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Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Morning Chronicle : Labour and Poor, 1849-50; Henry Mayhew - Letter II

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Tuesday, October 23, 1849

    IN MY first letter I stated that I purposed considering the whole of the metropolitan poor under three distinct phases - according as they will work, as they can't work, and as they won't work. The causes of poverty among such as are willing to work, appeared to me to be two. 1. The workman might receive for his labour less than sufficient to satisfy his wants. 2. He might receive a sufficiency, and yet be in want, either from having to pay an exhorbitant price for the commodities he requires in exchange for his wages, or else from a deficiency of economy and prudence in the regulation of his desires by his means and chances of subsistence. Or, to say the same thing in a more concise manner - the privations of the industrious classes admit of being referred either to (1) low wages, (2) high prices, or (3) improvident habits.
    In opening the subject which has been entrusted to me, and setting forth the plan I purpose pursuing, so as to methodize, and consequently simplify, the investigation of it, I stated it to be my intention to devote myself primarily to the consideration of that class of poor whose privations seemed to be due to the insufficiency of their wages. In accordance with this object, I directed my steps first towards Bethnal-green, with the view of inquiring into the rate of wages received by the Spitalfields weavers. My motive for making this selection was, principally, because the manufacture of silk is one of the few arts that continue localized - that is, restricted to a particular quarter - in London. The tanners of Bermondsey - the watchmakers of Clerkenwell - the coachmakers of Long-acre - the marine-store dealers of Saffron-hill - the old clothes-men of Holywell-street and Rosemary-lane - the potters of Lambeth - the hatters of the Borough - are among the few handicrafts and trades that, as in the bazaars of the East are confined to particular parts of the town. Moreover, the weavers of Spitalfields have always been notorious for their privations, and being all grouped together within a comparatively small space, they could be more easily visited, and a greater mass of information obtained in a less space of time, than in the case of any other ill-paid metropolitan handicraft with which I am acquainted. In my inquiry I have sought to obtain information from the artizans of Spitalfields upon two points in particular. I was desirous to ascertain from the workmen themselves, not only the average rate of wages received by them, but also to hear their opinions as to the cause of the depreciation in the value of their labour. The result of my inquiries on these two points I purpose setting forth in my present communication; but, before entering upon the subject, I wish the reader distinctly to understand that the sentiments here recorded are those wholly and solely of the weavers themselves. My vocation is to collect facts, and to register opinions. I have undertaken the subject with a rigid determination neither to be biased nor prejudiced by my own individual notions, whatever they may be, upon the matter. I know that as in science the love of theorising warps the mind, and causes it to see only those natural phenomena that it wishes to see - so in politics, party-feeling is the coloured spectacles through which too many invariably look at the social events of this and other countries. The truth will be given in stark nakedness. Indeed, hardly a line will be written but what a note of the matter recorded has been taken upon the spot, so that, no matter how startling or incredible the circumstances may seem, the reader may rest assured that it is his experience rather than the reporter's veracity that is at fault.
    With this preamble let me now seek to set before the reader the peculiar characteristics, first, of the district to which the Spitalfields weaver is indigenous, and, secondly, of the art he follows. "Owing to the vastness of London," says Mr. Martin, in one of his Sanitary Reports  - "owing to the moral gulf which there separates the various classes of its inhabitants, its several quarters may be designated as assemblages of towns rather than as one city; and so it is, in a social sense and on a smaller scale, in other towns: the rich know nothing of the poor - the mass of misery that festers beneath the affluence of London and of the great towns is not known to their wealthy occupants."
