Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 16 & 17 - City Work-Girls

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CHAPTER XVI.

CITY WORK-GIRLS.

WE do not mean to say that the factory-girl proper cannot be found among those who term themselves " City work-girls;" in fact, we have come across her again and again working amongst them. But she is not of them. Any one who has studied the young women of the metropolis can pick her out in a minute if she strays into their ranks, for she belongs to another genus. City work-girls ply over two hundred distinct employments, to say nothing of the hundred and one odd trades which could not be carried on without their help, at any rate could not be carried on with so much profit.
    We will give a few examples of these employments:- Bookbinder and folder, brush maker, button maker, compositor, electric light fitter, gentleman's cravat maker, gold and silver burnisher, indiarubber stamp machinist, instrument coverer, leather bag maker, muff liner, spectacle maker, surgical instrument maker, umbrella maker, straw [-184-] worker, gun-cap maker, harness maker, maltine weigher, crystallising glass photo-frame maker, portmanteau worker, perfumer, pattern card mounter, magic lantern slide maker, etc., etc.
    Half a century ago the trades open to women were very few. Needles were almost the only implements they could handle in order to gain their living. Now commerce admits women into almost all of its branches; and, although they are heavily handicapped, we see female labourers pushing on in every direction. They are forming Trades Unions, and making friends with workers of the other sex, who begin to think that, if the work is the same, the pay should be equal. The day on which the London Trades Council came forward as the friend of the match-girls formed an epoch in the history of the female labour market. Men are beginning to realize that they must work with women and not against them, for the thin edge of the wedge has gone into the masculine conscience. Besides, the men see that they must get the good-will of the women if they want to shut out the children, to cut off the last resource of the capitalist in his greed for profit. Self-interest is at the bottom of most things, and since the example has been set by the London Trades Unionists, men throughout the country are beginning to pose as the champions of [-185-] the weaker sex. Human motives are very mixed, so, while we recognise the chivalry of men in helping forward the interests of female labour, we must not be blind to the fact that both sexes are beginning to see very plainly that "like as the arrows in the hand of the giant, even so are the young children" in the hands of the capitalist.
    Women who wish to form a Trades Union, or who are interested in this subject, and desire to know more about it, are ~ to write to Miss Clementina Black, secretary of the Women's Provident League and Trades Union, Industrial Hall, Clark's Buildings, Broad Street, W.C.
    The wages of City work-girls vary from 8s. to 14s. per week. Some earn much more, few earn less ; but taking "slack times" into consideration, 8s. to 14s. are their wages.
    "Slack time" is the bugbear of the City work- girl. If the work were regular she would be a fairly happy individual ; but she does not earn enough to put by, and, although she knows pretty well when the slack season will set in, she cannot provide for it. Supposing she is a London girl her family help her, and she makes her clothes during slack weeks, or assists her mother in household matters ; but, if she is a stranger in the metropolis, she pawns her clothes, and falls back upon other means of subsistence. It is a curious [-186-] fact that, although most of these girls belong to the artisan class, the greater number of them are not Londoners; they come from all parts of the United Kingdom to pick up the gold which is still supposed to pave the streets of the metropolis. Very few go back to tell the tale of the great City; so girls daily flock into our Modern Babylon from small towns and country villages. Two girls, friends, have come under our notice. They were discontented with their life in a small market town in the South of England, and came to London to make their fortune. They took a room in the West Central district, and began to look for work. On applying at various places they were told "No hands are wanted;" and at others they heard, "We never take girls who have not been properly taught, country hands are of no use to us." Bit by bit they pawned all their clothes, and still they walked from place to place looking for work. One day they met their old employer, who had come to London on business. He ~vas shocked to see how thin they had become, to notice their ragged clothes and anxious appearance. He offered to take them back, for they had good characters, and had given him satisfaction during the years they had worked for him. But they were too proud to give in. They could not let their friends in the market [-187-] town see that they had no value in the great City. They refused his offer with tears, he says; but they went on their way, and he never saw them again. Within a year from that time these girls were dead. One died from the effect of drugs given to her by a chemist ; the other died in childbirth.
    If parents, clergymen, and those in authority throughout the United Kingdom would realize the fact, and impress it upon girls, that in London at the present time there is a plethora of young women, it would be a great blessing. Such people are apt to think, if work is difficult to get in country districts, a girl is sure to find something to do in London. They merely send a girl to damnation if they help her to swell the numbers of the London girls who now compete for a living. These London girls find the struggle almost more than they can manage, although they have homes in the metropolis, and friends to fall back upon during slack times. A girl who is a stranger here is the most destitute and helpless individual one can well imagine. Employers prefer London girls, who have, as they say, "all their wits about them and a proper training." So the country competitors tramp from place to place seeking employment ; and if they do get work they lose it again, for they cannot tide over slack times. [-188-] They have no friends to fall back upon, no homes to live in during the weeks and months in which no one can give them employment.
