C. Duncan Lucas, from Scenes from Factory London

George Roberts Sims's Living London: Its Work and Play, Its Humor and Its Pathos, Its Sights and Its Scenes (1903) is what we would now call a coffeetable book consisting of illustrated essays about many aspects of London life. C. Duncan Lucas's chapter, Scenes from Factory London, offers an idealized view of factory labor.

 

[Click on image to enlarge] The average person has little idea of the immensity of London's Factory-land or of the vast number of people who find employment there. In its busy hives hundreds of thousands of workers are engaged day by day in performing some essential service to the British race; and it is not too much to say that if its factories were to disappear this big, ever-growing city would be bereft of half its strength.

Let us visit that huge place opposite, the yard of which is stacked with timber. A regiment of bright-looking women and girls arrayed in many colours have just trooped in. They are match-makers, and the factory belongs to Messrs. R. Bell and Co., of Bromley-by-Bow. Picture to yourself a gigantic room, clean and airy. To the right a couple of drums in charge of women are revolving, and on these drums are strands of cotton — a hundred of them, and each one 2,500 yards in length. On its way from one drum to the other the cotton is drawn through a pan of hot stearin >> note 1 until its coating of wax is of the required thickness. It is then put aside, and when it is sufficiently firm it is given over to the young woman on our left.

She is a fine-looking girl. Quietly dressed and with an air of responsibility about her, she is a young mother. Her husband is employed at the soap works hard by, and though some one has to tend the babies during the day she is happy — happy because there are two incomes to maintain the bairns >> note 2 in plenty. Her daily output is 2,500,000 match stems. Watch her. She has a cutting machine all to herself, and as the strands of wax flow into the frame she presses her thumbs at a certain spot, and behold a hundred stems are cut. Her thumbs never weary. The stems ready, up they go to the roof to be dipped. A man stands at a slab on which is spread the composition — a thick paste. He takes a frame and presses it on to the slab, and in ten seconds you have 10,000 finished matches. If any one should suffer from the deadly "phossy jaw" >> note 3 this man should, for he has been dipping matches for a quarter of a century, but he breathes the air of Heaven — the kindly proprietors, who do not look upon their employees merely as so many machines, lay stress on this — and as a further precaution fans are kept going throughout the day to drive away the fumes.

No one is idle here. Big strapping girls are making wooden boxes at the rate of 120 gross a day: others are filling the boxes with matches at a speed that beggars description; while over the way men are cutting timber for wooden "lights" with knives as sharp as razors.

If time did not press there would be much more to see, but we are due at Hackney Wick to witness 2,000 men and women making sweets.

The factory of Messrs. Clarke, Nickolls & Coombs supplies the sweet-toothed brigade of Great Britain with 2,000 varieties of sweets, and so agreeable is the stuff that in the course of twelve months from fifteen to twenty tons of it are consumed by the employees themselves. Step into this building by the railway where the workers are a hundred strong. Some are boiling sugar in great pans, some are kneading a thick, jellylike, transparent substance that we have never seen before. It is sugar and water. One woman is especially vigorous, and we admire her biceps. Presently she flings her jelly on to an iron peg and proceeds to pull it about with the strength of a Sandow. >> note 4 In two or three minutes it resembles a beautiful skein of silk. Later on it will go through a rolling machine, from which it will emerge a delicious sweetmeat.

There are few more curious sights than those that are presented at a sweet factory. On our tour of inspection we drop into the fondant >> note 5 room. It is full of grey-headed women. But they are not aged. Their greyness is merely starch. Wash away the starch and you have pretty young Englishwomen. These grey-faced damsels make the starch moulds into which the fondant material in its liquid state is dropped to be properly shaped. Walk upstairs and you have a contrast. An apartment is reserved for the exertions of half a dozen girls whose complexions are of a rich coffee colour. Brown as a berry, we put them down as thorough-bred Africans: But they are Cockneys, and brown only because they dabble in coffee and cocoa beans. They are experts in chocolate.

What an industry this is! Men and women, old and young, scrupulously clean, 2,000 of them, are working for dear life. Literally tons of sweets are in the process of making. Suddenly a bell clangs. It is the dinner hour. Labour ceases on the instant, and 700 women troop into the great dining-hall, where penny, twopenny, and threepenny meals are in readiness. There is some chaffing >> note 6 going on to-day, and on inquiry we learn that a chocolate specialist is about to be married. As she has been making sweets for five years, the good-natured firm will present her with a five-pound note on her wedding day.

* * *

[Click on image to enlarge] Glance now at our photographic picture of a corner of a department in the great tobacco factory belonging to Messrs. Salmon and Gluckstein, Clarence Works, City Road. In this room are employed some 250 persons — Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, Scandinavians, Dutchmen, Belgians, Poles, and others — and they make cigars all day long, from two to three hundred per day apiece. There is no busier spot in the universe than a tobacco factory. Scrutinize these men; read their faces. Doggedness is written all over them; their fingers are never idle; their backs never ache. As soon as a man has finished his hundred cigars away he rushes to get enough leaf to produce another hundred. He earns on an average from £2 10s. to £3 a week. In the next room women are just as busy. These are stripping the stalks from the leaves; those are sorting the leaves for quality; to the right, men are employed in preparing the leaf for the cigar maker. In other rooms you find girls busily engaged in banding, bundling, and boxing cigars, which are then passed on for maturing. In an adjoining department cigarette making is in progress on a colossal scale, and many machines are here running at a high rate of speed, producing huge quantities of cigarettes hourly. Apart from these machines, very large numbers of men and women are engaged in making cigarettes by hand.

The whole factory is a beehive of activity. Yet despite the feverish movements, which form the chief characteristic of this splendidly equipped establishment, there is a pleasant sense of comfort about the place. Of stuffiness there is none; every room is well lighted and ventilated, and both men and women are not only interested but happy in their work. Perfection of organization and consideration for the welfare and health of the employees are apparent throughout this huge and up-to-date tobacco factory.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback   :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home