Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Lights and Shadows of London Life, by James Grant, 1842 - Chapter 5 - Dress-Makers' Assistants

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    Their number — Their treatment — Their hours of labour — Their mistresses — Remarks on their condition— Legislative interference on their behalf recommended.

IT is a somewhat singular circumstance, that, notwithstanding the great variety of objects embraced by the comprehensive philanthropy of this vast metropolis, scarcely any attention should have been paid to a class of persons who possess the most urgent claims to the commiseration of the Christian and humane portion of the community. I allude to the Dress-Makers' and Milliners' Assistants. Were their condition better known, I feel assured it could not fail to excite a feeling of deep and universal sympathy. 
    [-178-] The number of young girls employed in dressmaking and millinery in London, is much greater than the public have any idea of. It is impossible to ascertain the number with the exactitude which could be desired; but I have certain data in my possession, by means of which we may make a pretty close approximation to it. The number of females whose names are on their doors as the mistresses of dressmaking and millinery establishments, is nearly 1000. It is no exaggeration to assume that the number of persons who live by these branches of business without having their names on the doors, is 500. This would make, in round figures, the entire number of "mistress" dressmakers and milliners 1500. The question then occurs —  What may be the average number of young girls a mistress employs as assistants? In a few of the larger establishments, the number so employed is from thirty to forty: in very few is it less than six. In order that we may err on the safe side, if we err at all, we shall suppose the average number to be ten. Ten, then, multiplied by 1500, would make the en-[-179-]tire number of young creatures so occupied, 15,000.
    And how do these 15,000 young females live? and how are they treated? A plain unvarnished narrative shall answer the questions.
    The usual hour at which dress-makers' assistants commence their labours, is seven in the morning, and that at which they close for the day, is eleven at night. One half-hour more elapses before they can retire to rest, and in order to be ready to resume their needle at seven in the morning, they must at least get up by half-past six. The average amount of time, therefore, which is allotted them for rest, does not exceed seven hours. This would be obviously too little for delicate female frames — especially at the critical time of life at which by far the largest portion of these girls are apprenticed —  even were their labours light and of short duration during the day. But the very reverse is the painful fact: they ply the needle without a moment's intermission, save the twenty or thirty minutes allowed them for eating their meals, from the time they enter the work-room, [-180-] until they have quitted it for the night. Now, surely it needs no medical genius to tell us, that to poor young delicate creatures thus worn out day after day for a succession of months, with fourteen or fifteen hours' unintermitting toil, seven hours' repose is not only inadequate to meet the requirements of nature, but must be attended with the greatest perils to the constitution. Nor ought I to omit the mention of the fact, that the little repose allowed them is deprived of its beneficial effects, by the circumstance of from ten to twelve of their number being compelled to sleep in one small confined bed-room.
    But the evil if merely regarded in a physical light, does not end here. In addition to the injurious effects of these protracted hours of exhausting employment on the bodily health and spirits of these girls, they are pent up, during the day, in heated rooms, where the luxury of a mouthful of pure air is seldom enjoyed. Their meals, too, which are entirely of a coarse description, and altogether unfitted for the subdued and delicate appetite of crea-[-181-]tures thus employed in sedentary labour from morn to night, are snatched up with an expedition which deprives their food of half its nutritive qualities. As for digestion, who could expect that process to go on, when the transition from the eating-apartment to the worktable is contemporaneous with the last mouthful they have swallowed? Air and exercise are things unknown to them; and to aggravate the physical hardships of their condition, they are, in the majority of cases, subjected to insults and to irritating language from those in whose employment it is their hard lot to be.
    Such is the usual fate of dress-makers' assistants, in what is called "the season," which season usually lasts four or five months of the year, beginning in February and ending in July. There is a second season, of two or three months' duration, towards the end of the year, which, though not so oppressive as the first, is still very arduous. On urgent occasions, such as a drawing-room, a ball, or other greater display at court, the hardships of the poor assistants are increased ten-fold. That [-182-] I may not be suspected of over-colouring the picture, or of giving an exaggerated account of a state of things which is proverbially bad, I shall fortify my positions on this point, by a short quotation from an article which has recently appeared in a literary journal; which article I know, from a private source, to have proceeded from the pen of a lady well acquainted with the subject.
