B is for Bootmakers

B is a tricky one, there are so many Bs showing up as occupations for married women in the census; these are the Bs from just one single enumeration district in Bethnal Green:

Backgammon Table Maker
Bag Maker
Baking Powder Packer
Basket Maker
Bead Embroiderer
Bead Trimmer
Bobbin Winder
Bonbon Maker
Bonnet Maker
Book Binder
Book Filler
Book Folder
Book Sewer
Boot Lining Maker
Boot Machinist
Boot Maker
Boot Polisher
Boot Tacker
Boot Trimmer
Bottle Labeller
Bottle Packer
Box Maker
Braid Machinist
Broad Weaver
Brush Drawer
Brush Maker
Bugle Trimmer
Button Hole Maker
Button Maker

As you can see, there are a vast array of occupations I could look at for B in my A-Z, as opposed to the As for the same enumeration district which were Apprentice and Artificial Flower Maker (of course, there are far more than that in reality when looking further afield, Actress comes up – surprisingly – with great regularity).  I decided to write about the occupation group in which the greatest number of women were employed in my samples, and that was those working in boot manufacture (a close run thing with book folding).

Bootmaking was such a huge part of the Victorian economic structure that Charles Booth dedicated an entire section of Life and Labour of the People in London to a discussion regarding the ways in which the trade had developed and changed over the preceding 25-30 years, the working patterns of those involved in the trade, and the problems faced by men and women alike in a rapidly evolving sector of the clothing industry.[1]

One of the biggest issues faced by our bootmaking ladies was a drop in payment rates over a very short period of time. Whereas, previously, bootmaking had been a specialist trade carried out by artisans in small workshops and mainly by hand, by the latter quarter of the nineteenth century most boots were made by machine to a standard last (the wooden or metal ‘foot’ used to size shoes), rather than being made to measure for each customer.  It should be noted that we mustn’t confuse ‘machine’ with our current understanding of factory work; each process was still carried out by hand at this time in the majority of cases, but machines were involved in the sewing and finishing of the boots and shoes, thus cutting down on the time take to hand sew every upper, and to then sew it to every sole.

Booth, however, points out that for some in the trade the mechanisation of bootmaking was a positive thing. He notes, whereas in the mid 1800’s a family could not earn more than £1 a week bootmaking sewing by hand, the introduction of the sewing machine greatly reduced the price per pair of boots, but the bootmaker could make far more pairs per day.[2]  This was of great advantage to the owners of the growing bootmaking companies, but the profits were not always passed down to the employees.

Even within ‘boot making’ there are several different trades, and many different ways in which a woman could have been working.  Put very basically this comes down to home-work (most favoured by the married women) and factory work. By the 1880s most boots were made in factories, and many of the women recorded in the census as working in the boot trade were employed by factories. The areas in which women tended to do most of the work were fitting (pasting the pieces of the boot together in preparation for sewing), machining, button-holing and finishing (otherwise known as table hands) and these are the main boot making occupations seen in the list above (sometimes under slightly different names as given in the householder schedule).[3] It may seem surprising that so much of the work of the bootmaker was carried out by women, but as Booth points out, ‘Male labour is too costly a luxury to be employed by the manufacturer when he can get the work done well enough for his purposes by women willing to accept wages much lower than those demanded by men.’[4]

Wages varied greatly depending on the employer, the time of year (boot and shoe making, whilst not so seasonal as many of the other trades, was still quieter at times, the busiest months being from the middle of February until the middle of July),  and the experience of the woman herself.  Top class machinists in the late 1880s would earn in the region of 18s a week to 22s (if they were exceptional), whereas those who were still learning their trade could only expect to earn 14-16s a week. Apprentices worked for nothing for the first three months of their time with a company, and they would then rise very slowly from 2s-3s a week, up to a staggering 7s a week when they were at the end of their three years of apprenticeship.  The other female workers were on lower rates, button-hole makers could sometimes make up to 18s a week, trimmers on average 10s-12s, whilst the room-girls – young girls employed to fetch and carry, on 2s 6d.[5]

The hours of the women employed in the manufactories were not so long as those found in other occupations, indeed, by Victorian standards they were quite reasonable – a woman only expected to work from around 8am to 7pm Monday to Friday and a nice half day of 8am to 2pm on a Saturday – the overtime could be problematic, increasing their hours into the night on occasion, but still, bootmaking was seen as a relatively genteel occupation for a woman.

