Ellen (Mrs Henry) Wood was a novelist, born in Worcester in 1814. She wrote over 30 popular novels and was, in her time, as much a favourite as Charles Dickens.
Her Worcester upbringing becomes clear in her descriptions of the glove-making industry in Mrs Halliburton’s Troubles, published in 1862. The lifestyle of the gloveresses she puts down, albeit romanticised, shows a level of freedom that would be unheard of for working class women in the fields or factories:
HELSTONLEIGH abounded with glove manufactories. It is a trade that may be said to be a blessing to the localities where it is carried on, since it is one of the very few employments that furnish to the poor female population easy, clean, and profitable work at their own homes. The evils arising to women who go out to work in factories have been rehearsed over and over again ; and the chief evil—we will put others out of sight—is, that it takes the married woman from her home and her family. Her young children drag themselves up in her absence, for worse or for better ; alone they must do it, for she has to be away, toiling for daily bread. There is no home privacy, no home comfort, no home happiness ; the factory is their life, and other interests give way to it. But with glove-making the case is different. While the husbands are abroad at the manufactories pursuing their day’s work, the wives and elder daughters are earning money easily and pleasantly at home. The work is clean and profitable ; all that is necessary for its accomplishment being common skill as a seamstress.
Not five minutes’ walk from Mrs. Halliburton’s house, nearer to Helstonleigh, a turning out of the main road led you to quite a colony of workwomen—gloveresses, as they are termed in the local phraseology. It was a long, wide lane ; the houses, some larger, some smaller, built on either side of it. A road quite wide enough for health, if the inhabitants had only kept it as it ought to have been kept : but they did not do so. The highway was made a common receptacle for refuse. It was so much easier to open the kitchen door (most of the houses were entered at once by the kitchen), and to “chuck” things out, fiele-niele, rather than be at the trouble of conveying to the proper receptacle, the dust-heap at the back. Ashes, cabbage-leaves, bones, egg-shells, potato-peelings, heads and tails of herrings, choked up the gutters in front ; a dead dog or cat being often added by way of variety. Occasionally a solitary policeman would come, picking his way through the dirt, and order it to be removed ; upon which, some slight improvement would be visible for a day or two. The name of this charming place was Honey Fair; though, in truth, it was redolent of nothing so pleasant as honey.
Of the occupants of these houses, the husbands and elder sons were all glove operatives ; several of them in the manufactory of Mr. Ashley. The wives sewed the gloves at home. Many a similar colony to Honey Fair was there in Helstonleigh, but in hearing of one set you hear of all. The trade was extensively pursued. A very few of the manufactories were of the large extent that was Mr. Ashley’s ; and they gradually descended in size, until some comprised not half a score workmen, all told ; but whose masters alike dignified themselves by the title of “manufacturer.”
During the summer weather, whenever Jane had occasion to walk through Honey Fair, on her way to this shop, she would linger to admire the women at their open doors and windows, busy over their nice clean work. Rocking the cradle with one foot, or jogging the baby on their knees, to a tune of their own composing, their hands would be ever active at their employment. Some made the gloves; that is, seamed the fingers together and put in the thumbs, and these were called “makers.” Some welted, or hemmed the gloves round at the edge of the wrist ; these were called “welters.” Some worked the three ornamental lines on the back; and these were called “pointers.” Some of the work was done in what was called a patent machine, whereby the stitches were rendered perfectly equal. And some of the stouter gloves were stitched together, instead of being sewn: stitching so beautifully regular and neat, that a stranger would look at it in admiration. In short, there were, and are, different branches in the making and sewing of gloves, as there are in most trades.
“What could a good, steady workwoman earn a week at the glove-making ?”
” That depends, mum, upon how close she stuck to it,” responded Mrs. Buffle.
” I mean, sitting closely.”
” Oh, well,” debated Mrs. Buffle carelessly, ” she might earn ten shillings a week, and do it comfortable.”
Ten shillings a week ! Jane’s heart beat hopefully. Upon ten shillings a week she might manage to exist, to keep her children from starvation, until better days arose. She, impelled by necessity, could sit longer and closer, too, than perhaps those women did. Mrs. Buffle continued, full of inward gratulation that her silent customer had come round to gossip at last.
“They be the improvidentest things in the world, mum, these gloveress girls. Sundays they be dressed up as grand as queens, flowers inside their bonnets, and ribbuns out, a-setting the churches and chapels alight with their finery; and then off for walks with their sweethearts, all the afternoon and evening. Mondays is mostly spent in waste, gathering of themselves at each other’s houses, talking and laughing, or, may be, off to the fields again—anything for idleness. Tuesdays is often the same, and then the rest of the week they has to scout over their work, to get it in on the Saturday. Ah! you don’t know ’em, mum.”