Employment of Children in the Button Trade 1841

Samuel Hammond Turner (died February 1841) answered the questions in 1840: members of staff (children and adults) were also questioned,

Taken from ‘Commission on child labour’ 1841, folios 129 to 133. Evidence collected by RD Grainger Esq. at Birmingham Button Manufactories.


December 3, 1840.—Messrs. TURNER & SONS, BUTTON MANUFACTURERS, Snow Hill.
This is one of the principal establishments in the button trade. The premises, generally speaking, are spacious; many of the shops are light and airy; in one, where there were 11 workers, the length was 16 feet 6 inches by 13 feet 11 inches.
There are distinct privies for the males and females, and those for the latter are not overlooked by the men.
Most creditable care is taken by the principals to insure good behaviour, and to prevent visiting and intercourse between the shops of the men and women. A regulation has been established, from which, if universally adopted, the best results might justly be anticipated— no person is admitted to work on the premises without producing a character.
Every facility was afforded me in prosecuting the inquiry by the principals. I experience much pleasure in offering my testimony to the good management and creditable state of this manufactory.
Some beautiful specimens were presented to the Commission by Messrs. Turner.

December 3, 1840 —Samuel H Turner, Esq
Is a partner in the firm of Turner and Sons, button manufacturers. Employs about 500 persons in this establishment. They have also establishments at London, Manchester, Leek, and Paris. Has great experience of the general habits and characters of the persons employed in his manufactory. Knows all these work-people personally. Has had constant opportunity of contrasting the conduct of the educated and well informed, with that of the ignorant and ill informed. Finds that the educated workman is unquestionably of much greater value to his employer than the uneducated. Would not knowingly employ even one of the very lowest mechanics, who could not read. Finds that exactly in proportion to the extent of a mechanic’s information is he respectful in his behaviour, and generally well conducted; and on the other hand, the ignorant are less respectful, and not so well disposed towards their employers. In the event of any disagreement between the workmen and their employers, the most ignorant are always the first to complain, and are invariably the most suspicious and untractable. Knows an instance 3 years ago when a combination took place among the button burnishers, of 5 men out of 25 employed, who having joined the combination, would not secede. These men were the least educated of the 25, and with the most contracted notions.
As regards the domestic habits of the educated class they are more attentive to the well-being of their families, they invariably educate their children, which he infers among other means of observation, from the fact that the children of such parents never swear or use bad language, comparatively speaking. Their houses are more cleanly. There is better economy, ‘every thing, in short, is made the best of.’ Men who are educated, and earn as much as 18s. or 1l. a-week, rarely, allow their wives to be employed at manufactories; they stay at home to superintend their domestic affairs. As a general rule they abstain from intemperate habits and they are enabled to bring up their families well. Has a great number of such mechanics whose average wages would amount to 18s. Among the stampers earning that sum there is not one who wife goes out to manufacturing labour. The educated class are attentive to their religious duties and send their children to Sunday-schools, none of these would be seen in their working clothes on the Sunday, but would be neatly dressed. If a man be seen going about with his apron on, on the Lord's-day, should infer he was a drunkard and of irregular habits.
Is of opinion that in all respects, it is even more important that the females should be educated than the men; because they have higher and more important duties to perform in bringing up their children and forming their habits. Thinks that whilst they are at school, they should not only be taught reading, writing, &c, but also the art of making and repairing their own clothes. If a general system of education were adopted, is of opinion that it would be desirable there should be attached to it a school of design, for the higher class of mechanics. Such an institution would not only prove beneficial as an amusement, and as improving their general knowledge, but also as leading to improvement in various branches of manufacturing. In proof of which it may be stated, that this establishment not being able to obtain the finer designs required in the business in this country, are obliged to procure them from Paris.
From his experience, is of opinion that great good may be accomplished by a proper attention on the part of the proprietor to the conduct and character of the work-people, and by enforcing proper regulations. As one principal means of improvement, the employer should require a good character from each new comer, and also cause inquiry to be made as to previous habits and conduct. If such a system were generally adopted, it would prove equally beneficial to the employer and the employed; as regards the former by securing a better servant, and as regards the latter, by improving his habits and conduct. Thinks that by an extended system of education and well considered regulations respecting superintendence, that many of the present evils, moral and physical, of the manufacturing system might be entirely removed, and all considerably ameliorated. Has found in all their establishments the most beneficial results from a careful selection of the persons who more immediately superintend the work-people, as foremen and clerks.
Particularly wishes to state that it is his opinion, the amelioration alluded to could not be expected, unless education were combined with a rational system of moral and religious instruction.

