Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 4 - Brush-makers - Fish-Curing

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ALL sorts of brushes are made by girls and women at home; tooth-brushes, hair-brushes, dairy, churn, scrubbing, stove, shoe, stable, and even scavenger brushes pass through the hands of female workers. The work is generally carried home from a factory ; but sometimes the brushes are made on the premises, if a father or brother is there to turn the backs and handles, and to sell the goods afterwards.
    A Commissioner visited a girl near Lisson Grove who makes hearth-brushes for a large factory It was ten o'clock, and the girl was clearing away the breakfast. She was tall and slight, with a delicate complexion, and large liquid grey eyes. Her father stood at the door when the Commissioner went in, and she beckoned to him. The Commissioner could not hear what she said, but the man looked extremely sulky. Then the girl asked if the Commissioner wanted a brush, and said that her brother would be back in a minute.
    [-59-] "I know as much as he does, the father said, in a sulky voice. "I was born in the brush- making, I was, and I brought you both up to it. He's taking the work away from me, he is."
    The girl slipped a penny into the man's hand, and with a growl he left the room, saying that he would come back for dinner.
    "Dinner!" exclaimed the girl, after he had departed, "I'd like to know where it will come from. I'm keeping us all three," she continued "my brother can't get a job, and I'm doing brushes to keep us. If it weren't for mother I'd give in, but mother's away in the country."
    "What is she doing there?" inquired the Commissioner.
    "She's dying," the girl said. " And father's took to drink since he's been out of work, and Tom, that's my brother, he can't get work. He'll be in directly."
    The Commissioner sat down to wait for Tom; and while she was waiting the girl set to work. She had a job on hand - namely, a dozen hearthbrushes to make for a factory. A dozen pieces of wood lay on a table in the window, and a large quantity of fibre. The implements consisted of a vice to hold the brush while she was working at it, and a large pair of shears with which to cut the fibre after it had been passed through the [-60-] holes in the wood, and secured at the back with wire. She wore a piece of leather round her right hand, about which the wire was twisted ; and with the left hand she picked up the fibre which she passed through the holes in the wood. Each piece of wood had 109 holes in it, which holes had been punched before she carried the brushes home to fill them in with fibre. The fibre and wire were provided, so her work consisted simply of wiring.
    "How much will you receive for those brushes?" inquired the Commissioner.
    "Sixpence. They're a halfpenny each. They take a lot of time, and they're that troublesome, I'd never do 'em but for mother. And since she has been away in the country I've had to do the house-work as well. It's difficult to make dinners out of nothing."
    "Do you ever get paid better than that?"
    "Yes, I've had as much as a penny for 100 holes ; but a halfpenny is what we get at most places. Tom does the fetching and carrying back ; so I can sit at brush-making all day when I've done the house-work."
    Tom came in, and his sister explained that the visitor wanted a brush. His face lighted up as he opened the door of his small workshop. "I've had nothing to do this fortnight," he said, "so I've no money to buy wood or fibre let alone [-61-] hair. I'll be happy to make the brush if you'll give me money to get the materials. I can put your initials on the handle if you like. I've made all sorts of brushes. I was born in the brush business." Then he expatiated on the hardness of his lot, and said that it went against the grain to see his sister slaving all day at brushes for the factory. "Every Englishman ought to be able to earn enough to keep himself and some one else," he said, " a sister or a missus. My sister takes after my mother, and it's just killing her to sit working all day and a good bit of the night; and it maddens me to have nothing to do but carry her work to the factory and fetch more back. She can get plenty to do, and sometimes I help her with the wiring; but it's not work for a man, and I'm clumsy at it."
    The history of the father is worth repeating, as cases like his occur every day, and add to the sum of human misery. He was out of work for a year, and during that time he became weak and ill. When at last he had a job given to him the work came with a rush, and he had not strength to do it. He went to a public-house and drank some gin, which gave him strength for the job he was obliged to finish. The habit has grown upon him, and now he could not work if he had the chance but for his daughter he must go into the workhouse.
    [-62-]  Our Commissioners say that in many of the homes which they have visited, young girls have had black bottles beside them out of which they have been drinking. Their answer to queries is, "I'm so weak, it helps me to go on a bit." No one who visits these girls can speak severely about this habit; for the work is such hard labour, that many of the poor things are completely exhausted before they begin the day. The rooms in which they sit are small and comfortless, and their work is very monotonous.
    Brush-makers live in Hackney, Southwark, Homerton, and other districts. The work is paid by the number of holes; and our Commissioners have not come across one woman who earns a decent living by brush-making. Sometimes, when the husband or father helps, it is possible to make a profit; but when the women fetch the work from factories they get little money.
    A Commissioner reports six small girls in Shoreditch who stick pins in india-rubbers for brushes. They receive 2d. for one dozen india- rubbers ; and each india-rubber must have at least four hundred pins stuck into it. These india-rubbers measure four inches by two inches. The work is tiresome, but not unpleasant. The six little girls enjoy it, for the money they get goes into their own pockets, and they do it [-63-] during their dinner hour, and on half-holidays. But it is a different thing when a woman has to earn her living by brush-making.
