Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The "Sewer" or the early days of the London Underground

     To understand the development of the London Underground, or “Tube,” one has to look at both the growth and sprawl of the metropolis and the existing modes of transport in the middle years of the nineteenth century. As the population of London expanded from one million in 1800 to more than 2,350,000 by mid-century modes of transport became increasingly mechanised and the movement of the population from the country to the city accelerated.
London Traffic 1871
     With the expansion of the Great Metropolis, both in the number of its residents and the extension of its boundaries, many areas which had been outlying rural districts became part of the growing suburbs of the city. “There was,” as Eric Lampard opined, “a certain myopic quality to the later Victorian belief in the Suburbs.” In addition, I think that for many of the “movers and shakers” of London, their sense of the continuing progress, at least for their class, reinforced their belief in infinite progress.

     But progress always comes at a price and in the second half of the nineteenth century that price, among others, meant creating the means for a mobile workforce, a workforce that could be easily and speedily conveyed from their places of habitation to their places of employment. Attempts to expedite this process had been made through the century. The horse-drawn cabs were far too expensive for the working class and the horse-drawn omnibuses, an early attempt at mass transit were first seen on London streets in 1829. The earliest of these was the Paddington to the City omnibuses established by George Shillibeer; by the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, there were almost 1,500 omnibuses covering 150 routes. Even so, the cost to passengers was comparatively high and, as a result, the omnibuses were used largely by the middle classes. Nor were the omnibuses able to move the large numbers of passengers. The earliest fares were from sixpence to a shilling, but by the latter years of the century these had fallen to three halfpence in order to compete with the Underground. Forty years later, there were, according to W. J. Gordon, in The Horse World of London, “ten thousand horses working a thousand omnibuses, travelling twenty million miles in a year, and carrying one hundred and ten million passengers.”

A London Omnibus 1860s
     Despite their growth, their increasing affordability and being “the most characteristic feature of London, the omnibuses were not up to the task of moving the vast hordes of the labouring classes to, from and through the Great Wen.
     By the middle of the century, the city was reachable, at least to its outskirts, by rail-lines. Once, however, the passengers alighted, whether at Paddington, Waterloo, Victoria or one of the other terminuses, a trip into the City itself or to the West End, became dependent on other means of transport. The traveller was thrown back on the hackney cab, the omnibus or shanks’s pony.

     Mary Higgs, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in Glimpses into the Abyss commented, “the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil.” It was “the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows.” It is this, she describes as “the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!”

     Ironically, the growth of the suburbs with the need for increased transportation options contributed to the congestion of already overcrowded London. For example, when horse drawn trams, on steel tracks, were introduced in the 1860s, they were opposed, not surprisingly, by omnibus operators, but also by inner-London on the grounds they would increase rather than reduce traffic congestion.

     The idea of an underground system linking the termini and offering safe and speedy means of getting around London had first been mooted in the 1830s, but for a variety of reasons, including the expense of such construction, lack of interest from the established railways and the Crimean War, it was not until the mid-1850s that permission was granted for the Metropolitan Railway to begin construction of the first line at a cost of one million pounds. Construction began in 1860 and was completed three years later. The line was built using the “cut and cover” method. Aside from the great disruption this caused to those whose properties were demolished and the effect it had on trade in the immediate vicinity, it allowed construction close to the surface and this, in turn, helped mitigate some of the unpleasantness of travelling underground.
Cut-and-cover caused massive disruption
     In May of 1862 the directors and engineers of the project inspected the line from Paddington to the City. Among the passengers travelling in open carts was the Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. 
Inspecting the Line in May 1862
     When the line was finally completed all of the stakeholders joined in celebration. On January 9, 1863, a party of 600 Parliamentarians, railway officials and executives as well as the rich, famous and important of London progressed by train from Paddington to a banquet at the Farringdon Street Station. There were speeches made and music provided by the Metropolitan Police Band.
Farringdon Street Station Banquet

     The line officially opened the next day. Steam locomotives pulled gas-lit carriages through the dark tunnels from Paddington to the City over a distance of six kilometres. 
The Original Metropolitan Underground Line
    On the first day of operation the line carried 38,000 passengers and in the first week, 225,000. By the end of its first year of operation there had been more than nine million riders.

