How contagion and infection are spread, through the sweating system in the tailoring trade

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How contagion and infection are spread, through the sweating system in the tailoring trade  (1877) 
by Peter Shorrocks












ON FEBRUARY 24th, 1877;







I have no doubt many people at the present time wonder what is the meaning of the term "sweating," as applied to the tailoring trade; and I do not presume to lay down the following as the only reason why such a term is applied to the system on which certain branches of trade conduct their business. About the close of the last century and beginning of the present, it was found that people placed gold coins in a bag, and by turning them backwards and forwards for a considerable time, a gold dust remained behind, as the result of friction produced by the coins rubbing against each other. This was sold at a profit by those practising the system, which was termed "sweating;" it was afterwards made illegal. The persons found guilty of this practice chiefly belonged to the Hebrew race.

About the same period, a transition was taking place in the payment of wages of the journeyman tailor, from weekly wages to piecework; and being a trade which did not require much inconvenience in carrying the work from one place to another, and which work could be done almost wherever the workman could find sitting and elbow room, and also being one in which wife and family could assist, it led to a class of men (who neglected work at the beginning of the week) taking work home with them to do during the night and morning intervening between the workshop being closed and opened next day. These men worked principally for the lowest class trades, and for employers who entered into the business for the purpose of making money, at any cost; they (the employers), finding that they had this class of men continually in their power, by advancing such sums of money as met their convenience, they suggested that it would be more to the men's advantage to take work home altogether, and both themselves and families could make the work; but they would not pay the same price for such work as to those working in the shop. The men themselves, in many instances, being in debt to the employer, and not being able to appear in decent dress amongst other workmen in the shop, greedily accepted the position, not thinking that it would lead to their own degradation and also that of their families, Seeing that greater profits were made, and with a view to under selling other tradesmen with whom they were in competition, and finding that not only were the rents of workrooms saved, but the expense of fire and light also, these tradesmen became anxious to carry out the system still further. Men were induced to open rooms in their homes as workshops, take in work, and employ those whom they could get within their power through their own debauchery, at a still lower rate than that paid by the master tailors; and by this means enable themselves to live without manual labour on the money thus sweated, or drawn from the wages of the men whom they employed.

It will be easily seen that this system would lead to unhealthy competition: one middleman against another, or one man who took work home for himself and family against the middleman, and vice versa. Hence various practices were adopted by the middlemen to keep those under them in their power, such as the continual supply of drink, and other means which are always at command over the needy, thus still further reducing the wages paid to their dupes. The term "sweating" was used as an expression of contempt for those persons who obtained their income by sweating the wages of those under them in this manner.

The system has made such great strides since first introduced that women and also children of tender years are extensively employed or used to compete, not only against men, but against each other. The utmost degradation has been found to exist amongst those who are victims to this practice; their hours of labour are unlimited and irregular; night-work and Sunday-work are prevalent wherever it is found; therefore, as it has been found necessary to apply legislation to factories and workshops, we claim, in the cause of humanity, that legislation shall also be applied wherever this system is found to exist.

A scene in one of these sweating dens is described by the late Canon Kingsley, in his "Autobiography of Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet," in chapter 21, called "The Sweaters' Den;" but although this took place more than thirty years since, such scenes may not only be witnessed at this day in every district of the metropolis, but also in Manchester, Liverpool, Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds, Sheffield, Hull, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bath, Windsor, Oxford, Cambridge, and in all the large towns of the United Kingdom. To the workpeople themselves it is most degrading, for the whole family of the man engaged in this work is brought in to work for wages that should be earned by the man himself. Little rest is known to them, and youth is turned into premature decay in this competition to live; in numerous cases female virtue is sacrificed in order to induce those giving out the work to favour the particular party whom the female may represent. Advertisements may be seen often in the West End of London for good-looking females with pleasing manners, to take work to and from fashionable tailoring establishments. Cases of this nature have been exposed in the Manchester courts within recent years. If all the tales could be told of social degradation brought about by this most degrading system, the best feelings of our nature would rise in revolt against it. I do not affirm that all connected with out-working in the tailoring trade are in this position. Some very respectable men work at home, whose places are a credit to themselves, and these places may be pointed out by those who encourage this system as showing that we overstate our case; but the majority are not so creditable, whilst large numbers are in the state described. I can point out the workshop of a sweater in the West End of London who works for one of the best firms in the kingdom, whose place is cleaner and healthier than the regular workshops of the firm; and those engaged with customers, when inquiries are made as to where the work is done, often point with pride to the place, and invite inspection. They never tell that this is only one isolated spot that they can point to; but I can as confidently state that against this one home of the sweater, I can point out more than a score of others working for the same firm whose homes it would be sickening to visit, and still more saddening to make inquiries respecting the condition of life of the workers, even though some of them present a respectable appearance when waiting for work. The head officials of the firm in question would not themselves visit these places. It is not many weeks since that a coat was altered in one of the workshops that had been made outside that shop, and which brought into the shop that most deadly and sickening malady—smallpox. It was found to have been made in the home of a workman, where one of his family was afflicted with the disease. The coat was burnt in the stove, and all the workmen in that shop were submitted to vaccination, and at this moment many are off work until the inflammation on their arms has subsided. There are large numbers of the most fashionable establishments everywhere pursuing this abominable system of sweating, and God only knows the amount of social degradation, disease, and death that is spread into every grade of society by this most pernicious practice. The thoughtful, whose desire is to improve the condition of humanity, will do well to inquire into the subject. There is ample field for the labours of those who desire to benefit our species, and are in a proper position to do so.

