Parliament and the Vellum Debate – the final word (for now)

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On Wednesday, the House of Commons finally found an hour and half to debate whether to abandon the practice of printing the official copy of statutes on ‘vellum’. At the end of the ninety minutes, 155 MPs – just under a quarter of the House – voted on the issue with a large majority in favour of rejecting the move to change to printing on ‘archival paper’. As with my previous discussions on this issue, I do not want to dwell on whether this is the right resolution as much as on the reasoning given on both sides of the argument.

It is often said – most often by MPs, but also by others among Westminster’s village-people – that the level of informed debate held in the Commons is impressive. If that is so, then the Members of Parliament were having a collective bad day on Wednesday. Most of the interventions revealed ignorance, revelled in irrelevance and resorted to hyperbole. The item at the heart of the debate – ‘vellum’ – was not well understood by many who considered their opinion should be heard. As I have explained before, the terminology has an innate ambivalence and its history is the subject of debate. A small example of this is my own mention in an earlier post of uterine vellum, a particularly smooth surface because (it is said) it is made from the skin of an abortive or neo-natal calf. My friend, Mary Garrison at the University of York, dropped me a line to point out that recent research demonstrates that there is no reason to assume that what was called, in the Middle Ages, ‘abortive vellum’ did actually come from such young animals: it may well instead be a matter of how the skin was prepared. There is, in other words, some doubts over details in scholarly circles, but there is nothing like the confusion MPs showed. Vellum is not, as Sir Paul Beresford would have it, a ‘very similar material to parchment’ – vellum simply is parchment. The term, as I have explained before, can have special connotations and, indeed, at Parliament’s parchmenters, William Cowley, it is used particularly to signify a writing surface made of calf-skin (I thank Patricia Lovett, the leading calligrapher who has campaigned hard on this issue, for confirming this). Vellum – etymologically connected to veal – is the calf-skin sub-set of parchment. This eluded some of those who rose to speak who talked of laws being printed on goatskin. This was a claim made in the 1999 debate on the issue, and recently repeated on television by young Jacob Rees-Mogg, but is no more than an error: goats can be used for the making of parchment, as can sheep, and both are utilised at William Cowley’s but not for the highest-grade material that is sold to Parliament.

The ignorance about what they were discussing was not confined to one material. The putative replacement is ‘archival paper’ which, according to Paul Beresford, has been used by Parliament since 1510. This conjures up an image of a clerk to Henry VIII visiting a paper-maker and insisting ‘I don’t want any of your run-of-the-mill stuff…’ – except, of course, there was no such distinction between types of paper in the sixteenth century and, anyway, in 1510 a royal clerk could not have simply have walked across London to find a paper-mill: there was none in England at this point or until the middle of the reign of Elizabeth. We might wonder how many of the speakers relish the idea that those early paper records were all written on imports from our continental neighbours.

This is not to say that all historic paper is as liable to destruction as some of the speakers claimed. Chris Skidmore, himself trained as an historian (did I not teach you one term, Chris?) and author of history books, described his visits to the National Archives at Kew. He was right to say that many of the early modern records on paper are fragile and unavailable to touch – but he surely also knows that there are others of the same date which have survived and show no sign of disintegrating in the next few years. The quality of paper varied and what is perhaps surprising is that some of the more ephemeral records written on thin paper not intended to last are still with us. It is not the case, as was claimed in the debate, that paper cannot last 500 years – just as we can have no certain evidence that, as James Gray moving the motion to retain vellum claimed, parchment will last 5,000 years. We have no examples of that age and, indeed, the city of Pergamon, most likely did not exist and certainly had not invented parchment (the city’s name is the origin of our term) in 3,000 BC.

Exaggerated claims, however, were not the preserve of those wanting to continue the use of vellum. On the other side, the amounts of money to be saved do not bear scrutiny. In an impassioned speech condemning the motion as a ‘vanity project’, Paul Flynn claimed £100,000 a year could be saved by moving to paper copies. This is more than double the figure of the cost of the vellum in the year of highest expenditure, and the amount paid to William Cowley, by their reckoning, is usually closer to £20,000. Like so many predicted government savings, this is likely to be one which does not materialise and then requires the costs of an investigation to find out why it did not.

Other speeches combined mistakes with misdirection. Michael Ellis noted that ‘Torah scrolls are printed on vellum’, except that the Jewish tradition requires the handwriting of the Torah (not printing) and, as the MP himself later noted, the ‘vellum’ was not produced by England’s one commercial supplier. What would be valid is the larger point that parchment still has uses beyond the copies of record of statutes – but whether that is a point which would commend itself to those MPs in favour of continuity is doubtful.

The reason for doubt is the implication of the central argument used for continuing the practice: a resort to tradition. Ronnie Cowan spoke eloquently against this mantra, hinging his contribution on a quotation from Woody Allen: tradition is the illusion of permanence. For some in the debate, it certainly seemed that the construction of an illusion was the value of vellum. Several speakers referred to Magna Carta, presumably because it continues to be so much in the public imagination following the 2015 celebrations; the argument usually ran that it would not have survived if it had been written on paper – overlooking the copying and re-copying which has been part of its success. On the other side, the importance of the Great Charter was taken to stand in opposition to the tawdry mundanity of much latter-day legislation. In riposte, the wittiest intervention, by David Warburton, contrasted the importance of Domesday Book with the ‘equally wondrous’ Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2016 but by mentioning them in the same breath intended to emphasise a sense of connexion – they are all part of the legal fabric of our nation and so all deserve to partake in a tradition of respect. In this logic, one would expect the processes of respect to be shared by all elements of that fabric but also confined only to them. Might we hear next of an attempt to make the use of vellum exclusive to those products of the genius of our MPs’ minds, the statutes of the realm?

I have said before that the argument that parchment should be used for printing records because it evokes tradition and stability suggests something worrying about how we construct our state, with recourse to mystique rather than reasoning. The cause of law on ‘vellum’ seeks for the physical material itself to express something of the ineffable spirit of our unwritten constitution. Is there no better argument? There surely is, but it was not expressed on the floor of the Commons. If, though, Parliament, for its own ill-informed and illogical reasons, wishes to provide a small subsidy to keep alive Britain’s one parchment-maker, then that does some good. The Commons may have had the wrong reasons but it reached the right decision – this time.

Will this be the end? In the normal run of things, we might expect to be saved from another debate for at least a decade. But, then, these are not normal times. Imagine (if you dare) this scenario: the EU referendum is won by those who want Britain to leave the Union. As a result, that other Union, between England and Scotland (which, by all accounts is solidly in favour of remaining in the EU) collapses, since it would be tyrannous for one partner to insist the other be bound to its own descent into squalid isolation. In that context, the newly English Parliament, faced with not just a political but also an economic crisis of its own making, would need to consider all savings possible. In that context, what would the fate of ‘vellum’ be?

