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J. WATSON’S, PEARL BUTTON MAKER, ST. GEORGE’S STREET.
391. Only three persons, viz., the master, his son an adult, and a boy of 16 work here. The workshop is a loft over a washhouse used by other persons, neither forming part of a dwelling, in a court reached by a narrow brick arch or open doorway. Waste water from the washing stood on the floor of the washhouse and escaped over the sill into an open gutter running down the whole length of the yard close in front of the long row of houses. The gutter appears common to these houses, and was slimy and stagnant throughout. At the bottom of the yard. is another small manufactory or workshop for thimbles, where two men, a woman, and a boy .work.
392. John Watson.—I have been in the trade 40 years, and am secretary to the pearl button makers’ society. The trade, which is quite distinct from all other branches of button making, till lately contained from 1,000 to 1,200 men, but now there are not more than a third or a fourth of that number in it, probably about 300, and those only half employed, the remainder having gone into other employments, and many to the workhouse. The trade has been in this depressed state for two or three years, in consequence chiefly of the American war, a large proportion; I should say two-thirds, of the goods having formerly been made for America. The manufacture has never been carried on in large factories. The usual number of persons in each ranges from 4 to 40. The greater part of the work is done by men. The first or “piecemaker” cuts out the pearl from the shell with a circular saw. The next or “turner” turns it. Women drill, polish, or “finish.” These processes are all done at a foot lathe. If the piece cut out is too thick a boy splits it with a chisel, and, if the small pieces are uneven, files them even. A. boy or girl sometimes works at a lathe, but it is quite the exception, as it wants strength. A boy is not strong and big enough till 16, as a rule, though he may be at 14. I began at that age. Girls usually card; i.e., sew buttons on paper, which is very light work. Boys and girls do not begin to work at all till about 10 or 12.
In the larger places the work is regular through the week. In the small the hours are not excessive. The men work the hardest, but as they usually do but little on Monday or Tuesday they do not average more than 10 hours a day. The small makers have all to finish and take in on Saturday, but this does not throw much work on those who do the finishing processes. From 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. would be a long day for these.
Steam power is not suitable for this work. It has been tried repeatedly in my memory, but without success, at least for any but the large work. The brittle nature of the material does not allow of working it at a greater rate than a foot lathe will give. Rapid motion would split it, and also heat it and make the edges too hard to work afterwards, and machinery could not be adapted to the different thicknesses of different parts of the same shell as the hand can. Getting steam power, therefore, would be mere outlay without any gain,and must come from the the earnings, which are too small already. In addition to this the maker likes to have his work all done in his own place without going off to hire mill power elsewhere. There is only one pearl button factory in the town that uses steam power, though it is used in America, where, owing to the heat of the climate, the men wish to save themselves the exertion, and the work is also bigger.
With regard to education, pearl button makers are in the same case as people in many other trades. They are so poor that the children must be sent to work as soon as they are able to earn anything. It is said sometimes that the poverty and ignorance of the pearl button people are owing to their habits of drinking and irregularity. I believe, however, that it is owing to their being so ill paid. A marked improvement in the character of the men has taken place since a rise in wages of a farthing a gross was obtained from the large masters and buyers, not by any strike but by quiet reasoning. The obstacle to a slight increase in wages is caused by factors and buyers insisting on a far more than proportionate increase in their own prices for sale. The rate is 2d. for a gross of 150, six pieces being made over to allow for breakage in the later stages, and the increase thus amounts to 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week. Since then many have reformed, and some who merely rambled about idling now teach in schools, &c. The boy there gets ½d.. a gross for filing. He is unable to read, write, or tell figures, but he can tell at the end of the week exactly how many buttons he has done, and they might be in quite a full week 150 gross (150 x 150 = 22,500).
If the object of this inquiry is for the real good of all, I hope it will succeed.
[The witness’s son supplied parts of this statement. Both were men of much clearness and thoughtfulness of mind.]
393. Frederick Tunstall, age 16.—File the pieces. Began at 10 years old, and have been at several places. Was never at a day-school. Know some only of the letters.