Child Employment in the Silk Industry 1815-1871 – Part 2

In the first part of my look at child workers in the silk industry between 1815-1871 I gave a brief background to this industry, looked at the numbers involved and the types of job. In this part I will cover their ages, wages, working conditions and health impacts.

Why did employers take children of this age?
First and foremost it was permissible under the Factory Acts. However there were a number of other reasons.

Factory owners believed the younger the children began to work, the better workers it made them. In 1834 J.S. Ward, who preferred to take eight year olds, but did admit to employing them as young as seven, said “children who are taught early make the best hands.

Furthermore quick, nimble fingers were needed to tie knots, a skill in which children had the advantage over adults.

They were also cheap. Factory owners, particularly in the 1830’s, exhibited a great concern for wages. In the 1820’s there had been a progressive lowering of duties on foreign silk products which caused a depression in the English silk industry. The mill owners argued that since they had been brought into competition with foreign countries with there much cheaper labour and production costs, child employment was imperative in order to keep production costs down and enable competition: young children were necessary. “A child above 12 would generally take double the time to learn as one under, and their wages would be higher whilst they were learning and getting us nothing” claimed William Upton Lester of G.M. Lester & Sons, Newcastle-Under-Lyme in the 1834 Factories Inquiry Commission supplementary report. In fact some mill owners argued a greater number of under 12s needed to be employed as a consequence. Adult wages could not be afforded.

A final reason has already been hinted at, with parental duplicity over children’s ages. In 1816-17 obliging the parents was the most common reason given for child employment. The fact that parents were prepared to lie over their children’s ages to obtain for them mill work shows this to be accurate. The parents “derived advantage from their earnings”.

Children played an important part in the family economy, making a contribution to the family finances. According to David Vincent child labourers had an awareness that their contributions could make a significant difference to the well-being of the family. This applied as much to those involved in domestic industries as to those in factories. They were to be loved and economically exploited.

What wages could a child expect to bring home?
Naturally this varied according to the child’s age, exact employment, period in time, and whether the work was conducted in a mill or domestic situation. A child who worked alongside a parent handloom weaver would not know how much he or she earned because the winding work was tied in with the parents’ earnings for the piece. A good handloom weaver could expect to earn 18s a week in the early 19th century. Generally though wages declined after 1815, and the influx of handloom weavers from the cotton industry added to the labour pool depressing wages further. For winders in a domestic situation supplying factories, payment was by the pound. Prior to 1829 they earned on average 2s per lb, but by 1831 thus decreased to 1s, with a good worker winding 2.5lbs per week.

In the factories wages varied from 1s-4s a week. Larger mills tended to pay more than smaller ones. Tables 6 & 7 illustrate wages in the mid 1820’s to 1830’s. Note the reduction in hours worked in Table 7, a result of the trade depression.

Besides helping with income, child participation in the family economy had two other functions:

  • It provided the child with a sense of identity and security; and
  • The child was nurtured and trained

These functions were only fully achievable in a domestic setting. In industry it broke down. The parent could not ensure the child was not taxed beyond his/her strength. Neither could the parent necessarily personally protect or train the child.

What were the working conditions and health effects?

Conditions in factories varied. Compared to the cotton industry, silk working did appear an healthier form of employment. According to contemporary descriptions silk manufacture “is a remarkably clean occupation, produces no dust and is best carried on in a temperature that is agreeable to the feelings.

To start with the temperature was constant at about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Silk production required no obvious excess of heat, so the workers could ventilate the room to their own taste. According to the Factories Inquiry Commission Supplementary Report 1834 “A moderate temperature is best for silk work 50 degrees  to 60 degrees; either too hot or too cold makes the silk brittle. If it is too warm the gum flies off and the weight is lost; too cold and the thread becomes too brittle and breaks.

Punishment was a feature of work, though it varied from factory to factory. The majority imposed fines for misdeeds. Most factory owners said they did not sanction corporal punishment, though did admit to occasionally using sticks across the shoulders. But the comparatively high value of silk against other textiles did influence punishment, as waste of silk was costly. There is definite evidence of harsh treatment were waste was perceived.