Tagged: parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley

A previously unidentified manuscript from the collection of Christopher Urswick – and the need to catalogue maniculae

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One of the benefits of the addiction with which, as I have described, we manuscript researchers are afflicted, is the afterglow that follows the high. It is a short span of time but one in which it seems that the luck – or self-made serendipity – continues to hold and further finds can be made. So it has happened with me today. It is unrelated with the subject of the high itself, the unidentified work of Thomas Candour, but is connected with other codices I saw on my American travels. Two of these were the work of Pieter Meghen, both made for the Dutchman’s first English patron, Christopher Urswick, dean of Windsor. In both, the same reader annotates the volume and he has been identified as Urswick himself. I have not before studied systematically his manuscripts – here operates the curse of excellent scholarship which wards of later travellers through the same regions: Urswick’s book collection received a seminal study by the late Joe Trapp in the first volume of that estimable journal Renaissance Studies (estimable – I explain in the spirit of full disclosure – because it published my first article). With such a work published, is there any need for further investigation? There is, of course, always more to be discovered. What happened in this case is that the annotations with their distinctive drooping manicula reminded me of a note I made some fourteen years ago about a manuscript in the Bodleian. This is the first day since my return that I have had the opportunity to check MS. Rawl. G. 28, a tiny, pocket-sized later fifteenth-century copy of Cicero’s De officiis in a hybrid gothic script with some humanist features, including the repeated use of a low-set ampersand as both conjunction and suffix. Having just turned over it leaves, I can nwo announce with full confidence that it includes, starting at fol. 10 and with the last appearing at fol. 102v, marginalia which are, indeed, by Urswick. This should be added to the list of volumes that passed through his hands.

We might also add that he was not the first owner: another reader also annotates the book – sometimes translating short passages of Latin into English – and, as at fol. 95v, Urswick’s notes are written around those of the other reader, the sequence of ownership can be established. I think we may be able to go further and say something more about that other reader, but I am not fully certain of that yet (confirming it may require a trip to Rouen, tant pis) and, anyway, one revelation is enough for one day.

A revelation, you say? This hardly registers on the Richter scale of codicological discoveries, you complain. I did say the find was small – and, indeed, that is why it is presented here in what I have called before the imaginary journal,  Aperçus & obiter dicta, rather than being hidden away in my notes waiting, like so much else, to be launched upon the world in print and with fanfares. I mention it, however, because it introduces a wider issue to which we should attend. Too often, in catalogues, the presence of a manicula or pointing hand is noted with no more description. I could not have made the link I have done if I had not copied out an example of it myself (remember, this was before the days of digital cameras) and written a record as an aide-memoire of its main features. What I am suggesting is that we need both a repository of images of maniculae and an agreed language (equally for hard-copy descriptions and for tagging of on-line images), designed to explain the salient elements of a pointing hand. We might start with the term itself: some catalogues talk of a maniculum or maniculus but these are simply mistakes (in Latin, the diminutive of a term takes that term’s gender and as manus is feminine…); should we, though, talk of a ‘manicula’ or use the new English coinage, ‘manicule’? I leave to an International Convention the debate and testy resolution of that issue. What, I think, matters more is that we should record features like its angle: is it upright or horizontal, or diagonal (rising or, as I have just said, drooping)? Does it show fingers as well as fore-finger? Does it have a cuff? Is it connected to a marginalising line and, if so, in what style?

These, I would suggest, are the key elements we need to record: perhaps you have more you would like to suggest (as long as we stop short of a counsel of impossible perfection). Maniculae can be a powerful tool for recognising a person’s annotations, particularly when verbal notes are rare or overly succinct – but we can only harness that power if we show them the respect of a clear and shared vocabulary.

Tagged: Bodleian Library, Christopher Urswick, Cicero, maniculae, Pieter Meghen, Thomas Candour

Confession of a Manuscript Researcher

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Let us admit it: manuscripts research is a drug. An observer of a special collections reading room may not credit it, sensing the hushed atmosphere that envelopes the seated individuals oblivious to the watching eyes as their attention concentrates on the volumes resting before them. We toil in what can often be drudgery – admittedly, comfortable but, all the same, a grind of request, checking and return recorded in brief notes which confirm that a book has been excluded from our enquiries. Even in this process, there is a tingling sensation, the tiny frisson of the scent and touch of parchment, the affecting recognition of contact with scribes and readers long dead but still present in the codex we have before us, and the irrepressible hope at the point just before we open the pages that here, maybe, will be a ‘find’. And when a find does come, it provides the rush, the exhilaration that keeps us enthralled to this drug through the years or, more often, decades which lie between each hit. We manuscript researchers are patient addicts.

Like any addict, when we are under the influence of the drug, we want to break out of normal behaviour: we are so stimulated that we want to shout, to break the silence of the reading room and call others to our desk so they can share in our excitement. What stops us, beyond a residual sense of propriety, is a semi-conscious realisation that very, very few, even in that learned space, would actually want to share, would appreciate what we have found to the extent we do. I remember once in the Vatican, at the point when I made a discovery and the power of the drug coursed through me like an intravenous injection, I looked around the room and caught the eye of a young researcher, who smiled and so revealed herself as a fellow addict, who knew from her own experience the sensation I was feeling. We did not talk – that is not the point: this is a designer drug, individuated for each user. What gives a hit to one person will leave another cold; but in the civilised opium den that is the library, there is an honour-code by which each respects the others’ moments of epiphany.

You might be able to tell that I am living on the after-effects of a dose of The Drug. In my career, I have had more than my fair share of hits – indeed, one sensation which, for me, comes at the moment of the rush is the downer, the question in my head: do I deserve this good fortune? Perhaps my luck will end; perhaps I have had my last find. Even if so (and, Lord, prevent it), the memory of the act of previous discoveries will sustain me. From the first occasions, in the mid-1990s, when, in Cambridge, I found in quick succession two manuscripts owned by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, followed, on 5th April 2003, by the most memorable rush I have experienced, on a day when every manuscript I called up in the Bibliothèque nationale de France was a revelation – that day I nearly overdosed – with, only three months later, another hit, standing at the kitchen sink that serves the library of St John’s College, Oxford (have I told you that tale? Some day I surely will) – all these, and besides them, those moments in the Vatican Library, of course the Vatican, whose vast reserves of volumes to be seen will provide highs for eternity, with the most recent for me being reported on this website – each of these hits has driven me, impelled me to return to the library, to continue in this line of work while good sense (or the opposite, the demands of the REF) might argue otherwise. Note that it is the act itself that provides the hit; the thing discovered takes a cherished place in the friendship group of manuscripts one has known, but that is because of the associations it has earnt for you; certainly, the revelation of the discovery in print is only the after-effects, like the sucking on the lemon after the gin has been drunk dry.