     Although the horse-drawn omnibuses and trams were to survive into the twentieth century only to be replaced by more modern above-ground modes of transport, the underground railway had clearly arrived. Within days, the newspapers were reporting that passenger numbers were down for omnibuses and fares had been reduced from Paddington to Whitechapel Church as well as from Paddington to London Bridge or the Bank. Less than a fortnight after the line opened, the following description of a trip appeared in “London Letter,” in the John o’ Groat Journal for 22 January:
Taking out a first-class ticket, we enter the large and spacious carriages, and observe at once that, different from any other railway, the carriages are lighted with gas. The line, being of the broad gauge, admits of large and handsome carriages, most comfortably and elegantly seated for five on each side, and fitted up with cozy cushions and elbows. The gas is contained in a vessel attached to the roof of each carriage, holding a sufficient quantity to last a journey. The introduction of this system of lighting enables one to read his novel or newspaper with perfect ease, and, indeed, combined with the smooth travelling on the broad gage [sic], almost makes one forget that he is in a train, and not in a drawing-room. A certain closeness of atmosphere can scarcely be avoided, but owing to the peculiar construction of the engines by which they consume their own smoke, no sulphurous fumes are added, and the travelling, if properly managed, must be perfectly safe.
     This view was certainly shared by Sir William Hardman who, with his wife, made a trip down the “drain” on the 26th of January. Their first-class trip from Edgeware Road to King’s Cross cost them 6d each and they rode in a ten-person carriage with divided seats. First class carriages were lit by two gas lights and were high enough that “a six footer may stand erect with his hat on.”

     Not everyone was thrilled with the new underground railway, especially those who were forced to ride in third class. Only one day after the “London Letter” appeared, The Morning Post was objecting to the foul smelling, mephitic odour which pervaded the stations in the form of “a misty vapour irresistibly combining the idea of a laundry and a limekiln.” It was, according to The Post, “enough to produce a headache in five minutes, and five minutes more would be sufficient for the heaviest of colds.”
Workmen waiting for the 3rd Class Train, 1872
But by the end of the month in which the Metropolitan Railway opened for business, The Times could say, in judgement,
It has worked with success and found unexpected favour.  The threats of steam and smoke, of chokedamp and sewerage, of rats and banditti, with which it has been hailed in some quarters, have been dispelled by the result.
     If Sir William Hardman is to be trusted, the Underground was used by the highest as well as the lowest of the land, including the Prince of Wales.
The other day, just before his marriage [10 March 1863] he was smoking in a first-class railway carriage (ordinary train) and the porter, not recognising him, asked him to show his ticket. A lady residing at Windsor told a friend of ours she was sure the Prince was a person of no mind at all, as he had gone up to the bookstall and bought a copy of Punch and actually paid for it himself. Perhaps you will agree with us that an unaffected young fellow who hates nonsensical dignity, smokes in the railway, and reads Punch, may turn out not so badly after all.
And while there may be much debate as to whether or not the Prince of Wales actually turned out “not so badly,” there is no question that the London Underground, the Tube, which grew out of the Metropolitan Underground Railway did turn out well indeed.

Today, the London Tube carries over a billion and a quarter passengers per year over 402  kilometers of track at an average speed of thirty-three kilometers an hour.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"March came in like a Lion," The Great Blizzard of 1891

If you had read the Meteorological Office's summary of observations for February 1891, you could hardly be blamed for assuming that spring would be sunny and delightful.  The weather in February had been exceptionally dry, although there was a more than usual amount of fog, particularly towards the latter part of the month. There was surprisingly little rain;  according to the Met, less than one-tenth of an inch over the whole of England. There was, however, enough bright sunshine to suggest that fine weather was on its way.
The amount of bright sunshine was upon the whole very large, especially over England where the per-centage of the possible quantity was in some places nearly twice as much as the average.
March, however, was to prove a different matter.  The first few days of the month were chilly, with none of the badly needed rain which farmers must have hoped would follow such a temperate February. During the first week of the new month, the weather turned colder but, on the whole, remained fair.  In fact, the forecast for Southwest England and Wales, for 9 March, issued at 8:30 the previous evening, called for "North-easterly winds, moderate; fair generally." 

Plymouth, Devonport and Storehouse saw sporadic snowfall in the late morning of Monday the 9th along with a rising wind.  By six in the evening,
in the three towns some four or five inches of snow lay upon the ground, and the wind had increased to a hurricane. Slates began to start from the roofs of houses, and chimneys to fall, and in a very short time the streets assumed a deserted appearance, and all vehicular traffic was stopped. Advertisement hoardings were hurled from their positions with some terrible crashes.
Tuesday was "an indescribably wretched day," while Thursday saw more snow and squalls. In Bristol, in the early hours of the storm, tramway cars were  unable to function and had to be withdrawn from service.  On at least one line an attempt was made to keep it functioning using five horses instead of the usual two.  Even with the additional pulling power, the results were unsatisfactory.  At Tiverton, the weather on market day was so severe that the event was suspended for the first time in its history. 

On the 10th of the month, The Times published a report from a correspondent in Dover:  
One of the most awful nights ever known here is being experienced in the Channel tonight.  The gale of this afternoon has increased into a hurricane, accompanied by a blizzard. The sea in the harbour is so rough that the waves are washing over the quays, and great excitement prevails, the greatest difficulty being experienced in holding the vessels to their moorings.
But the Met remained phlegmatic. Their forecast for the 10th, issued at 8:30 pm on the previous day, merely suggested that in the South-west and in South Wales  there would be "wind backing northwards and moderating; very cold, some snow."

