Other Voices

Henry Mayhew, Interview of the Trouser Maker

In 1849, Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) was asked by the Morning Chronicle to be the metropolitan correspondent for its series "Labour and the Poor." His interviews with workers and with street folk convey a vivid sense of the lives of London's poor.

 

I make moleskin trowsers. I get 7d. and 8d. >> note 1 per pair. I can do two pairs in a day, and twelve, when there is full employment, in a week. But some weeks I have no work at all. I work from six in the morning to ten at night; that is what I call my day's work. When I am fully employed I get from 7s. to 8s. a week. My expenses out of that for twist, thread, and candles are about ls. 6d. a week, leaving me about 6s. a week clear. But there's coals to pay for out of this, and that's at the least 6d. more; so 5s. 6d. is the very outside of what I earn when I'm in full work. Taking one week with another, all the year round, I don't make above 3s. clear money each week. I don't work at any other kind of slop work. >> note 2 The trowsers work is held to be the best paid of all. I give ls. a week rent. My father died when I was five years of age. My mother is a widow, upwards of 66 years of age, and seldom has a day's work. Generally once in the week she is employed pot-scouring — that is, cleaning publicans' >> note 3 pots. She is paid 4d. a dozen for that, and does about four dozen and a half, so that she gets about ls. 6d. in the day by it. For the rest she is dependent upon me. I am twenty years of age the 25th of this month. We earn together, to keep the two of us, from 4s. 6d. to 5s. each week. Out of this we have to pay ls. rent and there remains 3s. 6d. to 4s. to find us both in food and clothing. It is of course impossible for us to live upon it, and the consequence is, I am obligated to go a bad way. I have been three years working at slop work. I was virtuous when I first went to work, and I remained so till this last twelvemonth. I struggled very hard to keep myself chaste, but I found that I couldn't get food and clothing for myself and mother; so I took to live with a young man. He is turned twenty. He is a tinman. >> note 4 He did promise to marry me but his sister made mischief between me and him; so that parted us. I have not seen him now for about six months and I can't say whether he will keep his promise or not. I am now pregnant by him, and expect to be confined in two months' time. He knows of my situation, and so does my mother. My mother believed me to be married to him. She knows otherwise now. I was very fond of him, and had known him for two years before he seduced me. He could make 14s. a week. He told me if I came to live with him he'd take care I shouldn't want, and both mother and me had been very bad off before. He said too, he'd make me his lawful wife, but I hardly cared so long as I could get food for myself and mother. Many young girls at the shop advised me to go wrong. They told me how comfortable they was off; they said they could get plenty to eat and drink, and good clothes. There isn't one young girl as can get her living by slop work. I am satisfied there is not one young girl that works at slop work that is virtuous, and there are some thousands in the trade. They may do very well if they have got mothers and fathers to find them a home and food, and to let them have what they earn for clothes; then they may be virtuous, but not without. I've heard of numbers who have gone from slop work to the streets altogether for a living, and I shall be obligated to do the same thing myself, unless something better turns up for me. If I was never allowed to speak no more, it was the little money I got by my labour that caused me to go wrong. Could I have honestly earned enough to have subsisted upon, to find me in proper food and clothing, such as is necessary, I should not have gone astray; no never! As it was, I fought against it as long as I could — that I did — to the last. I know how horrible all this is. It would have been much better for me to have subsisted upon a dry crust and water rather than be as I am now. But no one knows the temptations of us poor girls in want. Gentlefolks can never understand it. If I had been born a lady, it wouldn't have been very hard to have acted like one. To be poor and to be honest, especially with young girls, is the hardest struggle of all. There isn't one in a thousand that can get the better of it. I am ready to say again, that it was want, and nothing more, that made me transgress. If I had been better paid I should have done better. Young as I am, my life is a curse to me. If the Almighty would please to take me before my child is born, I should die happy.


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