Tag: Victorian London

Isabella Ormston Ford, (1855-1924)

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  As well as writing about Victorian Occupations, I think its helpful to consider some of those great philanthropists who sought to help those working in the terrible conditions in which so many of the working classes found themselves. During the 19th Century, especially in the latter years, the concerns over sweating and the abuse… Read more »

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C is for Crossing Sweeper

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Crossing Sweeper   Continuing with the series on street life in Victorian London, the crossing sweeper was as much a part of this world as the costermongers, flower girls, mush-fakers, pure finders and the numerous other members of the London underclass.  Roads and pathways were filthy, covered in mud, rotting vegetable matter and the ever… Read more »

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F is for Flower Seller

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Flower Sellers When we think of flower sellers, we often think of Eliza Doolittle, the flower seller in Covent Garden who went from rags to riches thanks to the attentions of Professor Higgins. Hers was of course just a story, but her trade was common, although her rise out of poverty was hardly in any… Read more »

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J is for Jam Maker

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“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/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

B is for Bootmakers

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

B is a tricky one, there are so many Bs showing up as occupations for married women in the census; these are the Bs from just one single enumeration district in Bethnal Green:

Backgammon Table Maker
Bag Maker
Baker
Baking Powder Packer
Barmaid
Basket Maker
Bead Embroiderer
Bead Trimmer
Bobbin Winder
Bonbon Maker
Bonnet Maker
Book Binder
Book Filler
Book Folder
Book Sewer
Boot Lining Maker
Boot Machinist
Boot Maker
Boot Polisher
Boot Tacker
Boot Trimmer
Bottle Labeller
Bottle Packer
Box Maker
Braid Machinist
Braider
Broad Weaver
Brush Drawer
Brush Maker
Bugle Trimmer
Butcher
Button Hole Maker
Button Maker

As you can see, there are a vast array of occupations I could look at for B in my A-Z, as opposed to the As for the same enumeration district which were Apprentice and Artificial Flower Maker (of course, there are far more than that in reality when looking further afield, Actress comes up – surprisingly – with great regularity).  I decided to write about the occupation group in which the greatest number of women were employed in my samples, and that was those working in boot manufacture (a close run thing with book folding).

Bootmaking was such a huge part of the Victorian economic structure that Charles Booth dedicated an entire section of Life and Labour of the People in London to a discussion regarding the ways in which the trade had developed and changed over the preceding 25-30 years, the working patterns of those involved in the trade, and the problems faced by men and women alike in a rapidly evolving sector of the clothing industry.[1]

One of the biggest issues faced by our bootmaking ladies was a drop in payment rates over a very short period of time. Whereas, previously, bootmaking had been a specialist trade carried out by artisans in small workshops and mainly by hand, by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century most boots were made by machine to a standard last (the wooden or metal ‘foot’ used to size shoes), rather than being made to measure for each customer.  It should be noted that we mustn’t confuse ‘machine’ with our current understanding of factory work; each process was still carried out by hand at this time in the majority of cases, but machines were involved in the sewing and finishing of the boots and shoes, thus cutting down on the time take to hand sew every upper, and to then sew it to every sole.

Booth, however, points out that for some in the trade the mechanisation of bootmaking was a positive thing. He notes, whereas in the mid 1800’s a family could not earn more than £1 a week bootmaking sewing by hand, the introduction of the sewing machine greatly reduced the price per pair of boots, but the bootmaker could make far more pairs per day.[2]  This was of great advantage to the owners of the growing bootmaking companies, but the profits were not always passed down to the employees.

Even within ‘boot making’ there are several different trades, and many different ways in which a woman could have been working.  Put very basically this comes down to home-work (most favoured by the married women) and factory work. By the 1880s most boots were made in factories, and many of the women recorded in the census as working in the boot trade were employed by factories. The areas in which women tended to do most of the work were fitting (pasting the pieces of the boot together in preparation for sewing), machining, button-holing and finishing (otherwise known as table hands) and these are the main boot making occupations seen in the list above (sometimes under slightly different names as given in the householder schedule).[3] It may seem surprising that so much of the work of the bootmaker was carried out by women, but as Booth points out, ‘Male labour is too costly a luxury to be employed by the manufacturer when he can get the work done well enough for his purposes by women willing to accept wages much lower than those demanded by men.’[4]

