-built:

Jerry-builder, subs. (common).—A rascally speculating builder. Jerry-built, adj. = run up in the worst materials. [The use of the term arose in Liverpool circa 1830].

The earliest occurrences of jerry-builder, jerry-building and jerry-built that I have found confirm that those terms originated in Liverpool, Lancashire, north-western England, in the early 1830s.

These early occurrences are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From To Correspondents, published in The Liverpool Mercury and Lancashire General Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 7th June 1833—the letter sent by ‘a Constant Reader’ was not published:

Jerry Building.—The publication of the letter of a Constant Reader might subject us to an action, if the jerry-builder should take offence at it. We have forwarded it to the Commissioners of Watch, Lamp, and Scavengers.

2-: From a letter by a man signing himself ‘A Builder’, quoted in The Trades’ Union Society, published in The Liverpool Mercury and Lancashire General Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 21st June 1833:

“Another evil of the system [of contracting] is, that the cupidity of some of the masters prompts them to task and tyrannize over their men, allowing them too little time to make a good job; witness what you call Jerry buildings, blown up like bottles or balloons, without that substantiality and convenience which give security and comfort to the inhabitants. This way of sliming [?] or slopping of work takes about half the number of men to do the same work in the same time that would be required if the work was done properly, and apprentices and inferior men, working at from 8s. to 14s. per week, are employed by the master, instead of able, full-bred tradesmen.”

3-: From a letter to the Editor, about trades’ unions, by one O‘Shaughnessy, published in The Albion (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Monday 24th June 1833:

What have the masters to complain of? Is it that a numerous body of hard-working, industrious men have united together for the promotion of their mutual interest, and that, by this union, they have put down the ruinous and plundering system of “Jerry building,” (as it is termed,) and thus afforded themselves an opportunity of procuring a better livelihood for their families, and at the same time placing the respectable master builder on the same footing on which he stood before “Jerry building” came in fashion?

4-: From a letter to the Editor, published in The Liverpool Standard, and General Commercial Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 4th November 1836:

Sir,—My object in addressing you, is to call, through the medium of your valuable columns, the attention of the proper authorities to the shameful state of a portion of Park-street, Park-road, in which are four unfinished houses, known as “Jerry built.” They are now in a very dangerous state, having for a length of time been going to decay, and as a part of them fell during the last winter, I am anxious that the annoyance should be remedied before the return of that season. The pathway in front of them is also very dangerous, the areas remaining open and entirely unprotected, myself and neighbours being constantly obliged to warn our friends to keep in the middle of the street for safety.

The following article was published in The Liverpool Standard, and General Commercial Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 8th November 1842:

No. I.

The world at large, and many, even, of the community to whom the following remarks are addressed, may require to know what is the description of a tradesman whom we designate as “the Jerry builder.” We will endeavour, as briefly as we can, to illustrate the meaning attached to the term in question.
You cannot pass through any of the modern portions of the town of Liverpool without your attention being called to piles of buildings, prematurely old—decayed before age can have had any legitimate right to injure brickwork or woodwork—“situate and being,” as the lawyers would say, in ill-paved and ill-sewered streets—with puddles, broken windows, windows glazed with paper, leaky spouts, and other insignia of want of finish and poverty, in front, and narrow courts, dirty passages, and unsightly objects of every imaginable kind and degree behind. These, you may rest assured, are “jerry built” houses. Again, go into streets of still more modern erection, in the outskirts of the borough. You will see, perhaps, a lot of houses exhibiting externally an infinite amount of pretension;—verandas in front—perhaps Elizabethan in style, or villa-form—stuccoed or rough-cast—with superb door-way and fan-light, and a magnificent expanse of door-step. So much for outside. Knock at or open any door, and when you imagine that you are entering a palace you will be amazed to find yourself in something more nearly approaching to a piggery. There is a lobby, paltry in dimensions, and a staircase little less steep and narrow than the ascent to a hayloft. The front parlour is three yards by four, or thereabouts, and is papered; but, the substratum of plaster being bad, it is blotched in parts, and manifests symptoms of peeling off by a yard at a time. There are window-shutters; but they either do not fasten when up, or are not so ambitious as to go up at all. There is a cupboard, with a sideboard top, by the fireplace, with a lock which will not lock, because it never had a key. There is a bell-pull, but it does not ring, because it never was attached to a bell; a chimney-piece, upon which you must not lay your watch, lest it come down with the weight; a grate with the coves falling down, and a hearth which saves you the trouble of carrying out the ashes, because they can be more expeditiously disposed of by sweeping them quietly through an interstice at the back into the cellar below! There is a back parlour of similar crazy construction, cellar kitchens, drawing-room, and bed-rooms “to match.” The whole are painted, but you mustn’t wash the paint lest you have only the wood left. This is a modern—a new—“jerry built” house.
But still you will say—what is the Jerry builder? Why he is the builder of just such tenements as we have described—of temporary erections—shells of houses—patches of brickwork and woodwork, put together just sufficiently to be called houses, and, like Jew watches, to be taken for shew. As a matter of course, the “Jerry builder” is seldom more than the temporary owner of the houses which he builds. He buys a piece of land and he covers it with houses, as a Brummagem dealer covers his dolls with flaring calico. His object is to sell, or to let, a piece of land covered with a house. Neither land nor house is the absolute property of the man who lets it you as his own, but belongs to some lawyer or other party as mortgagee. If you want a repair, your ostensible landlord can do nothing, and the real landlord will do nothing. The former is reaping all he can before his mortgage is foreclosed, and his property lapses into other hands; the latter is quietly waiting for the consummation which the other anticipates.
Let us, briefly as we can, describe a jerry-building speculation. Tom Styles, a joiner or a bricklayer, with twenty pounds in his pocket, or a share or two in a building society, and an understanding with Timothy Nokes, plumber and painter, and sundry other people of equal reputation in the world, purchases from some speculative land agent or lawyer a plot of land. We shall not enter into the question whether, at all, or how it is paid for. The first step towards covering it with houses is the sinking of the foundations and cellars and that operation is performed by contract, by Patrick somebody or other with a euphonious name, and his gang of “soughers.” The said Patrick realises a pound or two on paper, and his Helots potatoes and herring, and mayhap a drop of “illicit” by the transaction. The cellar floors are then laid, the cellar walls rise, and the beams are laid for the first or ground floor; and then comes that most mysterious of operations—“a draw.”
But we are going too fast. The question has first to be decided between Tom Styles and Timothy Nokes, which of them is trustworthy enough to receive the said “draw.” This is a highly interesting controversy, watched with great anxiety by Patrick the “sougher” and his men, two or three hod-carriers, and the workmen of the controversialists. The question is at length decided. Tom Stiles [sic], as having the greatest stake (?) in the speculation, receives “the draw,” and forthwith draws out of the affair, leaving his colleague to battle out the claim of Patrick and others as well as he can. This affair settled or temporarily smoothed down, the next story rises under the superintendence of Timothy Nokes; is in due time completed, and then comes another “draw.” Now Timothy happens to have been recently engaged in building half a dozen cottages for John Snooks, who keeps a provision shop, and who has not been able to pay him off, unless he will take shop goods—soap, bread, candles, pepper, mustard, cheese, and other similar commodities—instead of cash. Timothy, moreover, has himself a bill for lead to meet, for which the “draw” in question presents itself very opportunely. The proposition is made that the workmen employed should receive part of their claims in money, and the remainder in goods from the shop of the beforementioned John Snooks; and after a council of war or two, held at the neighbouring public-house, “necessity” it is found “has no law,” and the proposition is acceded to.
We have said nothing, thus far, of the grievances and hardships to which the poor workmen and labourers are subjected—of the penniless Saturday nights, the dinnerless Sundays, and the weekdays of almost famine. We have said nothing of the various minor “contractors,” whose ingenuity, and too frequent rascality, are put in requisition during the progress of the erection. The window-sashes and door-frames, perhaps, are contracted for by one, and the doors by another; and, as they are to be put together at a trifle more than the cost of the timber, the timber merchant or the working joiner employed is victimized or gets but half paid. Then plastering and slapdashing and painting are to be done; and are managed in a similar fashion. They are got through, as a seamstress would say, “with long stitches”—are slurred over just sufficiently to pass muster until pay-day—until there is a “draw,” with very often a “bolt” at the end of it! But proceed we, more seriatim, to the last story—to the roofing, slating and internal finishing. Suppose the building up—walls, roof, chimneys and all. Then should come the final draw. But first the work must be surveyed—aye, there’s the rub! The land-agent, or the lawyer for some mortgagee, has all along furnished the money for the various “draws” which have preceded. He wishes now to examine his security; and we will, if the reader permit us, accompany him in his survey and his calculation. Imprimis then, it will be remembered, we have never said that the land has been paid for. In fact it has not. It has never even been conveyed! Tom Styles and Timothy Nokes had originally a contract of sale, it is true; and they secured the owner for the cost, by the bricks and timber and work which they have put upon the land; but they have received money since to enable them to pay—so far as they can be said to have paid—for those bricks, that timber and labour; and the transaction must now be placed en regle, by a deed of mortgage, previous to receiving the “final draw.” Our reader, however, if he be a man of the world, will readily guess that mortgagees do not ordinarily advance the full cost of the land and buildings erected upon it; and the surmise will naturally present itself, that the poor expectants of their cash, for the erection of the last story, and the inside finishing, have a tolerable chance of being made to whistle awhile for their demands.
And such, in too many instances, is the case. The mortgagee will not advance another shilling—how, as a prudent man, can he?—and the builder must either place the property in the hands of a collector, who can put it into moderately tenantable condition and deduct his outlay from the rents, or he must sell. In case the first alternative is adopted, we pity the unlucky tenant. In case the second, we pity the unlucky buyer. The former takes a house, reputed tenantable, which smokes, which has leaky spouts and a leaky roof, is but half finished, and, though a new house, threatens daily to tumble about his ears, unless he is fool sufficient to prop it up at his own cost. The latter buys a house—or what he fancies is a house, but which is in reality only the framework of one—and must, unless he wishes it to be removed the first high wind into the adjoining street or township, lay out upon it some three or four years’ rent, in order to make it such a house as a decent family can reside in. In either alternative, we pity the poor workmen and tradesmen who have put together this wretched abortion of bricks, wood, and mortar. Their Christmas-day will be a sorry one; and the chances are, that not a few of them are seen petitioning for their discharge from durance vile at the first hearing of the Insolvent Court.
In conclusion, and before taking leave of this distinguished character, whom we have thought it our duty to place at the head of these sketches, we cannot but record our conviction that to the doings of no class of tradesmen in our town is to be attributed a greater amount of the misery and deteriorated condition of our labouring classes, than to the doings of “The Jerry Builder.”




The origin of the element jerry is unknown. This origin was discussed in Truth (London, England):

1-: On Thursday 10th January 1884:

A correspondent writes:—
In a recent number of Truth you use the expression, “jerry builders.” I think the word “jerry” is spelt wrongly. It should be “Jeri.” The expression is, no doubt, an abbreviation of the word “Jericho,” and by buildings of the Jericho order of architecture, it is intended to describe erections so flimsy that, like the walls of Jericho, they would fall down at the mere blast of trumpets. I may add that this derivation of the word was suggested to me while reading a recent article in Knowledge by Mr. Mattieu Williams.

2-: On Thursday 17th January 1884:

This strikes me as a more probable derivation of “jerry” than the “jeri” of my last week’s correspondent, for, if the latter were the correct one, the word not only ought to have been, but would have been, “jeri,” and not “jerry.”
146, Grove-street, Liverpool, Jan. 12, 1884.
Sir,—The derivation of the word “jerry” sent by your correspondent is ingenious; but, I venture to believe, incorrect. Your spelling of the word was right; the origin of the term being the name of two brothers who resided in Liverpool, and who built many of those rapidly-constructed, ill-built, and showy houses which form so large a portion of this city, which are inhabited chiefly by “ye lower middle classes”; and which, “for our sins,” are still being provided for our lovers of appearance rather than of health to the inmates by enterprising Welshmen. The style of the firm, “Jerry Brothers, Builders and Contractors,” caused the name to become generic for such builders and their work: first in this city, from whence the term spread.—Sincerely yours,
John D. Hayward, M.D.

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, March 2021):

That jerry-builder and jerry-built originated in some way from the name Jerry is probable; but the statement made in a letter to the newspapers in Jan. 1884, that they commemorate the name of a building firm on the Mersey, has on investigation not been confirmed.

In The Liverpool English Dictionary: A Record of the Language of Liverpool 1850—2015 on Historical Principles (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), Tony Crowley wrote that the origin is:

probably nautical, from ‘jury’, ‘temporary, makeshift, inferior’, from e.16c. ‘jury-mast’, temporary replacement mast.

The nautical adjective jury is used in combination to designate parts of a ship put together or contrived for temporary use. This adjective is first recorded in the compound jury-mast, denoting a temporary mast put up in place of one that has been broken or carried away. The compound jury-mast first occurs in A Description of New England (London: Printed by Humfrey Lownes, for Robert Clerke, 1616), by the soldier and colonial governor John Smith (bap. 1580 – d. 1631):

I was furnished with a Ship of 200. and another of 50. But ere I had sayled 120 leagues, shee broke all her masts; pumping each watch 5 or 6000 strokes: onely her spret saile remayned to spoon before the wind, till we had reaccommodated a Iury mast, & the rest, to returne for Plimouth.