Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894

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DOWN EAST - CHAPTER II

MATCH GIRLS

East End match manufactories —Great improvement since 1880—Wages before the strike—Bryant and May’s—Bell s—The Salvation Army— Phosphorus poisoning, termed “phossy jaw” — Wages since the strike — Matchbox-makers — Their sufferings — “Twopence three ­farthings a gross, because they are big ones“ —Match girls—Their fashions —Early marriages —Their sympathy in time of trouble— Clifden House Institute—Why not a dozen such?

    IT is very difficult to make those who have always lived in a cheerful and comfortable home—and who have never had the opportunity or inclination to contrast their own happiness with the misery of the poorer classes—understand how an empty cupboard, starving children, and a sick wife can make life so hideous as to be almost intolerable; how night can be robbed of the blessing of sleep through the whole family being huddled together in one miserable little room ; and how damp walls and a leaky roof can make the best-tempered person uncomfortable, peevish, and finally ill.
   In these papers on life in the East End I shall place before the reader truthful pictures of some of the places I have visited, and some of the industries I have investigated, in that quarter of London.
   There are six or seven match manufactories in the East End, and they give employment to some thousands of women and girls. Until within a few years ago this industry was associated with a system of slavery of the very worst descrip­tion; but I am happy to say that since the great strike at Bryant and May’s in 188o, matters have considerably improved.
   This firm, or, rather, company, is the largest of the kind in London, and, in the busy seasons, employs about twelve [-13-] hundred hands. In 1877 the business paid a dividend at the rate of twenty-five per cent., and at that time the hours of work were from six a.m. to six p.m. in the summer, and from eight a.m. to six p.m. in the winter, an hour being allowed for dinner and half an hour for breakfast. The earnings of the great majority of the girls were from four shillings to eight shillings a week. Strict discipline was maintained, and penal­ties were inflicted for the slightest breach of the regulations. If, for instance, a girl arrived at the factory five minutes behind time, she was frequently shut out for half a day; and for any little act of untidiness, such as omitting to clear away the litter from under the bench, a fine was imposed.
   The business is now much more humanely managed, and the labour of the workers has been considerably lightened by the introduction of improved machinery.
   Next to Bryant and May’s comes Bell’s, where some five hundred girls and women are engaged; and the Salvation Army have a match manufactory which gives employment to about sixty persons. On visiting these establishments, you will find that the women are very contented and cheerful. They work with great rapidity—which is but natural, for they are paid by results. Men are employed in mixing the materials into which the matches are dipped; the girls prepare the wood and make the boxes.
   Speaking generally, the factory hands are a healthy class. One woman who was interviewed had worked continuously in the same establishment for twenty years, and she was as robust as could be wished. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to suppose that phosphorus poisoning is a thing of the past. There is still a terrible amount of the disease, which is termed “phossy jaw.” The first sign of the disorder is toothache, accompanied by swollen cheeks. As soon as these symptoms appear the sufferer has several teeth removed, in order, if possible, to save the entire jaw.
   The factories are fairly well ventilated, and I am bound to say that, to all appearances, the comfort of the girls and women is studied by their employers. I speak, of course, only of those factories which I myself inspected; whether or no there is equal consideration shown in other establishments of the same class I cannot say.
   I have already described what wages were paid before the strike, and I will now explain what wages have been paid since that event. The younger girls, that is to say, the novices [-14-] fresh from school, are allowed, while they are learning their trade, four shillings and sixpence a week standing wages; though I understand that in some the smaller firms they receive no remuneration at all. The ordinary hands now make from seven to ten shillings a week, which is a great advance on former figures.
   I understand that the Salvation Army have a slightly higher scale of payment than the purely business firms, but it must be remembered that they make only one kind of matches, the “safety”; and I was informed by the manager of one of the other establishments that, if his firm had the same demand for those matches as the Salvation Army, they could pay the same rate of wages.
   It should be understood that box-making is a very im­portant branch of the industry, and is largely carried on by the girls and their parents in their own homes. During the few years that I was at Worship Street and Thames Police Courts, many cases of matchbox-makers in distress came before me, and I was consequently enabled to obtain exact information with reference to their earnings. The payment is at the rate of twopence farthing, twopence halfpenny, and twopence three-farthings per gross, the workers finding not only their own paste, but also the twine used for tying up the bundles of boxes.
   Matchbox-makers are to be found in nearly every house— and, indeed, in nearly every room—in all the courts and alleys in the immediate vicinity of Pereira Street. The materials ate generally supplied by middle men, or “sweaters,” whose existence as connecting links between employer and employed it is very hard to justify. The children of the matchbox-makers are set to work with knife and paste the moment they return from the Board School. They have no play, and— Heaven help them !—very little time for rest. At early dawn the “skillets,” as the bundles of wood are called, are brought out, and the whole family is soon at work.
