The Cry of the Children


Nearly all the “knotting,” or the tying of knots in the fringes of the quilts and toilets, is done by child-labour, and a good deal of it by half-timers. At Messrs. Phethean’s you find them all at work in a large room. Running the whole length of this room stand a series of “counters,” about the same height and width as those usually in a drapers’ shop. These ” counters ” are so arranged as to form narrow alleys between. In these alleys stand the little “knotters,” close together, busily knotting the fringes as they hang over from the counters. Their nimbleness is a wondrous sight to see. In and out, up and down, backwards and forwards fly their little fingers, and the shapeless fringes flash into loops and knots and comely tassels with quite bewildering rapidity. They are all working as though for dear life for they are on piecework. They look neither to the right nor to the left, but keep their eyes intently concentrated on their work. There is nothing of the listless, gaping child about them. They are all in deadly earnest to earn money, and they show it in their set features, the ceaseless dodging in and out of their wonderful little fingers, and the almost rhythmical swaying of the body. Ah, if I was only their employer, I should be proud of them and no mistake.


But I am afraid I do not see things quite as an employer sees them. Mrs. Browning has made me foolishly sentimental regarding child-life, Ruskin has made me fearfully unpractical on this matter, and a study of Froebel has given me a soft-hearted and perhaps a soft-headed notion that childhood’s brief hour should be spent joyously, free from the burden of toil. The discipline of these tiny half-timers would have done credit to a Prussian General. They seemed altogether a well-ordered army of little maidens, wearing an air of motherly seriousness. But I am a wretched heathen in these matters. For example, I would rather have seen most of these youngsters running riot through woods and fields, and even tearing their clothes in climbing trees, or indulging in the domestic crime of making mud pies, than working away here as perfectly orderly members of the great army of industry. It may seem fearfully heterodox, but I really believe that another two or three years of unburdened child-life would not have seriously demoralised them. Indeed, I am afraid that some of these absurd ideas must have made themselves apparent, for several times my questions quite upset the decorum of the children and went far to jeopardise their splendid discipline. I asked a great number of them similar questions and received little variation in the answers except upon one or two points. Let me give questions and answers in a couple of typical cases.


One of the first children I spoke to was a very little girl who could not do much more than just look across the top of the counter. She looked somewhat serious and far from strong and healthy. Her features were distinctly pinched, her complexion was tallowy, and her chest measurement was obviously very low. But her face was keenly intelligent, and her little fingers were as nimble as the paws of a kitten.

“Well, what is your name, little miss?
” Jessie Gordon, sir.”
” How old are you?”
” Nearly thirteen, sir.”
” And how long have you been a half-timer!”
” Since I was turned eleven, sir.”
“How much do you earn a week?”
” About four shillings when I come in the mornings, and about 2s. 3d. when I come in the afternoons.”
” You are paid piecework, are you? “
“Yes, sir.”
” Which do you like best, this work, or going to school?”
“This work.”
” Why?”
“Because I can earn money at this, sir, and I can’t at school.” “Leave the money out of it for a moment, or let me put it in this way, supposing you received no money for this work, or that you had the same money for going to school, which would you rather do then?”
” Go to school.”
“Because I should know more when I grew up.”
” And why did you come to work? Did you want to?”
” No, sir ; but father thought I had better.”
“What is your father?”
“A collier, sir.”
” Does he get regular work?’ Yes, sir.”
” How many are you in family?”
” Nine, with father and mother.”
” Are you the oldest?”
” No, sir ; there are four older than me.”
“Do they all work, and are they all at home?”
“No sir; two sisters work at weaving, one brother with a engineer, and the other is a carpenter”
“And how much do you all make a week?”

This question was met with a look of blank amazement from Jessie, and an outbreak of subdued giggles among her immediate companions. After a little coaxing, Jessie said,
” I don’t know, sir.”
” Well, do you think it would be £3 a week? “
” More than that.”
” Well, £4, then.”
” More nearly £5, I should think.”
“Well, what do you do with your money?”-
“I have fourpence to spend myself, mother puts a shilling in the bank for me, and the other goes towards my clothes and keep.”

So you can scarcely say that it is thriftlessness that is responsible for half-time labour in Lancashire.


The next girl I spoke to was several inches taller than Jessie, a good deal more bulky; and altogether much healthier looking.
” What is your name! “
” Polly Deakin, sir.”
” How old we you when you came as a half-timer? “
” Just eleven, sir.”
“And how long have you been here?”
” Nearly two years.”
” Do you earn good money.”
” Yes, sir, pretty good. One week I earn about 4s. 9d. and the other about 2s. 6d. ; all depends whether I am coming in the mornings or afternoons.”
” Which standard are you in?
” Sixth, sir.”
” Do you prefer this work to going to school?”
” No, sir. I like school best now.”
” Why do you say now? “
” Because I liked this work best when I first came to it.”
” Why don’t you like it as well now? “
” Because the work is harder than school, sir.”
” No other reason? “
A good deal of blushing and hesitation, and then,
“Yes, sir, please, sir, other girls who weren’t such good scholars as me when I first came here are above me now,”
” And did you want to come to the mill?
” Yes, sir. Very much at first, but I would rather be at school now.”
” What is your father?
” A carter, sir.”
” And how many brothers and sisters have you?”
“Four sisters and one brother.”
“All working?”
“No, sir. Only two sisters and brother ” “And how much do you all earn a week? “
This question was obviously resented, but afternoon little hesitation Polly replied,
” A good week about £3, sir, but generally about £2 10s.”
” Does your mother work ?”
“No, sir.”
” Has she ever worked in a mill? “
” No, sir. She was in service at Liverpool”


