Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 23 - Boot and Shoe Makers

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THE annual output of boots and shoes from the factories of the United Kingdom is said to be no less than one hundred millions of pairs.
    It is impossible to say how many pairs are made in London, but the following arc the principal places in which boots and shoes arc made. We give them in the order of their importance :-London, Leicester, Northampton, Bristol, Leeds, Norwich, and Stafford.
    In all these places girls and women are largely employed, their work being in connection with the tops or uppers of the boots and shoes. It is estimated that the wages paid to females in this trade amount to about five million pounds sterling annually.
    The women's and children's boot and shoe trade has developed within the last ten years throughout Hackney, Bethnal Green, and Spitalfields, both in large manufactories and small [-246-] workshops; and here, also, we find women and girls employed chiefly in making the tops or uppers, although some women can last and click quite as well as men.
    It may be wise to explain how a boot is built. The clicker cuts out the tops and uppers; and these uppers are given to women, who make them by a process we will describe later on. When the uppers are finished ; the laster puts on the soles and heels by foot or power machine. The finisher adapts the completed or built-up articles to the market. Thus it will be seen that a boot or shoe is built up by four people (1) the clicker or cutter-out; (2) the upper sewers these are divided again into fitters and machinists ; (3) the laster; and (4) the finisher. Sometimes a fifth person is employed, namely, a sole-sewer; but pegged boots require no sole-sewing.
    It is impossible for any one to understand boot-building who has not seen boots in the hands of the clickers, lasters, and others; and probably very few of our readers will care to study the subject. It is extremely complicated, and at the same time most interesting. No two pairs of boots are exactly the same; each pair possesses an individuality of its own, although neither name nor number is given to it. That this is true of the one hundred million pairs of boots annually [-247-] manufactured, any employer of labour can bear witness.
    At one time all the best ladies' shoes were made in France, but now the English wholesale manufacturer can produce the very finest shoes at lower prices than the French shoemakers ask and although German and Swiss manufacturers press our manufacturers hard, the bulk of the trade has fallen into the hands of English boot-makers.
    The editor of The Shoe and Leather Record says: "The factory system and the introduction of machinery is revolutionisiflg all the old handicrafts, and boots and shoes are nowadays produced chiefly by manufacturers, who supply the retail shops."
    He proceeds to tell us a secret. "Even the bootmaker," he says, "who takes your measure for a pair of boots, presumably to make himself. hands over the order to the manufacturer, who supplies him with his ordinary stock." This being the case, it is useless for people to go through the farce of being measured for boots; they may as well accept "our very best article made by ourselves," with good grace.
    The East End trade must be dealt with, so far as women are concerned, in two parts (1) the work done in manufactories (2) the work done [-248-] in small workshops, or the houses of women who employ labour at home.
    One of the best manufactories is that of Mr. John Branch, in the Bethnal Green Road. Mr. John Branch takes great interest in his female hands, and the arrangements made for their comfort contrast favourably with other factories. The girls are kept on all the year round ; they work in a large, airy room, have full time allowed for meals, and tea provided on the premises.
    The girls make the tops or uppers of boots and shoes, and are divided into machinists and fitters. The machinists work by the hour, the fitters do piece-work.
    According to Mr. John Branch, machinists take, as a rule, about 14s. a week, and fitters about 15s. a week, in manufactories. Of course, these wages mean that "findings," namely, silk, thread, needles, oil, etc., are given to the machinists by the employers. When girls provide their own "findings," their gross earnings are from 12s. to 25s. a week.
    A machinist employed on a class of work in which silk is used, has to pay for about 12s. or 14s. worth of silk, etc., before she has 25s. for herself; and, generally speaking, the silk has to be purchased from the employer, he being ulti-[-249-]mately responsible for the quality used in the boots.
    The system of making girls pay for their "findings" is said to work well, as it teaches them to be careful; but whether they pay or not, it will be found that the wages in East End factories average about 14s. a week for machinists and 15s. a week for fitters. The work needs considerable training, so it is not overrun with unskilled labour, like many other businesses; and a good fitter can command her price anywhere, if work is not very slack. It is much more difficult to fit than to do the machining.
