Royal Commission On Labour – The Employment of Women

In 1893 a report was published on The Employment of Women and the conditions of work for women in different industries and trades across the country. This extensive investigation was undertaken by four Lady Assistant Commissioners of the Royal Commission on Labour. The Commissioners for this report were sent out across the country to obtain direct evidence from the women and their employers on the working conditions of women, whilst also investigating the ‘effects of women’s industrial employment on their health, morality, and the home’.

Many different trades were investigated such as the working conditions of Shop Assistants and Dressmakers in London, whilst in the Midlands the Staffordshire Potteries were scrutinised. In the north, they visited the Textile and Cotton industries and in Scotland, Calico Printing and Turkey Red Dyeing. These are just an example of the many industries visited.

The Senior Assistant Commissioner was Eliza Orme who undertook to personally investigate the conditions of ‘Barmaids, Waitresses and Bookkeepers employed in Hotels, Restaurants, Public-Houses, and other places of Refreshment’. Interestingly Eliza Orme was the first woman to earn a Law Degree from University College, London in 1888.

BWTA – A Mission For Barmaids

When President of the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA), Lady Henry Somerset, gave her yearly Address recorded in the 1894 Annual Report, she quoted evidence from this Labour Report and in particular Orme’s investigation regarding the barmaid. As leader of this temperance organisation she declared ‘that the common talk and atmosphere of the public-house is a continual degradation to the unfortunate young women who deal out the drink’. Lady Henry went on to talk about the ‘commercial value’ of the barmaid and that ‘the comeliness, youth, and intelligence’ of these women was a ‘”vested interest” of incalculable value to the proprietor’, yet was an ‘awful waste of beautiful gifts and powers.’

Under Lady Henry’s leadership the BWTA was a structured organisation, with departments set up for different areas of work including attendance at Brewster Sessions (for the granting of Licenses), Social Purity, Cure of Inebriate Women and Prevention of Sale of Intoxicants to Children. She now called on members to commence a ‘mission for barmaids’, to appeal to these women so they would feel ‘the compelling force toward a better life, of our sympathy and help’. Lady Henry’s other objective was to petition Parliament, ‘asking that here, as in America, the keepers of public-houses shall not be permitted to employ women – which means to degrade them…’.

Unfortunately it wasn’t a straightforward question of simply ‘banning the barmaid’ when the reality was that many women needed employment, in order to earn a living to support their families. However, as a temperance leader, philanthropist, and campaigner for women’s rights, Lady Henry saw the ‘Barmaid Question’ as one that needed to be tackled and addressed by the BWTA. Not only was this due to the supposed moral implications of this line of work and greater temptation to drink, but also the long hours and health problems arising from poor working conditions.


Lady Henry Somerset

Hours, Conditions and Health

Lady Henry quoted evidence from the Labour Report to push home the view that no class of work was harder than that of a barmaid, quoting long working hours, health issues including ‘alcoholic poisoning’ and insanitary working conditions – ‘The evidence given before the Royal Commission on Labour shows that “Barmaids work every day in the week; every third or fourth Sunday they get four or five hours off. Licensed houses are open 19 hours a day from 5am to 12 at night. Barmaids get an average of two hours rest per day. The long hours during which these women stand, produce great physical exhaustion. They often suffer acute physical agony and so they take to drink.’

A look at the Report shows that the largest proportion of the women who gave evidence employed as barmaids, waitresses and bookkeepers, were working between 60 and 70 hours per week, but there were 24 (out of 509) who worked more than 90 hours per week and 5 worked over 100! In contrast, our working time directive today states that you cannot work more than 48 hours per week.


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When considering the health of those women employed as barmaids, the report identified the stigma associated with it; the assumption that a barmaid was a certain type of woman  – ‘A very large number of barmaids carefully conceal their occupation on entering hospitals, as they think their nurses will disapprove it.’ Temptation to drink was also investigated, however Eliza Orme stated that she had ‘found great difference of opinion among the most intelligent witnesses….Several very steady barmaids including some total abstainers consider that none but girls of strong character should be bought into the trade. Others of equal weight deny that there is any more temptation to drink as a barmaid than in any other profession.’


Public Houses and Beer Shops in London

Lady Henry’s Address for 1897 records that she gave evidence before the Royal Commission and had maps drawn up of districts in London representing the number of public houses in an area – ‘In one district of Soho, the total area less than a quarter of a square mile, there are 116 public-houses – that is to say, one public-house to every 17 inhabited houses, or one public-house to every 200 persons of the population, or 464 public-houses to the square mile’. This included only public-houses and beer shops and excluded restaurants etc.

