Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Toilers in London; or Inquiries concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis, [Anon] 1889 - Chapter 5 - Fur-pullers - Pipe-making

[back to menu for this book]




THIS industry is very little known to the general public, but a great many girls and women earn their living by it in Bermondsey and other metropolitan districts. The most unpleasant part of the work consists in pulling the skins of rabbits - namely, in rubbing the loose down off them with a blunt knife, which process prepares them for lining cloaks and jackets. The down is returned to the furrier, who uses it to stuff beds, sofas, and pillows. A fur-puller explained to a Commissioner that this fur is "handsome for rheumatics." Fur-pullers formerly received 1s. 9d. per five dozen skins ; but now so many women have gone into the business that only 1s. 1d. is generally paid for that quantity. This fur-pulling cannot be done by machinery at present. At the time of the Crimean war a great many women became furpullers, for large numbers of rabbit-skins were [-69-] then wanted to line the coats of soldiers. Now the skins are chiefly used for the cloaks and jackets of women and children. The work is very unpleasant. The fur-puller sits in a small barn, or out-house, on a low stool. She has a trough in front of her, into which she drops the down as she pulls it off the rabbit-skins with her knife. Occasionally she stops to rub the knife with whiting, for the skins are greasy. The down gets into her nose and mouth. Her hair and clothes are white with it. She generally suffers from what she calls "breathlessness," for her lungs are filled with the fine down, and she is always more or less choked.
    Another branch of the fur-pulling business consists in cutting open the tails of rabbits in order to extract the little bone in the middle. The bones are returned to the manufacturer, who sells them for manure. The fur is paid by the lb., and the worker generally receives 8d per lb. for it after the bones have been extracted. This fur is used to make cheap blankets, and those fur hats which are sold at such low prices. Old pieces of rabbit- skins are also used for these purposes. One fur-puller in the Borough who has been visited by our Commissioners, receives 9d. per lb. for preparing old pieces of skins. Her daughter works at the same business. When [-70-] the Commissioner went into their room, the two women were found sitting at a small table, which was covered with skins and tails. Each woman had a strong pair of scissors, with which to clip the fur from the skin. Large paper bags stood on the floor, ready to receive the down. The bed was strewed with skins, and the floor was littered with small bones. The place smelt of dead rabbit, and the air was thick with fine white hairs. These fur-pullers were not communicative; but they vouchsafed to say that it was difficult to make a living by fur-pulling.


Another large home industry is that of making clay pipes. These are generally bought by publicans at 1s., 1s. 6d., or  2s. per gross to give away in the public-houses. If a customer buys tobacco, he receives a clay pipe with it as a present. Such pipes frequently have the mark of the house or the initials of the publican upon them. But cigarettes are taking their place. Young men prefer cigarettes to pipes, and can buy five in a box at the bar for a penny. Clay pipes are difficult to make, and require a great deal of practice. Sixteen must be made to the dozen, for many break, and many are imperfect. [-71-] The clay is bought by the ton. It takes a good deal of time to prepare, and when prepared must pass through at least six processes. First of all it is shaped ; secondly, a wire is run through the stem ; thirdly, the bowl is formed in a mould ; fourthly, it is dried ; fifthly, it is trimmed ; sixthly, it is baked. The mould costs about 30s., and each public-house has its own mould, unless the publican is poor. The drying is done over a slow fire, and afterwards the pipes must be carefully tried to see if they will draw properly. Many break in the kiln. Last of all, the mouthpieces are painted with sealing-wax. And after all this, the pipes are sold at less than a farthing each.

    We do not intend to notice many more of these home industries. Those we have already placed before our readers show that most of the work is done at a starvation rate of payment. Of course there are places in which women and girls are well paid. Thus one who has been eighteen years in the fancy-box trade wrote to tell us that he has in his employ "hands" who in their own homes earned from 12s. to 15s. a week at the fancy-box business. He wished our Commissioners to visit a firm in the City Road, where two hundred girls and women [-72-] make fancy boxes, because he has seen these people wearing kid gloves and velvet dresses. Our Commissioners have only visited those engaged in home industries. We said that some box-makers are well paid, and that some are paid at a lower rate than those matchbox-makers about whose work such a bitter cry was raised before we began our inquiry. Small boxes are made to hold powder at 2d. the gross in many London districts. These consist merely of the tray that goes inside a common matchbox. Our correspondent says that no "hand," be she ever so quick, could make more than one gross of collar boxes in a day, and the price would be at least 2s. per gross. This is no doubt true of workers who wear velvet dresses and kid gloves. It is quite a different thing where people are starving, for the work of such "hands" goes on all night as well as all day.
    While the public continues to take an interest in the sweating system, it is well to call attention to these home industries. True, the girls and women do not always receive their work through middle-men, but in the sweat of their faces they eat bread. People know so little about them that the Lords' Committee is not likely to give them help. Perhaps they are better without [-73-] such assistance. There is no doubt that when the Lords' inquiry is finished, many witnesses will be quietly sacked by their employers. This will not be done at once; but within a year, or six months, excuses will be made for getting rid of them. However willing these witnesses may be then to sweat, no sweater will give them the chance of sweating. They will be marked men and women. Thus it may be well that the home industries should remain dark at present.
    There is a plan on foot to open an exhibition of home industries, at which a number of specimens will be exhibited. Such specimens are being collected with considerable circumspection, and in secrecy, in order that the employees may not be involved in difficulties. What the employers will say if the plan succeeds it is difficult to think, for their property is finding its way into collectors' pockets, and they will see a variety of their purloined articles exhibited to an astonished public.. This might perhaps bring home to consumers the state of producers more graphically than can be done by writing. Thus a lady would learn that the tooth-brush which she uses morning and evening passed through the hands of a starving girl; that the sofa on which she lies is stuffed with rabbit-down [-74-] that has stifled a poor widow: that the ball with which she plays tennis came from a room in which children lay ill with scarlet fever. People sometimes wonder how epidemics creep into carefully guarded households. They quite forget that the vermin and small-pox, of which they are so much afraid that they carefully avoid the slums of the metropolis, come to them through these home industries. A parish doctor told a Commissioner that he had seen badges for soldiers' uniforms being made in rooms where children had infectious complaints, and that the germs might thus be carried into barracks. These badges ruin the eyes of workers, and are paid at a low rate. A Commissioner visited a poor girl who does them, and found her eyes in a shocking condition. The eyes of a young woman who makes snaps for crackers are even worse, and this woman's child is almost blind, thanks to the stuff which is put into the snaps. It is terrible to think that the crackers which excite so much merriment among rich children are produced at such a cost by their poorer sisters. The woman, who was visited, receives 1s. 9d. per day for twelve hours' work. She cuts the cardboard into narrow strips, and puts between two bits of it some stuff made of silver, nitric acid, sand, and [-75-] methylated spirits. The snaps are then covered with paper, dried, and tied up in packets. This industry is being superseded by snaps from Germany, and women can scarcely make a living at it, even with the assistance of their children.
    Home industries include paper flowers, fans, rag dolls, arms and legs of dolls, baskets, shell ornaments, boxes for sweets, frames, brackets, lace, chains, etc., etc. Umbrellas are now made by machinery, but the elastic bands for them are done by women at home. These consist of button, ring, and flap. They are paid at 4d. per gross. The tops of tassels are worked by women, and are paid at 4s. 6d. per gross. One gross takes a week to make, for the work is fine and troublesome. Bead trimming of all sorts is done at home by girls and women. Our Commissioners have visited a girl who makes blackberry-trimming. This is paid at 1s. 6d. per gross of blackberries, and the girl can do one gross in the day; by this work she has brought up a family of brothers and sisters. She lost her mother when the youngest child was two years old, and with the help of an elder brother she has kept the home together. The brother is now married ; but she keeps on the one room in which they have all lived [-76-] for ten years, and still works at the bead business. When asked if she meant to marry, she shook her head,, and said, "I've no time for courting.
    Weaving has died out in many districts, but sometimes our Commissioners have come across women with looms. One old lady near Drury Lane says that she made binding for the Queen's carriages at the Jubilee. Her Majesty little thinks when she leans back in one of these carriages whose hands wove the binding of her cushions. The binding was of Oxford and Cambridge blue. The poor woman received 2d. per yard for it. She produced about six yards a day, by working from dawn till dark. She told our Commissioner that her employer always made a favour of giving her work, and said it was just to keep her out of the workhouse. "But I know better," she continued. "Hand-work's better than machine- work. That's why he gave me the job for the Jubilee." She is bent almost double, and her right arm is broken. Her chest is sunken, and her knuckles are swollen. For thirty-six years she had inhabited the same room. She pays for it 2s.6d., and half of it is filled with the great loom, at which she works all the year round without any holiday. In one window is a creeping-jenny, which she bought at a [-77-] Sunday market for 6d. ; in the other is a single grain of wheat, planted in an old whelk- shell. We shall notice later on those women who make shirts, coats, and waistcoats in their own houses, all of which come under the heading of home industries. Buttonhole makers have already attracted the notice of the public, and this work is often quoted, together with the making of match-boxes, when a bitter cry finds its way into a meeting or a newspaper. A poor woman in Southwark was visited who supports herself and five children by making buttonholes at 2d. per gross. A woman in the same house makes bows for boys at 10d. per gross. Neckties are not paid much better.
    Every day more women compete for these home industries. The wives and daughters of clerks do much of this work sub rosa, and actually undersell the poorer women. They thus try to eke out the small incomes of husbands and fathers. On few people does the Juggernaut competition place a heavier foot than clerks. Their wives can tell tales of economies which make the lives of beggars in the streets appear luxurious. Beggars are not obliged to keep up an appearance, without which many clerks must starve or go into the workhouse. The wives [-78-] of these men are much to be pitied but they get a good deal of pleasure out of their would-be "gentility," and if the shoe pinches they console themselves with the thought that some people go shoeless.