Despite the forecast from the Met, on Monday the 9th, the South of England was devastated by a storm of such magnitude as had not been witnessed in living memory.  The storm continued unabated for days.  According to the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall, Devon and Cornwall were practically isolated by the storm in which 200 people died. Trees were uprooted, trains were snowbound and snow piled in drifts up to 15 feet high. One train was only discovered after 36 hours when a farmer looking for lost sheep was hailed by the passengers. All that time it had been only 250 yards from the farmhouse!  

Trapped in the Snow
The train line between Newton Abbott and Plymouth was completely blocked, but the full extent of the situation was unknown since telegraph lines had come down as a result of the storm. Between Bridestow and Okehampton a passenger train with more than 100 on board was snowed in for twenty hours.

Travellers were completely unprepared for the problems they faced. And without heat and food, often for several days, it was a miracle that no train passengers died.  The Illustrated London News, commented that “no such privations have ever been experienced in railway travel in this country within living memory.”

If those on trains were inconvenienced and uncomfortable those aboard ships were faced with fearful conditions.  All along the Channel and beyond, ships were blown aground.  Perhaps the most dramatic was the wreck of the Bay of Panama making for Dundee with a load of Jute taken on at Calcutta.  She was 111 days out when she was driven onto the rocks at Penare Point about 25 miles south of Falmouth. A four masted steel ship, she was eight years old and a beautiful vessel, but in the worst storm to hit the Southwest in well over a century, she proved no match for the weather.  The captain, DavidWright, of Liverpool, his wife, all but one of the six officers, four apprentices, and six of the crew, were either frozen to death in the rigging or drowned.This made a loss of eighteen lives out of a company of about forty all told. While it was the most dramatic wreck of the storm, it was only one of many.
The Wreck of the Bay of Panama
From Falmouth the news was telegraphed to The Times of a number of other wrecks.  A steamer went ashore at Portloe with the loss of one life.  Nearby, a German steamer was driven ashore.  Even those ships that managed to survive the storm often did so with loss of life and extensive damage. 
The survivors, numbering seven, of the steamer Neptune, of Newcastle, on being landed at Weymouth ... reported the loss of their captain and first mate ... washed overboard. ... The steamer left Guernsey on Monday, and, after being at sea a few hours, met the full force of the blizzard in the English Channel.  Sea after sea swept her decks, partially dismantling her.  The fires were extinguished, and, when the vessel was on the point of foundering, the steamer Headworth fell in with her, and towed her to Portland.
Other crews were luckier and despite considerable risk and difficulties managed to survive the storm.  The schooner Alice Brookall, with a cargo of coals from Swansea to Jersey ran aground; the crew of five dropped from the bowsprit to the rocks where they passed the night "exposed to the fury of the storm." In the morning the climbed the cliffs and reached a farmhouse where they were able to shelter.

Although the brunt of the storm was felt in the south of England, London did not escape lightly.  There was a great deal of damage to houses; so much so that The Times  reported
In the south-east and south-west districts of London employment in abundance for slaters, carpenters, glaziers, and gardeners, and even brick-layers, will be one result of the storm. Roofs have been partially stripped of slates and tiles, the framework and glass of conservatories injured beyond repair, and flower-beds and shrubberies destroyed, even gate-pillars being dismantled and small boundary brick walls thrown down.  Some fine trees in Dulwich have been uprooted, and in Brixton the windows in some private houses have been blown in.  
Among the greatest risks for those on land as well as those on sea was that of fire.  The cold weather meant that many households had recourse to the fireplace for heat, but the high winds placed chimneys at risk and even when the chimney survived, the wind blew smoke and snow back down into the fireplace. 

Despite the terrible effects of the storm, Mr Punch could not resist a poke at the traditional afternoon "At Home," suggesting that even that had been suspended due to the weather!

(10 to 1 Nobody turns up.)
In all, the week beginning March 9th was a memorable one.  The storm which lasted for several days finally departed, almost at its leisure leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. For many, particularly those living in the Southwest of England, it would be the worst storm in their lifetime. In the ferocious blizzard, more than 200 people and 6,000 animals died. Twenty-eight ships were sunk and the cost to shipping, businesses and individuals was incalculable.

To download or read on-line an 1891 account of The Blizzard in the West, click here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Income vs Expenditure in Working-Class Victorian England

East Enders
Every school student must be aware of the financial advice that Charles Dickens has Mr Micawber offer the eponymous hero of his novel, David Copperfield. In fact, Micawber offers this guidance twice within a dozen pages.
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness.  Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds aught and six, result misery.  The blossom is blighted, the leaf withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and --and in short you are for ever floored.
Published in 1850, it leaves the question as to the actual value of twenty pounds unclear.  What is clear, of course, is that Micawber is one who invariably spends more than he has and lives in the expectation that something will turn up.

