Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mysteries of Modern London, by One of the Crowd [James Greenwood], [1883] - Girls of the Brickfields

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WHEN, in the course of my Black Country peregrinations, I inquired where it was that brick - making was most extensively carried on, I was informed that the place was known as Langley-green. There was something so pleasant and promising in the name that I looked forward to the time when 1 should pay a visit there as a kind of small treat in store for me. For more than a fortnight I had been doomed to wander in regions as grimly anti-verdant as could possibly be conceived. Cinders [-117-] and smoke, iron and flame, with a sulphurous odour pervading the air so suggestive of bogeydom that it seemed quite befitting there should be so many little chapels and prayer-meeting places scattered all over the neighbourhood. But there was such a fresh and country flavour about "Langley Green," that, despite its brickfields, I already in imagination saw the thatched dwellings of the cottages and the trim little gardens, with cows lowing contentedly in the straw yards, and eatable-looking sheep pasturing in the meadows. The sheep I had seen of late were not eatable-looking. Their fleece was dusty as a long- unbeaten carpet, their faces dirty as Cockney gutter-children, their eyes ringed round with furnace smoke, so that they seemed to be wearing spectacles, while, in consequence of nipping at grass heavily laden with coal-grit their teeth were preternaturally white and their lips black; all of which peculiarities combined gave them such a raffish, not to say ruffianly appearance, that one could scarcely endure their conversion to tender innocent mutton. If there is aught in a name, however, I should find an altogether different state of affairs at Langley Green.
    And I did - with a vengeance. The railway station at which you alight at the dreadful place is styled Oldbury and Langley Green. The murky air being saturated with an icy rain, I was glad to seek temporary shelter at a little inn a short distance from the bridge that spanned the pea-soup- complexioned canal. It was dinner-time, and there was company in the cosey, brick-floored parlour. Presently one who was partaking of cold pickled pork and bread with the help of a bowie knife, spoke:-
    "Bill," said he, " did you see Frank this morning?"
    "No, I didn't; queer, ain't he?"
    "Rather. He's knackered - that's wot he is. It's got him by the jaws, and it won't let him go, you may bet."
    "What's that?" somebody else inquired; "another one of 'em gone off from over the way? Serve him right - serve em all right if they will go chucking their lives away because the wages are high."
    "What I say is," remarked a man eagerly, with a mouthful; "what I say is, they should take the tip in time if they're going wrong. When their teeth begin to fall out that's the time they should take the tip and cut it, and find a job somewhere else."
    And so the subject was summarily abandoned as being too well worn and commonplace to pass current even as gossip. What was it that had got the unfortunate Frank "by the jaws" so inexorably as to justify the observation that he was "knackered?" What was it to be knackered, and what was the horrible thing to be avoided so soon as a man was forewarned of its approach by the falling out of his teeth. I waited in vain for a renewal of the conversation, and two o'clock presently struck, on which the company wiped their dinner knives on the legs of their trousers, pocketed them, and took their departure. All excepting one, by good luck, who seemingly had nothing better to do than to stay and finish his beer. Luckier still, he was that individual who had inquired of Bill respecting "Frank" and [-118-] his woes. He was a young fellow, pale and sickly-looking, and, as he was deficient of several of his front teeth, I ventured, after we had exchanged a few commonplace remarks, to inquire if he had "taken the tip", as the man had advised. That started him, and in a very few minutes, if I might believe all that he told me, I found that I was never more mistaken in my life than when I imagined that Langley Green would prove to be an oasis in the ashy desert through which I had of late been wandering. I say if I might believe him, and I make that reservation more because what he told me was so incredible than that from his style and manner he might be suspected of being a promulgator of outrageous fibs. He informed me that the staple of the trade at Langley Green, otherwise Oldbury, was not bricks but chemicals, the manufacture of which gave employment to many hundreds of working men. Did I see that great grey hill yonder (a symmetrical mound many hundred feet in length, and at least a hundred and fifty in height) ? Well, that was the refuse from the alkali