The figures quoted in the 1897 Address seem quite staggering. In contrast today, Pub Statistics published in 2020, record that in 2019 ‘London had 40 pubs for every 100,000 people….’. This equates to one pub for every 250 people, but this in an area the size of London not just a quarter of a square mile as in the 1897 map! To emphasise these numbers even further, Lady Henry recorded that along just a one mile stretch of the Whitechapel Road, there were 45 public-houses.

The women of the BWTA were already involved in campaigning to reduce the number of licenses issued. They were attending magistrates Brewster sessions, where licences to permit trade in alcoholic liquor were granted or denied. Lady Henry’s view was that licences were granted ‘without reference to the public needs, and…in far greater numbers than public wants justify.’ More public-houses would also contribute to the demand for more bar staff and therefore more barmaids.

BWTA Annual Report 1897

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BWTA Work Among Young Women In Bars and Refreshment Rooms

Lady Henry’s idea of a ‘mission for barmaids’ was taken forward by the BWTA, and in 1898 we have a summary from the National Superintendent of the department now named ‘Work Among Young Women In Bars and Refreshment Rooms’. The Superintendent of this department was a Miss Gough and she gave instruction on how this work should be approached by inviting the women who worked in these bars to social evenings whilst using ‘great tact and true sympathy’ and ‘a few kind words’.

Members were also encouraged to visit the bars and invite the women to meetings, ‘making them feel that someone is interested in them and care for their welfare.’ It is recorded in the Annual Report that there were more than 80,000 women employed in licensed houses (it is not stated what area this number covered) and that many had already been helped ‘to leave the bar, and are in places where they are surrounded by Christian influence and total abstinence.’ Although they wished to outlaw the barmaid it appears that they were also supporting them to find new positions.

The Superintendent used a letter from a barmaid ‘To the Editor of the Echo’ to demonstrate that the ‘barmaids cause’ was a necessary one, as was her hope that the time would come when women would no longer be employed in restaurants and public bars –

‘Sir, – I venture to claim a little of your space to express my thanks to those ladies who are taking up the barmaid’ cause, and I hope their efforts may not be in vain to render the life of a barmaid a little less the life of a slave. I can state truthfully and from personal experience that what has already been published concerning the many hours’ duty and the exceedingly uncomfortable (or I might use a much stronger term) accommodation provided, it is quite accurate, having myself been a sufferer from it, my hours at a seaside railway refreshment room being from 7am till 9pm, and then called at 12.30 midnight and remain up till 4am, or frequently 5 or past, then retire again until 11am, and on again; this, with two hours off duty on Sunday, and no chance of attending any place of worship (for on the two hours off duty on Sunday I was only too thankful to rest) was what I had to put up with for five months, when I could stand it no longer.’

The National Superintendent urged every Branch of the BWTA, to create a department for this work within their own locality, for these women who they believed needed their guidance and care.

Glasgow Magistrates and the Barmaid

In 1902 the BWTA were watching licensing proceedings in Scotland, namely Glasgow where the Licensing Court had announced that they would refuse to renew the licences of any public house where barmaids were employed. They regularly recorded what was playing out in Glasgow, where magistrates had already strongly discouraged the employment of barmaids for many years.

Scotland already had a strong temperance movement; the Scottish Temperance League had been formed in Glasgow in 1844. The women’s Scottish Christian Union (SCU) was an autonomous but affiliated union of the British Womens Temperance Association and by 1902 had 239 branches with over 21,000 members.

There were exceptions to the Glasgow ruling for women who were license holders, relations of license holders and waitresses in dining rooms. It was reported that to extend the prohibition to theatres and railway station bars, which had been proposed, would have thrown between ‘1000 and 1500 girls out of employment.’ The BWTA recorded that they ‘heartily’ welcomed the movement in Glasgow, and the action of the Magistrates in ‘practically abolishing the barmaid’.

However, the Magistrates did not always have the final say in the matter, as appeals could be made to a higher court, Quarter Sessions. These Justices could then reverse decisions made by the Licensing Magistrates, although it is recorded that the Licensing Magistrates were then prepared to appeal their decisions to an even higher court.

