J is for Jam Maker

“Any adventurous jam-maker can be sure, by settling in London, of getting as many female workers as he likes for about 7s. a week – certainly not a subsistence wage in London; and having got them he may treat them pretty much as he likes. He may turn them off for weeks or months in slack times; they will be there as soon as he chooses to open his doors again. He may work them day and night in busy seasons until they are broken down with fatigue and sleeplessness; and they will agree with the law which says it is all right.  He may work them under conditions fatal to health, and they will take it as all in the day’s work. The one thing which will never happen is that he should be ‘short of hands’”[1]


During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries jam making was carried out across the country – everywhere from village kitchens employing one or two women producing small batches of jams and preserves from fruits in season, to the vast London and Liverpool based factories, each employing thousands of workers.  Rapidly jam making became an occupation frequently reported as being problematic, both in terms of the wages being paid which were very low, but also as a dangerous environment, regularly appearing in the newspapers reporting deaths and serious injuries in the factories.


Jam makers were considered to be at the lower end of the working classes.  They are regularly described in reports as being of a ‘rough’ nature, they needed to have no special skills or experience – simply to be able to work for long hours and strong enough to deal with the vats of fruit and vast, heavy jam pans or pallets of jars.  Jam factories were taken to court for making women work overtime – as in the case of Messrs. Machonochie Brothers, who were summed to court for employing women after hours. Under the Factory Acts, women were not allowed to be employed after 9pm, however, Miss Deane, a Government inspector, visited the factory on August 5th 1898 and found three girls, one of which was only 14, working at 9.30pm, having been in work since 8am. The girl concerned had had an hour for dinner and another hour for tea, but was still washing bottles 13 hours after starting work that day.  Surprisingly, the judge found in favour of the employers, suggesting that, “if workshops were carried out on the ideal plan suggested, businesses could not be carried on at a fair profit.”[2]   In 1892 dozens of women employed at Pink’s jam factory held a strike at the reduction in their pay. Due to the surplus of women seeking employment and the lack of employment legislation to protect women in work, they were replaced immediately from the scores of women waiting at the gate in the hope of work.

Work in jam factories was seasonal and as such the factories worked extremely long hours in the fruiting season. Giving details of her factory duties, one elderly widow in Liverpool explained how:

“Oranges come in about Christmas, and marmalade making goes on till the end of March; rhubarb starts in May, followed by gooseberries and stone fruit. When the stone fruit is finished there is a week or two of pickling onions, but there is nothing from the beginning of October to Christmas.”[3]

During the slack time the widow explained that she had to take to charing – there was no work at the factory.  Women working full time could expect to earn a full time wage of 10/- or 11/- a week when busy, but only 5/- a week during the quieter months, with one woman stating that she only earned 2/- a week off season.

Work in the jam factories was hard – it is named by Clementina Black as being one of the occupations for women which would be considered more dangerous than a housewife’s heavy load of washing and cleaning.  “Some of them lifted pans of 56lbs weight, some washed bottles, some pulped fruit or stacked jars, or put fruit into bottles.”[4]  The work carried out by the stackers and lifters was considered very heavy – the 56lb pans (converted to 25kg) would be considered over 9kg (19lb) heavier than can safely be carried by a woman at work today.  This put an immense strain on the women, most of whom were under nourished, and frequently pregnant. All of the women questioned for Women’s Industrial Council worked in the factories through necessity – mostly due to being widowed, or their husbands being injured, sick, or unable to find regular work. None of the families were bringing in what would be considered at the time a subsistence wage, and, therefore, the physical condition of the women was argued to be weaker than the norm.  Black herself questioned whether “the carrying or piling up of pans or trays weights half a hundred-weight each can be suitable for women who are expecting the birth of a child,”[5]    and this seemed to be borne out in Liverpool where Ms Newcombe-Fox suggested that there appeared to be increased mortality among the children of jam makers – this being blamed on the mothers working to near their ‘time’, and the strain of the nature of the work.

