1864 - Evidence on the employment of children


410. Several very young children work here as “nippers,” i.e., clipping off with scissors the corners of small squares of glass previously cut out from sheets or cylinders. The square thus roughly rounded is fastened by cement to the end of a short stick and ground on a grindstone by a woman or bigger girl, and afterwards cut in facets on a small wheel by an adult or at least a person nearly 18, if not over, as more skill is needed, and then polished by a boy, girl or woman. The persons who perform these four processes work usually in sets of four. The “nipper” working faster than the others can finish, spends about half of his or her time in turning a grindstone for a grinder, either alone or merely helping to turn. This they are said not to be obliged to do, but to “do it on their own head.” Two or three girls work in the house carding. This, as I was told, is probably one of the largest manufactories of glass buttons, the manufacture, in which there are different branches, being often carried on by a very few in a room in a house or in one small shop.
411. Mr. Jesse Matthews.—I would not practise overtime. I wish we could have children so as to work and go to school too. It’s lamentable to see them, I assure you. We have been looking for better days, but there is a set in Birmingham who will not send their children to school, but get intoxicated. I am sure we shall never do any good with education unless there is compulsion, but we should then. This, however, is the only means, for if children are left, as they are, to run wild, they are about the streets; and while this is the case it is no use Recorders and so on talking about crime. I think that if there was an Act passed it would be the saving of several of them. It is a fearful looking forward for the working class for the coming generation, though there is more done now in the way of education. But with most it must be very indifferent, as they do not get a chance. There is a want of school for youths at night, but they cannot get it of a week night. A great many places work till 8 and 8½ on Friday night in a general way if the work stops early on Saturday. I have found this very awkward since there has been the half-day Saturday. Our own boys (sons) cannot get to their lectures in time; they attend several. By the time they are home and washed it is 9 o'clock, and then it is too late. In a great many places 8 is a common hour to stay to, but even working till 7½ is too late for school if they come home first, which is wanted sometimes, as some work is much dirtier than others, from grease and oil, and the master does not like to see them dirty. I have a great objection to any being kept late.
Once, when I had not so many lads, I tried to get them together to school, but I found that they did not appreciate it, though here and there one wanted to come Sometimes, too, I was apt to look for fruit before there was any to be had. I have often talked to that big one who could not read (b. 417, age 19), and said “Why don’t you go to night school?” It grieves me when they come to receive payment and say, “Please write my name.”
Several times, too, I have tried to get up general adult schools, and some years ago took a great interest in it But there seemed to be a bashfulness in any who were backward, as if there was something that they could not overcome. The men before joining would begin to ask questions—“Do any lads go?” and I have said “Well, none under a certain age.” I think that the Quakers have a limit of age in this way at their school in Severn Street, to which 300 or 400 go at 7 o’c1ock or so of a Sunday morning. Their plan is, I think, good. They make no difference as to being teetotallers or anything. If you are to do good you must open the to one as well as another. If a man signs the pledge and holds it out a bit, and then after a month or so breaks it, he dares not show his face amongst his own society again. I have known several who have been reclaimed at the Quakers' schools. These schools have wrought a wonderful change in one of my people, a married woman, both in her character and language, though she was always a hard worker. She has told me that she has to get up at 6 o'clock on Sunday morning to be ready to be off to school between 7 and 8, but she says that she would not leave it on any account. I was quite surprised when I heard that she could read after going for only a year, i.e., 52 mornings. I believe now that she is learning her husband, who works beside her, but who slunk away for fear of being asked questions by you; and another was frightened in the same way. She was first picked up from the shop by one of the town mission, and I think that she has now enlisted four or five more out of the shop. The Quakers' schools are setting an excellent example.
I have many very young children who have neither father nor mother. It grieves me to see them so young, and perhaps to be able to give them so little. I have often been grieved to see the little ones come and ask for work and to have to send them back. Some come looking up with such anxious-looking eyes, and their eyes glisten so if they think you can entertain them. It is a shame to put such little things to work. Some's skin is as beautiful as a lady's. One little girl, 8 years old, has to help support the family, but her mother could send her to school. I have thought two or three times of sending her.
They are all off to day at a fete at the Band of Hope, at Aston Park. The Band of Hope are doing a great deal with children. I am not connected with it in any way but approve of it, and have contributed to it, and am so pleased to find that they now interest the children. The have a band, lectures, magic lantern, &c. Some of the young children would work all manner of hours,—would go through fire and water,—sooner than miss a chance. They work hard to get tidy and mend their clothes, &c., to be fit for these holidays. One was laying by for five or six weeks before for a bonnet and frock, and at the same time had not a bed to lie on, and I believe that at the present time she lies on the floor. In this ways the holidays inculcate savings habits. Two could not pay, and their father took no notice of them, so I had to pay their 3d. Or they could not have gone to day.
