Hellraisers Journal: May Wood Simons on the Life of the London Shop Girl, “Living In”

You ought to be out raising hell.
This is the fighting age.
Put on your fighting clothes.
-Mother Jones

Wednesday July 11, 1906
From the International Socialist Review – The London Shop Girl’s Life

ISR July 1906

“Living In.”

May Wood Simon, 1876-1948

TO BE sure we all ‘live in.’ Do not the American girls?” was the remark made by a young woman in one of the large stores in the center of London, when I asked her as to the life of English shop girls. Further conversation with London shop “assistants” many of whom had spent several years in that position brought out a series of facts concerning the life of this class that is utterly different from anything in the American mercantile industry. Though much may be said concerning the need of the American shop girl, for seats, short hours, etc., the English assistants, besides having all these to secure has yet other troubles which are peculiarly their own. However long the hours or annoying the “floor-walker” may be to the American girl, when business closes at night she is at last free to seek her own home or to visit her acquaintances, as she may desire. Not so with the English assistant; her eating, drinking, and sleeping, equally with her work are under the close supervision of the employer.

In connection with all the large stores are great dormitories in which all the assistants, be they men or women, with or with out homes of their own, are required to live. It is estimated that at least 75 per cent, of the large stores provide in this way for the housing and feeding of their employees.

Mr. S. Hobson, the English journalist, when asked concerning this practice of “living in” said: “Like so many other things in English life it is a survival. The Englishman clings to old customs and things. He is wedded to his fire-place and omnibus. So this custom of ‘living in’ is a remnant of the days when the apprentice boarded with his master and the small employer kept his few workmen. When the large store came in the employers saw the advantage to them of boarding and housing their assistants, and forthwith began to do so on a large scale.”

Great barracks were therefore erected for sleeping and eating purposes where the assistants are fed and lodged at an expense of from ten to fifteen cents a day, and indeed some particularly economical employers are reputed to have reduced this item of expense to as low as eight cents per day.

In some cases the house provides the food directly, but more frequently the contract is let to a professional caterer, and the employer gives the matter no further attention and allows the caterer to make all the profit possible. The food is coarse, poorly cooked, and monotonous, and badly served. One assistant bears witness to the fact that it is no uncommon thing for all to leave the table without touching the meal. There is no variation from week to week and even from year to year. One day it is “mutton hot” and the next it is “mutton cold,” or the assistant may be dieted on pork for a week, while morning after morning the breakfast is made up of bread and butter or “drippings” and tea or coffee. The assistant is simply reckoned in by the employer as such and such a part of the expense,—so much for food, so much for beds, and a little over as wages for clothes and pocket money.

The outside life of the assistant may appear satisfactory, even comfortable. There may be a certain refinement about the person and surroundings of the shop-girl, and her work seem light and clean. The woman who would go shopping shabbily dressed in one of the West End shops may even be eyed coldly by these young ladies. One would naturally suppose that with their great numbers, over 700,000 in the city of London, they would be able to hold their own and like other wage-earners, show some resistance to the aggressions of employers. On the contrary their condition has either remained stationary or else actually grown worse with the passage of time.

Their hours are long, wages low, and made up by a system of premiums and uncertain commissions, and reduced by fines and deductions. They live an institutional life, eat what may be given them in the brief time allotted to them and are subject to dismissal at a moment’s notice.

They must always appear neatly dressed and if a new recruit finds her clothes shabby before she has earned enough to purchase more she is very apt to find herself looking for a new position in a lower grade of shop at the East End.

But these features, however annoying, are not peculiar to “living in” and it is with that side that we are particularly interested. The bed-rooms have beds for from four to five sleepers. No choice is allowed as to room companions. There are no chairs or other furniture save the beds and a stove, no nails, hooks pictures allowed on the walls. Every article of clothing must be kept in a box under the bed. If any are left lying around the room they are at once confiscated. Below are a few of the rules, that govern one of these dormitories.

“The house door is closed at 11 P. M., Saturdays at 12 P. M. The gas will be turned out fifteen minutes later. Any one having a light after that time will be discharged.

Assistants sleeping out without permission will be cautioned twice and discharged at the third offense.

All bedrooms to be cleared at 8 A. M.

On Sundays the bedrooms to be cleared at 10:20 A. M. and not entered again until 12:30 P. M.

Bedrooms must be kept tidy. No pictures, photos, etc., allowed to disfigure the walls. Anyone so doing will be charged with the repairs.

No assistant to enter any bedroom but her own.

No flowers to be put in water glasses or bottles.

No article of diet to be supplied unless by doctor’s orders.

Strangers are not allowed to enter the house.”