    The term Spitalfields, at an early period of the history of London designated the suburban fields situate between the ancient highway of Bishopsgate-street and the Whitechapel High-street. In the year 1197 one Walter Brune, a citizen of London, founded in these fields a large hospital for poor brethren of the order of St. Austin; hence the surrounding meadows were called Hospital-fields, and ultimately Spitalfields. Of the district of Spitalfields, the weaving population for a long period was chiefly confined to Christchurch, but it has emigrated principally to the parish of Bethnal-green. This was formerly one of the hamlets of the ancient manor of Stebon Heath, now called Stepney. In 1740, according to the act of Parliament for making it a distinct parish, and erecting a parish church, the hamlet contained 1,800 houses, and 15,000 people, being upon an average rather more than eight persons to each house. Its extent at that period is not stated. Now, however, it occupies an area of nearly one square mile-and-a-half, and constitutes a little more than a tenth part of the metropolis. The population in 1841 was 74,088, and the number of inhabited houses 11,782, being in the proportion of rather more than six individuals to each house, and nearly 17 houses to each acre. The average number of individuals per house throughout London is 7.4, and the average number of houses per acre is 5.5; so that we see, though each particular house contains one individual less, still each acre of ground has 12 houses more built upon it than is usual throughout London. From this we should naturally infer that the generality of tenements in this district would be of a small and low-rented character; and accordingly we find, from the returns of Mr. Bestow and the other parish officers, in 1839, that the number of houses rated under 20 was about 11,200, out of 11,700 and odd. Hence we see the truth of the remark that there is no parish in or about London where there is such a mass of low-rented houses. "The houses of the weavers," says Dr. Gavin in his valuable 'Sanitary Rambling,' generally consist of two rooms on the ground floor and a work-room above. This work-room always has a large window for the admission of light during their long hours of sedentary labour. Whole streets of such houses abound in Bethnal-green, and a great part of the population is made up of weavers. There are some, but not a great number of dwellings consisting of one room only. Such houses are always of the worst description. With very few exceptions, the dwellings of the poor are destitute of most of those structural conveniences common to the better class of houses. There are never any places set aside for receiving coals; dustbins to hold the refuse of the houses are exceedingly rare, and cupboards or closets are nearly altogether unknown. There are never any sinks, and the fireplaces are constructed without the slightest regard to the convenience or comfort of the inmates." The history of weaving in Spitalfields is interesting, and tends to elucidate several of the habits existing to this day among the class. Upon the revocation of the edict of Nantes in 1685, numerous French artizans left their native country, and took refuge in the neighbouring states. King James II encouraged these settlers, and William III published a proclamation, dated April 25, 1689, for encouraging the French Protestants to transport themselves into this kingdom, promising them his royal protection, and to render their living here comfortable and easy to them. For a considerable time the population of Spitalfields might be considered as exclusively French; that language was universally spoken, and even within the memory of persons now living, their religious rites were performed in French, in chapels erected for that purpose. The weavers were, formerly, almost the only botanists in the metropolis, and their love of flowers to this day is a strongly marked characteristic of the class. Some years back, we are told, they passed their leisure hours, and generally the whole family dined on Sundays, at the little gardens in the environs of London, now mostly built upon. Not very long ago there was an Entomological Society, and they were among the most diligent entomologists in the kingdom. This taste, though far less general than formerly, still continues to be a type of the class. There was at one time a Floricultural Society, an Historical Society, and a Mathematical Society, all maintained by the operative silk-weavers; and the celebrated Dollond, the inventor of the achromatic telescope, was a weaver; so too were Simpson and Edwards, the mathematicians, before they were taken from the loom into the employ of Government, to teach mathematics to the cadets at Woolwich and Chatham. Such were the Spitalfields weavers at the beginning of the present century; possessing tastes and following pursuits the refinement and intelligence of which would be an honour and a grace to the artizan even of the present day, but which shone out with a double lustre at a time when the amusements of society were almost all of a gross and brutalizing kind. The weaver of our own time, however, though still far above the ordinary artizan, both in refinement and intellect, falls far short of the weaver of former years.
    Of the importance of the silk trade, as a branch of manufacture, to the country, we may obtain some idea from the estimate of the total value of the produce, drawn up by Mr. M'Culloch, with great care, as he tells us, from the statements of intelligent practical men, in all parts of the country, conversant with the trade, and well able to form an opinion upon it. The total amount of wages paid in the year 1836 (since when, he says, the circumstances have changed but little) was upwards of 370,000; the total number of hands employed, 200,000; the interest on capital, wear, tear, profit, etc., 2,600,000; and the estimated total value of the silk manufacture of Great Britain, 10,480,000. Now, according to the census of the weavers of the Spitalfields district, taken at the time of the Government inquiry in 1838, and which appears to be considered by the weavers themselves of a generally accurate character, the number of looms at work was 9,302, and those unemployed, 894. But every two of the looms employed would occupy five hands; so that the total number of hands engaged in the silk manufacture in Spitalfields, in 1838, must have been more than double that number - say 20,000. This would show about one-tenth of the silk goods that were produced in Great Britain in that year to have been manufactured in Spitalfields, and hence the total value of the produce of that district must have been upwards of one million of money, and the amount paid in wages about 370,000. Now, from inquiries made among the operatives, I find that there has been a depreciation in the value of their labour of from 15 to 20 per cent since the year 1839; so that, according to the above calculation, the total amount of wages now paid to the weavers is 60,000 less than what it was 10 years back. By the preceding estimate it will be seen that the average amount of wages in the trade would have been in 1839 about 7s. a week per hand, and that now the wages would be about Ss. 6d. for each of the parties employed. This appears to agree with a printed statement put forward by the men themselves, wherein it is affirmed that "the average weekly earnings of the operative silk weaver in 1824, under the act then repealed, taking the whole body of operatives employed, partially employed, and unemployed, was l4s. 6d. Deprived of legislative protection," they say, "there is now no means of readily ascertaining the average weekly earnings of the whole body of the employed and unemployed operative silk weavers; but, according to the best approximation to an average which can be made in Spitalfields, the average of the weekly earnings of the operative silk weaver is now, taking the unemployed and the partially employed, with the employed of those remaining attached to the occupation of weaver, only 4s. 9d. But this weekly average would be much less if it included those who have gone to other trades, or who have become perpetual paupers. Hence it would appear that the estimate before given of 5s. 6d. for the weekly average wages of the employed is not very far from the truth. It may therefore be safely asserted that the operative silk weavers, as a body, obtain 50,000 worth less of food, clothing, and comfort per annum now than in the year 1839.
