Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Our legacy from Mary Ann Walkley

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It seems rather surprising that the fate of Mary Ann Walkley should have excited the sensation in London that the newspapers and a hundred rumours tell us country people it has. There is nothing new in the story of the death of a dressmaker from long hours of work, bad air, and the breach of other conditions of health. We have known, for many years, that London dressmaking brings on consumption in some, nervous disorders and insanity in others, apoplexy in many, and blindness in many more. In Once a Week some of the incidents of such establishments were exhibited years ago,—the porter and strong green tea, the full and frequent meals which are made a substitute for sleep, and so on. I wi11 not therefore take up that part of the subject. My readers can hardly be unaware of this order of facts. There was a report on the condition of Dressmakers twenty years ago,—the evidence in which so astonished and perplexed the Queen and her husband: there was a Select Committee of the Lords, which took evidence on the condition of Needlewomen in 1855: and the evidence made such an impression that there were public meetings on behalf of the class, associations to protect them, appeals to fine ladies, and a certain stir among them. After all this, the life of the Dressmaker can hardly need any further description: yet, in this London season of 1863, we have had the old sensation over again, from the publicity of the death of a victim. The same course may he followed again, if we do not, one and all, help to prevent it. As before, we may hope that society is so shocked that it will mend its ways: and that fine ladies in particular must have endured this summer what will make them reasonable and humane: and if we repose on this notion, there may be another conspicuous tragedy in 1883 (following upon hundreds of obscure fatalities) which will once more startle the fashionable world as if some new horror had arisen in the world.

As a possible help towards getting something done, I have gathered together some suggestions of other people’s, and some observations of my own about the causes and the course of the fate of such victims as Mary Ann Walkley. Among them there may be something which will set somebody to work on one or another practical point.

It does not appear that there is any change for the better in the trading system on which the great West End millinery establishments rest. The plan of long credits has often been reprobated as abominable: but there are not many people who have any clear notion of the working of it. They have never imagined that it involved the life, health and eyesight of hundreds of milliner girls. I am glad to see that “A Collector” for a West End firm has publicly pointed attention to this evil, and courageously told who are to blame for it.

It is well known in the commercial world that the periodical or occasional failure of certain classes of West End houses involve no disgrace, and leaves no such consequences as are inevitable in simple-minded country places. These great houses suspend payment as the only means of getting in the money due to them from fine people. My lords and my ladies, and their emulators in the gay world, leave London, year after year, without paying their bills: they take no notice of accounts sent in; and further pressure would only make them withdraw their custom. When their tradespeople have exhausted their own credit, they must, of course, come to a stop: but experience has suggested to them that it is a pity to wait for this; and they fail, in order to put upon their creditors the task of collecting the payments due from their fine customers. The “Collector” declares that a man of his function goes round among customers whose bills, unpaid for three or more years, amount to ten thousand pounds, and comes back without having obtained tenpence from them all together. Milliners and dressmakers thus kept out of their money cannot be expected to conduct their business as if they obtained it regularly. They are compelled to charge very high, to make up for the increased risk of bad debts, and for the loss of the use of their own money: they must save where they can; and, in the present state of social affairs, the thing which it is easiest to cheapen is female labour. Hence the long hours of the workwomen, the crowding, the severity of the rules, and the abominable practice of affording no food on Sundays but breakfast.

With what countenance can ladies remonstrate with their milliner on her exactions from her workwomen when they owe her money—the money which would leave her some option about the terms she imposes? The “Collector” says—what is no secret in London society—that some of these fashionable debtors are the very same philanthropic persons who take the lead in benevolent enterprises, hold stalls in charity bazaars, and make themselves busy in anything but “the duty which lies nearest.”

Here, then, is a practical point. By the end of the season which has been overclouded by the inquest on Mary Ann Walkley, every shilling due from fine ladies to their tradespeople ought to be paid. The husbands and fathers of these ladies must look to it. If they have married wives, or brought up daughters, who have not head or heart enough to he careful to pay for what they buy, they—the guardians of the silly creatures—must save them from doing mischief. Let no fine lady be free to enjoy park or pleasure ground, foreign tour or home seaside, till she has satisfied her husband or father that she will leave no debts behind her. While money is owing for dress, the debtors may be pathetic on climbing boys, or wounded Poles, or Lancashire spinners, or Idiots, or Incurables, or spiritual destitution; but they cannot say a word on behalf of overworked dressmakers: and if their husbands do, the world asks whether it is in delusion or hypocrisy. When they ask the commonest question of all—“What can be done?”—the answer is plain: “One and all of you,—pay your tradesmen’s bills.”

