‘An offence that must be put down’: an attack on trade unionism in 1889

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I am currently teaching a third year history module that focuses on London in the 1880s. Crime and Popular Culture in the Late Victorian City uses the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murders of 1888 as a prism through which to explore the social and cultural history of the East End.

On Monday my students were looking at radical politics, strikes, and demonstrations. We focused on the rioting in and around Trafalgar Square in 1886 (the so-called ‘West End’ or ‘Pall Mall’ riots) and the events of ‘Bloody Sunday in 1887. We then went on to look at the Match Girls Strike (using the work of Louise Raw) and the Great Dock Strike of 1889.

It is always harder to get students engaged in this sort of ‘political’ history than it is in crime and punishment history, although of course the two are very closely related. Much of the crime and its prosecution in the 1800s was linked to the inequalities which drove radical politics and the demands of men like Ben Tillett who led the dockers’ dispute. It is too simplistic to see the Police Courts of London as a disciplinary arm of the state but, in part at least, they functioned as that.

The courts served their communities and all of those that lived in them, but their fundamental purpose was as part of the mechanism that preserved the status quo in Victorian London. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, alcoholism, crime and other social ills were self-evidently a product of a capitalist system which failed to provide for the poorest, regardless of any sense of being ‘deserving’ or ‘underserving’, but it was a system the government, police, and courts were determined to uphold regardless.

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In mid August 1889 the Great Dock Strike (right) broke out and tens of thousands of dockworkers downed tools and followed Ben Tillett and John Burns (and others) in demanding better pay and a better system of work. They drew tremendous support, both from the East End communities in which they lived and worked and further afield. Australian workers sent donations of £30,000 to help the cause.

There were numerous prosecutions of dockers and their supporters as the police tried to prevent secondary picketing and the intimidation of strikebreakers. The strike emboldened other workers in the area, just as the Match Girls strike a year previously had inspired the dockers to take action.

On 21 August 1889, just a week after Tillett’s call for action ignited the strike on the docks, Mark Hacht found himself in front of Mr Saunders at Worship Street Police court. Hacht was a tailor who lived at Wood Street in Spitalfileds. He was just 18 years of age and was accused of assaulting a police officer.

The court was told that the premises of a Mr Koenigsberg, a local furrier, was being picketed as his workers were out on strike. Hacht was part of the picket it seems, gathered outside the factory on Commercial Street preventing some employees from entering.

However, Hacht didn’t work for Koenigsberg, he had no connection at all to the furriers, instead he was, the prosecution lawyer alleged, merely ‘a paid agitator’. When one worker went to enter the building Hacht grabbed at him and said:

‘You shall not go to work there’.

‘I have got no food’, the man replied.

Hacht supposedly dismissed this saying that he ‘would murder him if he went there’. As the man continued Hacht hit him over the head with an umbrella. A policeman (PC 337H) intervened and the tailor tuned his attention to attacking him. As they struggled a ‘mob of Jews’ tried to pull the policeman off of his prisoner, impelling PC Littlestone to brandish his truncheon and ‘hold back the crowd’.

Having successfully secured his prisoner he took him into custody. There were witnesses who denied Hacht had done anything at all but the magistrate decided to believe the policeman and the furrier’s lawyer.

It was, Mr Saunders said, ‘one of the worst cases of the kind he had heard’ and it was ‘an offence that must be put down’. With the dock strike occupying so many column inches at the time it is was hardly surprising that a representative of middle class and elite society should choose sides quite so obviously. the young man was sent to prison for three months with hard labour.

In September 1889 the employers caved in and agreed to the dockers’ demands for sixpence an hour and a fairer system of choosing casual workers. The demands were not that radical, the impact on the employers’ profits fairly minimal. It was a rare victory for organized labour and led to a groundswell in trade union membership in the 1890s. Its longer-term affect was less positive however; in fact we might see the 1890s as the apogee of trade unionism in England.

The General Strike of 1926 showed labour could still organize but two world wars failed to change British society in any truly radical way. In the late 1970s the newly elected Conservative government set about dismantling trade union power, something unions have never really recovered from. Workers rights were more effectively protected by Britain’s membership of the European Union, and now even that has gone.

