No ‘soft soap’ from Mr Lushington as he fines a company for exploiting its workers

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Messrs. Paton and Charles, soap manufactures, were summoned before Mr Lushington at Thames Police Court accused of breaking the terms of the Factory Act.

There were several acts to restrict working hours and try to improve conditions in the workplace in the 1800s, from early efforts in 1833 (mainly aimed at the cotton industry in the north) to later reforms after the extension of the franchise in 1867. Most of this was targeted at preventing the exploitation of children under 14 and was tied up with new arguments about the nature of childhood and the value of education.

It is probably fair to say that while the acts were well-meant they were (at first anyway) pretty toothless. An economic downturn in the 1870s also led some to argue that legislation had gone too far and that Britain was becoming uncompetitive internationally  because of restrictions imposed on employers – now where have we heard that before (or since)?

Paton & Charles’ soap manufactory operated out of premises in Brewhouse Lane,  Wapping , close to the river. Records at the London Metropolitan Archives suggest they had been trading in Wapping (at 148 Wapping High Street) since at least 1867 and there is a Post Office entry for them as early as 1843 at the same address, so they were a well established firm by 1881 when their representatives appeared in court. They may well have moved in 1880 to the Brewhouse Lane site, a year before this case emerged.

Mr Lushington was told that the firm employed ‘around 80 hands’ , both girls and boys as well as adults. Four young women were in court to testify that they had been asked to work longer than a ten hour day, working ‘until ten o’clock at night, instead of six in the evening, which was the normal time of leaving off’. They cited two dates (15th and 22nd of June) when this had occurred but the suggestion was it was more common than this. Someone (presumably an inspector) had found them at work at seven in the previous week, hence the summons.

The girls were employed in the perfume department where they worked under the direction of Alfred Smith. It seems it was Smith who was directly responsible for getting them to work overly long hours against the stipulation of the Factory Acts. He was not in court however, and Lushington felt the responsibility was wider than this. He determined that the ‘firm had [not] used due diligence to enforce the carrying out of the provisions of the Act ‘ and fined them £8 and 16s (or around £400 today).

[from The Standard, Friday, July 22, 1881]

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