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MESSRS; SMITH AND WRIGHT'S, BUTTON MANUFACTURERS, BREARLEY STREET WEST.
334. These works, except the ivory-nut shop, are clean and light, and attention is paid to ventilation. A school-room has been lately built, and instruction under a certified master is provided for those engaged in the works three evenings a week. Of the eight boys in the ivory-nut shop, a boy of 14 could read a little, one of 13 and one of 10 could spell, two of 10 and two of 9 did not know the letters. Of the latter, one always goes to Sunday school, and went to day school when he was little. The eighth, aged 7, is named below. Nut-cracking boys, however, are probably not a fair specimen of the mass employed either here or elsewhere. Their outward appearance and mental state seem everywhere to point them out as belonging to about the lowest class.
335. Bill Squelch, age 7.—Pick out nuts. Don’t know A. Never was in a church or chapel, or heard a preacher, or heard of Adam and Eve.
336. Annie Brown, age 15 years 11 months.—Don't know all the letters; “g” is “n.”
337. Sarah Wile, age 14.—At work since 9. Was at day school six years ago. Do not go on Sunday now. Cannot read.
338. Herbert Hatton, age 13.—Mind a machine for cutting out buttons.
Go to the night schoo1, and do not miss. Can do sums up to simple interest.
339. Mr. J.S. Wright.—The usual hours of labour in our manufactory are from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., allowing 1¼ hour (1 to 2½) for dinner, and half an hour (5 to 5.30) for tea. The demand in our business is very irregular, and sometimes we have to continue business until 9 or even 10 o'clock. The children and young persons occasionally work with the others those hours, probably about 2 months in the year, for which this overtime occurs. It is at no particular seasons. On Saturday business in the manufactory closes usually from 4 to 5 p.m. We have not tried the system of relays, nor is it necessary, the work not being laborious, and change of posture very frequent.
In our particular trade, as well as in many similar trades in Birmingham, the labour of children if not indispensable is very useful and important. They perform many of the operations more rapidly and effectively than grown-up persons. The boys place and prepare by brushing, &c. the work for the men; sometimes they turn wheels, or perform light operations where steam power moves small “punches,” “rolls,” “saws,” &c. Some girls are employed in placing buttons on paper cards with holes punched in them, and in sewing buttons and hooks and eyes on cards. A large number are employed in this latter operation in their own homes, or in the houses of their neighbours. Some varnish or coat the buttons with japan, others assist the women by placing the various parts together, and some work at small presses like the women. I do not think that any of these operations are unhealthy or in any way injurious to the children, except turning the wheel if long continued.
It would of course be better if the children could be trained in well-regulated homes, and receive a proper education; but as such cases are exceptional, I am of the opinion that the children are on the whole in a better position, both physically and morally, than they would be if their labour was interdicted. The shops are generally warm and dry. No doubt the association of children with young persons and adults tends to a precocious development, but at the same time it appears to have a restraining influence, and must on the whole be beneficial, as there is less amount of female crime in Birmingham than in any other large town in the kingdom concurrently with the unrestricted employment of girls and women in factories and workshops equally or more extensively than in any other community in the kingdom.
The labour of children is very important to our and to kindred trades, as competition is now more severe than ever. The Germans especially, who have an unlimited supply of cheap labour of both sexes, are by reason of this advantage able to undersell us, not only at our own doors, in such articles as brooches, clasps, and buttons, which are made in so large quantities on the Continent as to give employment to many more persons than are engaged in the same trades in Birmingham, and these articles are imported into this country. Though we cannot in any sense be now considered the “toy-shop of Europe,” yet it is of the highest importance, if we would retain any considerable part of this class of trade, that adult male labour should be supplemented by that of children and young girls.
I believe that only in a very few cases where both parents are living, is it necessary for the children to come to work to earn sufficient food. In most cases I fear it is owing to the improvidence of the father who is unable to resist the temptations which public-houses (sanctioned unfortunately, in my opinion, by our social usages and the supposed necessity for Imperial revenue) hold out to our industrious and skilful artiztans. Still in such cases, as well as those where the father is unable to work, or has died, the labour of the child is the means by which it obtains the necessary nourishment for its health and maturity.
I am of the opinion that there would be great difficulty and but little advantage, all things considered, in carrying the provisions of the “Factory” or any similar Act in Birmingham. The trades are so diverse, and so many persons are employed in places which cannot be called “factories” or even “workshops,” and very large numbers are employed in their own houses by their parents; and these in most cases would stand more in need of protection than those employed in the larger establishments of the town.
I think, however, than an enactment which would make it imperative that no child shold be permitted to earn wages away from home, unless he or she could read, write, and do the four first rules in arithmetic, would be found beneficial in such towns as ours, and would only in a very trifling degree interfere with the course of business.
I am satisfied that means would speedily be found, without further Government aid, which would enable every child to receive the required amount of education. I would observe that the inability to write and even read in an adult is not conclusive that they never were taught; as my experience with many proves that these “arts” which they acquired in childhood have been lost by disuse.
Some two years since we created a school-room, and engaged a certified teacher to give instruction three nights a week. It is a matter of regret to my partner and myself that the advantages thus offered are not valued. It is only by threats of dismissal, and sometimes by actually discharging the child, that we can enforce attendance. Some few of the parents appreciate the opportunity, but we have frequently found them conniving at their children's absence.
[The following letters and table were afterwards sent by Mr. Wright.]
Employment of children in Birmingham.
Hotel de France,
The impression which you say would be conveyed by my remarks is what I desire to be conveyed, viz., that in my opinion the operation of the Factory, or any similar enactment, would be to exclude from work, in the larger factories in Birmingham, all children. I think that the system of half-time or relays would not by practicable in the trades that require child labour. I have been informed that in the neighbourhood of Manchcester, the result of the Factory Acts has been to prevent children being employed at all, except to a very limited extent. You ask, do I mean that the masters or the children would be as injuriously affected by such limitation as by exclusion from labour? As stated above, I believe the half-time system to be impracticable; and I think that certain manufactories would be injured if children’s labour were abolished. As regards the children, I have stated, I think, that I consider an elementary education necessary, but it may be obtained without the Factory Act, or exclusion from earning wages before they are 13.
From the extract which I have seen of the report of the Potteries Chamber of Commerce Committee, I concur in their views of the inexpediency of applying the Factory Act, and believe that the same difficulties would arise in our town from relays, changing hands, leaving off work at different periods to adults, &c.
J.E. White, Esq. Jno. S. Wright.
165, Brearley Street West,
January 2, 1864.
Here are the additional statistics. They have been carefully made up and may be relied upon. The school is an average one; the scholars are the children of artizans almost exclusively, and they may be considered as fairly representative of the young working class of our town. There is a class below those, not paupers, who do not attend Sunday school for want of clothes, &c. &C.
It must not be understood that those who are tabulated as being able to read and write can do so efficiently; they can generally read well, but their writing is indifferent. It will suffice as a rule to enable them to keep their “work books” when they become adults, but only a part, not half I should think, would be able to write a letter.
J.E. White, Esq. Jno. S. Wright.