Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Factory Manufacture / Making of - Tobacco


WOULD children of the town-poor spin extra months into the thirteenth year they live, supposing they had the power? They might; seeing that, as their thirteenth year closes, it is legally arranged that their childhood ceases, and that they are legally eligible for paid labour. Poor young souls, they have been naturally eligible for unpaid labour long years before that; they have had, too, to render this unpaid labour bravely and continually. For Dame Nature laughs at the laws of men in this sad particular; and reigns by her own method of circumstance or caprice. Yet Dame Nature mercifully laughs at the laws of men in another and pleasanter particular; the one that leads her to ordain no precise moment at which childhood dies, but that leads her, on the contrary, to suffer the brightness of childhood, its fearlessness, its individuality and humanity to linger on to the uttermost, quite outside of Parliament, of regulation, and decree. This is a beneficent fact, that may be overborne-that is, overborne, unhappily-in too many cases, by poverty, by ignorance, by unfitness, by disease; but it can be manifest agreeably where factories have generous masters at the head of them, where the desire for the honourable fulfilment of duty is assumed, and duty is generally honourably fulfilled because of this very assumption. And in no place, surely, could Early Workers be employed under more healthy conditions than at a certain tobacco factory in the busy centre of London, where, as a consequence, Early Workers do still savour of the childhood left in them, and where a little group of them may any day be found. As a structure, this factory is a new town-branch of an old provincial tree; it stands, a new erection, on ground from which a mass of old buildings has been imperiously swept away; it has all new improvements to supersede all old associations - light, cheerfulness, space, ventilation, in the place of dinginess, confinement, obscurity, bad odours; it is a monument of the advance of the knowledge of the laws of art and nature, raised upon the ashes of an old-world district, whereon was written all too plainly how much of those laws was unknown, and how much would have to be painfully learned. As a structure, therefore, this factory would attract the eye of any passer-by pleasurably; as a citadel, into which an Early Worker might get admittance, with a fair hope of rising from the lowest office in it till he had reached to the very top, it possesses an interest about as great as interest of that sort can be. Saying which much, as its heavy doors are pressed slowly open, all that is necessary as introduction has been done.
    In one of the far corners of the principal floor, the Early Workers at tobacco stand. They are boys, all; and they have stripped themselves of their jackets; they have tucked up their shirt-sleeves; they have fitted themselves, most of them, in a manly manner, with dandily-worn paper-caps. Their business is to weigh and to mould - in technical phrase; the same meaning that they are to weigh tobacco up in handy ounces ready for the retail trade, that they are to pack each ounce up in paper so that it shall not come undone, but can be handed to the retail customer natty and entire. The children are arranged in pairs to do this work of theirs. They are put, a quick boy with a quick boy, the next quick boy with a next quick boy, down to the slow wedded to the slow. Marriages, in more mature life, are not frequently conducted on this pattern. But these little boys are paid by the amount of work they do; it would be unphilosophically unfair to clog the nimble boy with the heaviness of sloth, to systematically slacken fire with the dead weight of indifference or torpidity. Let a pair of boys be watched from the beginning, so that the admirably-answering plan may be wholly seen.
    To get the tobacco; that, as may be expected, is the first arrangement. One of the two boys runs off to the right department for it; the department is so far away in depth, downwards (land having two levels hereabouts, and being an ever-existent puzzle), the boy is hoisted up to his proper floor again, among other animate and inanimate packages, on a huge lift; the tobacco is weighed in the lump in the presence of the boy, and entered against him and his partner so that they may afterwards account for every fraction of it; and the boy turns over his box to empty it upon the table, with the pair of little workmen ready to begin. The affair looks tedious, undoubtedly. The tobacco lies in a brown, fibrous, high and wide lump - already cut, dried, and otherwise manipulated - a lump that may weigh, and shall be settled on this occasion to be absolutely of the weight of, twenty-seven pounds; and a pipeful, or quid, of tobacco, of a couple of stones' weight, might well appal even the stoutest. hearted smoker. When, too, we remember that these twenty-seven or twenty-eight pounds will have to be picked out into sixteen times twenty-seven or twenty-eight little bundles, amounting to something like four hundred and thirty of them, the thought may well follow the remembrance that smoking might sensibly be given up, since so much trouble attends it. But the little weigher and the little moulder, preparing for their work, experience no thought of this kind. It is quite other. What-is their interested inquiry-what sort of tobacco is it that has been given them to do? And they glance at the large lump with careful scrutiny.
    "All right " one cries, in triumph.
    "It's Black Jack! Fine! We've only got to wire in, and we'll do it - splendid!"
    "Wire in?" Repeated the spectator, doubtfully.
    "Well, keep hard at it, you know," explained the bright young worker. "And if we do wire in, we shall get twenty of this weighed off in an hour!"
