Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 3 - Palm-workers

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OUR Commissioners give a deplorable account of the poverty and distress which they have witnessed during their inquiry into home industries. House after house, street after street, has shown men out of work, wives and daughters supporting the whole family.
    They say that they wish readers could accompany them in their visits to the homes of the girls and women they have been obliged to see lately. The hardest part of their work consists of visits paid to starving people. The women flock out of their houses when they hear that an inquiry is being made into home industries and mob our Commissioners to ask, "Have you got work for us?" Girls run after them down the streets, and men follow them to the railway-station. They have not once been asked for money, only for work ; and all they can do is to show their empty pockets.
    [-48-] A Commissioner reports a poor woman visited near Shoreditch, whose husband is out of work, and who has not had work herself lately. She weaves fringes for toilet-covers, and is paid two shillings for a piece thirty-six yards in length. Her husband puts the cotton on the loom for her over-night, and if she gets up at  4 a.m. and works until 11 p.m., she can make a piece in one day. But lately she has not had any work. When our Commissioner went into her room it presented a strange picture of cleanliness. The floor was white, and the furniture had not a speck of dust upon it. A clean patchwork-quilt covered the bed, and the empty grate was spotless. By the table stood two little children, without shoes or stockings, but as clean as the furniture ; and the mother was clean herself, although her apron consisted of an old sack, and she wore a piece of sacking over her shoulders. The poor thing burst out crying when our Commissioner spoke about the fringe for toilet-covers, and said that she had had no work lately. No food had touched her lips that day, and the children had been to school without any breakfast.
    People often say, If things were really as bad as this we should hear more about it. Only those who go amongst the London poor can interpret their silence. They are still because [-49-] they are starving. Nothing saps a man's strength like being hungry. Hunger takes all the spirit out of the unemployed, and so the public are inclined to think "Outcast London" a myth, and "Bitter cries " sensational stories. An intelligent working-man said to one of our Commissioners, "If we broke the heads of fifty Jews down here in Whitechapel something would be done to prevent this immigration. While we content ourselves with singing 'England for the English,' Government will say that these foreigners are a blessing to us."
    It would be impossible to notice all the home industries, for their name is legion. Thus a little colony of women near Hackney are engaged in mending bad nutmegs. They fetch the worm-eaten nutmegs from factories, and mend them with nutmeg dust. A good nutmeg is ground very fine, and the dust is mixed with glue or gum. The mixture is then used to fill in the holes, and the mended nutmegs are returned to the manufactory. They are paid by the gross; but our Commissioner could not find out how much the women receive for their work. The women visited by our Commissioners are sometimes afraid of being "told upon;" and although they are generally willing to give any amount of information about the work of their neighbours, [-50-]  they often keep a discreet silence with regard to their own particular industry. But owing to the fact that most of the workers possess the same failing, it is not difficult to arrive at a general idea of what the pay is all round in most of the home industries. So far as our Commissioners could gather, the gum and the good nutmegs are supplied to mend the worm-eaten wares, and twopence per gross is paid for the mended nutmegs.
    Another small industry is that of making necklaces for China and Japan. This is practised in several parts of the Tower Hamlets. Beads and clasps are supplied; but the workers must provide the cotton on which the beads are strung. The usual pay for these necklaces is 2s 3d. per gross, and a worker can make half a gross in the day, if she "sits at it." These necklaces consist of four rows of beads, twisted, and fastened with a metal clasp. They are made up into packets of a dozen, or half-a-dozen, and are returned to the manufactories. Fetching and taking back form an important part of the work, as the manufactories often lie far away from the homes of the workers. A Commissioner visited two girls who earn their living by stringing beads, and found them busy at work. Both girls were dirty, untidy, and badly fed. They gave a sad account of their [-51-] life when "slack" times prevent them from having enough to eat and drink. The room they live in is small, and at the top of a lodging-house. They pay for it 3s. 6d. per week, and are in arrears for rent. It is a "furnished" apartment, and the furniture consists of a bedstead, a table, and two chairs. "The boxes are ours," they said. "But there's not much in 'em, for we've pawned all our clothes, mostly." The bed was covered with old newspapers, and on these were strewn white china beads in large quantities. One girl stood up stringing the beads, the other sat by the table fastening the clasps to the ready-made necklaces. A tin teapot was on the hob, and some slices of bread-and-butter were ready for "dinner." When asked if their usual fare consisted of tea and bread-and-butter, they answered "Yes."
    "Do you ever get meat?"
    "Well," said the eldest, who looked delicate, "I just longs for it."
    These girls make a variety of cheap necklaces, but their chief work consists in stringing coloured beads for "foreign parts."
    "I've seen necklaces like those we make in a shop near Bishopsgate," one girl said. "I don't think English girls wear them, but perhaps they are sold to the Jewesses."
    [-52-] In the neighbourhood of Holborn a great deal of work is done by girls and women for the fashionable shops, especially the re-lining of fur muffs and jackets. A Commissioner visited a poor woman near Red Lion Square the other day who had been out of work for some time, but who had just received an order from a well-known shop. When our Commissioner called, the woman was discovered sweeping the floor of her dirty little room, and emptying the contents of her dust-pan into a basket.
    "What are you going to do with that dust?" our Commissioner asked.
