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Shirtmakers

Textile workers in factory

Shirtmaking was regarded as one of the quintessential sweated trades, notably highlighted in Thomas Hood's 1843 anti-'sweating' poem 'Song of the Shirt',. By the time the Shirtmaking Trade Board was formed in 1914, the industry contained a mixture of increasingly mechanised factories, employers who operated smaller, less mechanised workshops, and employers who subcontracted the manufacture of shirts, through middlemen or women, to home workers (usually women).

The need to fulfill army contracts led to increased pressure on the trade during the First World War. This is reflected in the Shirtmaking Trade Board papers, which include references to opposition to women workers moving into 'male' areas of work, concerns over the War Office's organisation and issuing of contracts, and a series of strikes after 1916.

The trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive include 17 files relating to the shirtmaking industry. As part of the Modern Records Centre's 'Sweated trades' digitisation project, we have made a selection of these documents available online, including the items highlighted below. It is also possible to browse all of the digitised material relating to the Shirtmaking Trade Boards.

Illustration: Textile workers in factory, early 20th century - photograph from private collection reproduced with permission.


Working conditions and pay:

Scope of the Trade Board:

Scope of minimum rates, 1916

The definition of scope summarises the types of work (and workers) covered by the Trade Board's minimum wage rates, as well as some of the jobs not covered.

Revised definition of scope of the Shirtmaking Trade Board, [1919]

This document outlines the types of work covered and not covered by the Trade Board's minimum wage rates.

General wages and working conditions:

Proposal to fix minimum rates for the shirt-making trade in Great Britain, 1914

Summary of the proposed Trade Board rates.

Memorandum on application of minimum time-rates to piece-workers in the shirt-making trade, 1915

The Trade Board memorandum provides guidance to employers about paying piece rates (rather than hourly rates) to workers.

Wages paid in shirtmaking trade, 1916

The memorandum includes tables which show rates of pay in London, the west of England and the rest of the country.

Piece rate log for items of male clothing, 1916

Hand-written note, with covering letter, sent by W. E. Jancey of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union.

Opinions expressed by the Administrative Committee in regard to the scope of the minimum rate, 1916

The report includes information about some of the peripheral jobs in shirtmaking factories, including the work of packers and tyers-up.

Notes relating to negotiations with employers over possible increase in pay, 1917

Notes by J.J. Mallon for meeting of the Shirtmaking Trade Board, 18 January 1917, including "statement of reasons why workers changed their attitude with regard to wages", notes on the state of trade and cost of living, summary of the employers' position and Mallon's response.

Note on the objections of the representatives of workers to the minimum rates fixed by the Trade Boards for tailoring, shirtmaking, sugar confectionery & food preserving, [1917?]

The memorandum compares the rise in wage rates to the higher rise in the cost of living since the start of the First World War.

Letter regarding proposal to vary minimum rates for female workers, 1918

Letter from J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the Workers' Side, Shirtmaking Trade Board, to C.J. Healy, setting out reasons for proposing an increase in the minimum wage rates for women.

Minimum rates of wages (as varied) for female workers in the shirt-making trade, 1918

Summary of the Trade Board rates.

Proposed wage agreement for workers in the shirt and collar trade, 1918

Terms proposed at a conference between sub-committees of Employers of Shirt and Collar Federation (North England district) and representatives of the Shirt Collar and Jacket Workers' Union regarding cutters' wages and pay of women on military and civilian work. Includes list of piece work prices for machining.

Results of enquiries relating to the wages paid to female time-workers employed in the shirt-making trade, 1919

The report includes information about the types of work done by women and tables showing rates of pay in London and "other districts".

Decisions of General Conference in respect to the National Programme, 1919

Outline of working conditions proposed by the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, including recommendations for hours, overtime, annual holidays, fines and deductions, workshop accommodation, shop committees, wages and limitation of apprentices.

Wages agreement between the Shirt and Collar Manufacturers' Federation and the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, 1920

The agreement sets out wages for male and female workers.

Minimum rates of wages (as fixed and as varied) for female and male workers in the shirt-making trade, 1920

Summary of the Trade Board rates.

General minimum time-rates, piece-work basis time-rates and overtime rates for male and female workers, 1922

Summary of the Trade Board rates.

Objections to rates of pay:

Circular regarding "indignation" of workers about inadequate increase in wages to match the rise in the cost of living, 1917

The circular reproduces a letter sent by J.J. Mallon, workers' representative, to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board.

