Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 18 - East End Shirt-makers

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WE are speaking here of shirts made of harvard and flannelette, which are used by working men throughout the metropolis. Harvard is very unpleasant material to sew, because it is so stiff; but flannelette, which has been four or five years in fashion, is soft and pleasant. The workers are divided into two classes first, the machinists, the women who make the shirt; secondly, the finishers, who fasten off the cottons, make the button-holes, sew on the buttons, etc. The latter are unskilled workers, and their work is the lowest class of labour in connection with the shirt business. These finishers are paid by sweaters 3d. 3d. per dozen for common shirts, or about one farthing each. They find their own thread. In many cases they walk long distances to get the work and take it back, and often they are kept waiting by their employers.
    They are also subject to fines for delay in [-200-] taking the work home, and for other offences against the sweaters' code; and they never get work on a Monday, seldom get work on a Friday or Saturday. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are the sweaters' days of business. There are in East London no less than 2,000 sweaters, and the people they sweat worst of all are the unfortunate finishers of common shirts.
    The machinists receive from 6d. to 8d. per dozen for common shirts, finding their own cotton, which costs them about 1d. per two dozen shirts. They also are subject to fines, and must take long journeys to fetch their work and carry it back.
    The scale of payment for working-men's shirts of a better quality is much the same-that is to say, the sweaters take the same proportion of profits. A shirt that is made for less than 1d. is sold at 1s. 1d. to the working man. His wife could not possibly make it so cheap, unless she happened to have a sewing machine. A clever finisher can do three dozen shirts per day, but the ordinary worker can only do two dozen, thus earning about 6d. per day, or 3s. a week.
    A clever machinist might do two dozen shirts of the lowest make, but in most cases she does one dozen, or one dozen and a half, thus earning about 1s. 4d. per day, or 9s. 4d. per week.
    The trade is often very slack, and few [-201-] workers get as many shirts to make as they would like, consequently some of the worst cases of poverty in the East End are found among the shirt-makers.
    Nearly all the work is done at home, but occasionally the women work in a sweater's den, where eight or ten women sit in a small room without any ventilation. The improvers, or girls who are learning the shirt business, may sometimes be found in these wretched places, but generally they work at home, beginning at 8 a.m. and leaving off at 9 p.m.
    The home of a finisher is thus described by a Commissioner:-
    "I went to see a shirt finisher in Stepney, and found her rejoicing over a dozen shirts that had come in after long waiting, and, as she said, 'a deal of prayer.' She lives in a room on the ground floor, at the back of the house - a small, dark place, without much furniture. Her bed is made of boxes, an old mattress, and a piece of sacking. She had no fire when I called, and she had no food; but she did not complain while she sat at her work, although she shivered so much that she could scarcely hold her needle. She was anxious to get the work done to carry it home, in order to buy some food. An old table stood near the window, and she explained that [-202-] she worked in a draught because she could not afford a light. The shirts would bring her in 4d. when finished; but she could not take them to the sweater before the next morning, so she must go to bed without any supper, or rather lie awake under the bit of sacking, thinking how much she could buy with 4d."
    We are, indebted to Mr. W. J. Walker for the above information about prices paid to the machinists and finishers. Mr. Walker has devoted much time to investigating East End shirt-making, and is deeply interested in the unfortunate needle- women. He is one of the directors of the Workwomen's Co-operative Association, Limited, Walden Street, Commercial Road, E., which is doing much good work in that neighbourhood. The workers call him a "beautiful gentleman," for he has visited them in their homes, and he is one of those who cannot help relieving desperate cases while he is making his scientific investigations. The Association pays 5d. and 6d. per dozen to finishers, and 1s. or 1s. 1d. to machinists. It has had a very salutary effect on the sweaters of the neighbourhood, by forcing them to raise their rate of payment. We have not space to say more about it here ; but it works on sound principles. It goes in for "pure and simple business, based on righteous co-operation."
    [-203-] In the Central Metropolitan District we find shirt-makers paid as follows:-
    Shirts, best (machine)-
        Young hands, 6s. for six months.
        Experienced workers, 10s. to 14s. per week.
        Extra clever workers, 18s. to 20s. per week.
    Button-holes (machine)-
        Young hands, 6s. for six months.
        Experienced workers, 10s. per week.
        Extra clever workers, 15s. to 17s. per week.
        Young hands, 6s. for six months.
        Experienced workers, 10s. per week.
        Extra clever workers, 12s. to 15s. per week.
    Low class, domestic-
        Women, generally assisted by family, 7s. a week.
        Finishing by hand in factory, women, 8s. to 12s.
        At home finishing, 7d. per dozen medium quality; 3d. per dozen low quality; 3s. 6d. to 5s. per week.


    The West End shirt and collar trade is well paid, and the workers say "there is nothing to complain of" in it. The workers seldom take [-204-]  less than 10s. a week; and most of them make 17s., 18s., and 1 during the season. It is nearly all piecework, but some of the workers are paid by the day where few are kept. The shirt factories are generally separate from the false collar (those collars not fastened to the shirt) factories, but sometimes both are made in the same factory. The hours are from  9a.m. to 7 p.m., with an hour for dinner; and half an hour for tea. Also a half-holiday on Saturday. Very little of the West End work is done at home, only the button-holes. Buttoning, i.e., sewing on buttons, is the work of beginners. The slack season lasts from September to the end of November; the season begins in April.