    "Well, you see, I'm short of wadding," the woman said. "They won't pay me till I take the work back, and I've not got any more wadding. If I go to the shop they'll say I was careless, so I'm just filling in with these sweepings."
    On the table lay a magnificent seal-skin jacket, which had been sent by its owner to the shop for repair. Little does the owner of that jacket think that she will wear next winter the sweepings of a filthy little den in the neighbourhood of Red Lion Square!
    So far as we are aware, no one has yet written "the history of a palm-thimble ;" but when this is done, it will be so pathetic that readers will [-53-] say, "It is not a true story." Directly a thing is told that pricks the conscience of the reader, we hear, "You are sensational," and when against the will tears come to the eyes of readers, they tell us, "It is not a true story."
    A palm-thimble can be bought for 2s.6d. This is made of lead. Steel palm-thimbles are very expensive. But the latter wear a long time and it is the ambition of every palm-worker to possess one. Those made of lead wear out very fast, and the needle is apt to slip off them into the hand of the worker. Palm needlewomen have shown their right hands to our Commissioners, scarred with wounds made by the needles that have slipped off the lead and gone deeply into their flesh. Such wounds take a long time to heal, and prevent women from working. The lead or steel is rather larger than the top of an ordinary thimble, flat, round, and placed in the centre of a broad piece of leather. This leather is fastened with a buckle and strap round the palm of the worker's hand, so that the piece of steel or lead comes exactly in the middle of the palm, and the needle can be pressed with all the manual force of which the worker is possessed into the canvas.
    A Commissioner reports a palm-worker visited in Aldgate, a widow with two children. The [-54-] eldest girl helps her mother, and some of the work is done by the grandmother. The three work in the same small room ; one stands by the bed, the second stands by the table, the third stands by the fireplace. Palm-workers do all their work standing up ; sitting down they would not have enough force to pass the long needles through the stiff canvas. These three women do "Government work." They think that the Government is responsible for their hardships, and speak as if Government were a Pharaoh in Egypt.
    "I suffers murder from pins and needles in my hands at night, all along of Government," says the mother.
    "The work tears my clothes to bits ; I wish Government had to pay for them," says the daughter.
    "Men used to get 7s. for ten sacks, and Government only gives 4s. for ten to us poor women," says the grandmother.
    At the present time they are making coal sacks for ships. Each sack has four splices, eight holes, two patches. Each sack is sewn and roped. Each sack has a broad R worked on it for Government.
    By working hard the mother can make such a sack in two hours ; and she receives 4d. for it.
    [-55-] How hard the work is our readers can guess when they hear that she has sprained both of her wrists over Government work. Yet her only complaint is, "I can't get enough of it." She says, " Such a lot flies to the work that it's eaten up quick, and if Government liked it could get the work done for next to nothing. I work from five in the morning till late at night, and I'd work all night long if I could get more to do. I want to bring my girl up to something better than Government work. But work's difficult to get anywhere, and she set herself against going into service."
    "They do say about here as the men will have to stay at home and mind the children, because the women are getting the work," said the grandmother. "She was a wicked woman who made the first sack for Government. Government was obliged to pay the men, but it can get women for next to nothing."
    Another woman, visited in the far East, works for a well-known manufacturer. She makes tarpaulins for barges, break covers, blinds for shops, tents, sacks, etc. When our Commissioner called, she was sitting at her door. "School Board" (the School Board visitor) "told me you were coming," she said. "I thought maybe you wanted a charwoman."
    "Then you are slack just now?"
    [-56-] "Yes, nothing's going on in our trade ; it's all getting done by machinery; there'll be nothing left soon for us poor women. I used to make hammocks for Government, but Government's getting them done now in the prisons."
    "How much did you get for the hammocks?"
    "Five-and-sixpence for ten."
    "How much are you paid for your coal sacks ?"
    "Two shillings for twelve."
    "What are you doing now?"
    "Nothing in the canvas line. Maybe you'll come in."
    The Commissioner complimented her on the neatness of the kitchen ; and she said, "I like to keep a bit near the mark if I can; but I don't know what will become of us if I can't get a job. I was sitting at the door, hoping a neighbour would call me in to do a bit of washing. I've a little girl in there" (pointing to a door) "light-headed with scarlet fever, and I thought if the neighbours came in and heard her, they'd be afraid to give me any washing."
    The Commissioner pointed out the doubtful morality of this conduct ; but the answer was, "One's own come first, and my little girl wants what I can't give her. So don't you tell of me to [-57-] School Board ; I thought from what he said you'd a job to give me."
    She looked very much disappointed when our Commissioner went away. Like many other women, she was anxious to know why we are making this inquiry. Of course our Commissioners can only say the truth, which is that we hope, if public opinion is directed towards home industries, something may be done for these unfortunate women.
    But we are not very sanguine.
    One of the greatest hardships of palm-workers consists in carrying loads backwards and forwards. Some carry on the head, some on the hip. The tarpaulins are especially heavy, and women may be seen staggering beneath them in some districts. They say that the loads make them feel "lightheaded;" but as the tar is healthy it has "no fevers attached to it."
    Mending old sacks is better paid, because the work is so very unpleasant. This is done at home, and also in the markets. Canvas work is much better paid in manufactories than at home. Women can make 12s. a week, or 2s 6d. a day as palm-workers in manufactories.