For those who lived in poverty in the East End in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was all too little hope that something would, in reality, "turn up."  We have seen the fearful conditions under which the Matchwomen laboured and the niggardly pay they received for long hours and the risk of disease that constantly haunted their lives. But what about other workers?  What did they earn and what were their expenses like?

One problem faced by students of the Victorian Era is the relationship between income and expenditure.  A common mistake, of course, is to equate these with present-day figures.  To do so fails, particularly in the area of expenditure, to recognize changes in the inherent value of goods.  For example, if a product is new on the market, the cost will probably be higher than the price of the same product several years later, when competition may have increased and production methods improved. Other factors which may effect costs (as well as rate and volume of production) may be as diverse as advertising and the weather. Income may also be effected by the provision (or lack) of benefits as well as the influence of the seasons on employment. A servant might earn as little as  £10 per annum, but would have all of his or her living expenses covered and would be employed for the entire year whereas an agricultural labourer was at the mercy of the seasons and of the weather. For these, as well as other reasons, probably the best approach in trying to determine what is, essentially, standard of living is to use a "slice of life."  So, for our purposes, we might look at some incomes of the working class in London and some of their expenses in the middle years of the ninth decade of the nineteenth century.


A Matchwoman in the East End of London, in the 1880's would, as we have seen, be likely to have earned from 6-12 shillings a week.  Even were one of these women fortunate enough to be employed throughout the year, her annual income, at best, would be around £30.  A bank clerk, a shopkeeper or a street-seller would be doing well to bring home a pound a week. Some indication of the level of wages in the latter years of Victoria's reign can be garnered from A. L. Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century (1900).

It might be worth digressing here for just a moment.  Although the UK today uses decimal currency, this is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Until February of 1971, the currency was based on pounds (£), shillings (s) and pence (d).  Beyond this there were farthings (¼d) and half-pennies as well as other coins of varying values which are recognizable by their names (three-penny bit, sixpence). To further confuse, there are sovereigns and crowns, half-crowns and florins and most confusing of all the guinea.  The last of these has not been minted for almost 200 years but is still used to quote prices, especially when one is seeking to add a bit of an aristocratic tone.

Back to basics, however.  In the old coinage it was twelve pence to a shilling, twenty shillings to a pound and to help understand prices 21 shillings or one pound and 1 shilling to the guinea. Money figures were usually written in the format £/s/d so a figure of 36 pounds, 7 shillings and five pence would appear as £36/7/5.

The Farthing, 1/4 Pence

So, how much did various tradesmen and unskilled labourers earn in the '80s and '90s?  According to Bowley, a bricklayer might earn just slightly less than two pounds a week in the summer but only 36 shillings in the winter while a bricklayers labourer would, on average earn about 12 shillings less than the bricklayer. Farm labourers in the '80s would have taken home around 15 shillings a week, but work was seasonal and many weeks might have seen no income, or a much lower income. A Mason might earn 29 shillings a week and a carpenter twenty-five.Overall, in the middle years of the 1880s, the average annual wage for workers in England,   £46/12/- was greater than the average wage in Scotland or Ireland.  In the latter, it was only £23/6/-.  For the United Kingdom overall, the adult male average wage was £56 while the average wage for all workers was £42/14/-.


While grappling with the actual amounts of earnings can prove difficult, even limiting expenditure to the working class includes a wide range of employments and incomes.   Situations might differ dramatically depending upon what an individual did and his family circumstances. Fortunately, we can gain some idea of what individual items cost from newspapers, catalogues and  personal papers.  But even this does not allow us, in most instances to determine what basic expenditures might be.

An article, "Life on a Guinea a Week," which appeared in The Nineteenth Century in March of 1888, offers some insight into what a clerk, earning 50 guineas (i.e. £52/10/- might have in the way of expenditure.  The figures given are for a single male who, because of his employment, is faced with the "imperative demand for respectability." The author of the article makes the point that " ... a guinea a week can be squeezed when necessity compels" and goes on to further point out

...That there are large numbers of young and middle-aged men in London absolutely dependent upon twenty-one shillings per week is a proposition which admits of no question.

It is clear from the text that the author believes that a working man could live on much less.  But this is based on the assumption that the working man is single, has no familial responsibility and is in regular employment. Keeping these caveats in mind, how does our author suggest that his aspiring clerk can survive and even prosper on a guinea a week?

First, there is the question of clothing.  Our young friend expends, on average, a sum of £7/18/7 per year.  Since this includes such items as a silk hat, a suit of Sunday clothes and an overcoat which is to be replaced at two-yearly intervals, it is unlikely that a labourer would be subjected to such expenses. Indeed, the author of the article points out that 
a mechanic or artisan, ...preferably selects the coarsest and most wearable material as clothing.  Even this is protected whilst the man is at work by a rough apron.
As for a hat, or head-covering, "a three-and-sixpenny felt hat" will do and will last for several years for everyday wear when it is no longer appropriate for Sunday wear.