Beyond the normal strains of working such long hours doing strenuous work, the factories could be, by their very nature, dangerous places to work. In 1893 the parents of Delilah Figgins, 15 years of age) insisted that their daughter’s death, 10 days after beginning work at Messrs. Pink in Bermondsey, was due to the insanitary conditions in which she was forced to work.  She had complained, as had her sister, that the oranges she was sorting were frequently rotten, that the smell was appalling and that her hands were scratched and then soaked in the putrid liquid. Worse still, the girls were not allowed to leave the factory for their meal breaks, being forced to eat their meals surrounded by the rotting fruit. Whilst the coroner found that her death was due to septicaemia, most likely due to a bruise on her leg becoming infected, Pinks were informed that the work girls (over 600 of them) “should have their meals in another part of the building, as it was not a proper thing from a humane point of view for them to have their meals among the [rotting] oranges in their work-room.”[6]  In 1895, Eliza Wrightly was killed at Pink’s, having fallen into a pan of boiling apples. Again, Pinks were instructed to create a safer working environment – the open pans of boiling fruit causing frequent injury, and asked to ensure that covers were placed over the pans to prevent further fatalities.[7]   In 1900 Rosalie Reed was killed at Keiller’s Jam Factory. “In the course of her work at the factory, the girl had to pass along a gangway just by the side of which was a hole 10 feet wide and 24 feet deep. Into the hole the exhaust boiling water was allowed to run, and clouds of steam continually rose. There was, said several witnesses, no protection to the pit, and no light except a lantern. One evening the girl was missed. Nothing more was seen or heard of her until her body was found next day in the boiling water. A witness declared no fence was placed around the hole until two days after the accident.”[8]

With the combination of long hours, hard, heavy work, dangerous conditions and low wages jam making attracted women who needed work at any cost, and, as lamented by social commentators of the time, the conditions in which many worked worsened.  Pinks were able to dismiss on the spot a large section of their finishing workforce who dared to strike as so many other women were willing to work for worsening pay in awful conditions.


It would be wrong of course to suggest that all jam manufactories were terrible and there were some notable exceptions. The work was always going to be hard, and the pay low, but some, like Wilkin and Son’s in Tiptree, and the Hartley factory in Aintree were bright airy places. Hartley’s made a point of inviting the press and the medical profession into their factories to show off their staff, the housing they provided and the conditions in which the fruit was grown and prepared – Sir James Barr, one of Liverpool’s most eminent physicians stated that “neither he, nor his professional friends would have any hesitation in eating any of the Hartley jam.”[9]


Ending on a happier note, having failed to convince their employers in 1892 of the injustice of falling wages, in 1911 the women of Pink’s factory joined with thousands of others to strike again, and this time they won:

“In the summer of 1911, 15,000 women in Bermondsey, South London came out on strike against low wages and bad working conditions in the district. Thirty firms, including a number of jam and biscuit factories, were affected by the strike. The National Federation of Women Workers moved all available staff into the area to help organise the women and the Women’s Trade Union League launched a financial appeal. Many concessions were obtained and at Pinks’ jam factory, the wage rose from 9 to 11 shillings per week”[10]



[1] Helen Bosanquet, ‘A Study in Women’s Wages’, The Economic Journal, Vol. 12. No. 45. March 1902, pp 42-43.

[2] Jam Factory Overtime, Reynold’s Newspaper, (London, England), Sunday, August 28th 1898.

[3] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 189.

[4] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 45.

[5] Clementina Black, Married Women’s Work, (London, Virago, 1983) p. 46.

[6] Work in a Jam Factory, Birmingham Daily Post, (Birmingham, England), 8 April 1893

[7] Jam Making Fatality, Berrow’s Worcester Journal, (Worcester, England) 26 October 1895

[8] A Girl’s Terrible Death, Courier and Argus (Dundee, Scotland) 19 November 1900

[9] Visit to a Jam Factory, Daily Mail, (London, England) 21 July 1906.

[10] http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=100299&QueryPage=%2Fequalpay%2Fabout.php

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