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The Frock Enquiry
Inspired by the Enquiry into Women's Work by The Women's Industrial Council 1900-15, the London College of Fashion Archive and recent reports into poverty and gender.
All over the world, women suffer the most from poverty but have the least say in what is done to tackle it. Women in Power Report, VSO, 2015.
Hints for Investigators /i/ Investigators for the Women's Industrial Council were issued with a booklet of advice and questionnaires for their Enquiries, c1909.
Ask each woman's history and her current occupation. Ask about her living conditions, the number of rooms she lives in. Ask about the family income. Are the children properly fed? Ask the number of her living children, the number of the dead. Ask her what is woman, what is the machine?
Millinery, making up shapes
Millinery, chiffon hat maker
Case no. 1.
Married, age 27
Married, age 22
Marital status Married, age 28
Family income 30/-
None living, ﬁve died from weakness at birth. The last she had was 2 yrs ago in the Lying-in Hospital. It was put in an incubator but failed to live.
One living, one born dead.
No. of children livĩng/dead One child living, none dead.
I am wound in a ﬁne net of ﬂoating air. A maze of see-through walls pulled into a pucker. It thrums and buzzes, a honeycomb of ghostly bees. I claw at it but it springs back tighter. Being quick is the same as being alive, a mesh I cannot get hold of. The scuff of a pebble along the kerb. It dances and drops. Boxed. Ragged petticoats hitched high, no-one can touch me. Dust rises in a chalky fog around my ankles, but I kick free, look down on envious pigtails. My ﬁngers stretch for white numbers scratched on the ground, curl around their slippery curves and sly uprights. Eyes squeeze tight to stop myself from waking. A spark rubs into life between his ﬁngers, hey presto! a rush of soft wing and glittering beak thrown from turquoise sleeves. Strangers' faces stare and stare, reﬂected back from the shiny gold and glass doors of a strange cabinet. Inside something ﬂaps and heaves. Vanishes.
Fur hat maker
Widows' cap maker
Widow, age 42
Widow, age 37
Married, (twice) age 43
None living, two dead of convulsions and diarrhoea.
Four living, three dead.
Nine children living, two dead (ill-treatment). This husband is a brute.
There's a bear on the landing, mossy and cold as stone. He smells of time and old stories. He is deep as banished light, as the ghost of a mole, or last frantic kick of baby rabbit. Can't we let him go? Open a high window so that by morning he will be gone, vanished into night. But what if we ﬁnd him tangled in gooseberry nets, caught in a neighbour's bloody washing, his red eyes staring back at us? Best we leave him on the landing and pray that when the wind blows he will scatter with the ﬂying leaves. Close up, the skin on my arm blisters. No shade, no shadow. My lids are glued open. Before me a burnt horizon hums with grasshoppers and horseﬂies. It is white sand and the red outline of hope on my dry eyeballs. The sun, ﬁled to a point, sinks its fangs into my shoulder. Little black goat devours every last leaf from the tree. He strips the grass clean from the ﬁeld, swallows down trees, rivers and farms. Down go the cattle, the cottages and towns. His velvet lips brush against hungry stones. Little black gobbler with eyes of coal and a jet-black beard, will you not leave me even one?
Artificial Flower Maker '16 cases were reported of artiﬁcial ﬂower makers, and not one of the 16 was apparently a country woman,' Enquiry into Artiﬁcial Flower Makers, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
A lie he called them and threw them into the gutter. There's no place in God's house for barren ﬂowers cut out of paper wired together, a counterfeit Eden. What do I know? I've never seen ﬂowers grow wild, never curled my toes into the moss of a garden. My red is the rust on a factory gate, my green the damp stain of a tenement ﬂoor. Others may cheat with ready-made leaves come in from abroad but I cut mine from calico, each one stuck to a stalk wound with emerald ribbon. I colour my roses with carmine dissolved in spit, round each petal
with the curve of my thumb. I stiffen my violets with a little salt dipped in archil until they're as brittle as chips of his Paradise in a stained glass window. It does not pay. Nowadays ladies want real ďŹ‚owers in peacock and French taffeta. I shed a little blood to make my roses glow. My bonewhite lilies ďŹ nd their way.