Nonetheless, the weekly expenditure for our clerk, based on the figures presented, comes to a penny over three shillings. For his weekly expenses he presents the following table:

..........  6 0
..........  1 8
..........  5 0
..........  1 0
..........  0 3
Coals and wood
..........  1 0
..........  0 9
Tobacco, etc.
..........  0 6

When all of the calculations are complete, we find that the total comes to 19s 3d.  Our self-righteous author preaches abstinence from alcohol and dining frequently at vegetarian restaurants in order to save money.  While this may be good advice for the clerks he writes about, for a labourer with a family to support, even when his wife and children work to contribute, it is unlikely to offer a realistic budget.

Buying from the street stalls in the East End

To download Bowley, Wages in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century, click here.
To translate the figures presented here to current purchasing power go to

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 3

. . .Go to the mouldering lane
Where the match-girls cry in their terrible pain;
Where the phosphor eats to the festering bone,
Till the Merciful Angel claims its own,
     And the sufferers gladly die. . .

Go, shareholders, you with the dividend fair,
     Go, see and consider it well
How the daughters of women are perishing there
     In your Lucifer's Brimstone Hell!

Star, 19 January 1892, cited in Lowell J. Satre, "After the Match Girls' Strike:
Bryant and May in the 1890s,Victorian Studies, Autumn 1982, p. 17.

The strike of 1888 was not the end of the problems faced by Bryant and May.  Below the surface, tensions continued to seethe, leading to sporadic outbreaks of dissatisfaction.  Despite the company's strategic back-down in 1888, it never admitted or accepted blame for the conditions that brought about the Match Girls' Strike.  Indeed, the nearest it came to doing so was in its attempt to divert blame from the directors on to the supervisory staff.

Although such a strategy may not have fooled those who felt that the industry was both dangerous and exploitative, it seems to have worked for others.  As Lowell J. Satre points out in his article, "After the Match Girls' Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s," throughout that decade, "...writers treated Bryant and May as a model company, both in its modern technology and in its treatment of workers." In addition to a clear policy of denial, the match company mounted a campaign aimed at consumers, urging them to buy Bryant and May matches and suggesting that failure to do so was at least "inconsiderate" if not unpatriotic!
If all consumers would purchase Bryant and May's matches, that firm would be enabled to pay £1,000 a week more in wages, and large numbers of the unemployed in East London would thus be provided with work, instead of swelling the ranks of  pauperism.
In the decade following the 1888 strike, the situation of women in the workforce, particularly the physical danger those in factories were exposed to was raised on a number of occasions.  There were particularly strong campaigns in 1892 and in 1898. The more radical newspapers campaigned against the health risks to employees in several industries, among the most noteworthy of which was match-making. In these campaigns, Bryant and May were among those singled out, clearly because of the horrendous nature of the disease of phossy jaw and the company's attempt to contain any information regarding their inadequate safety features.

In the company's ongoing attempt to minimize the magnitude of health problems, phossy jaw in particular, Bryant and May constantly reiterated their claim that theirs was a safe workplace . Their public statements suggest that they viewed this serious problem simply as collateral damage.  After revelations in January of 1892, by the Star, of  cases of phossy jaw at Bryant and May other of the more left-wing newspapers, including Reynolds's Newspaper, attacked both the Government of the day and the company for their apparent lack of concern.

CHEAP MATCH-MAKING leads to what is called "phossy jaw"; that is, the rot of the mouth through the action of the phosphorous used in matches.  These matches are mostly made by young girls.  The profits on their sale are pocketed by clergymen and members of the pious middle class.  They are, of course, mainly responsible for this cruel fate of the daughters of the masses.  I venture to say that not one would abate a quarter per cent. of interest, even if he thought it would stop this frightful industrial cancer.
Should there have been any doubt as to the target of this tirade, in the very next column the reader would find that

BRYANT AND MAY, the matchmakers, pay a dividend of seventeen per cent.  It is stated that the application of a portion of this dividend to improvements would prevent the terrible disease of "phossy". ... Lord Salisbury the Tory Prime Minister, and his family are large shareholders; so are many parsons of the State Church; so is the Coercionist Whig Sir Julian Goldsmid M.P. How many of the parsons have implored that a portion of the dividends shall be spent for the protection of the poor girls? Not one. Nor, from the known character of these ecclesiastical bagmen, would anyone expect them to interfere in the cause of humanity. if, by doing so, their earthly treasures were diminished.
Much of the venom was aimed directly at the Home Minister, Henry Matthews. With the general election scheduled for July, Matthews was attacked for his failure to have factory inspectors  dealing with the obviously recalcitrant company.  Among the more vicious attacks on Matthews was one described by The Graphic as "an atrocious cartoon showing Death with a bandaged jaw, emerging from a match-box with the legend, "Vote for Matthews and "Phossy Jaw." The pressure on the Home Secretary seems to have had a positive effect. Within weeks of the election, and following  an investigation by his department, Matthews  "issued a notice that a factory inspector may call upon the firms ... To adopt such special rules or measures as may be necessary to mitigate the evil."

