Punch, Jan.-Jun. 1845
Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter VI
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Tuesday, November 6, 1849
Before leaving the subject of the low London lodging-houses,
it may be as well to inform the inexperienced reader that the class of
dormitories described in my last letter are not the lowest of the low. There are
"cribs" in the metropolis where the charges for a night's rest are
less, the accommodations more meagre, and the lodgers even more degraded than
those of the two-penny refuges I lately visited. In some places a penny only is
demanded for shelter for the night, and there congregate the most wretched and
demoralized of all characters. The commonest prostitutes, thieves, beggars, and
vagabonds are taken into these dens of iniquity, and allowed to sleep
promiscuously in one small room. There is little or no furniture in the house;
so that no beds are provided for the money. The lodgers male and female - men,
women, boys, and girls - all lie huddled together on the floor; the average
nightly muster being about 30 of the most miserable and infamous of human beings
- a mass of poverty, filth, vice, and crime - an assemblage of all that is
physically loathsome and morally odious - a chaos of want, intemperance,
ignorance, disease, libidinism, rags, dirt, villany, and shamelessness, that can
be paralleled in no other part of the globe but this, the first city in the
world the focus of wealth and intellect - the pinnacle of civilization and
The generality of the low lodging-houses - the penny, two-penny, and three-penny as well - I am informed by one who has lived in them and among them for many months - a man of superior intelligence and education, be it understood - are kept by persons utterly deficient of all moral sense, and who either wink at or encourage the robberies which are continually concocted under their roofs. Nearly all the proprietors tacitly allow the produce of their lodgers' pilferings to be introduced and shared in the kitchen, and many of them are known to be receivers of stolen goods, pledging for the pickpockets they harbour in their houses whatever plunder they may bring home, and demanding of them two-pence and the duplicate for so doing. Indeed, so general is the latter practice among the lodging-house-keepers of the East-end of London, that these are the "regular terms" of the class.
But there are dormitories lower and lower still in the scale of comfort, cleanliness, and civilization. Such sleeping places are frequented by those who want even the penny to provide them with the luxury of mere walls and roof to shelter them from the wind or the rain. Hence, if it be possible to conceive a class of beings still more wretched, more vicious, or more criminal than those visiting the lowest lodging-houses of London, they are to be found nestling under the arches of the Blackwall Railway. There may be discovered whole families, houseless and penniless, huddled close together - children cradled as it were in vice and crime, cheek by jowl with the vilest prostitutes and the meanest thieves. Or else they may be seen ranged along the wall of a neighbouring sugar- baker's, warming themselves upon the pavement heated by the melting-pan beneath. To behold the drowsy, ragged, destitute crowd gathered there at three o'clock in the morning, is a sight to shock the most callous, and one that is painful even to imagine.
Let me pass, therefore, from such scenes to the subject of this communication - viz., the incomings and condition of the "slop-workers" of London. The change, however, is barely for the better. The class, it is true, are not yet sunk quite so low, and yet their weekly earnings are even less than those of the petty thieves and beggars of the East-end of the metropolis. I had seen so much want since I began my investigation into the condition of the labouring poor of London that my feelings were almost blunted to sights of ordinary misery. Still I was unprepared for the amount of suffering that I have lately witnessed. I could not have believed that there were human beings toiling so long and gaining so little, and starving so silently and heroically, round about our very homes. It is true, one or two instances of the kind had forced themselves into the police reports, and songs and plays had been written upon the privations of the class; still it was impossible to believe that the romance of the song-writer and the fable of the playwright were plain, unvarnished, everyday matters of fact - or, even admitting their stories to be individually true, we could hardly credit them to be universally true. But the reader shall judge for himself. I will endeavour to reproduce the scenes I have lately looked upon - and I will strive to do so in all their stark literality. It is difficult, I know, for those who are unacquainted with the misery hiding itself in the by-lanes and alleys of the metropolis to have perfect faith in the tales that it is my duty to tell them. Let me therefore once more assure the sceptical reader, that hardly a line is written here but a note was taken of the matter upon the spot. The descriptions of the dwellings and the individuals I allude to have all been written with the very places and parties before me; and the story of the people's sufferings is repeated to the public in the self same words in which they were told to me. Still it may be said that I myself have been imposed upon - that I may have been taken to extreme cases, and given to understand that they are the ordinary types of the class. This, I am ready to grant, is a common source of error; I will therefore now explain the means that I adopted, in this instance in particular, to prevent myself being deluded into any such fallacy.
My first step was to introduce myself to one of the largest "slop-sellers" at the East-end of the town; and having informed the firm that I was about to examine into the condition and incomings of the slopworkers of London, I requested to know whether they would have any objection to furnish me with the list of prices that they were in the habit of paying to their workpeople, so that on my visiting the parties themselves - as I frankly gave them to understand I purposed doing - I might be able to compare the operatives' statements as to prices with theirs, and thus be able to check the one with the other. Indeed, I said I thought it but fair that the employer should have an opportunity of having his say as well as the employed. I regret to say that I was not met with the candour that I had been led to expect. One of the firm wished to know why I singled their house out from the rest of the trade. I told him I did so merely because it was one of the largest in the business, and assured him that, so far from my having any personal object in my visit, I made it a point never to allude by name to any employer or workman to whom I might have occasion to refer. My desire, I said, was to deal with principles rather than persons; whereupon I was informed that the firm would have no objection to acquaint me with the prices paid by other houses in the trade. "If you merely wish to arrive at the principle of the slop business, this," said one of the partners, "will be quite sufficient for your purpose." Though I pressed for some more definite and particular information from the firm, I could obtain nothing from them but an assurance that a statement should be written out for me immediately as to the general custom of the trade, and that, if I would call at any time after sunset on Saturday evening, it should be at my disposal. I soon saw that it was useless seeking to obtain any further information from the parties in question - so, taking my departure, I made the best of my way to the workmen in the neighbourhood.
My time being limited, I consulted with a gentleman who is thoroughly conversant with the character of several of the operatives, as to the best and fairest means of taking an unprejudiced view of the state of the slopworkers of London; and it was agreed between us, that as the work was performed by both males and females, it would be better first to direct my attention to the state of the male "hands" employed by the trade; while, in order to arrive at an accurate estimate as to the incomings and condition of the class generally, it was deemed better to visit some place where several of the operatives were in the habit of working together, so that the opinions of a number of individuals might be taken simultaneously upon the subject.
Accordingly I was led, by the gentleman whose advice I had sought, to a narrow court, the entrance to which was blocked up by stalls of fresh herrings. We had to pass sideways between the baskets with our coat-tails under our arms. At the end of the passage we entered a dirty-looking house by a side entrance. Though it was midday, the staircase was so dark that we were forced to grope our way by the wall up to the first floor. Here, in a small back room, about eight feet square, we found no fewer than seven workmen, with their coats and shoes off, seated cross-legged on the floor, busy stitching the different parts of different garments. The floor was strewn with sleeve-boards, irons, and snips of various coloured cloths. In one corner of the room was a turn-up bedstead, with the washed out chintz curtains drawn partly in front of it. Across a line which ran from one side of the apartment to the other were thrown the coats, jackets, and cravats of the workmen. Inside the rusty grate was a hat, and on one side of the hobs rested a pair of old cloth boots, while leaning against the bars in front there stood a sackful of cuttings. Beside the workmen on the floor sat two good-looking girls - one cross-legged like the men - engaged in tailoring.
