For many women and young girls in the Victorian era, the struggle to make a living was hard and strenuous – and, many philanthropists felt, totally unsuitable for the female sex. Our picture shows a girl making spike nails; she was labouring in the Black Country (Staffordshire and Worcestershire), where women were engaged in the nail and chain trade, working in small workshops in villages and towns. The Rev Harold Rylett, writing in the English Illustrated Magazine of 1890, felt that their work was ‘emphatically unfeminine.’ He describes the process thus:
‘Now the making of spike nails is surely the cruellest occupation in which women and young girls are employed in this country … A spike nail is simply a very large nail, beginning with the four-inch rose-head nail, and finishing with a seven, or eight, or even nine-inch dog-eared spike or railway brob half an inch or perhaps three-quarters of an inch thick. Two people work together, one on each side of the hearth … The common case is for a man and a young girl of from fourteen to eighteen years of age to work together.
‘The first thing to be done is to cut the iron rods into the required lengths. This is done by the means of the oliver, and while the iron is cold. The oliver is simply a sledge-hammer affixed to the block on which the anvil is placed. It is worked by the right foot operating upon a sort of treadle. The man places the rod upon a chisel fixed in the block by the side of the anvil. The girl then gets close behind the man, generally holding him by the waist, and they both jump together upon the treadle which works the oliver, and with one, two, or three blows, according to the thickness of the iron, the required length is cut off. When very thick iron has been operated upon I have seen as many as four or five men and young women alternating and clasping each other close and jumping together upon the oliver, and a more brutal and loathsome spectacle I never witnessed in my life.
‘The man takes a number of pieces of rod and plunges them in the fire. The moment the iron is heated he withdraws one piece, and using the hand-hammer and oliver in rapid succession, he forms the head, jerks out the iron, flings it across to his companion, and goes on again. The girls instantly takes what is thrown her, plunges the cold end into her side of the fire, helps to blow the bellows, and then, when her iron is heated, she snatches it from the fire, and using hand-hammer and oliver almost as rapidly as the man, draws the iron to a point, and the spike is finished. The work is terribly hard, for in addition to striking the spike with the hand-hammer as vigorously as any blacksmith would strike a horseshoe, the girl has to work her sledge-hammer with her foot. It is humiliating to see a girl thus occupied.
‘But I have seen a girl of eighteen ‘heading’ as well as ‘pointing’. I shall never forget the sight. I saw this young woman with arms and bosom bare, grimy, profusely perspiring, and working like a tigress. It was simply revolting. Yet I was assured by an old and experienced man that though such sights were not as common now as formerly, they were still more frequently to be met with than they should be.’
Mr Rylett writes that ‘the spike nail-makers work extremely hard and are very ill paid’: he calculates that a pair of workers would make about 680 spike nails a day, and that the man would earn about 15s a week and the girl about 5s. He goes on:
‘The one ugly feature about spike nail-making is the employment of young girls and women, involving as it does the use of the oliver. It is nothing short of a scandal, and I am happy to know that the universal feeling among the women and girls themselves is that they ought not to be condemned to such unwomanly toil. They would hail with satisfaction a law prohibiting their employment in this way, and it is earnestly to be hoped that the next session of Parliament will see the enactment of such a law.’
But progress was slow, and little was done in the Victorian age to improve working conditions for women and children. The Factory Act of 1891 prohibited the employment of women within four weeks of childbirth, and raised the minimum age for children to be employed from 10 to 11 years old – 11 to 14-year-olds could only work for half a day. In 1895 working hours and breaks during work were regulated, and in 1901 the minimum working age was raised to 12 years old.