Tag: Women

Schools and Sanitation – Rowhedge grows….

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  In this fourth and final post of the history of Rowhedge in the 19th century I’ll be focusing primarily on school life and the strength of the villagers as they fought off all on-comers in their attempts to bring a degree of drainage and sanitation to the village – a situation described as ‘a… Read more »

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The tailoresses of Rowhedge

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  Rowhedge Rowhedge was, and still is, a small village on the banks of the River Colne in Essex. It is a place where for generations the men worked as fishermen, while the women stayed at home, holding together a family, a home, and in many cases also working. That it became a focus for… 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

D is for Dressmaker

This post was originally published on this site

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Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.

Ballgown

Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.


[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013

The post D is for Dressmaker appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

D is for Dressmaker

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/d-is-for-dressmaker/

Wherever you look in the Victorian censuses, whether it be the urban metropolis of London, or the sleepiest villages in deepest Norfolk you will always find women recorded as either ‘dressmaker’, ‘tailoress’, ‘shirt maker/sewer’ or ‘needlewoman’. Mid-century, estimate placed the number of dressmakers in London alone as being in the region of 15-17,000 women. In most communities, certainly those the size of an average village and above, you will find all four occupations. This may at first seem confusing; that women are giving themselves a range of different title for the same basic occupation, but in Victorian England this was not the case – a dressmaker is not a tailoress, and a tailoress is most definitely not a shirt maker or, insult of insults, a buttonholer.  In this post, I will consider the role and experiences of the tailoresses and the more lowly shirt makers under their own letter of the alphabet, but here want to focus on the dressmaker – arguably one of the most ubiquitous of the Victorian occupations carried out by women.

Ballgown

Dress, 1861-63 Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At a time when the racks of clothes we are used to viewing in stores was unheard of, dressmakers were responsible for the creation of the stunningly beautiful dresses of the age and each tuck, each pleat, each minute piece of decoration on a garment that would be made of several metres of material had to be done by a dressmaker, in later years using a rudimentary sewing machine, but with much of the work being carried out by hand. It goes without saying that the work was very skilled, even a basic day gown would involve many hours of work cutting and sewing the panels, fitting the bodice,  hemming and finishing the garment.  Dressmakers would normally serve a two year apprenticeship, for which they were unpaid, prior to becoming ‘improvers’ and then, finally, being able to call themselves ‘dressmaker’. Such a skilled profession, it would be thought, would carry a high premium and a salary to match the skill needed for  the work, but, as you may suppose, this was not the case for the majority of women.

Dressmakers were normally employed in one of two ways:

  • As young women they would, if they were fortunate enough, find work in a fashion ‘houses’ (glorified factories, frequently set up in grand locations) where they would have board and lodging, or a placement in the homes of the wealthy employer where a dressmaker would be a member of the domestic staff.
  • For the majority, and certainly for the married women, the option was only that of having day work – working at home on a piecework basis, working independently for themselves, or working in ‘houses’ as out-workers.

In 1863, in ‘The Sanitary Circumstances of Dressmakers and other Needlewomen in London’; 6th Report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council,  Dr William Ord described how dressmakers in all situations would be expected to work from around 8.30 in the morning, until eight or nine at night out of season, and during the season – March-July and November-December, when the society ladies were ‘in town’ and wishing to wear new ball gowns, the hours would be even greater.  For out-door workers Dr Ord complained how their hours were ‘limited’ to only 12 or 13 a day and were paid a shocked 3d an hour for extra work. The standard wage for most of the married dressmakers, and the single out-door dressmakers was around 9s a week in 1863 – an amount which Dr Ord condemns as shockingly low.