    It seemed incredible. Twenty pounds of tobacco divided into ounces, meant three hundred and twenty little bundles of it, meant five bundles and a third a minute; and was it possible that young fingers could work with such speed and dexterity?
    "Why, we always do twenty pounds!" cried the young worker, when the question had been put. "And this boy and me often do twenty-five, and have done thirty, if we wire in hard! It's nothing! We don't all work so quick, though," he checked himself to, overbrimming with mischief and enjoyment. "There's that boy, Lively, there, you should just look at him!"
    "That boy, Lively, there," being quickly glanced at, quickly had his face covered with an appreciative grin; but there was no move made in his direction then in obedience to the suggestion. It was much more interesting to keep on watching the first-chosen pair of boys, and to hear the sharp click and thud of their magic fingering. He who weighed had his little scales straight in front of him; his ounce-weight in one bright brass saucer, his right hand ready to "scrabble" enough tobacco into the other to weigh it down justly; and, after slipping a little square of paper into the scale for the tobacco to be wrapped in, he scrabbled it up so quickly with a peculiar clawing movement acquired to separate the fibre and free the required quantity from the lump, he soon had his side of the table covered with laden little squares of paper, of which the click given by the balance at brisk intervals, when he pressed it, could have kept true register. His partner, however - technically the moulder - very rapidly made these spread papers disappear. He had been behind. hand of the weigher for the moment; because, on his return from getting the "Black Jack," he had had to re-hang upon the nail the memorandum of the weight and sort of the material entrusted to him; but now that this little duty was over, and he was standing close up to the table, he set himself with a will to pull up the arrears, and then he only had to equalise his pace. His "mould was as active as his partner's scales. It might have been a fossilised ball of string, by reason of its size, of its form, and of the cylindrical hollow in its middle. Its material was wood; very hard, very smooth and polished from much usage; the hole bored in the centre of it was to receive every ounce of tobacco, and to form it into its own shape and size. The moulder took an open ounce, rolled it in its paper, popped it into the mould, tucked one end in of the paper cleverly, gave it a sharp tap. This turned the other end of the mould upmost; when the moulder tucked in the paper at this other end, gave a tap to that, gave another tap that shot the roll out, and there was the mould, empty, being stuffed again, almost at the same moment, with the next. But something must be added, however. As the moulder dexterously turns out his ounce-rolls, he shoots them against an edge sticking up round his table, which keeps them even and straight, and lets him form them into a neat pyramidal pile. Now, directly this pile reaches such certain proportions that it threatens to topple over, there has to be a temporary end to the weighing and moulding, for the piled ounce-rolls to be disposed of; and this leads to a second, and last, series of operations. "Sixteens," the young workmen call their ounce-rolls (for the reason that it takes sixteen of them to the pound; half-ounces are thirty-two, two-ounces eights, and quarters-of-pounds quarters); and the young workmen have to. take these six-teens, and, turning from their prepared heap of ounce papers, already printed with picture, history, and title, to another prepared heap of pound bags, again already printed with picture, history, and title, they are to put sixteen rolls into each pound bag, to fold down the open ends, and seal them. Every assistance is given by forethought and organisation. The bags are sent in from the makers to the factory, already folded in such marked fashion they open flat and steady; the boys drop four ounce-rolls into each bag, one way, then four the opposite way, with two more fours stacked up, reversed, in the same manner; the open end of each bag lends itself easily to the folds already made upon it; these folds are touched; and then when all the ounce-rolls have been put away like this, the bags are ready for the seal. A painter's paint-pot, of the six inch in diameter size, full of green sealing-wax, is always kept simmering on a near gas-ring; a stick of common firewood ladles the wax out in ample quantity; the stick is dabbed down; each dab is pressed down; and twenty-seven seals, one each on the twenty-seven pound-bags that account for the twenty-seven pounds of Black Jack tobacco, are expeditiously got through, whilst-whilst-why, whilst the little sealer's partner has run off for another consignment of material, so that the whole matter may be instantly begun over again!
    There is a minute or so occupied by the running, naturally; and during this minute an official comes who is important.
    "How many?"
    It is the question he puts as he approaches the pound-bags, and lays his hand upon them; and the little workman, expectant of him, having, indeed, nothing else in his minute of leisure to do, has his answer ready and steady. "Twenty-seven."
    The bags are already being counted.
    "Right," is the verdict. The official walks away, and the little workman moves the bags from the table to one of the large long wooden eases lying alongside; and packs them, straight away and closely, in.
    It is good. "And does anybody else come round ever, as you are at your weighing and your moulding?"
    The little workman would rather think there did! in a style that may be called the London boy's peculiar.