    Now let us see what was the state of the weaver in that year, as detailed by the Government report, so that we may be the better able to comprehend what his state must be at present. "Mr. Thomas Heath, of No. 8 Pedley-street," says the Blue Book of 1839, "has been represented by many persons as one of the most skilful workmen in Spitalfields. He handed in about 40 samples of figured silk done by him, and they appear exceedingly beautiful. This weaver also gave a minute and detailed account of all his earnings for 430 weeks, being upwards of eight years, with the names of the manufacture and the fabrics at which he worked. The sum of the gross earnings for 430 weeks is 322 3s. 4d.; being about 14s. 11 d. - say 15s. a week. He estimates his expenses (for quill-winding, picking, etc.) at 4s., which would leave 1ls. net wages; but take the expenses at 3s. 6d., it is still only 1ls. 6d. He states his wife's earnings at about 3s. a week. He gives the following remarkable evidence: - Have you any children? No; I had two, but they are both dead, thanks be to God! Do you express satisfaction at the death of your children? I do! I thank God for it. I am relieved from the burden of maintaining them, and they, poor dear creatures, are relieved from the troubles of this mortal life. If this, then, was the condition and feeling of one of the most skilful workmen, 10 years ago, earning 1ls. 6d. a week, and when it was proved in evidence by Mr. Cole that 8s. 6d. per week was the average net earnings of 20 plain weavers - what must be the condition and feeling of the weaver now that wages have fallen from 15 to 20 per cent. since that period?
    I will now proceed to give the result of my inquiries into the subject; though, before doing so, it will be as well to make the reader acquainted with the precautions adopted to arrive at a fair and unbiased estimate as to the feelings and condition of the workmen in the trade. In the first place, having put myself in communication with the surgeon of the district, and one of the principal and most intelligent of the operatives, it was agreed among us that we should go into a particular street, and visit the first six weavers' houses that we came to. Accordingly we made the best of our way to the nearest street. The houses were far above the average abodes of the weavers, the street being wide and airy, and the houses open at the back, with gardens filled with many-coloured dahlias. The "long lights" at top, as the attic window stretching the whole length of the house is technically called, showed that almost the whole line of houses were occupied by weavers. As we entered the street, a coal cart, with a chime of bells above the horse's collar, went jingling past us. Another circumstance peculiar to the place was the absence of children. In such a street, had the labour of the young been less valuable, the gutters and doorsteps would have swarmed with juveniles. We knocked at the door of the first house, and, requesting permission to speak with the workman on the subject of his trade, were all three ushered up a steep staircase, and through a trap in the floor into the "shop." This was a long, narrow apartment, with a window back and front, extending the entire length of the house - running from one end of the room to the other The man was the ideal of his class - a short spare figure, with ~ thin face and sunken cheeks. In the room were three looms and some spinning wheels, at one of which sat a boy winding "quills." Working at a loom was a plump, pleasant-looking girl, busy making "plain goods." Along the windows, on each side, were ranged small pots of fuchsias, with their long scarlet drops swinging gently backwards and forwards, as the room shook with the clatter of the looms. The man was a velvet weaver. He was making a drab velvet for coat collars. We sat down on a wooden chair beside him, and talked as he worked. He told us he was to have 3s. 6d. per yard for the fabric he was engaged upon, and that he could make about half a-yard a day. They were six in family, he said, and he had three looms at work. He got from 20s. to 25s. for the labour of five of them, and that only when they all are employed. But one loom is generally out of work waiting for fresh "cane." Up to 1824, the price for the same work as he is now doing was 6s. The reduction' he was convinced, arose from the competition in the trade, and one master cutting under the other. "The workmen are obliged to take the low prices, because they have not the means to hold out, and they knew that if they don't take the work others will. There are always plenty of weavers unemployed, and the cause of that is owing to the lowness of prices, and the people being compelled to do double the quantity of work that they used to do, in order to live. I have made a stand against the lowness of prices, and have lost my work through refusing to take the price. Circumstances compel us to take it at last. The cupboard gets low, and the land lord comes for his weekly rent. The masters are all trying to undersell one another. They never will advance wages. Go get my neighbour to do it, each says, and then I'll advance. It's been a continuation of reduction for the last 26 years, and a continuation of suffering for just as long. Never a month passes but what you hear of something being lowered. Manufacturers may be divided into two classes - those who care for their men's comforts and welfare, and those who care for none but themselves. In the of reduction certain houses take the lead, taking advantage of the least depression to offer the workmen less wages. It's useless talking about French goods. Why, we've driven the French out of the market in umbrellas and parasols - but the people are a-starving while they're a-driving of 'em out. A little time back he'd had only one loom at work for eight persons, and lived by making away with his clothes. Labour is so low he can't afford to send his children to school. He only sends them of a Sunday - can't afford it of a work-a-day.