Yet again capitalism and corporate greed has triumphed at the expense of those that create the wealth. Until workers truly understand that their best interests lie in sticking together against a common foe (as the match girls and dockers did) rather than blaming immigrants for their woes, it will continue to dominate and make the few wealthy on the backs of the many.

[from The Standard, Wednesday,  August 21, 1889]

A curious child gets a knockout blow

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Not all stories are exactly what they seem when you start reading them. I found this one, about a Thames lighterman – one of the men that operated the flat bottomed barges ferrying goods up and down London’s central river – assaulting an eight year-old boy, and assumed it was a simple case of child abuse.

However, the incident – unpleasant as it was –  actually revealed that something else was going on in the capital at the end of November 1889.

Matthew Petter should have been at Sunday school on the 24 November. But, like many young boys, he was curious and as he crossed Vauxhall Bridge he got distracted watching the boats go up and down. As he watched he noticed a small group of men who were having an argument with a lighterman.

Henry Bliss (28) was a lighterman and when some of his fellows had recently downed tools and gone on strike, he carried on working. This hardly endeared him to his colleagues and today they were showing him how they felt.

Their hoots and cries of ‘blackleg’ escalated from verbal into physical brickbats being thrown; rubbish, bricks and stones were lobbed in his direction and Bliss lost his temper. He picked up a half-brick and threw it back, aiming at his tormenters. The brick missed them and struck a railing, bounced off and smacked young Matthew on the head, and knocked him senseless.

The crowd of angry rivermen roared in outrage and rushed forward to seize Bliss. He turned his boat and headed out into the river. The mob chased him along the bank and some took to other crafts. Finally Bliss gave himself up to river police, asking for their protection, as he clearly feared for his life.

The boy was hospitalised and when Bliss appeared to answer a summons at Westminster Police Court he was very apologetic, offering to compensate Mrs Petter for the cost of treating the little lad’s injuries. Mr D’Eyncourt probably sympathized with the lighterman – magistrates tended to side against striking union men – so he fined him a nominal 26and Mrs Petter accepted a payment of 50sin compensation.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, December 8, 1889]

A rabble rouser threatens the peace of the Lord Mayor’s Show

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Today it is the annual Lord Mayor’s show in the City of London. This event has been repeated at this time for hundreds of years and when I was a boy I always made a point of watching it on television, fascinated by the floats and military bands. The ceremonial point of the parade is to swear in the new Lord Mayor at the Royal Courts of Justice, but the ‘show’ is an opportunity to demonstrate the City’s wealth, power and diversity of talent to the nation as a whole. All the livery companies of the City take part and their floats and costumes often make links to the crafts they practice (tailors, grocers, ironmongers etc) or reflect a social or historical theme.

So today Peter Estlin will be sworn in as the 691stLord Mayor of London and head of the City’s Corporation. Amongst many roles the Mayor is appointed chief magistrate of the City and throughout the nineteenth century this meant that office holders routinely sat in judgment on offenders and others brought before them at the Mansion House Police court.

In 1892 one of the Lord Mayor’s fellow police court magistrates, Mr Mead, was the presiding justice at Thames Police court east of City the heart to London’s docklands. On day before that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show Daniel Keefe was put in the dock at Thames and accused of disorderly conduct and of inciting a crowd to disorder.

PC Isles had come across a gathering crowd outside the Sailor’s Home on Well Street. This establishment had been founded in 1828 on the site of an old theatre (the Brunswick) to help the plight of destitute seamen. A man had stood himself on a box so he could be seen and was addressing his audience.

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He was berating the authorities for allowing so many men to be unemployed and told them to boycott that year’s Lord Mayor’s Show in protest. Instead of waiving and cheering the mayor and his aldermen why not ‘test the right of free speech’ instead by demonstrating their discontent with the state of the economy that left so many people impoverished in the East End.

This was just three years after the Great Dock Strike that had seen working men flex their collective muscles and secure small but significant gains from the Dock companies. Throughout that dispute the police had been used to try and break up demonstrations and prevent secondary picketing. The magistracy had played their part too, in fining and imprisoning active participants whenever their saw a way to use the law to do so.