The law forbidding marriage is unwritten but is nevertheless a part of the “common law.” A discussion once arose in Chicago as to whether the workers in the department stores of that city ought to marry on a salary of fifteen dollars a week. For the English assistant this question is all settled. He or she is not to marry at all. Since “living in” is the invariable rule the applicant who is married stands small chance of being employed at all. If an employee does think of marrying he must keep his intentions secret. The practical result of this is that men visit their wives secretly once a week and spend the rest of their time in the barracks.

One example of the abuse here complained of is that of a man who for four years sought to obtain the permission of his employers to his marriage and who finally took the law into his own hands and was married without the desired permission only to be instantly discharged. The effects of thus forcing men and women to live through youth and even past the prime of life (for nothing is more striking to the American observer than the advanced age of the English shop-workers in comparison with those of the United States) a monastic life, need not be moralized upon.

The assistant “living in” forfeits not only his domestic but his civil rights as well. He may be twenty-one, or he may be thirty, he has no opportunity of exercising the powers of a citizen. Dr. John Clifford, president of the Christian Social Brotherhood, in a sermon on “Shop Life” said concerning this phase of the subject. “He is ‘living in’ and that means living out of the political realm.”

After all life is made up of little things and it is the petty annoyances of the shop and the dormitories that grind the hardest. Perhaps the harshest side of this system appears in the matter of discipline. All individuality is lost. All privacy and freedom is gone and they become simply units of a subordinate class. The humiliation and helplessness of their position is felt by every man or woman with a remnant of spirit left. What must be the effect upon any person with the least atom of personal pride to be confronted every day with the following notice, posted upon the walls of that which they are forced to call home, “Trust nobody. Watch everybody. Goods are stolen every day and nobody ever catches anyone.” It is a rule of the establishment that no one is to be treated as honest. Every other assistant and every customer must be viewed as a thief and looked upon with suspicion.

All these things have an added sting when accompanied by illness. Each assistant must pay twenty-five cents (one shilling) a month for the “house doctor,” without whose consent no other physician is allowed to enter the house. At the end of a week’s illness in the house, if the assistant has not yet recovered there is no choice but the hospital unless she happen to have friends who will take her to their home. Meanwhile she has occupied the same room with three others,—but one establishment in all London making any separate provision for the care of the sick. One sad case among many is that of a young man who when taken sick received a single visit from the doctor and no further care or special attention. Becoming delirious, his ravings so alarmed his room-mate that he ran from the room, and the patient got up from his bed. After trying for the second time the doctor was at last secured and came only to find that the young man had already died before the eyes of his helpless mates.

Following the well known rule that the less desirable the work and the more disadvantageous the conditions under which it is done the lower the remuneration received, we are not surprised to learn that the wages of the London shop assistants are even lower than the proverbially low wages of the famous London dockers. From the other archaic forms still to be found in the organization of the industry we may expect to find wages settled entirely through individual bargaining between the employer and employe. So far indeed is this carried that no employe has any means of knowing what any of their co-workers are receiving, while of course the employer bargains with all the advantage which a complete knowledge of all such facts will give. London being the Mecca of the provincial worker and the center toward which the young people from all parts of Great Britain throng most of the shop workers are country born, Wales in particular being known as the “happy hunting grounds of the shop-keeper.”

The new comers, although they may have had several years experience in smaller cities are treated as “green hands” and alluring descriptions of the value of “London training” are held out to them with the result that they are not only frequently induced to engage for a couple of years without wages but it is no unusual thing for their parents to pay from $100.00 to $150.00 a year for the “privilege” of receiving this training.

In other cases, where more favorable terms have been made, the assistant, after serving free for three months to secure “experience,” will receive $1.25 a week. In a high class West End shop men start at $100.00 a year and then while “living in” are obliged to pay from $50 to $60 of this for extra food. Wages for women vary from $50.00 to in a few cases $175.00 a year. Even these wages are being constantly reduced by the system of fines which is everywhere in force. In one shop we find no less than seventy-five rules enforced, and in another ninety-eight, all punishable by fines, varying in amount from three pence to the discretion of the floor-walker. An instance of the working of these rules is that of a boy who was fined ten shillings for having a frying pan in the box under his bed.

It must not be thought from what has been said that no one in England is awake to the troubles of the shop-assistant or that no effort is being made to remedy these evils. Through the indefatigable efforts of Mr. J. McPherson. and his very able assistant, Miss Margaret Bonfield, a shop assistants’ union of over 5,000 members has been organized and an active campaign for parliamentary action against the worst abuses carried on. They have already secured the enactment of a law compelling the employers to furnish seats for their employees and it is believed that the investigations that are instituted at the suggestion of the labor members of Parliament will result in various changes.

-May Wood Simons.

[Photograph added.]


The International Socialist Review Volume 7
-ed by Algie Martin Simons, Charles H. Kerr
Charles H. Kerr & Company
July 1906-June 1907
ISR of July 1906
-“Living In” by May Wood Simons

May Wood Simon, 1876-1948