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Tin box workers

Women at work in tin box factory

Tin box making was a dangerous job done predominently by women (including girls in their early teens). Power presses were used to stamp out sheets of metal into the right shape and size, and the sharp-edged sheets were then soldered together to form boxes. Boxes would then be finished by polishing or decorating with enamel (examples of finished products are illustrated in the letter heading of A.G. Scott & Co. Ltd.). South East London was a significant centre for tin box making in Britain and many of the documents included in this collection relate to companies in that area. The Tin Box Trade Board was established in 1914 to provide a guaranteed minimum wage for tin box makers and to try to stamp out sweatshop conditions in the industry.

The series of trade board papers in the Trades Union Congress archive includes ten files of documents relating to the Tin Box Trade Board. 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. Some additional items can be found through our digital collection.

Illustration: Photograph of workers wrapping tin boxes, 1909


Tin box making:

Photographs:

Photographs of women at work in two departments of a tin box factory. Packaging for the Bermondsey biscuit company Peek, Frean & Co. Ltd. can be seen in both photos.

Soldering tin boxes, 1909

Wrapping tin boxes, 1909

Questions of scope:

Not all workers in tin box factories were eligible for the minimum wage, employees who were regarded as doing peripheral jobs (such as messenger, delivery driver, etc.) were excluded. In some cases the Trade Board was required to rule on 'questions of scope' - whether the work of certain employees came within the scope of the Board (and the minimum wage). Submissions to the Board on questions of scope can include information about the manufacturing processes and types of work done by individual employees.

Scope of the tin box trade, 1915

Summary of report on the scope of the trade, including information about the types of work done by tinplate workers. It includes an outline of 'canister' work and a summary of the processes required to make army mess tins.

Questions of scope, 1916

Descriptions of work at several unnamed firms, including lining wooden packing cases and powder cases, making tin toys, kettles, sauce pans, mess tins, medical dressing boxes and oil, tea and milk cans, and polishing, cleaning and packing tins.

Grading of tin box workers at Carr & Co. Ltd., Carlisle, 1921

The submission includes brief descriptions of the work done by seven male employees (identified by surname).

Questions of scope, 1925

Descriptions of work undertaken by employees at two unnamed companies - polishing finished tins and fixing 'gummi rings' to tins for fish.


Working conditions and pay:

Wage rates:

Figures of wages paid by certain tin box manufacturers in South-East London in 1911

Information about wages paid by six London companies before and after industrial action. Most detail is given for the Deptford company A.G. Scott & Co. Ltd.

Agreement and correspondence regarding a visit to A.G. Scott & Co. Ltd., Deptford, 1914

Copy of an agreement over wages (and amount of time for tea) made between A.G. Scott & Co. Ltd. and the Dock, Wharf, Riverside & General Labourers' Union of Great Britain and Ireland. It accompanies correspondence between Scott's and J.J. Mallon, Secretary of the National Anti-Sweating League and Trade Board representative, about arrangements for Mallon's visit to inspect the power presses. The company's letterheading includes illustrations of some of their products.

Terms of agreement for minimum rate of wages to be paid to female employees, Mansfield, 1914

Copy of letter sent by Mary Macarthur. It confirms the terms of an agreement made between Barringer Wallis & Manners Ltd. and the National Federation of Women Workers.

Wages at Carr & Co., Carlisle, 1915

Brief note summarising the wages paid at Carr's.

Wages and locations of tinplate workers, [1915?]

Notes sent by Susan Lawrence to J.J. Mallon. They include information about the main geographical centres for "tinplate goods workers" in England, based on data from the 1911 census, and details of wages paid by particular firms (particularly in South East London).

Proposal to fix minimum rates for the tin box and canister trade, 1915

Printed notice issued by the Office of Trade Boards, setting out the proposed minimum wages for female workers.

Application of minimum time-rates to piece-workers, 1915

Memorandum published by the Office of Trade Boards. It attempts to provide guidance to employers who are paying piece-rates (a set amount for the production of a certain number of items) rather than a fixed hourly wage. Employees paid on piece-rates could legally earn less than the minimum hourly wage if the amount that they produced was less than an "ordinary" or average worker.

Minimum rates of wages (as varied) for workers in the tin box and canister trade, to come into force on 1st March, 1917

Printed notice issued by the Tin Box Trade Board (Great Britain), setting out the proposed minimum wages for male and female workers.