My companion having acquainted the workmen with the object of my visit, they one and all expressed themselves ready to answer any questions that I might put to them. They made dress and frock coats, they told me, Chesterfields, fishing-coats, paletots, Buller's monkey jackets, beavers, shooting coats, trousers, vests, sacks, Codringtons, Trinity cloaks and coats, and indeed, every other kind of woollen garment. They worked for the ready-made houses, or "slopsellers." "One of us," said they, "gets work from the warehouse, and gives it out to others. The houses pay different prices. Dress coats, from 5s. 6d. to 6s. 9d.; frock coats the same; shooting coats, from 2s. 6d. to 2s. 9d. In summertime, when trade is busy, they pay 3s. Chesterfields, from 2s. 6d. to 3s., some are made for 2s.; paletots, from 2s. 6d. to 3s. "Aye, and two days' work for any man," cried one of the tailors with a withered leg, "and buy his own trimmings, white and black cotton, gimp, and pipe-clay." "Yes," exclaimed another, "and we have to buy wadding for dress coats; and soon, I suppose, we shall have to buy cloth and all together. Trousers, from 1s. 6d. to 3s.; waistcoats, from ls. 6d. to ls. 9d. Dress and frock coats will take two days and a half to make each, calculating the day from six in the morning till seven at night; but three days is the regular time. Shooting coats will take two days; Chesterfields take the same as dress and frock coats; paletots, two days; trousers, one day."
"The master here" (said one of them scarcely distinguishable from the rest) "gets work from the warehouse at the before-mentioned prices; he gives it out to us at the same price, paying us when he receives the money. We are never seen at the shop. Out of the prices the master here deducts 4s. per week per head for our cup of tea or coffee in the morning, and tea in the evening, and our bed. We sleep two in a bed here, and some of us three. In most places the workmen eat, drink, and sleep in one room; as many as ever the room will contain. They'd put 20 in one room if they could. "I should like to see the paper this'll be printed in," cried the man with the withered leg. "Oh, it'll be a good job, it should be known. We should be glad if the whole world heard it, so that the people should know our situation. I've worked very hard this week, as hard as any man. I've worked from seven in the morning till 11 at night, and my earnings will be 13s. this week; and deducting my 4s. out of that, and my trimmings besides - the trimmings comes to about ls. 9d. per week - which makes 5s. 9d. altogether, and that will leave me 7s. 3d. for my earnings all the week, Sunday included. It's very seldom we has a Sunday walking out. We're obliged to work on Sunday all the same. We should lose our shop if we didn't. Eight shillings is the average wages, take the year all through. Out of this 8s. we have to deduct expenses of lodging, trimming, washing, and light, which comes to 5s. 9d. We can't get a coat to our backs."
I inquired as to the earnings of the others. "Well, it's nearly just the same, take one with another, all the year round. We work all about the same hours - all the lot of us. The wages are lower than they were this time twelvemonth, in 1848 - that they are, by far, and heavier work too. I think there's a fall of 6d. in each job at the lowest calculation."
"Ah, that there is," said another; "a 3s. job we don't have 2s. 6d. for now."
"Yes, it's causing half of the people," cried a third, "to be thieves and robbers. That's true. Wages were higher in 1847 - they're coming down now every year. The coats that they used to pay 5s. for this time two years, they are making for 3s. 6d. at present - the very same work, but a deal heavier than it was two years ago. This time twelvemonth we made coats for 7s., and 5s. this year is all we has for the same. Prices have come down more than a quarter - indeed about half, during these last 10 years. I'm sure I don't know what's the cause of it. The master first says, I can't give no more than such a price for making such an article. Then the man objects to it, and says he can't live by it; as soon as he objects to it, the master will give him no more work. We really are the prey of the master, and cannot help ourselves. Whatever he offers we are obliged to accept, or else go starve." "Yes, yes," said they all, "that's the real fact. And if we don't take his offer, somebody else will, that's the truth, for we have no power to stand out against it. The workhouse won't have us - we must either go thieve, or take the price in the long run. There's a standing price in the regular trade, but not in this. The regular trade is 6d. an hour. The regulars work only from six in the morning till seven at night, and only do 'bespoke' work. But we are working for the slop shops or warehouses, and they keep a large stock of ready-made goods. We're called under-the-bed workers, or workers for the 'sweaters.' All the persons who work for wholesale houses are 'sweaters.' Single workmen cannot get the work from them, because they cannot give security - £5 in money, or a shopkeeper must be responsible to that amount. Those who cannot give security are obliged to work for 'sweaters.' The reason for the warehouses requiring this security is, because they pay so badly for the work they are afraid to trust the journeyman with it. But in the regular trade, such as at the West-end, they require no security whatever. In the s1op trade the journeymen do not keep Monday - they can't do it, Sunday nor Monday either - if they do they must want for food. Since we've been working at the slop trade we find ourselves far worse off than when we were working at the regular trade. The journeymen of the slop trade are unable to earn 13s. where the regular journeyman can earn 30s., and then we have to find our own trimmings and candle light. I'd sooner be transported than at this work. Why, then, at least, I'd have regular hours for work and for sleep; but now I'm harder worked and worse fed than a cab-horse."
During my stay in this quarter an incident occurred, which may be cited as illustrative of the poverty of the class of slop-workers. The friend who had conducted me to the spot, and who knew the workmen well, had long been striving to induce one of the men - a Dutchman - to marry one of the females working with him in the room, and with whom he had been living for many months. That the man might raise no objection on the score of poverty, my friend requested me to bear with him half the expense of publishing the banns. To this I readily consented, but the man still urged that he was unable to wed the girl just yet. On inquiring the reason we were taken outside the door by the Dutchman, and there told that he had been forced to pawn his coat for 6s., and as yet he had saved only half the amount towards the redemption of it. It would take him upwards of a month to lay by the remainder. This was literally the fact, and the poor fellow said, with a shrug of his shoulders, he could not go to be married in his shirt sleeves. He was told to make himself easy about the wedding- garment, and our kind-hearted friend left delighted with the day's work.
I now wished to learn from some of the female operatives what prices they were paid, and requested my friend to introduce me to some workwoman who might be considered as one of the most provident, industrious, and best conducted in the trade. The woman bears, I understand, an excellent character, and she gave the following melancholy account of her calling: - She makes various kinds of garments. Scarcely a garment that is to be made but what she makes; works for various slop-sellers; makes shirts, drawers, trousers, blouses, duck frocks, sou'-westers, and oilskin waterproof coats, some in a rough state in the calico before they're oil'd, and others after they're oil'd. Works first hand. For shirts she gets 2s. to 6s. a dozen, that's the highest; there are some lower than that, but she generally refuses those. The lowest are ls. a dozen, or only a penny each. Of the 2s. a dozen she can make about three in the day - the day being from eight in the morning to ten in the evening. She usually makes 18 in the week. Shirt-making is generally considered the worst work - has to find all her own trimmings, all the thread and cotton, everything, excepting the buttons, out of the 2s. a dozen. The price is paid for rowing shirts, called "rowers," with full bosoms put in, just the same as the 6s. a dozen ones, only the work is not so good. Of the 6s. a dozen she can't make more than one in the day. They're white collars and wristbands. Has to find her own trimmings. Is forced to give security for about £5. Those who cannot get security must work for "sweaters. Flannel drawers are some 2s. 6d. a dozen, and some 3s. Some are coloured, and some are white flannel; the white are 3s., the coloured 2s. 6d. Has to find her own thread. Can do three pairs in a day - making 9d. at best work, or 7½d. at worst, out of which there is to be deducted 1½d. for one ounce of thread. Moleskin trousers, and beaverteen, like the other articles, vary in price. The lowest price for moleskin trousers is 6s. a dozen pair - the highest, 10s. The beaverteen the same. Can't make more than one pair of either the high or low priced ones in the day. The trimmings for each dozen pair come to 1s. 6d. The highest priced ones are all double stitched. Blouses are from 5s. to 7s. a dozen. Can't make two of the lowest price in the day. Might make one of the highest. Trimming for a dozen comes to about 6d., because it's chiefly cotton that is used in blouses. Duck frocks are 2s. to 2s 6d. a dozen. May make about a dozen and a half of those in a week if she sits very close to it. "During the course of years," she said, "that I have worked at the business, I find it's all alike. You can't earn much more at one kind of work than you can at another. Sou'-westers are 10d. a dozen; from that to 3s. Can make one in a day of those at 3s., and of those at 10d. she makes half a dozen in the day. Oilskin waterproof coats, ready-dressed, are 1s. 6d. each; and the others, undressed, from 4s. to 6s. per dozen. She has to find all her trimmings out of that. Can make one of those that are dressed in two days, and of those that are in the undressed state, a dozen in the week.
