Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 21 - Laundresses - Strikers - Upholsteresses

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 A LARGE number of girls and women work laundresses in the central metropolitan districts. They prepare factory goods for the market - more especially collars and cuffs. Their work is called "dressing." When a laundry department is attached to the factory where the goods are made, the pay is fair; but when the work is given out, laundresses do not get very much, because many people compete for the work, and the middle-man, or middle-woman, takes the profit. Laundresses are generally divided into four classes-washers, ironers, collar-ironers, and learners. All four classes work, as a rule, four or five days a week, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., with three-quarters of an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea. The following is their scale of payment: Washers, 2s. 6d. to 2s. 8d. per day ironers, 3s. 6d to 4s. per day, piece-work ; collar-ironers, 3s. 6d. to 5s. per day, piece-work; [-227-] learners, 1s. a day for three months, then 3d. a day extra for three months up to 2s. 6d.
They are said to take "good money;" but considering the nature of their work, and the fact that they generally live far away from the laundries, their pay is not much. Few people realise what severe labour it is to "dress" the collars and cuffs sold in the shops - how much "elbow grease" it needs to give them a shiny appearance. Gas-irons, which must be lifted constantly to the gas, and little curled irons, which must be twisted in and out, are more exhausting than the "goose," or heavy iron, and all these require that the work should be done standing. A laundress stands all day, with the exception of her dinner-hour and the half-hour allowed for tea, and the heat of the room she works in makes her work doubly trying, for windows cannot be opened on account of London smuts. Fans are arranged in the centre of the rooms ; nevertheless the atmosphere is generally such that the girls faint again and again, owing to the heat and the long hours they spend on their feet. It is no uncommon thing to hear that a laundress has gone into what her friends call "a consumption," for in the winter, when she leaves the hot laundry and goes into the street, the sudden change of air [-228-] affects her chest. In the laundry she wears a thin cotton dress, loose at the neck ; her face and arms are moist with perspiration, and her hair is dank. Leaving this place, she throws on an old coat, and hurries out to "cool herself. She has, perhaps, "an awful backache;" so she sits down for a few minutes to rest before she trudges off to her home, which is a mile or two away from the City. In this way many a girl meets her death, and when she drops out of the ranks another girl begins to dress the linen and so the game goes on, without a thought being given by the public to the poor, overworked laundress.
    Many of these "dressing" laundries are below the street. Into some one descends by a flight of at least twenty steps; and when there one thinks of the Black Hole of Calcutta while watching the girls at work. Long rows of young women on either side of narrow tables attract one s attention first, and then one sees the gas flaring above the bent heads, while every minute a bare arm is raised to light a gas-iron or to lift a goose. Little girls in short petticoats, with hair down their backs-learners-supply the ironers with work, count the dressed goods, and run errands. And all this is done in a stifling atmosphere, with wafts of heavy, steam-[-229-]laden air from the fans in the centre of the room and draughts from open doors leading upstairs into the factory or the street. Few people are more to be pitied than young laundresses. When older they grow accustomed to the work; but the habit of taking in mere children as learners is sad to witness. The older women complain bitterly about these children, more especially in large steam laundries, where soiled linen is washed, because there children can feed the big machines, and do work which was formerly done by skilled laundresses.
    In the steam laundries it is no uncommon thing to find 200 or 300 women, girls, and children working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and often until 10 p.m. The workers are divided in these laundries into sorters, markers, packers ironers, and forewomen or superintendents. The pay varies a little in different places, and it is nearly all piece-work; but the following table is fairly correct for all the large soiled linen laundries in the different metropolitan districts:-
    Sorters, 1s. 6d. per day; overtime, 1d. per hour. Markers and packers, 1s. 9d., 2s., and 2s. 6d per day ; overtime, 1d., 2d., and 3d. per hour. Ironers, 3s. 6d. per day; overtime, 4d. per hour Forewomen, 5s. per day; overtime, 5d. or 6d. per hour.
    [-230-] Some of these laundries have sick funds for the employees, which entitle the workers to is. per day during illness, and a doctor's visits, on payment of 21. per week. On the whole, great care is taken to guard the machinery ; and after careful investigation we find that very few accidents occur that are not due to the careless behaviour of the workers, who grow so accustomed to the machines that they treat them without sufficient respect, and consequently get punished.
    It is curious that in these steam laundries both managers and forewomen complain of the girls sent to them by clergymen and societies. Such girls do not work nearly as well as those who feel that they have nothing to fall back upon but their club ; no one to bolster them up if they prove incompetent. We realise in these factories that charity is out of date, and that all the girls want is to be taught to help themselves. They are ripe for a trades union, more especially as they feel the prick of the capitalist's last weapon namely, the child-labour which he is calling in to lessen their numbers and lower their wages.


