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The scandal of Victorian sweatshops

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Philanthropy on Sunday, 14 August 2011

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This edited article about sweatshops originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1017 published on 5 September 1981.

East End sweatshop, picture, image, illustration

Even factory inspectors were appalled by the conditions suffered by women and children in the sweatshops of London’s East End, by Ken Petts

As his eyes got used to the poor light and his lungs to the unbearably stuffy atmosphere of the crowded workrooms, even the inspector was shocked at what he saw. The early 1840s had shown him many horrors in the course of his work for Lord Shaftesbury’s Commissions on the Employment of Women and Children.

Rarely had he witnessed such appalling conditions of employment as he found in the heart of London’s rich and fashionable West End, among the “sweated” labourers of the dressmaking and millinery trade. A “normal” working day, during the height of the season, lasted 15 hours, though in some establishments hours were unlimited. The girls who worked in this way often suffered from tuberculosis, but severe weariness, lack of appetite and back pain were so general as to be scarcely worth mentioning to the inspector.

Bad working conditions existed throughout industry, but for females they were appalling. At all levels of society, women were considered inferior to men, and had to accept the worst wages and most menial jobs in order to earn their bread. Too timid to organise and defend themselves, as the men were doing through their trade unions, women expected to be pushed around – and they were.

Working conditions were never likely to improve unless working women joined the fight for political rights, and gained the vote in parliamentary elections. For this a long, hard struggle was ahead. Many brave women who took part in the battle are now forgotten, but some deserve especially to be remembered.

One is Barbara Bodichon, a graduate of Queen’s College, who helped to found the first Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866. Nine years before, Barbara and a small group of friends had established the Association for the Promotion of the Employment of Women. This body worked hand in glove with the group’s newspaper, the Englishwoman’s Journal, which gave information and advice to working women, and campaigned for reforms.

Their small office at Langham Place in London became a bustling centre for the women’s movement. Among others, two young girls called Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett (of whom we heard last week) made constant visits, and went on to break down barriers against women in the fields of education and medicine.

The next few decades saw a great expansion in the number of occupations open to women, and there was a rapid increase in the number of girls who worked. Yet wages and conditions were still an abomination.

Of course, employers welcomed women workers, both for reasons of pay and because they did not indulge in the nasty habit of joining trade unions. On the other hand, male workers often showed the “normal”, unreasoning, prejudice against women. In 1872, a riot nearly broke out among staff at the Post Office Savings Bank Department at St Martin’s-le-Grand – all because forty women had been taken on to work there.

But within the trade unions, male hostility had some justification: women were unskilled workers who were prepared to accept low wages and conditions, making perfect tools for any employer who wanted to break a strike or a union, and remove the improvements which the men had fought hard to achieve. Unfortunately, the men’s reaction to this problem was to do their best to exclude women – from the unions as well as from jobs.

Barbara Bodichon and her feminist allies saw this as pure male prejudice, and refused to recognise the real problems of the unions. In fact, these women were so unaware of the realities of industrial work, that they even induced Henry Fawcett to vigorously oppose the Ten Hours Act in Parliament which reduced the legal limit for female working hours, on the basis that women should have the “freedom” to work the same long hours as men! Luckily for working women, he failed.

To resolve this problem, it needed someone who was both a feminist and a working woman, and who could reconcile the two points of view. Emma Paterson was just such a person.

Born in 1848, Emma became an apprentice bookbinder as a young girl, and married a cabinetmaker when she was 25. She was an early devotee of the cause of female votes, and worked for a time as secretary to a Woman’s Suffrage Society. Visiting America in 1874, she was inspired by the women’s trade unions which she saw there, and returned to England determined to begin organising women here.

With the help of sympathetic friends, Emma founded the Women’s Protective and Provident League in 1875. This became the starting point for many small women’s unions for occupations such as dressmakers, shop assistants, bookbinders and upholsterers. Unfortunately, these little pockets of organisation usually came to an end as rapidly as they had sprung up. Morale was difficult to maintain, for the women who joined were young, unskilled and badly paid, and their jobs often lasted only a short time.

The hostile opposition of male trade unionists was a further dampener. In vain, Emma tried for several years to be admitted to the overall association of the unions, the Trades Union Congress. When, at last she was allowed in, she found herself almost alone in her attempt to promote female trade unionism.

One hindrance to her work was her own view, shared with other feminists, that protective laws were a handicap to women. When she argued this at the TUC in 1877, the only delegates to support her were two women.

But the TUC also had a lot of rethinking to do, if the speech by the Parliamentary Committee Association spokesman was at all representative. His view was that men “had the future of their country to consider, and it was their duty as men and husbands to bring about a condition of things when their wives should be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition of livelihood against the great and strong men of the world”.

Emma’s heart must have sunk when she heard these words, and the tumultuous applause they received. Nevertheless, she struggled on valiantly, helping working women to organise wherever she could, chipping away at the rock of male obstinacy in the TUC.

Sadly, Emma Paterson died in 1886, before her work finally bore fruit. Just three years after her death, Congress adopted the policy of actively helping women into the movement. The Protective and Provident League which Emma had begun became the Women’s Trade Union League, and gained many members.

The year before, one event had helped to alter men’s estimation of women workers. Seven hundred matchgirls, workers at Bryant and May’s match factory in East London, went on strike. The girls were young and unorganised, yet as a Commissioner at this time remarked, “Among no other class of young women does there appear to be so much camaraderie, such a strong instinct that all must pull together, such a commune of food, clothes and halfpence as among the factory girls of the Metropolis.”

When some of the Bryant and May girls were sacked for exposing the appalling conditions at the factory, they all walked out. One said later, “It went like tinder. One girl began, and the rest said ‘yes’, so we all went”.

Their cause was quickly taken up by the radical feminists, but it was their own courage which won the day. Within two weeks, management had conceded all their demands – and they also gained the grudging respect of their male fellows. These girls made history by defending themselves, an unprecedented action for a “mere” group of women, and they were unled by any man.

By the end of the century, much groundwork had been laid by the different branches of the women’s movement. Already, many conventional ideas about a “woman’s place” had been destroyed. As the 20th century dawned, the fight moved into the arena of politics. The struggle for votes was on in earnest.

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