    At the next house the man took rather a more gloomy view of his calling. He was at work at brown silk for umbrellas. His wife worked when she was able, but she was nursing a sick child. He had made the same work he was then engaged upon at ls. a yard not six months ago. He was to have l0d. for it, and he didn't know that there might not be another penny taken off next time. Weavers were all a-getting poorer, and masters all a-getting country houses. His master had been a-losing terrible, he said, and yet he'd just taken a country mansion. They only give you work just to oblige you as an act of charity, and not to do themselves any good - oh no! Works 15 hours, and often more. When he knocks off at 10 at night, leaves lights up all around him - many go on till 11. All he knows is, he can't. They are possessed of greater strength than he is, he imagines. In the dead of night he can always see one light somewhere - some man "on the finish." Wakes at five, and then he can hear the looms going. Low prices arise entirely from competition among the masters. The umbrella silk he was making would most likely be charged a guinea; what would sixpence extra on that be to the purchaser, and yet that extra sixpence would be three or four shillings per week to him, and go a long way towards the rent? Isn't able to tell exactly what is the cause of the depression - "I only know I suffers from it - aye, that I do! I do! and have severely for some time," said the man, striking the silk before him with his clenched fist. "The man that used to make this here is dead and buried; he died of the cholera. I went to see him buried. He had 11d. for what I get l0d. What it will be next God only knows, and I'm sure I don't care - it can't be much worse. "Mary," said he, to his wife, as she sat blowing the fire with the dying infant on her lap, "how much leg of beef do we use? -4 lb., ain't it, in the week, and 3 lb. of flank on Sunday - lucky to get that, too, eh? - and that's among half a dozen of us. Now, I should like a piece of roast beef, with the potatoes done under it, but I shall never taste that again. And yet, said he, with a savage chuckle, "that there sixpence on this umbrella would just do it. But what's that to people? What's it to them if we starve? - and there is many at that game just now, I can tell you. If we could depend upon a constancy of work, and get a good price, why we should be happy men; but I'm sure I don't know whether I shall get any more work when my cane's' out. My children I'm quite disheartened about. They must turn out in the world somewhere, but where Heaven only knows. I often bother myself over that - more than my father bothered himself over me. What's to become of us all? What's to become of us all - nine thousand of us here - besides wives and children - I can't say."
    These two specimens will give the reader a conception of the feelings and state of the rest of the weavers in the same street. In all there was the same want of hope - the same doggedness and half-indifference as to their fate. All agreed in referring their misery to the spirit of competition on the part of the masters, the same desire to "cut under." They all spoke most bitterly of one manufacturer, in particular, and attributed to him the ruin of the trade. One weaver said he was anxious to get to America, and not stop "in this infernal country," for he could see the object of the Government was the starvation of the labouring classes. "If you was to come round here of a Sunday," said he, addressing himself to us, "you'd hear the looms going all about; they're obligated to do it or starve. There's no rest for us now. Formerly I lived in a house worth 40 a year, and now I'm obliged to put up with this damnable dog-hole. every year bad is getting worse in our trade, and in others as well. What's life to me? Labour - labour - labour - and for what? Why for less and less food every month. Ah, but the people can't bear it much longer: flesh, and blood, and bones must rise against it before long!"