I see, from the post I just mentioned, the date of my last hit was December 2012. So, I have waited nearly three and a half years for the next high: the interval itself increases the excitement. I have just returned from the States, where I had a useful week of research, looking in particular, at two manuscripts by Erasmus’s friend and the pre-eminent copyist in England in the early sixteenth century, Pieter Meghen. I visited first one, which by the date Meghen provides is his earliest manuscript; it was sold at Christie’s London rooms in 2010 (at a time when I as out of the country so unable to see it) and was bought by the Beinecke at Yale. The other has been at Princeton for longer and looking at it this week, it appears to me highly likely that it is from substantially earlier in Meghen’s career than that at Yale (I hope these words do not cause a feud between the two). All this, and the other books I studied, thanks to the kindness of the librarians at both Ivy League universities, was, as I say, useful – which is addict’s code for saying they provided no high. That, as happens, comes when and where you are not expecting it. It took place, in fact, last Thursday afternoon, 7th April 2016, in the special collections room in the Canaday Library of Bryn Mawr College. I was there because the reason for my visit to the States was to speak, at the generous invitation of David Cast and Roberta Ricci, at a colloquium on my old friend, Poggio Bracciolini, the following Saturday; my remit was to discuss his international reputation, for which I have stretched my own knowledge by studying his fortuna in early print but in which paper I also returned to manuscripts I know well, including those by the masterful mid-fifteenth century English scribe, Thomas Candour. The reason Bryn Mawr was such an appropriate location for this event was that the college was the alma mater of Phyllis Goodhart Gordan, who had translated the first collection of Poggio’s letters and who, in addition, was a renowned collector of rare books and manuscripts, many of them now housed in their Canaday Library. So, my purpose in arriving early was to study some of those volumes, with an eye to adding in some brief reference to them in my talk. What I found, however, could have transformed my paper completely: there was no way it would have been possible to know before I arrived that when I was handed a smallish volume, bound in pale calf-skin and containing two dialogues by Poggio, I was about to look on pages written by a man whose hand I know well – this is a previously unidentified manuscript produced by Thomas Candour. His codices are usually illuminated in a single style but – what makes this all the more exciting – is that the illumination here is not in that style but definably in the hand of the artist known as the Caesar Master. This is the only occasion on which England’s most significant humanist scribe and its most accomplished humanist-influenced illuminator are collaborators.

I warned you that a find is a personal thing. I can think of probably four people in the world who will be anything more than mildly interested in this – and one of those was in the audience on Saturday (thanks, Kathleen, for being there). Telling this tale, though, has helped me, I believe, to isolate the active chemical in the drug to which you, like me, may be addicted: it is serendipity. I have called serendipity before ‘the patron saint of palaeographers’, but perhaps that understates its importance or its relevance to a wider cohort of scholars. In what I have said today, you may recognise that what makes a find exhilarating is both its significance to one’s research and that it was unexpected. Serendipity does not prepare you for a discovery; it (or, if it is a patron saint, she) takes you in the hand blind-folded. But then she places you in front of what she thinks you should see, and takes off the blinkers and whispers in your ear, ‘look’. Of course, in truth, we make our own serendipity. By years of study, we gain eyes to see. By those years of drudgery, working without a hit, we make possible the irreplaceable sensation of the high. I am not giving up this drug – as I have learnt to say in the States – any time soon.

Tagged: Bryn Mawr College, Caesar Master, David Cast, Humfrey duke of Gloucester, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Pieter Meghen, Roberta Ricci, Thomas Candour, Vatican Library

J is for Jam Maker

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This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/l/j-is-for-jam-maker/

“Any adventurous jam-maker can be sure, by settling in London, of getting as many female workers as he likes for about 7s. a week – certainly not a subsistence wage in London; and having got them he may treat them pretty much as he likes. He may turn them off for weeks or months in slack times; they will be there as soon as he chooses to open his doors again. He may work them day and night in busy seasons until they are broken down with fatigue and sleeplessness; and they will agree with the law which says it is all right.  He may work them under conditions fatal to health, and they will take it as all in the day’s work. The one thing which will never happen is that he should be ‘short of hands’”[1]

 

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries jam making was carried out across the country – everywhere from village kitchens employing one or two women producing small batches of jams and preserves from fruits in season, to the vast London and Liverpool based factories, each employing thousands of workers.  Rapidly jam making became an occupation frequently reported as being problematic, both in terms of the wages being paid which were very low, but also as a dangerous environment, regularly appearing in the newspapers reporting deaths and serious injuries in the factories.

stock-illustration-26136989-workers-in-a-victorian-jam-factory

Jam makers were considered to be at the lower end of the working classes.  They are regularly described in reports as being of a ‘rough’ nature, they needed to have no special skills or experience – simply to be able to work for long hours and strong enough to deal with the vats of fruit and vast, heavy jam pans or pallets of jars.  Jam factories were taken to court for making women work overtime – as in the case of Messrs. Machonochie Brothers, who were summed to court for employing women after hours. Under the Factory Acts, women were not allowed to be employed after 9pm, however, Miss Deane, a Government inspector, visited the factory on August 5th 1898 and found three girls, one of which was only 14, working at 9.30pm, having been in work since 8am. The girl concerned had had an hour for dinner and another hour for tea, but was still washing bottles 13 hours after starting work that day.  Surprisingly, the judge found in favour of the employers, suggesting that, “if workshops were carried out on the ideal plan suggested, businesses could not be carried on at a fair profit.”[2]   In 1892 dozens of women employed at Pink’s jam factory held a strike at the reduction in their pay. Due to the surplus of women seeking employment and the lack of employment legislation to protect women in work, they were replaced immediately from the scores of women waiting at the gate in the hope of work.

Work in jam factories was seasonal and as such the factories worked extremely long hours in the fruiting season. Giving details of her factory duties, one elderly widow in Liverpool explained how:

“Oranges come in about Christmas, and marmalade making goes on till the end of March; rhubarb starts in May, followed by gooseberries and stone fruit. When the stone fruit is finished there is a week or two of pickling onions, but there is nothing from the beginning of October to Christmas.”[3]

During the slack time the widow explained that she had to take to charing – there was no work at the factory.  Women working full time could expect to earn a full time wage of 10/- or 11/- a week when busy, but only 5/- a week during the quieter months, with one woman stating that she only earned 2/- a week off season.