With these nine shillings they have to find dress, lodging, fire, and food. Girls who live with their parents or friends, casting their earnings into a common stock, and girls who club together, can manage fairly upon this wage; but for those who live alone the amount is not sufficient to provide proper food after dress and lodging are paid for. They must pay 2s. 6d. or 3s a week for lodging, and out of the remaining 6s. or 6s. 6d. find dress and food…  My conclusion, after careful inquiry, is that girls living alone and without other means of support, cannot obtain proper nourishment upon 9s. a week. Many without doubt find means of increasing their earnings, mostly by taking work home, or by taking in work on their own account, or by less praiseworthy means, but in all cases by en­croaching upon their hours of rest.  The position of girls going home late at night, say, 9, 10, or 11 p.m., to cold garrets, is full of discomfort. If they can afford fuel they light their fire, and cook what is often the only real meal of the day, and after that they have their own needlework to do, so that they have to stay up till 12 or t o’clock. But if, as has more than once been described to me, they do not or cannot light a fire, they must go to bed, even in the nights of winter, cold, supperless, and often imperfectly clothed. That under such circumstances many girls should be tempted to habits of dissipation and prostitution is not surprising.

As with all professions, some dressmakers did enjoy a better income, the most skilled of the fitters at times earning as much as £250 a year, or so Arthur Sherwell in Life in West London suggested. But these were few and far between, the majority of the women earning less than 8s a week, a very lucky few 18-20s a week during the height of the season, with minimal income during the quieter months of the year.

So a dressmaker’s lot frequently was not a happy one. Beyond the financial hardship which many of them faced, there was the added concern addressed in many pamphlets of the time, newspaper reports and reports to government, of their health being seriously affected by their working conditions.  C. Turner Thackrah in the snappily titled ‘The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, with Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease and Shorten the Duration of Life,’ 1832  explained how:

Their ordinary hours are ten or twelve in the day, but they are confined not infrequently from five or six in the morning till twelve at night! The bent posture in which they sit tends to injure the digestive organs, as well as the circulation and the breathing. Their diet consists too much of slops, and too little of solid and nutritive food. From these causes collectively we find that girls from the country, fresh-looking and robust, soon become pale and thin. Pains in the chest, palpitation, affections of the spinal and ganglionic nerves, and defect of action in the abdominal viscera, are very general. The constant direction of the eyes also to minute work, affects these organs. Sometimes it induces slight ophthalmia, and sometimes at length a much more serious disease, palsy of the optic nerve. The remedies are obvious,–ventilation, reduction of the hours of work, and brisk exercise in the open air. The great cause of the ill-health of females who make ladies’ dresses is the lowness of their wages. To obtain a livelihood they are obliged to work in excess. Two very respectable Dress makers, who charge more than the generality, state that they earn but 12s. each per week, though they sew, on the average, fifteen hours per day. The sempstress who goes out to her work rarely receives more than a shilling a day, in addition to her board. 

This concern about the health implications of working as a dressmaker was spread widely and social activists of the time worked hard to encourage women to not use their ‘sisters’ so readily, and to understand how much work was involved in their dresses. In 1842, James Grant in Light and Shadows of London Life, described how women could work for 72 hours with no break other than to quickly eat, in order to fulfil the request of their upper-class patron’s desire for a ball gown to be completed.

The Broken Contract1

Mary Ellen Edwards, The Broken Contract, (ca1885), for ‘The Girls’ Own Paper’

He condemns the way in which dressmakers, the most skilled of the ‘needlewomen’ were pushed to the point of hysteria and serious ill health to meet the demands of the ‘mistress’.   He describes how, in the West End of London in particular, the mistress dressmakers lived in great splendour, renting and furnishing properties in ‘great magnificence’ to match that of the aristocratic families using their services. Of course, this was not the case for the women they employed.

Many of the dressmakers living in the villages and provincial towns had been trained in the large towns and cities of their area. Most of the social commentators of the time discuss how girls would come up from the countryside to be apprenticed in a fashion house, leaving after serving their time and perfecting their skills, to return home to their families. Many of the married dressmakers in rural communities were well trained women, extremely skilled and dexterous, and able to possibly even earn better money than those subject to the vagaries of the season in the cities, and London in particular.  At this time all women, even the poor, were expected to wear long, fitted dresses, and somebody needed to make them. Of course, many had learnt to sew in their youth and could use a machine or just a needle and cotton, but still, from the sheer number of dressmakers found in villages, it would appear that they would buy their clothes, or pay to have them altered, by a ‘professional’.  The middle and upper-classes were encouraged by commentators in the press to patronise the working-class dressmakers and to not impoverish them further by removing their custom. In December 1888, in an edition of ‘The Queen, The Lady’s Newspaper,’ a correspondent described how women of the higher classes were ‘sacrificing others, driving others to starvation and to perhaps sin in the mere pursuit of personal vanity [learning to sew and making their own dresses], whilst at the same time squandering God’s own gifts of time and intellect on one of the least of enobling tastes.’[1]

