Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Genteel Slavery

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What young female shop assistants have to endure - Their hours of labour contrasted with those of the bricklayer's labourer - Ninety-five hours a week - No seats allowed - The torture of blistered and swollen feet - "We can't have you here hobbling about like a cat on hot bricks' - What should be done and what the public should insist on.

A MEDICAL gentleman who conducts a private dispensary in the neighbourhood of Islington, and who, on account of his low scale of charges - sixpence for each visit, with fourpence for a bottle of medicine - has an extensive practice among the poorer classes, wrote to me as follows:
    "It may interest you to know that within half a mile of my place there are a large number of retail establishments, chiefly of the cheap and competing kind, and that at the present time I have on my books more than a dozen patients, young women, whose 'ailments' are entirely attributable to the excessive number of hours they are compelled to work, and to their being constantly on their feet. As a rule they are so strictly tied to business all through the week that the only day they can pay me a visit is Sunday, and, to suit their convenience, I keep the dispensary open during the fore part of the Sabbath day. Should you feel disposed to call on me, I have no doubt they would be willing to give you some information of the hardships they have to endure."
    It was between ten and eleven o'clock on Sunday morning when I availed myself of the doctor's invitation, and several of the class of patients he had alluded to in his communication had already arrived, and were waiting their turn for advice and medicine. I stayed a couple of hours at the dispensary, during which time four other young girls came in. For obvious reasons they stipulated that I should not make known who their employers were, and that promise given, they spoke without reserve, and the result of my conversation with them left no doubt in my mind that it is nothing short of shameful that, with all our boasted social advancement and our plans and projects for the intellectual and physical improvement of the working classes, a large number - thousands probably - of young girls of respectable [-30-] parentage and training should be doomed to a life of such drudgery and long hours that, were similar terms proposed to able-bodied dock labourers or bricklayers' hod-carriers, they would be indignantly and scornfully rejected.
    Bricklayers' labourers', indeed! Mike, with his broad shoulders and his powerful muscular development, is too well aware of the rights and privileges that trades unionism secures him to consent to work more than ten hours a day; excepting Saturday, when, with your leave or without, he must "knock off" at midday. Fifty-five hours, to a British workman's way of thinking, constitute a fair week's work. But the fragile, poor little lasses who toil in fashion's or finery's behalf are less fortunate. Of those whom I interviewed, the majority were kept hard at it, excepting about an hour altogether for breakfast, dinner, and tea, from half-past seven in the morning until ten o'clock at night, with a difference on Saturday. The bricklayers' labourer leaves off work at one o'clock in the afternoon; the young lady of the shop counter has at that time yet eleven hours to serve. Indeed, she would think herself lucky if it is no later than twelve o'clock when, the business premises being closed and the disordered goods properly replaced on the shelves and in the drawers, she is at liberty at last to sit down and rest her aching limbs.
    "You must be glad enough when Sunday comes round," I remarked to one of the patients, a tall delicate-looking young woman, whose feet were so swollen that, though she wore cloth boots many sizes too large for her, they gaped fully an inch at the lacing.
    "Well, in one sense of course I am glad, sir," she replied, "because if it was not for that break in the work I could not possibly continue at it. "But it is a day of pain rather than a day of rest for me. On week days my feet seem to get be- numbed after I have been standing a few hours, and, though they swell very much and feel as heavy as lead, they do not cause me any pain to speak of. But on a Sunday, when I am not compelled to walk about, and put them up to rest on one chair while I sit on another, the swelling doesn't come into them, but instead they throb and burn so I could cry with the pain of them. Perhaps you know, sir, how, if the face takes to swelling, it will relieve the toothache. That is the only thing I can compare it with, so that sometimes I am glad to walk [-31-] about and get the swelling back a little into my ankles, and then the pain seems deadened.
    "Then you are not able to get out on your only day of leisure, and enjoy a few hours in the fresh air?"
