Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - London Factory Girls

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IT is not a little humiliating that such an insignificant creature as a puny squalling baby should occasionally present itself as an obstacle, not to say a downright stumbling-block, in the path of men whose mighty brains have conceived and matured gigantic schemes of reform, social and other.
    That the absurdly small animals have this annoying propensity, however, might be proved by at least a score of well authenticated instances. Personally I can vouch for one, where a wretched human waif, too young to know the use of his feet, or indeed to have a single tooth in its head, had the audacity to set at open defiance, and on his own premises, the governor of one of the largest prisons in the kingdom - defied him, cried him down, and mocked his pride and vaunting to the level of the dust. It was at the time when the silent system as applied to criminals was regarded as a radical cure for every shade of iniquity brought under its influence. I walked over his model establishment with the worthy governor, and when we came to that part where the women - over two hundred of them - were bestowed, he beckoned me to tread softly, and come and stand by him on a mat. He was a big man, but he appeared several inches bigger, as, swelling with the pride of power, he whispered,
    "Here, sir, I am happy to introduce you to the very perfection of our grand system. Within fifty yards all about you are [-140-] more than two hundred prisoners, all women - mark that, if you please, - and not a sound!"
    And he straightened the crooked finger with which he had been emphasising his remarks, and held it above his head as a signal for me to listen. Barely had he done so, however, when a lusty shout, a yell, a "yah!" burst from a neighbouring cell, and made the vaulted roof ring again. I never saw a man so visibly collapse in all my life. The lofty finger was ignominiously lowered, and he coughed and turned about that I might not see his troubled countenance,
    "Ahem! that's one of the babies born here, sir; we can't, of course, be responsible for their noise."
    In a manner almost as exasperating did the infantine rebels dare to challenge the triumphant onward march of the Metropolitan School Board. The inquisitor empowered by the Board went from house to house making inquiry, and got on swimmingly as regards the boys, but when he began to question concerning the girls of the family, and to insist that all who were under the age of thirteen must attend school forthwith, he found himself in troubled water. Mother shook her head. It was impossible that Eliza Jane, aged ten, should attend school. Who was to mind the baby?
    "Mind it yourself," was the not unnatural suggestion of Mr. Inspector.
    "How can I, when I've got to work and help my husband to get a living for our youngsters?"
    "Then get one of your elder girls to mind it."
    "How can they, when they are out at their daily work getting a living for themselves ?"
    It was the same story over and over again in whatever district the inspector pursued his investigations; and goodness only knows what might have been the consequence had it not occurred to the good-natured Board that, with a little con-[-141-]trivance, it might itself mind the baby. And so the difficulty was surmounted.
    In this instance, however, our thanks are due to the tiny human encumbrance, since it has been the means of directing attention to a rapidly-increasing evil - the employment of girls of tender years at workshops and factories, and at such work as used to and would still be done by boys, only that the value of labour has of late years vastly increased, and it is found cheaper to engage female "hands" than male. Whether it is due entirely to the miserable and sometimes inhuman laws which regulate supply and demand, or whether it is in any degree owing to the endeavours of those strong-minded leading female spirits who are ready to wrestle with mankind for a share of the downright hard labour of life, need not here be discussed. This much is certain, however, that the tender regard for young folks of the female kind, of which in old-fashioned times no man felt ashamed, is fast vanishing from amongst us. Any one who doubts this may easily satisfy himself of its truth. Let him at early morning take his stand at the foot of London or Blackfriars Bridge, and make observation of the hurrying human throng on its way "to work." Ten years since, at such an early hour, the motley company would have been found to consist almost entirely of men and and lads and little boys, and rare indeed was it to see a little girl with them. But now it is altogether different. At least as many girls as boys may be seen, scores of them puny, delicate-looking little creatures, with their lean skirts and woefully ill-shod feet, but nine times out of ten, with their oily locks surmounted by a hat or bonnet gay enough for a May-day queen, in gangs of three or four, chattering like magpies as they scurry along quick march to their "daily work."