Dressmaking was an essential service in Victorian Britain, no community could really be without a dressmaker, and those who were trained and skilled had a job for life. They could work in ‘houses’ as young women, and continue to work well into their old age until their eyes or hands gave out, either self employed, working from home, or as an out-door pieceworker. As such, it could be suggested, dressmaking was a worthwhile occupation for a girl to follow, but, it can also be seen, it was a job, like many of the others we will look at, which was rife with exploitation, stress, and doing little to alleviate the poverty of those women needing to earn those extra pence with their needle.


[1] Thanks to Worcester Cathedral Library and Archive Blog – 23 September 2013

C is for Charwoman

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/c/c-is-for-charwoman/

In the census of England and Wales of 1901, there were 111,841 women recorded as being a charwoman, or which 86, 463 were married or widowed. Every single Census Enumerator’s Book studied during the course of my research has charwomen listed, often in great number, and so it seems sensible to consider the role of the charwoman for the letter C in the alphabet.

 

The title, ‘Charwoman’ covers a fairly wide range of activities, but the vast majority were ‘cleaners’ – women going around cleaning other women’s houses. Some of the women they worked for would have been working-class too, but a significant number also cleaned for the middle-classes – the households that either couldn’t afford a full time maid of all work or live in housemaid, or were happy to rely on the cheaper charwomen. Some chars worked doing the cleaning or sometimes even the washing in commercial buildings, however, by the end of the nineteenth-century we see the title, ‘office cleaner’ coming into usage, thereby providing, at least a partial, delineation between domestic and commercial chars.

 

Again, as with B, there are a great deal of occupations beginning with C, some of which also were very popular jobs; Cigar Making for example provided an occupation for a great number of women in most of the London enumeration districts, if not the rural ones, others like Cat Meat Vendor were, understandably, less well populated, but still more so than the single cornet maker seen in a district in Camberwell – here is the list of occupations beginning with C for the same Bethnal Green enumeration district as the Bs:

Cabinet Maker
Cabinet Polisher
Cane Spreader
Cap Front Maker
Cap Maker
Capsule Maker
Captain in Salvation Army
Carpet Bag Maker
Cart Minder in Market
Chair Caner
Chandler’s Shop
Charwoman
Church Servant
Cigar Box Paperer
Cigar Light Seller
Cigar Maker
Cigarette Maker
Cleaner
Coffee House Keeper
Collar Dresser
Collar Ironer
Collar Machinist
Collar Maker
Confectioner
Confectioner’s Assistant
Cook
Cordwainer
Corsage Hand
Costermonger
Cotton Winder

 

None of these, however, come anywhere close to the numbers recorded as being Charwomen in each and every census. By the end of the nineteenth century charwomen had their own Union – the Association of Trained Charwomen and Domestic Workers, which was founded in 1898.  The Women’s Industrial Council was particularly worried about the conditions faced by those working as charwomen, primarily because they were unregulated in any way, their wages, even in comparison to our artificial flower makers, were argued by many (often incorrectly) to be pitiful, and there was absolutely no way to protect them from unscrupulous employers.

 

So why did women put themselves in this position?  All of the contemporary reports and surveys all suggest similar causes, some more charitably than others. Consider this report from the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1881:

 

Fetch

[1]

The key phrase here appears to be: ‘just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of the charwoman a like refuge for another class.’ He (I presume this is a ‘he’) goes on to discuss whether a woman works her way down through the domestic service hierarchy, failing at all else, before landing at the bottom with a resounding crash, and resorting to charring to make a living.  It has to be said that this particular report is rather uncharitable, cruel even, suggesting that those that can will do anything rather than char, which may well have been the case, but charring is argued here to be more than that, charring is a sign of failure in life.