Wages varied greatly depending on the employer, the time of year (boot and shoe making, whilst not so seasonal as many of the other trades, was still quieter at times, the busiest months being from the middle of February until the middle of July),  and the experience of the woman herself.  Top class machinists in the late 1880s would earn in the region of 18s a week to 22s (if they were exceptional), whereas those who were still learning their trade could only expect to earn 14-16s a week. Apprentices worked for nothing for the first three months of their time with a company, and they would then rise very slowly from 2s-3s a week, up to a staggering 7s a week when they were at the end of their three years of apprenticeship.  The other female workers were on lower rates, button-hole makers could sometimes make up to 18s a week, trimmers on average 10s-12s, whilst the room-girls – young girls employed to fetch and carry, on 2s 6d.[5]

The hours of the women employed in the manufactories were not so long as those found in other occupations, indeed, by Victorian standards they were quite reasonable – a woman only expected to work from around 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday and a nice half day of 8am to 2pm on a Saturday – the overtime could be problematic, increasing their hours into the night on occasion, but still, bootmaking was seen as a relatively genteel occupation for a woman.

Certainly by the last years of the nineteenth century most women were employed by factories, and very few independent bootmaking families remained in business, but this didn’t mean that they were all actually working in a factory environment. Bootmaking was another one of the trades in which most of the work was still carried out at home.  Then, as now, premises were expensive and added to the cost of the product, it made far more sense to ship out most of the finishing and stitching work to women in their own homes.  Indeed, some of these women made their own little manufactories in their living rooms, employing friends, daughters and neighbours to come and carry out the work.  Booth offers some examples of the experiences of these women, and the money they were able to earn. Below is the profit and loss account for a mother working in her own home, in possession of three machines, one of which she works, in May of c1890:[6]

Gross Receipts £2. 15s. 5 ½d
£     s    d £   s    d
Expenses. Wages: 1 fitter 0   13   0
1 Machinist (improver) 0    9    0
1 Machinist (daughter) 0    6    0
1 shop-girl (table-hand and room-girl) 0    8    0
Grindery and repairs to machines 1  16   0
Rent 0   9    0
Light 0   3    0
Railway fares of shop-girltaking work to warehouse 0   0    6
Total 2   8   10
£    s    d
Gross Receipts 2   15   5 ½
Expenses 2    8   10
Nett Earnings 0    6    7 ½

So it can be seen that the woman who took in bootmaking and employed her daughter, a neighbour and a shop-girl earned less than the shop-girl by the time she had paid for the repairs to her machines and all of their wages. This was not always a profitable exercise.

Clementina Black also writes about the problems facing home-workers, which, it must be stressed, made up the majority of women working the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century she explains how the normal payment for soling babies’ leather boots has dropped to 8d a dozen pairs (so 24 little boots for 8p), as opposed to the 1/- a dozen which had been the norm in previous years.  Not only this, but many women were employed purely on piece work, and not on any form of permanent contract, so rather than being assured of work on a regular basis, they would have to walk from factory to factory to try and seek out some work to carry out. The plight of Mrs. W, a married mother of five small children, is pointed out by Black:

 ‘when visited she was busy upon babies’ shoes of blue ribbed silk; she stitched on the soles by hand, an operation always performed inside out, and necessitating the turning of the shoe to its right sided afterwards; then she pasted and inserted the stiffening at the heel, and finished off the inside. She was paid 1/- per dozen pairs, and could not do more than three dozen in a day, even if she sat at work from 9 to 11 or 11.30. One evening her husband timed her unawares, and reported that she had earned 2d. an hour – presumably four shoes. At that rate she would have taken 18 hours to do the 72 that she described as barely possible between 9 and 11.30.’[7]

Black goes on to explain how Mrs W’s fares for collects her work amounted to 9d. per week, and that she also had to provide her own thread, paste and needles, frequently using half a penny’s worth of needles per dozen pairs.  Even with her husband working, having a lodger and taking in washing (when did she have the time?) Mr and Mrs W still could only scrape together 30s a week, not enough to live on, Mrs W working to within a few hours of the birth of her most recent baby, and being back at work within six days, propped up in bed with pillows to try and make ends meet.[8]

When we consider that, according to the 1881 census of England and Wales, just in the borough of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch alone, over 2600 women were occupied in the boot trade, we can see that a vast number of women were living and working in these conditions, sewing, cutting or pasting for over 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours, for these rates of pay. And bootmaking was a ‘good’ occupation choice!


