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Cheap Clothes and Nasty

Charles Kingsley, 1850

You are always calling out for facts, and have a firm belief in salvation by statistics. Listen to a few.

The Metropolitan Commissioner of the Morning Chronicle called two meetings of the Working Tailors, one in Shadwell, and the other at the Hanover Square Rooms, in order to ascertain their condition from their own lips. Both meetings were crowded. At the Hanover Square Rooms there were more than one thousand men; they were altogether unanimous in their descriptions of the misery and slavery which they endured. It appears that there are two distinct tailor trades the 'honourable' trade, now almost confined to the West End, and rapidly dying out there, and the 'dishonourable' trade of the show shops and slop shops - the plate glass palaces, where gents - and, alas! those who would be indignant at that name - buy their cheap-and-nasty clothes. The two names are the tailors' own slang; slang is true and expressive enough, though, now and then. The honourable shops in the West End number only sixty; the dishonourable, four hundred and more; while at the East End the dishonourable trade has it all its own way. The honourable part of the trade is declining at the rate of one hundred and fifty journeymen per year; the dishonourable increasing at such a rate that, in twenty years, it will have absorbed the whole tailoring trade, which employs upwards of twenty one thousand journeymen. At the honourable shops, the work is done, as it was universally thirty years ago, on the premises and at good wages. In the dishonourable trade, the work is taken home by the men, to be done at the very lowest possible prices, which decrease year by year, almost month by month. At the honourable shops, from 36s. to 24s. is paid for a piece of work for which the dishonourable shop pays from 22s. to 9s. But not to the workmen; happy is he if he really gets two-thirds, or half of that. For at the honourable shops, the master deals directly with his workmen; while at the dishonourable ones, the greater part of the work, if not the whole, is let out to contractors, or middle men - "sweaters", as their victims significantly call them - who, in their turn, let it out again, sometimes to the workmen, sometimes to fresh middlemen; so that out of the price paid for labour on each article, not only the workmen, but the sweater, and perhaps the sweater's sweater, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, have to draw their profit. And when the labour price has been already beaten down to the lowest possible, how much remains for the workmen after all these deductions, let the poor fellows themselves say!

"Bubbles" - a contemporary comment on sweat shops. Punch, 1845.

One working tailor (at the Hanover Square Rooms meeting) 'mentioned a number of shops, both at the east and west ends, whose work was all taken by sweaters; and several of these shops were under royal and noble patronage. There was one notorious sweater who kept his carriage. He was a Jew, and, of course, he gave a preference to his own sect. Thus, another Jew received it from him second hand and at a lower rate; then it went to a third - till it came to the unfortunate Christian at perhaps the eighth rate, and he performed the work at barely living prices; this same Jew required a deposit of £5 in money before he would give out a single garment to be made. He need not describe the misery which this system entailed upon the workmen. It was well known; but it was almost impossible, except for those who had been at the two, to form an idea of the difference between the present meeting and one at the East end, where all who attended worked for slop shops and sweaters. The present was a highly respectable assembly; the other presented no other appearance but those of misery and degradation!

Another says - 'We have all worked in the honourable trade, so we know the regular prices from our own personal experience. Taking the bad work with the good work, we might earn 11s. a week upon an average. Sometimes we do earn as much as 15s.; but, to do this, we are obliged to take part of our work home to our wives and daughters. We are not always fully employed. We are nearly half our time idle. Hence, our earnings are, upon an average throughout the year, not more than 5s. 6d. a week.' 'Very often I have made only 3s. 4d. in the week,' said one. 'That's common enough with us all, I can assure you', said another. 'Last week my wages was 7s. 6d.,' declared one. 'I earned 6s. 4d.' exclaimed the second. 'My wages came to 9s. 2d. The week before I got 6s. 3d.' 'I made 7s. 9d,' and 'I 7s. or 8s., I can't exactly remember which.' 'This is what we term the best part of our winter season. The reason why we are so long idle is because more hands than are wanted are kept on the premises, so that in case of a press of work coming in, our employers can have it done immediately. Under the day work system no master tailor had more men on the premises than he could keep continually going; but since the change to the piece work system, masters made a practice of engaging double the quantity of hands that they have any need for, so that an order may be executed "at the shortest possible notice," if requisite. A man must not leave the premises when unemployed, - if he does, he loses his chance of work coming in. I have been there four days together, and had not a stitch of work to do.' 'Yes; that is common enough.' 'Ay, and then you're told if you complain, you can go, if you don't like it. I am sure twelve hands would do all they have done at home, and yet they keep forty of us. Its generally remarked, that however strong and healthy a man may be when he goes to work at that shop, in a month's time he'll be a complete shadow, and have almost all his clothes in pawn. By Sunday morning, he has no money at all left, and he has to subsist till the following Saturday upon about a pint of weak tea, and four slices of bread and butter per day!!!

