Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Lights and Shadows of London Life, by James Grant, 1842 - Chapter 6 - Young Women

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Book-folders — Stock-makers Shirt-collar and shirt-makers Fur and carpet bag-makers Miscellaneous occupations.

IN my last chapter I endeavoured to bring before the public the condition of dress-makers' assistants in London. There are various other branches of business in which young females are employed, with which the community generally. are unacquainted. I purpose referring to some of these in my present chapter.
    A goodly number of young females are employed in the larger Book-binding establishments in London. The number varies with the seasons and the briskness or otherwise of the business. Perhaps the average number so employed may be about 2500. The Messrs. [-194-] Westley alone give constant employment to upwards of 150; while sometimes their number exceeds 200. The ages of these females also vary. Some of them are only in their seventeenth year, while others have entered the shady side of forty. The wages they receive are regulated, in some cases, by the amount of work they perform, and in others by their ascertained capabilities as workwomen. None of them receive less than ten shillings weekly, while some of the first-rate hands earn from a guinea to twenty-four shillings. Their occupations chiefly consist in folding, sewing, and otherwise forwarding, as the technical term is, the books which are undergoing the process of binding.
    Some of the young females thus employed in the book-binding establishments of the metropolis go home to dinner; others of them dine in the workshop. In almost every instance, they take their breakfasts before quitting home in the morning, and they postpone the hour of taking tea until their return in the .evening. On ordinary occasions, their hour of leaving [-195-] work is seven; it is only when the business is brisk, and the time for executing particular orders limited, that they protract their labours beyond that hour.
    It must have excited the surprise of all who have been in those book-binding establishments in London in which a number of young females are employed, that those of them whose weekly earnings do not exceed twelve or fourteen shillings, can afford to dress so smartly. I have heard surmises which have been made as to the conduct of many of their number, after they had quitted their occupations for the day, which, if well grounded, would lead to the conclusion that they form improper connexions with persons of the other sex, and by that means obtain the funds wherewith they procure the fine dresses in which they often appear. There may be, and there doubtless is, a greater or less number of instances of this description; but the statements which have been made to me as to the comparative numbers who come under this condemnation, are, I am persuaded, greatly exaggerated. In the case of those in [-196-] the employ of the Messrs. Westley, 1 have reason to believe, and the remark, I am satisfied, applies to other establishments, though I am not so well acquainted with them, that the charge, or rather insinuation, can scarcely be said to have an application. They are exceedingly careful as to the characters of the females they employ, and from the arrangements they have made, a perseverance in an improper course could not long escape detection. I may mention as an illustration of the scrupulous care the Messrs. Westley exercise in reference to the character and conduct of the females in their extensive establishment, that a single act of levity, or even a look indicative of a light disposition, is sure to be followed by the dismissal of the party. In all the book-binding establishments, the same scrupulous regard for the good conduct of young females is not, I am afraid, to be met with; and consequently, as respects some establishments, there may be considerable truth in the theory to which I have formerly alluded. I shall be gratified, if the circumstance of having called attention to the salutary regu-[-197-]lations which exist in the establishment of the Messrs. Westley, in reference to the conduct of the young females in their employ, should not only be adopted by other book-binding houses, but be introduced into every other establishment in the metropolis where numbers of unmarried females are employed. Not only would the result be highly beneficial to the young women themselves, but society and public morals would be great gainers by it.
    But I may be told, that on the hypothesis of the young females leading strictly virtuous lives, after they have quitted their employment for the day, I have not accounted for the handsome manner in which many of them dress,  who only receive from ten to twelve shillings a-week. To me it appears that in most cases the circumstance may be accounted for from the fact of their living with their parents or near relations, who lodge and board them either gratuitously, or for a mere trifle; and thus enable them to expend nearly all their earnings on dress. In other instances, where the parents of the girls are not in a condition to afford [-198-] them this assistance, they submit to many privations in the way of meals, in order that they may be able to indulge their passion for dress. Many of them, in the inferior houses, scarcely ever partake of any other food than a cup of tea and a slice of bread, morning and evening; and a crust of bread and a morsel of cheese in the middle of the day.
    Hitherto I have confined my observations and statistics, to the young women employed in the book-binding establishments of the metropolis. Let me now make a few remarks relative to young females employed in other branches of business. A large number are employed in making Stocks. Those unacquainted with the statistics of this business can have no idea of the extent to which it is carried on in London. I have not been able to procure information on which I can rely, as to the entire number of females who live by making stocks in the metropolis; neither have I any data by which I might form a probable conjecture on the subject: but that the number so employed, must be very large, may be inferred from the [-199-] fact, that the highly respectable and rapidly rising house of Messrs. Alexander Grant and Brothers, of Clement's Court, Cheapside, alone, employs no fewer than from 400 to 500 young women in the making of this one article. Their weekly earnings, as they work by the piece, vary from eight to eighteen shillings. The above number of young women are employed direct by the Messrs. Grant, and get their materials from their warehouse; but several of those so employed, after taking the materials to their respective homes, "sub-engage" (if that be a proper phrase) a number of girls, and pay them so much for their labour. Of course, as the females who are engaged by the stock-merchant, must have their profit on the work done by the girls whom they employ in their turn, the earnings of the young women who receive their employment at second-hand, instead of going direct and at once to the warehouse, must necessarily be very small. Their earnings are in many cases as low as five shillings per week; in no instance do they exceed half-a-guinea.
