Women who Wove

(see http://www.mythweaver.co.uk/stitchery/snippets/stitch-stitch-stitch-in-poverty-hunger-and-dirt/  for details of the conference at which this talk was presented)

Black crape was produced in large quantities in Victorian times for the mourning garments of the middle classes.  This session looks at the lives and conditions of working class women and girls employed by Courtaulds in an Essex mill to make the crape.

Notes from a talk by Judy Lown

(Presented at the Costume Society Seminar on ‘Sweated Trades’ Feb 8th 1986)

Courtaulds is one of the ten biggest national textile companies in Britain, and exports all over the world.

Samuel Courtauld started in Essex in 1815.

In the 1820s he had only a handful of workers and made £100 per anum.

By the 1840s he had 400 people in his employ

1850s he moved his family to Gosford Hall, and was aiming to become gentry

In 1881 he died, leaving 2 ½ million pounds.

The family made a fortune out of silk.

Textile work is a female orientated trade.

Essex was a thriving silk producing area in the early 19th century, but by 1860 many firms were extinct.  Courtaulds survived, employing 75% of women workers in the mid 19th Century.

Halstead, Bocking, Braintree were silk centres

Essex was formerly a wool producing area – by the late 18th century this trade declined with the concentration in the North, leading to a depression in Essex among females (women having formerly been wool spinners).  The Spitalfields silk industry had become chaotic by the late 18th century due to demands for wages.  (Silk has always been a female industry from the Middle Ages onwards, but there were no guilds for them.  By the late 18th century they were pushed down to lowest earnings.)

Silk manufacturers looked for new places for their industry.  Essex was an ideal location and the industry moved there, where there was surplus labour to be taken up, which could be cheaply employed.

The main produce was black silk crepe, with a special weave produced by Courtaulds for the mourning trade.

This had a real boost in 1862 on the death of Prince Albert.

The special machinery developed for this was worked by young people – girls to 17, boys to 15 – silk winding only.  Only men were allowed to work the crimping machinery, and the crimping room was kept locked.

Halstead mill workers in the 1850 – women workers wore aprons, with male overseers.  Men were engineers and mechanics.

The mills were 3 miles apart and material was transported from one mill to another for different processes.  Men were employed as drivers and waggoneers.

There were fines for being late  and if they were 5 minutes late they had to wait 15 (before being allowed to start work?)

There were rules about not wearing crinolines which were considered dangerous (machinery) and indecent (when standing up on machinery).

(The family (Courtaulds?) were Unitarians with radical traditions, but were opposed to protective legislation – they felt that employers should create a family atmosphere in mills, not rely on the law).

Middle-class families were realising the ideal of ‘woman in the home.’  This threw up the position of working class women who needed to work.  The ‘patriarchal family’ system kept women at the bottom of lists.  There was a good deal of concern about working women not learning domestic arts.

A school was set up in the factory for young women.  Mary Merryweather was the school teacher.  She kept a diary, recording: 120 girls first week – free – class overfull.  Girls were noisy and unruly.  No womanly constraint.

A nursery was provided.  Rules were strict but not understood by women who did not agree with too much clothes changing.  It only ran for 3 years.

Other innovations included a room being provided for meals, and an Amusement society (in the late 19th century) – an early social club.

Dr Judith Lown was working full-time for the ILEA in their Adult Education Training Unit, based at the City Literary Institute.  Dr Lown’s research on the Courtaulds silk industry was carried out between 1977 and 1983, and was being written up as a book.

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