1864 - Evidence on the employment of
J. WATSONS, PEARL BUTTON MAKER, ST. GEORGES STREET.
391. Only three persons, viz., the master, his son an adult,
and a boy of 16 work here. The workshop is a loft over a washhouse
used by other persons, neither forming part of a dwelling,
in a court reached by a narrow brick arch or open doorway.
Waste water from the washing stood on the floor of the washhouse
and escaped over the sill into an open gutter running down
the whole length of the yard close in front of the long row
of houses. The gutter appears common to these houses, and
was slimy and stagnant throughout. At the bottom of the yard.
is another small manufactory or workshop for thimbles, where
two men, a woman, and a boy .work.
392. John Watson.I have been in the trade 40 years,
and am secretary to the pearl button makers society.
The trade, which is quite distinct from all other branches
of button making, till lately contained from 1,000 to 1,200
men, but now there are not more than a third or a fourth of
that number in it, probably about 300, and those only half
employed, the remainder having gone into other employments,
and many to the workhouse. The trade has been in this depressed
state for two or three years, in consequence chiefly of the
American war, a large proportion; I should say two-thirds,
of the goods having formerly been made for America. The manufacture
has never been carried on in large factories. The usual number
of persons in each ranges from 4 to 40. The greater part of
the work is done by men. The first or piecemaker
cuts out the pearl from the shell with a circular saw. The
next or turner turns it. Women drill, polish,
or finish. These processes are all done at a foot
lathe. If the piece cut out is too thick a boy splits it with
a chisel, and, if the small pieces are uneven, files them
even. A. boy or girl sometimes works at a lathe, but it is
quite the exception, as it wants strength. A boy is not strong
and big enough till 16, as a rule, though he may be at 14.
I began at that age. Girls usually card; i.e., sew buttons
on paper, which is very light work. Boys and girls do not
begin to work at all till about 10 or 12.
In the larger places the work is regular through the week.
In the small the hours are not excessive. The men work the
hardest, but as they usually do but little on Monday or Tuesday
they do not average more than 10 hours a day. The small makers
have all to finish and take in on Saturday, but this does
not throw much work on those who do the finishing processes.
From 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. would be a long day for these.
Steam power is not suitable for this work. It has been tried
repeatedly in my memory, but without success, at least for
any but the large work. The brittle nature of the material
does not allow of working it at a greater rate than a foot
lathe will give. Rapid motion would split it, and also heat
it and make the edges too hard to work afterwards, and machinery
could not be adapted to the different thicknesses of different
parts of the same shell as the hand can. Getting steam power,
therefore, would be mere outlay without any gain,and must
come from the the earnings, which are too small already. In
addition to this the maker likes to have his work all done
in his own place without going off to hire mill power elsewhere.
There is only one pearl button factory in the town that uses
steam power, though it is used in America, where, owing to
the heat of the climate, the men wish to save themselves the
exertion, and the work is also bigger.
With regard to education, pearl button makers are in the same
case as people in many other trades. They are so poor that
the children must be sent to work as soon as they are able
to earn anything. It is said sometimes that the poverty and
ignorance of the pearl button people are owing to their habits
of drinking and irregularity. I believe, however, that it
is owing to their being so ill paid. A marked improvement
in the character of the men has taken place since a rise in
wages of a farthing a gross was obtained from the large masters
and buyers, not by any strike but by quiet reasoning. The
obstacle to a slight increase in wages is caused by factors
and buyers insisting on a far more than proportionate increase
in their own prices for sale. The rate is 2d. for a gross
of 150, six pieces being made over to allow for breakage in
the later stages, and the increase thus amounts to 2s. 6d.
or 3s. a week. Since then many have reformed, and some who
merely rambled about idling now teach in schools, &c.
The boy there gets ½d.. a gross for filing. He is unable
to read, write, or tell figures, but he can tell at the end
of the week exactly how many buttons he has done, and they
might be in quite a full week 150 gross (150 x 150 = 22,500).
If the object of this inquiry is for the real good of all,
I hope it will succeed.
[The witnesss son supplied parts of this statement.
Both were men of much clearness and thoughtfulness of mind.]
393. Frederick Tunstall, age 16.File the pieces. Began
at 10 years old, and have been at several places. Was never
at a day-school. Know some only of the letters.