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ADVERTISER 150: East End garment workers strike in 1912 over ‘stitch up’ sweatshop conditions

19:20 01 December 2016

1912: East End's tailoring trade at a standstill

1912: East End's tailoring trade at a standstill

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Our nightly look at some of the stories the East London Advertiser has run since 1866, celebrating our 150th anniversary, continues in 1912 with the mass walk-out in the East End’s impoverished garment trade which begins the changes to its notorious ‘sweatshop’ working conditions...

1912: A garment sweatshop at Christian-street, off the Commercial-road, on the eve of the Great Tailors' strike [photo: London Jewish Museum]1912: A garment sweatshop at Christian-street, off the Commercial-road, on the eve of the Great Tailors' strike [photo: London Jewish Museum]

1912: The vast garment industry in London’s poverty-ridden East End comes to a standstill when sweatshop workers down tools over bad pay and conditions.

The immigrant Jewish tailors, seamstresses and felling hands in the hundreds of small back street garment workshops around Whitechapel and Spitalfields go on strike for five weeks over their poverty wages and long hours.

Working conditions come to a head. A master tailor who has to undercut rivals to get the work would have to employ skilled cloth-cutters, steam pressers and machinists, who in turn have to take on seamstresses from their own wages to rough-stitch the garment ready to be machine sewn. Lower down the spiral, seamstresses hire felling hands to take out the rough-stitch after the machining.

Felling hands get only five shillings a week (25p), a quarter of what social reformer Charles Booth had seen as subsistence level in his survey of poverty 25 years earlier.

1912: Looking down Petticoat-lane (Middlesex St) towards Artillery-lane from Bishopsgate [photo: CW Mathew/Bishopsgate Institte archives]1912: Looking down Petticoat-lane (Middlesex St) towards Artillery-lane from Bishopsgate [photo: CW Mathew/Bishopsgate Institte archives]

The 1912 strike changes all that. The sweatshop workers are galvanised by a German exiled anarchist, Rudolph Rocker, who edits a radical Yiddish newspaper, The Workers’ Friend.

He speaks at public meetings at the Mile End Assembly Rooms and the People’s Palace urging workers to support a strike by West End tailors to prevent factory owners switching production to the cheaper East End labour market.

Strike meetings attract up to 13,000 garment workers until the whole trade is brought to a standstill.

The strike ends the sweatshop ‘downward spiral’ payment system and brings in standardised wages and a shorter working day—down from 18 hours a day.

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