   In order to illustrate the sufferings of these poor creatures, I will give a few particulars of cases which came before me at Worship Street.
   A thin, pale woman with sunken eyes. applied, in a trembling voice, for some slight assistance from ray poor-box. I caused enquiries to be made at the address she gave, and a piteous state of things was at once brought to light. The applicant and her daughter, who were alone in [-15-] the world, had in the past earned a precarious livelihood by making match-boxes; but the young girl had fallen into a decline, and was then on her death-bed, and the poor mother, prostrated by anxiety, privation, and ill-health, had found her­self quite unable to toil on single-handed.
   In another case a man was summoned by the School Board for not sending his boy to school. In this case also 1 caused enquiries to be made. The man, it appeared, was a dock labourer, but could only get an occasional day’s work; there were four children, two of whom were under three years of age; and a rental of six and sixpence a week had to be paid for the one room. When the missionary called there, the father was away trying to obtain work, and the mother had gone out to beg or borrow a loaf of bread. One of the children was away at school, the other three were at home crying with hunger. There was no food in the cupboard, and, though it was bitterly cold, no fire in the grate. The children were very poorly clothed, and one of the boys had nothing on his shivering body save an old vest. The most deplorable object of all, however, was his brother, an imbecile, who was partly paralysed and unable to walk. The poor crippled half-witted lad was endeavouring to help his sister in the manufacture of some large match-boxes. In answer to the missionary, the girl explained: -“ We are paid twopence three farthings a gross for these, because they are big ones.” We subsequently learnt that one person, by working very hard, could make seven gross of this size in a day. That would bring in one and sixpence farthing, after deducting a penny for twine and paste. Before my emissary left both parents returned home, the errand of each having proved a futile one.
   I gave the family such assistance from the poor-box as was in my power, taking care that the money was spent upon food, coal, and a blanket or two. As the man had broken the law by not sending his child to school, and as he had. been previously convicted by another magistrate for the same offence, I could .not tax the poor-box to pay the fine I was compelled to impose. Suffice it to say the money was forth­coming, and I presume justice was satisfied.
   With regard to the match girls who, to use a vulgar expression, are on their own hook—that is to say, who have detached themselves from their families, if they have any—I am bound to confess they are not the very best of girls. But what can be expected, seeing the way in which they are com-[-16-]pelled to live? I am sorry to say that there is a considerable amount of drunkenness among them, though they are not often brought up on that charge before the magistrates pre­siding at the East End Courts. On looking over the statistics of my cases at Worship Street, I find that there were only about half-a-dozen charges of the kind over a period of several months.
   I only remember one occasion on which match girls were brought before me on a charge of theft. Two sisters, while very much the wore for liquor, had stolen three glass tumblers from the Paragon Music Hall. They were very young, and as it was their first offence, I was able to take a lenient view of the case and discharge them.
   Every now and then one of these girls is charged with disorderly conduct, and I am bound to admit that their ideas of law and order are very lax; but how can you wonder at this when you think of the conditions under which they live? Think of their squalid and wretched homes, without air, with­out the most ordinary arrangements for preserving decency, and often without a ray of sunlight even in the midst of glorious summer.
   Taking the class as a whole, I think the good preponderate over the bad. Most of them have an exuberancy of spirits truly astonishing. You can do nothing with them by hard words or angry looks, but a great deal by kindness. As to their drunkenness, that is mainly attributable to the fact that the male hands take them into the public-houses and “treat” them.
   Match girls come out very strong on a Saturday night, when any number of them may be found at the Paragon Music Hall, in the Mile End Road; the Foresters’ Music Hall, in Cambridge Road; and the Sebright, at Hackne; The Eagle, in the City Road, used to be a favourite resort of these girls, and in bygone summers dancing on the crystal platform was their nightly amusement. They continue to be very fond of dancing, but they are even more attached to singing. They seem to know by heart the words of all the popular music hall songs of the day, and their homeward journey on Bank holidays from Hampstead Heath and Ching­ford, though musical, is decidedly noisy.
   The police are as a rule extremely good to the match girls, and a constable will rarely interfere with them unless positively compelled to do so. It must be admitted, however, that to [-17-] have half-a-dozen of these girls marching down the Bow Road singing at the top of their voices the chorus of “Ta-ra-ra ­Boom-de-ay,” or “Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road “—these are at the present moment their favourites—is a little irritating to quiet-loving citizens.
   Dress is a very important consideration with these young women. They have fashions of their own; they delight in a quantity of colour; and they can no more live without their large hats and huge feathers than ‘Arry can live without his bell-bottom trousers. They all sport high-heeled boots, and consider a fringe an absolute essential. As a class they are not attractive in looks; still, there are some very pretty faces among the feather-headed, brown-fringed factory girls of the East End.