No. 350. December 5, 1840.—Mr. Joseph Conway.
Is foreman of Messrs. Turner and Sons. Has been employed in this manufactory upwards of 26 years. Has considerable experience in all that relates to this branch of trade, and is well acquainted with the character and conduct of the working classes employed, being from his situation constantly in contact with them. From all the means he has had of forming an opinion from this long and extended experience, is entirely convinced the educated and instructed work-people of every degree, from the highest to the lowest mechanic on the premises, and of every age, are the best conducted, both as regards the relations subsisting between them and their employers and as respects their private life. Finds by experience that they are more obliging, more attentive to their business, and therefore more to be depended on, than the ignorant and uninformed; that if any dispute arises between the mechanics and witness, he finds the educated more reasonable and more easily satisfied than the uneducated; that the latter on such occasions are more jealous, more suspicious, and more inclined to mistrust, and this in the degree of their ignorance. Finds that in consequence of irregularity of habits the uninformed are less valuable as workmen, and more difficult to deal with. The educated men and women are less intemperate and irregular in their habits, and in all respects better conducted. Thinks that they make better husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers, than those of the opposite class. Their houses are more clean and tidy “because they take a pride in it;” they are more careful of their appearance, and in their mode of dressing; they are more refined in their tastes and feelings, and altogether hold a higher station in life. Many of the cultivated class are fond of reading, and of pursuits which tend to improve the mind. They are more guarded in their language, swear less, and refrain from the use of obscene and indecent expressions; they attend more regularly Divine worship, and send their children to Sunday schools. It is his entire conviction that it would greatly tend to promote the interests of the employers, and the happiness of the mechanics, if all the labouring classes employed in manufactories received a good and comprehensive education.
Is convinced that it would greatly promote the happiness and well-being of the families of mechanics if females were instructed whilst at school in the art of cutting out making and repairing shirts, gowns, &c. At present, this knowledge is wanting in the majority of the female mechanics and the result is that either an expense is incurred, which presses seriously on their limited means, in the making and repairing those garments, or these when out of order remain neglected. Thinks that the husband and children are frequently made uncomfortable by the wife not knowing how to economise and properly prepare the food which they can afford and that this want of domestic comfort often drives the husband to the ale house.
Having had much opportunity of observing in this establishment the good results of a careful superintendence both as regards the interests of the proprietors, and the welfare of the mechanics, thinks that many of the evils of the present system might be ameliorated by a general attention to this subject on the part of the manufacturers.
[Note —Mr Conway is a person of superior intelligence and worth, and perfectly trustworthy.]

No. 351 December 5, 1840 —Mr Edward Allen.
Rents a part of the manufactory of Mr. Turner, and employs about 50 mechanics, men and women principally, and a few children. Children never come into this part of the business till 10 years of age, but he only takes those who have already learnt the work. Sets the tools for the female mechanics, and as the tools are in this branch all fixtures they can only be set on the spot where used. The tools are so liable to derangement that they may require setting 4 or 5 times a day: if there be 5 or 6 workers, he must be almost constantly on the spot. Does not think the pearl button business is so injurious to health as generally imagined.
There is one branch of the trade, namely, “grinding pearl buttons for shanking,” which is injurious, but it is scarcely ever practised, perhaps once in a month for a few hours.
From working with some of the mechanics whom he employs, and from having constant communication with all, is able to form a good opinion of the effect of education and instruction on them. From this experience would say, that the best educated are the most valuable as workmen; they are generally more attentive to their business, do not so much neglect in the beginning of the week and take more pride in it. If any press of business arises, finds that the educated class are more useful to him and that the work is quicker and better done. The more ignorant on the contrary will neglect their work in the beginning of the week with the notion that by over working towards the end, they will make up the lost time. The consequence is, that witness is injured by the work being done in a slovenly manner, and by the materials being wasted. Thinks that this system is a great injury to the town, that it applies to the “dissipated and illiterate.” As a master thinks it would be a great advantage, if all mechanics received such an education as would improve their knowledge and enlarge their minds.

