Exploitation in the ‘rag trade’: a perennial disgrace

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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]

‘I’ll steal from you Mr Robinson’: pilfering in the Victorian department store

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Edith Oliver’s appearance at Marlborough Street Police court in May 1876 gives us a glimpse back at the beginnings of the department store in London. Edith was accused of stealing ‘a bonnet shape’ from her employer and when her lodgings were searched several other items were found, including ‘lace, silk, and velvet materials used in the workroom’ on Oxford Street.

The bonnet pattern had been discovered concealed under Edith’s clothes so she must been the subject on suspicion, perhaps based on information from another employee. The firm employed 500 workers and there were notices posted up all over the building warning the staff of the consequences of taking home things that belonged to the company without permission.

Wages for workers in the clothing trades in the late 1800s weren’t large and Edith (like many others) was probably keen to supplement them by doing private work or making and repairing clothes for her family. There was nothing new in this of course, workers had been taking home offcuts as ‘perks’ (perquisites) of the job for centuries. It was in the previous century that the owners of businesses had started to clamp down in such pilferage, and parliament had obliged by passing hundreds of laws to prohibit thefts from the workplace with the threat of capital punishment for those that persisted.

By 1876 Edith wasn’t going to face such a severe penalty but if convicted she would almost certainly lose her liberty, and her job. Mr Addrett, the works manager, said that they were vulnerable to pilfering an so it was necessary to make an example of her. William Franklin, a timekeeper at the firm, testified that Edith had told him she was setting herself up in business privately and that the goods found at her home belonged to her and weren’t stolen.

Mr Newton, the sitting magistrate, found Edith quietly and sentenced her to 14 days hard labour. She would also lose her job but he didn’t think that would affect her too much, and fully believed she would find work again afterwards somewhere else. He hinted that there should be a tighter control of such staff and that character references should be taken as they were for domestics. Otherwise someone like Edith might walk into employment and start pilfering all over again.

Now we routinely take references which often ask questions about the prospective employee’s honesty and suitability. Edith would have found it hard to get similar work without the Mr Addrett’s recommendation  but I’m sure if she was a talented seamstress she would have had no problem getting piece work away from the bright lights of Oxford Street and over in the East End.

Which brings me to reveal where Edith worked. She was employed by Mr Peter Robinson, silk mercer, on Oxford Circus. Robinson had run a business in the West End from the 1830s and opened his department store on Oxford Street in 1850. By 1876 he was dead and since he had no male children the store must have been run by someone else. It wasn’t run by his younger assistant, John Lewis, because he turned down the opportunity to go into business with his mentor, opting instead to open his own shop in 1864. I wonder how he got on?

[from The Morning Post, Friday, May 26, 1876]

The sad story of an elderly seamstress and her Majesty

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In the light of yesterday’s happy announcement of a royal engagement I thought I’d feature a (sort of) royal story from Victorian London’s Police courts.

In 1871 Queen Victoria had been on throne for 34 years. Her husband Albert had been dead for a decade and she was yet to adopt the title of Empress of India. Victoria had a big influence on her subjects but her withdrawal from much of public life following the loss of her consort increasingly isolated her from public affection. 1870 had seen the overthrow of the French monarchy and the creation of the Third Republic, dark echoes in England called for a similar revolution, one that never transpired. In late November Victoria’s eldest son, Albert Edward, fell ill with typhoid (probably the same disease that had killed his father) and Victoria must have feared she would lose him as well.

Meanwhile, for ordinary Londoners life went on as usual. The ‘widow of Windsor’ was almost an abstract concept since she’d ducked out of view but her name, and what she symbolised, mattered  considerably.

It certainly mattered to an elderly seamstress called Mrs Lyons. She told the magistrate at Clerkenwell that she had been promised work by her Majesty but ‘court intrigues’ were preventing her from pursuing it. Mrs Lyons lived off the Caledonian Road in north London, close to where the new St Pancras terminal was being constructed. She was poor and in ‘want of money’ she explained, but was confident that with the queen’s patronage she would be fine.

Sadly Mrs Lyons was not very well; she suffered from some form of mental illness, as a police inspector told Mr Cooke, the justice sitting on her case at Clerkenwell Police Court.

‘About two years since the poor woman began to get strange at times in her speech, said that her room was full of rats, that she had an interview with the Queen and members of the royal family, and that her Majesty had promised her money, but that she was prevented from getting it by court intrigues’ .

He went on to say that up until recently Mrs Lyons had lived quietly but in the last few months her condition had worsened and she had started threatening people, including her landlady. A doctor had been called to examine her and he’d declared she was ‘not right in her head’ and she’d been carried off to Islington workhouse. From there she was to be sent to the Colney Hatch Asylum, Europe’s largest such institution.*

She had left her room with rent arrears and her landlady was refusing to give her sister leave to take away her sibling’s few possessions until that was paid. Mr Cooke said he was glad the woman was now in safe hands (although I’m not sure I’d consider being in the ‘care’ of a Victorian asylum ‘safe’. I suppose he might have meant the public were safe from her). He ordered the court to pay the arrears so she could be reunited with her ‘things’ and dismissed the case.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, November 28, 1872]

*(and now my gym!)

for another story that feature Queen Victoria see: “Let me see the Queen, I know who the ‘Ripper’ is!”