The Laboring Classes of England/Letter 11
The condition of the operatives in flax mills, in Leeds, and other places in the North of England, and South of Scotland, is any thing but pleasing to contemplate. This will be best understood by inspecting the various processes, which are of the following nature.
The flax, as imported, is delivered to the hand-hecklers, who roughly separate the fibres by drawing the bunches through a quantity of iron spikes called heckles, fixed before them. This is a very dusty process. The hand-hecklers are mostly men, or strong lads. The flax is then carried to the heckling machine, in connection with which a greater number of young children are employed than in any other process in the business. They are mostly boys. The machine consists of various sorts of cylinders, or rather polygonal prisms, having heckles set on their edges, which revolve with great rapidity; and the business of the machine minders is to fix the bunches of flax on supports in front of these heckles, and to move them from time to time, from the coarser to the finer heckles. The bunches, for the purpose of being thus suspended, are screwed between two bars of iron, which is the business of the screwer; who is generally a younger boy than the machine minder, and his labor is very fatiguing; in fact, this is one of the most laborious employments to which children can be put, independently of the noxious atmosphere, which is loaded with particles of flax incessantly pulled off, and scattered by the whirling of the machines. The screwer seems not to have an instant's cessation from labor; bunch after bunch is thrown down before him to fix and unfix, which he performs with astonishing rapidity. If he does not perform his work properly, it mars the work of the machine minder, and a box on the ear, or a kick with the foot, is the usual consequence.
The machine minder is far from being idle; he has to move his flax when it has received its due proportion of heckling in one position, the arrival of which time is indicated by a bell; he has also to collect from between the rows of spikes, as they revolve, the tow, or short fibres and refuse of the flax which they comb off. The boys become very expert at this part of the business, but sometimes suffer severely while learning, in consequence of having their hands caught by the spikes on the cylinders as they revolve. The tow is collected and carried to the card room, which is equally bad in regard to dust as the heckling room. After the tow has been carded, it is ready for spinning. I believe that tow is invariably spun dry.
The heckled flax, or line, after being separated from the tow, is sorted, according to its fibre, for various degrees of fineness. This is done by young men called line-sorters. Girls termed line-spreaders, are employed to unite the bunches of line into one sliver, and thence it is roved and spun.
In spinning the fine line, it is necessary to allow each thread to pass through a trough of hot water, (from 110 to 140 degrees of Fahrenheit,) which is placed at the back of the spindles. This is called wet spinning. The hot water enables them to spin the line much finer than it could be done without it, on account of the fibres sliding more easily among each other. As the line is spun it is wound on to the spindles, and as they revolve very rapidly, they throw off a continual sprinkling of water along the whole front of the frame. Now as there is another frame at no great distance, the spinners, who are mostly young women, are exposed to this small rain both before and behind; which is quite sufficient to wet them through in a few hours, especially when the frames are placed too close to each other. They stand on a wet floor, which is so constructed as to let the water run off into pipes below, and thence into a common sewer. They have no protection from the hot water except a blanket-apron, which is soon wet through, and they generally work without stockings and shoes. Most of the time their hands are dabbling in the hot water, in piecing broken threads, and rectifying any error of the machinery.
I have seen these rooms so filled with steam from the hot water, (a fresh supply of which is constantly running into the troughs,) in the depth of winter, as to oblige them to keep the windows open to let it out.
The consequences of all this are frequent colds, occasioned by passing from so warm a room filled with steam, to the open air at all seasons, especially in winter evenings; hands much chapped and sore, which it is painful to behold, and considerable swellings of the feet and legs. It is no uncommon thing to hear of eight or ten of them remaining at home sick. Their appearance as they walk along the street, is that of persons far advanced in a decline.
The dry spinners suffer from the dust and small particles of flax, which get on to their lungs and cause asthma, &c. Many of the young women employed in wet and dry flax spinning, die early in life. Should they, however, live till thirty-five or forty years of age, they appear to have all the symptoms of old age.
Since I commenced this article, the "Morning Post" of April 3, 1846, has been handed to me, in which I find the following case of hardship experienced by six young women employed in the flax mills of Dundee, in Scotland, to which I would draw the reader's attention.
It appears that Messrs. Baxter of Dundee, (who are said to be wealthy and powerful persons, influential merchants, flax spinners, bankers and ship owners,) employ 2,500 persons, of whom 1,300 were employed in the factory in which the case to which we refer occurred.
The poor girls are six in number, the eldest nineteen, and the youngest thirteen years of age. Four of the six are orphans, entirely unprotected. They had worked for Messrs. Baxter a long time, and during the whole period of their service had never been guilty of any offence whatever. It appears that their respective wages were $1,32 a week, and that, as some of the operatives employed in the same mill with themselves had lately applied for, and obtained a rise of six cents, (i. e. one cent a day,) in their wages, viz; from $1,32 to $1,38, they applied for a similar advance, and were refused. The rules of the factory obliged them to be at their work at 5 o'clock in the morning, and continue, with the exception of meal times, till seven o'clock in the evening. Also, that for all the time they were absent on their own account, the operatives were to pay a fine equal to "the time and a half;" i. e. if a person was absent five hours, he should be fined the amount he could earn in seven and a half hours. This is the standing rule in that mill.
On the 27th of October, 1845, these six girls, after leaving work at the dinner hour, did not return to it again that day, and were absent about five hours, viz: from 2 till 7 o'clock. On the following morning they were at work at 5 o'clock as usual, (not knowing that they had done any thing wrong, any further than breaking the rules of the mill, for which, they were aware, they would be fined to the amount of seven and a half hours' work,) and continued to work till 5 o'clock in the evening; when they were apprehended while at work, by four men, and taken to a private office and examined. They there stated that "They had no desire to desert their service, but had merely taken that afternoon for recreation."
They were kept at this office five hours, and were afterwards carried to another private office, where the magistrates were, together with one of their employers with his overseer or manager. They were then told they must sign a paper which was placed before them, and it is worthy of remark that Mr. Baxter was observed to whisper something to the magistrates before the sentence was passed upon them. And what does the reader think that sentence was? Why, nothing less than ten days' imprisonment, with hard labor. This mock trial was conducted with closed doors, no one was allowed to enter, even the few relatives of these poor girls were refused admittance. Their relatives were also refused to see them during their confinement. This is a specimen of the wretched laws of England. There is no justice for the poor.
This case was taken into consideration by the inhabitants of Dundee, who sent a petition to Parliament on the 26th of February, 1846.
It was again brought before the notice of Parliament on Thursday, April 2, when a motion was made to inquire into the particulars of the case, and lost by a majority of twenty-five. Alas! poor country, when will thy oppressed people have justice done them?
There are some people who take a sort of pleasure in speaking against the laboring portion of my countrymen; calling them idle, drunken, and the like. In order to show the reader that such is not their general character, and that they are not only industrious, and work hard for a little, but that they know how to take care of that little when they have got it, I will here insert an extract, taken from the books of the Savings Bank of Dundee some four or five years ago.
In that town, out of 464 male weavers, with wages averaging $1,92, 108 are depositors. Of 181 flax dressers, with the wages averaging $2,88, 36 are depositors. Of 290 mechanics, with wages equal to §4,85, 56 are depositors. And even among the class of girls whose case I have just recorded, there is one solitary depositer, while there are 237 accounts in the names of female domestic servants.
The reader will bear in mind that each of the poor people whose hardships have been recorded, in this and the preceding letters, have to pay taxes to government, in addition to finding their own food, clothing, and necessaries, without regard to age, sex, or condition.