The question is one not only affecting our tenderest feelings, but it is one that also affects the very safety of our health and lives. The story of a late great statesman's daughter being stricken with contagion and carried off in early life, through wearing a new-riding habit, made in one of those places, unknown to the loving heart making such a present on the anniversary of her birthday, has been well known now for years. We know not how disease is spread and contagion conveyed about; but after carefully considering the whole question, several medical gentlemen in Liverpool signed a declaration that nothing was so well calculated to spread disease as woollen garments that had been in close proximity to disease, and further investigations declare it to be dangerous that such garments should be made at the homes of operatives. We know that there is scarcely a home of a working man with children that disease and sickness do not sometimes enter, such as measles, whooping cough, scarlatina, many kinds of infectious fevers, and in some cases that deadly malady the smallpox; therefore it is as necessary we should be as careful to provide against the spread of disease as we are that it shall not be generated by foul atmosphere or adulterated food. It becomes a subject of self-protection that we should know where our clothes are made; and in the present age it devolves upon the tradesman to find healthy, clean, and well-ventilated workshops for his workpeople. The security of the public demands that such should be the case; and we find that recently, cases have come to light in connection with the tailoring trade that prove there is danger imminent and terrible in turning the home of the worker into his workshop. The Lancet, Sanitary Record, Globe, Truth, Despatch, and many other newspapers of authority, have repeatedly shown up cases where this system seriously affects our well-being; but it will be seen from the following facts that not only does this system affect those engaged in it, but the general public also, as it creates a medium whereby contagious diseases are conveyed to them. Hence the imperative necessity that a clause should be inserted in some Act of Parliament which bears upon this question providing for the inspection of all such places. In support of such a proposition we submit the following facts:—

Dr. Farr, in a letter to the Registrar-General for England, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of 14th October, 1872, says:—"The subtle death germs are spread in a thousand ways. It is, when all is said and done, safer upon the whole to play with the deadly cobra than to touch a rag from the body of a scarlatina patient."

Dr. Littlejohn, of Edinburgh, while on oath as a witness in a case before the Court of Session, in December, 1872, stated that "He considered the sweating system as very likely to spread contagion as woollen garments retained the germs of infection much longer than any other cloth material. He had no hesitation in saying that this system was dangerous to the community."

Dr. O'Leary, of Dublin, M.P. for Drogheda, in a lecture delivered by him in the Mechanics' Institute of that city, on 11th October, 1872, denounced the system known as sweating among tailors as one productive of disease, immorality, and death. By its agency smallpox had, during the recent epidemic, gained access to the homes of the wealthy. He stated that in these sweating houses children infected with smallpox had been actually wrapped in the clothes that were a few hours afterwards sent home to gentlemen.

The Lancet's Special Sanitary Commissioner, in his report of the 29th January, 1876, alludes to the danger of the spread of epidemic disease by journeymen tailors, needlewomen, &c. He says, "The greater part of the making up of clothes is done at the homes of the workpeople, and not only are these homes often abominably unclean and unhealthy, but work is often carried on in them when some of the inmates are suffering from scarlet fever or some other contagious disease."

The following report of Dr. Thorne Thorne appeared on the 17th March, 1877, in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle, in respect to the sanitary condition of Portsmouth, and more especially to the two following cases, viz.:—

"In the overcrowded house of a tailor and dealer in second-hand clothing a child was attacked with scarlet fever. Isolation was impossible, and a second child was attacked, one case terminating fatally." "At the house of another tailor, where several cases occurred, I ascertained that at the date of the outbreak the mother divided her time between nursing her sick children and the manufacture of articles of clothing."