    Mr. Lakeman, H.M. Inspector, gives the following rates of payment in manufactories, but he says nothing about "findings":-
    First year, 3s. per week; second year, 4s.; third year, 5s. ; then 10s. to 12s. ; very best machine hands 15s. to 20s. On the whole, we may say that women and girls engaged in making the uppers of boots and shoes are well paid in manufactories. Of course, few workrooms are like those which Mr. John Branch provides for his hands ; but the work is clean, and attracts a superior class of young women. The deafening noise of the machines renders it difficult to study the work of building uppers ; and the fact that each upper is composed of six or more parts, [-250-] and passes through the hands of eight or ten women, is confusing.
    Each upper has (1) two quarters, (2) button- piece, (3) golosh, (4) vamp, (5) toe-cap, (6) top-band, (7) five pieces of lining. The golosh and toe-cap are sometimes omitted. Each upper passes through the following hands:- (1) lining- maker, (2) closer, (3) seam-stitcher, (4) fitter, (5) scollop stitcher, (6) button-hole worker, (7) button-hole finisher, (8) buttoning and covering, (9) vamping, (10) sewing up. The most difficult part of the work is to fit the lining to the leather and paste it. Large numbers of boots and shoes are sent to the Colonies, so the paste contains insect powder, which keeps the flour from fermenting. This paste is used to fix the lining and leather together before the upper goes to the machinist, and everything must be done with the greatest nicety. The seams are not allowed to vary by as much as the thirty-second part of an inch. If everything is not absolutely accurate the upper will not fit the last. And as the upper sometimes contains twenty parts, readers may imagine that the work requires both skill and patience.
    We now pass on to the work which is done in small workshops and the homes of women Many manufacturers merely cut out the materials [-251-] and give the work to sweaters. Mr. Lakeman says " The sweating system is adopted here quite as much as is done in the tailoring trade. Women who are known to be good workers can get material whereon to employ as many hands as their homes can accommodate, and who are paid a like price to the workshop hands of the manufacturer; or the man who is known gets a supply of leather from a manufacturer, who will make special terms with him, and manage to keep him bound by monetary obligations as long as he suits him. This man is an agent, a sweater, who may have several women, employing from eight to twelve hands, working for him at their homes."
    We have visited some of these sweaters, and many of the women who employ girls in their rooms or wooden shanties at the backs of their houses. After carefully examining wage books, we have come to the conclusion that both sweaters and women are scarcely better off than the hands themselves. Low-class boots and shoes are sold for little more than the cost of the soles and the leather, and these are the goods that find their way to such people.
    We visited a sweater who had refused an order for 1,500 pairs of boots because his profit on them would only be 6d. in the ; little [-252-] enough, considering his horse and cart, premises for storing goods, and his own labour. Such men work harder than the people they employ, and often take orders by which they gain nothing, because they are afraid of losing their best hands. It is the same with the women who employ girls at home. The following authentic case will show what distress goes on among the women who take the work home from the manufactories
    Mrs. ---- was charged last June at the ---- police-court with stealing forty pairs of uppers. She said: "I am a widow with four children; my oldest boy has just passed the fourth standard, and, as I am placed, I took him away from school and got him a place where he was earning three shillings a week, which would be a great help to me to pay the rent, but the School Board officer has made me send him to school again. I used to be forewoman of a machine-room before I was married, but after that I did machining at home. I had a beautiful home when my husband, who was a saddler, was alive, and at one time I used to earn good money. I have earned as much as 30s. a week, but that is years ago. The machine-work is shockingly paid for now; but as for this charge against me, I am ashamed to talk about it. My name [-253-] has got into all the papers, and I am ashamed to show myself outside the door. I can't explain to everybody the circumstances."
    Here Mrs. ---- was greatly agitated with hysterical sobs, which continued more or less throughout the interview.
    "Is it true that you machined work at 5d. per dozen?"