    "I wish I could do it, sir. I am at liberty, of course, to do so as far as my employers are concerned, as the time is my own from Saturday night until Monday morning; but I should be afraid if I walked any distance I should not be able to get shoes on at all the next morning. Besides, it is not only one's feet swelling through being on them so many hours that makes one prefer to stay in on Sundays, it is being so bodily tired as well. It is a treat, if the pain in my ankles will let me, to lie abed till eleven or twelve o'clock on the Sunday morning, and to lie down again on the couch after dinner. It isn't every assistant who has the opportunity. There are some in the smaller houses of business who are not able to suit themselves in that way. Their employers have no convenience for them to remain indoors on Sunday, and it is understood when they are engaged that they will go to their friends during the day and return in the evening. But I know some who have no parents or friends in London, and who go to church or walk about to pass away the time, with a rest in the middle of the day, when they get their dinner at a cookshop or a coffee-house, and they, of course, must find it much harder than a girl who is in a comfortable house of business."
    "I am afraid that I shall have to give it up," said another young woman who was afflicted with acute pains in her knee-joints; "I grow so sick and faint towards night. We dare not sit down I indeed, there is nothing to sit on. We had a very heavy day yesterday. I was in the shop shortly after seven, and it was half-past twelve before I sat down to supper - seventeen hours - and I felt so tired in the evening that, having to fetch something from the back shop, I sat down for a minute on the shop steps that were there; but our forewoman saw me, and took me to task for it. I told her the reason, and she said she had quite enough to think of in the business without being troubled with complaints of that kind, and that if I did not feel strong enough for the work, I had best say so, and give notice to leave., And I don't want to do that, said the poor girl, despondently; "I couldn't earn so much at anything else, and my [-32-] parents living a long way down in the country, I should be obliged to work at something to keep myself. I've got two sisters who were in the same line as I am; but they got so bad with the long hours and the standing that the doctor told them they would be cripples for life if they remained at the business; and so they left it, and paid the little money they had saved to learn the mantle work. But the pay is so bad that, though they are both in full work and live together, they can scarcely get clothes to wear after they've paid the rent of their room and bought their food. So I must buckle to, I suppose, she added with a feeble attempt at a smile, "and try and put up with it a little longer, at all events." And she went off with her four penn'orth of medicine, leaning as heavily on her umbrella as an aged man does on his walking-stick.
    Another of the dispensary doctor's patients, ladylike, well-spoken, and intelligent, informed us that she was in her twentieth year, but from her general appearance she would have passed as being at least seven and twenty. Her malady was a swelling of the larger veins, and she had been so afflicted more than a year and a half. She had been apprenticed when she was fifteen, and served three years, and since that time had worked at the same establishment. "I get very good wages now - sixteen pounds a year - but it is terribly hard work. It would be easier if there were any young men employed there, but there is only one, and he is a porter, and seldom in the shop. Where there are young men, you can generally get one of them to lift down for you heavy goods that are on the higher shelves. If a girl is not very strong, she finds it a great strain on her back and shoulders to lift heavy rolls and parcels from above her head, to say nothing of how it helps to tire her when she has to be on her feet at least thirteen or fourteen hours every day, and sixteen or seventeen on a Saturday.