Wages paid in the tin box trade, 1917

Statistical report on weekly wages paid to male and female workers at different ages in both London and the 'provinces'.

Scales of wages paid at Scotts, Deptford, 1919

Handwritten wage tables sent by H.W. Pike of Deptford to J.J. Mallon.

Report on wage rates in tin box trade, with covering letter, 1919

Information on negotiations over wage rates sent to J.J. Mallon by W.T. Kelly, Workers’ Union.

Minimum rates of wages (as varied) for male and female workers, 1920

Printed notice issued by the Tin Box Trade Board (Great Britain), setting out the proposed minimum wages for male and female workers.

Objections to wage rates:

Each change to the recommended minimum wage was publicised by the issuing of printed notices by the Trade Board. Individuals and organisations then had a set period of time during which they could submit formal written objections to the proposed changes. Inevitably, when wage rates increased most objections were sent in by employers; when rates were reduced most objections were sent by trade unions or workers.

Series of statements made against the proposed increase in the minimum wage for women workers, 1915

Most are from employers, suggesting that the rate of 3¼ pence an hour for women is unnecessarily high and, in some cases, may encourage "idleness and slackness". Many refer to difficulties of trade during the "abnormal times" of the First World War.

Series of statements made against the proposed increase in the minimum wage for male workers, 1915

Most are from employers. Some refer to the difficult conditions during the First World War and the concern that increased wages for men may result in firms employing cheaper "girl and women labour" instead.

Objection from John Fry of Barclay & Fry Ltd., Southwark, 1915

He argues that disruption caused by the war should be a reason to not raise the minimum wage for employees.

Objection from Roger Beck of West Glamorgan Canister Co. Ltd., 1915

He argues that some of his women workers are "not intelligent enough" to receive the proposed minimum wage and will have to be replaced with cheaper child workers.

Amendments to proposal to fix minimum rates for tin box and canister trade, 1915

Submitted by workers employed at Hudson Scott & Sons, Ltd., Carlisle (with related correspondence).

Objection from E. T. Gee & Sons, Liverpool, against proposed increase in rates for women workers, 1916

It refers to the disruption caused by the war and higher wages paid by munitions firms, and complains about the introduction of unemployment insurance.

Deputation to Board of Trade, 1915

Outline of the arguments made by workers' representatives in support of the minimum rates for workers.

Objection from P. Murray, Lewis Berger & Sons Ltd., Homerton, to proposed increase in rates for women workers, 1917

He asks for the War Bonus paid by the firm to be included as part of the minimum wage.

Objection from George F. Elliott, Hull, to proposed increase in rates, 1917

He argues that "the time is inopportune" due to an increase in juvenile unskilled labour and unemployment.

Case for further variation of the minimum rates, 1917

Summary of the case for an increase in the minimum wage put forward by the workers' representatives.

Summary of objections received to Trade Board proposals to reduce minimum wage rates, 1922

Objections had been sent by members of the Transport & General Workers’ Union, the National Union of General Workers (Northern District), T. Tillotson of Hull, and a group of 43 workers.


Health and safety:

Employment of children on steam presses, [1915?]

Letter sent by the trade unionist Susan Lawrence to J.J. Mallon, suggesting that only adult rates of pay should be given to employees working on dangerous machinery. This suggestion was intended to reduce the risk of industrial accidents to children.

Employment of girls on power presses, 1915

Correspondence about the employment of children (at lower wages) to operate heavy machinery, including at Dysons, New Cross.

Memorandum on safety devices, with covering letter, 1919

The memorandum was prepared in the Department of the Chief Inspector of Factories and sent to members of the Tin Box Trade Board Accident Committee. It includes references to investigations into accidents in Birmingham.

Report of the Prevention of Accidents Committee of the Tin Box Trade Board, 1920

The committee was set up in response to "the large number of accidents which have occurred in factories in which tin-boxes are made and the serious nature of many of those accidents - especially those which are caused by power-presses". The report includes information about common causes of accidents and recommendations for improvements to machinery and working conditions.

Summary of reports from members of the Prevention of Accidents Committee, 1920

The reports contain the views of members on the causes of accidents and recommendations for improvements. Information regarding 100 accidents on power-presses in the Birmingham district and 22 accidents in the Midland Division is also included.


