|A Trip Out for the Girls|
|Robert Sheracy, an early investigative journalist, came to Leeds in 1896 to witness, and report on, the plight of the cloth workers in the city.|
|In the one downstairs room of a house in one of the lowest neighbourhoods in Leeds, I found an old slipper-maker at his tea. Although it was then past ten at night, his five little children were up and with him. As his wife explained: `They've got to be there, when there's something to eat going. Father chucks them a bit of bread now and again, and so they likes to be there'.|
It was a crowded scene, and one wondered how a man could live and work in such a room. Yet here this man had worked for thirty years, and never less than fourteen hours a day.
"Many a week", he said, "I have to work on Sundays also".
Most of Saturday is wasted, as on Saturdays he has to carry the week's work to the shop, to have it inspected and paid for. He declared that his life was a miserable one, and that the trade had never been worse. "Work my very best, I can't earn 4d. an hour". It was a good week with him when he earned 18s, and out of this he had to pay 2s 8d. for rent, and 9d a week for findings. These findings would consist of paste (1.5d), hemp (6d), sandpaper, ink and white wax (1.5d).
He was a man naturally of a jovial temperament, which only made his misery show more lamentably. He showed me a neat pair of patent leather slippers which he had just finished.
"There's craft in that shoe; there's artisanship, there's work. We put 14d work of work in for 9d, to see if we can't win the trade back". And he added that he had spent two hours thirty minutes in making these slippers. He would receive 9d for this work. The slippers would be sold at retail for 3s.
|He laughed when I asked him what pleasure he enjoyed in life. "There's no such thing as pleasure for me. I go from my bed to my seat, and from my seat to my bed, though now and again I may get, say, an hour over my paper". He laughed again when I asked him if he was able to save anything. "Not a blessed halfpenny", he said; and his wife added that she could never make out how they managed to get along on his wages.|
|She did the baking, and home baking was a comfortable thing. Some weeks she might get about 3d worth of meat for the family dinner, but that was not often. Bread and tea was what they mainly lived on, and plenty of "working man's beef - "that is to say onions". "There's grand stuff in onions", said this cheerful yet most unhappy man, who, in conclusion, told me that he meant to go on working his hardest until he could work no more, and that then, he supposed, they would find room for him in the workhouse . . .|
|I visited the club of the Jewish Tailors' Union, in Regent Street, in the notorious Leylands, a club which occupies a room which was once a Baptist chapel. I endeavoured to obtain information from various members, but their prudence was extreme. They were all very comfortable, they said, earning splendid wages, and they mentioned as their weekly earnings sums which they did not obtain in a month|
|Rumours of anti-Jewish immigration laws have disturbed them, and they do not know what to say. But from what I saw in the sweating dens in the Leylands, I am convinced that their circumstances are at least as bad as those of the sweated tailors in London.|
|They all work on a weekly wage, and from twelve to seventeen hours a day. Here may be seen, in some filthy room in an old dilapidated factory in the Leylands, fifty people (men, women, boys and girls), all huddled together, sewing as though for dear life. A girl may be earning 6s a week, a man from 22s to 30s.|
|The stench in the room, its uncleanliness, surpass description. The finished garments are lying pell-mell on the floor in the filth and vermin. They are "flogged into their work" as one said, "for all the time the gaunt sweater stalks about, scolding, inspecting, while now and then he will snatch a garment from some worker's hand, and set himself to work upon it, whilst a stream of vituperation pours from his lips. He is usually a haggard and starving man, himself a victim of inhuman competition. There are weeks when he does not earn a penny for himself. In a good week he may earn £10 . . .|
|A girl whom I interviewed at the office of the Wholesale Clothiers' Operatives Union, told me that she had often spent 10d on sewings out of a weekly earning of 2s 7d. She remembered one week when she had only earned a shilling, and had had to pay 8d. She had given up tailoring in despair, as she could not make a living at it. She had been in a "punishing house", and had often been so weak from want of food that she had fainted over her machine. Many of her fellow workers used to beg food off the men in the factory, but she had never cared to do this, as it led to things.|
|The girls have to pay a Id, or 2d, a week "for cook", that is to say, for having the food they bring with them warmed up. The tax is compulsory, though many of the girls never use the dining room, for the reason that the dining room is often so small that but a small proportion of the girls can be accommodated. I met one girl who had paid 2d a week "for cook" for ten years without every going into the dining room.|
|Fines are everywhere inflicted. Miss Ford said about them: "Unfortunately, thanks to the judges' interpretation of the Truck Act, these are legal". She mentioned the case of a girl who had to pay a fine of 2d when her day's earning were 1.5d. This was for being a minute late.|
|The fines are registered by a timekeeper, who is usually a boy and who gets a commission on the total amount. The fines for bad work are very heavy. I spoke to a woman who told me that a week or two previous 2s had been deducted from her week's earnings of 4s 2d for bad work. The bad work in question had afterwards been sold as good work, but the 2s were never refunded.|
|The wages are further reduced by one-twelfth (1d in the 1s) for steam power, and if a girl takes the work home she pays the Id. in the 1s all the same. At one punishing-house in Leeds the girls each pay a proportion of the rent of the factory, besides the toll of power. The masters like the wages to be round sums, and odd pennies are confiscated on the promise of a trip for the girls. "But we never get no trip", said my informant.|
|Subject as it is to all these fines, tolls, and roundings-off, the maximum wage of 15s a week (which can only be earned by the best workers, working full time and even overtime) is generally reduced below 12s. In the slack season many girls cannot earn more than 2s. a week. I spoke to a machine hand who told me that for months together she had not earned above 10d a week during the slack season.|
|Masters take advantage of the girls' want to beat down the prices per piece at this time. "One time, when we were all very hungry", she said, "the foreman told us there were 400 sailor suits coming up. Would we do them at 3d each? We refused, as the lowest price was 3.5d. each. The foreman kept us waiting a day and a half, and at last we were so hungry that we gave in".|
|"The masters often say", said another woman "We have so many hundred articles to be sewn, if you like to do them at such a reduced rate". We prefer not to be idle, and accept, expecting to have so many to sew. But the masters had lied, and there is very much less to sew than had been promised".|
|The brutality of the foremen is much complained of by the girls. "If he can bully, he is a good foreman". In some houses very foul language is used towards the girls. The girls are never informed when work is slack. They come to the factory, and have to remain there doing nothing. This is to prevent people knowing that the factory is slack.|
|A machine girl described her experiences in this respect to me; "I come in at 5am. If I'm late I'll be fined Id or 2d. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I'll sit at my machine doing nothing till half-past twelve. Then I'll ask the foreman if I may go home. He'll say: "No, there's orders coming up after dinner". Dinner? I probably haven't any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without it. At half-past one, I'll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say: "Work hasn't come up yet". I have to sit at my machine.|
|"Once I fainted from hunger, and asked to be allowed to go home, but they wouldn't let me, and locked me up in the dining room. I sit at my machine till 3 or 4. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: "The orders don't seem to be coming in, you can go home till the morning". And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till 6.30, earning wage for the last two or three hours".|