"Upon the average," she says, "at all kinds of work, excepting the shirts, that I make, I cannot earn more than 4s. 6d. to 5s. per week - let me sit from eight in the morning till ten every night; and out of that I shall have to pay 1s. 6d. for trimmings and 6d. candles every week; so that altogether I earn about 3s. in the six days. But I don't earn that, for there's the firing that you must have to press the work, and that will be 9d. a week, for you'll have to use half a hundredweight of coals. So that my clear earnings are a little bit more than 2s., say 2s. 3d. to 2s. 6d. every week. I consider the trousers the best work. At the highest price, which is 10s. a dozen, I should make no more than eight of them in a week; that would give me 6s. 3d. The trimmings of that eight pair would cost me 1s., the candles 6d., and the coals 9d., for pressing, leaving 4s. 5d. clear - and that is the very best kind of work that can be got in the slop trade. Shirt work is the worst work - the very worst, that can be got. You cannot make more of those at 6s. a dozen than one a day, yielding 3s. a week. The trimmings would be about 3d. for the shirts, and the candles 6d., as before, making 9d. to be deducted, and so leaving 2s. 3d. per week clear. I have known the prices much better when I first began to work at the business, some nineteen years ago. The shirts that they now give 6d. for were then 1s.; and those now at 2d., were 8d. The trousers were ls. 4d. and ls. 6d. a pair, the best - now they give only 10d. for the best. The other articles are down equally low."
"I cannot say," she added, "what the cause may be. I think there are so many to work at it, that one will underwork the other. I have seen it so at the shop. The sweaters screw the people down as low as they possibly can, and the masters hear how little they can get their work done for, and cut down the sweaters, and so the workpeople have to suffer again. Every shop has a great number of sweaters. Sometimes the sweaters will get as much as 2d. or 3d.; indeed, I've known 'em take as much as 4d. out of each garment. I should suppose one that has a good many people to work for her - say about a dozen - I suppose that she'll clear from £1 to £1 5s. per week out of their labour. The workpeople are very dissatisfied, and very poor indeed - yes, very poor. There is a great deal of want, and there is a great deal of suffering amongst them. I hear it at the shop when I go in with my work. They have generally been brought up regularly to the trade. It requires an apprenticeship. In about three months a person may learn it, if they're quick; and persons pay from 10s. to £1 to be taught it, bad as the trade is. A mother has got two or three daughters, and she don't wish them to go to service, and she puts them to this poor needlework; and that, in my opinion, is the cause of the destitution and prostitution about the streets in these parts. So that in a great measure I think the slop trade is the ruin of the young girls that take to it - the prices are not sufficient to keep them, and the consequence is, they fly to the streets to make out their living. Most of the workers are young girls who have nothing else to depend upon, and there is scarcely one of them virtuous. When they come on first they are very meek and modest in their deportment, but after a little time they get connected with the others and led away. There are between 200 and 300 of one class and another work at my shop. I dare say of females altogether there are upwards of 200. Yesterday morning there were seventy-five in the shop with me, and that was at eight in the morning, and what there may be throughout the day it's impossible to form an idea. The age of the females in general is about fourteen to twenty.
"My daughter is a most excellent waistcoat hand. I can give you an account of her work, and then, of course, you can form an idea of what everybody else gets. The lowest price waistcoat is 3s. per dozen, and the highest 9s. They are satin ones. She can make one satin one per day, and three of the 3s. ones. She earns, upon an average, about 4s. per week; deduct from this, trimmings about 6d. for the lowest, and 1s. per week for the highest price. As we both sit to work together, one candle does for the two of us, so that she earns about 3s. per week clear, which is not sufficient to keep her even in food. My husband is a seafaring man, or I don't know what I should do. He is a particularly steady man, a teetotaller, and so indeed are the whole family, or else we could not live. Recently my daughter has resigned the work and gone to service as the prices are not sufficient for food and clothing. I never knew a rise, but continual reductions. I know a woman who has six children, and she has to support them wholly on slop work. Her husband drinks, and does a day's work only now and then, spending more than he brings home. None of her children are able to work. I don't know how on earth she lives, or her little ones either. Poor creature, she looked the picture of distress and poverty when I last saw her."
This woman I had seen away from her home, so I requested my friend to lead me to the dwelling of one of the shirt workers, one that he knew to be a hard-working, sober person, so that I might judge of the condition of the class.
The woman lived over a coal and potato shed, occupying a small close room on the "second floor back." It did not require a second glance either at the room or the occupant to tell that the poor creature was steeped in poverty to the very lips. In one corner of the apartment was rolled up the bed on the floor. Beside the window was an oyster tub, set upon a chair. At this she was busy washing, while on the table a small brown pan was filled with the newly washed clothes; beside it were the remains of the dinner, a piece of dry coarse bread, and half a cup of coffee.
In answer to my inquiries, she made the following statement: - "I make the 'rowers,' that is the rowing shirts. I'm only in the shirt line. Do nothing else. The rowers is my own work. These (she said, taking a cloth off a bundle of checked shirts on a side table) is 2d. a piece. I have had some at 2½d., and even 3d., but them has full linen fronts and linen wristbands. These are full-fronted shirts - the collars, wristbands, and shoulder-straps are all stitched, and there are seven button-holes in each shirt. It takes full five hours to do one. I have to find my own cotton and thread. I gets two skeins of cotton for ld., because I am obliged to have it fine for them; and two skeins will make about three to four shirts. Two skeins won't quite make three-and-a-half, so that it don't leave above seven farthings for making each of the shirts. If I was to begin very early here, about six in the morning, and work till nine at night, I can't make above three in the day at them hours. I often work in the summer time from four in the morning to nine or ten at night - as long as I can see. My usual time of work is from five in the morning till nine at night, winter and summer; that is about the average time throughout the year. But when there's a press of business, I work earlier and later. I often gets up at two and three in the morning, and carries on till the evening of the following day, merely lying down in my clothes to take a nap of five or ten minutes. The agitation of mind never lets one lie longer. At the rowers work I don't reckon I makes 5s. a week at the best of times, even working at the early and late hours; and working at the other hours I won't make above 3s. 6d. Average all the year round I can't make more than 4s. a week, and then there's cotton and candles to buy out of that. Why, the candles will cost about 10d. or 1s. a week in the depth of winter, and the cotton about 3d. or 4d. a week, so that I clears about 2s. 6d. a week - yes, I reckon that's about it! I know it's so little I can't get a rag to my back. I reckon nobody in the trade can make more than I do - they can't - and there's very few makes so much, I'm sure. It's only lately that I found a friend to be security for the rowing shirts, or else before that I only received l½d. for the same shirts as I now have 2d. for, because I was forced to work for a sweater. These prices are not so good as those usually paid in the trade; some houses pays 3s. a dozen for what I have 2s. for. A few weeks - that is, about six weeks ago - the price was 2s. 6d. a dozen; but they always lowers the price towards winter. Never knew them to raise the prices. I have worked at the business about eight years, and when I first began the rowers' were at 3s. 6d. a dozen - the very same article that I am now making for 2s. They in general keep the sweaters employed in winter - some call them the 'double hands,' and they turn off the single hands first, because it's the least trouble to them. The sweaters, you see, take out a great quantity of work at a time. The sweaters, many of them, give security to £20. I've known some of them take out as much as a chaise-cart full of various sorts of work, according to the hands they've got employed. One that I knows keeps a horse and cart, and does nothing himself - that he don't. I suppose he's got near upon a hundred hands, and gives about £50 security. He was a potboy at a public-house, and married a shirt-maker. The foremen at the large shops generally marry a shirt-maker, or someone in the line of business, and then take a quantity of work home to their wives, who give it out to poor people. They take one-fourth part out of the price, let it be what it will.