Work in the jam factories was hard – it is named by Clementina Black as being one of the occupations for women which would be considered more dangerous than a housewife’s heavy load of washing and cleaning.  “Some of them lifted pans of 56lbs weight, some washed bottles, some pulped fruit or stacked jars, or put fruit into bottles.”[4]  The work carried out by the stackers and lifters was considered very heavy – the 56lb pans (converted to 25kg) would be considered over 9kg (19lb) heavier than can safely be carried by a woman at work today.  This put an immense strain on the women, most of whom were under nourished, and frequently pregnant. All of the women questioned for Women’s Industrial Council worked in the factories through necessity – mostly due to being widowed, or their husbands being injured, sick, or unable to find regular work. None of the families were bringing in what would be considered at the time a subsistence wage, and, therefore, the physical condition of the women was argued to be weaker than the norm.  Black herself questioned whether “the carrying or piling up of pans or trays weights half a hundred-weight each can be suitable for women who are expecting the birth of a child,”[5]    and this seemed to be borne out in Liverpool where Ms Newcombe-Fox suggested that there appeared to be increased mortality among the children of jam makers – this being blamed on the mothers working to near their ‘time’, and the strain of the nature of the work.

Beyond the normal strains of working such long hours doing strenuous work, the factories could be, by their very nature, dangerous places to work. In 1893 the parents of Delilah Figgins, 15 years of age) insisted that their daughter’s death, 10 days after beginning work at Messrs. Pink in Bermondsey, was due to the insanitary conditions in which she was forced to work.  She had complained, as had her sister, that the oranges she was sorting were frequently rotten, that the smell was appalling and that her hands were scratched and then soaked in the putrid liquid. Worse still, the girls were not allowed to leave the factory for their meal breaks, being forced to eat their meals surrounded by the rotting fruit. Whilst the coroner found that her death was due to septicaemia, most likely due to a bruise on her leg becoming infected, Pinks were informed that the work girls (over 600 of them) “should have their meals in another part of the building, as it was not a proper thing from a humane point of view for them to have their meals among the [rotting] oranges in their work-room.”[6]  In 1895, Eliza Wrightly was killed at Pink’s, having fallen into a pan of boiling apples. Again, Pinks were instructed to create a safer working environment – the open pans of boiling fruit causing frequent injury, and asked to ensure that covers were placed over the pans to prevent further fatalities.[7]   In 1900 Rosalie Reed was killed at Keiller’s Jam Factory. “In the course of her work at the factory, the girl had to pass along a gangway just by the side of which was a hole 10 feet wide and 24 feet deep. Into the hole the exhaust boiling water was allowed to run, and clouds of steam continually rose. There was, said several witnesses, no protection to the pit, and no light except a lantern. One evening the girl was missed. Nothing more was seen or heard of her until her body was found next day in the boiling water. A witness declared no fence was placed around the hole until two days after the accident.”[8]

With the combination of long hours, hard, heavy work, dangerous conditions and low wages jam making attracted women who needed work at any cost, and, as lamented by social commentators of the time, the conditions in which many worked worsened.  Pinks were able to dismiss on the spot a large section of their finishing workforce who dared to strike as so many other women were willing to work for worsening pay in awful conditions.

 

It would be wrong of course to suggest that all jam manufactories were terrible and there were some notable exceptions. The work was always going to be hard, and the pay low, but some, like Wilkin and Son’s in Tiptree, and the Hartley factory in Aintree were bright airy places. Hartley’s made a point of inviting the press and the medical profession into their factories to show off their staff, the housing they provided and the conditions in which the fruit was grown and prepared – Sir James Barr, one of Liverpool’s most eminent physicians stated that “neither he, nor his professional friends would have any hesitation in eating any of the Hartley jam.”[9]

pinks

Ending on a happier note, having failed to convince their employers in 1892 of the injustice of falling wages, in 1911 the women of Pink’s factory joined with thousands of others to strike again, and this time they won:

“In the summer of 1911, 15,000 women in Bermondsey, South London came out on strike against low wages and bad working conditions in the district. Thirty firms, including a number of jam and biscuit factories, were affected by the strike. The National Federation of Women Workers moved all available staff into the area to help organise the women and the Women’s Trade Union League launched a financial appeal. Many concessions were obtained and at Pinks’ jam factory, the wage rose from 9 to 11 shillings per week”[10]

 

 

[1] Helen Bosanquet, ‘A Study in Women’s Wages’, The Economic Journal, Vol. 12. No. 45. March 1902, pp 42-43.

[2] Jam Factory Overtime, Reynold’s Newspaper, (London, England), Sunday, August 28th 1898.

[3] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 189.

[4] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 45.

[5] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 46.

[6] Work in a Jam Factory, Birmingham Daily Post, (Birmingham, England), 8 April 1893

[7] Jam Making Fatality, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, (Worcester, England) 26 October 1895

[8] A Girl’s Terrible Death, Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland) 19 November 1900

[9] Visit to a Jam Factory, Daily Mail, (London, England) 21 July 1906.

[10] http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=100299&QueryPage=%2Fequalpay%2Fabout.php

J is for Jam Maker

This post was originally published on this site

This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/uncategorized/j-is-for-jam-maker/

“Any adventurous jam-maker can be sure, by settling in London, of getting as many female workers as he likes for about 7s. a week – certainly not a subsistence wage in London; and having got them he may treat them pretty much as he likes. He may turn them off for weeks or months in slack times; they will be there as soon as he chooses to open his doors again. He may work them day and night in busy seasons until they are broken down with fatigue and sleeplessness; and they will agree with the law which says it is all right.  He may work them under conditions fatal to health, and they will take it as all in the day’s work. The one thing which will never happen is that he should be ‘short of hands’”[1]

 

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries jam making was carried out across the country – everywhere from village kitchens employing one or two women producing small batches of jams and preserves from fruits in season, to the vast London and Liverpool based factories, each employing thousands of workers.  Rapidly jam making became an occupation frequently reported as being problematic, both in terms of the wages being paid which were very low, but also as a dangerous environment, regularly appearing in the newspapers reporting deaths and serious injuries in the factories.

stock-illustration-26136989-workers-in-a-victorian-jam-factory

Jam makers were considered to be at the lower end of the working classes.  They are regularly described in reports as being of a ‘rough’ nature, they needed to have no special skills or experience – simply to be able to work for long hours and strong enough to deal with the vats of fruit and vast, heavy jam pans or pallets of jars.  Jam factories were taken to court for making women work overtime – as in the case of Messrs. Machonochie Brothers, who were summed to court for employing women after hours. Under the Factory Acts, women were not allowed to be employed after 9pm, however, Miss Deane, a Government inspector, visited the factory on August 5th 1898 and found three girls, one of which was only 14, working at 9.30pm, having been in work since 8am. The girl concerned had had an hour for dinner and another hour for tea, but was still washing bottles 13 hours after starting work that day.  Surprisingly, the judge found in favour of the employers, suggesting that, “if workshops were carried out on the ideal plan suggested, businesses could not be carried on at a fair profit.”[2]   In 1892 dozens of women employed at Pink’s jam factory held a strike at the reduction in their pay. Due to the surplus of women seeking employment and the lack of employment legislation to protect women in work, they were replaced immediately from the scores of women waiting at the gate in the hope of work.

