Exploitation in the ‘rag trade’: a perennial disgrace

spring-45-cheapclothes

It is not often that the Police Magistrates of London side with the defendant in the dock over the prosecutor but this is one of those cases. Arthur Brotherton described himself as a ‘clothier and slop-dealer’ operating out of a property on Jury Street, Aldgate. He had employed Elizabeth Craig to make up nine coats for him to sell, and had supplied her with all the necessary materials.

This was out work and so Elizabeth took the cloth home to work on, or at least that was what she was supposed to have done. Instead she took it to a pawnbrokers and exchanged it for money; money she badly needed to support her family. When he found out Brotherton had her arrested and she appeared before Mr Norton at Lambeth Police court.

Looking wretched and clutching a ‘half-starved child in her arms’ Elizabeth pleaded poverty as her motivation for stealing from her employer. She said Brotheton expected her to make up the coats for just a ‘shilling a piece’ and added that she also had to ‘provide the thread for making them up, and also work the button-holes with twist’.

If it seems like very little to us that’s because it was.  Kennington tailor was in the public gallery that morning at on hearing this he rose to his feet. He declared that:

‘he was quite astonished that any person could expect to get such coats as these produced made up for the paltry pittance of one shilling apiece. They would occupy the poor woman two days in making each, and the lowest possible sum he should have given the prisoner was five shillings’.

Mr Norton entirely agreed and told Brotherton that he was unsure how anyone could expect him to punish a woman for doing what she’d done when she was subjected to such poverty. He described the slop-seller’s conduct in trying to pay her so little and then prosecute her as ‘heartless’.

Brotherton was unmoved and said she could perfectly well earn 10 shillings a week doing so if only she wanted to. At this another tailor stood up and said this was impossible:

‘if she earned anything like the money [that Brotherton had suggested, then at those wage rates] she must work the whole of the night as well as the day’.

The prosecutor now said that Elizabeth got an allowance form her estranged husband and that supplemented the wages he paid. Clearly this was unreasonable but he added that Mr Craig had guaranteed the gods he’d supplied to his wife and so he’d hold him accountable for his loss.

Craig was in court but said he wasn’t responsible. As far as he understood it the pawnbroker had already agreed to hand the material back to Brotherton ‘as he had taken them in an unfinished state’ and had ‘rendered himself liable to deliver things up without the payment of a principal or interest’. He paid his wife 3s  a week and had often had to get things our of pawn for her; he did what he could but wasn’t responsible for her actions.

The magistrate had made his feelings clear; regardless of the law Brotherton was the real villain of the piece. As an exploitative trader he used Elizabeth’s desperation for money to pay her a pittance for the skilled work she undertook. Hopefully his exposure in the newspapers was a warning him and to others not to mistreat their workers in future. Elizabeth walked away from court a free woman but probably one without work and so the money she needed to support herself and her child, her future then was very much in the balance.

Her story is a reminder that in very many parts of the world women and men (and children) continue to be exploited and paid a pittance so that others can dress in the latest fashions and manufacturers and retailers can profit from it. Next time you buy a dress or a shirt or some trousers check the label and ask yourself, how much was the person that made this paid and how much time did they spend doing it?

[from Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper , Sunday, July 12, 1846]

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