Tennis Ball Maker 'The centre and coverings are purchased from the employer, the covering being already shaped into the curious lines of junction that may be observed on tennis balls', Enquiry into Tennis Ball and Racquet Ball Coverers, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
Life is rolled here and squeezed under a slab of marble. We came for the mention of gardens but we are drawn up tight and keep to our place. Rents are steep. Green is stitched close behind high walls. The organ grinds out its penny license. Along the river, eels are drawn up to the shore. CornďŹ‚owers are pressed honey and cloves from the ďŹ eld, damp skirts rolled up and brought home from the fair. No time for the bans. A sour butchery is done. Sheets are burned, water cools in the pan. Seams sewn by meridian and rule so the sphere stays tight and true.
Jam Maker 'Of the 19 women in this group, all worked away from their homes in factories', Enquiry into Jam Makers, Preserve Makers, Mineral Water Workers, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
Sometimes it's oranges makes us giggle sometimes a bonanza of scarlet oh stop! in my ear fumbling with a knife to hull the fruit and wiggle the stem out through a small cone-cut mouth full of gossip both of us away from home whispering look at her skirt! Sunday strolls arm-inarm a skittle of gin before Monday is back lifting pans washing bottles a fast rolling boil of blood lips powdered with sugar.
Hawker 'They form a group that is interesting and picturesque...one of them, a regular virago.' Enquiry into Shopkeeper & Hawkers, Women's Industrial Council, c 1909.
/i/ I was born with a swagger
already gobby and spun out of stories my pitch in the market-place was piled high with coral balanced on the iron saddle of a borrowed anvil I juggled
great hands of ﬁlthy bananas a dozen barrels of ﬁghting rum a brace of pistols a giant raw-throated rooster family of hawkers
sellers of treats
we were monstrous
bibles to trinkets
when London groaned in stinking boils and pustules we were mobbed for leathery wings a pinch of angels preachers and witches selling so many splinters our cross would top Gogmagog enough bones to skeleton a fortress
mothers to daughters we humped our swaying packs through ﬁlth and glitter days of bloodstained pamphlets ha'penny revolutions wart charms love potions
St. Peter's keys
Nowadays, only men bare sharp teeth load up baskets with whale rib and stained glass while we shift soft shrimp anything cheap and small the world grown mean my dreams as tiny as your thumb in my pouch a broken string of bobbins teaspoons studs saints smashed to peppercorns hell gone to mousetraps my bite hawker of halves
parts of things
Old Street's mud
a smile a
Washerwoman 'In case 58, a perfectly respectable family were occupying a single room in indescribably dirty lower class tenements', Enquiry into Laundresses, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
Poverty soils. Sticks to the ďŹ‚oor and walls. Leaves stairs open to the damp, water-closet with a broken door. My husband swears by fags and beer. He was a handsome man before he fell out of work. Now he's half a lung and skin stained with debt. I hold a gold paring of Sunlight in my palm, too rare to waste on dirty sheets.
Charwoman 'This work every able-bodied woman can after a fashion perform; therefore in her hour of direct need every able-bodied woman turns to it', Enquiry into Charwomen, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
They call me the grey mare. A frock. I can turn my hand to their private needs, put my backbone to the bedstead but it's a grinder market. You cannot keep yourself respectable. Scrubbing, polishing, putting the bachelor unwashed to bed. It's heavy work as they all wear ﬂannels. Old Swindlefaith says any woman can do it any woman with the usual complement of arms and legs and a mind above that of an imbecile - but it is a dog ﬁght. Not enough marks to clean up. Once I dolled about in fondants and jellies, got the best work, now I am scorched to a grizzle. Swindlefaith gives me an otter glance, says a woman's work is her homely womb, her motherly udder. It has always been unpaid in cash. Times are hard but my daughter is a ﬁne-looking girl of ﬁfteen and the next girl is about to leave school.