No 352. December 7 —Mr Joseph Corbett
Has been employed more than 40 years at Messrs Turner’s as a button burnisher. The average wages in this trade, in full work, are from 30s. to 35s. a week, but there is often a want of employment. Has often been consulted by the mechanics generally on occasions when they required advice. Has been applied to by mechanics in reference to the objects of this inquiry. Has taken an active part in public proceedings connected with the trade of the town. Was one of a deputation consisting of two from the button-makers appointed to wait on His late Majesty George IV., and other branches of the royal family, nobility, &c., in order to induce them to encourage the trade. On this occasion received several votes of thanks from the masters and men. In 1837 was again appointed a deputy to wait on Viscount Melbourne relative to the distressed state of the nation.
The witness handed in the statement marked [G.]

[G.]—Statement of Mr. Joseph Corbett.
1. Children of both sexes are sent to work at too tender an age, particularly female children. During their childhood, at a time when fresh air and freedom from confinement are so essential, they toil throughout the day, acquiring not the least domestic instruction to fit them for wives and mothers. I will name one instance, and this applies to the general condition of females doomed to, and brought up amongst, shop-work.
My mother worked in a manufactory from a very early age. She was clever and industrious; and, moreover, she had the reputation of being Virtuous. She was regarded as an excellent match for a working man. She was married early. She became the mother of 11 children. I am the eldest. To the best of her ability she performed the important duties of a wife and mother. She was lamentably deficient in domestic knowledge; in that most important of all human instruction, how to make the home and the fire-side to possess a charm for her husband and children, she had never received one single lesson.
She had children apace. As she recovered from her lying-in, so she went to work, the babe being brought to her at stated times to receive nourishment. As the family increased, so anything like comfort disappeared altogether.
Poor thing, the power to make home cheerful and comfortable was never given to her. She knew not the value of cherishing in my father’s mind a love of domestic objects. My heart aches when I reflect upon her anxious and laborious situation.
Not one moment’s happiness did I ever see under my father’s roof. All this dismal state of things I can distinctly trace to the entire and perfect absence of all training and instruction to my mother. He became intemperate; and his intemperance made her necessitous. She made many efforts to abstain from shop-work; but her pecuniary necessities forced her back into the shop. The family was large, and every moment was required at home.
I have known her, after the close of a hard day’s work, sit up nearly all night for several nights together washing and mending of clothes. My father could have no comfort here. These domestic obligations, which in a well regulated house, (even in that of a working man, where, there are prudence and good management,) would be done so as not to annoy the husband; to my father they were a source of annoyance; and he from an ignorant and mistaken notion sought comfort in an alehouse.
My mother’s ignorance of household duties; my father’s consequent irritability and intemperance; the frightful poverty; the constant quarrelling, the pernicious example to my brothers and sisters; the bad effect upon the future conduct of my brothers; one and all of us being forced out to work, so young, that our feeble earnings would produce only 1s. a week; cold and hunger, and the innumerable sufferings of my childhood, crowd upon my mind and overpower me. They keep alive a deep anxiety for the emancipation of the thousands of families in this great town and neighbourhood, who are in a similar state of horrible misery. My own experience tells me that the instruction of the female in the work of a house, in teaching them to produce cheerfulness and comfort at the fire-side, would prevent a great amount of misery and crime. There would be fewer drunken husbands and disobedient children. As a working man, within my own observation female education is disgracefully neglected. I attach more importance to it than to anything else. They impart the first impression to the young susceptible mind; they model the child from which is formed the future man.
