1864 - Evidence on the employment of
MESSRS; SMITH AND WRIGHT'S, BUTTON MANUFACTURERS, BREARLEY
334. These works, except the ivory-nut shop, are clean and
light, and attention is paid to ventilation. A school-room
has been lately built, and instruction under a certified master
is provided for those engaged in the works three evenings
a week. Of the eight boys in the ivory-nut shop, a boy of
14 could read a little, one of 13 and one of 10 could spell,
two of 10 and two of 9 did not know the letters. Of the latter,
one always goes to Sunday school, and went to day school when
he was little. The eighth, aged 7, is named below. Nut-cracking
boys, however, are probably not a fair specimen of the mass
employed either here or elsewhere. Their outward appearance
and mental state seem everywhere to point them out as belonging
to about the lowest class.
335. Bill Squelch, age 7.Pick out nuts. Dont
know A. Never was in a church or chapel, or heard a preacher,
or heard of Adam and Eve.
336. Annie Brown, age 15 years 11 months.Don't know
all the letters; g is n.
337. Sarah Wile, age 14.At work since 9. Was at day
school six years ago. Do not go on Sunday now. Cannot read.
338. Herbert Hatton, age 13.Mind a machine for cutting
Go to the night schoo1, and do not miss. Can do sums up to
339. Mr. J.S. Wright.The usual hours of labour in our
manufactory are from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., allowing 1¼
hour (1 to 2½) for dinner, and half an hour (5 to 5.30)
for tea. The demand in our business is very irregular, and
sometimes we have to continue business until 9 or even 10
o'clock. The children and young persons occasionally work
with the others those hours, probably about 2 months in the
year, for which this overtime occurs. It is at no particular
seasons. On Saturday business in the manufactory closes usually
from 4 to 5 p.m. We have not tried the system of relays, nor
is it necessary, the work not being laborious, and change
of posture very frequent.
In our particular trade, as well as in many similar trades
in Birmingham, the labour of children if not indispensable
is very useful and important. They perform many of the operations
more rapidly and effectively than grown-up persons. The boys
place and prepare by brushing, &c. the work for the men;
sometimes they turn wheels, or perform light operations where
steam power moves small punches, rolls,
saws, &c. Some girls are employed in placing
buttons on paper cards with holes punched in them, and in
sewing buttons and hooks and eyes on cards. A large number
are employed in this latter operation in their own homes,
or in the houses of their neighbours. Some varnish or coat
the buttons with japan, others assist the women by placing
the various parts together, and some work at small presses
like the women. I do not think that any of these operations
are unhealthy or in any way injurious to the children, except
turning the wheel if long continued.
It would of course be better if the children could be trained
in well-regulated homes, and receive a proper education; but
as such cases are exceptional, I am of the opinion that the
children are on the whole in a better position, both physically
and morally, than they would be if their labour was interdicted.
The shops are generally warm and dry. No doubt the association
of children with young persons and adults tends to a precocious
development, but at the same time it appears to have a restraining
influence, and must on the whole be beneficial, as there is
less amount of female crime in Birmingham than in any other
large town in the kingdom concurrently with the unrestricted
employment of girls and women in factories and workshops equally
or more extensively than in any other community in the kingdom.
The labour of children is very important to our and to kindred
trades, as competition is now more severe than ever. The Germans
especially, who have an unlimited supply of cheap labour of
both sexes, are by reason of this advantage able to undersell
us, not only at our own doors, in such articles as brooches,
clasps, and buttons, which are made in so large quantities
on the Continent as to give employment to many more persons
than are engaged in the same trades in Birmingham, and these
articles are imported into this country. Though we cannot
in any sense be now considered the toy-shop of Europe,
yet it is of the highest importance, if we would retain any
considerable part of this class of trade, that adult male
labour should be supplemented by that of children and young
I believe that only in a very few cases where both parents
are living, is it necessary for the children to come to work
to earn sufficient food. In most cases I fear it is owing
to the improvidence of the father who is unable to resist
the temptations which public-houses (sanctioned unfortunately,
in my opinion, by our social usages and the supposed necessity
for Imperial revenue) hold out to our industrious and skilful
artiztans. Still in such cases, as well as those where the
father is unable to work, or has died, the labour of the child
is the means by which it obtains the necessary nourishment
for its health and maturity.
I am of the opinion that there would be great difficulty and
but little advantage, all things considered, in carrying the
provisions of the Factory or any similar Act in
Birmingham. The trades are so diverse, and so many persons
are employed in places which cannot be called factories
or even workshops, and very large numbers are
employed in their own houses by their parents; and these in
most cases would stand more in need of protection than those
employed in the larger establishments of the town.
I think, however, than an enactment which would make it imperative
that no child shold be permitted to earn wages away from home,
unless he or she could read, write, and do the four first
rules in arithmetic, would be found beneficial in such towns
as ours, and would only in a very trifling degree interfere
with the course of business.
I am satisfied that means would speedily be found, without
further Government aid, which would enable every child to
receive the required amount of education. I would observe
that the inability to write and even read in an adult is not
conclusive that they never were taught; as my experience with
many proves that these arts which they acquired
in childhood have been lost by disuse.
Some two years since we created a school-room, and engaged
a certified teacher to give instruction three nights a week.
It is a matter of regret to my partner and myself that the
advantages thus offered are not valued. It is only by threats
of dismissal, and sometimes by actually discharging the child,
that we can enforce attendance. Some few of the parents appreciate
the opportunity, but we have frequently found them conniving
at their children's absence.
[The following letters and table were afterwards sent by
Employment of children in Birmingham.
Hotel de France,
The impression which you say would be conveyed by my remarks
is what I desire to be conveyed, viz., that in my opinion
the operation of the Factory, or any similar enactment, would
be to exclude from work, in the larger factories in Birmingham,
all children. I think that the system of half-time or relays
would not by practicable in the trades that require child
labour. I have been informed that in the neighbourhood of
Manchcester, the result of the Factory Acts has been to prevent
children being employed at all, except to a very limited extent.
You ask, do I mean that the masters or the children would
be as injuriously affected by such limitation as by exclusion
from labour? As stated above, I believe the half-time system
to be impracticable; and I think that certain manufactories
would be injured if childrens labour were abolished.
As regards the children, I have stated, I think, that I consider
an elementary education necessary, but it may be obtained
without the Factory Act, or exclusion from earning wages before
they are 13.
From the extract which I have seen of the report of the Potteries
Chamber of Commerce Committee, I concur in their views of
the inexpediency of applying the Factory Act, and believe
that the same difficulties would arise in our town from relays,
changing hands, leaving off work at different periods to adults,
J.E. White, Esq. Jno. S. Wright.
165, Brearley Street West,
January 2, 1864.
Here are the additional statistics. They have been carefully
made up and may be relied upon. The school is an average one;
the scholars are the children of artizans almost exclusively,
and they may be considered as fairly representative of the
young working class of our town. There is a class below those,
not paupers, who do not attend Sunday school for want of clothes,
It must not be understood that those who are tabulated as
being able to read and write can do so efficiently; they can
generally read well, but their writing is indifferent. It
will suffice as a rule to enable them to keep their work
books when they become adults, but only a part, not
half I should think, would be able to write a letter.
J.E. White, Esq. Jno. S. Wright.