    It may be well to notice here the little errand-girls - alias strikers, alias matchers, alias trotters - who are now employed in the place of learners [-231-] or apprentices. We find them everywhere, and they have not as yet attracted the attention of the public. We spoke some time ago about the slaveys who work in different houses - mind babies, run errands, and wash up - for 2s. 6d. a week and tea, who sleep at home, and are generally called day-maids. Many of these slaveys would become regular servants if they had clothes to enter domestic service; but possessing no change of garments and only one very bad pair of boots, they look out for small places among their neighbours when the Board school sets them free to earn their own living, or they apply for situations as errand-girls in places of business.
    No matter where you go in the poorer parts of London, you may see advertisements in private windows, on shop doors, or on street walls, for strikers, trotters, and matchers ; namely, little errand-girls. Such girls are generally supposed to do domestic work, to run errands, to wait on workrooms, and to perform the easiest parts of whatever employment is carried on by their master or mistress. They match materials for dressmakers ; they sweep rooms and make tea for tailors ; they are, in fact, the slaveys of people in business. West End workrooms have such errand-girls attached to them, girls of rather a superior position; and East End sweating dens [-232-] find them necessary. These girls, if quick, pick up a smattering of whatever is going on, and are soon able to take the place of learners or apprentices. Employers find them cheap, and in spite of remonstrances on the part of trained workers, the little girls slip into the position of those who used to "be taught a living." Sometimes they palm themselves off as trained workers after a year or six months spent as errand-girls.
    Many sink thus into the lowest depths of misery and sin, being taken on by employers of the worst class to do any sort of work at any rate of payment. Some gradually push their way forward, and end by taking high-class wages ; but they have no status as trotters, strikers, etc., and they are the prey of unscrupulous employers, who use them without giving them a proper training. All over London one hears complaints about those poor little slaveys ; and the workers agree that the employers ought not to employ them instead of apprentices.


    The upholsteress is doomed; her trade is dying, and before long she will have vanished. Her work is to help men dress or furnish houses to make curtains, carpets, blinds, mattresses, etc. [-233-] Machinery now does the work which was formerly done by women, and, as an upholsteress said lately, "Girls are employed as finishers, and do the machine work in the place of women, at a rate of wages insufficient for their support, unless assisted by parents and friends."
    This woman has been working at the trade for many years. She remembers the day when the work was such that in many places the employees worked all night; but now she says the slack season lasts from November to March, with a little rush before Christmas, and that very few hands are wanted in the largest places of business.
    The greater number of upholsteresses work by the day, and earn in the West End from 15s. to 17s. a week, in the Central Metropolitan district from 12s. to 14s. a week, and in some cases from 18s. to 20s. a week for the best furniture.
    In no trade does one hear more bitter complaints against child-labour than among the upholsteresses. They look with horror and disgust on the little girls from the Board schools who begin with 3s. or 4s. a week, and press on to the front before they become young women.
    It would be well to notice here the statement quoted above, namely, that many girls are [-234-] engaged at a rate of wages insufficient for their support unless assisted by parents or friends.
    Employers can scarcely be blamed for preferring girls who are not self-dependent. There are plenty of girls in the labour-market whose parents cannot afford to keep them at home doing nothing, but who can give them pocket- money-namely, enough to buy clothes and pay for their locomotion. Employers naturally seek out such girls, for they do not feel so morally bound to them; they know in slack times that such girls have homes to go to, and that they need not give such girls high wages. Of course, all this is very hard on the self-dependent girls but, alas! to her that hath shall be given, and from her that hath not shall be taken away. It is difficult to suggest a remedy. Every day more girls are forced to compete in the labour market, owing to the difficulty which men find in getting work, and employers are sure to prefer girls who have a little home assistance to those who are self-dependent. The evil lies very deep, and nothing can be done while the market is so overcrowded.
    At present many absurd mistakes are made as to the meaning of an employer's words when he says, " I want girls who are not self-dependent." Guardians and philanthropists rise up in arms [-235-] when they hear this statement ; but the fact that employers can get girls who are partially supported by their relations throws a cold, calm light on this remonstrance, and they begin to realise that no harm is meant-nothing but that the employer wants to buy his labour-force in the cheapest possible market.