"Many more recent cases are cited in illustration of the danger. In Soho a dressmaker's daughter was recently taken ill with scarlet fever, and lay for a week in a room, where twelve seamstresses were at work all day. She had hardly reached the convalescent state before her mother, in turn, caught the disease. When the medical gentleman arrived he found the girl up, trying to direct the work, and actually handling the dresses, while her mother lay stricken by her side."

"In Marylebone a child recently died of scarlet fever in the room in which his father and mother were working at tailoring."

"Close by a couple were found by the medical attendant busily engaged on a hunting coat, while two of them children, lying in the same room, were suffering from scarlet fever."

"We are told of a bootmaker, living in one room, stitching at boots for the Duchess of Edinburgh, by the bedside of his dying wife."

"It will be remembered that the death of Sir Robert Peel's daughter was traced to the tailors who made her riding-habit in the same room with a fever patient, and Dr. Richardson stated in his recent speech that he had seen a riding-habit thrown over the bed to cover a person suffering from the same contagious disease."

Dr. Royle, who presided at the conference on the subject in Manchester, said he knew and had seen the terrible effects of the evil complained of. Ladies and gentlemen did not know that when they ordered garments to be made in haste, in which they wanted to appear at some ball, or concert, or party, that they not only ran a risk themselves, but carried the same risk to those they held most dear as friends and relatives, by wearing clothes made at firms patronising this system. For himself, he never wore new clothes until they had been hung for some time in a room through which a current of air was passing, and the garments were thoroughly ventilated.

The following is an extract from the Sanitary Record, of October 1874:—


Dr. Page points out one fruitful source of contagion:—"In the course of a recent inquiry into the prevalence of scarlet fever in a village, at one house he found a man, a tailor by trade, engaged at his work, while his two children, convalescent from scarlet fever, from whose hands and bodies the skin was abundantly coming off in flakes, were sitting in the same room, and in actual contact with the apparel lying around him." It is not possible to conceive a more certain means than this of infecting clothes, by which the poison might be carried afterwards to any distance and retained for any length of time. It is probable that many of these outbreaks of infectious diseases in distant and isolated houses, the explanation of which is a puzzle to everyone, may owe their causation to similar sources of infection.—The Sanitary Record.


"At the Sheffield Police Court yesterday, Hannah Turner, living at Chapeltown, was summoned for not taking proper precautions against the spread of infection. The defendant is a seamstress, and on the 21st of September a dress was sent to her to be mended by a woman named Kneeshaw. At this time the defendant had a child ill of scarlatina. The dress was returned on the 29th of the same month. Soon after, four of Mrs. Kneeshaw's children became ill of scarlatina, and two of them died. It was proved that the disease had been transmitted with the dress. As the defendant was ignorant of the law, a fine of 1s. and costs only was imposed."—Manchester Guardian, December 2nd, 1874.

On a recent occasion the following letter appeared in the Lancet:—

"We have within the last few months given many illustrations of the perils which beset the public by reason of the careless system of giving out work indiscriminately, which obtains in certain trades. What are known as the 'sweating' and 'home-work' systems among tailors are pregnant with danger to the general health, and it would be interesting to know, even approximately, how many cases of smallpox in the present epidemic depended on the reception in the house of clothes which had been made in infected rooms, or by persons barely convalescent from the disease. The natural remedy for such a state of things would be for tradespeople to provide workrooms in which all their orders for wearing apparel would be executed, and where the hands employed would be under inspection. Failing this it might be possible to effect an extension of the Workshops Act. Any way, the duty devolves on tradesmen at the present time of exercising a careful supervision over making clothes. A medical man writes to us this week to state that a short time back he had under his care several severe cases of scarlet fever in the families of working tailors, principally Germans, in the purlieus of Soho, at whose homes the work was carried on as usual. In one case a young man sat on the 'board' making a vest and trousers while in the highly-dangerous period of the disease known as desquamation, or 'peeling.' There were also in the same room two persons with symptoms of the malady. 'This family,' writes our correspondent, 'like many others in the neighbourhood whom I attended, did work for the leading tailors and clothiers in the neighbourhood of Regent Street and the West End.'"