Work in jam factories was seasonal and as such the factories worked extremely long hours in the fruiting season. Giving details of her factory duties, one elderly widow in Liverpool explained how:

“Oranges come in about Christmas, and marmalade making goes on till the end of March; rhubarb starts in May, followed by gooseberries and stone fruit. When the stone fruit is finished there is a week or two of pickling onions, but there is nothing from the beginning of October to Christmas.”[3]

During the slack time the widow explained that she had to take to charing – there was no work at the factory.  Women working full time could expect to earn a full time wage of 10/- or 11/- a week when busy, but only 5/- a week during the quieter months, with one woman stating that she only earned 2/- a week off season.

Work in the jam factories was hard – it is named by Clementina Black as being one of the occupations for women which would be considered more dangerous than a housewife’s heavy load of washing and cleaning.  “Some of them lifted pans of 56lbs weight, some washed bottles, some pulped fruit or stacked jars, or put fruit into bottles.”[4]  The work carried out by the stackers and lifters was considered very heavy – the 56lb pans (converted to 25kg) would be considered over 9kg (19lb) heavier than can safely be carried by a woman at work today.  This put an immense strain on the women, most of whom were under nourished, and frequently pregnant. All of the women questioned for Women’s Industrial Council worked in the factories through necessity – mostly due to being widowed, or their husbands being injured, sick, or unable to find regular work. None of the families were bringing in what would be considered at the time a subsistence wage, and, therefore, the physical condition of the women was argued to be weaker than the norm.  Black herself questioned whether “the carrying or piling up of pans or trays weights half a hundred-weight each can be suitable for women who are expecting the birth of a child,”[5]    and this seemed to be borne out in Liverpool where Ms Newcombe-Fox suggested that there appeared to be increased mortality among the children of jam makers – this being blamed on the mothers working to near their ‘time’, and the strain of the nature of the work.

Beyond the normal strains of working such long hours doing strenuous work, the factories could be, by their very nature, dangerous places to work. In 1893 the parents of Delilah Figgins, 15 years of age) insisted that their daughter’s death, 10 days after beginning work at Messrs. Pink in Bermondsey, was due to the insanitary conditions in which she was forced to work.  She had complained, as had her sister, that the oranges she was sorting were frequently rotten, that the smell was appalling and that her hands were scratched and then soaked in the putrid liquid. Worse still, the girls were not allowed to leave the factory for their meal breaks, being forced to eat their meals surrounded by the rotting fruit. Whilst the coroner found that her death was due to septicaemia, most likely due to a bruise on her leg becoming infected, Pinks were informed that the work girls (over 600 of them) “should have their meals in another part of the building, as it was not a proper thing from a humane point of view for them to have their meals among the [rotting] oranges in their work-room.”[6]  In 1895, Eliza Wrightly was killed at Pink’s, having fallen into a pan of boiling apples. Again, Pinks were instructed to create a safer working environment – the open pans of boiling fruit causing frequent injury, and asked to ensure that covers were placed over the pans to prevent further fatalities.[7]   In 1900 Rosalie Reed was killed at Keiller’s Jam Factory. “In the course of her work at the factory, the girl had to pass along a gangway just by the side of which was a hole 10 feet wide and 24 feet deep. Into the hole the exhaust boiling water was allowed to run, and clouds of steam continually rose. There was, said several witnesses, no protection to the pit, and no light except a lantern. One evening the girl was missed. Nothing more was seen or heard of her until her body was found next day in the boiling water. A witness declared no fence was placed around the hole until two days after the accident.”[8]

With the combination of long hours, hard, heavy work, dangerous conditions and low wages jam making attracted women who needed work at any cost, and, as lamented by social commentators of the time, the conditions in which many worked worsened.  Pinks were able to dismiss on the spot a large section of their finishing workforce who dared to strike as so many other women were willing to work for worsening pay in awful conditions.

 

It would be wrong of course to suggest that all jam manufactories were terrible and there were some notable exceptions. The work was always going to be hard, and the pay low, but some, like Wilkin and Son’s in Tiptree, and the Hartley factory in Aintree were bright airy places. Hartley’s made a point of inviting the press and the medical profession into their factories to show off their staff, the housing they provided and the conditions in which the fruit was grown and prepared – Sir James Barr, one of Liverpool’s most eminent physicians stated that “neither he, nor his professional friends would have any hesitation in eating any of the Hartley jam.”[9]

pinks

Ending on a happier note, having failed to convince their employers in 1892 of the injustice of falling wages, in 1911 the women of Pink’s factory joined with thousands of others to strike again, and this time they won:

“In the summer of 1911, 15,000 women in Bermondsey, South London came out on strike against low wages and bad working conditions in the district. Thirty firms, including a number of jam and biscuit factories, were affected by the strike. The National Federation of Women Workers moved all available staff into the area to help organise the women and the Women’s Trade Union League launched a financial appeal. Many concessions were obtained and at Pinks’ jam factory, the wage rose from 9 to 11 shillings per week”[10]

 

 

[1] Helen Bosanquet, ‘A Study in Women’s Wages’, The Economic Journal, Vol. 12. No. 45. March 1902, pp 42-43.

[2] Jam Factory Overtime, Reynold’s Newspaper, (London, England), Sunday, August 28th 1898.

[3] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 189.

[4] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 45.

[5] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 46.

[6] Work in a Jam Factory, Birmingham Daily Post, (Birmingham, England), 8 April 1893

[7] Jam Making Fatality, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, (Worcester, England) 26 October 1895

[8] A Girl’s Terrible Death, Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland) 19 November 1900

[9] Visit to a Jam Factory, Daily Mail, (London, England) 21 July 1906.

[10] http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=100299&QueryPage=%2Fequalpay%2Fabout.php

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part II

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To continue from yesterday’s post, where I discussed the tensions in the debate over whether British statutes should continue to be printed on vellum for the copies of record.

5. In the internet we trust?

The transformation of the world wrought by the invasion of the internet is, of course, the most significant change since the issue of parchment versus paper was last discussed on the floor of the House. Some, indeed, have pointed out that both sides in the debate seem antiquated: real change, it could be argued, would come with using the internet as the primary form of record. There would be worries about interoperability, that is the future availability of the texts as technology continues to revolutionise itself. This, though, is not the fundamental problem: ‘real change’ would be change to the virtual; the word of the law would be an apparition on screen, a vision – or a mirage. Is there yet enough trust in the gods of the internet who can conjure up words before us to let those things we considered most precious out of our grasp, to become intangible? It is improbable that such a future would commend itself to the honourable members of the Commons. Whatever presence a statute has on-line, it is likely Parliament will want to have the reassurance of a physical copy. This appears to be the consensus which hides behind the division of opinion – and not only that: there is a common acceptance among the law-makers that the form the copy of record takes should be of a quality to reflect the respect due to the law. This is, it should be stressed, not the only position that could be taken. In fact, a different approach was proposed by the Assistant Clerk to the House of Commons in 1837, when he noted that:

…the durability of the [copy of record] itself is of less consequence, when the permanent preservation of evidence of its contents is sufficiently secured by the multiplication of copies by printing, in case of the destruction of the original…

In other words, replication itself could stand as the guarantee of longevity. Admittedly, this reveals an ignorance of the frequency with which a printed work can disappear completely but what is more significant is that, in the nineteenth century, there was a trust in technology which could envisage an alternative to reliance on the specific copies of record. Of course, his argument was rejected: the insistence on durability and appropriate quality won then and will win now, whatever the outcome. It is not the only logical solution available but that it is seen as logical should give us pause to reflect.

6. More than skin deep

There is a paradox at the heart of the issue: the on-line would be consider insufficient because it is intangible but, equally, for the vast majority of the population, the physical copies of record are not within their reach. For each statute, there are two copies, one held in the Parliamentary Archives, and the second sent the National Archives at Kew. Any citizen can travel to Kew to check that record – but very few would bother. Most of us prefer, instead, to have confidence in the process and not to test it. We might consider ourselves cynical of those in power and about the workings of the state but, at some level, we look to it for reassurance. That reassurance lies not just in the fact that there are established methods of doing things – rituals of mundane bureaucracy – but also in a belief that there has been and will be continuity, that they have lasted and will be durable.

The rhetoric of durability, that is to say, is not simply or primarily a practical consideration: it speaks to the fundamental expectation that government provides stability. The party in power may change, policy and legislation itself may be overturned or revised but beneath that – we are being reassured – lies a more basic constancy. In creating that aura, however mendacious it might be, the choice of material on which to preserve the law of the land is part of the rhetoric, an element of the arcana of the state. In this context, parchment has a special advantage: it exudes archaicity and rarity. Perhaps even more than that, the idea of writing on the skin of animal hints at something visceral or elemental. The argument might go: while medieval kings hunted beasts in the royal forests, the rights of their subjects were written in charters on parchment. That ‘vellum’ – and now we may see the full import of the preference for that term – symbolises tradition certainly overlooks the greater changes that have occurred in the recording of legislation, but its continuing use creates or fabricates a sense of tradition.

This is heightened by the very fact that parchment is now rare: the message being given is that Parliament is so committed to showing respect to the law that they will seek out materials of the highest quality, however difficult they are to come by. That there is only one company in Britain commercially producing parchment is very much to the advantage of this rhetoric. If there continued to be as lively an industry as there was in the nineteenth century, this would have less traction. Parliament, then, should thank William Cowley of Newport Pagnell for being the sole survivor of that industry: in the years in which Parliament has relied on them for the supply of ‘vellum’, the apparatus of the state has, I would suggest, gained more in aura or charismatic capital than the company in financial return. For that reason alone – whatever doubts or suspicions we might have as citizens about the aura created – Parliament surely owes a debt to William Cowley; £40k a year sounds like a rather small subsidy to keep alive the only representative of an industry. If, though, that still seems excessive and the honourable members want to cut costs further, they might think of a more radical solution and one which would allow them to spend more time in their constituencies: pass fewer laws.

Tagged: parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley of Newport Pagnell

Parliament and the Vellum Debate, part I

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Given the momentous and quick-moving issues at stake in politics this year, a question of stationery might hardly register. But when, this coming Thursday (10th March 2016), the House of Commons debates the future format of the copies of record of parliamentary statutes, there is something more going on than a simple choice between parchment and paper. Here is a palaeographer’s guide to the issue, brought to you in two instalments.

1. Some background

At the very middle of the nineteenth century, in 1849, two significant innovations were made concerning the official record of legislation. Up to that point, the ‘copy of record’ of each statute was written by a scribe on a parchment roll, the length of which varied – some rolls were over 400m long. The decision was made to dispense with tradition: in future, ‘with the view to preventing the chances of error’ the record would be printed, and the format would be a booklet, not a scroll. The one element that did not change was the material on which it was to be produced – it remained parchment or, as the parliamentary record constantly terms it, vellum.

The question of whether there should also be a change in material was (as the Research Analyst at the House of Commons Library, Elise Uberoi, has shown) considered in these discussions but, it seems, rejected at the last stage. In that sense, what is being discussed now could be seen as a piece of unfinished business. It is also, though, very much interrupted business: it was over a century later, in the later 1950s, that the decision was to taken to print Private Acts on paper; in 1957, a wider move for all legislation was rejected. There was further discussion in the mid-1980s, and, in 1999, the House of Lords proposed reform but this was also rejected in the Commons after a debate. The issue was revisited last year, and the process became byzantine: a Committee report recommended the change but there was no vote in the Commons; it was then announced a month ago that the decision had been made to end printing on parchment on 1st April. The Cabinet Office, however, has intervened to offer to cover the costs of continuing the practice, and the debate now set for Thursday is intended to provide a resolution to the matter.

2. Vellum versus Parchment

We should clarify terms. Parliament’s preferred term, ‘vellum’, and ‘parchment’ are often used interchangeably to describe the skin or membrane of an animal which has been prepared in such a way that it can be a writing surface. Strictly speaking, ‘vellum’, which is related to ‘veal’ should signify parchment from the skin of a calf, but many of the leaves used for statutes have been goat-skin. There is, though, another connotation to ‘vellum’: as the best quality parchment is considered to be that of ‘uterine calf’ (that is – and the squeamish should turn away now – from stillborn or neo-natal cows, where the hair has not had opportunity to grow and so the skin particularly smooth), the word can also imply the highest-grade of animal skin. It would seem that it is with those overtones that the term was used in the nineteenth-century discussions – a contrast is, at times, drawn between ‘vellum’ and ‘parchment’. Though, in the present debate it goes unstated, something of that sense of quality lingers in the continuing insistence on the less common and so more evocative term.