works. Did I see those two tall chimney shafts? They belonged to the copperas works. An awful place to work in. The work turned you green; turned your teeth blue, and your hair grey, and played "old Harry" with your blood if the copper got into your system. Was it the copper that had got hold of the jaw of the person he had spoken of, I inquired? No, my obliging informant replied, it was phosphorus that did that. Those were the phosphorus works just opposite. He couldn't say how many men were employed there - three or four hundred very likely. Some of the hands could stand it, get fat and hearty on it, but not many. A man might fairly look to being "knackered" by the phosphorus before he had been at it many years. He had known dozens that had been, and he might be said to know something about it, since he had lived with his father and mother in that very public-house for three-and- twenty years. Teeth!  He only wished he had as many sovereigns, as many shillings even, as he had seen dropped-out teeth that had been drawn in that parlour. Were the men who worked at phosphorus good public-house customers? Rather. Rare good gin drinkers! The worst of 'em was that they wanted a room all to themselves, no one else being able to sit with em on account of the smell. The stuff was that powerful in 'em that it would spoil even their Sunday clothes that they never worked in. The vapour of it was bad enough that came from the works when the wind blew that way. It turned you sick to breathe it, and rotted the window blinds and curtains and the clothes the women hung out to dry. How was the wind now? Ah, it was not blowing favourable. That was a pity, because I might have tasted the vapour for myself. The pale young man with a deficiency of teeth told me many other things circumstantially, with such dreadful detail that I at length felt almost sick, as though the wind had changed, and I was breathing the subtle "vapour" he had spoken of. So, inquiring of him the nearest way to the brick- fields, I bade him good day, thankful that all my teeth were safe and sound in my head, at present at all events.
    Shrouded in chemical fogs and saturated with a drizzling rain, [-119-] the brickfields at Oldbury did not wear a very inviting appearance, and least of all did they seem the sort of place where girls and women might be suitably and healthfully employed. I presume that it is the peculiar properties of the soil, combined with the near proximity of the railway and the canal, which have caused so great a part of Oldbury to be given up to the brickmaking interest; but one would like to know on what grounds it was originally decided that the production of baked blocks of clay for building purposes was work that women might be hired to assist at. More important still, how does it happen that in these enlightened and considerate days, when it is a question whether the tender sex should be employed at such laborious occupations as matchmaking and the setting up of printing types, sisters and wives are still permitted to toil in muck and mire, to handle pick and spade, and wheel loads of clay just as a "navvy" does, with a navvy's bare arms and horny hands, wearing the navvy's "ankle jacks," smoking the short pipe he smokes, swearing his oaths, and tippling his beer. Such samples of degraded feminine humanity I saw at twenty different spots, young women, middle-aged, and grey-headed, bare-legged to the knee many of them, and beplastered from head to foot with clay splashes, drudging harder than driven slaves ever yet drudged, and yet, withal, with a willing cheerfulness and strengthful ease that gave denial, to the theory of their unwillingly enduring hardship or ill usage. They earn good wages, I was told - ten or twelve shillings a week, the male workers twice as much, while the "moulder," who works "per thousand," and generally employs his own "gang," reckons to earn from two pounds ten to three pounds a week.
    "There is one thing," I remarked to a master-speaking of the female "hands," who as a rule, were clad in mere rags, with a great sack apron over all - "it does not cost them much for clothes."
    At which he laughed.
    "You would alter your opinion were you to see 'em on a Sunday," said he; "the Oldbury brick girls have quite a name for following the fashion, sir. Boots with military heels, eel skin dresses, parasols, and all the rest of it. They used to be able to come out much stronger than they do now, when there are millions of bricks made [-120-] by machinery. Well, yes; they may be paid a bit better at the steam factories, but they don't like it as well. The confinement and the heat are against them, and the work is even harder than field work."
    I must confess to doing the brick master the injustice of doubting this last assertion of his, but I soon afterwards had an opportunity of convincing myself that he spoke truly.