2. As regards males and females promiscuously together in one manufactory, I do consider it as having a most immoral tendency. I have always found, where the intercourse was promiscuous, the females to be careless in their dress, indecent in their conversation, unchaste in their conduct; in fact, they are inferior in all respects to those who are kept apart from the male sex. Look at the young women employed the higher department of the manufactory, the warehouse for instance, under the superintending care of a master of sober and moral character. Here will be neatness of dress, decent and becoming conversation, and attention to business. Intellectual education, whether from a Sunday school or other sources, produces a marked distinction of improvement. It is not difficult to imagine a young female, of pleasing face and person, exposed, by being placed in a manufactory, to the lewd remarks and familiarities of the coarse and dissipated of the other sex. Perhaps not one idea of virtue was ever established in the mind of this susceptible and credulous creature. She is now put in the certain path to ruin and seduction. She is often treated as an inferior being; until some infamous seducer flatters to obtain her ruin. She is the victim of her own confiding and unsuspecting nature, but she is branded for being extremely vicious.
Suppose the weekly earnings of a female to be 6s, and this is above the average, out of this she has to pay for lodgings, for clothes, and for the making of them too, for she cannot make them herself never having been taught; her washing after work-hours, she will do herself; in her outlay she most be frugal to keep clear of the inconveniences of debt.
There can be little or no saving in this instance. Suppose the poor creature to be put to half time, or to be thrown out of work all together, she has no parents, no friends to fall back upon, resources she can have none; what then is the alternative?
The answer is obvious.
3. With respect to “turn outs,” much bad feeling is oftentimes created by the unwillingness of a principal to listen to the complaints of their work-people; to talk over kindly; and with a good feeling, their mutual differences. By this means misunderstandings would be made clear; concessions made; unjust and unfounded suspicions on both sides prevented; and the painful suffering to families, and loss of property to the masters need not take place.
It is a fact that in my trade, at our place, no “turn out” ever took place; and yet our list of prices is a standard for the town; my shopmates were all well informed, and still more my employer was open at all times to easy access. He never refused to listen to the most trifling complaint. The manager also was a man of an amiable disposition.
His mediations were just and satisfactory to both parties. I remember with pleasure the testimony of a silver snuff-box being presented to him for his honourable and conciliatory conduct.—(Inscription: “Presented to Mr. Joseph Conway, as a tribute of respect, by a few friends in the employ of Messrs. Hammond, Turner, and Son, May the 7th, 1828.”)
The only instance of anything like disaffection took place at our manufactory in the beginning of 1838. It had no reference to prices. It was concerning privileges. A wrong notion prevailed. The best informed were open to conviction, and kept to their work; the others, 4 of them, who were extremely ignorant, left their work, but soon afterwards repented of their precipitate and short-sighted conduct.
4. I have seen the entire ruin of many families from the waste of money and bad conduct of fathers and sons seeking amusement and pastime in an ale-house. From no other single cause alone does half so much demoralization and misery proceed.
Here I am forced back to the painful scenes of my childhood. Thousand and millions resort to the ale-house for conversation and amusement; and it would be anything but paternal on the part of Government to break up, or attempt to break up these places, without furnishing them with other recreative resources, as for instance, gymnastic exercises, quoits, cricket, &c.; public gardens, walks, baths, reading-rooms; &c.
Having worked in a manufactory 40 years, the effects of ignorance amongst the working people have been the cause of much uneasiness to myself.
The better a man was educated the better workman he made; and more civil and obliging to his employers, and the more respected and valued by them. I speak from the experience and observation of many years. Instruction and kindness towards the working classes has an elevating tendency. Women’s minds are often debased by the coarse and brutal conduct and conversation of their masters. The one mode of treatment creates better servants, and therefore better domestic characters; the other produces viciousness and brutality of feeling.
If the rich knew how much they could accomplish by condescension and example they would not be so scanty of kindness to the poor.
As a proof what kindness may produce, I will speak of my own place of work.
An aunt was employed upwards of 70 years; my mother 30 years; my father 30 years; myself upwards of 40 years; a son, who works under me, is now within a few days of being of age. Others have worked at the manufactory from periods of 10 to 50 years.
December 7, 1840. (Signed) JOSEPH CORBETT.
[Note.—This most creditable statement, the product of a Birmingham mechanic, is inserted without a single alteration of any kind.]