It appears that the money can be found when credit is not in the case. The “Collector” speaks of “foreign hawkers” who sell ladies’ finery for cash, and without a licence. We country people know of no such traders, except the old-fashioned pedlars who may still be found in very remote mountain districts, and who certainly have a licence. Those whom it concerns, however, will know what is meant by complaints of these interlopers in London, and how it is that they can get paid for their wares when long-established houses are obliged to stop payment to get in their debts.

Next, we may turn to a published letter of a member of an Association formed for the protection of working milliners and dressmakers, under one of our occasional attacks of pain of mind on their behalf. It is impossible to touch on the matters of fact in this letter without exposing its weaknesses; but I will say as little of these as I can. By Lady Ellesmere’s account, the object of the Association was to prevail with the heads of millinery establishments to shorten the hours of work, to ventilate their rooms, to desist altogether from Sunday work, and, generally, to treat their workwomen well. There were subsidiary objects; but the grand point was to shorten the periods of toil. After ten years of effort or waiting, little or nothing was done, or likely to he done,—unless the diminution of Sunday work may be ascribed to the influence of these ladies. Their society has died out, for the most piteous set of reasons that the most unbusinesslike collection of women could venture to exhibit. I need not criticise them. It is enough to say that, as the event proves, these ladies had no comprehension of the depth and extent of the mischief. When they suggested palliatives and devices, the employers might well feel (though they dared not say) that they understood their own business better than their aristocratic customers could do; that the evils would not exist if they could be so easily precluded as their admonishers supposed; and that it was for no object of their own that they ran such risks with their workwomen,—the system in which they were involved leaving them, in fact, no choice.

Finding that hired helpers were said to spoil what they took in hand; that dresses were made all at once, in excessive hurry, lest the delicate material should spoil, and that ladies could not usually give timely orders, “as they could not always be certain of the number of dresses they might need,” these champions of the dressmaker have withdrawn, commending their task to——“the Legislature.” Of course! Whatever is difficult or troublesome “the legislature” is called upon to do, whether the object be within the scope of parliamentary action or not.

Here I may refer to the minor consideration of what parliament might undertake in this case.

Lord Shaftesbury has reminded the House of Lords of what was done on a former occasion; and the reply of Ministers was that the three gentlemen who constituted the former Commission had been requested now to take up the question of what could be done towards redressing or ameliorating the system under which young workwomen suffer as at present.

It is easy to see what is the utmost that can come of this. These dressmakers are not children, liable to be ground down under a manufacturing system; nor women subject to irresistible pressure in a factory district. They are voluntary applicants for one employment among many that are open to them, and are so presumably able to take care of themselves, as to have no claim on parliament to afford them special protection against being overworked. In this direction they can look for no help from law.

The one thing in which they may be aided is about the external vital conditions of their existence, in regard to which their own ignorance and that of their employers exposes them to fatal injury. When we consider how absurd it would be to call in the law to insure the women having enough food to eat, we shall see how merely temporary and provisional must be any interference on behalf of the ventilation of the rooms in which the women live. Any employer who should try to half-starve the workers would soon have empty rooms. Nobody would come and work there in hunger and faintness. The case will be the same about supply of air when employers and employed understand its necessity as well as they know the necessity of sufficient food. At present, however, both parties are shockingly ignorant of the consequences of a defective air-supply; and it is a question whether the matter may not be looked to by the Officers of Health. While the persons most concerned do not know how much fresh air they need in the room in which they pass their days, and those in which they pass their nights; while they are unaware how much more is wanted where gas is burning; and while nobody thinks of setting up an air-test, as we put up a thermometer when it is of consequence to regulate the warmth of the room or house; it may be justifiable to invite the law to overstep its proper limits, and interfere with private arrangements which people should be able to manage much better for themselves.

The letter of Mary Ann Walkley’s employer to the “Times,” shows how little notion such persons have of the needs of their workwomen in regard to air. While he is proud of 300 cubic feet, or a little over, he has no idea that the allowance of 600 cubic feet per hour for each individual in a group, once supposed sufficient for health, has grown to 1,000, and is advancing towards 1,500. What do young workwomen know of such conditions, beyond feeling ill when the air is “close,” and ready to die when it becomes poisonous? While this helpless ignorance lasts, it may be well that authorised inspectors should keep watch over milliners’ work-rooms and lodging-rooms; but there are always disappointments and drawbacks under such interferences with the private arrangements of trades and employments; and it will require much more extensive resources to bring up the condition of the young dressmaker to anything like what we should desire.