    "There's to check," he said, in the disengaged moment left him for saying. "It's the foreman; he's the one who checks you. He comes round, and takes up one of your ounces, and weighs it; he weighs another, and two or three more; and then, if you're all right, why, you are all right, and be goes away; but if you're wrong in any one out of those, he weighs two or three more, and if you're wrong there, he makes you do it all over again! If you're wrong in one, you know, it doesn't matter; he passes you; but it's done, don't you see, to see that we're all straight."
    "And how about the price? Is the pay pretty good for the twenty-seven pounds of Black Jack just done, for instance?"
    "See our paper?" asked the boy, as the best reply; and as he handed down his memorandum from the nail on which it had been hung. "I wouldn't take twelve shillings for that paper; no, that I wouldn't! There's what we did on Monday and what we did on Tuesday, and all; and we're paid to-morrow, and it's as much as twelve shillings, my share, for sure; and ah, it may be more, too, if -" and he put it in with much grave consideration - if we - wire in!"
    The writing was looked at with amusement and curiosity. It was spider's. webbish in its character: the Monday's account, say, running from the top regularly towards the foot; whilst the Tuesday's ran chequer-wise at the bottom of it, reversed; and the Wednesday's might be obliquely squeezed in at a corner where there was room. But the young accountants were not supposed to be accomplished at that kind of thing, and if their ciphering was curious - it must be said, also, that it was clear. For example, on one day there were entries of twenty-seven shag, twenty-three returns, nineteen bird's-eye, and so on, coming to a total of about a hundred pounds weight, with every entry duly initialled, and no further requisite than the knowledge of the rate for anybody to be able to cast up the sum. The rate being three shillings the hundred pounds for each boy, it was easy to see that each boy was able to earn about three shillings each day. In practice, however, this has to be lowered by some deductions, For one thing, "wiring in" is a process not invariably available, since muscle, am well as material, to say nothing of method; cannot be for ever at their highest pitch. Saturday, also, is only half a day, with only half a day's weighing and moulding possible; and the end is, that Early Workers at tobacco may calculate that they can earn, upon the average, from twelve shillings to fourteen shillings weekly. The hours, too, during which work is done are not at all exhausting.
    "We come at eight," said the boy who who asked for the facts, "and we leave at six."
    "And yes," put in his partner - who had just arrived with his new consignment of tobacco - "and don't forget that this boy pays me a penny if he's late six minutes, and I pay him a penny if I am late six minutes; and that boy pays that other boy, and we each one pay to our mate the same all through."
    It was looked upon as a merry piece of management, evidently; for a laugh flashed upon the face of every boy who heard, and lightened it.
    "Yes? Really? Is it so? And deem that make you industrious, and bring you hero nice and early?"
    "Well, we all get here pretty early except that boy Lively there; and there's something the matter with him somehow, and somehow he can't!"
    It brought a complete burst - "that boy Lively there," wider than any of the rest.
    "You see,"went on the originator of the smart information, "when one of us alone, he can't work so fast; and that makes us lose time, and what we pay is to make up for it. And it's twopence, if we're late a quarter of an hour; and three-pence, if we're late half an hour; and four-pence, if we're late a whole hour. And I then at Christmas - that's nice, that is! - if we've never been late at all, they give us ten shillings!"
    There was no cessation of work, it must be told, for this moment of talk, dating from the time the new tobacco had been carried up, and shot out upon the table. The boy who had moulded made a little change then, silently, by some well-understood and well-tested plan. He became the weigher; whilst the weigher, vice versa, took up the mould. It was because the new tobacco was "thirty-twos" - as the boys discovered with a grimace, though they admitted they were paid for it at the rate of sixpence a hundred pounds extra. "Thirty-twos" required six hundred and forty packets to a hundred pounds instead of three hundred and twenty, with a smaller weight, smaller paper, and a smaller mould; and as the boy who had previously been at the scales was a mere mite of a little fellow, his smaller fingers had been found to be the most expeditious at the smaller mould-work, and there were he and his bigger companion shuffled, and he working away vigorously at the roll and tuck and tap. Other changes take place in the work from time to time. When the tobacco is "eights" or "quarters," a funnel, greased up to fitting slipperiness, is required to set it into the papers properly; and then, with these larger packets and larger moulds, no boy's tap is enough to fix in the tucked roll-ends firmly, but a stick has to be pressed in upon them hard, by help of the young workman's chest. These varieties, though, only come in healthfully to break the monotony of a long course of tobacco-packets all of one weight; taken, also, in turns always by the pairs of boys, fairly, that no undue advantage or disadvantage may accrue to any one of them. They interfere in no other way with the ordinary routine of the labour of weighing and moulding, which may be left now as having been thoroughly described.
    A young workman's day, however, is not made up all of work. Enquiries might be put as to the major break in it.
    "Oh yes," ran out the answer, "we have our hour for dinner, just the same as all the rest. It's at one o'clock; from one to two. And then "- after a sly stop, whilst a sly smile shot from his own face to the faces of the boys near to him - "if we have a fancy for it, we run into a lane just by, where there's a soup shop, and we buy ourselves some soup!"
    Some roguery was meant, clearly; and it was probed into. "So! Soup, is it? And is it soup always?"
    "No!" with the smile bolder now. "It isn't every day ! Sometimes it's sweets!"
    Early Workers at tobacco, earning from twelve shillings to fourteen shillings a week, had no very unpleasant lives, assuredly.
    "Well! Go on! What is it on other days?"
    "Well, on most days, you see, we go downstairs to the stoker's fire, and we cook our own dinners. We put a penny each, or so, and we bought a frying-pan and other things, and we can cook a bit of steak, or a bit of bacon, and some coffee, nicely. We fry sausages, often and often. But we mustn't have any sort of fish, ever; nor yet onions; because they smell so, and their smell would get into the tobacco, and taint it. And, you know, we can have just what we like. There's nobody to tell us. Out of our wages, we all give our mothers so much; I get twelve shillings, I do, and I have to give mother seven; and then the rest is our own, to spend exactly as we please."
    "Very nice, no doubt. And your half- holidays, on Saturdays? What do you do then?"
    There was quite a little chorus of explanation; quite a whole row of holiday-enjoying eyes. Some went blackberrying, whilst the summer lasted - only that "Lively" there (amidst "Lively's" grins) always cat all his blackberries as he picked them, never brought one home - some went in steamboats up and down the river. As to where the blackberrying could be done, the boys were fall of precise and very happy memory. They went by the near Eastern Railway to Epping Forest; a few halfpence took them there; and if any argument be wanted to strengthen the entreaties that this forest should remain a forest, and suffer no cultivation or encroachment, does not this fact yield it? Then, as to what the young workmen did when there was no summer weather, nothing but London rain, London mud, London fog, there was again plenty of evidence forthcoming. One of them kept white mice, with the pastime of setting some to swim in tubs, by which they caught cold and died; one of them kept pigeons, with the diversion of pigeon-matches, except when the fogs dimmed all native faculties and obliterated all artificial training; another of them kept frogs and lizards, preferring to call the last crocodiles, for the reason that - he did prefer to call them crocodiles, and had evidently so much extra pleasure from the translation, coming, as it did, from that ever-precious gift, a child's imagination, he could not afford to do without it. The whole was healthy, boyish, natural; the whole lost nothing of its tone by the confession of one of the little men that he had a good bowl of his hoop, of early winter mornings (about seven o'clock), up and down Fetter-lane, to give himself a warming, before marching off to his work.
    Of tobacco-manufacture there is no need in this connection to speak. It is singular, though, to run over a few of the names appertaining to it. These are: rough-cut returns; bogie roll; golden bar; fine ladies' twist (used especially for chewing!) nail rod; negrohead; lugs; faded; just my sort; comme il faut ; pour les amateurs. It is equally singular to read, in confidential reports to dealers, that Latakia imports are tumbling in; that Algerine comes, but no one takes it away; that Java is arriving much too freely, being, moreover, so mouldy as to give warning of its going funky later on; that, above all, black-greased hogsheads are much less plentiful, and the Americans may be assured that though greased hogs-heads now and then pick up a fiat, for every hogshead sold there are ten spoilt, since the Americans spoil their fine growth at one end by baking up the wretched yellow stuff, and at the other by blacking hogsheads with grease. 
    Reverting, finally, to the children employed in some tobacco factories, it shall be notified that when these are girls (reaching up, too, nearly to young women), they are found pilfering bits of the goods entrusted to them, not for the purpose of putting them in their pipes, but in their chignons; fair girls choosing a "light twist," dark girls taking the sort called "dark roll." It shall be notified also, that much evasion is practised by children (and their parents) in order to get into harness before the - stipulated age of thirteen. At the gates of a provincial factory the following colloquy took place, that may be taken as a fair illustration:
    "How old are you?"
    "Can't tell, sir. I'll bring my mother."
    " Well," when the woman appeared, "how old is he?"
    "Can't tell, sir. I'll bring his father! He'll know it to a minute!" 
    And even when age has been settled, leaving some short medical questioning to be got through in an inner office, there is  an opening for similar evasion.
    "Have I passed you before?" says the inspector - the factory being in the country, it must be recollected, and the sense of "passed" technical.
    "Yes, sir." 
    "Oh! At Blank's?"
    "No, sir."
    "Then where?" 
    "On the moor!"

All The Year Round, 1877