11 September 2012

The Employment of Children in the Button Trade: Statement from Joseph Corbett

Taken from the ‘Commission on Child Labour’ of 1841, looking at the employment of children in the button trade. Folios 129 to 133. Evidence collected by RD Grainger Esq. from Hammond, Turner & Sons at their Snow Hill manufactory. These folios contain a number of statements, all of which can be seen here, reproduced in this post is the statement from Joseph Corbett.

Mr. Joseph Corbett
Has been employed more than 40 years at Messrs Turner’s as a button burnisher. The average wages in this trade, in full work, are from 30s. to 35s. a week, but there is often a want of employment. Has often been consulted by the mechanics generally on occasions when they required advice. Has been applied to by mechanics in reference to the objects of this inquiry. Has taken an active part in public proceedings connected with the trade of the town. Was one of a deputation consisting of two from the button-makers appointed to wait on His late Majesty George IV., and other branches of the royal family, nobility, &c., in order to induce them to encourage the trade. On this occasion received several votes of thanks from the masters and men. In 1837 was again appointed a deputy to wait on Viscount Melbourne relative to the distressed state of the nation.
The witness handed in the statement marked [G.]

[G] Statement of Mr. Joseph Corbett
1. Children of both sexes are sent to work at too tender an age, particularly female children. During their childhood, at a time when fresh air and freedom from confinement are so essential, they toil throughout the day, acquiring not the least domestic instruction to fit them for wives and mothers. I will name one instance, and this applies to the general condition of females doomed to, and brought up amongst, shop-work.
My mother worked in a manufactory from a very early age. She was clever and industrious; and, moreover, she had the reputation of being Virtuous. She was regarded as an excellent match for a working man. She was married early. She became the mother of 11 children. I am the eldest. To the best of her ability she performed the important duties of a wife and mother. She was lamentably deficient in domestic knowledge; in that most important of all human instruction, how to make the home and the fire-side to possess a charm for her husband and children, she had never received one single lesson.
She had children apace. As she recovered from her lying-in, so she went to work, the babe being brought to her at stated times to receive nourishment. As the family increased, so anything like comfort disappeared altogether.
Poor thing, the power to make home cheerful and comfortable was never given to her. She knew not the value of cherishing in my father’s mind a love of domestic objects. My heart aches when I reflect upon her anxious and laborious situation.
Not one moment’s happiness did I ever see under my father’s roof. All this dismal state of things I can distinctly trace to the entire and perfect absence of all training and instruction to my mother. He became intemperate; and his intemperance made her necessitous. She made many efforts to abstain from shop-work; but her pecuniary necessities forced her back into the shop. The family was large, and every moment was required at home.
I have known her, after the close of a hard day’s work, sit up nearly all night for several nights together washing and mending of clothes. My father could have no comfort here. These domestic obligations, which in a well regulated house, (even in that of a working man, where, there are prudence and good management,) would be done so as not to annoy the husband; to my father they were a source of annoyance; and he from an ignorant and mistaken notion sought comfort in an alehouse.
My mother’s ignorance of household duties; my father’s consequent irritability and intemperance; the frightful poverty; the constant quarrelling, the pernicious example to my brothers and sisters; the bad effect upon the future conduct of my brothers; one and all of us being forced out to work, so young, that our feeble earnings would produce only 1s. a week; cold and hunger, and the innumerable sufferings of my childhood, crowd upon my mind and overpower me. They keep alive a deep anxiety for the emancipation of the thousands of families in this great town and neighbourhood, who are in a similar state of horrible misery. My own experience tells me that the instruction of the female in the work of a house, in teaching them to produce cheerfulness and comfort at the fire-side, would prevent a great amount of misery and crime. There would be fewer drunken husbands and disobedient children. As a working man, within my own observation female education is disgracefully neglected. I attach more importance to it than to anything else. They impart the first impression to the young susceptible mind; they model the child from which is formed the future man.