Instead of begging and beseeching of employers and their fine-lady customers to spare and favour the workwomen, the way to proceed is to take the case out of their decision altogether. Wistful dependents on the self-denial and generosity of two such classes as those of tradeswomen and their customers will never be very healthy or cheerful. They must get their case into their own hands, if they are to prosper. There are two ways in which this may come to pass,—two directions in which it may be aimed at.

There must be a sufficient limitation of numbers to enable the workers to make terms. One of the recent newspaper correspondents calls upon us to see and admit that the girls may blame themselves for their miserable fate, as they choose to go dressmaking, instead of doing something else which they consider less genteel. They might be healthy and prosperous as cooks or housemaids; there are others, some may add, who as pupil-teachers have been actually trained for a higher order of occupation: but the temptations of the dress-making are irresistible. The servant girls long to be called “Miss,” and leave off caps; and the pupil-teachers to dress fine, and enjoy the gossip of the workroom rather than the hum of the school. This may be very true; but these are not the material out of which the most suffering class of dressmakers is formed. They are the daughters of struggling tradesmen or poor gentry; or of widowed mothers; or orphans thrown on their own resources. They are of this order, in addition to the class of apprentices, regularly brought up to the work.

How to bring down the supply below the demand is the question; and the answer is that the best, and the only sure way of effecting this is by qualifying women for a greater number of occupations; and yet more, for fulfilling well those which are already open to them. I am not going to enter here on this wide subject. All I need do is to point to the obvious truth that while girls remain unfitted for occupations which require higher qualifications than needlework demands, there will always be an over proportion of needlewomen; and dressmakers, as well as slop-workers, will have to accept any terms from their employers, and will have no power to propose any of their own.

It has been found a curious speculation during the lifetime of a whole generation, what would be the upshot of the social difficulty connected with the needle. On the one hand, there has been the revolution in the popular habits of dress, caused chiefly by the uprising of the cotton manufacture; and, on the other hand, there has been an apparent over-supply of needlewomen, instead of the scarcity which might have been expected. In old times, when the working-classes wore woollen garments, as stoutly put together as our shoes are now, and seldom or never washed; and when the gentry wore costly stout linens within, and woollen or stiff silk fabrics as upper dresses, the sewing was very elaborate and precise, but it was to last for years or for life. Each person had so few garments, and they were so seldom renewed, that the amount of sewing in a household was no more than could be easily managed at home,—however exquisite and time-consuming might be the stitching, and marking, and buttonholeing, and all the rest of it. The case has been rapidly altering ever since cotton fabrics became common and cheap. We have been expressing our thankfulness, for half-a-century past, that labouring men and their wives and daughters have clothes that will wash. The frequent clean shirt and gown are a priceless blessing to the class whose forefathers and mothers wore one under-garment for years together, enduring stench, vermin, and skin diseases, such as are found now only in the darkest corners of our civilisation, but this cheap cotton clothing does not last very long. If a suit of it is six times as cheap as the old, it may last only a third of the time. This more than doubles the needlework to be done,—or would do so, if the needlework were as good as formerly. Besides this, there are so many more to work for! With three or four times as many people living on our island, wanting three times as many garments made as formerly, there would seem to be an overwhelming quantity of needlework to be done.

M. Michel Chevalier has pointed to this fact as a sure prophecy of the introduction of machinery; and others have been frightened to think what society would have to pay for the making of its dress, from the prodigious demand which must be growing up for needlework. This last expectation, however, has never yet been fulfilled. The pressure of quantity of work to be done has long been so great that the quality has become exceedingly bad. There is hardly a good needlewoman to be had on any terms; and the shirts, gowns, frocks, and waistcoats of the people generally are put together in a way which our grandparents, of any rank or degree, would not have allowed within their doors; but yet the numbers of workwomen have always been out of all proportion to the wages fund existing for their support. Apparently, there has been the singular co-existence of too much work to allow of good work, and too many workwomen to allow of their getting their bread. The deficiency was in the wages fund, evidently. Dress was cheapened; the popular habits were formed on this cheapening of dress; and while the material cost so little, the stress would be laid anywhere before the cheap clothing would be allowed to become dear by the making. But for the over-supply of workers, either the wearers of dress must have paid dear for the making, or machinery would, according to its wont, have come in to meet the difficulty. As it was, the helplessness of a multitude of starving women, who could do nothing but sew, kept down the price of sewing, and put off the introduction of machinery.