A citizens meeting was held in Glasgow City Hall, presumably by temperance reformers which would likely have included women of the British Women’s Temperance Association (SCU). They were protesting against the Quarter Sessions Justices reversing of the Licensing Magistrates decisions. At this meeting they also pledged to support only candidates for election to the town Council who were willing to ‘loyally co-operate in carrying out the policy of the magistrates’. Whilst ‘the (liquor) trade’ vowed to turn out magistrates whose term of office was due to expire and also engaged ‘able and expensive counsel’ to appeal against refused licenses. The lines were drawn for both sides.

By March 1903 the women of the BWTA must have been dismayed to learn that magistrates had decided to permit barmaids in ‘bona fide restaurants, and to serve in the ‘Family Departments’ of public houses!’ The writer of the BWTA ‘Anti-Barmaid Campaign’ article, writes that the Glasgow Magistrates had backed down on the decisions of their predecessors.

License holders believed that the Glasgow Magistrates had exceeded their legal powers and confirmation of this came from Lord Balfour of Burleigh, Secretary of State for Scotland when he stated, ‘It is perfectly true that the magistrates of Glasgow endeavoured to make a regulation on the subject under the existing law, but, as a matter of fact, it was found to be illegal for them to do so.’ In the House of Lords, Lord Kinnaird made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the Scottish Licensing Bill so as to give the licensing authorities powers to regulate or prevent the employment of barmaids. This must have been a blow to the women of the BWTA watching from the rest of the country.


BWTA – Department regarding the Employment of Women in Drinking Bars

Even after the turn of events in Glasgow, by 1904 the ‘Department regarding the Employment of Women in Drinking Bars’ was in full swing, and the National Executive Committee of the BWTA, had inaugurated ‘a movement to memorialize the justices on the evils attending the barmaids calling with a view to its ultimate abolition.’ They arranged public meetings, petitioned magistrates all over the country, distributed thousands of leaflets and obtained thousands of signatures to present to Justices.

Monthly articles appeared in the BWTA’s White Ribbon magazine under the heading ‘The Barmaid Question’. Cases of barmaids ‘being driven to irretrievable ruin’ were reported and Lady Henry reported that ‘barmaid after barmaid tell her the same story of overwork, constant temptation and terrible fall’. She did acknowledge that not all barmaids were drinkers but that these young women were placed in a position of ‘terrible temptation and difficulty.’

They reported that the ‘anti barmaid movement’ was making rapid progress and that ‘The Trade’ was alarmed. The Trade was vigilant to the deputations sent by the BWTA to parliamentary members and were watching ‘for every opportunity to protect the Trade in that direction.’


Eva Gore-Booth – The Other Side of the Question

In contrast to the views of religious and temperance organisations regarding the practice of employing women as barmaids and the aim to abolish this, there were those who recognised that this was a much more complicated issue. One such person was Eva Gore-Booth a labour activist, suffragette and Secretary of the Manchester, Salford and District Women’s Trade Union Council. Winston Churchill was standing for re-election as MP in Manchester at the time that Gore-Booth was campaigning to support the barmaids.

She recognised the competition within the labour market at the time and the restrictions due to gender which made it hard for a woman to earn a living. Her views were recorded in the 12 February 1903 Manchester Evening News. She acknowledged the ‘very genuine philanthropic sentiment’ behind the views of the writer who views the work of a barmaid as unsuitable for women, but she urges for ‘most careful consideration’ before trying to turn the barmaids out of their employment.

Gore-Booth saw the wider picture; that the work of the barmaid ‘From the standpoint of a leisured class, no doubt, it is not an ideal one, but, judged by this standard, there are few alternative women’s trades that would not be found wanting. The average barmaid may be underpaid and overworked, but anyone familiar with the trades now open to women must realise that for them bad conditions, low wages, and long hours are the exception in the industrial world. In these matters the “abolition of the barmaid” cannot possibly effect the smallest reform.’


Coming Licensing Bill

The women of the BWTA were continuing their campaign ‘To Save Our Girls’, against the background of a new licensing bill, which if granted included a clause which could effectively abolish the employment of women as barmaids. It looked like the BWTA’s aim might yet be in sight with the proposal for this new legislation.

With population growth in cities came an increase in the number of public houses and reports of alcohol related crime and poverty. Legislation was proposed which would reduce the availability of alcohol including reducing opening hours, restricting licensing numbers and the clause which would allow local magistrates to effectively ban the employment of barmaids by allowing them to attach conditions to the issue of a license – the condition of not employing women.