2. As regards males and females promiscuously together in one manufactory, I do consider it as having a most immoral tendency. I have always found, where the intercourse was promiscuous, the females to be careless in their dress, indecent in their conversation, unchaste in their conduct; in fact, they are inferior in all respects to those who are kept apart from the male sex. Look at the young women employed the higher department of the manufactory, the warehouse for instance, under the superintending care of a master of sober and moral character. Here will be neatness of dress, decent and becoming conversation, and attention to business. Intellectual education, whether from a Sunday school or other sources, produces a marked distinction of improvement. It is not difficult to imagine a young female, of pleasing face and person, exposed, by being placed in a manufactory, to the lewd remarks and familiarities of the coarse and dissipated of the other sex. Perhaps not one idea of virtue was ever established in the mind of this susceptible and credulous creature. She is now put in the certain path to ruin and seduction. She is often treated as an inferior being; until some infamous seducer flatters to obtain her ruin. She is the victim of her own confiding and unsuspecting nature, but she is branded for being extremely vicious.
Suppose the weekly earnings of a female to be 6s, and this is above the average, out of this she has to pay for lodgings, for clothes, and for the making of them too, for she cannot make them herself never having been taught; her washing after work-hours, she will do herself; in her outlay she most be frugal to keep clear of the inconveniences of debt.
There can be little or no saving in this instance. Suppose the poor creature to be put to half time, or to be thrown out of work all together, she has no parents, no friends to fall back upon, resources she can have none; what then is the alternative?
The answer is obvious.

3. With respect to “turn outs,” much bad feeling is oftentimes created by the unwillingness of a principal to listen to the complaints of their work-people; to talk over kindly; and with a good feeling, their mutual differences. By this means misunderstandings would be made clear; concessions made; unjust and unfounded suspicions on both sides prevented; and the painful suffering to families, and loss of property to the masters need not take place.
It is a fact that in my trade, at our place, no “turn out” ever took place; and yet our list of prices is a standard for the town; my shopmates were all well informed, and still more my employer was open at all times to easy access. He never refused to listen to the most trifling complaint. The manager also was a man of an amiable disposition.
His mediations were just and satisfactory to both parties. I remember with pleasure the testimony of a silver snuff-box being presented to him for his honourable and conciliatory conduct.—(Inscription: “Presented to Mr. Joseph Conway, as a tribute of respect, by a few friends in the employ of Messrs. Hammond, Turner, and Son, May the 7th, 1828.”)
The only instance of anything like disaffection took place at our manufactory in the beginning of 1838. It had no reference to prices. It was concerning privileges. A wrong notion prevailed. The best informed were open to conviction, and kept to their work; the others, 4 of them, who were extremely ignorant, left their work, but soon afterwards repented of their precipitate and short-sighted conduct.

4. I have seen the entire ruin of many families from the waste of money and bad conduct of fathers and sons seeking amusement and pastime in an ale-house. From no other single cause alone does half so much demoralization and misery proceed.
Here I am forced back to the painful scenes of my childhood. Thousand and millions resort to the ale-house for conversation and amusement; and it would be anything but paternal on the part of Government to break up, or attempt to break up these places, without furnishing them with other recreative resources, as for instance, gymnastic exercises, quoits, cricket, &c.; public gardens, walks, baths, reading-rooms; &c.
Having worked in a manufactory 40 years, the effects of ignorance amongst the working people have been the cause of much uneasiness to myself.
The better a man was educated the better workman he made; and more civil and obliging to his employers, and the more respected and valued by them. I speak from the experience and observation of many years. Instruction and kindness towards the working classes has an elevating tendency. Women’s minds are often debased by the coarse and brutal conduct and conversation of their masters. The one mode of treatment creates better servants, and therefore better domestic characters; the other produces viciousness and brutality of feeling.
If the rich knew how much they could accomplish by condescension and example they would not be so scanty of kindness to the poor.
As a proof what kindness may produce, I will speak of my own place of work.
An aunt was employed upwards of 70 years; my mother 30 years; my father 30 years; myself upwards of 40 years; a son, who works under me, is now within a few days of being of age. Others have worked at the manufactory from periods of 10 to 50 years.
December 7, 1840. (Signed) JOSEPH CORBETT.
[Note.—This most creditable statement, the product of a Birmingham mechanic, is inserted without a single alteration of any kind.]

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