3. Modernisation versus Tradition

Reporting on the previous Commons debate in 1999, the BBC commented ‘this is one battle the modernisers have lost’. The idea that a change would be modernisation is curious and not just because a shift to a technology first introduced into Europe in the thirteenth century is hardly cutting-edge. Behind talk of ‘modernisation’ usually hides an implication of improvement but even the most rabid supporters of paper would not claim it was superior in durability or feel to parchment. Indeed, for most of its history, paper has been the poor cousin of writing surfaces. When the printing press was invented in the mid-fifteenth century, it proved a more conducive surface than supple parchment on which to stamp metal type, but even with that advantage, it was considered of lower quality: Johann Gutenberg himself had the Bible he printed produced on paper but with de-luxe copies on parchment. The practice was to continue in the following centuries. One late example of it which fascinates me is the twentieth-century tradition of churches in England commissioning manuscript books listing those from the parish who fell in war: out of respect for the dead, these are not only calligraphic masterpieces, they are most often on what many would call vellum.

On the other side of the debate, there is a similarly questionable assumption underlying some of the statements. The inclination to cite tradition as a reason might warm the cockles of conservative hearts. While it is never a sufficient rational argument for the status quo, in this case it is especially suspect. It can hardly be claimed that the printing statutes on vellum is itself a habit that has endured centuries, considering it began in 1849. A variant on ‘it has always been done like this’ could be ‘it is everywhere done like this’ but that would be demonstrably untrue. While the practice of printing on parchment was used in the United States for the copy of a Congressional bill sent to the President for signing, since 1947, the requirement has been only that the copy should be ‘printed on parchment or paper of suitable quality’. The question, in Britain, is whether paper can constitute ‘suitable quality’ – and whether the quality of parchment comes at too high a cost.

4. Price versus durability

The discussions in 1999 and in 2015-16 have been stimulated by a desire to save money. The claim has been made that using parchment is unjustifiably expensive, both because it is rare and costly product and because it requires a ‘highly specialised form of printing’. It is certainly the case that, in Britain, there is a monopoly on the industrial production of parchment: the one company in business is William Cowley of Newport Pagnell (for whom supplying Parliament plays a major role in keeping them in trade). The second claim, though, is surprising: certainly, as has been mentioned, printing traditionally has found parchment a less usable surface than paper but with the developments in technology to the extent that 3D printing would allow you to build your own tank or replica art masterpiece, it is implausible that fairly cheap methods of printing on parchment are unavailable. Overall, the claim has been made that moving from parchment to paper would save £80k but opponents of the change, led by the energetic calligrapher, Patricia Lovett, have estimated that the real difference is £37k per annum.

Against these financial calculations is set the issue of ‘quality’ or, more specifically, durability. A perennial problem for the reputation of paper has been that the suspicion that it will not survive in perpetuity. In the thirteenth century, the Emperor Frederick II banned the use of paper for recording his laws precisely because pages made only a few decades earlier were already disintegrating. It seems that the durability of the material was improved later in the same century in the Italian town of Fabriano which became the first major centre of the paper industry. In recent discussions, one argument has been that the ‘archival paper’ proposed to replace parchment is designed so that it should be able to last five hundred years. It was also pointed out, in the 1999 debate, that if a fire were to occur both parchment and paper would perish. This is only partly true, as anyone knows who has worked with manuscripts once owned by the seventeenth-century antiquary Sir Robert Cotton which were then subject to a fire in 1731. Some were destroyed completely but others survived in a fragmentary state, the parchment translucent, contorted and brittle but often still legible. The reality is that paper is quicker to burn, just as it is more susceptible to water damage. What is undeniable is that, while parchment is more durable, that is not in itself a guarantee that it will withstand all the possible disasters that can befall a physical object. If you want endurance, perhaps we should be looking beyond the physical.

Click here to read Part II.

Tagged: Johann Gutenberg, parchment, Parliament, Patricia Lovett, vellum, William Cowley of Newport Pagnell

I is for Ironer

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This post was originally featured on , on . You can read the original article here at http://victorianoccupations.co.uk/i/i-is-for-ironer/

In 1901 over 180,000 women were recorded in the census as working in laundries as washerwomen, ironers and manglers.  Every town and village had women working at laundries, small hand laundries existed by the thousands in large towns and the suburbs of London. Alongside these were homebased workers, and also the vast, steam driven laundries employing hundreds of women.

b4cf8eb0116881f2387582c817580755

Unlike today with our automated laundry systems and electric irons with steam facilities, doing the laundry in the 19th century was hard physical work, and to do it correctly required skill. A report in The Pall Mall Gazette or 1890 describes how the process was being taught to fortunate young girls in a number of School Board Schools in London.

“Every girl of the right sort delights in a doll’s washing, and so it is little wonder that the large class-rooms at five different centres which serve pro tem as wash-houses and laundries become the school paradise and promotion to a laundry class is eagerly earned by good attendance and steady work… Twelve little irons have heating on gas stoves, and soon, three at a table, the little laundresses are smoothing, glazing and goffering. Little glossing-irons are produced, and such a gloss do collars and cuffs receive as shall astonish the proud fathers and brothers who are to wear them on the following Sunday.”[1]

Saltaire_School_laundry

Many books and newspapers carried advice on how to launder and iron – in many the advice is simply to take the ironing to a professional – “Laundry-work, like everything else, requires care, attention and neatness. Scorched linen and smutty collars, although too often seen where the washing is done at home, ought not to be, any more than at the large laundries where ironing is paid for by the article and everything badly ironed is returned by the manager to be redone.”[2]  The author advises that: “The irons must be hot (yet not hot enough to scorch) and smooth. Some ironers stir the starch round with a wax candle when it is made, or put a scrap of butter in it to prevent the irons sticking; others rub the irons on the knife-board (dusting them afterwards) for the same purpose. But one great secret is to have bright, clean irons, and to starch the articles evenly – not ot have llumps of starch sticking here and there. Firm pressure upon the iron is necessary, and a good ironer knows how to fold each article neatly and daintily.”[3]

