Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Girls of the Factory

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THE title attached to the present Collection of Papers, so aptly bespeak the character and position of the individuals treated of, that I am happily spared the task of writing a long explanatory Preface. The Toiler, - as herein depicted, - has no claim, and puts forth none, to rank in the same category, with what arc vaguely termed the working classes, and which of course include mechanics and men of the workshop. The latter have attained rights and privileges that raise him many rungs of the social ladder above his humble brother the Toiler, who, is his very humble servant, and content to be literally, that which the carpenter and the bricklayer has since ceased to be except in metaphor,-an earner of bread by the sweat of his brow. In London there are scores and hundreds of these same unconsidered Toilers who contribute almost incalculably to the comfort and convenience of their more fortunate fellow creatures; working early and late, and, as a rule, honestly and soberly. It would be no great wonder, if such a struggle to live blunted their better nature and brutalized them utterly. Were it so, these papers would never have been attempted. They are the result of personal investigation, and the result of my diligent enquiry and observations is set down plainly, and with no design to accommodate the taste of the fastidious, or those whose superfine sensitiveness is in danger of being shocked by being brought face to face with the rude and real.
    Originally these articles appeared in the columns of the Daily Telegraph, and as they appeared there, and as they re-appear here, are very much at the service of the indulgent reader.







THE London Factory Girl may be said to owe her  existence to the invention and the universal application of the sewing machine. At the time when needlework was hand labour and machinery had not as yet been taught to set stitches, there were shop girls in plenty, and girls who found employment in warehouses, but, except in a few exceptional cases, the female labourer - the worker for weekly wages at the wholesale manufactory - was unknown. The daughters of the London working men were more fortunate in this respect than their sisters of Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Lancashire, and a score of other provincial towns and cities that might be enumerated. In those places the mill is the devouring dragon, with as insatiable an appetite for young women "hands" as the Monster of Wantley had for innocent maidens. Matters were, and are still, worse in certain districts round about black Birmingham and Wolverhampton. It is quite a common thing in these begrimed regions for a father of a family to bring up his girls to the forge, so that, being an expert chain or bolt and nail maker, she may be fairly eligible to meet the requirements of any enterprising young fellow looking out for a wife.
    In this unsentimental part of the Queen's dominions a man's idea of a comfortable fireside com-[-6-]panion is one who can lug lustily at the smithy bellows, and hold her own against him with a seven- pound hammer in her fist, and a glowing "heat" on the anvil between them. Not only must she be mistress of the art of pudding-making and be capable of domestic management generally, she must be able and willing to tuck up her gown-sleeves and act as his benchmate. This may seem strange to those who are so tenderly disposed towards woman- kind that they are shocked to hear them toiling as printers or watchmakers; nevertheless it is simply a fact. As I write, I have in my mind's eye an outlying and barbarous village, not very far from Dudley Port, known as Lye Waste, where the long rows of squalid streets ring like a confusion of bells, because of the plying of hammers on anvils in the "hovel" attached to almost every house on either side of the way. They work late into the night, for the pay is wretchedly poor, and after dark the cartway is shot and cross-shot with the lights from the forge fires. Looking in amongst the flying sparks, the glowing iron, and the tinkling anvils, one discovers fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters, thick as bees, and with bare elbow-room, one and all, hard at it, while such of the babies who are too young to "sort and count," kick up their heels in the warm ashes.
    Thank goodness we have nothing approaching such a terrible state of things in or near London, but it is questionable if most of us are aware of the nature and the extent of the downright hard work that thousands of young girls courageously endure, week in, week out, and all the year round, within half a mile of St. Paul's; and that for wages so miserably small, that compared with them, the maid of all work with her twelve pounds a year and "all found," is a well-to-do individual. Needlework of one kind or another is the staple of factory labour in the City. But the individual who in his mind associates the setting of stitches with quiet, would have found himself as much bewildered as I was, on entering a large room near Cheapside, where sixty sewing machines were at "full tear" at one and the same time, the work in progress being the manufacture of boys' slop clothing. The place was spacious, lofty, light, and tolerably well ventilated; but the noise was deafening.