    "The dress-makers," says that lady, in describing a scene which consisted with her own personal knowledge, "are for the most part young, and many have not done growing. It is near midnight of the second night of working, when they should have been sleeping, and they are to sit through the whole of this night and next day; making three days and two nights of incessant sewing; an occupation which cannot be safely pursued for more than a few hours at a time. These girls are fed high — roast beef, porter, port wine, are supplied them; the rooms are kept light and hot, every stimulus is applied. Three at once drop off their chairs fainting, they are plied with strong green tea, and [-183-] they resume their work. As often as they are sinking, more green tea is given them — their eyes are dim, their skin burns, their hands tremble, their voices are hysterical — but the ball-dresses are finished; and that was the object to be attained."
    What a melancholy picture! And yet the scene so vividly described, is one of every-day occurrence in the height of the London season. What constitution could withstand the effects of such attacks on it? Not the most robust frame that ever female possessed. The constitutions of but very few, even of the stronger sex, could pass through such an ordeal uninjured.
    So far from the above being exaggerated, it falls far short of circumstances which consist with my own personal knowledge. I may mention, as an illustration, the case of one young delicate girl, who was not permitted to lay herself down on a bed — nay, not even on a sofa, for nine consecutive days and nights.
    Not less certain, though not so sudden, is the injury done to the health of dress-makers' assistants by their ordinary labours, coupled [-184-] with the confinement, and the treatment, to which they are subjected. Their pale countenances, haggard looks, and general lifelessness of appearance, attest but too conclusively the existence of a something within, which is impairing their health, and which, if the cause be not removed, will render them sickly and feeble for life; if, indeed, it do not consign them to a premature grave. It is, I believe, a well ascertained fact, that a greater number of assistant dress-makers fall into consumption, and die of that fatal disease, than of any other class of persons in the community.
    I have myself known young females come up from the country to serve two years' apprenticeship with a London dress-maker, with the view of returning to their native place, and there commencing business for themselves. They have come to London with the bloom of health on their cheeks, a flow of animal spirits in their manner and conversation, and a general appearance of life about them, which were delightful to witness; but before four months had elapsed, I have seen them so pale, emaciated, dispi[-185-]rited, and altered in their appearance, that their own relations could hardly have recognised them.
    But the injury done to their health is not the only evil which results from the deplorable situation of dress-makers' assistants. Anxiety to escape from their bondage, disposes them to seize with eagerness on any offer of marriage which may be made to them, without bestowing much consideration on the disposition of the party, or his character or circumstances. Hence, innumerable unhappy marriages are the result.
    Nor is this all. The unhappy condition of young dress-makers renders them an easy prey to the evil designs of the profligate of the other sex. An idle protestation of love, mendaciously made, is readily believed by them, and an immediate deviation from the paths of virtue follows. By and by this first and solitary aberration from the path of innocence, is succeeded by their entire abandonment to a guilty course of life, as a means of obtaining a livelihood. Those who have devoted much attention to the [-186-] subject, assure me, that the number of dressmakers' assistants to be found among the wretched creatures who walk the streets, is very great.
    Most of the young dress-makers, especially in the West End, have been brought up in circumstances of comparative comfort, and have received a fa1r, if not a finished, education; but their parents being either dead, or not in a condition to provide for them any longer, they have been placed under the necessity of doing something for their own support, and hence, as the most likely means of earning a subsistence, have made up their minds to acquire a knowledge of dress-making. It need not be added, that, having been thus brought up in easy circumstances, and receiving the advantages of a respectable education, they are thereby rendered peculiarly sensitive to the hardships of their lot. Their delicate frames suffer greatly, and their susceptible feelings are keenly wounded where females of more robust constitutions and less cultivated minds, would neither receive injury nor suffer annoyance. [-187-] Far preferable to their condition is that of the house-maid or the servant of all-work. The latter in most instances is not worse off now, than, in all probability, she was during the whole of her life; while she has usually the advantage of comfortable meals, and in all cases the benefit of more or less exercise.