    Another branch of business, in which a great [-200-] number of young women are employed, is that of making Shirt-collars. The work, as in the case of stock-making, is given "out of the house," as the technical phrase is; but the remuneration is not so great. Perhaps the average weekly earnings of the females do not exceed eight shillings. Mr. Hickling, of Noble Street, and Mr. Hellaby, of Gutter Lane, are the two most extensive dealers in shirt-collars. What the number of hands is which either or both of these houses employ, I have not been able to ascertain; but I have reason to believe that the number of females employed by this branch of trade generally, is from 2500 to 3000.
    It will surprise those unacquainted with such matters, to be informed that Shirt-making is a distinct business from shirt-collar making, and that the two businesses are carried on, in most cases, by different houses. The number of females employed in. the making of shirts is very considerable. Those who are intimately acquainted with the business, assure me, that at least from 4000 to 5000 earn a livelihood, [-201-] though in most cases a very indifferent one, by plying the needle at shirt-making. Where they are employed on very fine and expensive shirts, fair wages are obtained, but as the number of fine and expensive shirts is greatly disproportioned to that of coarse and cheap ones, the same disproportion exists between those who receive a fair reward for their labour, and those whose wages scarcely deserve the name of remuneration. Will it be believed, that there are several houses in London which only give four shillings and sixpence for making a dozen of shirts, which is at the rate of' fourpence half-penny each! Of course these are what are called plain-made shirts. And yet, with all the plainness, the best and most industrious hands are not able to make more than two per day; in other words, can only earn ninepence per day, or four shillings and sixpence per week. I leave my readers to form the best idea their imaginations can enable them, of what must be the privations and misery of the poor creatures who are doomed to toil from morning to night for these wretched wages. [-202-]  Of course those only will do so, who are either unfitted for, or are unable to procure more profitable employment; but, alas! such unfortunate creatures are always numerous in London. What reduces the price of plain shirt-making in the metropolis so much below that of other needle-work, is the circumstance of the London workers having to encounter so much competition from females employed in the same branch of trade in the country. Immense numbers of shirts are made in Portsea, Portsmouth, and several other towns, for the London market. If the reader was surprised, when informed that shirts are made at the rate of four shillings and sixpence in town, how great must be his astonishment, when I pledge myself for the truth of the statement, that in the places just mentioned, shirts are, in some cases, actually made as low aa half-a- crown per dozen, or twopence half-penny each! The most extensive metropolitan shirt-makers are Messrs. J. B. &; W. Newell, of Maiden Lane, and Messrs. S. N. Silver and Co., Cornhill. The former house usually employs [-203-] about 1000 hands; the latter house employs about 1200 females in shirt-making, and 400 or 500 in other branches of their business, which is of a miscellaneous nature.
    Another branch of business employing a considerable number of young female hands, is that of Furs, Caps, and Carpet Bags. It is impossible to ascertain the exact number of females who earn a livelihood in this way; but those most intimately acquainted with the business, estimate the number at 2000. Mr. J. Lyon, of Finsbury, alone, employs about 300. In the fur trade, there is a person called Chamber Master, who gets the furs, and the particulars of the way in which they are to be made up, from the warehouses of the merchants, and he arranges with other persons for the execution of the work. The business is not a profitable one to the young women employed in it. The best hands rarely earn more than ten shillings per week; while the earnings of many do not exceed six shillings. The average weekly earnings are about seven and sixpence or eight shillings. 
    [-204-] In the making of Umbrellas, which are generally supposed to be the workmanship of men, a considerable number of females are employed. Perhaps not less than 1700 or 1800 depend on this branch of business for a livelihood; if such it can be called, where the average weekly earnings are under six shillings, and where many procure no more than four shillings for their six days' labour. The largest house in this trade, is that of Messrs. Samuels and Engel, of Goodman's Fields. The number of women usually in their employ, is from 450 to 550. In the Stay trade an immense number of young women are employed; but as many of the London houses employ females in the country, on account of the cheaper rate of wages, and as I have no data as to the number so employed on the premises, I am unable to distinguish between the amount of work done in the country and that executed in town. Comparatively few hands, I believe, are employed in this branch of business in London. The great country towns for the making of stays, are Portsmouth, Ply-[-205-]mouth, Ipswich, and Bristol. The greatest number of hands so employed in any house in London, is about 200. This is in the house of the Messrs. Thomas, of Cheapside. The wages paid for stay-making are very poor. They do not exceed, five or six shillings. Every pair of stays, before being exposed for sale, goes through no fewer than nine different hands, and yet the cheaper sort are often bought wholesale, so low as fourteen or fifteen pence per pair.