 

Clementina Black was far more charitable.  She discussed at great length (an entire section of the survey was dedicated to the issues surrounding charwomen) how women’s work was unvalued and carried little esteem because any occupation carried out by women would always revert to that of being a domestic drudge, whether in her own home, or someone else’s. To put it simply, Black argued that in every household at that time, where a woman was in residence, that woman would be involved in ‘working’ as a wife, a mother, a nurse and a homemaker, and that work would be unpaid.

‘In a commercial age, work which is unremunerated and a worker who is unpaid are alike of small value and little esteemed. But all women, or with exceptions so few as to be negligible, have been, or are, or will be engaged as unpaid workers in unpaid work, with the consequence that all work done by women and all wage-earning women are paid at a lower rate than would be the case if their work were not cheapened, and it is cheapened because either they will later engage in domestic work, so that they are not worth training for anything else; or they are, in fact, doing unpaid domestic work all the time, and to their employer their value in other work is therefore less; or they have been spending their life in domestic work and cannot therefore claim proficiency in the new industry they may be compelled to turn to.’[2]

She went on to point out how in other industries, agriculture for example, which she insisted used to be unpaid (serfdom? she doesn’t elaborate), organisation and legislation had changed things and she felt that domestic work would and should follow. However, domestic work was problematic in that, in her words, ‘charing, especially, is just the work that every woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile is able to perform.’[3] It was, therefore, unspecialised, and needed little training; girls having been brought up from a young age to know how to clean and carry out domestic chores, often working at home having left school, keeping house themselves, while their own mother went cleaning other people’s houses, until the next daughter left school, could take the place of the eldest, who would then go into service.

 

Black, however, claimed that the single greatest reason that women were driven to charring was that of the irregularity of MEN’S work, not that of the women’s. Over the course of nearly twenty years of constant research, the Women’s Industrial Council found that where men’s work was irregular, where their hours were seasonal or unreliable, for example dock workers, it was then that women took to charring. So, charring itself was, in a way, seasonal, in that in the times when men were likely to have more work there were fewer chars, and when the men were not working or their hours reduced, the numbers or charwomen increased hugely. This, in itself, led to greater problems and fed the issue of low pay – the market was drowned with charwoman all wanting to work at similar times – the basic concept of supply and demand keeping down wages.

 

It was not all bad though, charring in itself could be argued to have been an ideal (if low paid) option for working mothers. The hours were fewer, they were worked at the convenience (to a certain extent) of the woman herself, and she could dictate where and when she worked and for whom. Again, turning to Black:

‘Over and over again the women say that it is better than the trade they followed before marriage, which means that it is possible to earn as much, or more, with less expenditure of time; that one can regulate the amount of work one does in a week without losing the job; that the hours admit far more attention to one’s own housework and children than do those worked in any factory, and that you do get for yourself good food, and often something to bring home to the children as well.’[4]

That final phrase says a lot, good food for yourself, and often something to bring home to the children. This goes beyond money, it goes beyond cash for the rent – food, and good, decent food for yourself and the children would have been priceless for a woman working only because her husband was on short hours, or injured or sick.

 

There was also the issue of respectability. To us, the word ‘char’ might bring to mind a drudge in a dirty skirt and apron doing the very worst of the housework. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Of course some of them would fit the stereotype, but something that is brought up again and again is this idea of working to ‘oblige the lady’ – they are helping out, looking after the lady, thereby raising themselves, if even in their own head, to a higher level and keeping up with the Joness’. Still though, this wasn’t a job that very many women did unless they had to, and many had to. There were a few instances recorded of women charring to provide a higher income that they ‘needed’, but these were few and far between.

