Working from home

In late 19th and early 20th century Britain, home workers were heavily used in the so-called ‘sweated’ industries – facing long hours and repetitive work for very low pay.

In 1906 the ‘Daily News’, a reforming newspaper owned by the philanthropist chocolate tycoon George Cadbury, organised an exhibition to highlight “the evils of sweating”. As well as objects produced by ‘sweated’ labour, the exhibition created a sensation by also putting on display the home workers themselves. Almost daily lectures from prominent figures (including future leaders of the Labour Party George Lansbury and James Ramsay Macdonald, trade unionists Mary Macarthur and Amie Hicks, and the author George Bernard Shaw) and evening lantern slide shows contributed to the event’s popularity. Nearly 30,000 people visited the exhibition during its six week run at Queen’s Hall, London, and the first edition of the accompanying handbook (5,000 copies) sold out within 10 days.

The idea of using a public exhibition as part of a campaign against exploitative working conditions wasn’t new – the Daily News had taken inspiration from similar events held in Berlin and Bethnal Green in 1904 – but the response to the 1906 exhibition was unprecedented. Although many of the members of the organising council had their roots in the labour movement, the exhibition set out to attract, and shock, a broader section of society – it was officially opened by Princess Beatrice, one of the daughters of Queen Victoria, and became a social event during the London season. The idea of minor royalty and the well-to-do viewing some of Britain’s most exploited workers in a West End concert hall smacked of poverty tourism for some, but the exhibition helped to highlight the social costs of goods produced by ‘sweated’ labour to those with the purchasing power to buy the products and the political power to campaign for a change in legislation.1906 also saw a landslide Liberal victory in the January general election, and the new Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, was one of the exhibition’s many visitors. In response to public concern about ‘sweated’ industries, and the campaigning of the newly established National Anti-Sweating League, the government established a Select Committee on Home Work which heard evidence during 1907-8 and recommended the legal regulation of low wages. In 1909 the Trade Board Act was passed, introducing Britain’s first minimum wage for workers in four of the most exploited industries.

 The handbook of the 1906 exhibition has been digitised as part of the MRC’s current digitisation project on ‘Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s’. It includes brief descriptions of the different trades highlighted in the exhibition and, perhaps more immediately striking, photographs of some of the workers themselves – mostly women – at home. The photos give a glimpse of people whose daily lives were only infrequently recorded – but they are seen through the lens of an outsider. Were those the usual working clothes of the people in the images or had they put on their Sunday best (and done a bit of tidying) for the photographer? How many images did the photographer take and are the ones included in the handbook representative, or do they reflect the editorial perspective of the campaigning publication? The photos are fantastic images but, like all sources, only tell part of a story.More information about our digitisation project on ‘Work in the sweated trades, 1910s-1920s’, including additional images from the 1906 handbook, is available on the project webpages.

Liz Wood, Assistant Archivist


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