1864 - Evidence on the employment of children

307. This is one of the principal button manufactories, and employs a large number of young children, the greater part of whom are girls who “put in” buttons, for which the women employ and pay one child each. The buildings share the character of so many of the old Birmingham factories which have grown by degrees, by the addition of fresh work-rooms, the original parts being over 100 years old. Many little girls sit with their backs right against the open side windows. In several places, however, ventilators creating and up and down current, the suggestion of one of the firm many years ago, have been placed in the ceiling in places, and much regard has been shown in several ways for the well-being of the work-people. A washing conduit is placed in each room. A night-school was established a few years back, and was well-attended for a time, although it has now fallen through. The great need of instruction shown by several of the girls when questioned by me led one of the principals to express an intention of reviving the school, and, in my hearing, to give directions for the purpose. There are also clubs for several purposes, and a committee of the work people also exercise a control over the conduct of the people in the various rooms.
308. Many of the children are very young indeed, three or four being only 6. The mother of one of these, however, a boy, said that she must have him to work as she saved the value of his labour, and also the expense of his being taken care of by someone else. In another case a girl of 6, i.e. “going 7”, birthday unknown, one of three sisters working here, had worked for a woman here eight or nine months. She was beautiful child, with bright innocent face, but looking lost and bewildered amongst so many workers. Her eldest sister, aged 12, had a sullen hardened look and manner; the middle sister seemed in the intermediate stage. So neglected, however, was their condition, both of body and mind, as shown by their dirty appearance and tattered dress, and the want of even Sunday school instruction, and melancholy ignorance of even the eldest sister, that one of the firm who saw me speaking to them was so struck and pained, that he directed the mother to be informed that they could not be received to work any more more unless she showed more care for them, at least in their outward appearance. The eldest makes 3s. 6d. or 3s. a week, the two younger girls 1s. each, and the father is in work as a mechanic. I have noticed this case as an illustration of the kind of care which many of the children whom I have seen in Birmingham plainly receive from their parents.

309. Mr. John S. Manton.—I have a very strong dislike indeed to any kind of interference by the Government or Parliament with the conduct of private affairs, including in these the employment of labour. It is absurd to think of making people good or wise by Act of Parliament, but there is a strong tendency at the present day in many minds to run in this foolish and mischievous direction. My dislike, however, to government interference is one which I have simply as a man and as a member of the state, not as a manufacturer; as such I have no objection whatever to a Factory Act, such as Oastler wished to introduce. I understand his plan and thoroughly approve of it, and if it could be made applicable in Birmingham I should indorse {sic} it at once. If, however, the Government thought fit to apply it here, some modifications might be required, as the labour of the adults in some cases depends so much upon that of the young.
My belief is that the misery of the working classes can be diminished only the general advancement of education. It is, however, certainly very difficult for the young to obtain the benefit of education under the present system of employment, and external help is probably needed. There are, already, a vast number of the best appliances for education in Birmingham in the shape of schools of all kinds, Sunday, day, and night, and other means, and these have done much good; but that they have not been able to reach a large amount of ignorance is unhappily plain.
Long experience has taught me not to be sanguine in looking for immediate results, but to be content if real improvement can be made, however slow and partial.
I do not think that working children on half-time by relays would be any real obstruction to the business; indeed, I think that such a plan would be better, as it would plainly be so for the children, and they are the most to be considered, as it is they who need protection. They would also probably work fresher. There would no doubt be a little inconvenience at first, but that would be got over.
From the extension of free trade however, and other causes, foreign competition has become so severe in our business, that any measures which deprived us of any now available labour would be a very serious thing, unless their effect also were, as it might perhaps be, to compensate the deficiency by an economy of labour in other ways, as by husbanding the health and strength of the workers.
We had an evening school on the premises for a couple of years, in which one of the men took a very active part; and it worked well for it time, but gradually fell away when, from press of business, I became unable to give it my personal supervision. The only remains of it now are a few women whom this man teaches in their dinner hour. I am speaking to him to use his influence to organize the school again. It is plain that instruction is needed. In addition, however, to the necessary difficulty of producing and maintaining it, other difficulties arise from the light in which the work people are apt to look upon it. If it is given free, many think that it is not for their benefit so much as for some other object of the givers, and that they confer rather a favour by taking it, and, at any rate, are jealous of being forced to it. I was obliged, in consequence, to put on a payment of 1d. I believe that I did mischief by telling some, by way of encouragement, that if they would learn to read and write they would become more valuable, and could, perhaps, be advanced to higher positions. They thought that they were they were being instructed for our benefit, not their own. I have known marked instances of such advancement as I refer to amongst the workpeople here to a greater or lesser degree; one that of a girl who came as a mere child to work, and being a steady good girl, with fair intelligence, rose gradually till she had charge of the book-keeping and business of a department embracing work of 80 persons, and she has since prosperously settled in life.