    The reader, whose knowledge of a sewing machine is limited to seeing and hearing the elegant contrivance used by his female relatives, can form no idea of the nerve-thrilling clack and clatter made by one factory machine; but when it comes to sixty, and the women and girls who work them are all in high-pitched conversation with each other, the din is simply indescribable. They were cheerful enough, however. Those who were not talking were singing, and one in vain looked about for a sad face or one that denoted brooding or melancholy. In these respects the "factory hands" undoubtly had the advantage of Tom Hood's "woman who sat in unwomanly rags, plying her needle and thread;" but in the matter of downright hard labour the unfortunate shirtmaker of the past had quite a light and easy task compared with that which is daily tackled and conquered by the modern machine needlewoman of the factory.
    It may seem at first sight an exaggeration, but really it is not, to claim for any one of the sixty I saw engaged at boy's trousers and jacket making, that her work was [-7-] harder than that of any bricklayer or carpenter, and that the one or the other, put to a heavy sewing machine and taught the business, would feel himself more thoroughly fatigued at the end of the day than ever he was while plying a saw or a trowel. There is proof that it is so on the very face of it. The carpenter or bricklayer works only with his hands. The girl machinist uses her feet  - sometimes one only, but more frequently both - in keeping the "treadle" going. She requires as well the aid of both in manipulating the material in course of making up, whilst never for an instant may her eyes wander from the seam that is constantly growing under her hands at the rate of a yard per minute, and all in the midst of an ear-splitting clatter that of itself is sufficient to fatigue any one unused to it in a very few hours. It is wonderful how young girls of delicate constitution, as many of them are, and of not particularly well fed or warmly clothed, can for long endure such a severe strain on their physical powers. Nor is it surprising to hear that they "break down" occasionally.
    "My sister used to work here," a young woman informed me; "but after about a year she had to go to the hospital for swollen veins, and she was ordered to desist from the work altogether. I know several girls that hav'n't been able to stand it, and many that do are glad to bandage their ankles, to give them strength. It is tearing work, sir, at busy times. It seems to shake you all to pieces, somehow. It pays pretty well. I can earn, when we are at full swing, twelve or thirteen shillings a week; but, take the slack times - and sometimes they'll fast four or five weeks right off, with nothing at all doing - I don't suppose it would average more than nine shillings. Oh, yes, I've had a good bit of experience. I've been at since I was fifteen; now I'm eighteen. My earnings are about the same as the others; some a little more, some a little less. Eight to ten are our hours, with an hour for dinner, and half-an-hour for tea."
    "How do you go home to your dinner?" I asked her.
    "I live too far away; most of us do. Poor people can't live very near Cheapside. No, sir, the dinner is the worst part of it, I think. It's like this, you see. There's nowhere, even if a girl had the money, where she could go in the City and get a quiet bit of dinner, according to her means."
    "But," said I, "I suppose you can cook any little thing you take with you at the workplace?"
    "It isn't allowed, sir. You can bring your tea and sugar, and get hot water from the kitchen, but at dinner time we all have to turn out."
    "It is right, no doubt, what they say about its being necessary to have the work room empty and the windows open for an hour in the middle of the day; but it makes it very uncomfortable for poor girls who live a long way off. They bring their bread-and-butter or whatever it may be, in their pocket, and eat it on the sly before dinner time, and then they go for a walk in the dinner hour."
    "And where do they walk ?"
    "Oh, anywhere, up Cheapside and the Poultry and round St.Paul's church-yard, mostly looking in at the shops. It is very well in the summer, but it's wretched in the winter time; and I very often wish that I was an outdoor hand instead of an indoor."
    "Should you be as well off-in the way of earnings I mean?"
   [-8-] "I should if I had a machine of my own. That's where the drag is - that and having to lose time in taking work home. Half-a-crown a week for hire, and, say, two half days a week for fetching and carrying, makes a big hole in a week's wages. It makes it miserable pay when it comes to that."
    "But you can obtain a machine on the hire and purchase system, can you not."
    "So you can, sir, but where is the half-crown a week come from in the slack time? One may get it together for a week or two, but if the slackness lasts long, why the payments are bound to stop."
    "And then the lender sends for his machine?"
    "No, he is not in a hurry to do that. If he was, you might hire of someone else when the work came in. He only sends you notice that your agreement is cancelled."
    "And what can the out-door hand earn?"