The little hymns too that they sing are good. Children have no other way of picking them up, as they cannot read; but if one has an ear for music she picks it up, and the others pick it up from her. I always like to hear them sing at their work. I think that it makes the work go as sweet again, and they seem to fancy so too. It relieves the monotony, and the children are as lively again. Also good often arises from it to the grown up. I always like to hear the lads too sing at work, and would sooner hear them sing than talk. Last winter I stood out in the cold listening to them all as they sang carols in the shop, and some took parts as well as in a practised choir.
I have never any trouble with the children. Never a week passes but what they are regular at their posts, and I can rule them with a look. There is something very peculiar in children. If you show them a kind look they never forget you. When they meet me in the street they are respectful, and like to show that they remember me. It is the bigger ones that we have the trouble with. I cannot get them to do much work on Monday. They seldom come till towards 10 o'clock, and some leave after dinner. The women are pretty well behaved altogether, but would be better if they were more educated.
I have heard many complaints of cases where women have to support the family, the husband drinking and working them very hard. I do not say that the men hit them, but talking often leads to blows.
412. Henry Greatorex, age 7, nipper.—Work from 8 to 7, and have an hour or sometimes an hour and a half for dinner, and when I have done eating play in the open.
413. Catherine Coley, age 19.—Cutter for two years. Henry Greatorex has worked for me three or four months, but is not big enough to do anything and gets only {almost illegible, possibly '1s.'} a week. His mother sent him here because he would not go to school and wanted to run the streets. Her said her didn't care if he came and worked for nothing if her could get him out of the way. Two other girls help me, one nearly 9 helps turn the stone and pulls the buttons off sticks on which they are placed in the fire to soften the cement. A little boy did this before.
414. Henry Phillips, age 15.—Polish. Have worked at this trade close on 10 years. Think I was nearer 5 than 6 when I began. Nipped at first. Used to bring my food.
Can read a little [scarcely reads words of one syllable.]
415. William Plant, age 9.—Blow bellows with my foot to heat the gas at which the buttons are made at a glass pot. When one foot is tired can blow with the other, and so on, till I knock off. The loop cuts my boots through on each side. Sometimes put in shanks.
Do not know what becomes of people when they die. They are never alive again.
416. Thomas Eggington, age 10.—Put in shanks. Know a few letters. Was never at a day school but go on Sundays and to Church. They don't tell us nothing at Church. Don't know what they preach about. The preacher preaches and christens. He did preach about Jesus Christ sometimes, sometimes not. Don't know whether He [Christ] died. I am a Christian. Don't know what it means. Think, perhaps, you [J.E.W. {Mr. J.E. White, the Recorder}] are one. Good people live again after they die.
417. William Egginton, age 19.—Make round shoe &c. buttons, taking the glass out of a small pot on an iron and holding them in gas. Have done it for five years. Have the screen in front of me to keep off the heat and look through a glass at it.
Was never at a day school. Can not read, write or sum.
418. Ellen Fletcher, age 12.—Nip and size and turn a grindstone for a woman. Turning don't tire me now, because I am used to it, but it did at first. Am away from work sometimes with a pain in my left side [turns with left hand], but not till the last three weeks. Have been here a year. Sometimes it lasts half a day. When I lie down it goes off. Have the headache very often. [Another girl complained of the tiring in the same way.]
Was at a button factory [a large and very crowded place] before. My head ached more there than here. Sometimes 'played' 3 days a week when there.
Cannot read or spell “on.” Used to play about and mind the baby, not go to school.
419. Janie Scaborne, age 9.—Pull of buttons from the sticks and turn a grindstone. Can turn it quite by myself when I have a mind. Get 1s. 3d. a week.
Can spell “T-o to.” Have often been at chapel. They told about good people.
420. Eliza State, age 11.—Stick on buttons to the sticks, and at other times help a grinder by holding something to keep her work from slipping and hurting her against the stone. Have been cut by the stone. It was worn out, and so my hand slipped against it. In nipping the scissors galled my fingers like this [shows]. It makes all the girls fingers so.
Can read a little bit [with spelling].
421 Elizabeth Thomas, age 13.—Polisher. At it more than four years. Get 4s. 6d. A week. Came to the work first when about 7, about a week over, and dropped blanks of solder of lead and tin over a stove, and then nipped. Have had good health always.
Only a Sunday school a bit, at no other school. Have no father. Can tell my letters and spell a little.
422. Samuel Bickly, age 10.—Here on and off for thee years. Work from 8 till 7, sometimes till 7½ or 8. Sit most of the say close by the fire here sticking on buttons. It makes me hot but not poorly.
Before I came here, I filled gun locks, working from 8 til7.
Cannot read, but know the letters.
[Of 5 other girls of from 9 to 12, 3 knew no or only some letters, 2 could not spell, and another girl of 17 could not read words of two syllables without spelling.]
423. Martha Ross.—Have been at work since I was 8 years old, am 23 now. Polish for my husband here. The work in not unhealthy.
Went to day school when I was little, and for the last year and a half have been to the Quakers' Sunday school. Could not tell my letters when I first went there, but now can read the Testament pretty well, spelling some of the words, and am beginning to write.


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