Harkive: ‘Girl Labour in the City’

We begin this new term with a series of examples of Margaret Harkness’s periodical publications during her active engagement with socialist politics in Britain in the late 1880s and early 1890s. These excerpts, ranging from letters to the editor to snippets of social investigation, respond both to current events and to representations of herself, her beliefs, and her work in the press, and therefore offer a unique insight into Harkness’s ideological development and self-representation.

The first series of publications is taken from Justice, the organ of the Social Democratic Federation with which, as Deborah Mutch and Terry Elkiss state in their chronology of Harkness (Mutch, ed., A City Girl, pp. 31), Harkness was personally affiliated roughly between 1885 and 1887. Perhaps for this reason, many of her contributions to this periodical, both her letters to the editor and her articles, are signed with her own name, rather than the pseudonym John Law which she had begun to use to sign most of her publications following the appearance of A City Girl in 1887.

This month’s text, ‘Girl Labour in the City’, is a piece of social investigation into young women’s work. In this sense it draws on her previous experience of producing meticulous research articles (see, for instance, ‘Women as Civil Servants‘), combining this with the social observations with which she became associated in the late 1880s. In an echo of ‘Women as Civil Servants’, Harkness points out that her motivation for conducting the research, independently as she suggests, was that figures on young women’s wages and working hours were simply non-existent. She therefore deliberately sets out to represent a class of women workers who, she felt, were invisible even in the socialist press.

Source: Justice, 3 March 1888, pp. 4-5. Microfilm held at the British Library.


I have, for the last six months, been attempting to find out something about the hours and wages of girls who work at various trades in the City. Had I known how difficult the task would be I should probably never have attempted it. Last time I heard of Mr. Besant he was sitting in his office, overwhelmed with figures and facts. He said then that he did not expect to publish anything about the work of girls and women in the United Kingdom under a year or eighteen months. I do not wonder at it. Apart from the method of his enquiry, I know how exceedingly difficult it is to arrive at the truth; the tact and patience it needs to make such investigations. Employees and employers take very different views of the same circumstances; one must listen to both and then split the difference.

There are at the present time absolutely no figures to go upon if one wishes to learn something about the hours and wages of girls who follow certain occupations in the City. The factory inspectors (admirable men, but very much overworked) come, with the mots naïve delight, to visit any person who has information to give about the people over whose interests they are supposed to watch with fatherly interest. Clergymen shake their heads, or refer one to homes and charities. One has to find out the truth for oneself. Both employers and employees must be visited. Even then one must wait days and weeks to inspire them with confidence, for this alone can one obtain a thorough knowledge of things as they really are, and arrive at facts unbiased by prejudice.

So far I have found that there are, at least, 200 trades at which girls work in the City. Some employ hundreds of hands, and some only fifty or sixty. Printers give the greatest amount of work, perhaps, but there are at least 200 other occupations in which girls earn a living, namely, brush makers, button makers, cigarette makers, electric light fitters, fur workers, Indiarubber stamp machinist [sic], magic lantern slide makers, perfumers, portmanteau makers, spectacle makers, surgical instrument makers, tie makers, &c., &c. These girls can be roughly divided into two classes; those who earn from 8s. to 14s., and those who earn from 4s. to 8s. per week. Taking slack time into consideration it is, I think, sage to say that 10s. is the average weekly wage of the first class and 4s. 6d. that of the second class. Their weekly wage often falls below this, and sometimes rises above it. The hours are almost invariably from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with one hour for dinner and a half-holiday on Saturday. I know few cases in which such girls work less; a good many in which overtime reaches to ten or eleven at night; a few in which overtime means all night. There is little to choose between the two classes. The second are allowed by their employers to wear old clothes and boots, the first must make “a genteel appearance.”

I often hear rich women say, “Oh, working girls cannot be very poor; they wear such smart feathers.” If these women knew how the girls have to stint in underclothing and food in order to make what their employers call “a genteel appearance,” I think they would pass quite another verdict. I will give two typical cases: A girl living just over Blackfriars Bridge, in one small room, for which she pays 5s., earns 10s. a week in a printer’s business. She works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., then returns home to do all the washing, cleaning, cooking, &c., that is necessary in a one-room establishment. She has an invalid mother dependent on her efforts, and is out-patient at one of the London hospitals. She was sixteen last Christmas. Another girl, who lives in two cellars near Lisson Grove, with father, mother, and six brothers and sisters, earns 3s. 6d. a week in a well known factory. She is seventeen years old, but does not look more than ten or eleven. Every morning she walks a mile to her work, arriving at eight o’clock; every evening she walks a mile back, reaching home about seven o’clock. If she arrives at the factory five minutes late she is fined 7d. is she stays away a whole day she is “drilled,” that is, kept without work a whole week. Her father has been out of employment for six months, so her weekly 3s. 6d. goes into the family purse. Her food consists of three slices of bread and butter, which she takes to the factory for dinner; one slice of bread and butter and some weak tea for supper and breakfast. These cases are not picked. They are to be found scattered all over London. Many and many a family is at the present time being kept by the labour of one or two such girls, who can at the most earn a few shillings. When one thinks what the life of a young girl is in happy families, all the joyousness of which she is capable, until sorrow sets its seal on her, one’s heart aches for the sad lives of these girls in the City.

“And still her voice comes ringing

Across the soft still air,

And still I hear her singing,

‘O, life, thou art most fair!’”

A young girl is capable of feeling in one brief hour more intense delight than a boy of her age experiences in a fortnight. Yet all this joyousness is ruthlessly stamped upon by competition, and thousands of girls in London have no enjoyment except to gaze at monstrosities in penny gaffs, or to dance on dirty pavements; and generally these poor things are too tired even to do that. It is strange that the public take so little interest in these girls considering they must become mothers of future citizens. “The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity.” What sort of daughters are these girls with their pinched faces and stunted bodies likely to give England? What will posterity say of the girl labour that now goes on in the City? I have seen strong men weeping because they have no bread to give their children; I know at the London docks chains have been replaced by wooden barriers, because starving men behind pressed so hard on starving men in front, that the latter were nearly cut in two by the iron railings; I have watched a contractor mauled when he had no work to give, and have myself been nearly killed by a brick-bat that was hurled at a contractor’s head by a man whose family was starving; but I deliberately say of all the victims of our present competitive system I pity these girls the most. They are so fragile. Honest work is made for them almost impossible, and if they slip, no one gives them a second chance, they are kicked and spat upon by the public. I know that the girl-labour question is but a portion of the larger labour question, that nothing can be done for them at present; but I wish that they were not the victims of the laissez-faire policy in two ways instead of one; I was that their richer sisters were not so terribly apathetic about them.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s