Friday, 24 June 2016

4 September 1880 - 'The Working Girls of London' by Mrs G.S. Reany, of Reading

I wonder how many readers actually had any real idea about what "temptations" are being referred to below?

The heart of some are strangely drawn today to protect from the sorrows surrounding them, and to win to a more happy and hopeful life, the 40,000 working girls who are to be found in the city of London alone.

The sympathy thus felt has taken practical form in the establishment of houses where board and lodging may be procured at a very nominal charge. Three houses of this description have been opened in the past two years, while we believe one or two others with a similar object have actually been in existence for some long period before. But as the united efforts of all the houses now in active operation would not do more than accommodate some 300 working girls, it will be readily admitted that before the actual needs of the 40,000 are met very much more has to be done.

And who is to do it?*

It must not be supposed that the whole of the 40,000 working girls of London are without good homes at the present time, for many of that number "live at home with their parents" and have no need to take lodgings anywhere. But at the same time there are several thousand who have found their way up from the country, owing to the scarcity of the work there, or because London always presents attractions to the young, who cannot be persuaded, until experience has proved to the contrary, that London wages are not always good, and that you have no need to ask twice before securing just the work you require. And it is for these, many of them young girls in their teens, for whom we would to-day ask sympathy.

After leaning by bitter experience that work cannot so readily be had, and that when obtained it often brings but a low wage, these girls find that they are obliged to keep themselves in board, lodging and clothing on the scanty pittance of 4s 6d a week, not to say anything about a wage which in some cases never exceeds half-a-crown.

This fact necessitates a very low-priced lodging - the half of a bed, probably in a well-packed lodging-house, where the overheated room causes headache and sleeplessness, and has, in time, a most deleterious effect upon the health. But what else can be done under the circumstances? One shilling a week for a bed - and this is, probably, placing it at the lowest cost - makes a large hole in the wage of 4s 6d. Out of the remaining 3s 6d food has to be obtained for seven days, averaging, at least, two meals a day; and some few coppers have to be spared to pay off the debt already incurred for boots or just so much clothing as helps to make the wearer respectable.

We must let down the curtain before the awful temptations which so surely present themselves to girls of this class to enable them to obtain a few additional shillings from time to time to eke out their scanty little income. But, dear sisters in sheltered homes, remember, though we have let down the curtain, the temptations are there, real, painfully real. We spare your eyes, your hearts; but those of whom we write will not be spared; possibly their trial may double what it need be because you know nothing of it, for if you did know, at least you would help them with your sympathy and means, and give them, if nothing else, hope of better things.

We have heard of a mother who, when wishing to bring home to her children their dependence upon others, with the desire to call forth sympathy for those who might otherwise have been slighted and scorned, would say, "Well, now let us consider where all the things you wear came from, by whom they were produced and made just what they are. Now, let us think of what you use, of things which may be but luxuries in your life, but which have come to you through the toil and earnest labour of others." A very wholesome lesson this. Would that more mothers gave it. Were it given with faithfulness in every detail we feel sure the working girls of London would have more of our thoughts and sympathy than the now possess.

I learnt to realise this more one certain evening, in the autumn of '78. I had been invited to give an address at one of the Working Girls' Homes alluded to above, which, because it had been called a home, and not a house (committees learn wisdom by experience), had been held lightly in esteem by those for whom it was intended. A free tea, with the promise of this address, formed evidently a great attraction, for, at the time named upon the ticket of admission, the basement of the house was crowded with just the girls who, until to-night, had passed and repassed the home with scornful indifference. More were waiting outside when I gained the Honorary Secretary's permission to draw off some who had already finished tea to the upper part of the house, where they could inspect bedrooms, bath-room, etc.

Some twenty or more followed me upstairs, quite unconscious that I was "the lady" whose address they were supposed to have come to hear. This gave me a grand opportunity of having a friendly talk with them. They spoke without any reserve, and, after a little while, we sat down in one of the upper bedrooms, and had a regular "experience meeting," but of a somewhat novel kind and character.