'Another of the reasons for the sweaters keeping more hands than they want is, the men generally have their meals with them. The more men they have with them the more breakfasts and teas they supply, and the more profit they make. The men usually have to pay 4d., and very often 5d. for their breakfast, and the same for their tea. The tea or breakfast is mostly a pint of tea or coffee, and three to four slices of bread and butter. I worked for one sweater who almost starved the men; the smallest eater there would not have had enough if he had got three times as much. They had only three thin slices of bread and butter, not sufficient for a child, and the tea was both weak and bad. The whole meal could not have stood him in 2d. a head, and what made it worse was, that the men who worked there couldn't afford to have dinners, so that they were starved to the bone. The sweater's men generally lodge where they work. A sweater usually keeps about six men. These occupy two small garrets; one room is called the kitchen, and the other the workshop; and here the whole of the six men, and the sweater, his wife, and family, live and sleep. One sweater I worked with had four children and six men, and they, together with his wife, sister in law, and himself, all lived in two rooms, the largest of which was about eight feet by ten. We worked in the smallest room, and slept there as well - all six of us. There were two turn up beds in it, and we slept three in a bed. There was no chimney, and, indeed, no ventilation whatever. I was near losing my life there the foul air of so many people working all day in the place, and sleeping there at night, was quite suffocating. Almost all the men were consumptive, and I myself attended the dispensary for disease of the lungs. The room in which we all slept was not more than six feet square. We were all sick and weak, and loth to work. Each of the six of us paid 2s. 6d. a week for our lodging, or 15s. altogether, and I am sure such a room as we slept and worked in might be had for 1s. a week; you can get a room with a fire place for 1s. 6d. The usual sum that the men working for sweaters pay for their tea, breakfasts, and lodging is 6s. 6d. to 7s. a week,. and they seldom earn more money in the week. Occasionally at the week's end, they are in debt to the sweater. This is seldom for more than 6d. for the sweater will not give them victuals if he has no work for them to do. Many who live and work at the sweater's are married men, and are obliged to keep their wives and children in lodgings by themselves. Some send them to the workhouse, others to their friends in the country. Besides the profit of the board and lodging, the sweater takes 6d. out of the price paid for every garment under 10s.; some take 1s., and I do know of one who takes as much as 2s. This man works for a large show shop at the West End. The usual profit of the sweater, over and above the board and lodging, is 2s. out of every pound. Those who work for sweaters soon lose their clothes, and are unable to seek for other work, because they have not a coat to their back to go and seek it in. Last week, I worked with another man at a coat for one of her Majesty's ministers, and my partner never broke his fast while he was making his half of it. The minister dealt at a cheap West end show shop. All the workman had the whole day and a half he was making the coat was a little tea. But sweaters' work is not so bad as government work after all. At that, we cannot make more than 4s. or 5s. a week altogether that is, counting the time we are running after it, of course. Government contract work is the worst of all, and the starved out and sweated out tailor's last resource. But still, government does not do the regular trade so much harm as the cheap show and slop shops. These houses have ruined thousands. They have cut down the prices, so that men cannot live at the work; and the masters who did and would pay better wages, are reducing the workmen's pay every day. They say they must either compete with the large show shops or go into the Gazette.'

