Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 15 - Factory Girls

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FACTORY-GIRLS are divided by all who have intimate knowledge of them, and by the girls themselves, into two classes-factory - girls proper and girls who work at trades - i.e., City work-girls. This may be considered an arbitrary distinction, but it exists nevertheless, and the girl who works at a trade would be very much offended if any one called her a factory hand, although she comes under the Factory Act.
    A curious instance of this distinction has attracted our notice. The eight homes for working girls which have been established throughout London by Mr. John Shrimpton are open to all "homeless" girls, and the low charges made in them for board and lodging are as follows- 2s., 2s. 6d, and 4s. per week for bedroom, including use of dining-room and sitting-rooms, with library; 4s. 6d. per week for breakfast, dinner, and tea; or separate meals at 2d. for [-173-] breakfast, 6d. for dinner, 2d for tea, and  1d.. for supper.
    These homes are the greatest blessings the working girls of the metropolis possess, and are frequented by girls engaged in all sorts of trades, as well as by shop-girls and milliners. But the factory-girl proper does not enter them, or if she does so by mistake, three days find her outside their doors again. Her purse does not permit her to stay, and her nature is such that she cannot bear any restraint, any approach to order and discipline.
    The factory-girl proper ranks next to the flower-girl or the street-seller in the social scale, and constantly she falls into the ranks of the hawker-race. She picks hops and fruit in the summer, and does odd jobs when work is slack. Instead of the casual, she has the unskilled labourer for a father, while the City work-girl is generally the daughter of an artisan.
    Readers would probably be very much astonished if they knew how difficult it is to get accurate information about the girls who come under the Factory Act. These girls make everything, from the beautifully-bound book in the library of the student to the match in Bryant and May's factory, about which we have heard so much lately. We shall deal first with the factory-girl proper the child of the unskilled [-174-] labourer, and then pass on to the City work-girl, the daughter of the artisan.
    We may safely say that the average wage of the factory-girl proper is from 4s. to 8s. a week throughout London. Some earn more than 8s., a few earn less than  4s.; but if we take them en masse their wage is from 4s. to 8s. per week. When they become young women their wages increase, and as forewomen they earn more money but the factory-girl, who is a drug in the market, gets the pittance of from 4s. to 8s. a week.
    The chief characteristic of the factory-girl is her want of reverence. She has a rough appearance, a hard manner, a saucy tongue, and an impudent laugh. We heard a lady regretting the other day that the factory-girls in her district did not know the difference between the daughter of a peer and the child of a dock-labourer. She had invited the daughter of a well-known evangelical nobleman to see her club, which is attended by at least a hundred and eighty factory-girls, and Lady ---- brought a lover with her. The factory girls were tickled by the situation, and in a few minutes the daughter of the evangelical nobleman and the lover had to beat a hasty retreat. This thing is certain if asked to distinguish between the daughter of a peer and the daughter of a dock-labourer, the factory-girls [-175-] would call the former "a young person" and the latter "a young lady."
    But to see the real disposition of the factory- girl one must watch her with her fellow-workers not with those who consider themselves to be her betters. When she leaves the Board School and shakes off home discipline she is like an untrained colt-she resents all attempts to put her into harness. Those who know anything about girls are aware that at the age of fourteen or fifteen they pass through a stage of sheer "cursedness," at which time they are a terror to mothers and a scourge to governesses if they belong to the upper classes. Now, these factory-girls are like the rest of their sex, only they have no governesses to dog their heels, no mammas to talk to them about the laws that govern society, no wish to be fashionable or correct. They either pay their parents for board and lodging or go off to live, three and four together, in a room near their work. It is no uncommon thing to find two girls using a room by day and two more using the same room by night. Such girls are in every sense of the word their own mistresses, and they fiercely resent interference on the part of parents, pastors, masters, or any one else. But the girl who turns her back on parents and family, who cheeks her employers, and laughs at passers-by [-176-] in the street, is like wax when a fellow-worker falls ill or a collection has to be made for a sick companion. She lends her clothes and her boots if a friend can thus get a chance of "bettering herself." She shares her last crust with a girl out of work, and "cries her eyes out" over the grave of a fellow-worker. Among no other class of young women does there appear to be so much camaraderie, such a strong instinct that all must pull together, such a commune of food, clothes, and halfpence as among the factory-girls of the metropolis.
    At the time of the strike at Bryant and May's factory a girl was asked why it had taken place.
    "Well, it just went like tinder," she said ; "one girl began, and the rest said 'yes,' so out we all went."
    When the girls were being paid their week's wages in Charrington's Hall on Mile End Waste after the strike, it was curious to see the waves of feeling that rolled over their faces, how all seemed influenced at the same time, and in the same manner, by what was said and done for them. And few people could help being touched by the way in which the girls were determined to stand together at all costs. "I can pawn this for you," "I'll lend you that to take to my uncle's," was heard all about the room ; and in [-177-] every direction girls might be seen plotting how they could help one another on until Bryant and May gave them back their "pennies."
    We do not intend to say anything about this strike. Bryant and May's factory is not worse than many other factories in the way it pays its hands. The worst paid factory-girls are those who work in places where butter-scotch and other sweet stuffs are made ; the best paid factory-girls are those who make cigars and cigarettes.