In 1893, a Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Lucifer Match Works noted that the only two cases of necrosis  since the special rules were established were two "which  ... occurred in the factory of Messrs. Bryant and May." The Committee went on, however, to indicate that in the opinion of its members "danger from that disease exists to all workers where white or yellow phosphorus is used."  In order to diminish the risks associated with the match making process, they suggested that the rules should be tightened even further.

The years from 1892 to 1898 represented, in many respects, the heart of what became known as "The New Journalism."  As Carolyn Malone has pointed out in Women's Bodies and Dangerous Trades in England 1880-1914,

The theme of the physical dangers of women's work, secondary in the match girls' strike to exploitative working conditions, came to the forefront in extensive newspaper coverage of women's work in 1892 and 1898.
In 1898 the attack on Bryant and May reached new heights, and Bryant and May was certainly not innocent of the charges from the newspapers and others. On the 3rd of May, 1898, Edward Pickersgill, MP for Bethnal Green in the East End rose to ask the Home Secretary

whether his attention has been called to the report of an inquest held at Bow, on Saturday last, on the body of Cornelius Lean, lately employed at the match factory of Messrs. Bryant and May, from which it appears that Lean was poisoned by the yellow phosphorus used in the manufacture; that the factory doctor, who admitted that the death was due to "phossy-jaw."
The Home Secretary replied that he had some knowledge of the case and found the circumstances surrounding it far from satisfactory but went on to point out that there had been no other reports of phosphorous poisoning since the Act of 1895, and in light of that there seemed insufficient justification to ban the use of yellow phosphorous.

On 1 June 1898, the firm of Bryant and May was called before the Worship Street Police Court by A. P. Vaughan, one of the Factory Inspectors, charged with breaches of Rule 6 of the Factory Acts. Gilbert Bartholomew, the managing director of Bryant and May appeared for the company which was accused of not providing evidence, as required, of phossy jaw to the certifying surgeon.

As Bartholomew, and therefore the company, was not represented by counsel, the Managing Director pleaded "guilty" to the charge, probably hoping that with a speedy conviction and a small fine the mater would be quickly buried. However, as Inspector Vaughan noted, this "was only one of a long series of cases, which had been deliberately suppressed by the firm." Bryant and May, Vaughan told the court, had advised one of the Factory Inspectors "that up to that particular date no other cases of death from phosphorous necrosis had ever come to the knowledge of the firm."

Vaughan then went on to point out that there had been at least six deaths in the previous five years and that these "could be directly traced to phosphorous poisoning" contracted in the company's factory. In addition, there were eleven further cases under the care of a doctor from Bryant and May.

Bartholomew attempted to minimize the cases by admitting to the charge but he claimed that with the exception of one death the others were "old cases" which predated the Special Rules of 1895.

The Magistrate summed up by describing it as "a very bad case" and went on to castigate the firm before imposing the maximum penalty, £10 for the breach of the special rules and £5 for not reporting cases. With costs, the total came to £25.

As a part of the continuing campaign to defend themselves as well as to paint a picture of the company as sympathetic and caring, Bartholomew, in his role as managing director of Bryant and May, wrote to the papers on 3 June 1898.  In his letter he argued that while the company had failed in one respect, it had actually met all of the other requirements of the Factory Act.  He went on to point out that the company provided treatment for those afflicted with the awful disease, adding that of the 47 cases dealt with over the last twenty years, "81 percent of those attacked have been completely cured, and many of those cured are still in our employ, enjoying the best of health."

In July, the radical politician John Burns MP took the Home Secretary to task for being all talk and little action..
I want to call the Home Secretary's attention to the fact that for 50 years at the table of the House of Commons we have had similar speeches made while these women are dying of phossy jaw and lead poisoning. The time has arrived when, in the absence of legislation, we should have administration to put a stop to this terrible condition of things.
  According to The Times, in late July, the Home Secretary addressed the House of Commons on the dangers of phosphorous in the match trade and what might be done to reduce these dangers.

The Times accused those who challenged the Government of laying claims which were lacking "the support of unimpeachable authority." It went on to claim that critics of Bryant and May had "created an impression that the evils to be guarded against are much greater than there is any evidence to show." The really guilty parties, according to the newspaper were the workers and  it was their unsanitary practices which led to the problems of phossy-jaw.