Hints for Investigators /ii/
Find the mainspring. It may be cased behind ribs or pouched in bloody tissue, so work carefully through each chamber, each part. Dissect the liver, lungs, ovaries, ﬁnd which axle twists it tighter, winds the heart. Once ﬁlleted, ﬁnd a rivet-hammer, rebuild the gears: teeth ﬁled, trued with calipers, pinions forged and tempered. Springwind her. Rally your tin troops to march and ﬁre, an army of ﬁerce dolls and automata. Or let them wind down, feet shufﬂe to a halt, topple. A soiled sugar fairy cranks a ﬁnal turn springs unravel on the ﬂoor
Goldworker 'Their work is only mastered after many years of apprenticeship and experience', Enquiry into Embroidery, Trimmings etc, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
Gold glistens on my tongue, puddles between my ďŹ ngers: I am crucible for dreams of base men. Roosters strut in my lacquered frogging. Last week I spun three pounds of metal for a charlatan, a shivered apron to gild his vulgar haunches. My hair is wound into a ďŹ‚axen crown, my arms powdered with gold dust. My wrists are ringed with apprentice years, hooped in soutache and pearly jaceron. I keep my name secret, couched in knots of lizerine, will not swap my bullion for their cheap jap, nor give up my ciphers of knowledge. I sharpen my needle, embroider my name in gold inside a hidden pocket.
Case no. 1.
Consumptive so can only do casual work in the warm weather.
Warehouse work although he hopes to rise.
Husband and father of 5 children.
Position in family Eldest son of 6 children.
The wife takes in laundry to support the whole family. The consumptive husband tends the two youngest children, whose chances of life his presence is diminishing.
Family Occupations The mother is a dressmaker and the father works as a labourer.
Dear Ma and Pa, here is a postcard that shows the warehouse. I sit at my studies every evening although the other lads tease and try to pinch out my candle. Soon I shall try for a clerk. I would write you in shorthand but you would not be able to puzzle out a word. They call it sound writing. Sometimes at night, when the bellyache keeps me awake, I see each stroke and dash stacking up in the dark, an endless trembling staircase. Death fumbles pinafore buttons with shrivelled thumbs, looks down at his barren chest. He sighs. Ties an apron to withered thighs then warms a bottle with his breath. Nursing is not in his nature but these infants still quarrel and squall. He creaks out a lullaby and gently circles a chubby wrist. Surely now they will fall asleep.
Labourer but lost his place because too old for heavy work.
Busker (having lost his business, he went to sea for a few months before taking up busking).
Husband and father of 2 children.
Husband and father of 6 children.
Wife works as a book folder.
The wife is a waistcoat-maker.
I am barely a man. I am thinned out and tinny. The wind blows through my ribs. Too light to shift a cart, all our broken things, down this endless damp passage. Gone midnight. Even the darkness divides into invisible blocks and barricades, twists into an endless loop. I stumble against a step in the dark I've stumbled on before. The children whimper for milk and a potato. We left at daybreak but not even the postman who's worked this round for eighteen years admits there is such an address. My palms shred. Not enough of me left to counterweight the drag of another day. What's the matter, she asks. I pick up the shafts with blistered hands. Nothing, I say. There's not a pipe or ďŹ ddle I can't play Wayhey, blow the man down nor a whore or a wager I won't pay Give me some time to blow the man down Some days the coins come rolling in Wayhey, blow the man down A penny on the ponies and belly full of gin Give me some time to blow the man down When the days grow short and the debts grow long Wayhey, blow the man down no-one has time for a jig or a song Give me some time to blow the man down Went home but the wife and children had ďŹ‚own Wayhey, blow the man down and I'd rather hang here than be all alone Give me some time to blow the man down
Woodcutter 'The women of this group were rough and of a low social grade. Two, at least, lived in a street of bad character. None of them had a husband', Enquiry into Wood Choppers and Bundlers, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
The axe rocks in my big hands, bites deep into old sweetness: apple, drunk on beginnings, knowledge curled through grain. Or chestnut ﬂeecy with snagged wool. I rest palm on hard burl, swing again. So much depends on surface. Ladies in cherry comforters and kid gloves fear a wild kindling. They squeal at my wide armpits and greased shoulders, but I would not swap the rut of my axe for one stroke of their milk-buttock husbands. Tea-sipping hypocrites push prices down. Ladies won over by moon face and damp heart. A smooth splitting, prayed over, white as bled meat. My wood is too rough until the ﬁre is laid. Their hearth whimpers. My ﬁerce child leaps up, opens her great red throat, cusses and roars.