The hours of work also varied from factory to factory, and during different periods of time. As we have seen from Table 7 depression meant short time. James Sharpley, of Brocklehursts, said hours varied from six upwards, depending on the fluctuations in the silk industry business.

Early in 1833 children in his factory worked about eight hours 40 minutes a day. The number of days varied too. In 1831 some factories only worked four days a week. But when demand was good excess hours were needed “since the free trade system the work is naturally very irregular, for if a little demand rises we are so afraid of competition that we work day and night to be first in the market…..which creates an over stock, and then we are not able to work above three or four days per week.” Therefore the very precarious nature of the silk industry made it difficult to compute hours.

In normal trade circumstances, children worked anything between 10 to 12 hours a day. The usual hours were from 6am to 6pm with one and a half hours for meals. Night work was rare before 1833 and after prohibited under the Factory Act. Nevertheless in smaller winding sheds “it is not unusual to work from 6am to 6pm or even 10pm.

The manufacturers claimed that the work was not laborious and the children had plenty opportunity to test. The children claimed the hours were excessive and they felt tired, even though the work was not heavy. A typical comment from a child worker, Ann Barnwell, was “Think the work hard, it tired me very much at first but it don’t now, got used to it.

It is difficult to judge the reality because both groups had an interest: the manufacturers didn’t want children to work less hours as it would increase production costs in an industry already susceptible to trade fluctuations. So it suited them to play down any impact to health brought about by hours and conditions; and child operatives would themselves be the beneficiaries shorter hours if they were deemed excessive. The issue is further complicated looking at it from the standards we employ today. But put into perspective a child of nine or ten working in the silk industry was working longer than most adults in today’s society.

Other than the inevitable fatigue, the commonly held view was that the health impacts on children of working in the silk industry were comparatively benign. Even in 1866 Assistant Commissioner H.W. Lord in the 1866 report into child employment wrote that the occupations of winding and piecing “seem to be quite harmless.

The medical inspections of the mills appear to back up this belief. John Fleet, a Macclesfield doctor described the silk-trade as an extremely healthy employment. In his letter to the 1831 letter to the Factories Inquiry Commission he went on to write “…..the temperature of the rooms is regulated according to the comfort of the parties employed in them, they are clear from dust, are I odorous and well ventilated….I find it is a popular impression, the deformity of the spine and distortion of limbs is brought on by employment in the silk business; nothing can be more erroneous than this supposition.

In a letter to the same Inquiry John Braithwaite, another Macclesfield medical man,wrote “…..of all the factories with which I am acquainted, those in the silk-trade are the least prejudicial to the people engaged in them……The children engaged in these factories, for the most part, have the appearance of health, happiness, cleanliness, and contentment;

And George Senior, on behalf of Harter’s in Manchester wrote “It is generally said that they [parents] prefer silk mills; the work is cleaner and there is no flue flying about.

adam fletcher

Silk Mills and Church, Derby by Moses Griffiths, 1747-1809 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tables 8 and 9 below chart a series of medical examinations conducted in 1833. These show overwhelmingly health in silk mills to be far better than cotton factories. Of course it is possible that these medical examinations were fixed to the extent that factory owners sent sickly children home for the day. However if this practise took place in silk mills, it would be logical to assume cotton mills did the same: yet cotton mills had a comparatively much worse record of health. It can be therefore taken that the tables provide a relatively accurate comparison of health in the two industries. But that does not mean the employment was not detrimental to health.

 

Condemnation of health did occur. When examined in 1832 Daniel Fraser, warping department manager at John Fisher & Co silk mill at Huddersfield was critical. He described silk mill girls in the throwing department, saying “contrasted with other children, they appear pale, their eyes are sunk, they are thinner in flesh and altogether they seem deteriorated.

It was also stated that those children not brought up in a factory system were more healthy. That’s the bottom line. The factory system, whatever branch, was fatiguing, unhealthy, dangerous and children were subjected to harsh treatment.

In my next post I will examine in more detail the Factory Acts of 1833, 1844 and 1847 and their impact on child employment in the silk industry.

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