White slavery in London
From: Issue no. 21 (Saturday, 23 June, 1888)
AT a meeting of the Fabian Society held on June 15th, the following resolution was moved by H. H. Champion, seconded by Herbert Burrows, and carried nem. con. after a brief discussion:
"That this meeting, being aware that the shareholders of Bryant and May are receiving a dividend of over 20 per cent., and at the same time are paying their workers only 2¼d. per gross for making match-boxes, pledges itself not to use or purchase any matches made by this firm."
In consequence of some statements made in course of the discussion, I resolved to personally investigate their accuracy, and accordingly betook myself to Bromley to interview some of Bryant and May's employees, and thus obtain information at first hand. The following is the outcome of my enquiries:
Bryant and May, now a limited liability company, paid last year a dividend of 23 per cent. to its shareholders; two years ago it paid a dividend of 25 per cent., and the original £5 shares were then quoted for sale at £18 7s. 6d. The highest dividend paid has been 38 per cent.
Let us see how the money is made with which these monstrous dividends are paid. [The figures quoted were all taken down by myself, in the presence of three witnesses, from persons who had themselves been in the prison-house whose secrets they disclosed.]
The hour for commencing work is 6.30 in summer and 8 in winter; work concludes at 6 p.m. Half-an-hour is allowed for breakfast and an hour for dinner. This long day of work is performed by young girls, who have to stand the whole of the time. A typical case is that of a girl of 16, a piece-worker; she earns 4s. a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who "earns good money, as much as 8s. or 9s. per week". Out of the earnings 2s. is paid for the rent of one room; the child lives on only bread-and-butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where "you get coffee, and bread and butter, and jam, and marmalade, and lots of it"; now and then she goes to the Paragon, someone "stands treat, you know", and that appeared to be the solitary bit of color in her life. The splendid salary of 4s. is subject to deductions in the shape of fines; if the feet are dirty, or the ground under the bench is left untidy, a fine of 3d. is inflicted; for putting "burnts" - matches that have caught fire during the work - on the bench 1s. has been forfeited, and one unhappy girl was once fined 2s. 6d for some unknown crime. If a girl leaves four or five matches on her bench when she goes for a fresh "frame" she is fined 3d., and in some departments a fine of 3d. is inflicted for talking. If a girl is late she is shut out for "half the day", that is for the morning six hours, and 5d. is deducted out of her day's 8d. One girl was fined 1s. for letting the web twist round a machine in the endeavor to save her fingers from being cut, and was sharply told to take care of the machine, "never mind your fingers". Another, who carried out the instructions and lost a finger thereby, was left unsupported while she was helpless. The wage covers the duty of submitting to an occasional blow from a foreman; one, who appears to be a gentleman of variable temper, "clouts" them "when he is mad".
One department of the work consists in taking matches out of a frame and putting them into boxes; about three frames can be done in an hour, and ½d. is paid for each frame emptied; only one frame is given out at a time, and the girls have to run downstairs and upstairs each time to fetch the frame, thus much increasing their fatigue. One of the delights of the frame work is the accidental firing of the matches: when this happens the worker loses the work, and if the frame is injured she is fined or "sacked". 5s. a week had been earned at this by one girl I talked to.
The "fillers" get ¾d. a gross for filling boxes; at "boxing," i.e. wrapping papers round the boxes, they can earn from 4s. 6d. to 5s. a week. A very rapid "filler" has been known to earn once "as much as 9s." in a week, and 6s. a week "sometimes". The making of boxes is not done in the factory; for these 2¼d. a gross is paid to people who work in their own homes, and "find your own paste". Daywork is a little better paid than piecework, and is done chiefly by married women, who earn as much sometimes as 10s. a week, the piecework falling to the girls. Four women day workers, spoken of with reverent awe, earn - 13s. a week.
A very bitter memory survives in the factory. Mr. Theodore Bryant, to show his admiration of Mr. Gladstone and the greatness of his own public spirit, bethought him to erect a statue to that eminent statesman. In order that his workgirls might have the privilege of contributing, he stopped 1s. each out of their wages, and further deprived them of half-a-day's work by closing the factory, "giving them a holiday". ("We don't want no holidays", said one of the girls pathetically, for - needless to say - the poorer employees of such a firm lose their wages when a holiday is "given".) So furious were the girls at this cruel plundering, that many went to the unveiling of the statue with stones and bricks in their pockets, and I was conscious of a wish that some of those bricks had made an impression on Mr. Bryant's - conscience. Later they surrounded the statue - "we paid for it" they cried savagely - shouting and yelling, and a gruesome story is told that some cut their arms and let their blood trickle on the marble paid for, in very truth, by their blood. There seems to be a curious feeling that the nominal wages are 1s. higher than the money paid, but that 1s. a week is still kept back to pay for the statue and for a fountain erected by the same Mr. Bryant. This, however, appears to me to be only of the nature of a pious opinion.