Objection to proposal to fix minimum rates from Miss A.R. Jeffries, Leytonstone, 1917

Objection to proposal to increase minimum rates from Cecil Smith, Birmingham, 1917

Objections to proposed increase in minimum rates of wages, 1917

Objections to proposal to vary the rate of wages for female workers, 1918

Objection to proposal to fix minimum rates of wages from an unnamed worker in the shirtmaking trade, 1918

Objections to proposed increase in minimum rates of wages, 1919

Objection to proposal to vary rates of wages from Frederick Cooper & Co. Ltd, London, 1920

Objection to proposal to vary rates of wages from R. C. Tizard, Southampton, 1920

Summary of objections to proposed change to minimum rates of wages, 1922

Summary of objections to proposed change to minimum rates of wages, 1923

Objections to proposed increase in wage rates for female workers, 1925

Individual or local wages and working conditions:

Rates paid to outworkers by Pope Gilbey & Co., London, 1915

Correspondence relating to allegations that the company was paying home workers below the Trade Board rate for manufacturing night shirts for a government contract. One worker - Mrs Rudman of Cartwright Gardens - is identified.

Complaint about low earnings of Sarah Sprengett, Stepney, 1916

Note about the working conditions and personal situation of a Stepney home worker, with copy of a letter about her case sent to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board.

Complaint about underpayment of workers by Armstrong & Co., Holloway, 1916

Notes about the prices paid by the company to home workers for manufacturing flannel jackets, khaki shirts, smoke helmets and other military items, with copy of a letter about the case sent to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board. A response to the complaint has also been digitised.

Complaint about underpayment of workers by Messrs Steward, Gloucester, 1916

Copy of letter sent to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board about alleged non-payment of Trade Board rates by the company.

Minimum rates in Derry in the shirt and collar trade, 1916

Letter sent from Thomas McGerigal, Londonderry Trade Board representative and representative of the Belfast, Londonderry, and District Amalgamated Society of Cutters, to J.J. Mallon. It includes information about the wage rates then paid in Derry.

Low rates paid in Congleton, 1916

Correspondence between Mrs F. Skellern and J.J. Mallon about the operation of the Trade Board Act and low rates paid to women workers in the Cheshire town.

Increased minimum rates of wages in the Bristol district, [1917?]

Leaflet produced by United Garment Workers' Trade Union, Bristol branch.

Piece rate for working hand holes in collars, 1917

Extract from letter sent by G. Cooper & Co. Ltd., London. It includes information about the "elderly" age of the firm's workers and expresses concern about international competition from Germany.

Piece rates for boys' flannelette shirts, 1917

Short report on piece rates paid by one firm, including information about the work involved and results of time tests on three workers.

W.H.L. Cameron Ltd., Manchester, 1917

Letter to J.J. Mallon from a representative of the company. It includes a reference to the factory system used by the firm and the difficulty of competing with home workers.

Working conditions of makers of army shirts in Inishowen, 1917

Extract from letter by three rural shirt workers in Inishowen sent to a public meeting in Derry/Londonderry, describing the low rates of pay that they receive.

John James & Co. Ltd., London, 1917

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon and John James regarding piece rates paid by the company.

Hand button-holing collars, Taunton district, undated

Response to the suggestion that piece rates should be fixed for this type of work.

Employment conditions of Mrs Jones and daughter, Poplar, 1919

Letter sent by Albert H. West, representative of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to Arthur Headon. He refers to the cases of Mrs Jones, a Poplar worker employed by Mrs Bailey of Peabody Buildings, Shadwell, who wished to improve her conditions by joining the union, and Mrs Jones' daughter, employed at low rates at Mr J.A. Perry's clothing factory, Poplar. A note relating to the employment history of B. Morse, a worker at Tone Vale, is also included.

Standard piece rates at Hebden Bridge, 1919

Letter from S. Craven, United Garment Workers, Hebden Bridge Branch, about local conditions.

Wages paid to women workers at Lloyd, Attree & Smiths, Dalston, 1920

Correspondence between A. Headon, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, and J.J. Mallon about allegations of low piece rates set by the firm.

Investigation into overtime homeworking by Taunton and Bridgwater factory workers, 1924

Circular relating to an investigation into allegations that factory workers were taking work home as a form of overtime.


Learners, juvenile workers and training

Statistical information about the number of applications for registration as learners received:

Report on the issue of learnership certificates up to 16 September 1916

Report on the issue of learnership certificates up to 30 June 1919

Report on the issue of learnership certificates in Ireland up to 30 June 1919

Report on the issue of learnership certificates up to 30 June 1920

Consideration of practice of making a learner's wage a charge on the earnings of a worker from whom she received instruction, 1917

Short Trade Board memorandum which includes information about the relationship between women workers and their 'learners', and the financial losses that can result from training a learner.