    A young woman who lives in Whitechapel was visited. She had no work on hand, and was crying bitterly when our Commissioner arrived at her door. Her husband sat by the washing-stand, with his head buried in his arms, and without any coat on his back. His wife had just pawned the coat to buy food for the family; hence the cause of her tears. A loaf of bread stood on the table, and a teapot. In the arms of the young woman was a baby. Another child lay ill in bed with measles. She was able to make seven shillings a week when work came in "regular," she told the Commissioner, although it was difficult to do much with two little ones. But lately she had had no work; and her husband was "just like the rest of the men," namely, unable to find employment.
    "When I get a job we'll be able to take his coat out of pawn, and he'll go on looking," the wife said. "He wears out a deal of shoe-leather going about the streets, and unless he looks a bit up to the mark he's not got a chance."
    It may be worth while to quote a case reported by a Commissioner in Hackney, that of a man with grey hair, who had been constantly turned [-64-] away by employers as "past work." He was advised by our Commissioner to dye his hair; and the result is that he has been taken on at one of the places where he was refused on account of his middle-aged appearance.
    The dearth of work for men forces them to turn their hand to home industries ; and the consequence is bitter complaints among the women, who think that the men have no right to enter this special branch of labour. The men complain of the women, the women complain of the men, and both complain of the children.
    In order to see the smallest home industries it is necessary to visit the common lodging- houses. In these, at night, men and women, boys and girls, may be found busy at all sorts of small trades, making paper-bags, wooden ornaments, paper flowers, and cheap toys to be sold in the streets for a farthing or a halfpenny. A Commissioner reports a curious incident which she witnessed in Shoreditch. In a common lodging-house kitchen, where the sixty inhabitants of the place were busy at supper or work, three or four Salvation lasses walked in, and began to sing a hymn. The people took little notice, but went on with their work or their supper while the girls were singing. Presently a Salvation [-65-] lass began to speak about heaven and hell, and became so excited that she waved her arms above her head, and swung them in front and behind without heeding passers-by. A poor toy-maker was carrying his merchandise out of the room, and she swept the tray from his hands in her energetic appeal to the Deity. The man made no complaint, but quietly picked up his goods, some of which were broken past repair. "Never mind, sister," he said, when the slum lassie paused to say that she was sorry, "but next time you preach keep your arms quiet."



Curing fish is largely practised in Stepney. Fish-yards may be found there in which work goes on all the year round, and every day of the week, including Sunday. The fish is fetched from Billingsgate to be dried and taken back again when finished. Friday is the best day to see this work, for then the yards are full of fish. These yards are barns, attached to the houses at the back, and covered with tiles or straw. They are generally a few inches deep in water, and the women stand on boxes or stools while preparing the fish. " Let off the water, the owner of the yard says, and then the salt stuff is allowed [-66-] to run into a sink, or out upon the street. It would be impossible to give details concerning this work, for much of it is very disgusting. An old man said to a Commissioner who visited half-a-dozen yards, "I guess you'll never eat a bit of dried fish again after what you've seen; not even a bit of salmon.
    All sorts of fish are cured in these places- salmon, herrings, cod, and sprats, but chiefly haddock. The heads of the fish are cut oW the bodies are cleaned and dipped in salt-water. They are then strung on iron bars, and hung up to dry. The drying takes about five hours. Salmon are dried with coke fires first, then with oak or deal dust. Smaller fish do not require coke. The cupboards in which the fish are hung up to dry reach to the rafters of the fish-yards, and hold thousands of fish at once. The fires are generally lighted about 6 p.m., and the fish is taken down at about 4 a.m. the following morning. It is then packed in hampers and sent back to the market. Norwegian salmon is cured in large quantities, and this does not give much trouble but each sprat must pass six times through the hands of a worker.
    The work is very cold in winter. The girls say that icicles often hang from their fingers after they have dipped the fish in the salt water, and [-67-] that hanging up the fish to dry in the hot cupboards gives them chilblains. They are assisted by men and boys, who carry the hampers and hang the fish on the highest bars in the cupboards. Sometimes daughters help their father and mother, and the whole work of the yard is performed by one family. The usual pay is 2s. 6d. or  3s. a day for the girls and women, but the work is not certain; just now it is very slack. The women say that the fish business is falling away like other industries, and that the owners of fish-yards can "only just scrape along." "It's well enough if your husband's doing something, but it's a poor thing to keep a family by," the owner of a fish-yard told our Commissioner.
    Here again the women work while the men remain idle. The streets are full of youths who have no employment, who lounge on doorsteps. The habit of idleness grows upon these youths, and the women complain, "They're getting that used to hanging about with their hands in their pockets, they think it a hardship to lift a jug of water." It is impossible to lay too great stress on the demoralising influence which enforced idleness has upon these young men. The evil increases every day; and the only people who profit by it are the publicans, into whose dens the men drop in order to kill time and drown misery.