 

It is quite interesting to see the wages these women were earning. There hours were not as long as many other occupations, often only (only?!) nine or ten a day, but for that they would be paid on average 2/-, sometimes less. Still, however, this amounts to more in many cases than we have seen so far in artificial flower making and boot making if you average out the hours – it could certainly be said that charring was an extremely useful stopgap. It was something any woman could do, and most did daily anyway, that could be picked up and put down when needed, and which paid a relatively good wage. It is hardly surprising then that in the census we see them in pretty much every parish!


[1] THE LONDON CHARWOMAN .
The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, January 21, 1881; pg. 4; Issue 4201. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 106.

[3] Black, p. 107.

[4] Black, p. 109.

The post C is for Charwoman appeared first on Amanda Wilkinson’s Victorian Occupations.

C is for Charwoman

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/c-is-for-charwoman/

In the census of England and Wales of 1901, there were 111,841 women recorded as being a charwoman, or which 86, 463 were married or widowed. Every single Census Enumerator’s Book studied during the course of my research has charwomen listed, often in great number, and so it seems sensible to consider the role of the charwoman for the letter C in the alphabet.

 

The title, ‘Charwoman’ covers a fairly wide range of activities, but the vast majority were ‘cleaners’ – women going around cleaning other women’s houses. Some of the women they worked for would have been working-class too, but a significant number also cleaned for the middle-classes – the households that either couldn’t afford a full time maid of all work or live in housemaid, or were happy to rely on the cheaper charwomen. Some chars worked doing the cleaning or sometimes even the washing in commercial buildings, however, by the end of the nineteenth-century we see the title, ‘office cleaner’ coming into usage, thereby providing, at least a partial, delineation between domestic and commercial chars.

 

Again, as with B, there are a great deal of occupations beginning with C, some of which also were very popular jobs; Cigar Making for example provided an occupation for a great number of women in most of the London enumeration districts, if not the rural ones, others like Cat Meat Vendor were, understandably, less well populated, but still more so than the single cornet maker seen in a district in Camberwell – here is the list of occupations beginning with C for the same Bethnal Green enumeration district as the Bs:

Cabinet Maker
Cabinet Polisher
Cane Spreader
Cap Front Maker
Cap Maker
Capsule Maker
Captain in Salvation Army
Carpet Bag Maker
Cart Minder in Market
Chair Caner
Chandler’s Shop
Charwoman
Church Servant
Cigar Box Paperer
Cigar Light Seller
Cigar Maker
Cigarette Maker
Cleaner
Coffee House Keeper
Collar Dresser
Collar Ironer
Collar Machinist
Collar Maker
Confectioner
Confectioner’s Assistant
Cook
Cordwainer
Corsage Hand
Costermonger
Cotton Winder

 

None of these, however, come anywhere close to the numbers recorded as being Charwomen in each and every census. By the end of the nineteenth century charwomen had their own Union – the Association of Trained Charwomen and Domestic Workers, which was founded in 1898.  The Women’s Industrial Council was particularly worried about the conditions faced by those working as charwomen, primarily because they were unregulated in any way, their wages, even in comparison to our artificial flower makers, were argued by many (often incorrectly) to be pitiful, and there was absolutely no way to protect them from unscrupulous employers.

 

So why did women put themselves in this position?  All of the contemporary reports and surveys all suggest similar causes, some more charitably than others. Consider this report from the Huddersfield Daily Chronicle of 1881:

 

Fetch

[1]

The key phrase here appears to be: ‘just as the profession of a schoolmistress is the refuge for destitute females of a certain class, so is that of the charwoman a like refuge for another class.’ He (I presume this is a ‘he’) goes on to discuss whether a woman works her way down through the domestic service hierarchy, failing at all else, before landing at the bottom with a resounding crash, and resorting to charring to make a living.  It has to be said that this particular report is rather uncharitable, cruel even, suggesting that those that can will do anything rather than char, which may well have been the case, but charring is argued here to be more than that, charring is a sign of failure in life.

 

Clementina Black was far more charitable.  She discussed at great length (an entire section of the survey was dedicated to the issues surrounding charwomen) how women’s work was unvalued and carried little esteem because any occupation carried out by women would always revert to that of being a domestic drudge, whether in her own home, or someone else’s. To put it simply, Black argued that in every household at that time, where a woman was in residence, that woman would be involved in ‘working’ as a wife, a mother, a nurse and a homemaker, and that work would be unpaid.