[1] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co., 1893), pp.69-137.

[2] Booth, p.78

[3] Booth, p.75

[4] Booth, p. 75.

[5] Booth, p. 87.

[6] Booth, p. 90.

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 64.

[8] Black, p. 68.

B is for Bootmakers

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/b/b-is-for-bootmakers/

B is a tricky one, there are so many Bs showing up as occupations for married women in the census; these are the Bs from just one single enumeration district in Bethnal Green:

Backgammon Table Maker
Bag Maker
Baker
Baking Powder Packer
Barmaid
Basket Maker
Bead Embroiderer
Bead Trimmer
Bobbin Winder
Bonbon Maker
Bonnet Maker
Book Binder
Book Filler
Book Folder
Book Sewer
Boot Lining Maker
Boot Machinist
Boot Maker
Boot Polisher
Boot Tacker
Boot Trimmer
Bottle Labeller
Bottle Packer
Box Maker
Braid Machinist
Braider
Broad Weaver
Brush Drawer
Brush Maker
Bugle Trimmer
Butcher
Button Hole Maker
Button Maker

As you can see, there are a vast array of occupations I could look at for B in my A-Z, as opposed to the As for the same enumeration district which were Apprentice and Artificial Flower Maker (of course, there are far more than that in reality when looking further afield, Actress comes up – surprisingly – with great regularity).  I decided to write about the occupation group in which the greatest number of women were employed in my samples, and that was those working in boot manufacture (a close run thing with book folding).

Bootmaking was such a huge part of the Victorian economic structure that Charles Booth dedicated an entire section of Life and Labour of the People in London to a discussion regarding the ways in which the trade had developed and changed over the preceding 25-30 years, the working patterns of those involved in the trade, and the problems faced by men and women alike in a rapidly evolving sector of the clothing industry.[1]

One of the biggest issues faced by our bootmaking ladies was a drop in payment rates over a very short period of time. Whereas, previously, bootmaking had been a specialist trade carried out by artisans in small workshops and mainly by hand, by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century most boots were made by machine to a standard last (the wooden or metal ‘foot’ used to size shoes), rather than being made to measure for each customer.  It should be noted that we mustn’t confuse ‘machine’ with our current understanding of factory work; each process was still carried out by hand at this time in the majority of cases, but machines were involved in the sewing and finishing of the boots and shoes, thus cutting down on the time take to hand sew every upper, and to then sew it to every sole.

Booth, however, points out that for some in the trade the mechanisation of bootmaking was a positive thing. He notes, whereas in the mid 1800’s a family could not earn more than £1 a week bootmaking sewing by hand, the introduction of the sewing machine greatly reduced the price per pair of boots, but the bootmaker could make far more pairs per day.[2]  This was of great advantage to the owners of the growing bootmaking companies, but the profits were not always passed down to the employees.

Even within ‘boot making’ there are several different trades, and many different ways in which a woman could have been working.  Put very basically this comes down to home-work (most favoured by the married women) and factory work. By the 1880s most boots were made in factories, and many of the women recorded in the census as working in the boot trade were employed by factories. The areas in which women tended to do most of the work were fitting (pasting the pieces of the boot together in preparation for sewing), machining, button-holing and finishing (otherwise known as table hands) and these are the main boot making occupations seen in the list above (sometimes under slightly different names as given in the householder schedule).[3] It may seem surprising that so much of the work of the bootmaker was carried out by women, but as Booth points out, ‘Male labour is too costly a luxury to be employed by the manufacturer when he can get the work done well enough for his purposes by women willing to accept wages much lower than those demanded by men.’[4]

Wages varied greatly depending on the employer, the time of year (boot and shoe making, whilst not so seasonal as many of the other trades, was still quieter at times, the busiest months being from the middle of February until the middle of July),  and the experience of the woman herself.  Top class machinists in the late 1880s would earn in the region of 18s a week to 22s (if they were exceptional), whereas those who were still learning their trade could only expect to earn 14-16s a week. Apprentices worked for nothing for the first three months of their time with a company, and they would then rise very slowly from 2s-3s a week, up to a staggering 7s a week when they were at the end of their three years of apprenticeship.  The other female workers were on lower rates, button-hole makers could sometimes make up to 18s a week, trimmers on average 10s-12s, whilst the room-girls – young girls employed to fetch and carry, on 2s 6d.[5]