    "Yes, it is quite true. They were babies' patent leather shoes, sateen-lined, with front springs. I had to put on five buttons. I employ a fitter; to her I had to pay 2d. per dozen for fitting, and a halfpenny for putting on the buttons. The outlay for cotton and paste would be about another halfpenny for a dozen."
    "Out of what is left, I suppose you have to buy needles, oil, and pay for what repairs the machine may require?"
    "Yes, certainly; the machine is my own. I bought it on the hire system. I finished paying for it just after my husband died."
    "How many of these babies' shoes could you do in a day?"
    "The two of us, working from eight to eight, could do six dozens: but I often work from five or six in the morning to ten or eleven o'clock at night. I used to have some work for which I was paid 8d. per dozen; they were mock kid [-254-] shoes, black leather lined, turned-in linings. For these I had to pay 4d.for fitting and another 1d. for staying; that would leave me 3d. for machining and cotton. If I worked very hard I could do four dozen of these in a day. The work at 1s. a dozen were mock kid balmorals, with leather top-bands and leather inside facings. For these I had to pay 6d. for fitting, and 1d. for staying, and it would cost me about 3d. a day for cotton. We had to skive all the top-bands before we could turn them in. This was cruel work for the money. We could not do more than three dozen a day, if we worked ever so hard. I could earn more on the babies' work. Then, besides, they are so shocking particular. They turn every upper inside out, and for every little fault the work is returned.
    "Are you an experienced machinist?"
    "Yes; I have been at it since I was a little girl, and was forewoman at Mr. ----- till I was married. Some machinists earn good money, even at these prices, but the way they do it is by employing learners, who work three months for nothing, and then they go elsewhere as improvers, and for some part of the work they employ improvers at a few shillings a week. But I can't do that. I could not leave my children to go to shop, so I had to get a woman to do that for me, [-255-] which used to cost 4d. for riding every time. She has left my place sometimes at eight o'clock in the morning, and did not get back until half- past twelve."
    "How much do you earn a week ?"
    "If I can earn 10s. a week I can manage to do; I have earned 12s. or 13s. a week sometimes; but I could not tell any one how we manage to live; we have something - that's all I can say. I was well brought up, and like to keep my children decently dressed; but it's very hard, God knows."
    It is true that girls who work for women like this earn very little, and toil for many hours.
    Some of the rooms they work in are not fit for human habitation, mere dens. Often they are daughters or nieces of women who fetch the work from the sweaters, or straight from the manufacturers.
    One room we visited was below the street, dark, filthy beyond description, and full of Singer's machines, some in good order, some out of repair. Six girls worked them, and they would do 45 dozen pairs of uppers in a day; but the work was slack, they said, and they were taking low wages. The paster had only earned 2s. 6d. the previous week, and the other girls 6s. and 8s. Work is always slackest about Christmas.
    [-256-] It is quite impossible to say what money these girls take, for the work varies, and the slack seasons are so long that no two girls seem to get the same amount of money. Mr. Lakeman says: "Females are generally paid" (in such places) "by the week, and girls of fourteen are engaged nominally for a year as apprentices, at 2s. 6d. a week; they are then called table hands, blacking the leather, button-holes, and buttons, helping the fitter, for which they get 7s. a week. An ordinary machinist can earn 9s. to 10s. a week, but one who works on best goods goes up to 12s., 14s., and 15s.; a good fitter makes 12s. a week, whilst hand workers must be content with 7s. or 8s. From March to November work is brisk, but for the winter no great provision can be made. The outworkers are very slack, and very badly off. Whatever there is done is generally confined to the factory or the workshop proper."
    A great deal of distress is found among these poor people at Christmas time, the most dreary season of the year for such workers. Singer's machines must be forfeited, because the money for them is not forthcoming; and as many have husbands and brothers out of work, few are likely to have "a merry Christmas."
    Mr. John Branch, who has given his attention to the sweating question, says the only solution [-257-]  is the employment of a large number of sanitary inspectors, for then the work will be driven into the factories, and home industries will die a natural death. Doubtless readers will hide their heads like ostriches in the sands of good wishes, while the girls who are "out of work" dream of roast beef and plum-pudding. What can be done?
    It is a difficult question.