Brethren Archive
Monday February 6, 2012

Needle Women and Factory Girls

Interesting recountation of what life was for many young women in Victorian London; working night and day with their hands, to scrape together just enough to survive.  We no longer have these scenes on the streets of our cities, but only because we have outsourced the sorrow and pain far away from our own sight, to distant lands; China, India etc.  Challeneged me a great deal in reading this about the morality of many things we buy which are produced by labour in the manner described below. We dont realise the human misery that lies behind all the creature comforts we enjoy; but our God sees,

"For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD" Psalm 12:5


London by Moonlight Mission, Chapter 9

"If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, marvel not at the matter: for He that is higher than the highest regardeth. The sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much: but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep. There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt" - Eccles. v. 8, 12, 13.

One of the most prolific sources of this evil is the long hours and ill-paid labour of needle-women.  Very frequently, during my midnight cruises, when pleading with these young women, has this been assigned as a reason for resorting to this miserable course of life; and many a sad tale have I heard of the hardships endured by them. "What are we to do ?" they have often said to me. "We have worked from four o'clock in the morning till midnight, to earn an honourable livelihood: but all we have got has been four or five shillings a week; and you know we cannot live on that. We hate this life; and we hate ourselves, when we get alone; but there is no help for us -- we must go on in it, or starve." And I may add, when both these sources fail, (as they very frequently do,) they have then recourse to self-destruction, to put an end to their troubles. Only a short time ago, a poor needle-woman was brought up at one of our police-courts, charged with attempting to commit suicide. She had been in the habit of working from three o'clock in the morning till eleven at night and all she earned was three shillings and sixpence a week. Is it to be wondered at that she found the misery of her life more than she could bear, and attempted suicide ?

Would that the ladies and gentlemen of England thought of these poor needle-women sometimes, when they enter those grand emporiums, with their gilded cornices, and plate glass, and mirrors, and polished mahogany counters! Who pays for all this? It is from the sweat and blood and sinew of these! unhappy women the profits come, which pay for that dazzling but paltry show.

Would that Christian men and women, who can find time to sit and listen to long and eloquent speeches on the diffusion of the gospel in foreign parts, and the emancipation of American slaves, would also find time to visit the abodes of these poor creatures. They are not far off. In the immediate vicinity of these gilded shops there are narrow streets and dirty courts. Let us look in here. Go up those creaking stairs, and enter that miserable garret. You can scarcely bear the polluted atmosphere; but there she is, morning, noon, and night, stitching away as though to save her life. The sunshine of summer, and the fresh air, exist not for her; she knows not the rest of the sabbath, nor a kindly encouraging word, nor sympathy of friends. And as we look upon those haggard features, already stamped with the impress of death, we remember those doleful lines of Hood's we have read long ago, and feel how near we have come to the misery he depicts: --

         My labour never flags;
        And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
          A crust of bread -- and rags.
        That shatter'd roof - and this naked floor --
          A table -- a broken chair --
        And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
          For sometimes falling there.

        "Oh, men, with sisters dear !
          Oh, men, with mothers and wives!
        It is not linen you're wearing out,
          But human creatures lives !
          In poverty, hunger, and dirt.
        Sewing at once, with a double thread,
          A shroud as well as a shirt"

Oh then pity her, and help her, lest her poverty drive her to the streets, and she ends her days in still greater misery and shame.

Then there are the dress-makers' and milliners' apprentices. As compared with their urgent claims, how little commiseration have they met with, and how little has been done to place them, as far as might be, from the "necessity," as they say, of yielding to temptation. In London alone, upwards of fifteen thousand of these young women ply their needles from seven o'clock in the morning till eleven at night, without a moment's intermission, save the twenty or thirty minutes allowed them for eating their meals.

The following is from the pen of a lady who has for many years taken a deep interest in the welfare of these young women:--

"The dress-makers are for the most part young, and many have not done growing. It is near mid-night of the second night of working, when they should have been sleeping, they are compelled to work the whole of this night and next day; making three days and two nights of incessant sewing - an occupation which cannot be safely pursued for more than a few hours at a time. During the height of the "London season," or on urgent occasions, such as a ball or drawing-room, when almost superhuman endurance and exertions are expected from them, and when it is for the interest of their employers to 'keep them up to the mark,' these girls are 'fed high': roast beef, porter, and port wine are supplied -- the rooms are to kept light and hot, and every stimulus is applied. Three at once drop off their chairs fainting; they are plied with strong green tea, and they resume their work. As often as they are sinking, more green tea is given them -- their eyes are dim, their skin bums, their hands tremble, their voices are hysterical; but the ball dresses are finished. That was the object to he attained."