    Or, should the incredulous reader be not one of the early rising family he may just as satisfactorily convince himself of the alarming change by visiting the neighbourhood of Holborn; [-142-] or Westminster, or Bethnal-green, or Clerkenwell, at noon, when the hundreds of "girl hands" get the customary hour for rest and dinner.
    Much may be learnt in that brief sixty minutes of the mischievous effects of substituting girl for boy labour. In the majority of cases the children - for many of them are little better - reside too far away from the factory to admit of their going home to the midday meal. They bring their food with them, the supply consisting generally of three or four slices of bread and butter and perhaps a penny or twopence to be expended in "something relishing" for dinner. The something relishing, however, seldom takes the shape of solid food, which perhaps is quite as well. Nothing bearing resemblance to animal sustenance, excepting such abominations as sausages and saveloys, is to be bought in these hard times for a penny or two- pence, and when the choice lies between semi-starvation and downright poisoning, it is commendable in the victim to adopt the latter.
    As a rule, the insufficient bread-and-butter is munched up in a hurry, and then the troops of work-girls, poor, thoughtless little wretches! disperse through the streets, expending their halfpence in trash, and, as is the generous nature of the sex, bestowing it in part on factory boys who keep them company in their dinner-hour stroll, when the weather is fine, or join with them in frolic more or less innocent under market archways and such like shelter should it happen to rain or snow. There is seldom any help for this, even if the girls themselves desire it, for it is the rule at most of these factories for the "hands" to clear out at meal times.
    Amid this is only one phase of the mischief. It is not the poorest and roughest class of girls that find employment at these places. The temptation to earn four or five shillings a week is, in hundreds of cases, more than can be withstood by girls delicately bred and hitherto kept carefully apart from all that is [-143-] coarse and vicious; and, having once joined the working army, there is nothing for it, if existence is to be rendered at all tolerable, but to conform to "barrack rule" and make, at all events, a passable pretence of doing as other girls do. How difficult it is to avoid contamination under such conditions is but too well known.
    Should the inquirer be anxious to discover what is the effect of this deprivation of home influences and freedom from wholesome paternal restraint on these young girls, let him listen to their conversation with the boys of their own age; let him observe their general behaviour at such times, and again when, come dark nights, boys and girls, are released from work alike, and troop hilariously home.
    One reason, perhaps, why this growing grievance has not attracted more attention on the part of the general public, is to be found in the fact that these small female factory hands are employed in large numbers in manufactories situated not in the pent-up courts and alleys of the City, but almost "out in the country" - at Bow, Stratford, Victoria Park, Highgate, &c., &c. These suburban workshops are rapidly increasing. One of the heaviest drawbacks on a manufacturers' profits is the enormous rent he is compelled to pay for his City premises. He will be charged five hundred a year in the shadow of St. Paul's for no more accommodation than he can procure five miles away for one hundred. He need be under no apprehension as to the difficulty of hiring hands at such a distance from town. The hands will follow the work; they can by no means afford to do otherwise. He has but to beckon with his finger, or, in other words, to insert an advertisement in a newspaper, and in a few hours his gates will be besieged by eager applicants.
    And it may, with some show of truth, be urged that, leaving charitable motives out of the question, the employer who uproots his manufacturing "plant" from the noise, and crowd, and dirt of town, and, transplanting it into the country, sets it  [-144-] down in company with hedgerows and daisies, confers a benefit on those who, by the sweat of their small brows, earn their bread of him. At least, the suburban factory-hand must be better off than her sister-toilers of the stifled and stenchful alley, inasmuch as the air she breathes is purer, and, from her healthful surroundings, she is less likely to be injuriously affected by her sedentary occupation.
    There are, however, two views that may be taken of this picture, the effect depending very much on whether it is contemplated in the light and warmth of summer time, or whether it is approached amidst the murk and haze of winter. It is all very well, no doubt, when country roads are delightful, and it is worth an hour's journey to saunter beneath green trees. It will hurt no human creature to trudge two miles or so to work under such circumstances, and it will do the young "hand" good rather than harm after an afternoon spent in the crowded workroom, to exercise her limbs and refresh her lungs by a similar walk home in the balmy evening twilight; but it is a very different matter in the month of November. At such a time of the year, and under most favourable conditions, young girls whose poverty compels them to turn out to work at a tender age must suffer severely. And when I speak of "most favourable" conditions, I have in my memory a factory of the suburban sort, a few words concerning which will illustrate my meaning.
    The establishment in question is to be found in the neighbourhood of Highgate. In its aspect there is nothing the least grim or repulsive, or suggestive of "Fee, faw, fum," or the grinding of small human bones for the manufacture of dainty bread for the ogre proprietor. Venerable trees surround the place, there is a big old-fashioned garden at the rear of it, and here are erected spacious and well-ventilated workrooms for the young folks employed. The work done at this factory is by no means of the "slop" character, such as that in which factory [-145-] hands are commonly hired to assist. It is a branch of a great City business, the heads of which are persons of immense wealth, and not at all disposed to be ungenerous in their dealings with their employées.
The "hands" at the Highgate establishment include about two hundred girls from thirteen to sixteen years old. The Factory Act enjoins that no child whose age is below thirteen shall be taken from school and set to work. But contemplation of the petticoated flock that, when the dinner-bell rang, came pouring out at the gates, reveals how difficult it is to legislate in such a matter. It may be that at the age of thirteen a girl should have outgrown childhood, and attained strength of body and mind sufficient to fit her for the labour market, but very much depends on the conditions under which the child has been reared. Here, for instance, were girls, straight-limbed and sturdy as young colts, and yet with faces that bespoke them under rather than over the stipulated age, but these were decidedly the exception. Other "thirteens" were there that might well have passed for ten, nine, or even eight years old. Poor mites of things, hungry-eyed, sharp- shouldered, and with nothing ample in the matter of attire but their mud-bespattered cotton stockings, that hung in rucks and folds about their sticks of legs. Unhealthy-looking little creatures, with faces shrunken and shrewd as are the visages of women wrinkled with age, and of that complexion of greyish white that invariably denotes the child whose familiarity with butcher's meat is little more than a nodding acquaintance as it is displayed on the butcher's hooks, and who is bread-and-butter built from her weaning upwards.
    It was a wretched day. The wind was keen, and a fine penetrating rain filtered through the chill fog that came rolling down the steep hill, at the foot of which Dick Whittington paused to listen to the suggestion of the friendly city church chimes. It seemed, legislative wisdom notwithstanding, a sin and a shame [-146-] that such puny, ill-conditioned little children should be deemed fit for active service in the battle of life.
    It wouldn't have mattered so much - nay, I will go so far, excluding for the moment the moral question-it would not have mattered at all, if these small "hands" had been warmly clad and plentifully fed; but in by far the majority of cases they were neither. Possibly they were bread-winners for the smaller fry at home, and there is no economy in sending them out to work at all if, in a vulgar manner of speaking, they consume all the grass they cut.
    Perhaps some of them were the children of fathers who, never endowed with a violent affection for labour, were not so short-sighted as to be oblivious of its value when practised by their progeny. I saw three girls of the bread-and-butter built order, clean and neat-haired, but tattered and painfully poor- looking, and they came out at the factory gate, looking hungrily down the road. Presently exclaimed the youngest, "Here comes father!" and there hove in sight, through the rain and mist, a slouching, lazy-looking man, with a battered black hat and a black coat out at the elbows, and who, moreover, was smoking a dirty short pipe. Father had brought his children's dinner. It was not a bulky affair; indeed, it was comprised in a bundle, the dimensions of which were so small that he would never have been suspected of bearing it at all had he not opened a breast lappet of his greasy old coat and disclosed it.
    "Catch hold, good luck to you," growled father; "a pretty day this is for me to come lugging up here! Make haste and eat it up, and cut away into work again."
    They were glad enough to get it. I saw the small parcel unfolded, and that it contained three slices of bread and three morsels of fried fish, and, this being fairly divided, the three poor sisters turned their faces towards Highgate Hill, and went for a walk, dining as they went. Father turned back, and with his great hands thrust deep in his empty pockets, stretched his [-147-] lanky legs to make haste home out of the disagreeable weather. Certainly he may have been a worthy but unfortunate mechanic, unavoidably out of work; if so, my instinct was much at fault. I hope that I was mistaken, and that the severe things at the moment I wished in his behalf not being his due, may never happen to him.
    I met two other little girls of the Highgate factory. Under a sheltering wall, bonnetless, and their dirty faces streaked with the rain that trickled down from their untidy heads of hair; with nothing to cover their thin little shoulders, and with their feet but ill-protected by woefully dilapidated shoes, were these two mites of girls- hands, as could at once be judged by the gay smears of colour that lit up the dinginess of their attire.
    "I understood," said I, addressing one of them, "that no girls were employed at the factory who were under thirteen ?"
    "And who ses I ain't thirteen ?" retorted one of the little women, with a hard puckering of her lips, and a defiant glance that made her for the moment look thirty.
    "I don't say so," I replied, "but you certainly appear younger."
    "Then I just ain't," said she, "there's my teeth to prove it, and you can go and ask our doctor if you don't believe me."
    After which she was good enough to explain that if there was any doubt as to the age of a child who applied for work at the factory she was referred to a medical gentleman retained by the firm, who by experience had learnt to rely on the evidence of dental witnesses within a child's mouth rather than on any oral testimony that might proceed from it.
    The two poor little shivering wretches were in dire distress. They had not appeared at the factory gate at the exact minute when their dinner-hour expired, and, as a punishment for the offence, were shut out for half an hour and fined a penny as well. We grew quite confidential under the shelter of my umbrella. They were really not to blame for being late. Another [-148-] girl  -for a "lark," as my bonnetless friends now ruefully assumed - had told them of a certain cookshop in Camden Town where might be bought enormous penn'orths of pudding, left cold from yesterday. They couldn't go home to dinner on account of the long distance, but had been provided for the midday repast by their respective parents with a slice of bread and a halfpenny. The penny, therefore, with which the feed of cold pudding was to be purchased was a joint stock affair, and they had set out together to make the investment. They had a run for it - it is at least a mile and a half from the Holloway-road to Camden Town - but no pudding shop was there, and after a fruitless search for it they were driven by stress of weather to seek comfort in brandy-balls, the last remnants of which they were sadly sucking when I first addressed them. We had some discourse on the subject of work and wages. The diminutive "hands" informed me that they earned respectively sixpence and sevenpence a day, and that they got to work at eight in the morning, had an hour to dinner (from half-past eleven until half-past twelve), at three o'clock ten minutes for "luncheon," and left off at half-past five, excepting Saturday, when they worked no longer than one o'clock in the day.
    Was three shillings or three-and-sixpence a week as much as any of the girls earned? I asked. Not by a long way, was the answer, some of 'em - the big 'uns - earned as much as eight or nine shillings, but that was piece-work. Were the girls compelled to turn out at dinner time, even though they lived so far away that they could not go home to that meal? Oh, no. There was a jolly fire for them that liked to stay in. She, my four-foot-high informant, meant to stay in dinner times when her father got some work. What had that to do with it? A precious sight ; the girls that stopped in all brought something to cook at the fire, and it wasn't likely that the girl who had only bread for dinner would stay in to be looked down on. 
    [-149-] So that you see, and as I before remarked, even in the best regulated of factories where poor little girls are employed it is impossible to avoid much that Christian-minded men and women must wish was far otherwise.
    Of the two hundred girls, whose ages varied from thirteen to sixteen or seventeen, and who were hurrying out to the music of the bell, a considerable number were comfortably clad, and hurried away for home and a good dinner, it is to be hoped. But this was by no means the case. Dozens of them evidently had left the paternal abode in the morning with the intention of dining out, and they proceeded to do so literally, despite the mud under foot and the rain overhead - the younger hands, who are indifferent as to appearances, munching their slices of bread or bread-and-treacle undisguisedly, and the elder ones carrying their dinner in their pocket, its material being favourable to piecemeal demolition.