    Having, then, seen and heard the opinions of six of the operatives taken promiscuously, I was desirous of being placed in a position to see different classes of the same trade. I wished to be placed in communication with some of the workmen who were known to entertain violent political opinions. I was anxious also to be allowed to see weavers who were characterised by the possession of such tastes as formerly distinguished the class. Unfortunately, however, though I was kindly taken to the houses of two or three individuals of known scientific tastes and acquirements, the parties were all absent from their homes. I was conducted, however, in the evening, to a tavern, where several of the weavers who advocated the principles of the People's Charter were in the habit of assembling. I found the room half full, and immediately proceeded to explain to them the object of my visit, telling them that I intended to make notes of whatever they might communicate to me, with a view to publication in The Morning Chronicle. After a short consultation among themselves, they told me that, in their opinion, the primary cause of the depression of the prices among the weavers was the want of the suffrage. "We consider that labour is unrepresented in the House of Commons, and being unrepresented, that the capitalist and the landlord have it all their own way. Prices have gone down among the weavers since 1824 more than one-half. The hours of labour have decidedly increased among us, so that we may live. The weavers now generally work one-third longer than formerly, and for much less. "I know two instances," said one person, "where the weavers have to work from 10 in the morning till 12 at night, and then they only get meat once a week. The average time for labour before 1824 was 10 hours a day; now it is 14. In 1824 there were about 14,000 hands employed, getting at an average 14s. 6d. a week; and now there are 9,000 hands employed, getting at an average only 4s. 9d. a week, at increased hours of labour. This depreciation we attribute, not to any decrease in the demand for silk goods, but to foreign and home competition. We believe that the foreign competition brings us into competition with the foreign workman; and it is impossible for us to compete with him at the present rate of English taxation. As regards home competition, we are of opinion that, from the continued desire on the part of each trade to undersell the other, the workman has ultimately to suffer. We think there is a desire on the part of every manufacturer to undersell the other, and so get an extra amount of trade into his own hands, and make a large and rapid fortune thereby. The public, we are satisfied, do not derive any benefit from this extreme competition. It is only a few individuals, who are termed by the trade slaughterhouse-men - they alone derive benefit from the system, and the public gain no advantage whatever by the depreciation in our rate of wages. It is our firm conviction that if affairs continue as at present, the fate of the working man must be pauperism, crime, or death.
    It was now growing late, and as I was anxious to see some case of destitution in the trade, which might be taken as a fair average of the state of the second or third-rate workman, I requested my guide, before I quitted the district, to conduct me to some such individual, if it were not too late. He took me towards Shoreditch, and on reaching a narrow back street he stood opposite a three-storied house to see whether there was still a light shining through the long window in the attic. By the flickering shadows the lamp seemed to be dying out. He thought, however, that we might venture to knock. We did so, and in the silent street the noise echoed from house to house. But no one came. We knocked again still louder. A third time, and louder still, we clattered at the door. A voice from the cellar demanded to know whom we wanted. He told us to lift the latch of the street door. We did so - and it opened. The passage looked almost solid in the darkness. My guide groped his way by the wall to the staircase, bidding me follow him. I did so, and reached the stairs. "Keep away from the banisters," said my companion, "as they are rather rotten and might give way." I clung close to the wall, and we groped our way to the second floor, where a light shone through the closed door in a long luminous line. At last we gained the top room, and knocking, were told to enter. "Oh, Billy, is that you?" said an old man sitting up, and looking out from between the curtains of a turn-up bedstead. "Here, Tilly," he continued to a girl who was still dressed, "get another lamp, and hang it up again the loom, and give the gentleman a chair." A backless seat was placed at the foot of the old weaver's bedstead; and when the fresh lamp was lighted, I never beheld so strange a scene. In the room were three large looms. From the head of the old weaver's bed a clothes line ran to a loom opposite, and on it were a few old ragged shirts and petticoats hanging to dry. Under the "porry" of another loom was stretched a second clothes line, and more linen drying. Behind me on the floor was spread a bed, on which lay four boys, two with their heads in one direction and two in another, for the more convenient stowage of the number. They were covered with old sacks and coats. Beside the bed of the old man was a mattress on the ground without any covering, and the tick positively chocolate-coloured with dirt. "Oh, Billy, I am so glad to see you," said the old weaver to my companion; "I've been dreadful bad, nearly dead with the cholera. I was took dreadful about one o'clock in the morning; just the time the