    In the Slop trade a great many females are constantly employed; and in this branch of business there is less fluctuation, perhaps, than in any other that could be named. In most of those I have already mentioned, the briskness of the trade varies with the seasons and other circumstances: in the slop business, consisting as it does of coats. jackets, trousers, waistcoats, &c., which are necessarily in constant use, the variation is comparatively slight. The best information I have been able to procure, leads me to estimate the number of females employed in London in the making of slop articles, at 3000. [-206-]  Of this number, Mr. John Clarke, of Silver Street, City, employs nearly 700; while about 500 are in the employ of Messrs. Farrel and Bansfield. As the lower classes, or persons in reduced circumstances, only purchase slop-work, the earnings of the poor females doomed to spend their days and nights in working at this branch of business, are necessarily very inadequate. From five to six shillings per week are the average wages they receive. And yet it is one of the most laborious kinds of employment in which females can be engaged; the material generally consisting of fustian, corduroy, or cloth of the coarsest and roughest kind. The cloth is given out to the female tailors, cut in different shapes, for coats, jackets, waistcoats, and trousers, and is brought home by them in a finished state. For a waistcoat made in the best way, they usually get fourteen pence, and for a pair of trousers one shilling and sixpence.
    There is another branch of trade, and it is the last I shall mention, in which a large number of females, almost all young, are employed. I allude to the Drapery business. The number [-207-] employed in drapers' shops, is supposed to be about 2500. In some of these shops there are as many as thirty girls occupied from morning to night at the counter. These girls have, for the most part, received a fair education, and are remarkable for the gentility of their appearance and manners. They invariably board and live in the house. of their employers. Their yearly salaries, in addition to their board and lodging, vary from 10l. to 30l. In perhaps about a dozen instances, when the parties are known to be very experienced shop-women, 35l. and 40l. are given. In one single case, that of a young woman who is, or lately was, in the employ of a house in Blackfriars Road, the princely salary of 100l. per annum was given. This young female is said to exhibit wonderful resources as a saleswoman. She discovers the character and peculiarities of her customers, as if by a species of intuition, and so completely adapts herself to them, that it is impossible to withstand her insinuating manner, when pressing on them the purchase of articles. Her persuasive powers are so great, that she not only induces ladies to [-208-] purchase articles for which they have no immediate use, but in cases where they did mean to make purchases, she induces them to purchase three times the quantity of articles they contemplated before entering the shop. In many, if not most of the drapers' shops, a small commission, varying according to circumstances from one shilling to half-a-crown per pound, is allowed to the young women who can prevail on customers to purchase shawls, gown-pieces, and other articles, which have gone out of fashion. This commission is allowed them as an inducement to put all their ingenuity into requisition to get rid of articles which have ceased to be in demand. .And some of the more ingenious of these saleswomen, thus add, I understand, very considerably to their fixed salaries. I know one instance in which a female adds in this way, on ,an average, 110l. to her 40l. salary, making in all, 150l. per annum. It is right, however, to mention that I am not aware of any other shop-woman who turns her business-talents to an equally profitable account.
    I have thus glanced at the leading depart-[-209-]ments of business in which young women in London are extensively employed. The numbers, as nearly as a careful inquiry could enable me to ascertain, including dress-makers' assistants adverted to in the previous chapter, stand thus: 
    Dress-makers.  15000
    Book-folders  2500
    Stock-makers (supposed)  3000
    Shirt-collar-makers  2500
    Shirt-makers 4000
    Fur, Cap, and Carpet Bag-makers 2000
    Umbrella-makers. 1800
    Stay-makers (supposed).  1500
    Employed in the Slop Trade  3000
    Shop-women 2500
    So that, in these ten branches of business alone, there are no fewer than 37,800 females employed, almost all of whom are unmarried, and have no other means of support. Taking one line of business with another, and one female with another, the average wages earned by them, [-210-] does not exceed eight shillings per week. Need we wonder then. that with such scanty means of maintaining themselves. in a place like London. where lodgings and provisions are so high (especially when it is remembered. that in most cases they are expected to "go genteel in their clothes." and have, moreover, to work for so many hours per day, before they can earn their miserable pittance) need we wonder, I say, that so many poor unfortunate creatures are to be seen walking the streets? What, too. increases the danger of these unhappy females forsaking the paths of virtue and deviating into those of vice. is the circumstance of so many of them being permitted to work together, without any responsible person being present to operate as a check upon them. In such cases, the improper conversation of one female often corrupts the minds of numbers.
    I hope the facts I have stated, and the observations I have made. in the course of this chapter, will have the effect of drawing public attention to the condition of the young women of London who earn their bread by the labour of their  [-211-]hands. Their condition stands in urgent need, morally and socially, of amelioration; and he who comes forward to make the attempt, will not only merit the gratitude of the poor creatures themselves, but will be hailed by society as a genuine philanthropist.