It’s a title to make you think twice, especially in this day and age. But it was coined in Victorian times by a journalist.Robert Sheracy travelled around Britain, interviewing people for a series called The White Slaves on England, published over a number of issues in 1896 in Pearson’s Magazine. He did come to Leeds, where he talked to a number of people for the article entitled The White Slaves of England: The Slipper-Makers and Tailors of Leeds. Several of the quotes here are taken directly from the testimony given to him. Their words are more powerful than any fiction.
As the train left Leeds, I looked back to see the pall of smoke covering the city. It was a rich place; rich for some, anyway. We gathered steam, moving south at a good pace and I pulled the sheaf of notes from my briefcase.
I’d talked to a number of people, male and female, for my article. The poor and the poorest, each tale sadder than the last. But it was the faces of the girls who stayed with me. So young and so hopeless. Leeds is a city of many industries, but for the girls there are few options but service or the mills.
I’d been fortunate to have a good contact in Miss Isabella Ford, a Quaker and a socialist who’d long battled for these girls, and given me introductions to some of them at the Wholesale Clothiers’ Operatives Union.. First, though, she’d instructed me on the system the master implemented for their own advantage.
‘There are fines for everything,’ Miss Ford told me. ‘Unfortunately, thanks to the judges’ interpretation of the Truck Act, these are legal. A girl came to me who’d been forced to pay a fine of tuppence, when all she earned that day was a penny-ha’penny. Why? Because she was a minute late to work. The masters employ a boy as timekeeper and his earnings are commission from all the fines levied. Another woman had been deducted two shillings from her week’s pay for bad work, when she’d made a total of four shillings and tuppence. But the owners went on to sell the goods as good work, and she never saw that money back.’
She brought in a girl, Mary Ann, who’d been forced to leave her job in the mill because she couldn’t make any money there. She was shy and nervous, wondering if she should even be talking to me, if someone vengeance awaited her. I had to assure Mary Ann that I wouldn’t name her in the article; only then would she speak.
‘How much did you earn in a week?’ I asked her.
‘In a good week I made two shilling and seven pence, sir,’ she said. ‘But often it was less, depending on the work going in the mill. One week it was just a shilling.’
‘And what did you have to pay out?’ Miss Ford said.
‘We had to pay for our sewings, the thread and everything else. That week when I only made a shilling, I’d had to spend eight pence. Often it was ten pence.’
‘Tell him where you worked,’ Miss Ford suggested.
‘They called it a punishing house.’ The girl reddened as she said the words. ‘We hardly had time for our dinner, and the room for it was so small that you could only get a few in there at a time. I never used it. We had to bring our own dinner, but the master charged us a penny or tuppence “for cook” – to heat it for us, I mean. And you had to pay it, no ifs or buts. Everyone did. When I didn’t have enough money, I didn’t eat. It was the same with the other girls. Some of them would beg food from the men, but I couldn’t. Doing that just led to things.”
Miss Ford told me of more tools inflicted on the girls. A penny in the shilling for steam power, no matter if the girl worked from home. In some places the girls have to pay a penny or two towards the rent of the factory. Then the masters will round down the wages to an even number, so the odd pennies vanish from the wage packet.
‘They promise the girls that the money will go towards a trip for them. But in my years working for the union, I’ve never heard of a single trip yet.’
The wages vary from season to season, and in slack times many can earn no more than two shillings a week. Even when they’re busy it’s rare to make more than twelve shillings a week. One or two had made fifteen shillings at times, but they were the quickest, best workers, with full time and overtime.
Often the masters will beat down the prices to line their pockets a little more.
‘One time, when we were all very hungry,’ a girl called Jane explained, ‘the foreman told us there were 400 sailor suits coming up. Would we do them for threepence each? We refused, because the lowest price should have been threepence-halfpenny. The foreman kept us waiting a day and a half, and at last we were so hungry that we gave in.’
Catherine, a woman who looked to be twenty-five, pinch-faced and sallow, her hair greasy, told me,
‘The masters often say they have so many hundred articles to be sewn, if we want to do them at a reduced rate. We prefer not to be idle, so we accept, expecting to have so many to sew. But the masters have lied, and there is much less to sew than had been promised.’
The masters never told them when work would be slack, she said, and the foremen were bullies, using foul language to the girls.
‘We come to the factory, and if there’s no work, we have to stay in case some comes in. They never tell us so people won’t know there’s no business.’
Another girl confirmed this to me.
‘I come in at eight am,’ she told me. ‘If I’m late I’ll be fine a penny or tuppence. There will be nothing for me to do. Then I’ll sit at my machine doing nothing until half-past twelve. Then I’ll ask the foreman if I can go home. He’ll say, “No, there’s orders coming up after dinner.” Dinner? I probably haven’t had any, knowing work was slack and expecting to get home. So I go without it. At half-past one I’ll go back to my machine and sit doing nothing. Foreman will say: “Work hasn’t come up yet”. I have to sit at my machine. Once I fainted from hunger and asked to be allowed to go home. But they wouldn’t let me, and locked me up in the dining room. I sit at my machine till three or four. Then the foreman will say, as though he were conferring a favour: “The orders don’t seem to be coming in, you can go home till the morning”. And I go home without having earned a farthing. Sometimes work may come in the afternoon, and then I will stay on till half-past six, earning a wage for the last two or three hours.’