She produced an account-book, of which the following is a copy:
|July||2||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
|"||4||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
|"||7||Three at 2d.||0||0||6|
|"||10||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
|"||12||Seven at 2½d||0||1||5½|
|"||17||Nine at 2½d||0||1||10½|
|"||19||Nine at 2½d||0||1||10½|
|"||21||Six at 2d.||0||1||0|
|"||24||Twelve at 2¼d||0||2||3|
|"||26||Six at 2¼d||0||1||1½|
|"||27||Six at 2½d||0||1||3|
|"||28||Six at 2½d||0||1||3|
|"||31||Six at 2½d||0||1||3|
|Aug.||2||Three at 3d. (bespoke)||0||0||9|
|"||"||Nine at 2½d||0||1||10½|
|"||6||Nine at 2½d||0||1||10½|
|"||11||Six at 2½d||0||1||3|
|"||14||Twelve at 2½d||0||2||6|
|"||16||Four at 2d||0||0||3|
|"||17||Six at 2½d||0||1||3|
|"||21||Eight at 2½d||0||1||8|
|"||24||Eight at 2d.||0||1||4|
|"||25||Eighteen at 2d.||0||3||0|
|"||31||Seventeen at 2d.||0||2||10|
|Sept.||11||Nine at 2d||0||1||6|
|"||13||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
|"||17||Twelve at 2d.||0||2||0|
|"||25||Eight at 2¾d||0||1||10|
|"||27||Eight at 2½d||0||1||8|
|"||29||Twelve at 2d.||0||2||0|
|Oct.||6||Twelve at 2d. (to be in by 12 Tuesday, or not to be paid for)||0||2||0|
|"||9||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
|"||16||Twelve at 2d.||0||2||0|
|"||29||Nine at 2d.||0||1||6|
Hence it will be seen that the average earnings were 2s. 10¼d. per week,
from which are to be deducted cotton and candles, costing say, 10½d. a week, and
so leaving 2s. per week clear for 17 weeks. These prices are all
She can't say why they get so little - supposes it's owing to the times. But one cause is the Jews going to those in the trade and making their brag how little they can get the shirts done for. The original cause of the reduction was their being sent to the unions and the prisons to be made. This is now discontinued. "I find it very hard times," she said, "oh, very hard indeed. If I get a bit of meat once a week, I may think myself well off." (She drew a bag from under the table.) "I live mostly upon coffee, and don't taste a cup of tea not once in a month, though I am up early and late; and the coffee I drink without sugar. Look here, this is what I have. You see this is the bloom of the coffee that falls off while it's being sifted after roasting; and I pays 6d. for a bagfull holding about half a bushel."
The next party I visited was one who worked at waistcoats, and here I found the keenest misery of all. The house was unlike any that I had seen in the same trade: all was scrupulously clean and neat. The old brass fender was as bright as gold, and worn with continued rubbing. The grate, in which there was barely a handful of coals, had been newly black-leaded, and there was not a cinder littering the hearth. Indeed, everything in the place evinced the greatest order and cleanliness. Nor was the suffering self-evident. On the contrary, a stranger, at first sight, would have believed the occupant to have been rather well to do in the world. A few minutes' conversation with the poor creature, however, soon told you that the neatness was partly the effect of habits acquired in domestic service, and partly the result of a struggle to hide her extreme poverty from the world. Her story was the most pathetic of all I had yet heard: - "I work for a slop-house - waistcoat work," she said; "I don't make sleeve waistcoats, but body waistcoats, and the lowest price I get is 4d.; I have had 'em as high as 1s. 3d. I take the run, such as they have got to give me - sometimes one thing and sometimes another in the waistcoat way. Some have better work than others, but my eyesight won't admit of my doing the best work. Some waistcoats are as much as 1s. 9d., some 2s. I have worked twenty-six years at the same warehouse. The general price for the waistcoats I have now is 6d., 8d., and 10d. I can make one a day sometimes, and sometimes three in two days - just as it happens - for my health is very bad. Sometimes I don't earn more than 2s. 6d. a week, and sometimes I have earned 3s. 6d. and 4s. That's the most I have earned for this several years. I must work very close from about nine in the morning to eleven at night to earn that. Prices have come down very much indeed since I first worked for the warehouse - very much. The prices when I was first employed there were as much as 1s. 9d. for what I get now ls. ld. for. Every week they have reduced something within these last few years. Work's falling very much. The work has not riz - no, never since I worked at it. It's lower'd, but it's not riz. The masters seem to say that the work is lowered to them - that they can't afford to pay a better price, or else they would. The parties for whom I work lay it to the large slop-houses. They say it's through them that the work has lowered so. I find it very difficult to get sufficient to nourish me out of my work. I can't have what I ought to have. I think my illness at present is from over-exertion. I want more air than I can get. I am wholly dependent on myself for my living, and never made more than 4s. a week. Several times I have had my work thrown back upon my hands, and that has perhaps made me ill, so that I've not been able to do anything. I am obliged to work long, and always - sick or well - I must do it for my living, to make any appearance at all. My sight is very bad now from over-work, and perhaps other difficulties as well - I suffer so bad with my head. My greatest earnings are 4s. per week, my lowest 2s. 6d., and I generally average about 3s. Many weeks I have been wholly without working - not able to do it. Young people that have got good health and good work might, perhaps, earn more than I do; but at the common work I should think they can't make more than I can. I never was married. I went out to service when I was younger, and to waist- coating after quitting service; so that I might be at home with mother and father, and take care of them in their old age. I rent the house. It's where I buried mother and father from; and as such, I've kept it on since they've been dead. I let the two rooms, but I don't gain anything by it. I stand at about ten-pence a week rent when I live in the top room and let the others; but sometimes it's empty, and I lose by it. Some time ago, too, a party ran away, and left £3 10s. in my debt. That nearly ruined me. I've not got the better of it yet. I've been very short - very short indeed, sir; in want of common necessaries to keep my strength and life together. I don't find what I get by my labour sufficient to keep me. I've no money anywhere, not a farthing in the house; yes - I tell a story - I've got a penny. If I were to be taken ill I don't know what I should do. But I should be obliged to do as I've often done before. The Almighty is my only support. For my old age there is nothing but the workhouse. After six and twenty years' hard work I've not a penny to the fore - nothing to depend upon for an hour. If I could have saved, I should have been very glad to have done so. Take one week with another, I have earned 3s., and that has been barely sufficient to keep me. I've sold several things to make up, when I've come short. The things here belonged to father and mother. I've sold a great many that they left me. Many people who follow the same business I think are worse off, if anything, than I am; because I've got a home, and I strive to keep it together, and they've not."