Ironing was a complicated, drawn out process – the irons needed to be heated on the stove taking care not to get smut and dirt on the hot plate, and then the clothes were pressed. An iron was not just an iron – there were multiple irons of different sizes for different jobs including the glossing-iron and for frills a goffering-iron.

irons

Each needed heating, and then placing back on the stove to heat up again as they cooled – however, if the iron was too hot it would scorch and maintaining the heat meant standing alongside a stove – hot, physically demanding work.  It was a job that required a great deal of experience and skill to do correctly, the little girls in the Board Schools were being prepared to care for their own homes and washing, but also to be able to work in the hand and steam laundries :

“Washing is carried on in low, ill-ventilated rooms, the walls and ceilings of which stream with moisture, the floors of which are broken and undrained, so that the workers stand in a slop of dirty water, while wet flannels dangle round their heads, and their cotton dresses are soaked with steam and perspiration. In another room, more often than not, built overhead, the ironers ply their work around a gas-stove radiating noxious fumes, while the heat draws a damp steam up through the boards. The ironers literally drip with heat, and towards night-time their failing strength is stimulated by draughts of beer, which, bought wholesale and retailed, yields a profit to the employer. Even in well-managed laundries, the workers often take their meals sitting on turned-up pails with their feet in the water.”[4]

Not only were the conditions the women were working in appalling, the hours worked were described as ‘murderous’.  Writing in 1896 Miss March Phillips, creating a report on Women’s Industrial Life, wrote that Monday was frequently a short day for ironers – the washing needed to be washed first after all, but on Tuesday through to Friday most would work until 11 or 12 at night, frequently later still in the season. It was suggested that it was nothing unusual to finish work at around 3am on a Saturday morning, sleep for a few hours, and then begin again at 8am working though until Saturday afternoon.[5]  The work was dangerous, the machinery used could result in fatal injuries and was frequently insufficiently fenced, and sanitary conditions were found to be very poor in many instances.   In 1894, The report on the employment of women, by the Lady Assistant Commissioners, described ironers were the best paid workers in commercial laundries, and how women with children preferred to work in hand laundries as these were generally not requiring ironers to work on a Monday, thus giving them a free day to tend to their households.  Jessie Boucherett, the author of the report suggested that this was not a job for young girls, the heat in the ironing room which frequently reached 80-100 degrees was simply too much for them, not to mention the skill required to ‘get up’ (press) the more complicated garments – petticoats, ruffled shirts etc – was beyond their experience.

Ironing then was a job for experienced, older women, who were paid the best wages in the laundry.   Charles Booth states that while “women at the tub received from 2s to 3s a day… shirt and collar ironers earn from 8s to 15s a week according to capacity, and work from four to six days… Shirt and collar ironers who do clean work for shirt and collar warehouses are better paid. The work must be done well, and 4s to 5s a day can be earned.”[6]  This certainly compared favourably with the wages for laundresses in general – girls of 15 were expected to work for 70 to 80 hours a weeks for 5s in many instances.

Clementina Black, however, suggested that the wages were getting lower by the early years of the twentieth century and following interviews with over 60 women she found that many were on a lower wage than Booth suggested.  She illustrates the home life of these women, and paints a picture of abject poverty, in many instances the women working to support a sick husband, the children sick themselves and the mothers struggling to find childcare to support her while she went to work.

“Case No. 60 was that of a woman with a consumptive husband and five children ranging from 16 years to 9 months old. The occupied at a rent of 6/6 a top flat of two rooms in the neighbourhood of one of the great markets. The buildings were, in the investigator’s words, “tucked away down a long passage, each block with a separate staircase leading off – dirty and, I should think, dangerous in case of fire. The postman I asked for directions, who said he had been in the district for 18 years, declared there were no such buildings”. The wife, who went out to her work, earned, at the highest, 14/- a week, but some weeks only 7/- or 8/-… Two of the younger children were very delicate, and these remained at home in the care of the consumptive father, who could only go out ot work in warm weather. It was his custom to go hopping – always to the same farm – every year, and he was paid £1 a week. The whole family accompanied him, and the wife reported of the previous autumn’s migration that it “quite set her up” for the winter. It seems difficult to believe, however, that four or five weeks in the fresh and healthy air of a hop garden could do away with the effects upon the babies’ health of weeks and weeks shut up in the society of a father possessing but half a lung. The poor fellow was a devoted parent, who among other services cooked midday meals for all his children. But what must have been his reflections during the long hours of tendance upon a pair of tiny, weakly children whose chances of life his very presence was diminishing.”[7]

This family were not alone in their struggles – ironing, while better paid that general laundry, simply could not pay enough to provide even a basic standard of living for a family where the father was either sick, had died or had deserted.  The hours worked and the wages paid caused frequent calls for laundries to come under the Factory Act, thus reducing hours and improving safety. This campaign, however, although called for in many circles, was argued in 1893 to be overlooking: “the danger and injustice  of legislation which puts grown-up women on the level of “young persons and children”, and so lowers the market value of their labour. Too many of the well intended, but unjust restrictions of women’s hours of work have put them out of trades where wages were good and the work not unsuitable.”[8]     The article goes on to quote an extract from the Laundry Journal:

“ Perhaps the most ticklish question of all is that of overtime. Now overtime, under the Act is a difficult matter to deal with, as it will mainly affect the ironers, practically all of the young persons and women. How hardly the matter of overtime may bear on a trade is vividly illustrated by the labour dispute at the Lower Croft  Bleach Works, Bury. It seems that the work at the Lower Croft is mainly of the fancy goods description, necessitating a rush of work at certain seasons. Overtime is absolutely necessary. But the Bleach Works are under the provisions of the Factory Act, and the overtime clauses must not be evaded. Consequently at the Lower Croft boys and women were dispensed with, and the light labour given to old men and cripples, men who were not able to do hard work and earn full wages, but who were glad to do the light labour of the boys and women for the same wages these would have received.”

Ironing then was a job carried out by tens of thousands of women across Britain, hot, exhausting work in dangerous conditions which paid very little for the skill required. They were arguably at the top of the laundry pile so to speak – but their lives were hard, and their work harder.

 

 

 

[1] Little Laundresses at Work, The Pall Mall Gazette, (London, England, February 17th 1890)

[2] Country Housekeeping, Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, (London, England, Saturday, July 01, 1882)

[3] Country Housekeeping, 1882

[4] Miss March Phillips, ‘Women’s Industrial Life’, The Monthly Packet, (London, England, Friday May 1st, 1896) P 530

[5] Miss Phillips

[6] Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co, 1893) P 295.

[7] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), pp. 23-24.

[8] Article 2 – Laundries and Legislation, The Englishwoman’s Review, (London, England, Monday October 16th 1893)