good'ooman down below were taken. What agony I suffered to be sure! I hope to God you may never have it. I've known 400 die about here in 14 days. I couldn't work! Oh, no! It took all the use of my strength from me, as if I'd been on a sick bed for months. And how I lived I can't tell. To tell you the real truth, I wanted, such as I never ought to want - why, I wanted for common necessaries. I got round as well as I could; but how I did it I don't know - God knows; I don't, that's true enough. I hadn't got any money to buy anything. Why, there's seven on us, here - yes, seven on us - all dependent on the weaving here - nothing else. What was four shillings a yard is paid one-and-nine now, so I leaves you to judge, sir - ain't it Billy? My work stopped for seven days, and I was laming my boy, so his stopped too, and we had nothing to live upon. God knows how we lived. I pawned my things - and shall never get em again - to buy some bread, tea, and sugar, for my young ones there. Oh! its like a famine in these parts, just now, among the people, now they're getting well. It's no use talking about the parish; you might as well talk to a wall. There was hardly anybody well just round about here from the back of Shoreditch Church - you may say - to Swan-street. The prices of weaving is so low, that we're ashamed to say what it is, because it's the means of pulling down other poor men's wages and other trades. Why, to tell you the truth, you must need suppose that 1s. 9d. a yard ain't much, and some of the masters is so cruel, that they gives no more than 1s. 3d. - that's it. But it's the competitive system; that's what the Government ought to put a stop to. I knows persons who makes the same work as mine - scores on 'em - at 1s. 3d. a yard. Wretched is their condition! The people is a-being brought to that state of destitution, that many say it's a blessing from the Almighty that takes 'em from the world. They lose all love of country - yes, and all hopes; and they prays to be tortured no longer. Why, want is common to a 100 of families close here tomorrow morning; and this it is to have cheap silks. I should like to ask a question here, as I sees you a-writing, sir. When is the people of England to see that there big loaf they was promised - that's it - the people wants to know when they're to have it. I am sure if the ladies who wears what we makes, or the Queen of England was to see our state, she'd never let her subjects suffer such privations in a land of plenty. Yes, I was comfortable in '24. I kept a good little house, and I thought as my young ones growed up - why I thought as I should be comfortable in my old age, and stead of that, I've got no wages. I could live by my labour then; but now, why it's wretched in the extreme. Then I'd a nice little garden, and some nice tulips for my hobby, when my work was done. There they lay, up in my old hat now. As for animal food, why it's a stranger to us. Once a week, may be, we gets a taste of it, but that's a hard struggle, and many a family don't have it once a month - a jint we never sees. Oh! it's too bad! There's seven on us here in this room - but it's a very large room to some weavers' - theirs ain't about half the size of this here. The weavers is in general five or six all living and working in the same room. There's four on us here in this bed, one head to foot - one at our back along the bolster; and me and my wife side by side. And there's four on on em over there. My brother Tom makes up the other one. There's a nice state in a Christian land! How many do you think lives in this house! Why twenty-three living souls. Oh, ain't it too bad! But the people is frightened to say how bad they're off, for fear of their masters and losing their work, so they keeps it to themselves - poor creatures. But, oh, there's many wuss than me. Many's gone to the docks, and some turned costermongers. But none goes a stealing nor a sojering that I hears on. They goes out to get a loaf of bread - oh, it's a shocking scene! I can't say what I thinks about the young'uns. Why you loses your nat'ral affection for 'em. The people in general is ashamed to say how they thinks on their children. It's wretched in the extreme to see one's children, and not be able to do to 'em as a parent ought; and I'll say this here after all you've heard me state - that the Government of my native land ought to interpose their powerful arm to put a stop to such things. Unless they do, civil society with us is all at an end. Everybody is becoming brutal - unnatural. Billy, just turn up that shell now, and let the gentleman see what beautiful fabrics we're in the habit of producing - and then he shall say whether we ought to be in the filthy state we are. Just show the light, Tilly! That's for ladies to wear and adorn them, and make them handsome. [It was an exquisite piece of maroon-coloured velvet, that, amidst all the squalor of the place, seemed marvellously beautiful, and it was a wonder to see it unsoiled amid all the filth that surrounded it.] "I say, just turn it up, Billy, and show the gentleman the back. That's cotton partly, you see, sir, just for the manufacturers to cheat the public, and get a cheap article, and have all the gold out of the poor working creatures they can, and don't care nothing about them. But death, Billy - death gets all the gold out of them. They're playing a deep game, but death wins after all. Oh, when this here's made known, won't the manufacturers be in a way to find the public aware on their tricks. They've lowered the wages so low, that one would hardly believe the people would take the work. But what's one to do? - the children can't quite starve. Oh no! -oh no!"