The following is an extract from an article in the publication called Truth on the subject:—

"And surely our readers will admit that five guineas seem a great deal to have to pay for a coat that will kill, and that 40s. are too much for a death-warrant in the shape of a pair of trousers. We invite the public to turn the matter over in their minds. It is well worthy of consideration. Many firms charge fancy prices; is it too much to ask that they should take ordinary care? Is it too much to require that they should provide better workshops, or exercise some supervision over the hands they employ, and the places in which they allow their work to be done? If they refuse to do this; if they are supinely content to cast their cut-out cloth upon the slums of London, and have it returned to them after many days made up into garments reeking with they care not what deadly and loathsome disorder, would it not be wise for us to go elsewhere for our clothes, and order our coats and trousers from those firms which get their work done in the purer air and in their own workshops, where some sort of caution and inspection are practised? Is it not better to see to these things ourselves, than to risk being carried off in the bloom of one's manhood by scarlet fever or smallpox? The present and most nefarious practice of the majority of firms is this. They take your measure, they cut your coat, and then they give it to be made up to any poor wretch who can sew well—and who is honest. "Whence he comes and whither he goes when he leaves the shop, what his circumstances are, among whom and what sort of people he lives, of all this they know nothing and care less. All they do care for is that he shall bring the work back at the proper time, done after a business-like fashion. They, of course, never think of asking him how he is, or how his wife and children are, or whether he and his family inhabit a room which contains another family or two attacked by various kinds of infectious diseases. They take a purely commercial view of the matter, and acting upon the most approved principles of political economy, as they are careful to sell in the very dearest, so they take pains to buy in the very cheapest market they can find. And if the market in which they buy happens to be not merely cheap but nasty, what care they? They make a good profit, and the lives of their workers enter not into their thoughts. They are intent on making money, no matter who suffers."

The evils of the system have been allowed to grow far too long to be rooted out in a moment. The voice of reason and humanity has been overwhelmed by the inordinate ravings of capital in its anxiety to secure more than its fair share.

The following is from the Echo:—


"If one-half of the world doesn't know how the other half lives, it is not because they are not told. Last week the tailors were laying their grievances before the Home Secretary, and informed the world generally how terribly they are dominated by that potent ruler of the world yclept 'Backsheesh.' The tailors have doubtless a just cause of complaint, and unlike many others connected with the organisation of labour, it probably more closely concerns wearers of clothes than the makers of them. We, of course, refer to the 'sweating system.' The kernel of the abuse can go into a very small nutshell. Messrs. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, 'General Outfitters,' find it necessary, in order to get large profits and yet supply cheap coats, to make the public pay on one hand and their workmen on the other. 'Devil's dust' and 'shoddy' allow a considerable margin for gain to the seller, but to keep a well-ventilated workshop which will pass muster with the Inspector of Factories is not by any means so pleasing a duty. Accordingly, they settle the matter by not keeping a workroom at all. They resort to this 'sweating system.' They give their clothes out to be made at the lowest contract prices by the journeymen tailors at their own houses. The masters neither inquire nor care, nor do their customers know though they do care, while the workmen are not likely to tell, whether contagious disease was raging in the workman's house at the time the clothes were being sewn by the tailor and his family. As a matter of fact, frequently the coat which the dandy is to wear has been made in a miserable den up a court where half the children sleeping in the room which is at once workshop, bedroom, kitchen, and dining-room, are ill with smallpox or fever. In this manner there cannot be doubt, as shown by a case which we mentioned on Saturday, but that epidemics are spread in spite of the vigilance of the Health Officers and the authorities generally. It admits of a very simple but radical cure—which is all the better, in so far that it is one suggested by the workmen themselves—viz., that every house in which work of this kind is carried out be licensed as a factory, and subjected to inspection. This would soon bring the masters to their senses. It would compel them to have workshops where, in their own interests, the other workmen would see that no one would be admitted who, either by reason of disease in himself or in his family, was capable of spreading contagion. It is scandalous that, simply to make greater profits for wealthy tailors, the public should be subjected to the risk of disease over the spread of which they have no control; while, on the other hand, the miserable prices which the masters are thus enabled to pay the workmen throw the latter, on the slightest trade reverse, on the rates. Mr. Cross has promised to consider the matter, and, as far as may be, to try and introduce a remedy for this very just grievance into the Factory and Workshop Bill which he will introduce in the course of the Session. We can imagine no question on which the influence of the Trade Unions could be better brought to bear, nor one in which they would receive the more unanimous support of the outside public."

The Amalgamated Society of Tailors has been sneered at by journals circulating in the cutting-rooms of those interested in continuing this system, and our efforts termed extraordinary philanthropy; but to show that it is a subject in which the funds of the Society are used to alleviate the evils complained of, I may state that the last conference of the trade instructed the Executive Council to grant support to any member in whose family contagion was found, in order that he might leave work until his home was disinfected, and a clean bill of health was given by a medical gentleman. We state this to show that whilst our object is to elevate the condition of the operatives connected with our trade, our funds are used to prevent the spread of contagion by our members. We doubt whether the proprietors of these journals do likewise in the interest of the public.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.