Sweet competition! Heavenly maid! - Now a days hymned alike by penny-a-liners and philosophers as the ground of all society the only real preserver of the earth! Why not of Heaven, too? Perhaps there is competition among the angels, and Gabriel and Raphael have won their rank by doing the maximum of worship on the minimum of grace? We shall know some day. In the meanwhile, 'these are thy works, thou Parent of all good!' Man eating man, eaten by man, in every variety of degree and method! Why does not some enthusiastic political economist write an epic on 'The Consecration of Cannibalism?'

But if any one finds it pleasant to his soul to believe the poor journeymen's statements exaggerated, let him listen to one of the sweaters themselves: -

'I wish,' says he, 'that others did for the men as decently as I do. I know there are many who are living entirely upon them. Some employ as many as fourteen men. ... The profits of the sweater. however, would be from £4 to £5 out of twelve men, working on his premises. The usual number of men working under each sweater is about six individuals: and the average rate of profit, about £2. 10s., without the sweater doing any work himself. It is very often the case that a man working under a sweater is obliged to pawn his own coat to get any pocket money that he may require. Over and over again the sweater makes out that he is in his debt from 1s. to 2s. at the end of the week. and when the man's coat is in pledge, he is compelled to remain imprisoned in the sweatees lodgings for months together. In some sweating places, there is an old coat kept called a "reliever," and this is borrowed by such men as have none of their own to go out in. There are very few of the sweaters' men who have a coat to their backs or a shoe to their feet to come out into the streets on Sunday. Down about Fullwood's rents, Holborn, I am sure I would not give 6d. for the clothes that are on a dozen of them; and it is surprising to me, working and living together in such numbers and in such small close rooms, in narrow close back courts as they do, that they are not all swept off by some pestilence. I myself have seen half a dozen men at work in a room that was a little better than a bedstead long. It was as much as one could do to move between the wall and the bedstead when it was down. There were two bedsteads in this room, and they nearly filled the place when they were down. The ceiling was so low, that I couldn't stand upright in the room. There was no ventilation in the place. There was no fireplace, and only a small window. When the window was open, you could nearly touch the houses at the back, and if the room had not been at the top of the house, the men could not have seen at all in the place. The staircase was so narrow, steep, and dark, that it was difficult to grope your way to the top of the house it was like going up a steeple. This is the usual kind of place in which the sweater's men are lodged. The reason why there are so many Irishmen working for the sweaters is, because they are seduced over to this country by the prospect of high wages and plenty of work. They are brought over by the Cork boats at 10s. a head, and when they once get here, the prices they receive are so small, that they are unable to go back. In less than a week after they get here, their clothes are all pledged, and they are obliged to continue working under the sweaters.

'The extent to which this system of "street kidnapping" is carried on is frightful. Young tailors, fresh from the country, are decoyed by the sweatees' wives into their miserable dens, under extravagant promises of employment, to find themselves deceived, imprisoned, and starved, often unable to make their escape for months perhaps years; and then only fleeing from one dungeon to another as abominable!'

In the meantime, the profits of the beasts of prey who live on these poor fellows both masters and sweaters seem as prodigious as their cruelty...

Folks are getting somewhat tired of the old rodomontade that a slave is free the moment he sets foot on British soil! Stuff! - are these tailors free? Put any conceivable sense you will on the word, and then say - are they free? We have, thank God, emancipated the black slaves; it would seem a not inconsistent sequel to that act to set about emancipating these white ones. Oh! we forgot; there is an infinite difference between the two cases - the black slaves worked for our colonies; the white slaves work for us. But, indeed, if, as some preach, self interest is the mainspring of all human action, it is difficult to see who will step forward to emancipate the said white slaves; for all classes seem to consider it equally their interest to keep them as they are; all classes, though by their own confession they are ashamed, are yet not afraid to profit by the system which keeps them down...