Such is a bald account of one form of white slavery as it exists in London. With chattel slaves Mr. Bryant could not have made his huge fortune, for he could not have fed, clothed, and housed them for 4s. a week each, and they would have had a definite money value which would have served as a protection. But who cares for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent., and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks? Oh if we had but a people's Dante, to make a special circle in the Inferno for those who live on this misery, and suck wealth out of the starvation of helpless girls.
Failing a poet to hold up their conduct to the execration of posterity, enshrined in deathless verse, let us strive to touch their consciences, i.e. their pockets, and let us at least avoid being "partakers of their sins", by abstaining from using their commodities.
Messrs. Bryant and May
From: Issue no. 22 (Saturday, 30 June, 1888), p.2
I was called out of a meeting against the sweating system on Wednesday night, by a workman friend of mine, who came to me from Bow with the news that Bryant and May's factory was in a state of commotion, and the girls were being bullied to find out who had given me the information printed last week. Cowards that they are! why not at once sue me for libel and disprove my statements in open court if they can, instead of threatening to throw these children out into the streets? But they hope thus to terrorise the girls from giving evidence, and so prevent their treatment of them from leaking out. They will not succeed in their despicable policy, for work will be found for the girls they "sack", and dismissal thus robbed of its terrors. On Wednesday Mr. Conybeare, M.P., gave me £1, a member of the Merchant Tailors Company 10s., another sympathiser 10s., and I had other promises of support, in defending any victims of Bryant and May, and carrying on the war. A big meeting to protest against the White Slavery will be called.
How Messrs. Bryant and May fight.
From: Issue no. 23 (Saturday, 7 July, 1888), p.3
No sign of the "legal attention" announced in such hot haste by Mr. Theodore Bryant last week has yet reached me, but Messrs. Bryant and May have not been idle. They apparently shirk the straightforward course of prosecuting me for libel, knowing full well that my statements are true and can be proved up to the hilt, and they fear the publicity that such a suit would give to their shameful treatment of the helpless girls they employ. Determined, however, to revenge themselves for the exposure of their iniquities, they have fallen on the girls themselves, selecting as victims three. In order to make the punishment of these as heavy as possible, they did not dismiss them at once, but kept them on for a week making their work very slack, and finally discharged one of the me with 2s. 8d. for her week's wages, promising a second 3s. 6d., and a third 1s. 8d. These wages are to pay for food and rent for the week. it is hard to understand what kind of non-human beings they can be who can put into a woman-child's hand 1s. 8d. as the price of her week's labor, and then bid her go forth workless into the cruel streets. How can a man do this thing, and go home to his comfortable house, and perhaps to wife and child? What if his daughter hereafter should receive similar treatment at the hands of a man like himself? Or what if these trampled ones at last should revolt against their tyrants, and in some wild hour of popular fury pay back such mercy as they have received? Men speak of "the furies of the Revolution" with horror and laothing; but who dare judge harshly if such seed as Bryant and May are a-sowing yield similar harvest, and if the maddened poor are pitiless to these who have been pitiless to them?
One point has so far been gained. The Factory Inspector has visited Messrs. Bryant and May's factory, and the system of fines is put an end to. In this case, as at Woolwich, Mr. Bradlaugh's Truck Act is proving an invaluable weapon against the petty oppressors of the poor, and the wisdom of the provision which throws the duty of enforcing it on the Factory Inspector is being proved.
Of course, the girls chosen as the victims of Messrs. Bryant and May's wrath must be saved from the doom to which he consigned them. Some decent people will be found to sympathise, and to provide until they are again in work the 18s. a week which covers the wages of the three dismissed girls. In addition to the sums acknowledged last week, I have received up to July 4th: Miss Mussell, 5s. ; A Metropolitan M.P., £1; James Tims, 10s.; Mrs. Sarah Gostling, 10s.; per Mrs. Gostling, 2s.; A. J. L. and A. T. S., 1s.; A. G. chapman, £1; Mrs. Samson, 5s.
The following paragraph has appeared in the East London Observer:
"BRYANT AND MAY'S GIRLS. - ARE THEY SWEATED?
"An interesting action is likely to occupy the attention of the Law Courts shortly. A week or so ago, under the heading of 'White Slavery in London', Mrs. Annie Besant published in the Link a scathing article regarding the conditions under which, as she alleged, work was carried on by the girls employed in the large match factory of Messrs. Bryant and May, at Bow. The article proceeded to denounce the action of the partners in the firm in the matter, and challenged a denial. The article was brought under the notice of Mr. Theodore Bryant, who immediately telegraphed to Mrs. Besant, stating that the article would receive legal attention. We understand that Mr. Bryant has been advised by his solicitors that the article affords good ground for an action for libel, and Mrs. Besant still standing by her statements, no alternative remains now but for the question to be fought out in the Law Courts."