It seemed difficult to believe that there could be found women suffering more keenly than this poor creature; and yet the gentleman who had kindly undertaken to introduce me to the better class of workpeople in the trade, led me to a young woman, most ladylike in her appearance and manners, from whom I gathered the following pitiable tale: -
She works at waistcoat business; at the best kind of work. Gets 10d. each waistcoat, sometimes 8d., and sometimes 6d.; some she has heard of being as low as 2½d. There are shilling ones, but there's a great deal of work in them. Black satin waistcoats are 10d., stitched all round; and out of the 10d. trimmings are to be found. The trimmings for each waistcoat cost 1d., sometimes 1½d., and occasionally 2d. "Those I am making now at 10d.," she said, "have a quantity of work in them. They would take me the whole day, even if I was well enough to sit so long at 'em. Besides this, there's half a day lost each time you take your work in. And sometimes every other day - and often every day - they'll drag you up to the warehouse for the little bit of work. They give out four at a time mostly. We have to give housekeeper's security for £5 before we can get work. Some weeks I don't do more than four. Some weeks I don't do that. Last week I had a hard matter to do four; but then I wasn't well. When I was apprentice we used to have 5s. for making the very same as those that I now get 10d. for. At 2s. apiece one might live, but as it is now, 1 am starving; if it wasn't for my friends helping me a little, I don't know what would become of me, I'm sure. Frequently the work is returned upon our hands, and recently I have had 9s. to pay out of my earnings for some waistcoats that were sent back to me because they were kept out too long. They were kept out longer than they should have been, because I was ill; I wasn't able to make them. I sat up in my bed, ill as I was, and basted them myself, and then a girl that I got did what she could to them, and I finished them; but, owing to the delay, the foreman grew spiteful and returned them on my hands. I have been suffering for this ever since, and I couldn't subsist upon what I get now, were it not for some kind friends. I've got a spirit, and wouldn't like to be under an obligation, but I am forced to live as I do. While I was ill my rent went back, and I've left part of my things where I was living before I came here, because I couldn't pay up what I owed for my lodging. There is my doctor's bill to be paid - for I haven't paid it yet, and I have been obliged to get rid of the waistcoats that were returned to me; I sold them for a trifle, as I could, with the exception of one that I've pledged. I got ls. upon that, and I sold the others at 1s. 6d. each, though they charged me at the shop 3s. 3d. apiece for them. I was glad to get rid of them anyhow, just then.
"The waistcoats that they pay a shilling for to have made are like jackets - they have sleeves and flaps to pockets like coats. I don't know what they are like. It would take anyone two days to make them. It takes me two days. My average earnings are from 3s. to 4s. a week, and out of that I have to pay 2s. for the waistcoats returned on my hands, and about 6d. for trimmings, per week, leaving me about 1s.6d. to live upon. Some persons say they can earn at waistcoating 14s. to l5s. per week, and they tell the master so; but then they have people to help them - girls who probably pay them something to learn the business, or who are very young, and have ls. per week for doing the inferior parts. I don't know why the prices are so low. I have found prices continually going down since I came from the west-end of the town. I never knew an advance. If they took off 2d. or 1d., I never heard of their putting it on again. The prices have fallen more within the last two or three years - much more than ever they did before. I don't think they can get very much lower. If they do, persons must starve. It is almost as bad as the workhouse now. I was apprenticed to the waistcoating at the West-end, and was paid a little different then. I could earn 15s. a week at that time. The business has materially injured my health; yes, that it has. My eyesight and health have both suffered from it. It has produced general debility; the doctor says it's sitting so long in the house. Sometimes all night I used to sit up to work. I've known many people that have had strong constitutions, and after they've worked at it many years they've gone like I have. There are persons who get even lower prices than I do - oh, yes, sir, a great deal lower! Some I know get three-pence, and even four-pence for a waistcoat.
I asked whether she kept any account of her earnings, and she immediately produced the book in which her work was entered by her employers. On one side was a statement of the work given out to her, and on the other that of the work brought home, together with the price paid for it, and the amount deducted from the earnings for the waistcoats which had been returned upon the poor girl's hands. The following is the account of the prices paid to, and the sums received by, the waistcoat maker: -
|Four vests returned, 9s. to pay||s.||d.|
|Sept.||12||Four at l0d.||3||4|
|"||13||One at 10d||0||10|
|To pay for waistcoats returned||2||0|
|Sept.||28||Five at 10d||4||2|
|To pay for waistcoats returned||2||0|
|Oct.||10||Two at 1s.||2||0|
|"||17||Three at 6d.||1||6|
|"||18||One at 1s.||1||0|
|To pay for waistcoats returned||1||6|
|Oct.||22||Four at 9½d.||3||2|
|"||Two at 10d.||1||8|
|To pay for waistcoats returned||1||6|
|Oct.||30||Three at 10d.||2||6|
|"||31||One at 10d||0||10|
|To pay for waistcoats returned||1||0|
Total receipts from Sept. 13 to Oct. 31 (seven weeks), 13s.,
averaging 1s. 10¼d. per week.
On my way home from these saddening scenes, I called at the wholesale slop warehouse for the promised statement as to the prices paid by the generality of the trade. After waiting a considerable time, one of the principals and foreman came to communicate to me the desired information.
The usual sum earned by a person working at the slop trade is, they told me, three-pence per hour!!
Women working at moleskin trousers, they said, would earn, upon an average, ls. 10d. every day of ten hours' labour.
At waistcoats females would earn generally at the rate of 2s. per day of ten hours' labour.
The foreman and the principal then wished to know in what state I had found the workpeople generally. I told them I had never seen or heard of such destitution. "Destitution!" was the exclamation. "God bless my soul, you surprise me!" "And I think it but right, gentlemen," I added, "to apprise you that your statement as to prices differs most materially from that of the workpeople;" and so saying, I took my departure.
Every cause which tends to produce and
perpetuate sweating is
at work in the most concentrated form in the clothing trades. In
reference to those trades, therefore, we have found it necessary to
take a large body of evidence, much of which is of the greatest
interest and importance.
It is stated that some years ago a tailor, who was properly trained in his calling, could make either a complete suit of clothes, or any part of it: he knew his business throughout. Sweating has been known for 50 years. the parcelling out of work must have had its origin in the fact that the journeyman tailor took his work home to be done by himself, and possibly by other members of his family. There were obviously advantages to the journeyman tailor and employer in this arrangement. There was little subdivision, the tailor made the garments from end to end; the only subdivision then being that the least important part of the work was put into the hands of the workmens own apprentices. In the opinion of many witnesses the gradual lapse of the system of thorough ap prenticeship increases the sweating, and is extremely prejudicial to the interest of trade and to the public. Now, excepting in the very best bespoke trade, a man generally confines himself to one particular kind of garment, or to a certain portion only of a garment, the making of which is easily learnt. Now, instead of the thoroughly practical tailor being employed, the trade is divided into different sections. There are foremen or cutters, basters, machinists, fellers, buttonholers, pressers, and general workers, one witness indeed stating that there were 25 subdivisions. "Sub-division is so minutely carried out that a man who can press a coat cannot necessarily press a waistcoat, and a waistcoat presser is equally unqualified to press trousers. If the labour was not so much subdivided there would not be half the evils connected with sweating". This is borne out by Mr. Burnett, Labour Correspondent of the Board of Trade. "Except for the best kinds of clothing, the old fashioned tailor has been crushed out; and although for the highly skilled man the rates of remuneration may lie as high, or higher than before, (and this high remuneration is shown to exist) "the great bulk of the cheap clothing is in the hands of a class who are not tailors at all in the old sense of the term;'' the trade is governed by no rules at all, at least as regards the lower grades; the hours are anything a sweater likes to make them; each sweater has his own method of engaging and paying his workers. The question as to what is a day, or half a day, is differently interpreted by different masters. It is the usual thing for seven and a-half, eight, and nine hours to be regarded as half a day.