The hours of the women employed in the manufactories were not so long as those found in other occupations, indeed, by Victorian standards they were quite reasonable – a woman only expected to work from around 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday and a nice half day of 8am to 2pm on a Saturday – the overtime could be problematic, increasing their hours into the night on occasion, but still, bootmaking was seen as a relatively genteel occupation for a woman.

Certainly by the last years of the nineteenth century most women were employed by factories, and very few independent bootmaking families remained in business, but this didn’t mean that they were all actually working in a factory environment. Bootmaking was another one of the trades in which most of the work was still carried out at home.  Then, as now, premises were expensive and added to the cost of the product, it made far more sense to ship out most of the finishing and stitching work to women in their own homes.  Indeed, some of these women made their own little manufactories in their living rooms, employing friends, daughters and neighbours to come and carry out the work.  Booth offers some examples of the experiences of these women, and the money they were able to earn. Below is the profit and loss account for a mother working in her own home, in possession of three machines, one of which she works, in May of c1890:[6]

Gross Receipts £2. 15s. 5 ½d
£     s    d £   s    d
Expenses. Wages: 1 fitter 0   13   0
1 Machinist (improver) 0    9    0
1 Machinist (daughter) 0    6    0
1 shop-girl (table-hand and room-girl) 0    8    0
Grindery and repairs to machines 1  16   0
Rent 0   9    0
Light 0   3    0
Railway fares of shop-girltaking work to warehouse 0   0    6
Total 2   8   10
£    s    d
Gross Receipts 2   15   5 ½
Expenses 2    8   10
Nett Earnings 0    6    7 ½

So it can be seen that the woman who took in bootmaking and employed her daughter, a neighbour and a shop-girl earned less than the shop-girl by the time she had paid for the repairs to her machines and all of their wages. This was not always a profitable exercise.

Clementina Black also writes about the problems facing home-workers, which, it must be stressed, made up the majority of women working the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century she explains how the normal payment for soling babies’ leather boots has dropped to 8d a dozen pairs (so 24 little boots for 8p), as opposed to the 1/- a dozen which had been the norm in previous years.  Not only this, but many women were employed purely on piece work, and not on any form of permanent contract, so rather than being assured of work on a regular basis, they would have to walk from factory to factory to try and seek out some work to carry out. The plight of Mrs. W, a married mother of five small children, is pointed out by Black:

 ‘when visited she was busy upon babies’ shoes of blue ribbed silk; she stitched on the soles by hand, an operation always performed inside out, and necessitating the turning of the shoe to its right sided afterwards; then she pasted and inserted the stiffening at the heel, and finished off the inside. She was paid 1/- per dozen pairs, and could not do more than three dozen in a day, even if she sat at work from 9 to 11 or 11.30. One evening her husband timed her unawares, and reported that she had earned 2d. an hour – presumably four shoes. At that rate she would have taken 18 hours to do the 72 that she described as barely possible between 9 and 11.30.’[7]

Black goes on to explain how Mrs W’s fares for collects her work amounted to 9d. per week, and that she also had to provide her own thread, paste and needles, frequently using half a penny’s worth of needles per dozen pairs.  Even with her husband working, having a lodger and taking in washing (when did she have the time?) Mr and Mrs W still could only scrape together 30s a week, not enough to live on, Mrs W working to within a few hours of the birth of her most recent baby, and being back at work within six days, propped up in bed with pillows to try and make ends meet.[8]

When we consider that, according to the 1881 census of England and Wales, just in the borough of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch alone, over 2600 women were occupied in the boot trade, we can see that a vast number of women were living and working in these conditions, sewing, cutting or pasting for over 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours, for these rates of pay. And bootmaking was a ‘good’ occupation choice!


[1] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co., 1893), pp.69-137.

[2] Booth, p.78

[3] Booth, p.75

[4] Booth, p. 75.

[5] Booth, p. 87.

[6] Booth, p. 90.

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 64.

[8] Black, p. 68.

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