In the days when poor needlewomen swarmed most fearfully, and were most at the mercy of the general customer, through the slopseller and the middleman, there were some of us who steadily foretold the advent of the sewing-machine. I, for one, did so, many years ago, and not only for the reason assigned by M. Chevalier. The unhealthiness of an industrial operation which is of a mechanical character is as sure a promise of its suppression by machinery as the quantity of work to be done: and the act of sewing, when carried on for hours together, is more hurtful to health than is at all imagined by men (except some few doctors) or by women who have never tried the experiment. The incessant repetition of the act of drawing the needle, while the rest of the frame is unused, occasions a singular distress, muscular and nervous; and when the hours of labour grew inordinately long, so that the aching shoulders and head, and the attacks of “fidgets,” became a serious evil, it was tolerably certain that machinery would soon come in to relieve the distress. So it was said, by others besides myself, twenty years ago and more. We have the Sewing-machine accordingly.

The usual opposition to new labour-saving machinery was expected in this case: and we have seen something of it: but it has been much less than was at all anticipated. We were threatened with our homes and property being stormed by multitudes of desperate women, demanding of Government the banishment of the sewing-machine, and needlework and pay enough for every woman who needed it. Instead of this, there have been a few strikes in the shoe trade,—short and manageable; and many alarms and tears among the helpless women, who could do nothing but cry about their bread being taken out of their mouths. It was clear to all persons whose humanity was worth anything that nothing could be done for this wretched class in the way of their occupation; and that nothing must be attempted which could postpone the advantage derivable by others from the sewing-machine. Even if the poor needlewomen had to go en masse to the workhouse, this was a less evil than trying to keep them out of it as bad needle-workers in conflict with a good one, which was sure of victory from the beginning. It was certain that, according to all precedent, the machine would, sooner or later, employ more workers than it had at first superseded; and, in the interval, the women who were driven out must be helped to other occupations, or enabled to emigrate, or otherwise kept from starvation.

The merest mention of the money-saving to any country by the sewing-machine suffices to show the absurdity of any resistance to its use. In the United States, five years since, the annual money-value of the necessary sewing which could be done by the machine was estimated at 58,000,000l. On the clothing of men and boys the saving at that time made in the city of New York alone was a million and a half (not dollars, but pounds sterling) annually; and Massachusetts saved as much on her great manufacture of shoes and boots. Besides creating new branches of manufacture, the machine had revolutionised forty already existing. This is not an invention which can be opposed or neglected.

One of the industrial branches which it is clearly destined to revolutionise is that of making ladies’ dresses; and it seems to me that Mary Ann Walkley’s dying bequest to society, and to every one of us in it, is the duty of seeing the condition of the dressmaker ameliorated by the due application of this most effectual means.

I know the objections well enough: but they go for little with those who will look into them. The sewing-machine is in use. It is all very well in the tailor’s or shoe-maker’s work-room; but it is not the thing for ladies’ gauzes, and trimmings, and niceties of all sorts. It is objectionable in the same way as extra hands are—the new hand spoils everything she attempts to do for a fortnight at least. It will only do seams, hems and the like; and it is too costly an apparatus for doing what is mere apprentices’ work. The oil may spot the fine materials of dress; and so forth.

The answers are, that the machine is not by any means in common use, as the first objection says. One may be seen here and there in a dressmaker’s room; but much too seldom; and its use is not half developed. There is no reason why it should not act upon gauze as well as upon cloth or leather. I have myself seen the finest cambric beautifully stitched by it; and if any difficulty is found, it is by want of skill in the worker. The same is the answer about the oil-spots. Such soil would be a disgrace to the worker, that is all: and this reminds me of the complaint, now so frequent, and to my mind so pathetic, for which the machine is the obvious remedy,—that the delicate colours and textures of fine dresses are apt to be injured by the hot hands of the needlewomen. Not the cause of the hot hands to the workwomen, but the effect of them to the customer or the employer, is the subject of solicitude. The steel plate of the machine is cool enough; and if it and the needle are oily, the disgrace is the same as dirty hands would be to the human instrument.

