Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Clothing - Dressmakers

MILLINERS, DRESSMAKERS, AND STRAWBONNET-MAKERS are often crowded in apartments of disproportionate size, and kept at work for an improper length of time. Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,--ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies' dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. Can ladies, humane in disposition, and prompt in their support of charitable institutions, reflect on the miserable hire they afford to the persons they employ,-- persons of their own sex,--persons often reduced by the faults or misfortunes of others from a comfortable situation in life, and sometimes even from apparent independence, to work for daily bread?"

 C. Turner Thackrah, The Effects of Arts, Trades,
 and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on 
Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the 
Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease
and Shorten the Duration of Life, 1832


see also James Grant in Lights and Shadows of London Life - click here


   The milliners and dressmakers, as far as regards social position, may be conveniently classed together. But it must be understood that they follow distinct branches of employment, and that, in some respects, they are subject to different conditions. It is difficult to estimate their numbers correctly, but it may be stated that the names of 1750 dress­making houses are mentioned in the Post Office London Directory, and that, giving an average of ten workers to each, the number 17500 is obtained.The dressmakers constitute the more numerous body. They are divided into two classes; those, namely, who board and sleep in the houses of their employers, and those who, living at their own houses, go to and from the houses of business at fixed hours,—the day workers. The latter constitute for the most part an inferior class, and are less regularly employed.
    Girls enter the houses of business as apprentices, at 14 or 15 years of age. In the best houses they pay premiums ranging from £10 to £50, but in the inferior houses, recruited by girls of an inferior social position, this practice does not exist. The apprenticeship, during which they of course earn nothing for themselves, lasts two years, after which they are called improvers.
    As improvers they are supposed to have mastered the drudgery of the trade, and are put to more extended and more varied work. After six months or a year spent on improving, they begin, according to their proficiency, to receive salaries of £6, £8, or £10 per annum, still living in the houses of business, and receiving the title of assistants.
    The next grade is that of the second hands, who are promoted from among the assistants of two or more years' standing, and receive salaries of £20 or £25 per annum, the rapidity of promotion depending upon the skill and good taste of the girls.
    The designing, cutting out, and arrangement of work, the reception of customers, and the control of the workers, are in some cases under taken by the employers; but are more generally left to forewomen, who are called first hands, and in the large houses where there are several workrooms the first-hands are again placed under the orders of a superintendent.
    In the best houses very few apprentices or improvers are to be found, their skill not being equal to the delicate work therein required; but in the inferior houses they are much more numerous; and many girls remain in such houses lust long enough to enable them to be worth a salary, when they seek employment in the better establishments.
    The hands living in the houses of business are of course subject to various treatment, as regards hours of work, food, and lodging, according to the liberality of their employers. With regard to the most important subject of hours of work, most extraordinary assertions are made. But without attaching too much importance to statements of extreme protraction of work hours, it may safely be said that the hours of work are generally too long, and so arranged as to give few opportunities for bodily exercise. In a considerable number of houses the arrangement appears to be as follows :—After breakfast at 8 a.m. the girls commence work at 8.30 a.m., and continue, with an interval of half an hour for dinner, and another half hour for tea, till eight or nine o'clock at night. In the season these hours are much extended, and, on the other hand, in the slack time, at the end of summer, they are shortened by one or two hours. The workrooms are in some instances closed earlier on Saturday, namely, at 4 or 5 p.m. From this account which is carefully guarded from exaggeration, it will be seen that the ordinary hours of work are from ten to twelve hours, exclusive of meal times.
    But, as before stated, the hours of work are much lengthened during the season. The London spring season commences in the end of March or the beginning of April, and lasts till about the middle of July; but there is also a shorter and less important season in the end of the year, namely, in part of November and December. In a large number of houses the earliest time of quitting work during the season, is 10 or 11 o'clock, and under the pressure of court ceremonials, the work is often carried on far into the night...
    The food provided for indoor hands is generally good and in reasonable quantity. Complaints are occasionally but not often met with, having generally relation more to the cooking than to the food itself. Indeed it is so obviously the interest of employers to keep in good health persons from whom long hours of work are required, that one might reasonably expect them to be well fed. Meat is allowed at dinner, and, when they work late hours, at supper also. If the work be carried far on into the night coffee or tea are allowed, but beer, as tending to induce sleep, is not permitted. The time allowed for meals is generally short, and mostly so when the hours of work are longest. For then every moment becomes valuable, and the girls only leave their work to gulp down their food, and to return.
    In a very few houses arrangements are made whereby the girls may get a certain amount of regular exercise, either at the beginning or end of the day. More often an understanding exists, according to which, every evening one or two girls ask and obtain leave to go out and supply themselves with necessaries; but, generally, no special provision is made for the bodily exercise essential to the health of persons engaged in sedentary employment.
    In the slack time at the end of the summer the girls are allowed holidays, ranging from a fortnight to a month in duration, when they can go down into the country and see their friends.
    Excepting in the large composite establishments, the work-rooms are generally nothing more than the larger rooms of ordinary dwellings, provided sometimes with special arrangements for securing ventilation, and always with increased illumination, and, consequently, increased consumption of breathing-air. In some of the larger houses ventilation by special apparatus is carefully attended to; but in the commoner work-rooms ventilation is certainly disregarded, and it is not un­commonly found that ventilators, even when provided, are obstructed either wilfully or of neglect... Sitting for many hours without exercise in warm rooms, the girls naturally become extremely sensitive to currents of air, and, in consequence, such obstructions of ventilators are not uncommon.. . The warming of the rooms is generally effected by open fire-places, which of course tend to assist ventilation.
    The proper ventilation of bedrooms is even less regarded than that of workrooms. In a few houses special ventilatory apparatus is found, but in a very large proportion of bedrooms the fireplace is the only channel for ventilation, and even this is often purposely closed.
    As far as I can learn, the bedrooms are rarely overcrowded, and altogether I have seen in the sleeping arrangements of the indoor dressmakers very few cases likely to impair the health of the workers. Independently, indeed, of the question of over-crowding, the bedrooms provided for dressmakers, resemble in most respects the bedrooms of ordinary dwellings in the metropolis. I cannot, however, refrain from observing that in matters of cleanliness and comfort, many of the bedrooms were sadly deficient.
    . . . . 
    The position of the out-door dressmakers and milliners differs in many important respects from the above. Their hours are limited to 12 or 13, namely, from 8 or 9 a.m. to  9 or 10 p.m., and though frequently ex­ceeded in the season, are still practically controlled by the workers. Generally they are paid at a fixed rate, about 3d. an hour for extra work, and they are to a great extent able to refuse it if they choose. Miss Newton, the secretary to the Dressmakers Aid Association, informs us that in the case of skilled hands such refusals are not uncommon. For, at present, the demand exceeding the supply, a girl turned off from one establishment readily obtains work at another...
    In most houses the only meal supplied to day workers is their tea It is almost equally rare to find either that the meal is not provided, or that dinner is supplied as well. The amount of wage, comparatively unimportant in the case of the in-door hands, becomes therefore in the case of the day workers a question of the greatest importance. As far as I can learn, the general minimum wage for day workers is 9S. a week and their tea. With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food. According to Miss Newton, the day workers get only one good meal in the day, namely, their supper, at which they try to get meat. But in some houses they are allowed to bring their food and to cook it during the dinner hour.
    One large establishment provides a cook to prepare the food brought by the day workers who, here at least, earn in no instance less than 9s a week, and generally more. The cook informed me that the food brought by the workers consisted for the most part of chops, sausages, bacon, potatoes in gallipots [small earthern glazed pots or basins] for boiling, and batter similarly prepared; that many brought animal food only on three or four days, and some even less frequently, subsisting at other times on bread with butter or pickles. The pieces of meat brought to her were often of inferior quality and even tainted.
    My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.
    The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o'clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light afire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

Dr William Ord 
‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London'; 
6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council (1863)


see also Arthur Sherwell's Life in West London - click here