"Ah, dear," said one of the saddest-looking of my friends to me, putting her arm round my waist, and giving me a hearty kiss (which I greatly enjoyed, and felt grateful to her for giving) - "ah, dear, if only ladies would give us time, our life would be far less of a drudgery. How many ladies never take the poor dressmaker into consideration when they give their order for a dress to be made! They leave it all until the last moment, and then they are in such a dreadful hurry that poor we have to suffer. If they would but think that we, too, had our lives to live."

"In what way do you mean?" I enquired, a little wondering what explanation she would give to me.

"Why I mean this," she replied. "You know I'm married. Ah! I don't look old enough, do I, but I was but a girl when I settled down. Well, last week my baby was ill. I pay a neighbour to take charge of her, but one morning I left home with a very heavy heart. I longed for night to come to go back to the child. I am forced to go out; if I did not help to keep the pot boiling we should be nowhere. When seven o'clock was nearly come that day my heart was all of a tremble with longing to go back to my Annie - bless her! When in comes our forewoman and says she, 'You'll all have to stay on until that dress is finished. I've just received a note from the lady you are making it for, and she says if not home to-night it will be of no use to her, as she leaves  for the Continent in the morning!' Home that night, and the order had only come in a few hours before! We had to work hard until eleven, and every stitch I put in had a heart yearning for little Annie in it! I had said I should be back soon after seven, and I wondered what the neighbour would be after when she found I did not come. Now if that lady happened just to have known all the circumstances would she not have regretted hurrying us so?"

Of course she would! But how was she likely to know? Only by coming in close personal contact with these busy workers. Perhaps the simplest and the easiest way of doing this would be to attend one of Mrs. Fisher's meetings at 165 Aldersgate-street, held daily from 1 p.m. until 1.40 for these dear girls. Yes! Dear girls, it only needs to know them to care for them, to sympathise with them, and to long to be helpful to them.

We are so apt to forget that they are women as well as workers. That they have their thoughts and feelings, their joys and sorrows, their home life cares and responsibilities. That they are in short what we ourselves would be if the circumstances of our lives were changed, and if instead of being the favoured daughters of well-to-do or wealthy homes, we were the children of the poor who had to work in order that they might eat.

The three homes established in London during the past two years are Alexandra House 88 St. John's-street, West Smithfield; Victoria House, 135, Queen's-road, Bayswater; and Mortley House, 14 Fitzroy-street, Fitzroy-square.

In these houses board can be procured for 4s 6d a week, or, when preferred, each meal may be paid for separately, at a charge of 2 1/2d for breakfast, 6d for dinner, 2 1/2d for tea, or 1d for supper. Each resident in the house has to be 2s 6d or 3s a week for lodging, and she has to also pay for her own washing.

To charge more than the above quoted price would be to close the door practically to just the class of working girls most in need of these houses; therefore, it becomes needful to supplement in some form the income secured by the payment of the girls alone, in order to meet the very heavy outlay of rent, rates, taxes, and coal. And it is to aid in this that an appeal is made to our "English girls" of happier circumstances.

A lady much interested in the Zenana Mission wondered how she could find the means to send an annual subscription to the funds and out of her wonderings grew a shorter train, and thereby the saving of material in her dress, less costly bonnets, and a variety of those small self-denials in dress which do cost a woman something but which may most cheerfully be given to Him who said "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me;" and the result of it all has been the sum of £2 10s a year saved out of personal expenditure on dress, and devoted to the great work of sending messengers of glad tidings to the sad and sorrowful women who people the Zenanas of India, to whom the Gospel of Peace has never been brought.

Gnetle reader, is there no small self-sacrifice you could make in dress, to put within your hands some offering to make the Master Himself, in the form of helping forward the great work of providing comfortable homes - with all that that thought may mean -  for the working girls of London?

Will you seriously think the matter over?

*If all who read THE GIRL'S OWN PAPER would contribute the sum of one shilling, sending it to J. Shrimpton, Esq., 38, Lincoln's Inn Fields, Hon. Secretary of the Working Girls' Homes, a fund would at once be started out of which many new houses might be planted in the neighbourhoods most needing them.

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