    "Well, sir, I speak from my knowledge when I say that they can't earn more than an average shilling a day, making the deductions I told you of. They're good hands too. The best, some of them. Girls that have worked indoors most likely, and got married to better themselves, and, after all, glad to go back to it. They can't well leave home, you see, especially where there's children, and so they hire a machine and make the best of it. But it's a beggarly living-out-door tailors' slop work."
    "Not so bad as it used to be before the invention of the sewing machine?" I suggested.
    "Oh, I don't know, sir," she replied. "Mixing with so many girls and women in a work-room, one hears a great deal, and when it comes to working, like hundreds of them do, twelve long hours for eighteenpence, and fivepence to pay out of that for the machine, I don't think it could have been much harder for a poor woman in the very worst times."
    But it is not amongst the factories and warehouses of the City proper that one should seek for the seamiest side of girl labour. To discover that it will be necessary to go a little further afield. Not very far. A twopenny ride by tram from Aldgate will carry you to a likely preserve of the sort. At Stratford and near Stratford Bridge, in an awfully evil-smelling place called Marsh Gate Lane, there are several lucifer-match manufactories, at which the hands employed appear to be chiefly females. I chanced to arrive there just as the clanging bells all round about were announcing dinnertime, and presently there came swarming out into Stratford High Street a troop of petticoated toilers, such as an Englishman, and especially a Londoner, could not contemplate without feelings of shame and humiliation. From one lucifer-match factory gate alone I saw at least a hundred young girls emerge, sharp set, as the briskness of their steps betrayed, for the mid-day meal, but with lamentably small means to satisfy that not unnatural craving. They were not a nice-looking lot of girls. Indeed, I think I may go so far as saying that a more draggletail, poverty-stricked crowd of poor little wretches I never set eyes upon. Their coarse, heavy aprons charitably concealed the greater part of their tattered and flimsy skirts, but there certainly was not one in six who could boast of a mud-proof pair of boots.
    As a rule, although the day was intensely cold, they wore neither [-9-] shawl nor bonnet, but, in almost every instance, the most elaborate pains had been taken with the hair. Bedaubed and plastered with grease or oil, it was arranged according to the latest mode as pictured in the lady's penny book of fashions. "Fringe on the forehead" was the all-prevailing style; and it may be very well where the brow is of average intellectual dimensions, and the contour of the face, if not perfection, is passable, but its effect on the appearance of a young lady whose birth and abiding place is one of London's "back settlements," must be seen to be believed. Take a coarse, broad face, with small deep-set eyes and prominent cheekbones, a stubby nose, with a mouth that in the glove trade would be called an "out size," and clap a frizzle of fringe between where the hair's "parting" should be and the eyebrows, and if a human face can be made to look more tigerish I should be very sorry to behold it.
    That the majority of these girls of the lucifer match factory did not reside in the immediate neighbourhood was evident from the fact that they nearly all of them hurried to the local cookshops to spend their few halfpence. In many instances it was only one penny a girl expended. Experience, no doubt, has taught them what is the best value for such a coin obtainable in that region, and the popular voice is unmistakably in favour of a thick slice of bread and a piece of fried fish - not a large one, no bigger, perhaps, than the palm of one's hand - but possessed of potent "relishing powers," if a judgment may be formed on the extraordinary long way off that the fried fish shop appeals to one's sense of smell: and capable of bestowing an appetising flavour to the last bite of the thickest slice that might be cut from a loaf.
    A door or two from the fish shop there was a hot soup establishment, where a substantial preparation of the pea was to be obtained for the marvellously low sums of a halfpenny and a penny a basin; and the shop was so full of customers within ten minutes of the factory dinner bells ceasing their din, that three young females were glad to have their "pen'orths" handed over the heads of the earlier arrivals, and to eat it as they stood in the street. It was a painful spectacle - so poor and pitiful and poverty-stricken. It would have been bad enough had they been boys, but with all their coarseness and untidiness, one could not forget their sex, and that in a few years they would be women and wives - mothers probably. I spoke to one girl, about sixteen years old, and she told me that she lived in Shadwell (about two miles distant), and that working twelve hours a day she could earn seven shillings a week, out of which she gave her mother halfa-crown a week for her lodging and washing, and "kep' herself£ in food and clothes with the remaining four-and-sixpence. That was about the average earnings in that trade, she informed me, for girls of her age and experience- she had been a year and a half at the business.
