The "Slop Workers" of London. (1850)

The Goulburn Herald and County of Argyle Advertiser Sat 30 Mar 1850  Page 1.
I was led, by the gentleman whose advice I had sought, to a narrow court, the entrance to which was blocked up by stalls of fresh herrings. We had to pass sideways between the baskets with our coat tails under our arms. At the end of the passage we entered a dirty looking house by a side entrance. Though it was noonday, the staircase was so dark that we were forced to grope our way by the wall up the first floor. Here, in a small dark room, about eight feet square, we found no fewer than seven workmen, with their coats and shoes off, seated cross legged on the floor, busy stitching the different parts of different garments. The floor was strewn with sleeve-boards, irons, and snips of various coloured cloths. In one corner of the room was a turn-up bedstead, with the washed-out chintz curtains drawn partly in front of it. Across a line which ran from one side of the apartment to the other, were hung the coats, jackets, and cravats of the workmen. Inside the rusty grate was a hat, and on one of the hobs rested a pair of old cloth boots; whilst leaning against the bars in front there stood a sackfull of cuttings.

Besides the work men on the floor, sat two good-looking girls one cross-legged like the men engaged in tailoring. My companion having acquainted the workmen with the object of my visit, they one and all expressed themselves ready to answer any questions that might be put to them. They made dress and frock coats, they told me, Chesterfields, fishing coats, paletots, Buller's monkey jackets, beavers, shooting coats, trousers, vests, sacks, Codringtons, Trinity cloaks, and coats, and indeed every other kind of woollen garments. They worked for the ready-made houses, or "slopsellers." "One of us," said they, "gets work from the warehouse, and gives it out to others. The houses pay different prices. Dress coats from 5s. 6d. to 6s. 6d.; frock coats the same; shooting coats from 2s. 6d. to 2s. 9d. In summer time, when trade is busy, they pay 3s.; Chesterfields from 2s. 6d. to 3s. some are made for 2s.; paletots from 2s. 6d. to 3s." "Aye, and two days work for any man," cried one of the tailors with a withered leg, "and buy his own trimmings; white and black cotton, gimp and pipeclay."

"Yes" exclaimed another, "and we have to buy wadding for dress coats;· and soon, I suppose, we shall have to buy?.cloth and all together." Trousers from Is. 6d. to 3s.; waistcoats from ls. 6d. to Is. 9d. Dress and frock coats will take two days and a half to make each, calcula ting the day from six in the morning to seven at night; but three days is the regu lar time. Shooting coats will take two days; Chesterfields take the same time as dress and frock coats; pal tots two days; trousers one day. "The master here" (said one of them scarcely distinguishable from the rest)" gets work from the warehouse at the before mentioned price, paying us when he receives the money. We are never seen at the shop. Out of the prices the master here deducts 4s. per week per head for our cup of tea or coffee in the morning, and tea in the evening, and our bed. We sleep two in a bed here, and some of us three. In most places the workmen eat, drink, and sleep in one room; as many as ever the room will con tain. They'd put twenty in one room if they could."

"I should like to see the paper this'll be printed in," cried the man with the withered leg. " Oh, it'll be a good job, it should be known. We should be glad if the whole world heard it, so that the people should know our situation. I've worked very hard this week, as hard as any man. I've worked from seven in the morning till eleven at night, and my earnings will be 13s. this week; and deducting my 4s. out of that and my trimmings besides-the trimmings comes to about Is. 9d. per week which makes 5s. 9d. altogether, and that will leave me 7s. 3d. for my earnings all the week, Sunday included. It's very seldom we have a Sunday walking out. We're obliged to work on Sunday all the same. We should lose out shop if we didn't. Eight shillings is the average wages take the year all through. Out of this 8s. we have to deduct expenses of lodging, trimming, wash ing, and light, which comes to 5s. 9d. We can't get a coat to our backs."

I inquired as to the earnings of the others. " Well, it's nearly just the same, take one with the other, all the year round. We work all about the same hours-all the lot of us. The wages are lower than they were this time twelvemonth, 1848-that they are by far, and heavier work too. I think there's a fall of sixpence in each job at the lowest calculation." "Ah, there it is," said another; "a 3s. job we don't have 2s. 6d. for now."' " Yes, it's causing half of the people," cried a third, to be thieves and robbers. That's true. Wages were higher in 1847, they're coming down every year. The coats that they used to pay 5s. for this time two years, they are making for 3s. 6d. at present-the very same work, but a deal heavier than it was two years ago.

This time twelve month we made coats for 7s.; and 5s. this year is all we can have for the same. Prices have come down more than a quarter -indeed about half, during these last ten years. I'm sure I don't know what's the cause of it. The master first says, I can't give no more than such a price for making such an article. Then the man objects to it, and says he can't live by it; as soon as he objects to it, the master will give him no more work. We really are the prey of the master, and cannot help ourselves. Whatever he offers we are obliged to accept, or else go starve." "Yes, yes," said they all, "that's the real fact. And if we don't take his offer, somebody else will, that's the truth, for we have no power to stand out against it. The workhouse won't have us-we must either go thieve or take the price in the long run. There's a standing price in the regular trade, but not in this. The regular trade is sixpence an hour. The regulars only work from six in the morning till seven at night, and only do bespoke work.

But we are working for the slop shops or warehouses, and they keep a large stock of ready-made goods. We're called under-the-bed workers, or workers for the sweaters. All the persons who work for wholesale houses are sweaters. Single workmen cannot get work from them, be cause they cannot give security--£5 in money, or a shopkeeper must be responsible for that amount. Those who cannot give security are obliged to work for sweaters. The reason for the warehouses requiring this security is, because they pay so badly for the work they are afraid to trust the journeymen with it. But in the regular trade, such as the West-end, they require no security whatever. In the slop-trade the journeymen do not keep Monday, they can't do it-Sunday nor Monday either-if they do they must want for food. Since we've been working at slop-trade we find our selves far worse off than when we were work ing at the regular trade. The journeymen of the slop-trade are unable to earn 13s. where the regular journeymen can earn 30s. and then we have to find our own trimming and candle light.

I'd sooner be transported than at this work. Why, then, at least, I'd have regular hours for work and for sleep; but now I'm harder worked and worse fed than a cab-horse." During my stay in this quarter, an incident occurred which may be cited as illustrative of the poverty of the class of slop workers. This friend who had conducted me to the spot, and who knew the workmen well, had long been striving to induce one of the men, a Dutchman, to marry one of the females working with him in the room, and with whom he had been living many months. That the man might raise no objection on score of poverty, my friend requested me to bear with him half the expense of publishing the banns.

To this I readily consented but the man still urged that he was unable to wed the girl just yet. On inquiring the reason, we were taken outside the door by the Dutchman, and there told that he had been forced to pawn his coat for 6s. and as yet he had saved only half the amount tow ards the redemption of it. It would take him upwards of a month to lay by the re mainder. This was literally the fact; and the poor fellow said, with a shrug of his shoulders, he could not go to be married in his shirt sleeves. He was told to make him self easy about the wedding garment, and our kind-hearted friend left delighted with the day's work.

Morning Chronicle Articles on "Labour and the Poor."


"Slop Working" as described above, was destroying the tailoring trade and was one of the reasons that William Cuffay joined the union and took part in the London tailors strike.