    There is one trade in London that has no slack time for women, and the number of those who ply it is said to be no less than 100,000. Their number was some years ago 80,000, but now 20,000 more have joined it. City work-girls do not add to its number openly, but they swell the numbers of those women who carry on a hidden trade to eke out their wages. This hidden trade has recruits among all classes of young women in London, from the pretty, neatly dressed little governess who trips into the precincts of the Law Courts on Saturday night, to the flower-girl who would swear until black in the face if she heard herself accused of anything so nefarious.
    We have decided not to speak of the open traffic; but the hidden trade must be mentioned in connection with these City work-girls.
    No one supposes that young men in Tempted London live the lives of celibates until those days when fortune gives them money enough to be married. Moreover, it is a fact that large numbers of these young men are encouraged by their parents to form relationships with young women-relationships of a more or less permanent character, but which are not intended [-189-] to end in marriage. The girls, no doubt, expect to attach the men to themselves permanently but to the honour of the men it must be said that they give no reason for such hopes, and let the girls clearly understand what is meant by such relationships. We need not say here why mothers and fathers encourage these proceedings; but that they do so we have full evidence. The girls fall into no trap, for the men help to eke out their wages, and add to the brightness of their lives by tickets for theatres, visits to music-halls, novelettes, and gifts of jewellery and dresses. These poor girls must make a smart appearance. If they receive more wages than the factory-girl proper, it is because their employers insist on a smart appearance. The factory-girl's dress costs next to nothing, but the City work-girl must starve herself, and go without proper underclothing, in order to buy the smart clothes which make the ignorant think her well-off and extravagant. An example is better than further description.
    We sent a Commissioner into a lodging-house about ten minutes' walk from the City, which is frequented by clerks earning about £2 a week, and by girls engaged in various employments, i.e., City work-girls. This house holds over forty people. Rooms in it vary from 7s. 6d. a week [-190-] to 3s. 6d. The City work-girl pays usually 3s. 6d. for a room by herself; but her habit is to engage a room at 5s. per week, and share it with a companion. The same fire and lights then do for both, also the same fee to the slavey who waits upon such establishments. There are various other economies connected with these 5s. arrangements which we forget; but the room is generally large, furnished with a bed, horse-hair sofa, and armchair, three or four chairs, a table, and a chest of drawers. On the wall are some prints, and on the fireplace a few china ornaments. Each lodger has a latch-key. Meals are served in the bedroom. Our Commissioner engaged a room at 5s. a week, next to two City work-girls, who had then been two years in the house. She was introduced to these "young ladies" by the landlady the first night, when one of them was carrying up supper-two red herrings, some beer, bread, and red cabbage pickle. Both of these girls had sweethearts, young men who came in the evening and stayed until one or two o'clock in the morning. Sometimes one girl went to the theatre or a music-hall with her sweetheart, and the other remained at home with her sweetheart to make a dress or trim a hat. Then beer was fetched, or a bottle of wine, and those at home had what the girls called a quiet [-191-] evening. On Sunday the sweethearts arrived before the girls were up, and stayed all day, paying for their own dinner. After the sweethearts went away, at one or two o'clock in the morning, the lodgers upstairs or downstairs paid the girls visits, stopping in their room until six or seven o'clock. While our Commissioner was there, one girl quarrelled with her sweetheart, and took a lodger in his place. It is needless to say that the girls received money and presents from these young men, besides being treated by them to places of entertainment and to outings. The girls were not Londoners-one had come from Norfolk, the other from the North of England. They had made friends in London, and worked near one another, but not at the same employment. They talked of their sweethearts in a frank, easy way, and also of other things connected with their mode of life, which we cannot make public. These girls would have been horrified if any one had suggested that the State and the Church would class them with prostitutes.
    Our Commissioner asked the landlady if she considered it right to let young men come and go at all hours of the day and night. The answer was-
    "Lor', they're the girls' sweethearts."
    [-192-] And when it was suggested to this worthy individual that her lodgers led a careless sort of life in her house, she said,
    "Well, but the young men wouldn't stay if I interfered with 'em. Young people will be young people. It isn't my business."
    This house is especially recommended by the clergy of the district.
    We do not mean to say that City work-girls ply the hidden trade more than other girls; but the fact that so many of them are strangers in London, living in rooms, and unprotected, makes them more inclined to become the mistresses of young men who cannot afford to marry, and who do not care to associate with common prostitutes. These girls must live. Their wages are low, owing to the fact that there are in London too many of them, and slack times force them to do things they would prefer to leave undone.