In some cases the man known as a sweater is merely an agent, knowing nothing of the business. Sometimes he acts the part of a foreman, and directs the work of every branch, understanding the whole business thoroughly. Sometimes he works as hard as any of his employés.
Sometimes work is sent down into the country to be done in cottages. A witness thought it did not go through more than one hand before reaching the worker, "for the price paid for the labour is so limited that there is not a chance of filtration.''
The conditions under which life is carried on as described by some witnesses are deplorable in the extreme. These witnesses have seen people working with the garments on their backs to keep the worker warm; M r. Monro knowing of a case of a child with measles being covered by one of these garments. "Three or four gas jets may be flaring in the room, a coke fire burning in the wretched fire-place, sinks untrapped, closets without water, and altogether the sanitary condition abominable". A witness told us that in a double room, perhaps 9 by 1 5 feet, a man, his wife, and six children slept, and in the same room ten men were usually employed, so that at night eighteen persons would lie in that one room. These witnesses alluded to the want of sanitary precautions and of decent and sufficient accommodation, and declared that the effect of this, combined with the inadequate wage earned, had the effect of driving girls to prostitution. As to sanitary arrangements; in a sweater's den, with which witness is acquainted, there is one water-closet for all workers, male and female, about twenty-two persons. The medical officer stated to witness that one water-closet was insufficient for more than twenty persons. If the owner of the shop is required to make an additional water-closet he refuses, and he says he will reduce his hands. This may be done in the slack season but in the busy season he will take more hands on, and the state of things is as bad as ever. Referring to workshops in Prince's- street, there is a shop in which the water-closet is in the shop itself; the females sit within three feet of the door of it, and the water- closet fits into a corner, not behind an ordinary fire-place, but behind a big furnace, used for heating irons, so that it is the hottest corner in the room. There is great want of decency, and it is easy to imagine what follows on such contamination. The workshop of witness is in a yard, or what was a yard. Three machines are at work; there is one fire-place and eight or nine gas jets, also a skylight, which, when broken, exposes the workers to the rain. On complaints being made, the sweater says, "If you can't work, go home.''
Witness works in a room nine feet square, and in some cases only 130 cubic feet of air are obtainable per person. In nine out of ten cases the windows are broken and filled up with canvas; ventilation is impossible, and light insufficient. The Rev. R. C. Billing, now Bishop of Bedford, said that the poor people, who formerly occupied two or three rooms, are now, for the most part, driven to occupy one room. There they live by day and night, and there is to be found all the trade refuse in the room, creating an immense danger not only to themselves but to their neighbours. "You can tell where work is being done on the Sabbath by the blinds being drawn; there is no holiday at all.''
Work is precarious, and wages, such as they are, are irregularly paid. " Sometimes,'' one of the workmen told us, "we have nothing to do for weeks and weeks, but have to go idle, and the wages are not paid regularly. One sweater pays on Friday, one pays on Saturday, one pays on Sunday, and one pays nothing; you have to summon him for it.'' Statements with regard to wages paid in this trade differ very widely, as it is inevitable they should do, considering the subdivisions already referred to, the irregular nature of the work, and the different degrees of skill required. A paper handed in, of Mr. Burnett's, attempts, on the basis of careful but limited inquiries, to give the average rate of wages in various branches. From this it would appear that the highest rate paid for men's work is l0s, a day, and that it runs down to 2s 6d.; women occasionally get 6s. a day but the average is very low. For a slop coat from 2s. to 3s. 9d. was formerly paid; the rate is now 1s 6d. to 2s 3d. A good coat, for which a man got 10s 2d. a few years ago, now brings to the maker only 6s. 6d Air. Burnett added the following example: " a few doors further down was an establishment where cloaks are now made for 4s. 6d, and six or seven years-ago were paid 8s.: Witney coats, which were then made for 10s. 3d., are now made for 5s.6d" and this was the case of a man whom Mr. Burnett described as a first-rate tailor. He paid good wages, and even in prosperous times it was difficult for him to clear 31. a week for himself. A woman makes a vest outright for 5d., and she is able to make four a day. Mr. Arnold White produced a coat which was made for 7½d, and by working 15 hours a woman could make four such in the day, earning 2s 6d.; but out of this she had to pay 3d. for getting the button-holes worked, and 4d. for trimmings. It is not clearly established, in the Opinion of the Committee whether or how far this lowering of prices is due to more extended use of machinery.
As regards the abstracts from the Factory and Workshops Act for the protection of workers, witness produces one and describes what is done with it. It is written in English, and generally everyone in the room is a foreigner and unlikely to be able to read a word of English. This document is stowed away in a drawer where it gets grimy with age. On a visit from the Inspector it is produced and put up. On the occasion of the next whitewashing it is stowed away again.
As the workshops as described by witness to be miserable dens; so is the food stated to be of the poorest description. "I am almost ashamed to say what my food is." Ordinary diet, a cup of tea and a bit of fish. Mrs Killick, 22 years a trouser finisher, was glad to get a bit of cleaning and washing to support her family. The money earned was hardly sufficient to buy food. Her food is chiefly a cup of tea and a bit of fish. "Meat I do not expect; I might get meat once in six months."
Regarding hours of work, the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females. Many difficulties are experienced by inspectors in endeavouring to find the workshops, the worst being the most difficult to find. Monro said he had a factory for two years before it was visited by the inspector. Mr Holley considers Clause 69 in the Factory Act is more protection to the sweater than the worker. As regards instances of overwork, Mrs Killick works from 6am to 8pm; Mrs Hayes from 6 or 7 am to 10pm, or midnight; whether this takes place subject to the jurisdiction of the Factory Inspector is not very clearly stated. It is true that the Factory Act requires the employers of children, young persons, and women, to keep in books, provided for the purpose, a register of overtime as check on the infringement of the law with regard to overtime, but according to some witnesses evasion of the law in this particular is easy and constantly practised. As regards men's hours, sometimes they work 18, 20 or even 22 hours at a stretch; a witness once worked 40 hours, from 6am Thursday till 10pm on Friday; a witness went to work the day before appearing before the Committee, at 6:30 am, and work till 2:30 am of the following day; one hour for dinner, no tea time; worked harder here than in Warsaw, and made less. A witness stated he got 5s per diem when at work; his hours were from 8am to 11pm and employment was very irregular. The Rev. R.C.Billing has seen hands at work at 2am, and has found them again at work at 7am, the same morning.