Shoemaker 'Among the group of 10 there is not one woman who is not ill-paid. Almost every worker spoke of the fall in rates. The boot trade would appear to be one in which the Trade Boards Act [Minimum Wage] might wisely be applied', Enquiry into Boot and Shoe Makers, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
I lie down in a necklace of paste and needles. The Buzzards are soling their children in leather boots trimmed for three farthings a dozen. I could fair cry for the hot weary tramp from the Salmon & Ball at Bethnal Green to the Solace & Balm at Clerkenwell. I lie down in my soiled shift and the face of my old mother. I lie down in a rattle of locks. My sleep is manacled with hunger. There are no well-paid sewers or ďŹ nishers of shoes. We are an uncared-for little famine. Our babes are barely a blueprint. We are cut threadbare from a pair of our dad's old trousers with some stiffening put in at the heel. I smoke a last cigarette over the ďŹ re then I lie down on its ashes. I lie down in hemp. I am shortfall. My husband is a blue-ribbed simpleton, nearly blind. The Buzzards lower their ravages of pay again. There is a shortage of mercy at the Salvage & Ballot. I lie down for their silk slippers, choke on their buttons. My tongue is sliced by their silver buckles. The Buzzards are heeled in bruises, booted in bone. They noose us tight into their bootstraps. I kick as the snare tightens.
Chenille Spotter 'Chenille has a backbone of very ďŹ ne soft wire and the worker slips a short end under a mesh of the net and with a small pair of pincers twists it into a spot', Enquiry into Embroidery, Trimmings etc, Women's Industrial Council, c1909.
a pinch of tiny sparrows whispers behind my breastbone theykeeptheir intimaciesclose sharing my breath measuring
it out in inches little black worms crawl beneath the net I catch them in my pincers
twist break the spine I cough into my palm scatter of black
rubies spangled veil economics More spots cost more but make less if I sit still the pattern might give up its mystery a shufďŹ‚e of claws to shear away my history I tip the cup onto a white saucer thumb away a smear of tea Your fortune for a penny but it is just
black spots and white spaces consumption pays its own price
twists breaks the spine I pull the yarn through catch it in my
pincers thesparrowsrustletheir softwings stab pinpricks of light
into the hollow of my chest but they are too late Pile splits a moth
unfolds its peppered wings into the space between breaths breaks the spine twists lifts sky wards
March of the Glovemakers
One was a widow, so we march for the one, ďŹ nger to lip hush! don't complain. Two were wives, so we march for the two, middleman rates have fallen again. Three were sisters, so we march for the three, folds stitched backhand across a cheek. Four were mothers, so we march for the four, a month of work and fair pay each week. Five were wildcats, so we march for the ďŹ ve, united in hand, our female chain.
Table 3 The Number Of Children Living and Dead* Case no. 117
119 120 121 122 123
10 4 5 3 6
2 1 9 0 6
124 125 126 127 128 129
7 3 3 4 4 6
0 0 1 1 0 6
7 4 10 4 5
3 0 2 2 2
137 138 139 140
3 1 8
0 6 1 4
Despair is not a characteristic feature. More Ěƒ the mother bears a brave front before often her troubles, and tries to bear up under her evil star. hush little baby don't you weep hushaby baby go to sleep There seem to be families in which the hold on life is very slight, and others in which it is quite tenacious. shut your eyes lest the bind moths bite blind white moths bite bitter baby eyes It is impossible not to suppose that syphilis never stated by a doctor in private practice as a cause of death - is responsible in some proportion of these early dying families, but what the precise proportion may be is difďŹ cult even to guess. It is safe, however, to say that many of the infants described as 'wasting' or as suffering from 'infantile bronchitis' are victims of syphilis. hush little baby sucking me dry hu sh little bloodbaby don't you cry When they have no money they go without, unless a neighbour brings food. The wife said, he is a good husband and he said with a laugh, fact is, Miss, we're too healthy, we want too much to eat. The neighbours have been very good to them.
*total alive 324, total dead 234
Hints for Investigators /iii/
You may have no natural gift but even a puppeteer in a nightcap can make shadows ďŹ‚y from braided ďŹ ngers. You can spin facts from enquiry's distaff, knot into the rough yarn of a shared agenda so women marching down Whitehall in badlydarned stockings can hammer at the door of Bluebeard's chamber.
