A commentary on her experiences in the textile industry, Hilda Swettenham’s memoir is a shocking depiction of worker rights and gender politics in the early-twentieth-century workplace. Scrutinising her own involvement in the sewing trade, the author touches upon issues of poor wages and working conditions in factories, highlighting the exploitation and oppression of the working class. Her autobiographical writing illustrates the hardships of her daily working life, providing a raw insight into the dire straits of working-class women.
In general, working conditions in factories were dismal, particularly for working-class women. Discussing the brutal practices she had to perform on a daily basis, Hilda describes the hazards of working in the textile industry, going into vivid detail about the dangerous processes of using and maintaining factory equipment. She recounts how she ‘had to mend [the broken machines] ourselves with a pair of pilers, a bradawl or […] borer’ (3), further explaining that she ‘had to kneel on the floor and slide the strap onto a revolving wheel’ (3) in order to repair it. Hilda frames this merciless and harmful work simply as a matter of fact, just a practical and pragmatic way of getting the job done. This was a typical outlook on work at the time, as many ‘workers at the time could not afford to wait while the motor was turned off’ (3), thereby forcing them to continue such practices in extremely unsafe ways until ‘it became illegal […] after a few years’ (3). The author provides readers with the understatement of the century, commenting that ‘it was a miracle somebody did[n’]t lose a hand!!’ (3). Describing the unsanitary conditions of her workplaces, seemingly disease-ridden and crawling with bugs and rodents, Hilda writes that ‘the lights were festooned with brown paper […] to catch the bugs [and] the toilet was filthy’ (6-7), adding that ‘the last straw was when a rat had made a confinement in a girls work box’ (7). She further adds that she ‘could see the lights on the factory at all hours’ (4), demonstrating the terribly long hours that people were forced to work.
Not only were working conditions inadequate, but poor wages were rampant in many working-class industries. Hilda outlines the ‘vicious circle’ (7) of little work and poor wages which ‘happened all over in the sewing trade’ (7), demonstrating the difficulties she faced simply trying to make ends meet. The author’s ‘first weeks wages on piece-work was ten shillings for forty[-]nine and a half hours’ (3), today equating to only 50 pence for more than a whole week’s worth of full-time work, as one shilling ‘has the purchasing equivalent of 5 pence in the decimal currency system’ (Schild, 2020). Hard enough as it is, the cost of living in the 1920-30s was ‘higher than formerly [while] unfortunately, wages d[id] not increase in proportion’ (The Guardian, 2019), making it very difficult for Hilda to earn a sufficient living. This is particularly shocking considering that ‘if by any mischance a garment was soiled or damaged[,] the worker had to pay for them [and] many a worker could not afford to buy them’ (8), forcing workers to waste precious portions of their limited income. Humorously, Hilda makes light of her situation, writing that ‘when we received our seven and sixpence (with such a disdainful look the clerk[’]s faces)[,] you’d have thought they were giving us the “Crown Jewels”’ (5).
Such poor circumstances were not uncommon during Hilda’s lifetime, eventually being defined as ‘sweating’, which refers to ‘certain domestic industries such as dressmaking that were respectable at the beginning of the nineteenth century [and] later became ‘sweated industries’’ (Perkin, 2002, 38), and ‘characteri[s]ed by unregulated hours and conditions of work, extremely low wages and tedious, monotonous processes, mainly hand-operated’ (Burnett, 1994, 175). Work in ‘sweated trades’ or ‘sweatshops’ were exploitative and oppressive of factory workers, especially working-class women, as it ‘suffered […] an overall glut of female labour trying to make good the loss of male earnings’ (Burnett, 1994, 176). In response, an ‘Anti-Sweating League’ (Perkin, 2002, 38) was established to prevent the continuation of ‘work carried on for inadequate wages and for excessive hours in insanitary conditions […] mostly done by women’ (Perkin, 2002, 38-9). It is shocking to consider the fact that, even in the twenty-first century, the practice of ‘sweating’ is not just a shameful memory of the distant past. Rather, it is an ongoing mode of exploitation and oppression which continues to capitalise on the cheap and unhealthy labour of impoverished people for the financial gain of abusive transnational corporations.
The memoir further acknowledges rising levels of unemployment during the interwar period, discussing the impact of the First World War on employability, particularly for women. The author writes that ‘for a few years after the “First World War”[,] there was an awful lot of unemployment, and if you had a job you were considered lucky’ (8), exposing the ‘exceptionally high rates of unemployment between the two world wars’ (Burnett, 1994, 7). This ‘night-mare’ (4) was especially detrimental to working-class women due to the ‘casual and intermittent nature of the work that women performed [which meant that] much of the female employment described in the autobiography[y] was […] fleeting in nature’ (Griffin, 2013, 103), evident as Hilda recounts that ‘work was very hard to get’ (2), and that working-class women ‘must have only scratched a living’ (11). Hilda’s memories of the shocking circumstances she experienced during her employment in the sewing trade is a brutal reflection on worker rights and gender politics in the early-twentieth century. Her account offers an intimate perspective on the poor conditions and wages of working-class women.
Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry
Burnett, John. Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990. London: Routledge, 1994. Available: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ljmu/detail.action?docID=179927&pq-origsite=primo
‘From slums to suburbs: the new housing estates – archive, 1930’. The Guardian. 10th September 2019. Accessed: 12th April 2021. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/sep/10/from-slums-to-suburbs-the-new-housing-estates-1930
Griffin, Emma. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. London: Yale University Press, 2013. Available: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ljmu/detail.action?pq-origsite=primo&docID=3421146
Perkin, Joan. ‘Sewing Machines: Liberation or Drudgery for Women?’ History Today 52:12 (December 2002), 35-41. Available: https://search.proquest.com/docview/202815009/fulltextPDF/F81649FD713B4D48PQ/1?accountid=12118
Schild, Cassy. ‘1940s Britain Currency: What’s a Shilling Worth?’ Churchill Central. 27th October 2020. Accessed: 18th April 2021. Available: https://www.churchillcentral.com/how-much-is-a-shilling/
Fig. 1: Leech, John. (1850). “Specimens from Mr Punch’s Industrial Exhibition of 1850” [Drawing]. Punch, London. Available: https://punch.photoshelter.com/image/I0000jDROQeVcjRU
Fig. 2: History Today. (1909). Manchester factory girls making men’s shirts on Wheeler & Wilson machines, 1909. Available: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/sewing-machines-liberation-or-drudgery-women
Fig. 3: Hine, Lewis. (1936). WPA workers at Singer power sewing machines, Dec. 1936. Available: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-wpa-workers-at-singer-power-sewing-machines-dec-1936-photo-by-lewis-59780234
If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Ellie Chester’s blog post about Politics, Protest and Class in Mrs. N. Jones’ captivating memoir, where she discusses the dangerous working conditions and poor worker wages of Northern salt miners. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/authors/mrs-n-jones-b-1900-politics-protest-class