   So much for their out-door existence. Their home life is not so bright, and the cause for this is not far to seek. They can sing a good song, or dance a break-down with any one; but can they wash clothes, or cook a dinner? Alas! neither the one nor the other.
   They are eager to marry, and do so very young. Many a match girl of sixteen marries a dock labourer or factory hand is no older. Their happiness is of short duration. Very often one of these poor creatures, a month or two after marriage, has applied to me for protection against her husband; and frequently, when I have heard the case, I could not help admitting that the latter had a good deal to complain of. He has very likely worked hard, and never failed to take his earnings home to his “missis”, as he calls her; and yet, night after night, he has returned to a dirty and negIected fireside, and found no dinner and no wife awaiting him. However, the marriages of the match girls do sometimes turn out well, and I think that such a result is somewhat surprising. With so many temptations around them, with so much vice in their midst, and with so many troubles in their lives, it is really astonishing to see the great affection these young people entertain towards one another.
   There is a good deal of downright sympathy among the match girls. Quite lately one of the hands in a match factory had succession of domestic troubles—sickness and other visitations - and her fellows collected between them as much as thirteen pounds, which, freely, and with the brightest faces, they handed over to their sister in distress.
   I am informed by the missionaries, who are tar better [-18-] acquainted with the inner lives of these girls, than I am, that there is not nearly the amount of immorality among them that one would imagine. They will, I am assured, in this respect, compare very favourably with other classes. Their language certainly is sometimes very bad, but I am sure they do not think from one moment to the other what they are saying. It is scarcely surprising that they should repeat the oaths and vile language they hear almost every day of their lives in public-houses, music halls, and dancing rooms, not to mention the so called East End “clubs,” which I propose to describe in a later chapter.
   In order to counteract the bad influences in the lives of the match girls, there has been formed a Factory Labourers’ Union, having its head-quarters at Clifden House Institute, which was founded a few years ago by Lady Clifden. Miss Rawson is the secretary and Miss Nash the superintendent.
   The Institute, which is composed of three cottages knocked into one, is a very unassuming-looking building, situated imme­diately opposite Bryant and May’s factory at Bow. There is a very large, comfortable apartment, containing chairs, tables, and other furniture, which serves as the girls’ sitting-room, and as many as like can avail themselves of it every evening. At the rear of the premises is a commodious dining-room capable of seating about one hundred and fifty girls. Good hot dinners, consisting of meat and two kinds of vegetables, are supplied at the extremely small charge of threepence per head. Last year as many as twenty-five thousand of these dinners were served to the girls. The number of teas supplied during the same period was nine thousand. On Saturdays, not only are these two meals provided, but every one who chooses can have a breakfast.
   Before the Institute was established there was much more drunkenness among the girls than has since been the case, and this is not extraordinary, for in former days many of them were in the habit of bringing their food from home and consuming it in the public-house— an arrangement that naturally led to a good deal of intoxication, attributable not so much to the quantity of beer consumed, as to the filthy maddening stuff put into it after it had left the brewer’s dray. In those days, moreover, there was a good deal of fighting among the young women, but this happily is now almost unknown.
   Of course it is impossible to sleep any number of these girls in such small premises, but some ten or twelve can be taken in for the night. Even this limited accommodation proves of great usefulness, for it often happens that these poor creatures are temporarily without any home of their own. last year there were some six thousand attendances at the singing, sewing, drawing, and reading classes held at the Institute. One very excellent arrangement is deserving of mention. The girls are allowed to make clothes among them­selves, and afterwards buy them at a very cheap rate. As many as six hundred and fifty-two garments were made and disposed of in this way during the last twelve months. There is a savings bank in connection with the Institute, and at the present time the names of two hundred depositors are on its books. Not the least useful feature of this institution is the medical aid which it places at the disposal of the girls. There is, moreover, an excellent library, Sunday services, Bible classes, and what are known as “pleasant evenings.”
   A girl is able to participate in all the privileges-of the Institute by paying the modest sum of two shillings per month; and who shall say that, at all events in some cases, the poor do not try to help themselves?
   The establishment of Clifden House has done enormous good, and the condition- of the match girls to-day is in sharp contrast with their condition a few years ago, when, if English slavery could be said to exist anywhere, it certainly existed in this industry. The wages of the poor creatures have to a certain extent improved, and they lead cleaner and, therefore, happier lives; but there still remains much to be done to ameliorate their condition.
   How is it that there is only one Clifden House? Why are there not a dozen?

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