It was evident to PC Isles that regardless of the politics here that Keefe was in breach of the law. By calling a crowd together he was causing an obstruction to the footpath and, under the terms of the Police Code (1889), the officer was obliged to ask him to desist and to require the crowd to disperse. When Keefe refused he arrested him.

In court Mr Mead had little time for Keefe’s attempts to justify himself. Keefe said he had as much right to be on the street as anyone else and that he was hemmed in by the crowd and so couldn’t move when the constable had asked him to. He was ‘vindicating the rights of the unemployed’ (a term that only entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1888) and so his cause was noble. He had even started a ‘labour bureau’ to help men find work.

Mead was uninterested and chose to bind Keefe over in the sum of £5 (about £400 today) which he would forfeit if he broke the peace again within six months. He was, in effect, stopping any attempt by Keefe to ‘rabble rouse’ in the East End and issuing a warning to him and others not to disturb the annual pageantry in the City.

[from The Standard, Thursday, November 10, 1892]

The ‘tyranny of Trades unions’ causes a short sighted appointment.

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I was drawn to this headline in the Standard for late October 1897, which referred to a case before the magistrate at Worship Street in the East End of London. It concerned a glass beveller called Mr Bacon who had summoned his apprentice to appear in court.

In the course of my PhD research I found that London masters frequently brought their apprentices to court (or indeed were summoned by them to appear themselves) but at the Chamberlain’s not, not Mansion House or Guildhall. There all sorts of disputes were heard and resolved, usually touching on the disobedience of apprentices or failure of masters to teach their charges their arts.

Elsewhere in England disputes between masters and apprentices (and masters and servants) were often settled in front of a magistrate, and so this one was in line with what we know from previous research from an earlier period.

Mr Bacon had come to complain that his apprentice was entirely unfit to learn the trade of glass beveling because, to quote:

‘Apart from the apprentice being exceedingly troublesome and unruly’ […] ‘he was near-sighted, and consequently couldn’t be put to work the machinery or the larger tools, which were dangerous’.

Clearly then there was a problem but how was it that Bacon had just found this out Mr Corser (the sitting justice) wanted to know?

Well that was because of the unions the glass worker explained. In order to be allowed to start work in the shop the lad had to be formally apprenticed (in other words, to have his indentures signed). The unions refused to allow their men to work with non-indentured boys and threatened to go on strike if this was not complied with. Indeed they had already struck when an apprenticed  boy  had been set on one of the beveling machines.

So ‘the lad in this case was no good to him’ (and I suspect his attitude was something that Bacon was not prepared to cope with either). If he kept him on his poor sight would inevitably lead to accidents and he (Bacon) would be liable for compensation. As a result the magistrate had no choice but to cancel the youngster’s indentures and hope he found gainful employment somewhere else.

[from The Standard, Monday, October 25, 1897]

Angry shoemakers take to the streets of Hackney

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One Sunday in early October 1892 a grim looking band of men started marching up and down a street in Hackney, north-east London. The men marched to the musical accompaniment of a motely band playing the ‘death march’ and every now than then the group turned to point accusingly at towards the occupants of the houses they passed, shouting out ‘scabs!’, ‘rats!’ and ‘gaol birds!’

Several men broke ranks and rushed over to the homes shoving handbills under the portals. These printed bills carried a foreboding message:

‘To all Trade Unionists, – Under the auspices of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Clickers and Rough Stuff Cutters, a few Sunday morning demonstrations against sweaters, and scabs, rats and other vermin will be given in the London Fields district, commencing on Sunday October 2, and will be continued until further notice’.

London Fields was large open area that had once been home mainly to sheep and highwaymen in the previous century. By the late 1800s it was ‘a hard unsightly, dismal plain’, when it rained it became an ‘impassable swamp’. It was uncultivated and so idea for demonstrations.

