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

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IT IS now many years since the indignation of the country was roused, by some startling revelations that were made, concerning certain degrading employments in which girls and women were engaged. It was discovered that, amongst other objectionable occupations, in certain parts of the country, females were permitted to work in coal pits, and it was unmistakably shown that the more brutalised of the male mining population, thought it neither sin nor shame to permit their wives and daughters to share with them the toil and peril of the deep-down coalfields.
    To wield a "pick" and work as a navvy works in a railway cutting, were light amusement compared with the terribly hard labour these amazons of the black country cheerfully engaged in every working day throughout the year. When the pit had an evil reputation as a fiery one, like her husband or brother, she worked by the dim light of a Davy lamp; but when there was no danger on this score, likewise in imitation of her male relatives, she carried an inch or two of tallow candle, glaring and guttering in the leather socket affixed to her forehead by means of an encircling strap.
    She tackled her "stint" like a man, or, if she were as yet too young to work as a hewer, there were various ways by which she might earn fair wages-as a gatekeeper, her business being to sit in a pitch dark hole by the gatepost, and let the coal trains through on their way to the pit's eye, closing the portal promptly after them to keep out the bad gas; or [-79-] she - the little girl of eleven or twelve - might find a job as "slack-drawer," when her task would be to cart off the small chippings that so speedily accumulate, and impede the movements of the hewer when he is undermining a wall of coal, and is 10 or 12 feet "in," and with no more than about 20 inches from the floor to crown. Within such a limited space the little slack-drawer would, of course, have to accommodate herself to circumstances.
    By means of a waist strap and chain she was harnessed to a shallow iron cart with very low wheels with leather protectors for her elbows and knees, as she crawled in and out with her black load, Of course it needed but that such abominations should be exposed, to ensure their speedy abolition. There is still work for women in the coal districts but they never go below. They work at the pit's bank as sorters; but to see them at Wigan, and other places, in their masculine attire, with a pick and shovel, and a short pipe between their lips, one would never suspect their real sex were it not for the smart earrings in which they take delight, and occasionally the gay coral necklace encircling necks black as the hands of a coal- heaver.
    I fancy I see the tender-hearted reader open his eyes at this. Can it be possible in generous and enlightened England, with her ever- advancing education, and her vigilant societies for the protection of women and children, that even in those rude districts, where coal pits abound, women and girls are still able to find such disgraceful employment? My dear, innocent sir, worse is done every day and all the year round under your own unsuspecting nose, as it were, assuming that you reside within a radius of three or four miles of Charing Cross. Use your own judgment as to which is preferable, to shovel and sort the new, wholesome coal, as it is brought up from the depths at which it is hewn, or to work knee-high in the pernicious gatherings from a thousand dustbins, and, with bare hands, maul over the dreadful mess, sorting and separating the useless from the useful, sieveful by sieveful.
    And can it really be that such work is done in London, and by women? The answer is that it is so, and not only in one, but in perhaps a dozen places, as many, indeed, as there are receptacles for the wholesale reception of the collections of the parochial dust contractor; and though it is not exclusively women's work, at least as many women and girls as men and boys find constant occupation there.
    It is not a pretty spectacle, and perhaps it is questionable whether the picture appears at its ugliest on any icy day in midwinter, or in sultry August, when every nauseating sight and smell is so awfully suggestive. As a looker on, I shall decidedly prefer the winter time; but fair weather or frosty, it would require a pen far more graphic than mine to assist the reader to a perfect realisation of the strange scene. It is on the Regent's Canal - the yard, I mean and from any of the vast mounds a stone might easily be thrown into the water, where jagged lumps of dirty ice are floating sluggishly in the stream, and beating blindly against the prows and sides of the great dingy barges powdered with hoar frost, waiting for their freight - of sifted "breeze," to be conveyed to distant country brickmakers.
    At the opposite end of the vast yard is the gateway at which the [-80-] dust carts, newly laden from their house-to house visitation, enter; and, after adding their contents to one or other of the stenchful hills, depart for more. It is from these hills that the sifters draw their supplies. Behold a female sorter! By one distinguishing feature, and one only, may she be known from the sterner sex. It is the earrings and the necklace that betray the buxom young "bank woman" of the coal works, and in the canal-side dust yard it is the bonnet or hat, bent and battered out of all semblance to its original shape, and so thickly powdered with ashes that nothing but a vague guess could be made as to the material of its groundwork, but, as though to make up for the deficiences, brimming over with a luxuriance of ribands and flowers.
    Dilapidated and dirty, these last-mentioned relics of finery, are evidently fished out of a sieve, and perhaps but temporarily lodged in the loops of the frowsy head gear, or in a cupboard or closet, until they could receive further attention. But from the ears downward there is nothing in her attire to mark the difference between the male and female sorter. Both are like animated scarecrows, with sacks for skirts and sacks for "bodies" and capes, and the distinction is all the more difficult because, as already mentioned, the mound of muck as the siftings constantly add to it buries them above the knees; and they all smoke short pipes, and all are thickly powdered with grey dust and ashes.
    That it is horribly cold work at this inclement season, and bad for those subject to rheumatism or to neuralgia, might be gathered from the fact that some of the elderly sifters - and they seemed to range in age from 17 to 70 - had their poor old jaws tied up with wisps of dirty rag, while several had their hands muffled up in bandages of the hue of a chimney back because of chilblains. Not that in the coldest weather their blood was likely to stagnate from lack of bodily exercise. Seen from a distance, and by a person ignorant of what was really going on, the movements of a female sifter, busy at work, would appear not a little puzzling.
