The Birmingham Button Trade part 7

Having now reviewed, in a general way, the various branches of the trade worthy of any special notice, I must add a few words about the artisans employed in them, and of these the numbers are considerable, though, naturally, very varying according to circumstances.
From as careful an analysis as I have been enabled to make, I should put down their numbers thus:—

Employed in metal button-making of all kinds about 1,200
In covered buttons, including linen, about 1,500
In pearl buttons, about 2,000
In vegetable ivory buttons, about 700
In other kinds, as glass, horn, bone, wood, &c., about 600
Total 6,000

The greatest number employed in any one manufactory is in that of Mr. Wm. Aston, Princip Street, where there are from 700 to 800; then follow, Dain, Watts, and Manton; Hammond, Turner, and Sons; and Smith and Wright; but as these employ many outworkers, the numbers actually engaged on their premises would not give a just comparative estimate. Then, again, there are certain houses having no manufactory at all, who keep on a number of small makers, a practice especially common in the pearl button trade.
As to the people themselves, out of the 6,000 at which I estimated their numbers, full two-thirds, if not more, are women and children, whose condition may be best understood by referring to the Government Commissioners’ report lately published. I fear there are among them as many instances of a low state of education and morals as can be found in any other trade where many women and children are engaged. The mere fact that they are employed must always be an index of a lower criterion of character than obtains in trades where skilled men are mostly required, who can thus afford to keep their wives at home and send their young children to school. On the other hand, the button trade can boast as many of the more respectable and intelligent artisans as any other, and perhaps more than most. The nature of the work involves, in many cases, considerable artistic skill, or educated art, as in closing, tool making, burnishing, and in the turning of pearl and other buttons, and where so high a degree of workman ship is not necessary, there is still a certain variety of labour and careful attention to be given to it that involve some exercise of the mind as well as of the mere physique; as in stamping, pressing, polishing, cutting out, &c., &c., so that a certain kind, of sharpening of the wits goes on, more than exists in many other kinds of labour.
Some of the men still earn good wages, in occasional instances from £2 to £4 per week, though the average, of course, would run much lower, say about 25s. in ordinary times, when trade is neither very bad, or remarkably good. There are instances of women’s earnings reaching as high as 16s. to 20s. per week, but that is only with individuals very skilful in their particular work, or with heads of shops. The average of adult women’s wages is not more than 7s. to 9s., which, for girls and young children, runs down to 1s. 6d. or 1s.

Many of these last come to work as young as six years old, and numbers are employed between that age and twelve as attendants on older hands, or doing such work as is merely mechanical. For this reason the button trade became an important one for enquiry as to the operation of a proposed Factory Act to be applied to Birmingham, the particulars of which may be found in detail in Mr. J. E. White’s Report in the Blue Book of 1864, from which it will be seen that all employers felt the evil attendant upon the employment of very young children as at present carried on, and the majority of them believed that some sort of legislation on the subject might be beneficially introduced.

There is, however, to my mind, a greater evil than this, which public opinion cannot too loudly condemn, and which, though perhaps too difficult to legislate for, unless very partially, should yet be prominently noticed in any Government enquiry. I ventured, therefore to draw Mr. White’s particular attention to the very frequent practice of married women, whether with or without families, working in shops—a very common thing in the button trade. A young girl enters a manufactory, and acquires a certain skill in her work, worth perhaps eight shillings to ten shillings a week, which becomes an useful addition to the family income while she lives at home, and no doubt the habit of industry thus acquired is also good; but shortly she marries, and very frequently instead of turning to useful housewifely duties, and seeing that her home is orderly, neat, and clean for her husband’s reception and comfort, and so making her true value lie there; she, or may be he also, is dazzled with the direct prospect of the certain addition she is capable of making to their income by going to work. The home is neglected, domestic habits on the part of both are impaired, and the social beauty of the domestic hearth, and the true wealth that the well-keeping of it must bring, lost in the attraction of present gain. Then, when a baby comes, the necessity of increased means is more pressingly felt; and though then, if ever, is the time when every wife has enough to do to fulfil her duty at home, they often choose to pay some shillings per week to a neighbour to look after the child, in order to jingle in their pockets the miserable balance of their earnings at the week’s end. Can anyone wonder that, in many of these cases, the husband prefers the public house, where, at any rate, he can enjoy a quiet pipe in a well-sanded apartment and a pleasant chat with shopmates, to a home which cannot be kept clean, children dirty and restless from want of due attention and food improperly cooked, and often wasted? No doubt the training girls receive by going into manufactories is not one suited to make good wives of them; nevertheless, they may always learn enough to do first duties tolerably, and their woman’s nature and instincts will soon adapt themselves to those pursuits and occupations for which they are specially fitted, so that this drawback is not of weight sufficient to discourage the employment of girls in this way, which offer so many other advantages.
It is remarkable too, that, after all, the money women can so earn is very small, lower, I believe, than most other places where women are largely employed, as in Yorkshire and Lancashire. it may be put down, as an average, at not more than one third the wages of men, a remuneration that leaves the motive for the labour of married women really so weak when reasonably viewed, that one feels amazed to find so many yielding to it. No doubt when a husband is thrown out of work, or is ill, the ability of the wife to stem the inroads of absolute poverty may be well employed; but these are exceptions, not the rule, and I am convinced that many husbands are encouraged in idleness from this very circumstance.
The condition of the workers is naturally the worst in the shops of very small employers, with whom competition is too close to enable them to spend money in improving the comforts of those about them, and who employ as a rule the least skilled hands, and for that reason the worst paid and least materially elevated in every respect. There are, however, special classes in the larger manufactories quite on a par with the lowest in these respects, the “nut crackers,” for instance, little lads who are engaged in breaking the outer shells off the vegetable ivory nuts ready for the workman who saws them up. Every little rascal who is too wild for steady work can be set to do this, and consequently they are the veriest little Arabs to be found in any branch of industry, their destructive propensities being however happily utilised in the manner described.

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