The Barmaids Political Defence League

Whilst the BWTA were supporting the new legislation from their temperance standpoint, Eva Gore-Booth came to the defence of the thousands of women employed as barmaids who were potentially to become unemployed if this Bill was passed by Parliament. She formed The Barmaids Political Defence League with Esther Roper to draw attention to the clause, which may otherwise have gone under the radar.

An article in the Manchester Courier 29 Nov 1907 describes a deputation led by Gore-Booth received by Mr Herbert Gladstone, the Home Secretary, to protect ‘at least one hundred thousand barmaids engaged in the trade.’ They highlighted that the proposal would bring about ‘great stress, want and poverty’; the temptations ‘were only those which were to the lives of all women.’

Mr Gladstone gave assurance that any Government or Parliament ‘should think twice and thrice before doing anything which seriously and materially interfered with the employment of women. He acknowledged that there were ‘certain places which were morally, physically and economically bad’ but the other side of the question was the suggestion that this or any Government should ‘stop the legitimate employment of women, where that employment was carried on under respectable and proper conditions, and where women wish to carry it on….’.

The protest against the barmaid legislation which was in direct opposition to the temperance reformers stance, continued with a meeting held at the Memorial Hall in Manchester with officials of the Women’s Trades Council on the platform and barmaids in the audience. They dismissed the claim that there were only twenty-seven thousand barmaids in the country and made their claim that there were about one hundred thousand;? women that would ultimately lose their jobs.

Speeches were made by the barmaids themselves and resolutions were passed. They protested ‘….indignantly against any attempt to restrict or abolish their employment’, and against ‘the step the Temperance Reformers had taken without hearing a word of complaint from the barmaids themselves.’ Eva Gore-Booth organised a coach and horses to be driven around Manchester, they made speeches from the top of the coach and ‘explained the position of the barmaids to enormous and sympathetic crowds.’ A protest attended by several thousand barmaids was also held in Trafalgar Square, London.

The Barmaids Defence League was doing everything in their power to ‘save the barmaids from being abolished quietly and secretly in a subclause of the Licensing Bill.’

1908 BWTA Annual Report

BWTA – ‘Grave Surprise and Dissatisfaction’

The women of the BWTA would have been watching opponents to the Licensing Bill closely, and the Annual Report of 1908 details their ‘grave surprise and dissatisfaction’ in terms of Mr Gladstone’s response to the Barmaids Deputation and ‘the apparent luke-warmness of his present attitude towards the question of the non-employment of Barmaids.’

A further BWTA report purports ‘the efforts of the so-called Barmaids’ Defence League’ as ‘receiving but little support from the public, or even from barmaids’. The Superintendent of the department ‘Regarding the Employment of Barmaids’, Miss Perkins, urged the BWTA not to ‘fail in energy’, at a critical moment for the clause to be passed. Miss Perkins records that there would be no more blow to the trade than the disappearance of the barmaid,  ‘being buttressed almost entirely on the attractions of the women who serve’; ‘….ought not the BWTA Branches to bring before all candidates, and before the constituency, literature and personal statements contradicting the gross inaccuracies of the other side?’.

1908 Licensing Bill – Rejected

Ultimately the 1908 Licensing Bill including Clause 20, was overwhelmingly rejected following concerted action by the brewing and pub trades, including a demonstration held in Hyde Park, London. The Barmaids Defence League won the day in their bid to defend the rights of women to be employment as barmaids.

However, the BWTA were still not discouraged and continued their campaign, even after this disappointing turn of events. The Superintendent of the department Miss Perkins, believed that the snatch vote rejecting the Bill was ‘manifestly based on a variety of misconceptions, and so little demanded by public feeling in the constituencies, that it really need cause no discouragement.’ They now looked to overseas legislation outlawing the employment of women in bars, as a more important sign of the times.

Miss Perkins was very clear in her feelings towards what she saw as the ‘greedy, heartless, employers who are now free to exploit the barmaids’ flesh and blood – one might say their body and soul – well nigh as they please.’ The BWTA department campaigning for the abolition of the barmaid, still continued without faltering after this undesirable outcome.

They found renewed determination through an active movement overseas, but ultimately the aim of their campaign was never to come to fruition despite their continued determination and resolve. Fortunately over the years working conditions and hours have improved, through legislation such as the Health and Safety at Work Act and Working Time Regulations. The women of the BWTA would surely have been gratified to learn that the working environment at least had improved for these women, even if barmaids are still employed some 100 years later.

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