"What a melancholy state of things! And yet, what I have described is of every-day occurrence in the height of the "London season." What constitution could withstand the effects of such attacks upon it? Not the most robust frame that ever female possessed. The constitutions of but very few, even of the stronger sex, could pass through such an ordeal uninjured.

"Not less certain, though not so sudden, is the injury done to the health of dress-makers' apprentices, by their ordinary labours, coupled with confinement and the treatment to which they are subjected.  Their pale countenances, haggard looks, and general lifeless appearance, attest but too conclusively the existence of a something within which is impairing their health, rendering them sickly and feeble for life, and will consign them to a premature grave. It is a well-ascertained fact, that a greater number of dress-makers fall into consumption, and die of that fatal disease, than of any other class of persons in the community.

"I have known young females come up from the country, to serve two years' apprenticeship with a London dress-maker, in the view of returning to their native place, and then commencing business for themselves. They have come to London with a bloom on their cheeks, a flow of animal spirits in their conversation, and a general appearance of life about them, which it was a luxury to behold; but before four months had elapsed, they have become so pale, emaciated, dispirited, and altered in their appearance, that their own relations could hardly have recognized them."

Scarcely a week passes, but I meet with one or more of this unhappy class, who invariably attribute their fall to the inhuman treatment of their employers. And is it a matter of surprise, that young girls, fond of liberty, and dress, and pleasure, should prefer to walk the streets in silks and satins -- or, in their own words, to have "a short life and a merry one" -- rather than slave and drudge, to fill the purses of their oppressors, and end their days in a workhouse?

While this sheet is passing through the press, I have received the following letter from a friend who is much interested in the work in which I am engaged: --

May, I860,

My DEAR Lieutenant, -- After leaving you on Saturday evening, returning homeward near the Great Western Terminus, I was accosted by a young woman to whom you had spoken a few weeks ago. I am most anxious she should have an interview with you at the 'Home,' as I believe she has a very erroneous impression of the manner in which the young women under your care are treated.

I know you like to enter in your "log book" everything which is likely to be helpful to you in the blessed mission to which you have devoted yourself so many years; and I will therefore relate to you, as nearly as I can remember, the conversation which passed between us:--

"Are you often out so late as this?" I enquired. [It was about eleven o'clock.]

"Oh, yes; very often," she replied.

"And are you happy?"

She seemed somewhat startled at this question. We were now passing beneath the glare of the lamps in front of the Great Western Hotel; and taking advantage of this circumstance, she looked me full in the face, as though to ascertain whether I was jesting, or in earnest. She then hung down her head, and said in an under-tone, "No, I am not happy; there is nothing at home to make me happy, or I'd not come out here."

"But have you no other means of obtaining a livelihood?"

"Yes, I am a dress-maker; but it's hard work."

"Did you ever hear of Lieutenant Blackmore?"

"Oh, yes; he gave me a card in Chapel-street, one night, and invited me to go and see him."

"And did you go?"

"No; for I believe it was a sham. What he said to me was too good to be true."

"Well now, will you go and see him on Monday morning, between eleven and twelve o'clock? He has been a friend to girls like you for many years, and will be glad to see you."

"Where do you say it is?"

"218, Marylebone road."

"Does he live there?"

"No; it is one of the 'Homes' he has opened for poor friendless girls."

"Home, indeed; I'11 never go there; I have heard enough of such places."

"Do not decide too hastily; but promise me that you will go and see him, and judge for yourself, and if you accept his invitation, you will find it as I have stated -- a real 'Home.'

"Well, I think I'll just go and see; not on Monday, but on Tuesday."

"Thank you; good night." I shook hands with her, and we parted at the comer of Chapel-street, where you gave her your card.

I shall take it as a great kindness, if you will let me know whether she comes to you; for I feel much interested in the girl.

I am yours faithfully in Christ Jesus,


This young woman called upon me at the 'Home,' and has been received. God grant that the "word of life" may find an abiding place in her heart.


Again. Not only in the metropolis does this evil exist; but from our manufacturing towns multitudes of factory girls -- some of them mere children -- flock to London, in the vain hope of finding some relief from their cruel oppression. It has been discovered, in many instances, that they are encouraged to take this step by the false representations of the agents of London "procurers"; who, on being apprised of the success of their confederates in the provinces, repair to railway termini here, and experience little difficulty in entrapping their victims.