    For amusement and to while away the dinner-hour, many of these last-mentioned girls - bright-looking, and by no means ill-favoured some of them - made a tour of the immediate neighbourhood, and, with their poor flimsy skirts bedraggled and clinging about their ankles, and their toes benumbing on the splashy pavement, feasted their eyes on the treasures revealed in the shop of the milliner, and on the gorgeous display of velvets, and silks, and sealskin on view at the drapery establishment. It was observable that they were not cast down or despondent while making their surveys, and that their conversation was not at all tinctured with melancholy or regret. They were free-spoken young persons, and it was not difficult to overhear what they said.
    "That," remarked one of them, in reference to a modest woollen shawl, to which her attention had been called by another girl, "that! Pooh! All very well for a common servant gal, but it wouldn't suit me."
    Bless you, these slipshod, half-starved factory hands affect [-150-] the supremest contempt for domestic servitude, and would blush with shame to the crowns of their blowsy bonnets were it revealed that even a most distant female relative had so demeaned herself as to engage as a maid-of-all-work. A day or so previous to my visit to Highgate with the same business in hand, I sought to make myself acquainted with the habits and customs of a swarm of poor little female urchins, who work at a "frisette" factory in the neighbourhood of Wilderness-row, St. Luke's.
    Again it was dinner time, and I watched a troop of them hurrying to a villanous-looking cheap cookshop to invest their precious halfpence in pease-pudding or some such hot and cheap though unsubstantial dainty; but there was one female, of fourteen possibly, with the rest, who stood wistfully beside the cookshop window regarding the stock and making up her mind before she took the step that was irretraceable. Finally they all came to a decision, excepting the damsel in question, and she, though jingling her halfpence in her hand, and with her very eyes as well as her mouth watering with hunger, somehow contrived to resist the temptation to cross the threshold. With a lingering look at the luscious display, she paused for a last sniff at the open door, and then, as though goaded by its maddening effect, rushed off at a half run towards the Goswell-road. Her speed was such that it was no easy matter, without exciting public curiosity, to keep up with her. "She is aware of another cookshop," I thought; "she is wiser than her factory mates, and will, doubtless, get more Pease-pudding for her penny."
    But it was not at a cookshop that my heroine paused; it was at a "wardrobe" shop - an establishment where may be purchased second-hand apparel and finery. She did not hesitate, but at once entered the shop, and, after a few minutes, emerged with a somewhat faded but gorgeous bunch of artificial flowers, consisting of a rose, full blown, a poppy or two, [-151-] and a fair sprinkling of wheat. With a glow of triumph on her wizen little face, she cast an eager glance to the right and to the left, and spying close at hand the secluded gateway of a timber yard, darted across the road, and, crouching in a corner, was soon high busy with her battered old hat on her knees, retrimming it.
    I ventured to offer her a little friendly advice while she was so engaged. Did she not think it was foolish to waste her hard-earned money in such trash? To which she uncivilly replied, "that that was her business, and that it would p'raps be better for some people if they looked after theirs and let other people's alone."
    How much a week did she earn at the factory?
    "Four shillings, if I must know."
    "That's very little. Why, a handy, likely-looking girl, as you appear to be, might earn twice as much at least, or the value of it, as nursemaid or under kitchenmaid in a respectable family. Such places are not difficult to obtain; why do you not make inquiries and better your condition?"
    "Because," replied the juvenile maker of frisettes at the fee of eightpence a day - as she gave certain finishing touches to her off-hand millinery - "because I'm above that poor scum that mustn't wear a feather or a ribbin, and because I likes my liberty;" and, lifting her ragged flounces, she made me a curtsey and sailed out of the timber-yard exactly as became a young lady who wore such a resplendent headdress.