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CHAPTER XVII.

CITY WORK-GIRLS. 

(Continued.)

THE girls often fall into the relationships we have described in order to eke out their low wages ; but oftener still these things are the result of slack times. There is tills difference between the work of women and men. While the latter say, "I cannot dig ; to beg I am ashamed," the former have a trade to fall back upon that has no slack times, that is always sure to bring in a living. "C'est le premier pas qui coûte."
    The girls soon become callous. One of them told a Commissioner the other day that she was saving up the money she received from her sweethearts in order to marry.
    "You see,! she said, " I can easily get a husband if I save up enough!"
    Many of these self-dependent girls are homeless orphans, or have been turned adrift by stepparents. Others are girls who cannot get work [-194-] in the country, and who think they can make their own way in London. At any rate, City work-girls who have no friends in the metropolis ought to be pitied more than blamed, if they live as we have stated.
    Ruskin says, "The most directly necessary charity in England is to save poor girls from distress, overwork, and surrounding evils."
    Homeless, friendless, motherless, a class of which society is only just beginning to realise the existence, these girls cannot be expected to pass their lives in want and loneliness while young men are willing to spend money on them.
    A poor girl who had been out of work for nearly six months, and living by herself in a wretched garret, told a Commissioner the other day:-
    "Gentlemen are the only people who speak to me civil."
    A great many people interest themselves in these girls, and many societies work amongst them ; but such things do not alter the facts that lie at the root of their difficulties. boxy wages, slack times, the rush and drive of competition, the over-population, which produces a "lost-in-the-mass" sort of feeling, cannot be altered by a few benevolent people and religious societies. These facts require the careful consideration and prompt [-195-]  action of those who boast of progress and science.

"It is well that while we range with Science, glorying in the time,
    City children soak and blacken soul and sense in City slime!
There, among the gloomy alleys, Progress halts on palsied feet,
    Crime and hunger cast our maidens by the thousand on the street
There the master scrimps his haggard sempstress of her daily bread,
    There a single sordid attic holds the living and the dead!"

    The girl-labour question is but a portion of the larger labour question which will, when the Irish question is settled, attract practical politicians until then, it is the business of all to get accurate information on the subject, and to point out in which direction things connected with labour are moving at present. Girls are the cheapest sort of labour-force employers can get ; they would, if they could, work for nothing. No wonder, then, that the capitalist takes advantage of them, and that their weekly wage is a few shillings. We have not space to notice their different employments ; but we must draw attention to the way in which they are over-worked and under-paid in some printing establishments.
    Girls look for vacant places in printers' and [-196-] publishers' establishments in the daily papers, also outside certain shops, where the following advertisements may be seen every Monday, and round them an eager, excited group of young women
    "Folders and sewers wanted." "Folders wanted at once." "Vellum sewer wanted." " Good vellum sewers at once."
    The pay is generally per thousand sheets. At a large establishment near Fleet Street the girls work from 8 am. to 8 p.m., with an hour for dinner, and half an hour for tea if they like to forfeit their tea-time in wages. The gas is on full in this place, for the rooms are old and dark. Into some of the rooms it is impossible to walk upright ; and there is little ventil4ion, no sanitary arrangements, no attempt to provide the girls with a room during their dinner hour. The girls receive at the end of the first six months a bonus of 14s: During the second six months they are paid at half-price. After the first year they receive 4d. per thousand shcets.
    At an establishment where one of the largest London papers is printed, girls are paid 5d. and 6d. per hour, and an extra penny after 10 p.m. At this place they often begin at 6 a.m., and work until 12 p.m. Sometimes they are kept on all night, sewing and folding, going home at 6 a.m. for breakfast. Of course this is not lawful, [-197-] but the factory inspectors are few, and easily hoaxed. They seldom insist on seeing the wage- book, which is the only way of getting at the truth. When the girls work all night at this place, they get an extra 5s., which pleases them so much they would swear black is white if the inspector came across them. They think it is a joke to hide when a message is sent up that the inspector is coming, and run out in order "to do him," as they call it. Far from perceiving that he protects their interests, they look on him as an intruder and an enemy. The book-sewers employed by religious publishers are proverbially underpaid. Mr. Lakeman, H.M. Inspector for the Central Metropolitan District, says, in his report of 1887, at page 90 "Religious publications are very poorly paid for; piecework rules, and masters accept orders on the barest margin of profits. . . . I believe that publishers' binding work is now among the poorest paid of City industries."
    He adds :-" It is undisputed that great and sore trials are undergone by many young hands out of season. I am told that the struggle comes with heavy temptations: some who cannot be helped at home, or who have no homes, are obliged to seek cheap lodgings, where companions are met who, being stronger and more skilful, lead [-198-] them on step by step till the facile descensus is complete."
    Mr. Lakeman's statement bears out our own conclusions ; and although many occupations pay city girls much better than folding and sewing, slack times and low wages, with over-work, lead many of them into sorry circumstances. The workers he speaks about earn, while learners, from 3s. to 4s. a week; and when experienced hands, from 12s to 15s. Their work is uncertain. The ordinary slack season is from March to July, and there are also "extra" slack seasons, when many are dispensed with.
    A lady wrote a letter on the subject of religious publications to a paper after Mr. Lakeman's statements appeared, in which she said:-
    "It would be terrible indeed if our cheap Bibles, cheap tracts, and cheap moral stories are cheap through the sacrifice of girls' souls and bodies."
    We quite agree with her that Mr. Lakeman's charge is "very serious;" but even Mr. Lakeman is only half awake at present.