No. 353 December 5 —Sarah Foxall
Is married. Has been overlooker in Mr. Turner’s manufactory, of the shop where the “press girls” work about 5 years, and altogether has been employed in the establishment 21 years. Her grandmother worked here nearly 50 years, and was very much respected by Mr. Turner. There are a great many old “substantial” hands employed, more in proportion than any other establishment. Many of the women’s children work here. The Messrs. Turner are very particular as to the behaviour and conduct of the workpeople; and if any misconduct is discovered, the party offending would either be discharged or reprimanded. Great care is taken to prevent any improper conduct between the men and women and any misconduct of this kind would be more severely punished than any fault as to the work. The females and males are kept in separate and distinct shops, and, unless on business, all visiting between the shops is prohibited. If any improper intimacy were to take place, it would be witness’s duty to inform Mr Conway of it. No person is admitted to work here without a character. The privies are quite distinct, and the young women are not overlooked by the men. Thinks that as manufactories are generally conducted in this town, great evils result as regards the morals of the young people. From what she sees here, conceives that a large part of these evils might be obviated by proper regulations without interfering with the business of the manufactory. It would be very beneficial if more care were taken in preventing the free intercourse which now goes on in the shops; and if the proprietors made it a rule never to receive a mechanic, male or female, without a character. Has heard it for a fact, that great mischief has arisen in other manufactories from the indiscriminate use of the privies by the sexes. Thinks that such a system is in an especial manner injurious to the morals of the young girls and boys. It is her own opinion that this is more productive of mischief than any other circumstance connected with the manufactories. Should have great objection to send any of her children to manufactories in which this system prevailed.
Thinks it would be a great advantage if the mother of a family could make and repair the body-linen, &c. It often happens that females have no work one day; especially Monday, in the week, which is now occupied in idleness, but which might, unless the family were large, be sufficient to make and keep the linen in order. Independently of this she finds by her own experience that she can keep her children’s things in order after she returns home in the evening. Knows that a not infrequent cause of quarrelling between husbands and wives is the incapacity of the latter to properly cook the food; and that this incapacity certainly leads to waste. Thinks that these and similar discomforts often drives the husband to the public-house.
The people in this establishment are happy and contented; and if any leave, they are generally glad to get back again.

No. 354. December 3—Selina Cooper, 19 years old.
Reads well. Cannot write. Went, at the age of 6 or 7, to the Pinfold Street day-school 4 years. Was taught to read and spell. Did not learn much. Could not read the Bible; but this was read by those sufficiently advanced. Had at this school no religious instruction.
After she left this day-school, went, about 12 years of age to the Baptist Sunday-school in Lombard Street. Here she learned to read; received religious instruction; was not questioned as to religious subjects “because there were so many children.”* Is employed at “press-work.” Has worked here about 7 months; before that, worked for a year and a half at steel-pen making. Was in service two years previously. Finds that the button trade and steel-pen making agree with her health as well as service. The work-shop is airy and comfortable, winter and summer. No accident has happened in this and adjoining shop, containing 21 workers, since she has been here. Has 10 days or a fortnight’s holiday at Christmas; 2 days at each fair: 2 half days at Easter.
Is hired by Mr. Conway, foreman. Made her own agreement. In full work, receives 6s. a week. Has plenty of work at all times. In the summer can make 7 days. There is no corporal punishment in either of these 2 shops. If the work is not done in sufficient quantity at the end of one week, it is made up in the next.
[* She has a good knowledge of her duty towards God and towards her neighbour.]

No. 355 December 3.—Sarah Cadby, 44 years old.
Reads and writes a little. Works at drilling pearl buttons. Has been in trade 15 years. Worked before that in this manufactory at the gilt and plating trade, former is worse for health. The pearl dust lies at the chest. Her breathing is very bad in the morning. Has had constant pain in the side since she has worked at the pearl-button trade. These effects are common to all the mechanics in this business. Is only able to work 6 hours a day, because she is not able to stand it longer. The regular hours are from 8 A.M. till 7 P.M. One hour is allowed for dinner and half an hour for tea. Works by the piece.

No. 356. December 7.—Thomas Richards.
Works at Messrs Turner’s, Snow Hill. Worked at Mr Aston’s 26½ years. Aston made a regulation which was productive of benefit that in the event of a woman becoming pregnant, both parties would be discharged if marriage did not take place; the consequence in many instances was, the parties were married.


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