The handbill continued:

‘All Unionists […] who believe in giving sweaters, scabs, rats, and other vermin a musical lunch will confer a favour on the above Union by meeting on London Fields next Sunday at 10.30, when they will form in procession, headed by bands and banners, and pay each of these social parasites and bloodsuckers a visit’…

The noise and the threats prompted at least two individuals to complain at the North London Police court. Both men said they had been targeted directly. They said they worked in a shop where a dispute was underway but denied being scabs (strike breakers).  Mr Bros (presiding) suggested that they applied for a summons against those responsible for a breach of the peace, and sent them on their way.

The actions of the trades union members seems to be a cross over from traditional acts of ‘rough musicing’ (literally banging pots and pans outside someone’s home to show community disproval) and more ‘modern’ acts of picketing (as demonstrated during the 1889 Dock Strike).

The Boot and Show Union had formed in 1873 and within a decade boasted 10,000 members. It had merged with the Rough Stuff and Clickers Union in 1892, the year this case occurred, but split soon after. They had one big strike, in 1897, in support of a minimum wage and 54 hour week but unlike the Match Girls (in 1888) and the Dockers (1889) they weren’t successful.

We don’t have a large scale boot and show industry anymore, but several firms in Northamptonshire (where I teach) continue to produce top quality leather shoes many of which are exported across the world. In London in the late 1800s the competition form cheap foreign labour (‘sweaters’) was intense and only the larger factories (in Northants) survived into the 1900s.

[from The Standard (London, England), Tuesday, October 04, 1892]

“The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything” (John Burns). Sadly, 1889 was a false dawn for unionism.

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Resting stevedores on the London Docks, c.1890

1889 has gone down in Trade Union history as one of the most significant. This was the year of the Great Dock Strike in London where dock labourers led by Ben Tillet, Tom Mann and Will Thorne; with support from prominent socialists such as John Burns, Eleanor Marx, and the Catholic archbishop of London, Cardinal Manning, emerged victorious.

The strike secured an extra penny an hour (the ‘dockers’ tanner’), along with the recognition of their newly formed union and most of their other demands. For the Labour movement the Dock Strike (and the Match girls strike which inspired it) was huge; recruitment soared and by 1899 over 2,000,000 Britons had joined a trade unions.

However, it didn’t take the employers long to regroup and fight back. Further disputes occurred and companies were now more aware of strikers’ tactics and the methods required to confront them. In addition, infighting and jealousies emerged within unions and between competing workers to undermine the collectivity that had been so vital to success in 1889.

In 1891 a dispute broke out between seaman on ships and the unionised stevedores who controlled the unloading of goods. This allowed the owners of the shipping companies to drive a wedge between two sets of working men and prosecute the fightback against organised union labour. A strike in the Cardiff docks by seamen was defeated and they were forced to accept the terms of the employers. This was between January and March 1891 and affected the London docks as well.

In February 1891 Edward Polton, a 29 year-old stevedore working at Silvertown in docklands, appeared before Mr Kennedy at Woolwich Police Magistrate Court.

Bolton was charged with: ‘throwing missiles from the steam ship Egyptian Monarch, in the Royal Albert Docks, at the Shipping Federation men’.

The missiles in question were nuts and bolts but the case didn’t turn on the danger caused to the Federation’s men (non-union labour employed by the Dock Company) but on whether the large had been accurately laid or not. The original charge was that Polton had been throwing missiles into a public space and therefore endangering ‘the common public’.

The court learned that the docks were closed off by gates and a sign declared that no one was to be admitted ‘except on business’. Dock constables guarded the docks to prevent non-authorised persons from entering (a result it seems of the experiences of the port authorities in the 1889 dispute), and the docks were staffed by non-union men.

That Polton was lobbing missiles at the Fed’s men was not in doubt but he wasn’t guilty of doing so ‘in public’ but instead in private. Mr Kennedy therefore ordered that the stevedore be discharged but recommend to the Dock Company that they bring a new prosecution for assault. If convicted (and the suggestion must have been that Polton would have been convicted) he would face two months in prison, taking an active union man out of action for a considerable period of time and potentially deterring others from following his example. His decision was met with cheers in court, whether from Bolton’s supporters or the Federation men is not made clear.