see also beginning of Mayhew's Letter III - click here

see also George Godwin in London Shadows (1) (2)

see also Districts - Bethnal Green


    ... This term [Spitalfields] properly applies only to the parish so designated, but it is popularly used, in an enlarged acceptation, to denote that large district in the northeast of London, bounded by the Hackney Road, the Regent's Canal, Mile-end and Whitechapel Roads, Aldgate, Houndsditch, and Bishopsgate Street. Within this irregularly-shaped region, nearly the entire body of the silk-weavers reside. Considerable sections of Stepney, Bethnal Green, Shoreditch, Whitechapel, and Mile-end New Town, are embraced within these factitious boundaries. Until within comparatively modern times, the larger portion of the site now so compactly built upon, and prematurely wearing such an air of dilapidated antiquity, consisted of open fields covered with grassy sward.  ...
    The modern silk-weaving district wears an aspect unique and peculiar to itself. There is a singularity and a general structural uniformity about the buildings quite characteristic of the region. The passing stranger, in traversing its crowded, dingy, and sinuous streets will be struck with the appearance of the wide lattice-like windows that run across almost the entire frontage of the upper stories of the houses. These lights' serve to distinguish them as the domestic factories in which the monotonous operations of the Spitalfields weavers are carried on, and which are absolutely necessary in order to throw a strong light upon every part of the looms, that are usually ranged directly under them. Many of the roofs of the houses, also, exhibit a variety of odd and ingenious contrivances, scarcely to be discovered in any other part of London. These consist sometimes of a singular species of bird-trap, and at others, of a curious specimen of mechanism, resembling a pigeon- house, and which appears to be used as a large cage. These strange architectural excrescences, however, are rapidly disappearing-the weavers having now no leisure for any such superfluous recreative occupations. Not many years ago, they had the reputation of being the most famous bird-catchers within the limits of the metropolis. They were wont, in a great measure, to supply the home market with such British song-birds as linnets, woodlarks, goldflnches, chaffinches, and greenfinches. Many dwellings may even now be seen in some of the more secluded streets that have been converted into aviaries, all alive with the flutterings and chirpings of multitudes of these caged creatures. The birdsnaring operations used to be extensively carried on in the fields encompassing the northern suburbs, and principally in the months of March and October, by means of an apparatus totally unknown elsewhere. Call-birds' have been trained by them with great skill, and the whole of their proceedings have been conducted with great originality. There is even now a remarkable rivalry existing between some of the weavers, manifested by the heavy wagers they will frequently lay, as to which of their 'call-birds' will sing or jerk the longest-an exploit that is regarded as the test of superiority. The mode of  testing the claims of the feathered competitors consists in placing them opposite to each other beside an inch of candle, and the bird that jerks the oftenest before the candle is consumed is deemed entitled to the wager. Birds have sometimes given 170 jerks in a quarter of an hour; and a linnet, during such a trial, has been known to persevere in its emulation till it swooned from the perch.
    The abodes of the Spitalfields weavers will be observed to be chiefly of three classes-such classes only exhibiting different gradations in wretchedness. The domiciles tenanted by the better kind of operatives consist of three rooms, two on the basement and one long apartment above, which is entirely filled with looms, and appropriated to work, and, with the view of economising space, is generally entered by a trap-door in the floor. Where such dwellings are occupied by only one family, the decencies and comforts of domestic life may be to some extent cultivated and enjoyed; but they are too generally shared by two or more families. A second description of house consists of a narrow building, with three or four stories, all reached by one door and one dark winding staircase-each story comprising only one room the entire width of the building, and each room constituting the miserable haunt of a separate household, sometimes with lodgers in addition, in which cooking, eating, working, sleeping, washing and drying of linen, and every other function of domestic life, are of necessity performed. The remaining class of hovels are of the very meanest character, and possess only one room; but these, happily, are not numerous. 'With very few exceptions,' says Dr. Gavin, in his Sanitary Ramblings,' the dwellings of the poor weavers are destitute of most of those structural conveniences common to the better classes of houses. There are never any places set aside for receiving coals; dust-bins to hold the refuse of the houses are exceedingly rare, and cup- boards or closets are nearly altogether unknown. There are never any sinks, and the fireplaces are constructed without the slightest regard to the convenience or comfort of the inmates.' The terrible sum of domestic wretchedness, and life-and-health- destroying influences, sheltered in this bricken wilderness,' may be guessed from a view of the unparalleled denseness with which the conscripts of in- door toil are packed together. The inhabitants bear a proportion of rather more than six individuals to each house, with nearly seventeen houses to each acre. The average number of individuals per house throughout London is 7.4, and the average number of houses per acre is 5.5; so that, though each particular house contains one person less, still each acre of ground has twelve houses more built upon it than is usual throughout London.' It is inevitable inference from these facts, that the majority of tenements in this part of the metropolis must be mean, comparatively low-rented, and incommodious. So far is this their almost universal character, that, according to the returns of the parochial officers in 1839, the number of houses rated under 20l. was about 11,200 out of 11,782.