As for the waste caused by novices, it surely cannot compare for a moment with the saving of their time even during the first few weeks after they have become qualified workers. I have watched the process of learning the use of the machine, from printed instructions only; and my testimony is that the chief mischief is from the breaking of the needles, the cost of which any reasonable employer would be ashamed to complain of on an occasion which will not recur. The use of old or valueless material for practice is so evidently proper, that there is no use in talking of waste in that direction. The damage by a new hand is, in fact, the loss of about a fortnight’s sewing, and the spoiling of ten or a dozen needles at the most; and this is the price for saving a hundredfold afterwards in time and money. It is not true now, however it may have been till lately, that the machine will achieve nothing higher than joins and hems. It will also embroider, and it will flounce; it will quilt and it will quill; it will turn out gathers, and ruches, and plenty of other things that my lady readers can explain to curious inquirers. Instead of doing mere apprentices’ work, the machine deserves the character of mingled power and refinement. It emulates the elephant’s trunk. Where that tears up a tree or picks up a pin, this can undertake any task, from George Fox’s leathern suit to a royal infant’s christening robe.

This machine is apparently to be the saviour of the dressmakers and milliners. Already there is seen, where it is in actual and adequate use, a diminution of the crowding, and therefore of heat and suffocation. It affords a comparatively grateful exercise to the muscles, and saves a vast tension on the nerves. It is not exactly true, as a romantic advocate has said, that the work is done by a graceful laying of the hands on the plate; for the foot must work the treadle: and there is something for the eye to do also; but the stooping is saved, and the not less pernicious repetition of the act of drawing the needle. In short, the whole mechanical part of the process is done for, instead of by, the worker—with the exception of the treadle action, which is in no way hurtful.

I do not suppose that much can be done by express recommendation of the machine by customers to the great dressmakers, any more than has been done yet by such efforts as Lady Ellesmere describes as unavailing. The comfort lies in the hope that the employers must soon find it to be their interest to set up machines which will not wear out, or subject their mistresses to the annoyance of coroners’ inquests, and reprobation through the newspapers.

What may be done, without vexatious and questionable interference, is easily told. Every lady who causes a young dressmaker to be duly instructed in the use of the machine at once gives her testimony in aid of that remedy, and qualifies a workwoman to command some sort of terms, if not instantly, as soon as the use of the implement becomes indispensable. In the first rate establishments of our largest provincial towns, young women take higher ground than in London, because they are not so many as to leave all the power in the employer’s hands. They can guard against the long hours which are so fearful an evil; and, in fact, will not go to work before nine, nor stay after eight,—except on occasions of mourning, or something unusual; and they require from one to two hours for dinner when, as they often prefer, they go home for dinner, as well as to sleep. A well-qualified dressmaker by machinery,—turning out four times as much work per hour as she could as a mere needlewoman,—might, doubtless, make her own bargain in much the same way in London. I am sure I hope some will be enabled to try. Further, Lady Ellesmere’s difficulty about the crowding of the work at last may be obviated by the customer not only giving the commission for her dress, but ordering it home also in ample time. It seems too like trifling on a serious subject even to say this much.

There should be others than customers to look into the ease of the workers. Are there no relatives or friends who will ascertain whether the air is fit to be breathed, and who will forbid overlong hours? Hitherto such a question would have been a dismal mockery. Let us hope that the time is at hand when it will not be;—when there will be some sort of appeal open against abuses, and when the injured party may have spirit and ability to regard that appeal as a practical matter. It would be an excellent thing if the great fund of time saved by the sewing-machine were to be drawn upon first for enabling the workwomen to live with their families, or in some other home than the establishment itself,—thereby securing a certain amount of exercise and change of air and objects every day,—besides redeeming the Sundays from the dreariness, peril, and desecration described by inmates who are turned out after breakfast, and allowed nothing to eat in the establishment till next morning.

Once more I must say that the employer must be considered also, and not expected to make sacrifices for the health and comfort of her dependents, while she herself is in such cruel dependence on her customers as really leaves her no choice but to get what she can out of her workwomen at the smallest cost. Great people must not lock up her capital first, and then lecture her as if she had the use of it. It is a dreadful system, from end to end: and Mary Ann Walkley has brought the fact home to us, thereby leaving us a legacy which we cannot decline without gross hypocrisy;—namely, the work of retrieving the condition of the London dressmaker, not by further trial of sentimental appeals, but by guiding and furthering, as good sense and good feeling may usually do, those reforms which economical causes alone would sooner or later effect.

From the Mountain.