Record of discussion on the opportunities for the employment of women in the shirtmaking trade, 1919

Summary of discussion at the Administrative Committee of the Shirtmaking Trade Board regarding the employment prospects and training of women workers, and the transition from wartime to peacetime work.

Impermanence of girls placed by London juvenile advisory committee, 1922

Copy letter from the Ministry of Labour to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board, regarding the large number of girls placed as learners by Employment Exchanges who had left the shirtmaking trade after a short period.

Memorandum on the work of Juvenile Employment Committees, 1922

The short Ministry of Labour memorandum includes suggested actions for the Shirtmaking Trade Board to help learners.

Memorandum about the employment of Louisa Wicks, learner, 1925

The enquiry resulted from a complaint by Louisa Wicks' mother, after Wicks was discharged from Vernon Booth & Co. Ltd., West Ham, after 3 months as a learner, without having learned anything about the shirtmaking trade. The memorandum includes information about Louisa Wicks' family and employment.


Effects of war:

Outbreak of war

Abstract of returns obtained as to effect of war crisis, August 1914

Statistical information put together by the Shirt, Collar and Tie Manufacturers' Federation following a survey of 75 member firms. It includes information about the number of male and female workers employed in factories and as outworkers, whether the companies are working full or short time, and how long they expect to be able to continue under 'war crisis' conditions.

War Office contracts

Reduction in wage rates for women workers, 1916

Note of a meeting with Mr Wintour of the War Office. It refers to the substantial reduction in rates paid to women workers since the start of the war and to the request of clothiers' representatives for "the War Office, in placing contracts,... to take into account other considerations than that of lowness of prices".

Letter regarding the Army Contracts Department and their avoidance of paying minimum rates, 1917

Letter from W.H.L. Cameron Ltd., Manchester, to J.J. Mallon, regarding the Army Contracts Department's lack of liaison with the Trade Boards over the award of government contracts.

Work shortage in North Wales factories due to actions of War Office, 1917

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon and Ralph Henry Green of the Welsh Shirt Manufacturers' Association. Green describes the problems caused by the commandeering of stocks of flannel by the War Office. Factories forced to stop work included William Morris & Sons, Llanidloes, George Francis & Kerr, Llanidloes, Jones, Evans & Co, Newtown, and Mile End Mills, Llangollen. The correspondence refers to similar problems in London factories caused by the War Office's "very bad management".

Award of the Committee on Production in Shirt and Collar Trade, 1918

Wages agreement for the production of military uniform, circulated by H.H. Fawcett, Director of Army Contracts at the Home Office. It includes information about the amount of war bonus to be paid to men, women and young workers, and a list of the types of clothing to which the award applies.

Employment of women cutters

The occupation of cutter (engaged to precisely cut out fabric pieces for garments with the minimum of waste) was regarded as a "man's job" until the labour shortage of the First World War required some firms to employ women in this role.

Copy of arbitrator's award following strike at Morton & Joynt Ltd., Leeds, over the introduction of women into the cutting room, 1915

It states that the employment of women should be an "exceptional practice" and "for the period of the War only", and gives the minimum rate of pay that women cutters should receive.

Letter regarding concern about strikes over women cutters, December 1915

Letter from J.J. Mallon to Mr R. Glenfield, expressing concern that delays in setting wage rates for women cutters may result in strike action in factories.

Letter regarding dispute with employers over employment of women cutters in Manchester, January 1916

Letter from union representative W.J. Donohue to J.J. Mallon, including references to the refusal of men at a Manchester firm to work with female cutters.

Letter regarding proposed strikes over women cutters, January 1916

Letter from J.J. Mallon to J. Macarthur of Belfast. Mallon argues against going on strike over the employment of women cutters.

Draft letter of protest about the employment of women cutters, [1916]

Draft letter proposed to be sent by male workers to employers who engaged women cutters (at lower rates then men). It threatens strike action unless the employers "dispens[e] with the women".

Questionnaires and correspondence relating to the employment of women cutters, January-February 1916

Information relating to the employment (or otherwise) of women in cutting rooms of named firms, sent to J.J. Mallon by workers' representatives in various towns and cities.