    There is considerable difficulty in arriving at, an accurate estimate of the population comprised within the boundaries assigned to the Spitalflelds district, and the proportion that the weavers bear to the aggregate number. A recent authority gives the total at 80,000. A reference to the population returns of 1851, however, exhibits the inhabitants of Bethnal Green alone at 90,193. Now, as this vast parish is principally embraced in the indefinable region denominated Spitalfields, and is peopled to a great extent by the silk operatives, we think the estimate of 80,000 is in rather minimised than exaggerated. This view is further corroborated by the evidence taken before a Committee of the House of Commons on the silk trade in 1831-32, when it was affirmed that the population of the district in which the weavers resided, comprising Spitalfields, Mile-end New Town, and Bethnal Green, could not at that time be less than 100,000, of whom it was supposed that 50,000 at least were entirely dependent on the silk manufacture, and the remaining moiety more or less indirectly so. At the period just referred to, since which time the weaving fraternity have witnessed the most desolating changes in their trade and social condition, the number of looms varied from about 14,000 to 17,000, and of these, about 4000 or 5000 were generally unemployed in times of depression, which, unhappily, were of frequent occurrence. As there were, on an average, children included, about thrice as many operatives as there were looms, it is clear that during the stagnations of trade, there were as many as ten or fifteen thousand persons reduced to a state of non-employment and privation.
    Coming down to a later date (1838), it appears, according to the census of the silk operatives taken at the time of the Governmental Inquiry-and in the substantial correctness of which, the weavers with whom we have spoken acquiesce-that the number of looms was ascertained to be 10,196, of which 9302 were at work, whilst the residue, 894, were idle. Every two looms, it is estimated, employ five hands, including those engaged in warping and winding, as well as weaving; so that the total number of weavers actually employed, taking adults and children, would amount to more than 20,000. In the year 1836, Mr. M'Culloch, as the result of very extended and elaborate researches, estimated the aggregate number of silk-weavers in the country to be 200,000; the amount of wages paid 3,700,000l.; the interest in wear, tear, profits, &c., 2,600,000l.; and the total annual value of the silk manufactures of Great Britain, 10,480,000l. Now, accepting 20,000 as the number of operatives actually employed in that year in Spitalfields, this would show one-tenth of the silk goods manufactured during that period, amounting to a value of more than one million sterling, to have been their production, for which they received about 370,000l. in the shape of wages, being an average of 18l. l0s. per annum, or just over 7s. a week per head. 'Now, from inquiries made among the operatives,' says a correspondent of the Morning Chronicle,' who entered into the subject some years ago, I find that there has been a depreciation in the value of their labour from from 15 to 20 per cent, since the year 1839; so that the total amount of wages now paid to the weavers is 60,000l. less than what it was ten years back. It may, therefore, be safely asserted, that the operative silk-weavers, as a body, obtain 50,000l. worth less of food, clothing, and comfort per annum now than in the year 1839.'
    ... The prospects of the trade at the present time are gloomy enough, nor do we perceive a streak of brightness in the clouded sky. The power-loom, that has effected such mighty revolutions in other departments of manufacture, and entirely displaced whole branches of manual dexterity, seems incapable of more than partial application to the manufacture of silk. Except for the most inferior goods ~t does not possess any decided advantages over the hand- loom, owing to the exceeding delicacy of the material to be worked, and the close attention that must be given to the process of the weft, which render it so frequently necessary to stop the machine, to avert or repair injuries. In reference to hand-loom weaving, Mr. Hickson says, that 'it is not only incapable of improvement, but of remaining in its present state. The best friends of the weavers are those who would advise and assist him to transfer his labour to other channels of industry. If he cling to the hand-loom, his condition will become worse from day to day. A few of the more skilled class of weavers may indeed maintain their position, but the fate of many (unless their intelligence and foresight avert it by change of occupation) is, decreasing employment, dwindling wages, and ultimate destitution.'

The Busy Hives Around Us, 1861