    But what perhaps constitutes the greatest aggravation of the miseries of the poor dressmaker's assistant, is the fact of her pitiable condition being unpitied. The mistress for whom she toils day and night, has no commiseration to expend on her; but, on the contrary, as before remarked, deepens the distress consequent on her monotonous and irksome labours, by the tyrannical conduct she practises towards her. Nor has the poor creature the most slender share in the sympathies of those for the adornment of whose persons she exercises her taste and wastes her energies. They think of the dresses which she is engaged in making for them, but have not a thought to bestow upon her. Ah! little does the highborn and high-bred beauty, who is to figure [-188-] in the ball or at the drawing-room; little does she think, while exulting in the anticipated conquests she will make or the impression she will produce, of the jaded condition, the almost broken hearts of the poor delicate creatures, who at that moment are not only wasting their strength, but it may be their lives, in the preparation of the dress in which she is to appear. It might serve to moderate, if it did not altogether extinguish, the vanity of such persons, did they only reflect that the costly finery which decks their persons is often produced at the expense of the life, as well as of the health and happiness, of the poor young females employed in its preparation.
    A word or two now in reference to the mistresses of these poor creatures. In the majority of cases — especially in the West End — mistress milliners and dress-makers live in great splendour. They rent large and fashionable houses, and furnish them in a style of great magnificence; have a large retinue of servants; receive formal visiters; and give expensive parties! In fact, it were difficult to distinguish from the  [-187-]  style of furniture and general aspect of their houses, between many of our mistress dressmakers and aristocratic families. Need I add that the contrast between their condition and that of their miserable assistants, only aggravates the wretchedness of the latter?
    I have thus glanced at the unfortunate condition of a large and helpless class of our fellow-creatures; underrating rather than exaggerating the wretchedness of their condition. One question naturally suggests itself. That question is— Ought such a state of things to be suffered to exist? The answer of every Christian and humane mind will be in the negative. A more legitimate matter for legislative interposition, it were impossible to imagine. British philanthropy, under the tutelary genius of Christianity, has snapped asunder the chains, by which 800,000 of our sable fellow-beings were, for a long succession of years, held in bondage to the proprietors of our West India possessions; and the same philanthropy has already accomplished something, and will ere long accomplish more, in the way of ameliorat- [-190-]ing the condition of our factory children. None can more sincerely rejoice in this than the writer of these lines. But let not British sympathy be limited to the negroes who inhabit the West India Islands; or to the suffering children in our factories; while there are so many equally legitimate objects of sympathy and of practical humanity in the dress-making and millinery establishments of the metropolis. It is true that the poor creatures whose cause I am pleading, are not goaded to their work by the application of the lash, as was too often the case with the now emancipated negroes; but not less painful to their most sensitive minds, must be the frowning countenances, angry accents, insulting words. and general harshness of demeanour, of those in whose employment the force of circumstances compels them to remain. They are young, dependent, helpless, unprotected; and too often entirely at the mercy of their mistresses. And from the peculiarity of their position are doomed to sigh, and sorrow, and suffer, without even the poor consolation of having some sympathising ear  [-191-] into which they could whisper their complaints. They are practically exiles from the world, though living in the very centre of this vast metropolis: they are virtually in the depths of solitude, though in the midst of society. They are, too, as already remarked, at that period of life when the mind is most sensitive, and the physical frame most susceptible of injury. I know, indeed, of no class of persons in the community whose position is more pitiable, or whose claims to the attention and interposition of the philanthropic portion of society, are more numerous or urgent.
    But in what way it may be asked, can that sympathy be made available? I know of no more effectual way — indeed I know of no other effectual way at all — than that of bringing their condition under the consideration of Parliament, and petitioning for its interference on their behalf. The Legislature has shortened the hours of labour in the case of the factory children: let it not refuse its protecting hand to the thousands of helpless girls who suffer and sigh in silence in the dress-making and millinery  [-192-] establishments with which the metropolis abounds. There may, I am aware, be some difficulties in the way of effectua1 legislation on this subject; but Parliament must not be frightened by these difficulties. They are not insuperable; they are not even formidable. Let them be only fairly looked in the face; let them only be boldly grappled with, and they will at once disappear.