Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 24 - Young Women

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WE propose to take a survey of the articles on Young Women in London. We have noticed the following classes Flower-girls and street-hawkers; factory-girls and City work- girls ; girls engaged in home industries ; East and West End tailoresses; East and West End shirtmakers ; sempstresses, upholsteresses, and laundresses ; servants ; barmaids ; and the girls engaged in the boot and shoe industry.
    It has been impossible to do more than glance at the work and wages of these young women. The subject is very large, and our space is limited. No paper, no individual, can deal with the mass of information which must be obtained, and sifted, before the public can have accurate information about London girls after they leave the Board Schools. But each investigation helps, if it is honest ; for others gather up the threads and weave them into more perfect knowledge. [-259-] It may interest our readers to know that Mr. Charles Booth, who has done, and is doing, such valuable statistical work in London, has added to his secretaries a lady whose business it will be to inquire into the work and wages of girls in East London.
    She will, let us hope, carry on similar investigations in other parts of the Metropolis, and so, at last, we shall have an idea of female labour in London. But it must be borne in mind that such investigations are, at the best, only approximate. We may, in time, get enough facts to build up a science of economics ; but we shall never have the truth, for facts change-the truth is not stationary.
    "When I want to laugh I read 'Adam Bede,'" remarked a carpenter. " George Eliot's idea of my trade is funnier to me than anything I come across in Ally Sloper."
    Just as the novelist gives the shadows of men and women more or less distinctly according to his talent for character-painting, so does the investigator give tables of facts more or less accurately. It is all very well for economists to smile because Mr. Walter Besant's inquiry into the work and wages of women has collapsed - to say, "That is what one might expect of a novelist." By his creation of Melenda, Mr. [-260-] Besant first called attention to the working girl of London. The artist suggests: the economist merely puts his suggestions into practice.
    Our inquiry has taught us that the flower-girl, or street hawker, is the daughter of the casual often Irish and a Roman Catholic, generally improvident, and the victim of a loafer, who spends her money and refuses to support his children unless she has her "lines, or marriage certificate. We have seen that the factory-girl proper is the daughter of the labouring-man ; well paid in first- class factories, but generally a drug in the market, earning from 4s. to 8s. a week, which money goes into the family pocket. The City work-girl we have found to be the daughter of the skilled artizan ; often a stranger to London, where she suffers terribly in slack seasons, and has to seek cheap lodgings, in which companions are met who, being stronger and more skilful, lead her on step by step till the facile clescensus is complete. The girls engaged in home industries we have discovered in the lowest depths of poverty and distress in the East End districts. Our readers found our statements too much for their feelings, and we were able to help some of the worst cases through their kindness. The plain needle-women, the furpullers, the brush-makers, and others we have unearthed in miserable dens, dragging out their [-261-] lives amid dirt and wretchedness on the pittance given to them by middlemen. Afterwards we had to state on the authority of one who has lived for years among them, that 25,000 East End tailoresses are working fifteen and sixteen hours a day for a penny an hour, when they can get employment ; fetching their work from sweaters' shops, where they are kept standing for hours, and then consuming the midnight oil in order that they may earn a few pennies. The West End tailoress, who shines brightly in comparison, had nevertheless a distinct grievance, which was, that the whole of the tailoring trade is rapidly passing into the hands of foreigners, who are calling in young men of their own nation to take the place of Englishwomen. East End shirt-makers have been visited who finish shirts at one farthing each ; laundresses who dress linen for shops, upholsteresses and sempstresses, have all come under our notice. Servants versus mistresses, and mistresses versus servants, occupied a considerable amount of our space; and we pointed out that if the London Board Schools would affiliate themselves with the Metropolitan Association for Befriending Young Servants, the poor little trotters, alias strikers, alias slaveys, might be saved from the clutches of those who now employ them in the place of proper apprentices, to the [-262-] disadvantage of all trained workers. Our article on barmaids drew attention to those "called to the bar." We told the public that these girls work ten and twelve hours a day at many of the best-known restaurants, receive an allowance of  10d. a day for spirits, and sleep below the street in some of the Metropolitan stations. Last of all we spoke of the girls who make the uppers of boots and shoes, and proved to our readers that such workers are not likely to enjoy a very merry Christmas.
    We have not space to discuss what can be done to improve the condition of these young women. They are willing to emigrate, and we are told on the best authority that the girls who are a drug here can have work in the Colonies. But while foreigners come in to take their places we can scarcely say that they ought to leave England. The most serious fact we have had to state is that twenty thousand girls have of late years been added to the lists of those who ply the only trade that has no slack times for women; and that many of these are foreigners. That we want more factory inspectors H.M.I. Mr. Lakeman bore witness before the Sweating Commission and that sanitary inspectors must overhaul the workers in home industries is very evident. We would make one suggestion. Let work be [-263-] found for the unemployed men, and thus lift from the shoulders of their wives and daughters the burden of bread-winning.
    Miss Clementina Black, Secretary of the Women's Trades' Union and Provident League, has given us active help ; and we are glad to hear that her work is bearing fruit in the shape of Unions among the shop-assistants, laundresses, and others.
    We have also received much sympathy and assistance from the secretaries of the Young Women's Christian Association. These ladies cannot touch the economic question ; if they did, employers would quickly close upon them the doors of factories and workshops. One of the greatest boons working girls possess is a well-known eating-house in the City, where food is supplied at low prices. A plate of meat costs threepence, vegetables one penny, soup one halfpenny, puddings three-halfpence. This eating- house was started by a member of the Y.W.C.A. some time ago, and is now almost self-supporting. The lady wanted to put the girls of her district into a club, but the doctor would not give them a certificate of health. He said, "Feed them first, and teach them the Gospel afterwards.
    Ii more educated women would take up the [-264-] question of female labour, and work with as much charity and earnestness as Miss Black and the secretaries of the Y.W.C.A., we should soon have a different tale to tell about the work girls of London.