I put similar questions to a great number of the little “knotters,” but the reply of Jessie Gordon and Polly Deakin are fairly typical, As far as the answers showed, the collective family wages varied from £1 10s. up to about £6 a week. The majority expressed a preference for mill work to school life. In nearly every instance they gave the earning of money as the reason for this preference. Asked to leave we money out of consideration, then the vast majority said they liked school best. Apart from the money consideration, the only reason assigned for preferring the mill to school, except in one case was that there was no cane at the mill. In the single case alluded to the little girl bluntly said she hated learning.


Turning from the children, I put a series of questions to one of the foremen, and the fire-woman having charge of the little “knotters.” As to the forewoman first:
” I see you have a number of girls here, who have started work at 12, as well as those who have begun at 11. Which have you found most nimble at their duties?”
” Well, on the whole I should say those who come at eleven. You see their fingers are smaller and much of their ‘ knotting ‘ work needs very little fingers to do it quickly and properly”
“And did you find a great deal of difference?”
“ Not much, sir, but there is some difference.”
“And did you find a great difference when the age was raised from 10 to II?”
“Just a bit, but of course 12 months don’t make what you might call very serious difference. It makes some though, and we can see it in the work.”
“And which would you rather drive – a team of II year olds or 12?”
” Eleven for choice, sir. They are as easy to look after, and they make better workers sooner.”
” And which would you rather drive?” (turning to the foreman.)
” Oh, there isn’t a lot of difference, but taking one thing with another. I think the younger – in reason of course – the better. I preferred ’em when they were ten, to now they’re eleven, and to raise the age wouldn’t be good in my judgment for either the. children or their employers.”


Having made a tour of the mill, I returned to the office, and settled down to a talk with Mr Phethean on the proposal to raise the age of the half-timer.
“You are, I understand opposed to the age being raised? ” “Absolutely.”
“Do you mind giving me your reasons?”
“I think it would be bad both for the textile trade, and for the workpeople themselves.”
“Let us take the trade first. Would it mean increased cost in production?” ‘
“Yes, it certainly would. If at a stroke you are going to cut off the supply of child labour for a time, it means either that work will go undone, or that it will have to be done at an increased cost.”
‘Well, take the case of your own firm?”
“With us, of course, it would be, for a while, a very serious matter. Much of the ‘ knotting’ which you have just seen, can only be done by the smallest fingers, and I doubt how far it could be done at all if we were prevented from getting child-labour until 13, as suggested by Mr. James Kenyan, MP“
“Might not something be done to compensate for this by efficient technical education?”
“No, it’s a question of learning the actual work itself, and with the smallest fingers. As a matter of fact there is a good deal of nonsense talked about this technical education. Speaking generally of the textile trade, there is no room to make use of it, except in one or two very special branches. The great bulk of the work must, of necessity, be very largely mechanical , where all you want is obedience to instructions from the directing brains.”


“Then as to the affect of raising the age upon the workpeople?”
” Well in the first place a child at 12 or 13 will be nothing like as nimble and dexterous at its work as one at 11. It means, too, that instead of the child at 13 having a good trade in its hand, it will have to wait until it is 15. During all this time it will have to be kept practically by its parents instead of helping itself to keep the home going. This is a very serious matter, indeed, to those parents of the children who are really poorly off, and a great many of them are.”
“but don t you think it would be better to keep the children at school somewhat longer?”
” I don’t think you can beat the present system, under which, by going half to the mill and half to school, the children are given change. It is much better than that they should be running the streets or going as errand boys outside school hours.”
” Let us suppose for a moment that the age will be raised, what is the best way in which it can be done?”
“Of course I say it ought not to be raised, but supposing it is decided upon, then I think it would be better to raise it bit by bit, a month or two at time say, instead of at a jump of 12 months. This would reduce the inconvenience of the change to the minimum.”
“And what about the health side?”
“There is a. great deal of twaddle talked about it. The factories are much more sanitary and wholesome than the majority of the homes in which the workpeople live. Now look at me. I came into the mill when I was 12, and what is there to complain about?”
“And at what age would you say the majority of the present textile operatives came to work?”
” Ten.”
” Then you’ll pardon my saying it Mr. Phethean but you are quite the best argument for raising it to 12, I have met with since I came to Lancashire.”

And I sincerely believe he is, for a finer physique than that possessed by Mr. Phethean, you would not meet with in a day’s march.

*. I give fictitious names for obvious reasons, as in the case of my articles dealing with School Board children in Loudon.

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