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The 'Sweated Trades': Working life in the early 20th century

Work in the sweated trades

In 1909 the Trade Board Act introduced legally enforceable minimum wages for the first time. Trade Boards were established to regulate wages in specific 'sweated' trades - industries with long working hours, poor working conditions and low pay, many of which relied on women workers.

Most of the documents in this online collection are from the archives of the Trades Union Congress, and were collected by some of the workers' representatives on the Trade Boards. They include information about working conditions and wages in some of the sweatshop industries of the early 20th century.

This digitisation project is still a work in progress and more documents will be added during 2021. Explore all of the documents digitised so far or browse sources using the themed guides below.

Campaigning against the 'sweated trades':

What were 'sweated' industries?

'Sweated trades', as defined at the beginning of the 20th century

Drawing of a woman and child in poverty

What were trade boards?

Background information about the creation and administration of the trade boards

Extract from article on the Trade Boards Act

The Sweated Industries exhibition, 1906

The campaigning exhibition that launched the Anti-Sweating League and inspired the 1909 Trade Board Act

Cardboard box makers

The trades:

The Brass and Metal Workers' Crusade, 1909-10

Crusade against 'sweated' labour and the employment of women as metal workers in the West Midlands

Women metal workers

Button making and carding

Trade Board established in 1920, to cover button manufacture and carding (sewing individual buttons on to sheets of card for distribution and sale)

Workers carding buttons


Trade Board established in 1910, amidst strike action, to tackle low wages of women chainmakers in the Cradley Heath area

Woman chainmaker at work

Lace finishers

Trade Board established in 1910, to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for lace finishers (usually home workers) in the Nottingham area

Piece of lace

Laundry workers

Trade Board established in 1919 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for laundry workers and to try to stamp out sweatshop conditions in the industry

Workers in a laundry

Paper box workers

Trade Board established in 1910 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for paper box workers (mostly women) in factories and at home

Paper box workers


Trade Board established in 1914 for the quintessential 'sweated trade'

Workers in a textile factory

Tailors (and tailoresses)

Trade Board established in 1911 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for factory and home workers engaged in the manufacture of men's clothing

Woman home worker with children

Tin box workers

Trade Board established in 1914 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for tin box workers (mostly women) in a dangerous industry

Tin box workers in the packing department