Child-Slavery in BirminghamCategory: 19th century
There are a number of trades in Birmingham for which the home- labour of women and children is employed. Twopence an hour may be earned by a woman assisted by one or two children in sewing the chains on the leather for soldiers’ chin-straps.
At wrapping up hairpins in paper, ten to the paper, with one outside to hold the package together, a light employment in which any member of the family circle may engage, as much as 2 1/4d may be earned by two people, or four children, in a couple of days. For this sum 1,000 packages have to be made up. The goods must be fetched from the factory and carried back there besides.
One penny a day can be gained by a child in bending the tin clasp round safety-pins -bending safety-pins’ they call it. The nimble fingers of
children are apt at this work. The payment is at the rate of halfpenny a gross, but for some varieties of safety-pins as much as twopence for three gross is cheerfully paid by the manufacturers. So terrible is the competition by children in this trade that, as an old woman of ninety told me, when her husband was alive they could, by working all the week - he from 5 a. m. till 11 p. m., and she from 9 a. m. till the same hour at night-eam two shillings a week between them.
Then there is the carding of safety-pins-that is to say, fastening safety- pins in graduated sizes on to cards. Here children are very useful, and may after practice earn halfpenny an hour. A woman alone working her hardest can earn about twopence.
This kind of employment is much run after, and at any time of the day you may see outside the factories children waiting with perambulators to bring home their stocks of pins and cards. But trade was slack at the time of my visit to Birmingham, and many carders of safety-pins apply over and over again for the materials for their pitiful industry. In Tower Street, where I found a woman and three little children engaged in this work, I was told that ‘mother’ had applied twice a day at the factory for a week and that all the work she got amounted to the value of Is 4d.
Back of Richard Street I found a woman and a little girl, who were both as white of face as is the paper upon which I trace their painful records, who were dying of starvation in the hook-and-eye trade. None of these people had eaten anything all that day. There was only a little tea and sugar in the house. The babies were crying.
There was deep pathos in all these scenes, but the spectacle which, when I think back upon these heavy hours, will always haunt me with greatest sorrow is one I saw in a kitchen, in a house off Jennens Row. Here, late one evening, I found three little children, busy at work at a table on which were heaped up piles of cards, and a vast mass of tangled hooks and eyes. The eldest girl was eleven, the next was nine, and a little boy of five completed the companionship. They were all working as fast as their little fingers could work. The girls sewed, the baby hooked. They were too busy to raise their eyes from their tasks-the clear eyes of youth under the flare of the lamp! Here were the energy, the interest, which in our youth we all bring to our several tasks in the happy ignorance of the weight and stress of the years and years of drudgery to come.
The drudgery is eternal. There is no hope of relief. One treads, firmly at first, and then with faltering steps until the end, which is the nameless grave. And it was because I read in the clear eyes of those children the ignorance of this cruel but indisputable postulate of the lives of the very poor, that their very brightness, their cheerfulness filled me with more poignant sorrow than any I had felt till then. Quous Tandem. How long? How long? All your life and till the grave.
From: Into Unknown England 1866-1913 by R. Sherard