1864 - Evidence on the employment of children


384. This manufactory, though quite small, is said to be about the largest in the trade. The workshops are cheerful and airy, and the place apparently thoroughly well conducted. The dust given off from the lathes, &c., which are worked by treadles, in some of the earlier processes settles on all surrounding objects and on the ceiling like flour in a mill. Two or three of the men, however, who perform the more dusty processes, as cutting out and turning, and whom I questioned on the point, attributed no bad effects to the dust. But lathe work is said to cause considerable strain upon the eyes, and I noticed four not old men working side by side in spectacles.
385. Mr. Joseph Anstey, manager.—I have been in the pearl button trade 39 years. It is a small trade, and confined almost entirely to Birmingham. There are one or two small establishments in London, one in Dublin, and two or three in Sheffield, but they do not average more than half a dozen persons in each, The total number in the trade in the whole kingdom was about 1,200, but now there are not more than 500 or 600 at work. It may be that there are only 300 or 400 trade union men, but the number may be made up by the “black legs,” i.e., men who do not belong to the union. The numbers given are from the Report of the secretary of the trade union. The pearl ornament is quite distinct from the pearl button, and much smaller, and is carried on in Birmingham and London. There are in the pearl button trade probably about 500 women and girls, from 13 upwards, and about the same number of boys from 12 up to 18, all of whom work at the lathe, except some of the boys, who file. Scarcely a dozen in the trade are under the age of 12, except the carders. Boys cannot begin cutting out till about the age of 16, and turning till about 14. Women and girls drill and polish. The work can be done by steam, but no quicker. It must take its time. A shell cannot be forced through. A good sized one weighs 7 or 8 lbs. If more speed were put on it would burn the button to pieces. The shell cannot be softened in any way for working. A great many have tried steam, but never could make any good of it, and, I suppose, never will.
The trade has been crushed down by there being so many intermediate buyers, the larger buying from the less, and there being the profits of so many hands. The profit is so small that it discourages capital, and the work can be carried on with very little, a man merely having to buy a little material. If the trade were better there would be fewer small masters and more larger: There are now about 150 pearl button manufacturers in the town. A great many work in attics, or get just a bit of a shop, working with merely their own family. You would hardly find a dozen that would show outside any sign of the manufacture being carried on. The great evil of the trade is that boys are not apprenticed enough. The trade unions will only allow a certain number. It is generally found that the character is better where boys are compelled to go apprentice. But in other ways the trade unions have done some good to the character of those employed. It was very, bad. The habit of masters drinking with their men is, however, very bad, and brings up boys to the habit.
The general rule of respectable places is to work from 8 to 8, but in the smaller places, which are very numerous, the hours are less regular. The men often play the first two or three days of the week, and work longer at the end. On Monday the little men go to buy their shell, and perhaps take their men to bring it. Then they go drinking, and are not fit for work till Tuesday. This is very bad; not only by the example which it sets their men, but also to the boys, girls, and women. They must work hard at the end of the week to make up for this; some from 5 a.m. till 10 or 11 p.m.; but even then there are very few that do not take their dinner hour and tea half hour, I do not think that they could stand it, without, as they are on foot all day. The work is not so much hard as tiring and dreadfully aching. Though the carders have to card the buttons after they are made, I do not think that they are kept up much later, as they work close upon the makers.
In good trade the rate of wages is,—boys from 4s. or 5s. to 7s. a week; girls as finishers and carders from 3s. 6d. to 9s.; men, cutters, from 25s. to 33s.; turners from 18s, to 26s.; and men who “bottom” or work the back of the button; 17s. Taking all kinds together, men’s wages, working full time, would be about 1l. 1s.
The dust of the work is considered injurious to the lungs, though some men live to a good age. There is dust in all parts of the lathe work, but more in the cutting and turning; but all generally work in the same shops, and the filers close to the men that they work for. The health of’ the people here is generally good; but, of course, if they take to drinking the work injures them more. The common kinds of button are not polished on a lathe at all, but put in aqua fortis and shaken in a jowl. At first they are stirred about with a stick till the strength of the acid is gone off, i.e. for about three minutes, and then the hand is put into it and the buttons rubbed about. This is usually done by boys and girls. It does not hurt the hands unless they are bad or have cuts before. . If it is too sharp they take their hands out and dab them in water. I knew a girl, however, who had “back friends,” i.e., chaps on her hands, who got her fingers bad for several weeks from putting her hand in so. They do not use acid in sufficient quantities to get it on their clothes, though it would burn them if they did.
The lathe work is close for the eyes, as they must watch constantly, and cannot be taken off a moment or the work would be spoiled, but there is nothing really injurious to the eye. Glasses, however, relieve it, and sometimes men who can see without put them on for rest after working three or four hours without them.
The state of education of those employed here is about the same as in other trades. Some of the girls have been in others, as at hooks and eyes, pens, and press work. Many have been kept at home to nurse, the women being away at factories.
386. Sarah Lindford, age 14. Polish buttons at a lathe with soft soap and rotten stone. Drilled at first; am now polishing with “smoking sauce,” [which phizzes{sic}] in a bowl. Have been at the work four years nearly. Have pretty good health and a good appetite; have not often a cough. Was a good deal tired with the lathe at first. My leg used to ache when I got home, and I had a pain it my knee and up the left side above my waist. Have it sometimes now but not often. Began to work full days when I first began, viz., from 9 till 7. Here the hours are from 8 till 8. Go home to dinner. Sit down in the shop to tea.
Can read [not all words of three letters only]. Was half a year at the day school, never at night; go on Sunday afternoon, and to chapel.
387. Jane Shelly, age 13.—Drill at a lathe. Began nearly two years ago; was tired a dood {sic – [presumably 'good'!} deal at first, but could go on without stopping. Gets 4s. a week. Was at errands in a warehouse before.
Cab read. [Reads] “I may of endless life partake.” “Partake,” by itself, without the other words, means “die.” “Endless life” is in heaven.
388. Selina Holmes, age 17.—“Hub” at a lathe. Have finished pearl buttons since 12 years old. Came in from the country (8 miles) to live here.
Can read (a little); not write.
389. Christina Slack, age 12.—Carder three years here and at another place. Can read, write, and sum.
390. Mary Elizabeth Payne, age 11.—Carder. Was at home till a year ago. Can read, write a copy, and sum figures on it slate. Did not ever do addition.


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