This little incident from the Police Courts gives us a brief window into the ongoing struggle between workers and employers in the late nineteenth century. Each side learned lessons from the disputes they entered into but the ‘bosses’ had the distinct advantage of being supported by the law. That law, of course, was not written by (or even for) the vast majority of the population but instead was created to protect wealth and privilege from the very people that wanted to see it distributed more evenly.

The battles between unions and owners continued into the next century but ultimately it was always the unions that lose. There have been high points and moral victories, but today the union movement is largely powerless to prevent the continued exploitation of working men and women by rapacious capitalism and a government which listens first to company executives and last to the people on the ‘shop floor’.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 18, 1891]

‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you’: a magistrate sends a ‘Union man’ to prison for Christmas

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Striking dockers in the East India Dock Road, 1889

1889 was a big year for British Trades Unionism. It was the year that Ben Tillett (with support from John Burns and other prominent socialists) led the London dockworkers to victory in their dispute with the dock companies. The demands of the workers seem almost trivial today; they wanted a guarantee of at least four hours work at sixpence (a ‘tanner’) an hour.

East Londoners supported them, as did the Catholic bishop of London, the Labour Church and the Salvation Army. Funds were raised to feed striking families and rent strikes broke out as the workers resisted all attempts to force them back to work. Afterwards John Burns reflected that then Labour movement had learned a lesson that was perhaps more important than the achievement of the specific aims of the strike. He declared:

‘labour of the humbler kind has shown its capacity to organise itself; its solidarity; its ability. The labourer has learned that combination can lead him to anything and everything’.

If only.

The strike sent ripples thorough society and, like the Match Girls’ strike the year before, unnerved the authorities. Labour was flexing its muscles and where possible those in power needed to put this particular genii firmly back in its box. During the Dock Strike the police had been deployed to break up picket lines, and arrest those intimidating non-union workers. Some of the battle lines that we saw repeated in the twentieth century had their birth in the 1880s. I well recall how Margaret Thatcher’s government used the police to in the front line against the miners in the 1980s for example.

When Charles Stephens, a union man, appeared at Worship Street Police Court in December 1889 he must have feared the worst. A complaint against Stephens was brought by an unnamed ‘sandwich man’ – someone employed by an advertising agent to wear a sandwich board and walk up and down in the street.

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The sandwich man was standing by Shoreditch church when Stephens approached him. He asked him if he was a union man and the other replied that he wasn’t.

‘If you don’t belong to a Union, I ain’t going to let you carry them boards about’, Stephens told him, and then seized him and wrestled with him until the straps of the boards broke and were thrown down to the street.

Stephens was arrested and charged at Worship Street with disorderly conduct and assault. Mr Montagu Williams, the sitting magistrate, asked the prosecutor what the man had meant by ‘Union man’.

The sandwich professed not to know so Stephens interjected from the dock:

“I asked him if he belonged to the Labourer’s Union’.

‘Union for what?’ demanded Mr Williams

‘To prevent a man working unless he belongs to it’ came Stephens’ defiant reply.

‘That is a very disgraceful union then’, snapped the magistrate.

At this Stephens pullet a small booklet from his pocket and handed it to the policeman by the dock. It was entitled ‘The Dock, Wharf, and General Labourers Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. It was stamped to show that Stephens was a fully paid up member and declared that Ben Tillett was it secretary. It was the union Tillett had formed in 1887 as the Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association which, from small beginnings, had swelled to over 30,000 members by the end of 1889.

Stephens was part of a growing movement of organised labour and his confidence and bravado in the dock are perhaps indicative of how union members felt in the wake of their victory that year. Montagu Williams was neither impressed nor intimidated however, and was seemingly resolved to reassert the authority of the ruling class in the face of such an upstart.

‘You are one of those men that get up these Unions and strikes’, he told him. ‘You are all talk, and there is no work in you. Well I will teach you, and others like you that you shall not interfere with men who choose to work, you will go to prison for 21 days’.

Stephens was led away, still shouting the odds defiantly. He would spend Christmas in gaol that year.