Post-war conditions:

Report of three Administrative Committee meetings held between November 1918-February 1919

The report includes a summary of the committee's views on the "question of the immediate opportunities of employment of women in the trade".

Protest against the increased employment of women, 1919

Resolution passed by Worcester no.2 branch of the Workers' Union against the displacement of male workers by women at G. H. Williamson and Sons Ltd., with related correspondence between union representative H. Charles and J.J. Mallon.

Letter of resignation from H. Charles, workers' representative, 1919

H. Charles resigned his position on the Trade Board after losing his job at G. H. Williamson and Sons Ltd., Worcester, as "male labour was to be reduced".

Employment and pensions of disabled ex-servicemen, 1919

Copy of a letter sent from the Ministry of Labour to the Office of Trade Boards on the employment of disabled ex-servicemen in Trade Board industries. Although the letter was circulated to members of the Tin Box Trade Board, its contents refer to general industrial conditions.


Tin box workers on strike:

Seventh annual report and balance sheet of the National Federation of Women Workers, 1914

The report covers the union's activities in 1913/4. The section on the "year's organising" in the London region contains references to strike action at several tin box manufacturers, including the "Deptford uprising" of women workers. A photograph of Mary Macarthur addressing a Trafalgar Square demonstration during the strike at Morton's, Millwall, is also included.

Statements from women employed at Lloyds at the time of the strike, [1915?]

Statements given by women workers as evidence into working conditions and pay at the Deptford factory at the time of the 1914 strike (in most cases the witnesses' names and home addresses are given). References to the strike, deductions of pay, industrial accidents and poor hygienic conditions at the factory are included.

Girls' statements: deductions for overbooking, etc., [1915?]

Summaries of statements by women workers employed at Lloyds' factory at Deptford (in most cases their names and home addresses are given). The statements include information about occasions when the workers' wages were docked by the employer, together with incidental details about accidents, working conditions and the lives of the women (e.g. one woman is described as being "deaf and dumb, and is a very quick worker", another "lost thumb and three fingers on steam press at Lloyds" when 14 years old).

Statements from women employed at Lloyds at the time of the strike, [1915?]

Summaries of statements by women workers employed at Lloyds' factory at Deptford (in most cases their names and home addresses are given).

Stoppages, fines and accidents at Lloyds, [1915?]

Notes on working conditions, including extracts from statements given by some of the women employees at the Deptford firm.

Wolverhampton tin kettle makers, 1919

Letters from Phyllis Cutlack, National Federation of Women Workers, and J.J. Mallon regarding a proposed strike by women workers over not being categorised as holloware workers (with better wage rates). The letter also refers to a case of 'speeding up' in Cambridge.


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, September 1916

Details of the cases of 20 tinplate workers. Medical reasons given for the applications include a bullet wound, dwarfism, limited vision and hearing, old age, tuberculosis, being "dull minded", lack of concentration and damage to forearm through accident.

Applications for permits of exemption, November 1916

Mixture of new cases and additional information about previous applications. Medical reasons given for the applications include "nervous debility", tuberculosis, old age, lack of concentration, deafness, weak heart and constipation.

Applications for permits of exemption, February 1917

Medical reasons given for the applications include deformity of the legs, dwarfism and "mental".

Application for renewal of a permit of exemption, May 1917

The female worker, employed by G.J. Saunders, Hackney, is described as having "heart trouble".

Applications for permits of exemption, September 1917

Includes new cases and applications for renewal. Medical reasons given for the applications include "very low mental powers", being "defective mentally", old age and deafness.

Applications for permits of exemption, October 1919

Includes new cases and applications for renewal. Medical reasons given for the applications include "general debility", "mental deficiency" (partly demonstrated in 1918 by not knowing "how long the War has been on, who is fighting for us, who are fighting against us"), old age, deafness and amputated fingers.

Summary of applications for permits of exemption, 1925

Information about the cases of two male workers. Medical reasons given for the applications were "deformed" right hand due to railway accident and "defective eyesight".


Inspection and enforcement:

Brief summaries of the work of the Trade Board inspectors:

Report on administration for the period June 1918 to June 1919

Report on inspection for the year ended 30th June 1920

Report on administration for the year ending 30th June 1921