The truth is that one of the chief impediments to action in all such cases arises from the attitude of the workers themselves.In very many instances they strongly object to precautions which are intended to secure their safety, and either actively or passively resist their adoption.
Clearly it is easier to blame the victims than the firm that employs them.

The newspapers, too, continued to pursue the matter even to the point of making jokes in order to keep the matter before the public. On the 19th of August, for example, the following appeared in the Dover Express:
You haven't got phossy jaw have you ma?" "Of course not; What makes you ask such a question?" "Well, Miss Overthewell said you were a frightful matchmaker!"
According to the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and workshops for the Year 1898, "the number of cases of phosphorous poisoning notified in 1898 was 21." All but one of the cases occurred in match factories where "Lucifers" were made and of the 21 reported cases, 15 were directly traceable to one factory.

The campaign against the horrors of "Phossy", mounted by the newspapers and brought before the Parliament was to have its effect.  But it had arrayed against it strong opposition from the match firms as well as segments of the government.  The main argument against the banning of the substance was the effect it would have on industry on the one hand and on employment in the industry on the other.  Nonetheless, laws were tightened, with new special rule instituted in 1899.  Eventually, in 1908, Britain passed legislation prohibiting the use of white phosphorous in matches after 31 December 1910

Although alternatives to while phosphorous, or the treatment of that substance to make it less dangerous, had certainly been known years earlier,  it was not until after 1910 that the process of making a safe, "strike anywhere" match began to be widely employed.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Bryant, May and the Match Girls Part 2

Unlike the 1871 "strike," the 1888 walkout was not over taxes on matches.  It was concerned primarily with wages and working conditions and was clearly aimed at the management of the factory.  According to Charles Booth's survey of London, in the late 1880s and early 1890s there were over a thousand young women and girls employed in the match-making trades.  In May of 1888, more than one-fifth of the women and girls so employed earned from 4 to 6 shillings,  just over four percent earned 12 shillings or more and three-quarters of this cohort earned between 6 and 12 shillings.  These figures were not much different from those attributed to Mr Theodore Bryant in The Times of 9 July 1888, that "the girls earned on an average from 5s. a week learners to 18s. per week competent hands, and in one instance a family of three earned £2 a week between them." It is hard to comprehend Bryant and May's view that the company "tried to give ... work-people a fair remuneration."

Just what was the value of the earnings of the young women at Bryant and May?  If we take the figure of from 6 to 12 shillings, a figure which represented the earnings of 75 per cent of the group we are looking at, and consider it in terms of buying power today, it would equate to a figure of between £29/16s and £59/12s.

Clearly the company saw its first responsibility to its shareholders and evidence for this can be seen in the  enormous growth in the value of the shares, more than 300 percent in less than five years, as well as a dividend rate that regularly exceeded 20 percent. 

Match Girls at Work - 1888
For those on the lowest rate of pay, 4 shillings, even the most basic necessities of life were expensive. Bread, for a two kilogram loaf, cost around 3d a loaf and beer was more than 1d a pint.  Beer was an important part of the diet since water in many of the areas was only available from a standpipe and was always of questionable purity and even more questionable quality. For those few who might have smoked cigarettes, rather than the ubiquitous clay pipe, W.D. and H. O. Wills newly launched Woodbines could be purchased at a price of 5 for a penny.  Strong and rough, like the East End workers themselves, they were to become known colloquially as "gaspers."  

The common work-day was ten hours long and for most of that time the young women were on their feet cutting in half the long strips of wood, both ends of which had been dipped into a compound of chemicals to create the match-heads. The cut matches were then packed into boxes. The work was not steady as the demand for matches was seasonal with the greatest number of matches being required during the colder months.  Since many of the women and girls were unemployed in the summer months they augmented their incomes through employment in jam factories or, in the late summer and early autumn through going hop-picking.

Girl At Work at Bryant and May 1888
A number of well-known and influential individuals took up the cause of the match workers, the most outspoken and prominent was Annie Besant,  a socialist,  writer and  women's rights activist.  In her Autobiography she tells how she interviewed some of the match girls and "got lists of wages, of fines, &c."  The information was published as "White Slavery in London" in The Link, A Journal for the Servants of Man a left-wing, half-penny weekly. In the article she points out that the workers started at 6.30 in the summer and 8.00 in the winter. Work concluded at 6.00 in the evening and workers were allowed half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner. 

