The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 10
THE LACE MAKERS OF NOTTINGHAM.
Lace making is a business in which men, women and children, are promiscuously engaged. This business requires in its various operations, the delicate little fingers of children, perhaps to a greater degree than any other. This is one reason why a large majority of the infant laboring population of Nottingham are employed in lace manufacture. Lace is chiefly fabricated in machines driven by steam. These machines are very complicated in their structure, but as my object is more particularly with the human beings who attend them, I will refer the curious reader to the various works upon this subject, in many of which a full description of those machines is given.
It will, however, be necessary to state, that the machine in which the lace is made, is supplied with the thread by means of small bobbins. The process of filling these bobbins with thread, is called winding, which is performed by young women of from fourteen to twenty years of age; they very rarely begin this branch earlier, as it requires great care. The bobbins when filled with thread, pass into other hands, to be placed in a carriage, at the top of which is a hole, not larger than the eye of a needle, through which the thread must be put. This operation, called threading, is chiefly performed by boys. The bobbins, with their carriages, supply the machine with thread; somewhat similar to the "shuttle" in common weaving. After the bobbins are placed in the frame, it is the duty of a workman to superintend their motions. He has to watch the whole breadth of a machine, weaving a piece of lace perhaps forty, fifty, or sixty inches wide; and in which 3600 bobbins pass through as many guide-threads, a hundred times a minute. This may be thought impossible; it is nevertheless true. Should any fault occur he must adjust it on the instant. The lace machine is frequently kept going for eighteen or twenty hours out of the twenty-four.
When the piece of lace in the frame is finished, it is taken out; the winders and threaders are then required to fill the machine with the requisite number of bobbins to commence a new piece. When this takes place in the night time, as is very frequently the case, and all this threading has to be done in the glare of a gas light, it is very distressing for the eyes. The poor children require sometimes to be shaken, or beaten with a cane, to keep them from falling asleep from excessive fatigue. They are mostly divided into night and day sets, and take their turns for each alternately. Though the work itself is not hard, the children are much harassed by night work, and irregular attendance.
After the piece of lace is taken from the frame, it undergoes a variety of processes, such as drawing, rectifying, embroidering, pearling and hemming. The article now leaves the factory, and is intrusted to small masters and mistresses, who work at their own houses, and employ children to perform the above operations. A large number of children, mostly girls, are employed in all these processes, which more or less are performed with the needle. In fact, I believe that almost all the children of the laboring classes in Nottingham, are engaged in one or the other of the several branches of the lace manufacture, and at a very early age. The common saying is, 11 as soon as they can tie a knot, or use a needle." It is in these departments of the trade that we see infant labor in its worst light. The number of hours these infant victims are kept incessantly at work, in confined apartments, and the tender ages at which they are put to it, would be almost incredible to a stranger. All this, however, is substantiated by facts, which place the matter beyond the possibility of a doubt. Almost all the families employed in the lace manufacture of Nottingham, are supported, more or less, by the labor of their children.
One of the great evils of this system, is, that of reversing the order of nature; children become at an early age independent of their parents,—in many cases the latter are even obliged to act as menials to their children. Another evil, is, that worthless fathers are enabled to spend their time in low pot-houses, out of their children's earnings. A third evil is the immorality which prevails among the young people. The threaders, who are usually boys, and the winders, who are mostly girls, are required at the same time and place, day and night; and thus, in the absence of proper restraint, have every facility for forming improper connections. The natural results of such a noxious system are but too apparent, and must have contributed in no slight degree to the immorality, which, according to the opinion universally expressed, prevails to a most awful extent in Nottingham.
Women brought up under such a system know little of the domestic duties of every day life, and which are so essentially necessary to be known by those who may be called upon to fill the important stations of wives and mothers. Hence we find them after marriage still engaged at their own houses in some process of lace manufacture, while the duties of the family are intrusted to others.
Having; no time to attend to their families, nor even to discharge the first and most sacred duty of mothers, that of nursing their offspring, they freely administer opium in some form, such as Godfrey's and Anodyne cordial, and laudanum, to their infants. These drugs are given to infants at the breast, not because the child is ill, but to compose it to rest, in order to prevent their cries interfering with the protracted labor by which they strive to obtain a miserable subsistence. The infants become pale, tremulous, and emaciated, the joints and head enlarge, they become listless, and death at length steps in to their relief.
Great numbers of children are thus carried off yearly; should they, however, get over "the seasoning," as it is called, they begin to come round about three or four years old, i. e., as soon as the laudanum is discontinued.
In the present state of trade, it would be impossible for men to do without their wives laboring; they must work. however many children they may have; from the same cause, the children must go out to work as soon as they are able to use the needle. With respect to wages, I will not venture to make any statement; I fear it would not be credited. This may be imagined from two things: first, the condition of the people; second, from the fact that a piece of lace which formerly was worth from seventy to eighty dollars, can now be bought for three dollars.
Such is a brief outline of the condition of one of the most industrious classes to be found in England. The fair wearers of lace will be distressed to learn that this highly ornamented article, is produced (in England, at least,) at the expense of so much misery.
- In 1846, a bill was brought into the House of Commons (prepared by Mr. T. Duncombe, Colonel Rolleston, and Mr. J. Fielden.) "to regulate the hours of night labor in factories where bobbin, net and warp lace machinery is employed," consisting of seventeen clauses. It proposes to enact that night labor shall henceforth cease in these factories, and that the working hours shall not be earlier than six o'clock in the morning to not later than ten o'clock at night, subject to certain penalties. It further prohibits the employment of children under eight years of age.