   Lucifer match making, accordingly to this young lady's statement, "was a much better game one time. But I'm a speaking now," she continued, "of when my mother was a gal. She worked at it, and so did my Aunt Loo. She died in the London Hospital of it."
    " Of what ?"
    "Of the matches. There wasn't no new-fangled ways of making matches in them times, at least [-10-] so I've heard my mother say, on'y brimstone and fosterous, and the fosterous used to get into your bones and eat 'em away in your face and jaws mostly ; that's what my Aunt Loo died of. But see what she used to earn, and my mother too ! Eighteen shillings or a pound a week!"
    "And with the prospect of a dreadful death by phosphorus poisoning ? " I suggested.
    "That's 'cordin' to your luck," responded the reckless young matchmaker, "it's like being in a raffle. Some wins and some loses."
    "And would you risk it if you had an opportunity?"
    "Rather," she replied, with an emphatic wag of her head, that left no doubt as to her earnestness, wouldn't you if you was me?"
    "I should hope not."
    "Oh, but you don't know what it is to find your clothes and wittles on four-and-sixpence a week," said my young lady with the forehead fringe and the dilapidated shoes. "You might alter your 'pinion if you did."
    "The puzzle to me is how you contrive to make four-and-sixpence spread over a whole week for food, let alone clothes," I remarked; "there are not many girls of your age who do it, I should imagine."
    "Oh, don't you make a mistake; there's dozens that I know that do it on less."
    "But how is it possible?"
    "Well, I'll tell you. A pen'orth of bread at breakfast and tea, and a hap'orth of coffee - there's three- pence; and twopence for dinner - there's fi'ppence; and five sixes is half-a-crown for the week; and you give your mother sixpence for your grub on Sunday, and there you are landed with eighteenpence for clothes and things. It's jolly soon counted up, you see."
    It seemed to me to be anything but jollily "counted up;" and I remarked,- "But you havn't said anything about meat for dinner all the week. You can't buy a meat dinner for two pence."
    "That's cos you've never tried it," she replied triumphantly. "I've had my soup,-and look here, ain't that meat - and bread as well, and the whole lot tuppence!"
    And, as she spoke, she disclosed in the folds of her apron a prodigious and smoking hot sausage of the "saveloy" kind and an inch-thick slice of bread-soup a halfpenny, bread a halfpenny, and "meat" a penny.
    "There's one meal you have forgotten now," I remarked. "What about supper?"
    "Oh, as to supper," said she laughing, but not blushing, "you've got enough to think about after you leave off in amusements without troubling about supper. Sides, if she's hungry, a gal's sweetheart must be a stingey sort of a fellow if he won't pay for something to eat if a girl wants it."
    "But what if a girl has not got a sweetheart ?"
    "Ah, if!"
    There was not much in the monosyllabic ejaculation but for the tone in which it was uttered, and the indescribable gesture that accompanied it. She - this girl of sixteen - had no patience to entertain for a moment the supposition that a female of her mature years should have nobody to walk out with. I cannot say, however, that I was much surprised. The utter absence of maidenly reserve that, in common with her companions, she exhibited, the forehead fringe, the flashy cheap earrings, all pointed as unmistakably to a sweetheart and free-and-easy even-[-11-]ing recreation as the weathercock denotes the way the wind is blowing. While we were conversing there came along the road half-a-dozen little girls - mere children, of ten or twelve years of age apparently, and they, too, entered in at the match factory gates.
    "Do they work at your trade?" I asked my chatty informant.
    "Yes; but they don't earn much; half-a-crown or three shillings a-week perhaps."
"I wonder," said I, "they are permitted to work at all; they are very young."
    "They goes to school part of the days; they're half-timers."
    "And do the older girls and these children all work together?"
    "Why shouldn't they? What's to hinder 'em ?"
    I did not care to enlighten her as to my opinion on the matter; but as I glanced up and down the High Street, in at the soup shop and the fish shop, and listened to the bad language and the ribald jokes, and the shameless laughter that was so freely current amongst the swarm of female factory hands of the locality, I could not but think that rather than mix with and learn what they could scarcely avoid learning in such rough company, the poor little half-timers had best be always at school, even though in the course of the week they went a meal or two short to pay for the privilege.