    "We open our place about seven on Saturday morning, and, it being a marketing street, we never get rid of our latest customers until twelve, so that it is quite one when the place is put a bit straight, and we are at liberty to go to bed. How many hours weekly am I in the habit of working, at a fair average? No more or less than what I have told you - from half-past seven till ten all days, except Saturdays, and then till twelve at night. I never worked fewer hours all the five years I have [-33-] been at the business. I used to think that as I grew older and stronger I shouldn't feel the hardship of the long hours so much. But I find it harder to bear than ever, I think, especially in the winter-time, when the gas is alight from four o'clock until shutting-up time. The smell and the heat of it makes one's head ache, and if a girl's place at the counter is near the door, every time it is swung open there comes in a gush of cold wind likely to give her faceache or sore throat. I think the winter months are worse than the summer for us, though perhaps there isn't much to choose between them when one comes to think of it. In the spring-time and the summer a girl naturally gets low-spirited, being confined in the dull shop day after day, from early in the morning until late at night, with a blind hung before the window to keep out the cheerful sunshine when it s on that side of the way. It is dreadfully close in the shop in the hot weather when the gas is alight in the evening, and it is at those times one's feet ache more, perhaps, than any other - ache, I mean, with standing; but in the winter-time, when it is bitter cold and frosty, they ache with chilblains as well. At our place, no matter how cold the weather is, we never have an opportunity of going near a fire except at meal-times, and most girls have chilblains either on their feet or on their hands in consequence. It is dreadfully cold handling calico and glazed things in the winter, but at our place we are not allowed to wear wool mittens. 'It doesn't look like business,' our master says. But, speaking for myself, I could put up with the heat and with the cold - with anything - if they would but allow me to sit down a little while now and then during the day. I don't say during the busy time, because the chairs and stools at our side of the counter would, of course, be in the way; but just for an hour or so between dinner-time and tea-time, when business is slack. Employers are shortsighted, I think, in not allowing it. So much depends on those in their employment pushing the goods and persuading customers, and what heart can they have to do that when they are that done-up and tired they don't know how to stand? 'Do I know other young women who suffer from the constant standing as I do?' Indeed, sir, I could mention the names of a dozen at least, and of two who are now out-patients at the hospital, one of them walking with a crutch. I know three or four girls who, after giving two or three years of their [-34-] time or paying a premium for their apprenticeship, have been compelled to give it up within a year or so, because the many hours' confinement, and being on their feet so much, make them ill."
    Swollen feet and ankles, sharp, and at times unendurable pains in the knee-joints, in the hips, and the back, were chief among the patients' ailments, but two or three, though less seriously, were perhaps much more tormentingly afflicted. There was one poor girl of robust habit and sturdily built, who came in shuffling along and flinching at every step like a person with gout, and who was suffering from corns on the soles of her feet; and the doctor informed me that this was a common result of standing and walking many hours a day in thin shoes on a boarded floor. The poor patient in question - she was about eighteen years old - could not refrain from crying. She had tried every remedy that had been suggested to her, including caustic and extraction, but as fast as her corns were destroyed they came again. She had lined her boots with wadding, she said, and with layers of oiled flannel; but come the evening, when her feet grew tired, the corns began to burn and throb; and, to use her own words, it was like walking on hot splinters of glass, and the only way she could get rid of the pain, so as to be able to sleep when she went to bed, was to immerse her feet in warm water for half an hour or so.
    I hardly know whether she was most to be pitied, or the young woman who was with her and who was employed at the same drapery establishment. Instead of corns, she had blisters on the soles of her feet, and which of late had so incapacitated her from getting about briskly, that she had been threatened with discharge from her present situation. It is only just to say, that of all those I talked with, this was the only shop-girl who complained of harsh treatment on the part of the employer. The female employées, as a rule, seem to be liberally paid, fairly fed, and comfortably lodged, and have nothing to find fault with excepting the many hours a day they are kept at work, and the cruelty inflicted on them by denying them the privilege of sitting down in their brief spells of leisure from counter duty. But the poor girl with blistered feet seemed to have fallen into the hands of exceptionally hard taskmasters.
    "We can't have you here, you know, limping about the place [-35-] like a cat on hot bricks," was the unfeeling remark, as she informed us, the shopwalker had addressed to her on the previous day, "and we expect our hands to appear lively and pleasant, not to look cross and sulky at every customer they have to serve after eight o'clock or so, as though they resented their coming at all at that hour. Customers don't like it, and I don't like it, and I won't stand it." "But it is not that I am cross and sulky," said the poor creature, "it is because my feet ache so and I am so tired."
    And having laid before the lady reader these few unvarnished facts in connection with the genteel slavery to which too many young lady assistants are condemned, I will leave the matter for the present, for her humane consideration.