310. Lydia Brookes, age 12.—Do not go to Sunday school. Never was in a chapel or church, or heard any one preach or pray, and do not know what prayer means, or who it is said to. Do remember mother telling me “Our Father,” but do not remember any more than those words, or what they mean. Think I have heard of Jesus Christ, but do not know what a Christian is. Have a father and mother.

[This girl has two younger sisters at work here, both of whom I saw, but thought it needless to question.]

311. Rosina Marston, age 17.—Cannot read much [only words of one syllable very imperfectly]. Have not heard of France; have of the Queen, but only know that it is the Queen, not what her name is, or what she does for the country. [After much leading, and very doubtingly, says,] Think she sees to us. Have been at Sunday school for eight years, at night school for six months, and at week-day school, but only 6 years old.

312. Emma Clarke, age about 10 or 11 ?—Don’t know how old I am. Don’t know A. Have been in a chapel, but don’t know anything that I heard about. Did hear of Jesus Christ, and that he was good and kind. The “preach” told us. Don’t know if people were kind to Him or killed Him; they did crucify him but I don’t know what that means. Have not heard of an angel. God made everybody; don’t know if He made any one first.

[Very pale and squalid in dress and looks. A younger sister working beside her looks happier. Their father is a pearl-button maker, the mother works in a percussion-cap factory.]

313. Jane Bitter.—Press woman. Emma Clarke works for me at putting in; I give her 1s. 6d. a week. I think she really does not know any more than she has told you. She is very poorly cared for at home. The women would be very glad to do without girls at all, only wages are so low that they must have them to make it up.

314. Harriet Martin, age 12, press girl.—Have worked at the press 18 months. Pinched my thumb under it three times, and once was at home three months for it. Have had several pieces of bone taken out of it. It was dressed by Mr. ___, the doctor here, not at the hospital. Get 3s. 6d. a week now, and pay it to my married sister to keep me. Began as a putter in, at 1s. Do not ever wash here at the basin.
Know my letters, but cannot spell them or tell figures. Never went to school of days, but have on Sundays for four years. Can do better than when I first went; could not say my alphabet then.

315.___Waring, press woman.—Have a little boy here between 6 and 7 years old. He saves me the 1s. a week that I should have to pay for a girl, and the 6d. or 8d. a week which I should have to pay for sending him to where he could be cared for in overhours, i.e., all beyond the regular school-time, while I am here at work. Am not a widow, but my husband has left me for six years. Have on other child, a little girl, who gets 1s. a week at another button factory.

316. Richard Hitchcock, age 7.—Cob for a stamper. Was never at a day school, and don't know my letters.

[Of four other boys in the same place,—a dark place in a apart of it in which large print could scarcely be seem on a bright summer day,—one aged 9 gave precisely the same answers as the boy just named; the three others, two of them 9, one of 10, had been to school of some kind, and could read words of one syllable. All were rough looking.]

317. Josiah Metcalf.—I have been here 20 years. Almost four years ago I took part in working an evening school for the workpeople here. The school was open three nights a week from 7 till 9, and was attended at first by nearly 100, chiefly of the younger. It lasted for a year and a half, or two years. I still teach a few women in their dinner hour, which I was led to do by finding some that could not read at all. Some now cannot tell their letters; one of about 24 could only just tell her letters, and in three months she could read easy things, and now, i.e., in about two years, she can read very nicely indeed.
We have sick and other clubs, to which most of those who are big enough to work for themselves belong; 75 per cent of the sick club subscription is divided out each year to the subscribers. In addition to the regular subscription, each member subscribes 1d. a week towards a fund which purchases tickets for the General, Lying-in, &c. hospitals. I should say that it is the young women of about 22 or so who fall most on the sick club.
The workpeople do not come to work on Monday till 9 o'clock, at least on average, often much later. A great many used not to come on Monday at all; but they are more regular now, since the employers have given an half holiday on Saturday, and insisted that in return people should not be so irregular on Monday. I think that in time they will be brought to be regular.


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