    A butter-scotch factory, that employs many girls, pays as follows. The girls begin with 2s. 6d. per week, and  6d. good conduct money; the elder girls earn from 5s. to 7s. 6d. per week. This factory was formerly further north, and when it moved into its present neighbourhood, twelve of the best girls struck for an extra 2d. per day to pay for their omnibus. They were told that the firm could get girls in the neighbourhood, so they all had to give in and go back. Work begins at 8.15 a.m.; and if a girl is late she is fined 7d.; an hour is allowed for dinner, after which the girls go on working until 6 p.m. Saturday brings a half holiday, of course, the girls being paid at 2 p.m., or at 1.30, according to the whim of the brothers who manage the place. The girls complain bitterly of the "drilling" that is practised in this factory. There are many kinds of drill, from [-178-] keeping a girl standing an hour to half the day or more but the drilling she finds hardest to bear is a week's holiday, for then she has to meet the anger of parents, or to bear the pangs of hunger. A day's illness sometimes means drill for a week.
    This is a fair specimen of the lowest-class factory, to which flock girls who have just passed the Fourth Standard. Girls like sweetstuff and they are generally allowed "to get a sickening," after which they do not eat much, but they generally have a sickly appearance. One of the saddest sights in the metropolis is to see such girls being "taken on" on a Monday morning. They struggle for work, and "slang" the manager ; they use the most awful language, and act like little maniacs. The manager could get them to work for almost nothing, only then they would faint at their work, and be useless. The stories these girls tell of their privations must touch the stoniest heart, and make the firmest believer in competition suffer from qualms of conscience. A tobacco factory near Saffron Hill is a good specimen of the highest class of factories. The girls begin there with 3s. a week, and are allowed 6d. per hundred cigars directly they can use their fingers. They are apprenticed for four years, after which time they receive  9d.,1s., 1s. 6d., and 2s. per hundred [-179-] cigars, according to the quality of their work. They can make from one to three hundred cigars in the day, and their wages vary from 8s. to 23s. per week. The girls who are especially skilful make more than this. The manager says that the work is not suitable for women, because the strong smell of the tobacco affects their health and the work requires so much practice. "I've had three or four girls in a dead faint all at once," he said. "And I've got to keep a bottle of sal volatile on the place. Then, directly they've got their hand well in, they go and get married. We've men here that have been from fifteen to forty years on the place. Girls are so easily upset." These girls work from 9 am, to 6 p.m., with an hour off for dinner. They have no fines, and are under a very popular forewoman. The happiness of factory-girls depends very much on the head forewoman - or, as she is generally called, the labour-mistress. She is generally chosen from among the staff of forewomen, but sometimes she is a school-mistress who has broken down in health, the widow of a tradesman, or some one of that description. The "hands" prefer a woman who has been trained on the place, and who thoroughly understands the business.
    Factory-girls vary very much in different parts of the metropolis ; and any one who knows the [-180-] genus well can say at once which quarter of London a factory-girl comes from by her appearance. The East End girl is rough, and indulges in vulgar horse-play with lads of her own age. She frequents penny-gaffs with her "round-the-corner " (sweetheart), and lets him treat her to beer in the public-house. Occasionally she visits the pit of a theatre, and cracks nuts there with her teeth between the acts. The West End girl is vicious ; she speaks a lingo which only her friends can understand, sings songs which have a hidden meaning, and has an unpleasant way of carrying on dual conversations, one sentence aloud to the general public, another in an undertone for the benefit of a companion. Midway between these two is the girl who lives in the slums of the West Central district. They all wear the same uniform ; a draggled, dark-coloured skirt, which is covered up with an apron while in the factory; a long black jacket bought by weekly instalments of a shilling or sixpence; and a black hat trimmed with a gorgeous feather. A wisp of hair behind and a heavy fringe in front is the approved headdress. This one may see in Bermondscy, Southwark, Hackney, and other outlying districts, as well as in the City.
    A great deal is done for these girls in different parts of London. Many clubs are held for them, [-181-] and they are sent into the country, either by private funds or in connection with fresh-air missions. Mrs. De Fontaine's club in Southwark, Miss Canney's club in Hatton Garden, and a dozen others have been visited by our Commissioners. The latest attempt to help the girls is, of course, in connection with Trades Unions, and as these are beginning to prove a success we may hope to see further attempts at combination among factory-girls in different districts of the metropolis. Girls meet with accidents every day in these factories. We have heard of a ginger-beer factory in which they have one accident a week, such as getting an eye blown out, and where the girls never think of claiming damages. It is the same in places where girls make fireworks ; and in many cases the managers take advantage of their employees' ignorance. Messrs. Bryant and May's girls are developing a faculty for business ; so no doubt there are the same powers of organization among other factory-girls of London.
    The homes of these girls are, as a rule, very wretched. One or two rooms, which they share with father, mother, brothers, and sisters, a general purse, out of which they sometimes get a shilling on Saturday night, a dirty court-these are the things they mean by "home." So many men are now out of work that these girls become in many [-182-] cases breadwinners for the whole family. The description of one "home" will be sufficient.
    Across Blackfriars Bridge, in a street at the back of the first church, lives a girl of seventeen with her bedridden mother. She earns 10s. a week in a feather factory, where she works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour off for dinner. After six o'clock she returns home to do the housework. She is an out-patient at one of the London hospitals. The room costs 5s. a week, so the mother and daughter have 2s. 6d. each a week to live upon. The room is clean, but heaped up with boxes, and on washing day the fumes almost stifle the sick woman. A flower or two in the window, a book from the parish library, are the only comforts these poor things possess, yet one never hears a word of complaint. The girl sometimes says that she finds her work monotonous; but adds, "it's nothing like what mother has to put up with."
    It is useless to pretend that factory-girls have much religious feeling or high moral principles. Some have, the greater number have not. On Sunday they hem bed all morning, and go for a walk with their " round-the-corner" after dinner. Their theory seems to be "it's all right if you're not found out;" and their love-making rarely means marriage.