[from The Standard, Saturday, December 21, 1889]

For more posts related to late 19th century Trade Unionism and its contexts see:

Striking workers in West Ham are thwarted with the help of the bench

Assault on the docks

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

George Carter ‘sticks it to the man’ and receives some sympathy from the bench

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George Carter was tired.

In fact he was so tired that he felt he needed, and deserved, a holiday. Sadly for him his employer, the North London Metropolitan Tramways Company thought otherwise. Workers had no statutory right to any holiday before 1938, and even that (one week a year) was hard fought and well below the minimum the Trades Union Congress had campaigned for. By contrast today the law states that ‘almost all workers’ are entitled to 28 days of annual leave.

The only way George Carter could get the rest he felt he required was to effectively quit his job, or at least stop working for a while. So on the 1st November 1875 George, who worked as a conductor collecting the fares on the trams, met with his supervisor and told him he was taking some time off. Mr Thomas Bradley, his inspector, said he found have to place someone else on his route and demanded he hand over any outstanding fares.

Carter was holding onto £3 15s 6d of the company’s money but he wanted to know what would happen if he left to have his well-earned break. Would he be discharged, he asked? If so he was going to keep the money.

At the Worship Street Police Court, where Carter appeared to answer a summons from the tram company, it was revealed that it was company policy to extract a £5 deposit from all the conductors prior to them starting their service. Presumably they were a distrustful lot and didn’t like the idea of their staff walking away with their money. Mr G. H Smith, the manager of the company, had  declared that he would be sacked and his wages and depots forfeited. It was this that had prompted the summons and the court case.

So inspector Bradley already had George’s money, indeed he had more than the £3 15s he was demanding he hand over. Moreover the tram company’s employees were forced to sign a document that made the bosses the ‘sole judges in any dispute’ and gave them power ‘to order the forfeiture of the deposit-money and all wages due’. Even in a world with zero-hour contracts and firms like Uber this was a terribly uneven distribution of power between employers and employees and the magistrate was appalled by it.

‘it was ‘very one-sided’, Mr Hannay said, ‘putting the men in the position of slaves without hope of redress in a court of law’, and it had been remarked upon a number of times in that court.

But there was nothing in law to stop the tram company setting the rules as it had; trades unions hardly operated  effectively in the period and it wasn’t until later in the century that they began to flex their muscles with any real hope of success. So all George Carter could do was withdraw his labour and hope to be reemployed at a later date by someone, if not his current employers.

Mr Hannay opted out of the debate; he said he had no power to adjudicate here and so dismissed the summons. As far as he could see the company had Carter’s £5 and he was hanging on to a ‘lesser sum’. If they wanted to pursue him for the fares he retained then they would have to do so in the county court, at their own expense. It wasn’t exactly a victory for the ‘little man’ but it was reported as an example of sharp practice by an employer than many people reading this would have been family with.

Whether that inspired them to look for alternative forms of transport in the future is questionable, but the publicity was hardly good for Mr G. H. Smith and his company were tainted by it, just as Mike Ashley’s appearance in front of the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee in July 2106 did nothing for the reputation of Sports Direct.

Trades Unions get a lot of stick, much of it well deserved. But we should remember that every single right that workers have today – to holidays, sick pay, pensions, safe conditions at work, training, and equal opportunities, have been extracted from the capitalist class by determined workers backed by union representatives. It is not for nothing that nearly every Conservative government since the second world war has attempted to curb the power of the unions in some way or another. Despite their claims of ‘one nation Toryism’ the Conservative and Unionist Party represent the ‘haves’ (like G. H. Smith) rather than the ‘have-nots’ (like George Carter).

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, November 14, 1875]

Exploiting workers in the late 19th century ‘rag trade’.

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Contemporary cartoon on the evils of ‘sweated’ factory labour

Yesterday’s case looked at the regulation of living conditions and featured two landlords who were fined heavily for allowing their rental properties to fall into a ‘filthy’ state, ‘unfit for human habitation’. That was in Bermondsey, south London, an area identified with poverty and poor housing in Charles Booth’s poverty maps.

North of the Thames the East End, and in particular the narrow streets and courts of Whitechapel were equally synonymous with degradation. Here too  in the 1880s there was a contemporary concern about the ‘sweating’ in the clothing trade.  ‘Sweating’ referred to the exploitation of (often foreign) workers, forced to work long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions, for very low pay.