    It is a business that requires elbow room, though the legs and feet may be entombed the while. The sifter has an attendant, or rather she has a share in one. This is a youth, an unmistakable budding dustman, whose stand is about four yards off, on a mound of newly-shot dustbin stuff. He has a shovel of prodigious dimensions, and the magic word that keeps him going is "serve," and instantly a flying shovelful, delivered with unerring skill, replenishes the ready receptacle. So given over to the sifter, it is the roughest of "rough stuff." Cabbage leaves and stumps, broken crockery and half bricks, scraps of paper, lumps of mouldy bread, rags, bones and broken glass are mixed with the dust, and before she begins to agitate the sieve with conjuror-like ability she proceeds to deposit each of the articles enumerated in a separate basket placed handily for its reception.
    The baskets are neither in a row nor in front of her. They are before her, behind her, on either side, and, using both hands at once, she flings left and right, and over this shoulder and that, with bewildering rapidity; and then, all foreign substances being got rid of, she gives the sieve a few shakes, a toss and another shake, and the ashes have all fallen [-81-] through the iron meshes, leaving only the "breeze," i.e., cinders and bits of coal. Woman or girl thus comprehends her daily labour, without change or cessation, excepting for a few minutes at meal times, when the sieve is relinquished and they wade out of the ashes that are swallowing them, and sit on a cinder heap, by a fire made of cinders in a cast-off slop pail or a battered saucepan, and sip hot coffee out of nondescript crockery and old galley pots rescued from the dust heap.
    Were convicts at Portland or Chatham put to such revolting labour, and kept at it every working day from morning until night, only for a month, and by way of experiment, the humanitarians of the country would raise such a shout of indignation that no Government dare disregard it. In the first place it would be stigmatised as the direst cruelty to condemn men to such an occupation that must inevitably undermine their constitutions and shorten their lives. This, however, would be a mistake.
    Strange as it may appear, though there would undoubtedly be danger in permitting a dustbin to have a place under the same roof with the inhabitants of a house, woman and girls may, with seeming impunity, stand from morning until night with their nose and mouth within a foot of half a bushel of dust-hole offal ("awful" the dust sifters call it), all the time shaking it up and nimbly manipulating its component parts. The manager of the establishment I visited assured me that the same "hands" worked for him all the year round, but rarely losing a single day on account of sickness: and, what was still more remarkable, during the hot cholera epidemic, though the terrible disease was prevalent in the neighbourhood, the sifting yards was as busy, and not one of those employed was even temporarily indisposed.
    This, of course, says something in extenuation for the employment of daughters and sisters and mothers at such unwomanly toil but, though one may accept the amazing statement as fact, it does not go very far towards enabling one to regard with equanimity the score of so of poor wretches huddled up in rags and old sacks, with their heads, young and old, strewn with ashes, grubbing at the horrible sieves, and dealing with their contents in the manner described. There naturally arose in my mind the question, Was it work that was well paid for? Perhaps that was the key to the puzzle. Unless these women - at all events the strong and able-bodied of their number - received liberal remuneration, they would surely find some less revolting employment. Field work would be preferable, rag-sorting, anything, if they could earn as much money. But I was informed that it was "poor pay."
    The sifters are not employed by the principals; they give out the work to a governor, and he hires the hands. It appears to be a curious as well as a speculative business for all engaged in it. For a certain sum the governor or sub-contractor engages to sift all the stuff brought to the yard, and to deliver to the firm as its share all the "breeze," ashes, and "hard core," or material useful for laying a foundation for new roads. But, besides these valuables, there are found amongst the dust, bones and rags, and all manlier of metals, and flint, glass and paper, and old shoes and boots, and these belong to the sub-contractor.
    Broken articles capable of being [-82-]  turned into gold and silver, are found in plenty in this grimy Tom Tiddler's ground, and so is bread. I saw a heap of it of the colour of dust itself, and in every stage of mouldiness, and some of it in pieces of such size as suggested gross waste somewhere. I did not recognise it as bread until my guide enlightened me.
    "And what is the use of it?" I asked.
    "The use of it," he replied, "Why, its good material to be sure."
    And I must confess to a sense of relief when he further explained that it was all sent into the country to feed pigs, after it had undergone a cleansing process. I discovered that there was very little that passed through the hands of the sifters that was not worth money.
    The accumulation of old boots and shoes, mildewed and rotten though they seemed, were put by for a customer, who periodically brought a two-horse van to fetch them away; the old crumpled paper was worth eighteenpence a hundredweight; the bones had their market value; and as for the rags, in order that the most might be made of them, at one part of the premises there was a "wash-house" of two enormous vats, in which the many tons of fragments of cotton and stuff and linen sluttishly consigned to the dustbin were washed and afterwards hung up to dry, and packed in "pockets," and sold to the paper maker.
    All these things, and many more that I have forgotten, were the perquisites of the sub-contractor, all that came legitimately to the net of the poor sifter being the scraps of wood. I cannot conceive a more humiliating picture than that of a gang of mothers and grandmothers emerging from the dustyard, with their rags ingrained with ashes and their backs bent under a load of rotten wood, which they regard as a precarious means of eking out the poor shilling or so earned in the open yard, and through a black winter day, over the dreadful sieve.