Annie Besant
In some departments a fine of 3d . is inflicted for talking. If a girl is late she is shut out for 'half a day', that is for the morning six hours, and 5d. is deducted out of her day's 8d. ...A very bitter memory survivies in the factory.  Mr. Theodore Bryant, to show his admiration of Mr. Gladstone and the greatness of his own public spirit, bethought him to erect a statue to that eminent statesman.  In order that his workgirls might have the privilege of contributing, he stopped 1s  each out of their wages, and further deprived them of half-a-day's work by closing the factory, 'giving them a holiday'. ('We don't want no holidays', said one of the girls pathetically, for - needless to say - the poorer employees of such a firm lose their wages when a holiday is 'given'.) 
Gladstone Statue at Bow Church
Over the poor conditions and underpayment, over the fines and long hours, there hovered the spectre of disease.  The young women ate at their workbenches where the lucifer matches were made thus being exposed, even as they ate, to the fumes from the white phosphorous with which the matches were tipped.  Even as late as 1888 Bryant and May were still using this deadly substance despite its effects having been well known since the  late 1830s.

The 1888 strike itself was provoked by the firing of one of the match girls but the tinder of dissatisfaction had been smoldering for some time.  Whether the term "sweatshop" was used or not (in general it was applied to clothing manufacturing), Bryant and May ran one in their factories.  The environment was dangerous and certainly unhealthy.  The pay was low, the hours long and the employees were victims of abuse and without recourse. On the 23rd of June, The Link published "White slavery in London," an article by Annie Besant in which she accused Bryant and May of the worst sorts of practices.  
Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 per cent., and Mr. Theodore Bryant can erect statues and by parks?  Oh if we had but a people's Dante, to make a special circle in the Inferno for those who live on this misery, and such wealth out of the starvation of helpless girls.
The East London Observer, a weekly paper which was, according to L. Perry Curtis, one of the "small local papers that catered mostly to the commercial or small-business classes in Tower Hamlets and environs" chose to use the term "sweated" in its edition of 30 June 1888, in which it raised the question regarding the girls, "Are they Sweated?"   In the article it reported that Theodore Bryant was threatening legal action against Annie Besant.  On the same day, Besant wrote in The Link that she had been informed that the girls were being bullied in an effort to find out who had provided the information that had appeared in "White Slavery in London." In the same piece, she challenged Bryant and May to sue her for libel in order to "disprove my statements in open court ... instead of threatening to throw these children out into the streets."

Besant continued to goad Bryant and May.  A week later she noted that there had been no sign of legal action and claimed that three girls believed by the company to be her informants had been dismissed.  At this point, although Bryant and May claimed that only one girl had been dismissed and that was for matters unrelated to the complaints, 1400 girls walked out.  The issue escalated with meetings being held through the first weeks of  July.  Although Besant's own writings tend to place her at the centre of events, Louise Raw, in Striking a Light, suggests that this was not the case and that, in effect, she came late to the struggle and left early. As for the threats to take legal action against Besant, these came to nothing.  Indeed, the whole counter-offensive launched by Bryant and May seems to have little or no effect on either the strikers or their supporters and if anything, their threat to bring in workers from Scotland hardened the stance of the women.

Whatever the case, Bryant and May offered to rehire the sacked worker but the striking women must have felt a sense of power when they saw how quickly Bryant and May responded in order to keep their factories working.  Even so, the women were still out of work and the company continued to play "hardball." The London Trades Council then took up the cause of the match workers and with the concurrence of the Girls' Strike Committee approached Bryant and May offering its services to bring the matter to settlement. Interestingly, the first meeting between the LTC and the directors of the company which apparently did not include any representatives from the Girls' Committee appears to have been met with a complete unwillingness to negotiate.  According to the East London Observer for 21 July, "The deputation urged the points on behalf of the strikers, to which the directors replied seriatim, and repeated their previous statements that they paid full current wages, and had no desire to burden their work-people."  The meeting lasted for an hour and three quarters and achieved no satisfactory resolution. 

Match Girls and Match Seller
The following day there was another meeting at which, in addition to the LTC representatives the Girls' Strike Committee was present.  By now the directors of the company had undoubtedly had time to reflect on their position and would have realised that the strikers were prepared to fight for what they believed were their rights.  After considerable discussion and debate there was agreement on a settlement.  This included the abolition of fines and the stopping of deductions for a variety of supplies, changes in the manner of payment and access, in the case of grievances, to the managing directors without going through the foremen. As well, Bryant and May agreed to take back all of the strikers including the so-called ringleaders and "said they would, as soon as possible, provide a breakfast-room for the girls so that the latter will not be obliged to get their meals in the room where they work."  And, in what was possible the greatest concession, they "expressed a strong wish that the girls would organize themselves into an union so that future disputes, if any, may be officially laid before the firm."

Surely the company could not have offered a greater capitulation and, not surprisingly, the strikers unanimously accepted the terms.  The strike was over. The London Daily News, on 18 July, complimented Bryant and May for admitting "in the most handsome way that the girls were right, and that they had themselves been misled by some of their officials." The statement, of course, attempted to remove the blame from those who were most responsible, the directors of the company.

Clippings from The Link related to the 1888 strike, and including Annie Besant's "White Slavery in London," can be found by clicking here.