Harkive: ‘Home Industries’

Above: Illustration from the Illustrated London News (1888) representing the drudgery of brush-making, one of the ‘home industries’ explored in this month’s entry.

This month we continue our 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.

‘Home Industries’ was published in August of 1888 in Justice, the organ of the Social Democratic Federation. Established in 1884 with a £300 donation from writer and activist Edward Carpenter, the newspaper was initially edited by H. M. Hyndman and later H. H. Champion. Contributors to Justice include William Morris, Annie Besant, Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling, George Bernard Shaw, and Ernest Belfort Bax, who would become the newspaper’s editor after Champion (Brake and Demoor, Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism, pp. 328-9). As Deborah Mutch and Terry Elkiss state in their chronology of Harkness (Mutch ed., A City Girl, p. 31), Harkness was personally affiliated with Justice between 1885 and 1887. During this period, Harkness contributed articles such as ‘Girl Labour in the City’ as well as a number of letters to the editor. Many of Harkness’s contributions to Justice 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.

In ‘Home Industries’, Harkness extends her examination of unskilled labour from the city’s streets to its living spaces. The subject of of home labour appears with some frequency in Harkness’s fiction, for instance in her examination of the plight of sweated seamstresses in A City Girl (1887) and later in A Manchester Shirtmaker (1890). It is significant that Harkness identifies the plight of the ‘poor home-worker’ as a perceptably gendered problem: women comprise the majority of home-workers, and as she points out, home-industry is criminally underpaid and dangerously unregulated. Many of the industries to which Harkness refers in this article such as ‘fur-pullers’ and ‘brush-makers’ she explores in greater depth in Toilers in London: Or, Inquiries Concerning Female Labour in the Metropolis. This series of reports on urban labour was first published in the British Weekly from 1887-8, and later collected in volume edition, which was edited (and almost certainly written) by Harkness. While ‘Home Industries’ is clearly concerned with the plight of working women, Harkness also stresses relationship between producer and consumer. There is more than a little irony, she suggests, in the suffering of the ‘woman who made the binding for the Queen’s Jubilee carriages.’

Source: Justice, 28 August 1888, p. 2. Microfilm held at the British Library.



While we congratulate the mach-box girls on their strike, and say they have done well to show the public mind as such that “the little ones must stand in the thickest of the fight,” we ought not to forget about the poor home-workers who have been thrown out of employment by the action of these plucky young women. The match-box girls realise this, and on the 14th ult. after they had received their wages in Mr. Charrington’s Hall on Mile End Waste, not a few wanted to make a collection for the “ins-and-outs” workers, i.e., the makers of the trays and covers of the match-boxes. The most natural thing to be done in times of tribulation is to “make a collection.” We all remember the three shipwrecked mariners who sent round a hat because not one of them could remember a prayer! And yet they felt that they must pacify the angry elements by a religious ceremony.

It will be impossible to get enough money for the “ins-and-outs” workers if we made a dozen collections; nor could the London Trade Unionists, I believe, help them to any great extent, for the work comes to these unfortunate people through middlemen, and not direct from the factory. And whole families depend on the 2¼d. per gross work of the match-box makers, who are so poor that often they cannot carry the work back to the middleman because they have no string or thread to tie the boxes up with.

I have during the last three months seen a variety of home-industries, and certainly some of the worst cases have been the women who make match-boxes, or powder-boxes. The latter are paid at 1d. per gross. But other home work is almost as badly paid, and every day the pay gets less in the line of “home business;” for many men who are out of work now take to these small occupations, and the wives of clerks and tradesmen, who are being crushed beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of competition, now undersell the women who a few years ago controlled the whole of the home-industry market.

The women who ply the most disagreeable home-industry are, I think, the fur-pullers. As yet this work cannot be done by machinery, and the workers receive 1s. 1d. per five dozen rabbit skins. Anyone who has visited the homes of these fur-pullers must feel the words of those who congratulate themselves on cheap fur cloaks or fur hats a cruel mockery. The full-puller sits in a barn, scraping the skins of rabbits, with the fluff in her hair, nose and mouth, choked and half-blinded. I hear that the Brompton Hospital for Consumption is the home of these women when they are “past working.” Canvas workers who make break covers, blinds for shops, tents, coal sacks, etc., may be seen in the East End, staggering home with heavy load on their heads or their hops, which in course of years makes their bodies bent or crooked. The pay is 2s. For twelve sacks, 5s. 6d. for ten hammocks, etc. One woman near Aldgate, who makes sacks for the Navy, receives 4s. For ten large sacks, each of which has eight holes in it; four splices, and two patches; each of which must be sewn, roped, and marked with a broad arrow for Government. She works from 5 a.m. To 8 p.m., standing: and some idea of what canvas work is like can be had from the fact that she has sprained both her wrists over it.

Brush-making is another large home industry, and so badly paid that the workers say it is hardly worth while to fetch the work and carry it back again. The pay for filling in one hundred holes, and fastening the fibre or hair with the wire, is generally a penny, sometimes a half-penny per brush.

I have seen girls and women, who are employed by umbrella manufacturers, knitting tops of tassels at 4s. 6d. per gross, and it is such fine work that one gross takes them a week; fastening button, ring and flap to elastic bands for the umbrellas at 4d. per gross; making neckties as 1s. 9d. per gross; bows making neckties at 1s. 9d. per gross, and so on ad infinitum. I have not spoken here of the many small industries which women do on their own account. I have mentioned a few of the industries which are given to them by factories or shops at a starvation rate of payment. Weaving is dying out as a home employment, but I have visited a woman who made the binding for the Queen’s Jubilee carriages. She received 2½d. per yard for it; and produced six yards a day by sitting at her loom from morning till evening. The “Star” speaks of this woman and says one day it will have the devil’s own tale to tell of home industries. I doubt very much if the “Star” will ever do it, but I am sure if the public knew what the hours of work are for these unfortunate women, and their pay, people would shudder to think of the price in blood and flesh that is paid by the workers in order that the rich may congratulate themselves on bargains. There is no doubt that the public conscience is beginning to wake up on this subject, for the capitalist press is talking about home industries, and they will have a place in the forthcoming Blue-book on female labour, and at Mr. Besant’s conference in October. But will people agree to the economic changes which must be made before any real help can be given to those who are engaged in home industries? Feeling that something must be done, they will, I think, try to make a collection. Readers of JUSTICE may be interested to hear that several people are now engaged in making a collection of another sort, namely a museum of home industries. When this is exhibited the public will see the articles ticketed with two prices, first that at which they are sold, secondly that at which they are given out to the home workers by the manufacturers and shops.


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