The foregoing statements disclose the case of the workers as given by them in evidence. The evidence is of an extremely contradictory nature, and very strong statements against employers were sworn to by some witnesses, and circumstantially denied by the employers. Mr Moses, whose is a contractor and master tailor, and who attended as representative of the master tailors and journeymen, challenges all the figures and statements set forth in Mr. Burnett's report, contradicts several of Lyon's statements, and, from knowledge of his character, throws great doubt on his credibility as a witness. He stated, "Our hands are paid 25 per cent, better now than they were six or seven years ago." He admitted that some of the low class houses did give out work at starvation prices. In answer to a statement of Plattman, one of the witnesses, that workmen are afraid to combine for fear of being discharged, he stated that he, in conjunction with masters and journeymen, "had endeavoured to promote and encourage combination for the mutual advantage of masters and journeymen tailors". He rebutted a statement of the Rev. R.C.Billing as to the feeling between Jews and Gentiles, and said, emphatically, that it was good. He does not admit the enormous amount of misery in the lowest class of employees, and thinks the case has been over-stated. As regards the employment of inspectors with technical knowledge, he would be afraid of it, "for, if a man were employed from the ranks of the workers, he would use arbitrary powers; that is the only objection I would have." The evidence of Mr Moses was supported by that of work-women in his employ, but Mr Burnett showed that the scale of wages spoken to by Mr Moses was not invariably adhered to in his workshop.
Select Committee of the House of Lords, Report
on the Sweating System,
Parliamentary Papers 1890, Vol.XVII
'On Friday, Margaret Barnes, nineteen, a single woman, was
indicted for stealing six jackets, value 5l., the property of Mary Oaks,
her mistress. The prisoner, who cried bitterly during the proceedings, pleaded
guilty. The prosecutrix is a single woman, and gets her living by mantle-making,
She engaged the prisoner to do what is termed "finishing off," that
the button-holes and sewing on the buttons. The prisoner was also employed to fetch the work from the warehouse, and deliver it when finished. On September 7th her mistress sent her with the six jackets, and she never returned. Sergeant Smith, a detective, who apprehended the prisoner, said he had made inquiries in the case, and found that up to this time the prisoner had borne a good character as an honest, hard-working girl. She had quitted her former lodgings, which had no furniture but a small table and a few rags in a corner, and he discovered her in a room which was perfectly bare. Miss Oaks was examined, and said the prisoner was employed from nine in the morning to eight at night. The Judge: How much did you pay her per week? Miss Oaks: Four
shillings. The Judge: Did you give her her food? Miss Oaks: No; I only get one shilling each for the jackets myself when completed. I have to use two sewing-machines, find my own cotton and needles, and I can, by working hard, make two in a day. The Judge said it was a sad state of things. The prisoner, when called upon, said she had had nothing to eat for three days, and so gave way to temptation, hoping to get better employment. The Judge, while commiserating with the prisoner, said it could not be allowed that distress should justify dishonesty, and sentenced the prisoner to six weeks' imprisonment.'
George Gissing, The Nether World, 1889
[-49-] SWEATED LONDON
by GEORGE R. SIMS
ONE would have thought that the meaning of the
word "sweating" as applied to work was sufficiently obvious. But when
"the Sweating System" was inquired into by the Committee of the House
of Lords, the meaning became suddenly involved. As a matter of fact the sweater
was originally a man who kept his people at work for long hours. A schoolboy who
"sweats" for his examination studies for many hours beyond his usual
working day. The schoolboy meaning of the word was originally the trade meaning.
But of late years the sweating system has come to mean an unhappy combination of long hours and low pay. "The sweater's den" is a workshop - often a dwelling room as well - in which, under the most unhealthy conditions, men and women toil for from sixteen to eighteen hours a day for a wage barely sufficient to keep body and soul together.
The sweating system, as far as London is concerned, exists chiefly at the East End, but it flourishes also in the West, notably in Soho, where the principal "sweating trade," tailoring, is now largely carried on. Let us visit the East End first, for here we can see the class which has largely contributed to the evil - the destitute foreign Jew - place his alien foot for the first time upon the free soil of England.
Some of the steamers arrive in St. Katherine's Docks, and the immigrants - principally Russian, Polish, and Roumanian Jews - have the advantage of stepping straight from the ship in which they have been cooped up for two days and two nights under conditions which, if it be rough weather, cannot be conducive to comfort.
Many of them, especially those who have come from Russia, have already been despoiled of the little money they had. At the frontier they are sometimes detained for two or even three days, in order that they may be robbed by harpies in collusion with [-50-] certain subordinate officials. In some cases, a man when he asks for a ticket at the frontier railway station is refused by the booking clerk. He is told that tickets can only be issued to emigrants through an agent. The agent then introduces himself, and on one plea or another succeeds in involving the immigrant in expenses which leave him with scarcely a rouble in his pocket at the journey's end.
If he escapes the foreign harpies the immigrant is not even safe when he has reached London. Men, frequently of his own faith and country, wait for him outside the docks, and because he is ignorant and friendless in a strange land, and speaks only his own language, seize upon him and convey him to a shark's boarding house, and keep him there on some pretence or other until he is penniless. Then
ALIEN'S BAGGAGE LABEL : "DISINFECTED"
the "shark" lends him a few shillings on his luggage,
and when that is gone turns him out into the street with only the clothes he
stands up in. That is how hundreds of Jewish immigrants commence their career as
units in the densely-packed population of East London, and begin "to look
for work" destitute.
The Jewish community, fully aware of these evils, does its best to guard against them. They have agents who meet every boat, and addressing the poor aliens in their own language, help them to get their scanty belongings from the docks, and advise and direct them as to lodgings and homes with shelters where they will be honestly dealt with.
Let us meet a ship from Hamburg, laden with men and women who will presently be working in the dens of the sweaters.
It is a pouring wet day. The rain is coming down in torrents, and one has to wade through small lakes and rivulets of mud to reach the narrow pathway leading to Irongate Stairs, where the immigrant passengers of the vessel lying at anchor in the Thames are to land. This is a river steamer, and so the wretched immigrants are taken off in small boats and rowed to the steps. Look at them, the men thin and hungry-eyed, the women with their heads bare and only a thin shawl over their shoulders, the children terrified by the swaying of the boat that lies off waiting to land when the other boats have discharged their load!
What must these people feel as they get their first glimpse of London? All they can see is a blurred and blotted line of wharves and grim buildings, and when at last they land it is in a dark archway crowded with loafers and touts all busily trying to confuse them, to seize their luggage, almost fighting to get possession of it.
Fortunately Mr. Somper, the Superintendent of the Poor Jews' Temporary Shelter is here also. As the scared and shivering foreigners step ashore he speaks to them either in Yiddish or Lettish, and finds out if they have an address to go to. Most of them have something written on a piece of paper which they produce creased and soiled from a pocket. It is the address of a friend or relative, or of a boarding-house. Others have no idea where they are going. Many, asked what money they have, confess to twenty or thirty shillings as their entire fortune. Others at once begin to unfold a tale of robbery at the frontier, and moan that they have scarcely anything. These are at once taken charge of and housed in the shelter until their friends can be found for them. For most of them have friends "somewhere". It may be a brother, it may be only a fellow townsman or fellow villager, who came to London years ago. In the shelter they are taken care of with their money and their "baggage" until their friends can be communicated with or employment obtained.
Here, stepping from the boat, are two young Germans. They are going on to America. Here are two Russians in long coats, high boots, and peaked caps. These also are for America. But the rest of the pale, anxious and dishevelled crowd are for London. This Russian lad, still wearing the red embroidered shirt of his Fatherland, has been sent for by his brother, a tailor. This [-51-]
AN EAST-END DEN.
young fellow with a wife and two children has nowhere to go. He
has come to escape military service and to look for work. Under the dark
archway, wet and miserable, there is a crowd of sixty-four men, women and
children huddled together gesticulating and shrieking, and always in mortal
terror that some unauthorised person is going to lay hands on the little bundles
and sacks which contain their all.