Certainly by the last years of the nineteenth century most women were employed by factories, and very few independent bootmaking families remained in business, but this didn’t mean that they were all actually working in a factory environment. Bootmaking was another one of the trades in which most of the work was still carried out at home.  Then, as now, premises were expensive and added to the cost of the product, it made far more sense to ship out most of the finishing and stitching work to women in their own homes.  Indeed, some of these women made their own little manufactories in their living rooms, employing friends, daughters and neighbours to come and carry out the work.  Booth offers some examples of the experiences of these women, and the money they were able to earn. Below is the profit and loss account for a mother working in her own home, in possession of three machines, one of which she works, in May of c1890:[6]

Gross Receipts £2. 15s. 5 ½d
£     s    d £   s    d
Expenses. Wages: 1 fitter 0   13   0
1 Machinist (improver) 0    9    0
1 Machinist (daughter) 0    6    0
1 shop-girl (table-hand and room-girl) 0    8    0
Grindery and repairs to machines 1  16   0
Rent 0   9    0
Light 0   3    0
Railway fares of shop-girltaking work to warehouse 0   0    6
Total 2   8   10
£    s    d
Gross Receipts 2   15   5 ½
Expenses 2    8   10
Nett Earnings 0    6    7 ½

So it can be seen that the woman who took in bootmaking and employed her daughter, a neighbour and a shop-girl earned less than the shop-girl by the time she had paid for the repairs to her machines and all of their wages. This was not always a profitable exercise.

Clementina Black also writes about the problems facing home-workers, which, it must be stressed, made up the majority of women working the trade. By the end of the nineteenth century she explains how the normal payment for soling babies’ leather boots has dropped to 8d a dozen pairs (so 24 little boots for 8p), as opposed to the 1/- a dozen which had been the norm in previous years.  Not only this, but many women were employed purely on piece work, and not on any form of permanent contract, so rather than being assured of work on a regular basis, they would have to walk from factory to factory to try and seek out some work to carry out. The plight of Mrs. W, a married mother of five small children, is pointed out by Black:

 ‘when visited she was busy upon babies’ shoes of blue ribbed silk; she stitched on the soles by hand, an operation always performed inside out, and necessitating the turning of the shoe to its right sided afterwards; then she pasted and inserted the stiffening at the heel, and finished off the inside. She was paid 1/- per dozen pairs, and could not do more than three dozen in a day, even if she sat at work from 9 to 11 or 11.30. One evening her husband timed her unawares, and reported that she had earned 2d. an hour – presumably four shoes. At that rate she would have taken 18 hours to do the 72 that she described as barely possible between 9 and 11.30.’[7]

Black goes on to explain how Mrs W’s fares for collects her work amounted to 9d. per week, and that she also had to provide her own thread, paste and needles, frequently using half a penny’s worth of needles per dozen pairs.  Even with her husband working, having a lodger and taking in washing (when did she have the time?) Mr and Mrs W still could only scrape together 30s a week, not enough to live on, Mrs W working to within a few hours of the birth of her most recent baby, and being back at work within six days, propped up in bed with pillows to try and make ends meet.[8]

When we consider that, according to the 1881 census of England and Wales, just in the borough of Bethnal Green and Shoreditch alone, over 2600 women were occupied in the boot trade, we can see that a vast number of women were living and working in these conditions, sewing, cutting or pasting for over 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 18 hours, for these rates of pay. And bootmaking was a ‘good’ occupation choice!

[1] C. Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London: The Trades of East London, (London, Macmillan and Co., 1893), pp.69-137.

[2] Booth, p.78

[3] Booth, p.75

[4] Booth, p. 75.

[5] Booth, p. 87.

[6] Booth, p. 90.

[7] C. Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983), p. 64.

[8] Black, p. 68.

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