Letter regarding inquiry into employment of women cutters, February 1916

Letter from J.J. Mallon to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board. He includes brief information about the inquiry undertaken by workers' representatives and the government's likely classification of shirt cutting as a reserved occupation.

Report and agenda of National Amalgamated Shirt, Collar and Jacket Workers' Society meeting on 6 August 1917

The report of the National Executive Council meeting includes a resolution that "That no woman or girl will be admitted as a member of the Society while engaged in the Cutting Section, unless in receipt of the same rate of wages paid in that Section."


Exempted workers:

Trade Boards could issue permits of exemption which allowed employers to pay less than the minimum wage. Permits were given to workers who were regarded as having a physical or psychological disability which affected their work. Applications (usually submitted without the employees' names) include short medical profiles of the individuals.

Applications for permits of exemption, 1916-1925

The Shirtmaking Trade Board papers include a series of applications for permits of exemption, including cases relating to workers described as having neurosis or "mental deficiency", epilepsy, "hip joint disease", anaemia, blindness, "infantile paralysis", a "weak intellect", heart trouble, bronchitis, suffering the effects of old age, loss of hand, or being a "cripple from birth", of restricted growth, "deaf and dumb", "deformed" or "generally slow and sub-normal".

Copy letter regarding the dismissal of a worker who was being considered for a permit of exemption, 1917

The worker had been employed by Tone Vale Manufacturing Company, Taunton.

Particulars of case regarding permit of exemption, 1917

Detailed report into the case of a "deaf and dumb" worker who had been fired by her employer as they considered the reduced wages set by the Trade Board's permit of exemption to be still too high. The firm subsequently sacked another "deaf and dumb" worker to "avoid such unpleasantness as has occurred" over the first worker. The report includes quotes from the employer and the worker's mother.

Notes on cases in which permits of exemption have been granted for an indefinite period, 1919

Summary of the small number of cases where permits had been granted indefinitely, rather than for a set period of time (after which the case would be reviewed)

Correspondence regarding employment of "unfit" men at Gloucester, 1919

Letter from James Tomkins expressing concern over the precarious employment of male cutters with health problems and asking whether employers can be compelled to keep them on. A reply from J.J. Mallon is also included.

Correspondence regarding permit of exemption case, Gloucester, 1920

Correspondence between James Tomkins and J.J. Mallon regarding the case of a 22 year old man who "suffers from heart trouble" and Tomkins' attempts to get him re-hired by his former employer Mr Hill.

Underpayment of Bessie Woodland, Taunton, 1919-1920

Two letters from A.G. Ellis, Taunton representative of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, about the case of Bessie Woodland. It includes some information about Woodland's conditions of employment at A.K. Cook's and the belief of her fellow workers that she is being underpaid because of her size. She is described as having "No infirmity. The only disability being rather short of stature" (less than 4 foot high). The letters date from 30 November 1919 and 21 January 1920.


Industrial disputes and strikes:

Stock cutters' strike at Morton & Joynt's, Leeds, 1915

Copy of arbitrator's award relating to the strike over the employment of women in the cutting department

Compton's dispute, Bristol, 1916

Letter from W. E. Jancey, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to J.J. Mallon, October 1916

Jancey refers to the refusal of workers to accept the company's proposed wage increase.

Norwich dispute, 1916

Letter from J.J. Mallon to C.J. Healy, October 1916

Mallon appeals for a date for arbitration to be quickly set as, whilst the workers have returned to work, they will remain dissatisfied until an award has been made.

Letter from Andrew Conley, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to J.J. Mallon, November 1916

Conley refers to arbitration hearings with the employers during the Norwich dispute, as well as the dispute in Hebden Bridge.

Letter from J. Young, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to J.J. Mallon, January 1917

Young refers to the arbitration award, which states that workers are entitled to the war bonus irrespective of the number of hours that they work.

Hebden Bridge dispute, 1916

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon and officials of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, October 1916-January 1917

The correspondence (13 letters) between Mallon, Andrew Conley and J. Young relates to the union's response to the dispute and subsequent arbitration, and to concerns over the employers' suggestion that the authorities should withdraw military exemption from striking workers. Approximately 2,500 male and female workers came out on strike in the Hebden Bridge district.

Industrial unrest in the north of England, 1916

Letter from J. Young, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to J.J. Mallon, November 1916

Young refers to requests for sanction to strike from union branches in Leeds ("Jew and Gentile"), Huddersfield, Hull and Wigan, and expresses concern about the financial cost of the strikes to the union.