The Old Maids /i/ Rule We brood over the order of things on the reverse of an enchanted world turning stitches for great West End dress houses, Worth's and Reville's. Our beads and sequins take ďŹ‚ight for a world of red curtains hissing lights scalloped shadows. All day we sit strapped into long dresses of rusty black, white crosses pinned beneath crooked necks.
Six of us in a row, twisting veins into cords. Tassel-hands. Five of us are skin and bone the sixth swelled up with poison hidden inside a child sleeps its yellow night silken bones dissolving.
/ii/ Misrule How do we measure the hours with knotty ďŹ ngers? Daughters of necessity. By day we are severe. Rule of needle, shears, stern measuring rod. We mete out judgement or divide it into lots, an inďŹ‚exible decorum. Dry-mouthed and paper-skinned, we count out the day in inches. Of course we squabble. I cannot see by this light. Open the shutter then. No, no, keep it shut. My bones ache in this wicked draught.
But at night in our dormitory then what do we do? Unravel the tassels and pick the knots. Unbraid the galloons and shake them free. Hush! You'll wake the family gods, asleep beneath their implacable ceiling. Our ﬁghts strain and grunt, one last attempt at a feast of ﬂesh. We slake our thirst on blood, play music on animal bones. We are hinged and crooked, turn cards for loyalties, cast lots to raise a twisting typhoon. As dawn comes a smell of burning chases us to the Thames. White nightgowns blossom ghostly parachutes, as we ﬂoat bobbing past gates of men. Shriek our scorn at their cold stone walls.
/iii/ Selvage A scream wakes the house. A girl in labour right there on the ďŹ‚oor. Others run with aprons ďŹ‚apping, we take charge. One to go for water, one for thread, and one to hold down her kicking legs. The rest to watch and work, bind a silk ďŹ lament around the swollen belly, work it into place reach inside lace right into the bore. It's a girl. A thin cry shakes the dust from England's old rafters. The tassel is made.
Afterword 'The poor woman pays with her person.' The Women's Industrial Council was founded by Clementina Black in 1894 as an offshoot of the Women's Trade Union Association. Black believed social and economic reform was a fundamental part of the ﬁght for women's suffrage and that a 'special and systematic enquiry into the conditions of working women' would provide vital evidence for urgent action. Through the early twentieth century, the Council conducted a number of investigations into the work of women and by 1914 had investigated over 117 trades. Its reports provide the backbone of the The Frock Enquiry but, as so many of the trades investigated were connected with the clothing industries, the London College of Fashion Archive was also a key source. The Drapers' Record (©EMap and the London College of Fashion Archive) in particular, provided crucial information about the unstable prices, precarious market and ﬂuctuating demand for the dozens of tiny workshops and home-based industries investigated by Clementina Black's team of investigators. None of the sources used pay much attention to the voices of the women workers themselves. The Frock Enquiry imagines how these women might have constructed voices for themselves out of the language of their work - work they were often assumed to be 'naturally' good at by virtue of being a woman - taking it apart and reassembling it to forge a new and 'unnatural' rhetoric of interrogation, myth and protest. c1909 is used as a rough mid-point to signify the period investigated and to provide a focal reference point across other sources used.
Hints for Investigators /i/, /ii/ and /iii Investigators for the Women's Industrial Council were issued with a booklet of advice called Hints for Investigators. The kinds of questions that they were advised to ask included: biography, occupation pre- and post-marriage, living conditions, number of rooms, rent, number of children living or dead, health, earnings, family income and general information about the trade.
Table 1, Table 2 and Table 3 Women's Industrial Council included tabulated information as part of their reports. Columns in their tables include headings such as Reason for Working, State of Home and Children, Wages, Number of Children Living, Dead, Age etc, Husband's Work and Wages. The information in the left hand columns of my Table 1 and Table 2 is based on real tabulated data but information in the ﬁnal column draws on details of the occupations and stories found elsewhere in the reports plus a selection of popular songs, sideshows and sea shanties. Table 3 is based on an extract of real data from Table of the Number of Children Living and Dead, Appendix III, Enquiry into Married Women's Work (London, 1915), quotations from the Enquiry into Laundresses, Enquiry into Women's Work in Liverpool, Enquiry into Women's Work in Yorkshire, plus original lullaby based on traditional lullabies.
