Woman chainmaker

Female chain maker, Cradley (1907)

With the election in 1906 of a Liberal government sympathetic to the plight of the low paid, there was renewed pressure for reform of the sweated industries.

George Cadbury, chocolate manufacturer, philanthropist and owner of the Daily News, was impressed by exhibitions in Germany of products made by homeworkers under oppressive conditions. He decided not only to use his newspaper to expose sweating, but also to finance a sensational sweated industries exhibition. The exhibition was opened in 1906 by Princess Beatrice, the King’s youngest sister, and was staged in the heart of London’s West End. The exhibition brought the public, especially the very wealthy, into personal contact with sweated workers for the first time.

Over 30,000 people came to see the stalls at which 45 workers, mainly women, demonstrated their skills and answered questions. Mr Cadbury compensated them for loss of earnings, and guaranteed to support any who were victimised for taking part. Lecturers on the problems of sweating and possible solutions included the future first Labour Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald MP, trade union activist Mary Macarthur, and playwright George Bernard Shaw.

The Women’s Trade Union Review reported that that visitors were astonished ‘that cigarette-making, the beading of ladies’ shoes, the stitching of gloves, chainmaking and the manufacture of hosiery, jewelcases, tennis-balls, belts, ties, furniture, brushes, and saddlery were all homework trades, in which a twelve to sixteen hour day brought in, on average, earnings of 5s (25p) to 7s (35p) a week.’ They were shocked to find that a dress could have been made by a reasonably paid seamstress in an airy workroom, while the buttons and trimmings were produced by a sweated worker, and that wedding cakes manufactured in hygienic conditions were likely to be packed in attractive boxes glued together in a disease-ridden tenement.