The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 14
CONDITION OF FEMALE OPERATIVES.
At a meeting recently held in Bradford, in Yorkshire, to take into consideration the deplorable condition of 12,000 female factory operatives employed in that town, mention was made of the high moral and social condition of the female operatives of Lowell. The speakers strongly urged the necessity of a like state of things being brought about among the female operatives of England. However desirable this object may be, however praiseworthy the motives and exertions of those benevolent individuals by whom the movement has been commenced, still I feel convinced, and that conviction is founded upon a life of practical knowledge, that the object sought is beyond their power to obtain. Much good, it is true, may be the result of their endeavors to ameliorate the condition of my unhappy countrywomen, and so far it is desirable to proceed; but the full measure of their wishes it is all but impossible to gain; at least, so long as the government of the country remains as at present.
It may be asked, why it is next to impossible. I will endeavor to show. Let us suppose one case, which will serve our present purpose. It is truly said, that the female operatives of Lowell are the daughters of farmers in comfortable circumstances; it is also well known, that those of Bradford are the daughters of poor people. Suppose, then, two single men, in the full vigor and prime of life, whom we will call Mr. Lowell and Mr. Bradford; the one being in New England, the other in Old England; but in every other respect, similarly circumstanced in life, should at one and the same time take it into their heads to marry. In doing so, we will suppose that they are actuated by the purest principles, and fully determined to do every thing in their power to make their respective families comfortable and happy. Let us also suppose, that after a certain time, each of the brides bring their happy husbands a daughter, and after other periods of time, a second, and a third. What effect will this repeated addition have upon the two families? Upon that of Mr. Lowell the effect will be trifling, so far as financial matters go. The increase of family will probably have stimulated him to increased exertion and economy, and with the great facilities, always at hand in New England, he may have become, by the time his eldest daughter arrives at the age of four years, "a farmer in comfortable circumstances."
Upon that of Mr. Bradford the effect will be very different, for he will not only have to provide increased food, clothing, lodging, &c., but for extra taxation, which every child will bring upon him, from the hour of its birth. So that by the time Mr. Lowell has become a respectable farmer in comfortable circumstances, Mr. Bradford, all his exertions to the contrary notwithstanding, will have become "a very poor man."
Look there, reader, at little Miss Lowell, plump and active, full of life and vigor, neat as a new made pin, about to be introduced to the primary school. In this school she will remain several years, surrounded by all the beneficial influences that can be brought to bear upon her character, and this, too, without any expense to her parents, beyond the purchase of a few books. After she has finished at the primary, she will be taken to a second, and afterwards, if it be thought necessary, to a finishing school. We will now suppose she has arrived at the age of fifteen, and if she has made good use of her time and privileges, she will be in possession of a fund of useful knowledge, calculated to smooth her path through time and eternity.
Let us now turn to poor Miss Bradford, for her parents have become poor; consequently she must be poor, too. See how the little timid thing creeps along, as if she felt afraid to look a person in the face. One might almost think her looks said, I could eat a buttered cake if I could get it. And though neat and clean, it is easy to see that her thin, spare clothing, is far from being sufficient to protect her from the wet and cold. Let us ask her a few questions. Pray, where are you going, my little dear?
"I am going to find old Betty."
Who is old Betty?
"The woman who minds our house while father and mother go to the factory."
And has she gone and left you?
" Yes, and little sister and baby are both crying."
By this time old Betty returns, drags her into the house, and scolds her for leaving the children. This sort of life continues till Miss B. is six years of age, when it is concluded to discharge old Betty, on the score of economy, and leave the younger children in the charge of Miss B., getting a neighbor to look in upon them occasionally.
At nine, Miss B. is taken into the factory, having obtained a certificate from a surgeon for that purpose. In this school she is surrounded from the first hour by influences of the worst description; and if she escapes contamination, it may be looked upon almost as a miracle.
At fifteen, (the age at which we left Miss Lowell,) she will have had six years of factory life, and may be said to be well skilled, not only in her daily toil, but also in much of the vice and immorality of her elder companions.
Let us now suppose that Miss Lowell takes it into her head to go into the factories, for the purpose of "providing herself with a marriage dowry."