In 1890 a House of Lords select committee reported that ‘the evidence tends to show much evasion of the Factory Acts and overtime working of females’ in the clothing industry in London. The Factory Acts, widely flouted and largely ineffectual, were supposed to prevent dangerous or unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and to limit the amount of hours men, women and especially children, could be asked to work in any given week.

In May 1886 a Whitechapel tailor, Harris Solomons, was summoned to the Thames Police Court to answer charges that he was overworking some of his female employees.

Solomons, most probably one of the East End’s well-established Jewish community, operated from 8 Fieldgate Street, Spitalfields, close to the Bell Foundry and not far from the London Hospital.  In just a few years this area would become forever associated with the unsolved murders of ‘Jack the Ripper’.

The summons against the Whitechapel tailor was prosecuted by a factory inspector, Gerald Slade. He gave evidence that he had visited the defendant’s property four times in the last two months. This suggests either that the authorities were operating a crackdown on the clothing industry or Mr Solomons was a name on a targeted hit list.

Slade discovered that along with himself, Solomons employed two women. He found that these women were required to work until 9 o’clock most days, sometimes as late as 10. On Sundays they worked till 4 in the afternoon.

The inspector informed Solomons that if he expected his workers to toil on a Sunday he must let them leave no later than 8 in the evening on weekdays. Given that Solomons was in all likelihood Jewish and assuming his workers were, then they would not have worked Saturdays or late on a  Friday night, because of religious restrictions.

This constrained the working week and competition was great in the period so it seems Solomons was flouting the regulations of the Factory Acts that had been passed in part to protect labourers from such exploitation.

When Slade visited the premises on the following Sunday he had found both women, and the tailor, hard at work at half-past five, well beyond the 4 o’clock cut off point. As a result he had summoned Solomons for infringing the act.

Solomons pleaded innocent and tried to argue that there were special circumstances. He had a deadline, and since ‘the holidays’ were imminent he needed to get this job finished. In total Slade brought 3 charges, all similar, against the tailor and Mr Lushington found against him. He fined him 206d in the main case, and 1 plus costs in the other two. It was an expensive day in court for the tailor and a day lost in the workshop to boot.

Whether this, or similar cases, had any real immediate or long term effect on the operation of the ‘rag trade’ or on workshop conditions in London is debatable. The select committee noted that the worst offenders were very hard to prosecute. Evidence had to produced  which usually meant an inspector had to catch an employer ‘red handed’ or an employee had to be a ‘whistle-blower’. The latter were extremely hard to find because work was at a  premium in the late 1800s and many of those recruited to work in these ‘sweat shops’ were desperate for the few pennies they earned.

Contemporaries like Annie Besant attempted to explore the trade but the huge numbers of ‘greeners’ (newly arrived Eastern European refugees, escaping persecution or famine in Russia) meant that there was a ready-made surplus of labour. A whistle-blower risked their job and their survival for little or no reward.

The way to fight ‘sweating’ then, was collective action. Given the small numbers of unionised labour in the 1870s and ’80s this was hard. Besant and the women that worked in Bryant & May match factory in the East End did, however, later show the capital and the world how determined and well-organised collective action could force an employer to address the concerns about pay and conditions.

The lesson was not lost on the dockers who organised successfully in 1889. The Match Girls and the Great Dock strikes probably represented the high point of late Victorian Trades Unionism. Over the next century workers’ rights would be championed, protected, and then gradually eroded from the 1980s onwards. We might remember then why we need to protect workers from exploitative employers: women being asked to work 6 days a week from early morning to late at night, with no rest, no lunch break, and very low pay is reason enough.

Exploitation has not gone away, and never will under the model of capitalism that exists in Britain and the world. Anyone that is any doubts about this need only look at trafficked workers, the existence of sweatshops in the developing world, the need for a minimum wage, and the modern phenomena of the ‘gig economy’ and zero-hour contracts. Capitalism has never been able to successfully police itself, which is why we need the state to do that.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, June 5, 1886]