‘In a commercial age, work which is unremunerated and a worker who is unpaid are alike of small value and little esteemed. But all women, or with exceptions so few as to be negligible, have been, or are, or will be engaged as unpaid workers in unpaid work, with the consequence that all work done by women and all wage-earning women are paid at a lower rate than would be the case if their work were not cheapened, and it is cheapened because either they will later engage in domestic work, so that they are not worth training for anything else; or they are, in fact, doing unpaid domestic work all the time, and to their employer their value in other work is therefore less; or they have been spending their life in domestic work and cannot therefore claim proficiency in the new industry they may be compelled to turn to.’[2]

She went on to point out how in other industries, agriculture for example, which she insisted used to be unpaid (serfdom? she doesn’t elaborate), organisation and legislation had changed things and she felt that domestic work would and should follow. However, domestic work was problematic in that, in her words, ‘charing, especially, is just the work that every woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile is able to perform.’[3] It was, therefore, unspecialised, and needed little training; girls having been brought up from a young age to know how to clean and carry out domestic chores, often working at home having left school, keeping house themselves, while their own mother went cleaning other people’s houses, until the next daughter left school, could take the place of the eldest, who would then go into service.

 

Black, however, claimed that the single greatest reason that women were driven to charring was that of the irregularity of MEN’S work, not that of the women’s. Over the course of nearly twenty years of constant research, the Women’s Industrial Council found that where men’s work was irregular, where their hours were seasonal or unreliable, for example dock workers, it was then that women took to charring. So, charring itself was, in a way, seasonal, in that in the times when men were likely to have more work there were fewer chars, and when the men were not working or their hours reduced, the numbers or charwomen increased hugely. This, in itself, led to greater problems and fed the issue of low pay – the market was drowned with charwoman all wanting to work at similar times – the basic concept of supply and demand keeping down wages.

 

It was not all bad though, charring in itself could be argued to have been an ideal (if low paid) option for working mothers. The hours were fewer, they were worked at the convenience (to a certain extent) of the woman herself, and she could dictate where and when she worked and for whom. Again, turning to Black:

‘Over and over again the women say that it is better than the trade they followed before marriage, which means that it is possible to earn as much, or more, with less expenditure of time; that one can regulate the amount of work one does in a week without losing the job; that the hours admit far more attention to one’s own housework and children than do those worked in any factory, and that you do get for yourself good food, and often something to bring home to the children as well.’[4]

That final phrase says a lot, good food for yourself, and often something to bring home to the children. This goes beyond money, it goes beyond cash for the rent – food, and good, decent food for yourself and the children would have been priceless for a woman working only because her husband was on short hours, or injured or sick.

 

There was also the issue of respectability. To us, the word ‘char’ might bring to mind a drudge in a dirty skirt and apron doing the very worst of the housework. But this wasn’t necessarily the case. Of course some of them would fit the stereotype, but something that is brought up again and again is this idea of working to ‘oblige the lady’ – they are helping out, looking after the lady, thereby raising themselves, if even in their own head, to a higher level and keeping up with the Joness’. Still though, this wasn’t a job that very many women did unless they had to, and many had to. There were a few instances recorded of women charring to provide a higher income that they ‘needed’, but these were few and far between.

 

It is quite interesting to see the wages these women were earning. There hours were not as long as many other occupations, often only (only?!) nine or ten a day, but for that they would be paid on average 2/-, sometimes less. Still, however, this amounts to more in many cases than we have seen so far in artificial flower making and boot making if you average out the hours – it could certainly be said that charring was an extremely useful stopgap. It was something any woman could do, and most did daily anyway, that could be picked up and put down when needed, and which paid a relatively good wage. It is hardly surprising then that in the census we see them in pretty much every parish!


[1] THE LONDON CHARWOMAN .
The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, January 21, 1881; pg. 4; Issue 4201. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.

[2] C Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 106.

[3] Black, p. 107.

[4] Black, p. 109.