Artificial Flower Maker Includes some collaged material from the report and instructional guidance on how to make artiﬁcial ﬂowers.
Tennis Ball Maker Includes collaged material from the report. Jam Maker Includes collaged material from the report and from jam recipes. Hawker /i/ and /ii/ By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, street selling was divided by gender. 'Women sold ﬁsh (especially shrimps, sprats, oysters), fruit, vegetables (mainly sold by widows), ﬁrescreens, ornaments, laces, millinery, artiﬁcial ﬂowers, boots and stay-laces, waist-leathers, towels, combs, bonnets, pin-cushions, tea, coffee, rice-milk, curds and whey, dolls, nuts, hats, twigs - anything cheap and small.' Sally Alexander, Women's Work in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1983).
Washerwoman Her story is based on typical cases reported on by the investigator for the Report on Laundresses, Women's Industrial Council, c1909. Sunlight soap was ﬁrst produced by Lever Brothers in 1884. It was the world's ﬁrst
packaged, branded laundry soap. Its advertisements promised to liberate women from the drudgery of the weekly wash.
Charwoman Includes collaged material from the report subjected to N + 7 Oulipo procedure. Material in italics is a quotation from the Enquiry into Charwomen, Women's Industrial Council.
Goldworker Includes some collaged material from the report and draws on children's fairytales. soutache - decorative braid jaceron - metal thread, like a string of beads; also known as pearl purl lizerine - similar to jaceron but smoother, less bead-like jap - historically made from a strip of real gold wrapped around a core of silk threads, but by the time of the poem, made from cheap materials and associated with imitation; gold-coloured as opposed to gold
Woodcutter Includes some collaged material from the report and draws on children's fairytales.
Shoemaker Includes some collaged material vocabulary subjected to N + 7 Oulipo procedure. The Salmon and Ball is a real pub which still stands in Bethnal Green. The poem's rhetoric and that of March of the Glovemakers draws from Nottingham Lace Embroiderers' strike in 1840. 'Sisters, are you to be robbed of your hard-earned pittance to maintain those cormorants in idleness? No wonder that misery enters our dwellings - that we are in the depth of poverty, that our children are crying for bread, while there is a swarm of locusts hovering between us and the manufacturers ready to devour one half of our hire!' Circular issued by Lace Embroiderers, Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch (London, 1984). Chenille Spotter Includes some collaged material from the report. The Old Maids Inspired in part by an autobiographical account: 'I could do embroidery very neatly, but the prospect of doing it all day, of being a dressmaker or milliner, was quite frightening...One department was just for tassels and elaborately knotted fringes and passementeries. Six elderly ladies did this work. We called them the old maids. They said that
it took seven years to train an embroideress but a 'tassel-hand' never ﬁnished learning.' Emily Bishop. Richard Gray, editor, Working Lives 1905-45 ( London). Note on text: Most of the epigraphs are taken from the 1983 Virago edition of Married Women's Work: Being the Report of an Enquiry Undertaken by the Women's Industrial Council, ed. by Clementina Black, ﬁrst publ. 1915 (publication delayed by WW1), with a new introduction by Ellen F. Mappen (London, 1983). Additional background information from: Makers of our Clothes, A Case for the Trades Boards. A Year's Investigation into the Work of Women in London in the Tailoring, Dressmaking and Underclothing Trades, Mrs. Carl Meyer and Clementina Black (London, 1909). The Drapers' Record (in particular issues for the year 1909), ©EMap and the London College of Fashion Archive. The Sweatshop Feminists by Hester Eisenstein in Jacobin (jacobinmag.com), June, 2015. 'The globalization of manufacturing has led to the outsourcing of factory jobs in apparel, sneakers, electronics, and other industries to low-wage countries in the Global South. Much of this production takes place in EPZs — a type of free-trade zone that exempts businesses from most labor, taxes, health and safety regulations, and trade duties. These zones favor employers through anti-labor structures that assure foreign investors a docile and largely female workforce.' Hester Eistenstein, 2015. With special thanks to Jane Holt (archivist, London College of Fashion) Ruth Wiggins and Hannah Zeilig.