    The familiar nature of the blind old horse of the brickfield, tethered to a pole and patiently plodding round and round on his endless journey and probably wondering at the singular sameness of the road it is travelling over, gives one but a poor idea of the sort of apparatus modern enterprise and ingenuity have placed at the disposal of those whose business it is to engage in the production of bricks and tiles on an extensive scale. The puny "pug" mill would be of small account at factories where it is an almost common occurrence for a customer to step in and pay a deposit on a million or so of bricks, and where a commission for twenty thousand three- foot drain-pipes is accepted as coolly as one for a dozen hot rolls ordered at the baker's. The sort of mill required for this wholesale line of business is one that a hundred horses of the blindfold breed could not move if they pulled all together and with a will. An enormous affair, the engine beam of which would bridge across an ordinary street, and with a fly-wheel weighing twenty tons at least, such a monster amongst machinery I recently minutely inspected in the neighbourhood of Stourbridge. Its cog-wheels were wide as garden rollers, and with such teeth that, when the wheel was still, a baby might have been comfortably cradled between them without the least danger of its falling out. It would be horribly bad for baby, however, if its nurse forgot to remove it when the engineer touched the starting lever.
    Under such conditions a cast-iron baby even would be reduced to powder at a single-clasping of the lower cogs with the upper. Nothing appeared to be too tough for the digestion of the insatiable ogre. Its habitual food was dug out of a mighty chasm near at hand-an ugly jagged basin, two hundred feet across, more than a hundred deep, and from which was extracted blue clay, and clays red and yellow, and loose boulders, seemingly as hard to crack as cannon balls, and solid slabs of rock. But it was all as one when the incongruous material was tilted into the monster's maw. Craunch, craunch, and its massive masticators chewed up earth and rock, and made no more of the boulders than though they had been cherrystones. In less than ten minutes the most fastidious cook could not desire smoother or more perfectly mixed "dough " than that which, apparently of its own accord, was finding its way in at one end of the brick-making machines, and before you could count thirty, out again at the other end in the shape of bricks, all neatly moulded, and pressed, and trimmed, and all ready to be carried to the bake- house, a circular building, of the circumference of the dome of St. Paul's, from the centre of which towered a chimney a hundred and fifty feet in height.
    The brick-making machines turned out the slack-looking cakes at the rate each of twenty-four a minute, but they were unequal to the task of supplying stuff enough [-121-] to fill the bakery ovens. Several other sorts of clay pastry claimed the attention of the brawny bakers, who, semi-nude, to accommodate their bodies to the tremendous heat, were, on account of perspiration and brick dust, of the complexion of Red Indians. Pipes for land drainage, likewise machine made, and resembling large sausage rolls preparing for a giant's picnic, were cooking and waiting their turn to be cooked; with all manner of tiles-fancy and plain- and chimney pots and massive slabs for pathway purposes, and numerous other articles made out of the plastic material the enormous mill provided, which the invention of the engineer is not clever enough to mould into shape.
    It would be well for humanity sake, and in the interest of womankind, if the making and baking of every brick and other device in clay could be done by machinery. As I write the words, the scene that prompted this last-mentioned sentiment appears vividly before me - the troop of girls at the steam mills, with smears and daubs of blue clay disfiguring their pale faces and making them hideous. I could not get them out of my mind during the remainder of the day on which I saw them, and they were at my bedside at night and disturbed my sleep. I had seen the nail-making women, and mothers with babies and grey-haired old grandmothers hammering and bellows-blowing in the operation of making iron chains, and I then thought that I had witnessed the lowest depths of degradation and repulsive drudgery to which the tender sex could be brought. But I had yet to see the brick and tile making girls of South Staffordshire. There are famous pottery factories in the district, fitted with the latest inventions and with magnificent machinery, and with engines that are miracles of steam power, but the makers cannot do altogether without hand labour. They must have lads to receive the bricks as the machine disgorges them-at the rate of twenty- four a minute - and men to mould the fancy tiles, and labourers to wheel the "wet" goods to the distant kiln.