But of course the men most interested in keeping up the system are those who buy the clothes of these cheap shops. And who are they? Not merely the blackguard Gent - the butt of Albert Smith and Punch, who flaunts at the Casinos and Cremorne Gardens in vulgar finery wrung out of the souls and bodies of the poor; not merely the poor lawyer's clerk or reduced half pay officer who has to struggle to look as respectable as his class commands him to look on a pittance often no larger than that of the day labourer - no, strange to say - and yet not strange, considering our modem eleventh commandment - 'Buy cheap and sell dear', the richest as well as the poorest imitate the example of King Ryence and the tanners of Meudon." [1] At a great show establishment - to take one instance out of many - the very one where, as we heard just now, 'however strong and healthy a man may be when he goes to work at that shop, in a months time he will be a complete shadow, and have almost all his clothes in pawn' -

'We have also made garments for Sir ---, Sir ---, Alderman ---, Dr. ---, and Dr ---. We make for several of the aristocracy. We cannot say whom, because the tickets frequently come to us as Lord --- and the Marquis of ---. This could not be a Jew's trick, because the buttons on the liveries had coronets upon them. And again, we know the house is patronized largely by the aristocracy, clergy and gentry, by the number of court suits and liveries, surplices, regimentals, and ladies' riding habits that we continually have to make up. There are more clergymen among the customers than any other class, and often we have to work at home upon the Sunday at their clothes, in order to get a living. The customers are mostly ashamed of dealing at this house, for the men who take the clothes to the customers' houses in the cart have directions to pull up at the comer of the street. We had a good proof of the dislike of gentlefolks to have it known that they dealt at that shop for their clothes, for when the trowsers buttons were stamped with the name of the firm, we used to have the garments returned, daily, to have other buttons put on them, and now the buttons are unstamped'!!!

We shall make no comment on this extract. It needs none. If these men know how their clothes are made, they are past contempt. Afraid of man, and not afraid of God! As if His eye could not see the cart laden with the plunder of the poor, because it stopped round the corner! If, on the other hand, they do not know these things, and doubtless the majority do not - it is their sin that they do not know it. Woe to a society whose only apology to God and man is, 'Am I my brother's keeper? Men ought to know the condition of those by whose labour they live. Had the question been the investment of a few pounds in a speculation, these gentlemen would have been careful enough about good security. Ought they to take no security when they invest their money in clothes, that they are not putting on their backs accursed garments, offered in sacrifice to devils, reeking with the sighs of the starving, tainted - yes, tainted, indeed, for it comes out now that diseases numberless are carried home in these same garments from the miserable abodes where they are made. Evidence to this effect was given in 1844; but Mammon was too busy to attend to it. These wretched creatures, when they have pawned their own clothes and bedding, will use as substitutes the very garments they are making, So Lord ---'s coat has been seen covering a group of children blotched with small pox. The Rev. D --- finds himself suddenly unpresentable from a cutaneous disease, which it is not polite to mention on the south of Tweed, little dreaming that the shivering dirty being who made his coat has been sitting with his arms in the sleeves for warmth while he stitched at the tails. The charming Miss C is swept off by typhus or scarlatina, and her parents talk about 'God's heavy judgement and visitation' - had they tracked the girl's new riding habit back to the stifling undrained hovel where it served as a blanket to the fever-stricken slop worker, they would have seen why God had visited them, seen that his judgments are true judgments...

But to us, almost the worst feature in the whole matter is, that the government are not merely parties to, but actually the originators of this system. The contract system, as a working tailor stated in the name of the rest, 'had been mainly instrumental in destroying the living wages of the working man. Now, the government were the sole originators of the system of contracts and of sweating. Forty years ago, there was nothing known of contracts, except government contracts; and at that period the contractors were confined to making slops for the navy, the army, and the West India slaves. It was never dreamt of then that such a system was to come into operation in the better classes of trade, till ultimately it was destructive of masters as well as men. The government having been the cause of the contract system, and consequently of the sweating system, he called upon them to abandon it. The sweating system had established the showshops and the ticket system, both of which were countenanced by the government, till it had become a fashion to support them.

'Even the court assisted to keep the system in fashion, and the royal arms and royal warrants were now exhibited common enough by slop sellers.

'Government said, its duty was to do justice. But was it consistent with justice to pay only 2s. 6d. for making navy jackets, which would be paid 10s. for by every 'honourable' tradesman? Was it consistent with justice for the government to pay for Royal Marine clothing (private's coat and epaulettes) 1s. 9d.? Was it consistent with justice for the government to pay for making a pair of trowsers (four or five hours' work) only 2½d.? And yet, when a contractor, noted for paying just wages to those he employed, brought this under the consideration of the Admiralty, they declared they had nothing to do with it...'

