Letter XXXVI: Monday, February 18, 1850
My investigations into the condition of the men working at the Slop Boot and Shoe trade are now drawing to a close. I have already given illustrations of the different systems by which the slop articles are produced at a far lower rate than those of the regular and honourable part of the trade. The principal of these appears to be the employment of what is called by the workmen "compound labour" - that is to say, by the use of boys, girls, apprentices, or unskilled journeymen, as helps to some skilled or superior workman. Again, it has been shown that the same system which is called "sweating" in the slop trade of the tailors is carried on among the slop boot and shoe makers, but under the more euphonious, but less forcible title of "chamber-mastering." The object of each and all of these different practices is to bring an inferior, and consequently cheaper, labour into competition with that of the skilled artisan, and to be able to undersell others in the market. Hence it will be seen that the tendency of the cheap trade is to displace the handicraftsman for the rude and unskilled workman; or, as the operatives themselves express it, the men are being driven out by the boys-"our own children," say they, "are made to destroy us." It is difficult, if not impossible, for the inexperienced public to discriminate at a glance between the work of the skilful and the unskilful, so that the enterprising warehouseman who is intent upon underselling his neighbour, or, in trade language, determined to defy competition, employs boys, women, and - as I purpose showing in the letters immediately succeeding the present - convicts and criminals, and paupers of all kinds, in order to get his goods made up at a less price than he would have to pay the practised, honest, and independent workman. "It is all the same to us," said one of the employers to the operatives, "whether the articles are produced by boy or thief-labour, so long as they are cheap." (See the evidence given in the letter before last.) As a further corroboration of the tendency of the cheap sloptrade to destroy not only the able artisan, but the honourable tradesman, and to substitute for employer and employed, cheats, children, and criminals, I subjoin the statement of a lady's shoemaker - a tradesman of the highest respectability, at the west end of the town, who gave me the following account concerning the way in which a fair trade is injured by the
exept B-. I speak of the West-end some thirty years ago. At that time Mr. Taylor, in Bond-street, Mr. Sutton, Mr. Sly, and other frrst-class tradesmen (all now dead) used to carry on very extensive businesses, getting everything made by their own men, employed directly by themselves, without the intervention of any middleman system. They also gave their journeymen and binders fair and liberal wages. As it is, I pay 3s. 5d., and not at all extravagant wages, for what--and-- pay ls. 4d. Of course mine is an infmitely superior article; but the 'frrm,' as they parade themselves, actually puff off their wares as equal to the best. I frrst felt the low-priced system tell upon me when the chamber-masters became numerous, and indulged in keen competition. These chamber-masters will now come to my shop and offer to sell me goods at the price I pay for wages alone. The low-priced goods affected my profits gradually. My books show this; frrst my profits fell to percent, then 15, and now I reckon my profits 20 per cent less than they were 30 years ago. I have been obliged to reduce my prices, and consequently the wages; I still pay the highest wages, and this last week I looked carefully through my books to ascertain the earnings of my men. The two frrst weeks in February, by an arrangement I introduced into the trade some years ago, is the period for adjusting any change in wages, or in the trade generally, so as to obviate the necessity of strikes. I looked, as I have said, through my books, and as an honest man I felt that I could not reduce any one man's wages a half-penny. Businesses like mine are kept together by connection - by a principle of respect between tradesman and customer, because the customer knows and perhaps has long known the tradesman's integrity. But no business like mine could be started now with any prospect of success. All the money at present embarked in the shoe trade, or nearly all, is on the low-priced system. I fear that if no check be interposed to the Northampton and slop system, matters will get worse. The -underpaid and inferior workman will drag down the able wellconducted artisan to his level. First-rate workmen become scarcer and scarcer. The trade is falling into the hands of an inferior craft - it's becoming slop-work, not the fme workmanship of skilled labour - of a nice handicraft. That's another evil to all who look to ulterior consequences. Bad workmen have little self-respect. We can beat the French - it's the slopsystem that is so vile. Fashion is so strong, however, that a lady bought a pair of shoes of me, thinking they were made in Paris. In the course of conversation I told her they were made by my own men in London, and she has never had such a shoe from me since - much as she admired them."