Mrs. Besant has a bad habit of "standing by her statements", and is fairly careful to verify them before she makes them. The Pall Mall Gazette, Star, and Echo printed on July 3rd the following appeal:
"SIR, - In the Link of June 23rd there was an article by Annie Besant entitled 'White Slavery in London', containing statements as to the amount of wages which Messrs. Bryant and May, the matchmakers, pay to their work girls. The statements were given by some of the girls, and three on whom suspicion has fallen have been discharged. We pledged our word to the girls that if any of them were discharged in consequence of the statements made by them their wages should be paid till they could find other work. The amount required is about 18s. per week for the three, and we appeal to those of your readers who can afford to help to pay this sum to send any subscriptions, however small, to Annie Besant, 34, Bouverie Street, Fleet Street, E.C. We have received £1 from Mr. Conybeare, M.P., 10s. from another M.P., 10s. from a member of the Merchant Taylors' Company, and 5s. from Miss Mussell. A meeting of protest against Messrs. Bryant and May's action with regard to these poor girls will shortly be called in the East-end. - Faithfully yours,
"July 2nd.""ANNIE BESANT
The following letter appeared in the Star of July 4th:
"Sir, - A letter appears in your issue of the 3rd inst. in which the writers ask for contributions from the public for the maintenance of three girls stated to have been discharged from our factories in consequence of their having given some information which formed the basis of a letter published in a weekly paper on the 23rd ult. We desire to state that since that date only one girl has been dismissed from the company's service, and in that case the dismissal had no connexion whatever with the cause your correspondents suggest. - Yours, etc.
"WM. CARKEET, Secretary
(for Bryant and May, Limited)."
In answer to this the following was sent to the Star:
"Sir, - We can scarcely expect you to permit your columns to be turned into a tilting ground between Messrs. Bryant and May and ourselves. We cannot even state the facts which prove the falsity of Mr. Carkeet's statement without exposing you to the danger of an action for libel. We must therefore content ourselves with saying that our original statement was absolutely true, and that we have already made up to the three girls who gave us the information on which that statement was based the wages of which they were deprived last week. If, as Mr. Carkeet says, the one dismissal which he admits had nothing to do 'with the cause your correspondents suggest', it is a most extraordinary coincidence that the 'one girl' discharged was also the 'one girl' who gave us most of the information. It is perhaps even more extraordinary that the language used in dismissing her - though doubtless Mr. Carkeet was, when he wrote, ignorant of this - contained a reference to the article written by Annie Besant.
"We are prepared to defend in a court of justice every statement we have made, and if Mr. Theodore Bryant carries out his loudly expressed intention to take legal action, the public will be able to judge on which side of the quarrel the right lies.
"July 2nd.""ANNIE BESANT
The facts of the case are perfectly simple. On Wednesday the three girls went crying to the friend at Bromley who is good enough to act for me, saying they had "got the sack". He brought them to Mile End to see me, and I promised them they should not be left unsupported, but urged them togo back and try and get the wages due to them. During the week they had been kept short of work, and on the Saturday one of the was given 2s. 8d. for her week's labor, and with a sneering quotaton from my article wa bidden not to show her face in the factory again. The other two were ordered to call for their ages on Monday, one having hers fixed at 3s. 6d. and the other at 1s. 8d. for the week. My friend made up on Saturday to them the wages usually earned, as they owed for rent and food, and were penniless. One of these girls was taken back to work on the Monday, the other was put off - still without her wages - till the Wednesday, and at the time of writing I do not know whether or not she has been reinstated. It is probable that the commotion raised has made Messrs. Bryant and may feel that they had better try to undo some of the wrong inflicted.
Their last device is to force the girls to sign a paper that they are satisfied with their position. The public will estimate the value of such a production, extorted from the helpless. I have received a most touching letter on it from some of the girls.
I am asked "whether boycotting Bryant and May will not do an injury to the work-girls themselves by decreasing the manufacture". No; people must have matches, and if they buy them from a firm that pays decent wages, and so increase the demand for their goods, the effect of their action will be to drift the girls into the employment of the more respectable firm. The total demand for matches will not be lessened; it will only be shifted one firm to another.
A meeting of protest against the tyranny of Messrs. Bryant and May will be held on July 22nd, at 11.30 a.m., on Mile End Waste.
C. A. V. Conybeare, M.P., R. Cunninghame Grahame, M.P., Herbert Burrows, John Burns, and Annie Besant, will be among the speakers.
I have received from "O K." 10s. to aid in the gratuitious circlulation [sic] of the LINK to expose the way in which the Bryant and May business is conducted.
|SUBSCRIPTIONS RECEIVED UP TO JULY 4TH.|
|Charlton Liberal Club||0||5||0|
|P. Z. Round||0||5||0|
|A. E. Gough||0||3||0|
|W. Hunt and friends (weekly)||0||2||6|
|T. C. Iland||0||1||0|