'The government', says another tailor at the same meeting, 'had really been the means of reducing prices in the tailoring trade to so low a scale that no human being, whatever his industry, could live and be happy in his lot. The government were really responsible for the first introduction of female labour. He would clearly prove what he had stated. He would refer first to the army clothing. Our soldiers were comfortably clothed, as they had a right to be; but surely the men who made the clothing which was so comfortable, ought to be paid for their labour so as be able to keep themselves comfortable and their families virtuous. But it was in evidence that the persons working upon army clothing could not, upon an average, earn more than 1s. a day. Another government department, the post office, afforded a considerable amount of employment to tailors; but those who worked upon the post office clothing earned, at the most, only 1s. 6d. a day. The police clothing was another considerable branch of tailoring; this, like the others, ought to be paid for at living prices; but the men at work at it could only earn 1s. 6d. a day, supposing them to work hard all the time, fourteen or fifteen hours. The Custom House clothing gave about the same prices. Now, all these sorts of work were performed by time workers, who, as a natural consequence of the wages they received, were the most miserable of human beings. Husband, wife, and family all worked at it; they just tried to breathe upon it; to live it never could be called. Yet the same Government which paid such wretched wages, called upon the wretched people to be industrious, to be virtuous, and happy. How was it possible, whatever their industry, to be virtuous and happy? The fact was, the men who, at the slack season, had been compelled to fall back upon these kinds of work, became so beggared and broken down by it, not withstanding the assistance of their wives and families, that they were never able to rise out of it.'

And now comes the question - What is to be done with these poor tailors, to the number of between fifteen and twenty thousand? Their condition, as it stands, is simply one of ever-increasing darkness and despair. The system which is ruining them is daily spreading, deepening. While we write, fresh victims are being driven by penury into the slop-working trade, fresh depreciations of labour are taking place... What can be done?

First - this can be done. That no man who calls himself a Christian - no man who calls himself a man shall ever disgrace himself by dealing at any show shop or slop shop. It is easy enough to know them. The ticketed garments, the impudent puffs, the trumpery decorations, - proclaim them, - every one knows them at first sight. He who pretends not to do so is simply either a fool or a liar. Let no man enter them - they are the temples of Moloch - their thresholds are rank with human blood. God's curse is on them, and on those who, by supporting them, are partakers of their sins. Above all, let no clergyman deal at them. Poverty - and many clergymen are poor - doubly poor, because society often requires them to keep up the dress of gentlemen on the income of an artisan; because, too, the demands on their charity are quadruple those of any other class yet poverty is no excuse. The thing is damnable - not Christianity only, but common humanity cries out against it. Woe to those who dare to outrage in private the principles which they preach in public! God is not mocked; and his curse will find out the priest at the altar, as well as the nobleman in his castle.

But it is so hard to deprive the public of the luxury of cheap clothes! Then let the public look out for some other means of procuring that priceless blessing. If that, on experiment, be found impossible - if the comfort of the few be for ever to be bought by the misery of the many - if civilization is to benefit every one except the producing class - then this world is truly the devil's world, and the sooner so ill-constructed and infernal a machine is destroyed by that personage, the better.

But let, secondly, a dozen, or fifty, or a hundred journeymen say to one another: 'it is competition that is ruining us, and competition is division, disunion, every man for himself, every man against his brother. The remedy must be in association, co-operation, self-sacrifice for the sake of one another. We can work together at the honourable tailor's workshop - we can work and live together in the sweater's den for the profit of our employers; why should we not work and live together in our own workshops, or our own homes, for our own profit? ... Then we will open our common shop, and sell at as low a price as the cheapest of the show shops. We can do this - by the abolition of sweaters' profits - by the using, as far as possible, of one set of fires, lights, rooms, kitchens and wash houses - above all, by being true and faithful to one another, as all partners should be. And, then, all that the master slop sellers had better do, will be simply to vanish and become extinct.'

[1] In Arthurian legend, Ryence, a king of Wales and Ireland, wore a coat made of the beards of knights he had overcome. During the French Revolution, skins of the victims of the guillotine were tanned at Meudon. [back]

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