The nervous hysteria of a downtrodden people escaped from bondage is writ large in the high-pitched voices. Some of the women speak in a scream. Some of the men, disputing as to the payment of the sixpence demanded by the boatman, yell and shout as though they were lunatics in a padded cell.
Two English policemen, stolid and self-possessed, listen to the complaints poured into their ears in a half a dozen languages and say nothing. When I explain to one that a gesticulating Pole wants to give the boatman into custody for refusing to give up his bundle without the sixpence is paid, the policeman grins and says "Lor now, does he?" A young Roumanian Jewess with two crying children clinging to her skirts, asks me a question in a voice that sounds as though she was calling down the vengeance of Heaven upon me. But Mr. Somper comes to the rescue. She is asking me if I know somebody with an impossible name. He is her cousin and came to London last June with 172 other Roumanian Jews driven out by the action of the Government.
But presently the shouting and gesticulating cease. A covered cart is driven up to the entrance of the archway. In this the aliens, directed by an agent, proceed to pile their scanty luggage. A few will not trust their bundles out of their own hands, and carry them. The cart starts. the men, women and children fall into procession, and then [-53-] move slowly off, tramping in the mud and slush of the roadway through the pouring rain. I forget that I am in London. This melancholy file of men and women carries me to Siberia. With their faces woe-begone, their heads bent, they appear more like a gang of convicts marching to the mines, than free men and women making their first acquaintance with the capital of the British Empire, in which they are henceforward to dwell and earn their
IN THE POOR JEWS' TEMPORARY SHELTER
living. For the bulk of the people I have introduced you to,
these scantily-clad, almost penniless Russians, Poles and Roumanians, will
presently be working as tailors and bootmakers in the den of the sweater.
Some of the men have handicrafts, but the majority will be taken on as "greeners,"
It is the Sunday morning following the arrival of the immigrants at whose disembarkation we assisted. We are in Goulston Street, Whitechapel. To the man of the West the scene is like a weekday fair. Everywhere are stalls and hawkers, and business at the shops is in full swing. Even the money changer's close at hand is open, and the clerks sit at their open ledgers. Half way down Goulston Street stands a group of shabby, careworn, silent men. Foreigners every one of them, you can see at a glance. They are mostly tailors who want a change of masters, but among them are several of their "friends," new arrivals who have as yet failed to find work. Presently a man approaches. He has a little book in his hand. Some of the men recognise him, and the group falls into an attitude of expectancy. The alien slaves of labour have assembled in the slave market to pass into bondage. The man with the book is the slave dealer. He looks the group over, then calls out in Yiddish the special kind of workers that he is in need of. As he calls the men who answer his requirements hold up their hands. He says a few words to them and enters their names in his book. They will follow him presently to his "den". If he wants "greeners" he turns to the new arrivals. He selects three or four. Then he tells one of the men who know his place to take the "gang" with him. The slaves fall in and slouch away silently to their new bondage.
We have seen the sweater engaging his hands in the slave market. Let us follow them to the den. But first it will be as well to remove a false impression with regard to the sweater himself. He is not always the wealthy spider sucking the life-blood from the flies he has caught in his web. He is not a gorgeous Hebrew with diamond rings and a [-54-] big cigar. He is frequently a worker also, a man sweating because he himself sweated. His one advantage is that he generally knows the whole of his trade. That is to say he can, if he is a tailor, make the whole of a garment; if he is a bootmaker, a complete pair of boots. The foreigners who come to be sweated generally make one part only of the article they work at. They learn that one portion of the process and no other. In this, they differ from an Englishman who, if he does tailoring, is a tailor. The foreign tailors represent not trained labour but unskilled labour; very few of them could make a complete article. There are, according to a witness before the House of Lords Committee, twenty-five subdivisions of labour in the sweating trade in making a suit of clothes.
There are more than two thousand sweaters in
the East of London. Some have workshops, others use their own dwelling rooms.
Let us enter a "dwelling" workshop. It is a room nine feet square. In
it fourteen people are at work. There is a coke fire, and seven or eight gas
jets are burning. Ventilation there is none. The sweater is at work himself.
Hollow-eyed, gaunt-visaged men and women are toiling in various ways. Some have
a sewing machine, others are doing handwork. It is evening when we enter. The
poor wretches have been at work since six o'clock in the morning. They will go
on probably till midnight, for it is the season, and the sweater has his hands
full. The wages these poor foreigners can earn by their ceaseless toil will
perhaps be eight shillings at the week's end. For that they will work on Sunday
also. All the gold of the Rothschilds could not tempt us to stay an hour
in this place, for life is sweeter than gold. Let us hurry out into the air.
Here is another den. In this bootmaking is going on. The men are mostly "greener" who have been hired in the slave market. It is a double room knocked into one. In this ten men, and a man and his wife and six children work and sleep.
The Russian "greener" lives on next to nothing. A cup of tea and a herring are frequently all the food he will have in the twenty-four hours. How can he afford more on the starvation wages he receives from the sweater? Not long ago a Russian who appeared before the Sweating Committee said he had that week worked from 6.30 a.m. to 2.30 a.m. on the following day with only one hour for dinner. He worked harder in London than in Warsaw and made less. But the emigration agent had painted London as a land of gold and tempted him to invest all he had in the world in a ticket.
The struggle is sometimes even too terrible for a Russian Jew. Recently a young "greener" hanged himself. He had brought his newly-wedded wife from Russia to London thinking he would get a living. He learnt boot finishing and earned 12s. to 15s. a week. To earn £1 a week he would have to work twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four. At the inquest it was proved that he had tried to do this and his brain had given way. In a fit of madness and despair he hanged himself in the room he occupied with his young wife.
There are various other sweating trades carried on East and West, such as furriery. shirtmaking, mantle-making, and dressmaking. In the West tailoring and dressmaking are the sweated trades. Here the work is irregular. Half the year the men and girls are uemployed, the other half they are working night and day.
English girls are occasionally sweated at the West in the dressmaking and millinery by [-55-] wealthy Christian employers. With the blinds drawn and the workrooms apparently closed for the day dressmakers work on long beyond the hours allowed by the Factory Acts during the season. Sometimes the inspector gets wind of what is going on and makes a sudden descent on the premises. Then all is consternation. Madame is summoned, and puts the blame on the duchesses who want the dresses in a hurry. The Factory Act applies to these workrooms, and consequently the condition of things is far better than in the East End dens. There the Factory Inspector can only enter on a warrant, because the bulk of the dens are in dwelling-houses. The sanitary inspector can enter, but the only result of his occasional interference is that the sweater makes promises which he never performs. Many of the crying evils of the sweating system would be redressed if the Factory and the Sanitary Inspectors had greater powers and worked more harmoniously together.
In the West End the laundry women are "sweated" and in the small or hand laundries the conditions and the hours are as bad as can be. The cabinet trade has it own sweaters' dens in the homes of the "garret masters," and here again the sweaters and the victims are largely aliens.
This is but a brief glance at Sweated London. But it may suffice to bring the home to the reader one of the pressing problems of the day. Is it right that in our England we should permit a trade which is little better than the importation of foreign slaves? For you must remember that though some of these people come with a fair chance of bettering themselves, and do in many cases succeed, and in process of time become owners of property and employers of labour - generally the property is bad and the labour is sweated - yet a vast number are lured to this country by the misrepresentations of interested parties.
Arguments are constantly adduced on both sides of the question. Parliamentary Committees have gathered evidence on "Sweating;" the friends of the alien worker have come forward to proclaim his usefulness to the State and to the community. Between friend and foe Time will eventually pronounce judgment.
GOULSTON STREET ON SUNDAY MORNING.
George R. Sims, Living London, 1902