    And, observing all this, I could not but ask myself the question, Why cannot they employ male labour to perform the heaviest and the dirtiest branch of the whole business - which is clawing up the wet blue clay from a heap, and carrying it to the distant benches of the moulders-instead of tasking young women and mere girls with the disgusting work? [-122-] Behold a troop of them - a dozen or more - technically called "pug" girls, because they carry the clay that has been ground to the pug- mill, as it is called. It may be for economy sake they clothe themselves in rags that cannot well be spoilt; they may find that it is a mere waste of shoe-leather and a senseless wear of stockings to cover their feet with either when they have such a nice carpet of hot dust and sand to walk on. Likewise they may have proved by experience that any manner of rag to wisp round their head is better than no cap at all, as, in the first place, it prevents the hair from becoming matted together with blue mud, and in the second place, it is some sort of cushion for the leaden weight of clay to rest on; and its roughness may prevent the mass from slipping off. All I know about it is, that the result is an appalling scarecrowishness that would send a nervous child into convulsions to contemplate. There is the great heap of blue clay, and beside it is a wooden bench, and in single file they approach it and help themselves. I have spoken of them as clawing at the clay, simply because no other word expresses it. There is an implement just like a boy's archery bow for the common use; but the string is of stout wire. Selecting a jagged projection of the mass, a girl strikes at it with the bow wire and cuts it off as a cheesemonger cuts a cheese, and then clawing it up in her hands and arms she lifts it up on to the bench. A heavy load for a girl to carry you think-a half hundredweight at the very least. But stop a minute; she has only just commenced to make up her burden.
    Ryan, the girl of sixteen or seventeen, tackles the wet blue clay heap, and clawing another lump as large, at least, as an ordinary parlour coal scuttle, poises it on her head. But she is not loaded up yet. She goes down on one knee, still balancing her head burden, grabs up a second lump nearly as large as the first, and, by a dexterous. movement and a wonderful amount of muscular strength, pitches up this second lump, and catches it on the one already resting on her head-the two lumps making a bulk nearly two feet in height. Now she is ready to take up the supplementary morsel, which is as. large as another coal scuttle, and. which she, in the first place, laid on the bench. She raises herself on her feet, with both her hands at liberty, hugs the reeking mass to her chest, and so staggers off to the moulder it is her duty to "serve." I inquired of the foreman of the works concerning these girls, and he hastened to tell. me that the firm had nothing to do with their hire. The hand. moulding was piece-work, he said, and the moulder employed his. own assistants, the only check they - the firm - had on him being. that, according to the Factory Act, no girl could be employed at such work under the age of sixteen. But, of course, he added, as soon as they may come to work they do. I inquired of him what was about the weight of clay a girl could carry in the way I have described, hugged to her chest and poised on her head, and after considering the matter long enough to satisfy me that he was not likely to make any mistake, the foreman gave it as a hundred weight and a half. I had previously timed the wretched-looking clay beplastered poor toilers, and found that they "loaded up," and [-123-] performed their journey and came back again in about six minutes. To be on the right side, however, call it seven minutes and a half. That calculation shows that a "pug" girl carries at least half a ton of clay every hour, loading herself with every pound of it - five tons a day.
    I further made inquiry of the friendly foreman what wages a clay-carrying girl could earn. His reply was 2s., and as he gave me this item of information with cheerful readiness, I came to the conclusion that, in his opinion, such a handsome rate of pay almost, if not quite, compensated for the exhaustive nature of the occupation. I question, however, if the reader will be of the same way of thinking. When one considers that five tons for 2s. represents less than 5d. per ton for self- loading and carrying, and recollects at the same time that a broad-backed six-foot coal-heaver would grumble tremendously were he asked to carry fifty sacks of coal-five tons-a distance of forty or fifty yards in a single day, it seems more than a little shameful that, with all our vaunted tender regard for our women and children, such brute drudgery as hauling and carrying wet clay should be still recognised as women's work.