Strike at Burberry Ltd., Reading, 1917

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon, Burberry Ltd., and representatives of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, January-March 1917

The strike followed Burberry's refusal to deal with union representatives over negotiations about the war bonus and the employer's statement to a meeting of workers that "they would have to leave the Union or there was the door" ("The Workers accepted the door and we have something like 350 men and women out."). The Conservative politician Lord Henry Bentinck was amongst those who attempted to intervene with Burberry.

"State of ferment" in Gloucester, 1919

Letters regarding Gloucester dispute and proposed rate of wages, March 1919

Correspondence between James Tomkins and J.J. Mallon regarding a proposed conference with employers and dispute in Gloucester over working hours (47 hours a week).

Copy letter from J.J. Mallon to Andrew Conley, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, May 1919

Mallon refers to arrangements for a conference with employers and the likelihood of a strike in Gloucester after employers reduced workers' hours without increasing their wages.

Huddersfield strike, 1919

Letter from Andrew Conley, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, April 1919

Conley refers to the unofficial dispute in Huddersfield and the workers' rejection of the employers' offer of an increased minimum rate.

Non-payment of wages to women workers by A.K. Cook, Taunton, 1919

Cook had refused to pay wage arrears to his women workers, in defiance of the Trade Board.

Three letters from A.G. Ellis, Secretary of the Taunton branch of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, to J.J. Mallon about the case, 22 June 1919, 15 July 1919 and 16 July 1919

Letter from J.J. Mallon to A.G. Ellis, 17 July 1919, confirming the eventual payment of the arrears by Cook and suggesting that Ellis should use the successful outcome as a means to recruit more women to the union.

Mass sacking of women workers, Cheshire, 1920

Correspondence relating to the case of women workers employed by Hallett & Co., Congleton, who were sacked after the firm was required to pay them nearly £300 in wage arrears (having previously paid less than the Trade Board rate).

Correspondence between Mrs F. Skellern and J.J. Mallon, 29 January 1920

Letter from Mrs F. Skellern to J.J. Mallon, 1 February 1920

Letter from J.J. Mallon, as Secretary of the Workers' Side of the Shirtmaking Trade Board, to the Secretary of the Shirtmaking Trade Board, 4 February 1920

Letter from the Office of Trade Boards to J.J. Mallon, 28 May 1920


Inspection and enforcement:

Summary reports containing information about inspections of firms and irregularities identified over the course of the assessment period:

Report on administration, 1916

Report on administration for year ending June 1918

Report on administration for June 1918-June 1919

Report on administration for 15 months ending June 1919

Report on inspection for the year ending 30 June 1920

Report on administration for the year ending 30 June 1921


Trade Board and trade union representatives:

Election of workers' representative in Swindon, 1916

Correspondence between J.J. Mallon and Swindon shirtmaker Jennette H. Farrow, following the appointment of Annie Shipton as the local workers' representative. Farrow reports on the anger of workers at the C.C. Works that their preferred representative, Clara Coates, hadn't been appointed.

Election of Irish workers' representatives, 1916

Two letters between Andrew Conley, United Garment Workers' Trade Union, and J.J. Mallon. Mallon's letter includes a reference to the inadvisability of re-electing Mr McArdle, due to his involvement in the "rebellion" [i.e. Easter Rising] and being "not at the moment available".

Election of workers' representative in Glasgow, 1918

Letter to J.J. Mallon from J. Humphrey, expressing willingness to continue to act as a workers' representative. She includes some information about her personal circumstances.

Election of workers' representative in Gloucester, 1918

Statement signed by 14 workers at the Gloucester Shirt Company Ltd., in support of the re-election of James Tomkins as workers' representative.

Proposals to extend coverage of the Trade Board, 1918

Letter from Kathleen O'Toole, Dublin branch representative of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors & Tailoresses (Shirtmakers' Branch), suggesting that Trade Board protection should be extended to workers who make "ladies underclothing, childrens clothes, pillow cases, etc."

Non-attendance at London meeting due to fear of air raids, 1918

Letter from Manchester Trade Board representative Miss R. Shannon, notifying J.J. Mallon of her wish to "stay in a safe area" and not travel down to London, following recent air raids on the city. A reply from Mallon, joking about the raids, is also included.

Recruiting leaflet for United Garment Workers' Trade Union, London No.3 Branch, [1918?]

It includes information about the membership terms for male and female workers. The union representative is identified as J. Macdonald.

Formation of Taunton branch of the United Garment Workers' Trade Union, 1919

Correspondence between A.G. Ellis, the new Taunton branch secretary, and J.J. Mallon.