She enters her name, and is received as a rational and accountable being, having a soul to be lost or saved. Full provision is made in every way for her temporal and spiritual welfare. She is provided with every thing she needs to make her comfortable, and receives good wages besides. It is on these, and only these conditions that she consents to go, and why? Because she need not go to work unless she and her parents are so disposed.
In a few years she realizes the object of her wishes, saves a few hundred dollars, quits the factories, and gets married.
Miss Bradford, on the other hand, does not enter the factories from choice, but necessity; she has no voice in making conditions, but must submit to such as are offered. She is not looked upon by her master as an intellectual being, but as an animal machine. No provision is made for her temporal or spiritual welfare, as these are matters which most manufacturers trouble themselves very little about.
The small pittance she receives as wages is sometimes paid in money, sometimes partly in money, and the rest in goods. With these wages she has to provide clothes, board, lodging and washing, and also pay her taxes to Government.
It is a well known fact that the Government of England requires 5,000,000 dollars weekly, in order to enable them to pay off the interest of the National Debt, and carry on their Government. In order to raise this enormous demand, every man, woman and child, must pay a part; it matters not whether they earn twenty cents, twenty shillings, or twenty dollars a week; a part of it must be given up to Government.
Taking these things into consideration, it is no wonder if Miss B. should find herself at the close of the year as poor as at the beginning. Neither is it surprising to find her under the painful necessity of following her occupation till her strength fails, and she is turned off just the same as a machine of wood and iron, to be replaced with some new comer.
It must not be supposed that my object in writing this, is to endeavor to reduce the Lowell females to a level with those of Bradford, and elsewhere. God forbid that any such base and unworthy motive should enter the mind of any man, much less one who has been such a great sufferer by the system he is describing. My object is simply to show the condition of my countrywomen, and the insufficiency of the means about to be employed by a few benevolent persons to effect a radical change in their condition. Before any permanent good can be done, it will be necessary to pay off, or in some way erase from the statute book their enormous National Debt; reduce the extravagant expenditures of the Government; and give to the working man a voice in making the laws by which he is governed. These and other reforms are needed. They are the chief cause of the evils complained of. Remove the cause, and the effects will cease.
The effects of factory labor on females are in part illustrated by the following anecdote, related to me by a respectable linen and woolen draper of Ashton-under-lyne, with whom I had the pleasure of dining.
"A poor woman came into my shop," said he, "one Saturday night in September last, (1841) for the purpose of purchasing some small article. She had a child about twelve months old in her arms, which she set upon the counter, with its back against a pile of goods, in order that she might have her hands at liberty to examine the article she wanted. The child was not noticed by the shopmen till it became troublesome; and being Saturday night, and a great many women in the shop, I asked whose child it was, but none of the women present would take to it. A thought instantly struck me that some one had been playing the trick of child-dropping with me; however, as we were busy, I ordered the child to be brought into my parlor, and laid upon the sofa, upon which you are now sitting, where it soon fell fast asleep. About an hour afterwards, a woman came into the shop in great haste, and inquired if she had left a child there. She was brought into the parlor to see if the one lying asleep on the sofa was hers. As soon as she saw it, she cried out, ' Yes; bless thee, it is thee! ' She was then asked, how she came to leave it, and by what means she had discovered her loss. To which she answered, f That while attending to the purchase she had been making, she had quite forgotten her child. That she had been through the market, and in many other shops, and had bought all the things she wanted, but never once found out her loss till she got home, and was asked by her husband where she had left the child. To which, she said, Why, the child is up stairs asleep in bed, to be sure. But, being convinced to the contrary, and that she had taken it out with her, she began to think where she had left it. There was then no alternative but going round to every shop at which she had called; and, at last, she came to the right one.' She had left the child in the same manner as people sometimes forget their umbrellas, or a paper parcel. So you may judge," said the draper to me, "what is the effect of the system of factory labor upon these poor people and their offspring!"
I was not surprised to hear this account, well knowing, as I did, that the mothers only see their infants at morning, noon and night, except they are brought to the factory to be suckled in some other part of the day; and that for the most part, the children are in the care of strangers.
- In the history of Bradford, lately published by John James, it is stated that five sixths of the persons employed in the factories of this town and neighborhood, are females.