WORKING CONDITIONS OF TAILORS IN GEORGIAN LONDON

The tailoring trade was organized like the other ancient trade guilds.  There were the master tailors, who owned the businesses and therefore made the profits.  Against these often large profits had to be offset the high cost of materials, wages and the considerable risk of being paid very late, or not at all.  Louis employed several master tailors, since he ran a large and expensive operation, whose function was to act as foremen, cutters etc., while Louis spent most of his time taking and delivering the Prince’s orders.  Under the master tailor were the journeymen and apprentices.  There was a distinction, which still exists today in London, between the West End and the East End tailors.  The West End trade was almost certainly more extensive than it is now, and catered to the nobility and gentry.  In Louis’s time the journeymen were reasonably well paid, and worked mainly ‘in-house’, while in the East End, which catered to the lower classes, the working conditions were much worse, and much of the work was put out to ‘sweaters’, who lived in squalor and were hard put to make a living at all.  Most of the clothes we now wear are made in Asian sweat shops, so the problem is still there – it just isn’t so much under our noses.

Following the turn of the nineteenth century, conditions for journeymen grew steadily worse.  The Chartist author Charles Kingsley, in his novel ‘Alton Locke’ (1850) brought these conditions to the public’s attention.  He describes here Alton’s first encounter with a tailor’s workshop.

“I stumbled after Mr. Jones up a dark, narrow, iron staircase till we emerged through a trap-door into a garret at the top of the house.   I recoiled with disgust at the scene before me; and here I was to work – perhaps through life! A low lean-to room, stifling me with the combined odours of human breath and perspiration, stale beer, the sweet sickly smell of gin, and the sour and hardly less disgusting one of new cloth. On the floor, thick with dust and dirt, scraps of stuff and ends of thread, sat some dozen haggard, untidy, shoeless men, with a mingled look of care and recklessness that made me shudder. The windows were tight closed to keep out the cold winter air; and the condensed breath ran in streams down the panes, chequering the dreary outlook of chimney-tops and smoke.”

Kingsley also describes well the way the trade was going in the 1840’s:
“The Metropolitan Commissioner of the “Morning Chronicle” called two meetings of the Working Tailors, one in Shadwell, and the other at the Hanover Square Rooms, in order to ascertain their condition from their own lips. Both meetings were crowded. At the Hanover Square Rooms there were more than one thousand men; they were altogether unanimous in their descriptions of the misery and slavery which they endured. It appears that there are two distinct tailor trades – the “honourable” trade, now almost confined to the West End, and rapidly dying out there, and the “dishonourable” trade of the show-shops and slop-shops – the plate-glass palaces, where gents – and, alas! those who would be indignant at that name – buy their cheap-and-nasty clothes. The two names are the tailors’ own slang; slang is true and expressive enough, though, now and then. The honourable shops in the West End number only sixty; the dishonourable, four hundred and more; while at the East End the dishonourable trade has it all its own way. The honourable part of the trade is declining at the rate of one hundred and fifty journeymen per year; the dishonourable increasing at such a rate that, in twenty years it will have absorbed the whole tailoring trade, which employs upwards of twenty-one thousand journeymen. At the honourable shops the work is done, as it was universally thirty years ago, on the premises and at good wages. In the dishonourable trade, the work is taken home by the men, to be done at the very lowest possible prices, which decrease year by year, almost month by month. At the honourable shops, from 36s. to 24s. is paid for a piece of work for which the dishonourable shop pays from 22s. to 9s. But not to the workmen; happy is he if he really gets two-thirds, or half of that. For at the honourable shops, the master deals directly with his workmen; while at the dishonourable ones, the greater part of the work, if not the whole, is let out to contractors, or middle-men – “sweaters” as their victims significantly call them – who, in their turn, let it out again, sometimes to the workmen, sometimes to fresh middlemen; so that out of the price paid for labour on each article, not only the workmen, but the sweater, and perhaps the sweater’s sweater, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, have to draw their profit. And when the labour price has been already beaten down to the lowest possible, how much remains for the workmen after all these deductions, let the poor fellows themselves say!”

‘Alton Locke’ (available in Google Books) , particularly the chapter entitled: ‘How Folks Turn Chartists’, goes into much greater detail than this on the privations of the tailors in the 1840’s.  At least in Louis’ time, in the West End, conditions were much better than this.  In a following blog I will talk about the wages that the journeymen were paid, and how that pay was set and regulated.

 

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One Response to WORKING CONDITIONS OF TAILORS IN GEORGIAN LONDON

  1. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Not that I know about him! Kingsley didn’t begin as a tailor, did he? He certainly learned a lot about conditions at the time though.

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