The excessively long hours and low wages of these poor girls, has long being a crying evil, and is a disgrace to our country. And yet, strange to say, it has lately been said by one who professes to take an interest in their welfare, and from whom one had a right to expect a better speech, that, "as long as the number of unmarried women, dependant on their needle for support, exceeds the demand for their labour, no plans to employ them at better wages, no blame heaped upon their employers, no poetry like the 'Song of the Shirt,' though it may make us weep, can raise their condition. Employers will hire them at the market price; and, rather than starve, they will work for almost nothing." That may be, poor creatures! for it is hard to starve. But have men no consciences? Shall they not be told of their sins? Is there no power with God to convince men of their unrighteousness and cruel oppression? Would that we had more of the godliness and moral courage of the Apostle James, and spoke to men as faithfully as he did, or rather the Spirit of God in him; "Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Tour gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth." (James v. 1--4.)

It is cheering at times to meet with a man who is not afraid to speak out, even in high places, on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves; as on a recent occasion in the House of Commons.

Referring to Mr. Tremenheere's report of the condition of factory girls, a member spoke thus:--

"There are some sentences in the book now in my hand which make my blood creep, and when the hon. member gets up and tells me that the Manchester manufacturers are likely to suffer, I say, let them suffer. I, at least, will not be a party to the perpetuation of such atrocities as I find recorded, and I do hope that the gentlemen of England will not be parties to them either. Says the hon. member, "The bleachers are servants to the public; the demand for work comes upon them at uncertain times, and there is no analogy between the case of factories and of bleaching and dyeing works." Now, I don't care a straw whether or not there is any analogy in this respect, but I am sure there is an analogy in the suffering. They inflict misery upon the people they employ. That is the question.

"I will quote a few passages from Mr. Tremenheere's report. Here is the statement of Anna Simpson, 14 years old, Elisabeth Hilton, 15, and Sarah Higson, 16: --

"'We came to work last Friday morning at half-past six. We worked all Friday night till half-past five on Saturday morning (23 hours). We did not sleep any time in the night, except on Saturday morning, at half-past five, we laid down to sleep on the hooking-box, and slept till a little after seven (less than two hours' sleep, and with the clothes still on, after 23 Hours' work); then we went to breakfast for half an hour, and then came and worked till ten minutes past eleven.'

"We complain bitterly of the hours of this House, and if we come at four, with liberty to go away and dine at seven, and then don't get home till two in the morning, we say, 'What a terrible night's work we have had!' Well, then, think of the poor child between 13 and 14, or between 10 and 11, not able to go away and get a good dinner, not sitting while at work upon these soft cushions, but standing upon her poor, tired, little legs for hours and hours together. Think of her, and compare her work with ours! We complain of the labours which we undergo; but, as compared with our life, hers is the life of the damned.

"Now, I ask you, the gentlemen of England, if you will bear this. I hear great talk of humanity -- lip humanity! -- about the American slave. No man can view with more indignation than I do the horrible condition of the black in America; but I cannot help regarding with at least equal indignation the condition of the white slave in England. I recollect hearing a story, which to me appeared a touching one, and fraught with a pregnant lesson. Mr, Oastler was walking with the late Sir Robert Peel up his splendid picture gallery.  Mr. Oastler, as we know, strongly advocated the shortening of the hours of labour in factories. Sir Robert Peel, on the other hand, as we also know, was a great political economist, and was arguing with his companion upon the impolicy of State interference. In passing along the gallery they came to a beautiful picture, I think by Landseer, which most of us probably have seen -- a portrait of one of the daughters of Sir Robert Peel; and Mr. Oastler, stopping suddenly, said, *My God, Sir Robert! Andshemight have been a factory girl!'

"Yes, any one of our daughters might have been a factory girl; and is there a man present, with any feeling for his child, who could think of her working almost without cessation for 37 hours?  Think of her tender years, think of her delicate little hands! I have it in this book that children's hands are often blistered, and the skin torn off their feet, and yet they are thus obliged to work, the persons who overlook them being sometimes forced to keep them awake by beating on the table with large boards. For God's sake, then, I say, don't let us listen to the hon. gentleman! I don't want to weary the House, but I appeal to you as men, I appeal to you as fathers, I appeal to you as brothers, and I ask you for God's sake not to be participants in this horrible cruelty. The hon. member says he is sure you will not go into committee on this bill. I, on the contrary, feel certain that if I know anything of my countrymen, we shall go into committee; that the measure will be carried by a triumphant majority, and that we shall not lay our heads upon our pillows to-night, saying, 'We have deserted those whom God has placed under our charge - the weak, the helpless, the distressed - we think only of ourselves, of the wealthy and of the great.'

"The weak and the miserable appeal to you now for compassion and for aid, and I, their humble advocate, also appeal to you in perfect confidence that you will listen to their prayer, and will pass this measure for their relief."

In This Section

Angela Hey said ...
What a huge contrast to the lives of machinists at Hey & Flockton a Leeds clothing firm from the 1920s to the 1960s in Marshall Mills. It was a brethren company.
Thursday, Feb 28, 2019 : 17:07

Add Comment: