In October 1843 a young widow and seamstress, simply known as Mrs. Biddell, was prosecuted at a criminal court in the East End of London for pawning clothes she was sewing in order to feed her starving children. Although not an unusual tale for many hard-up seamstresses, the case of Mrs. Biddell would go on to make national publicity and expose the distress of this poor group of workers. In this article, we look at the story behind Mrs. Biddell and the plight of this largely hidden industry in the early part of the Victorian Era.
It was 1843. Queen Victoria, barely twenty-four, had already been on the British throne for six years, ruling over the greatest empire the world had ever seen. At its heart was the great metropolis of London, the world’s first industrialised mega-city. As trade flowed in through the docks, social and economic woes grew as the city struggled to cope with recent massive expansion. A doubling of the population since the turn of the century had brought both wealth and disparity to the city.
On a late October Wednesday that year, the Queen was leaving London for a two-day visit to Cambridge. In the epicentre of the city finishing touches were being prepared to place a statue of Nelson on top of a column in the public square commemorating the nation’s military superiority. Two miles to the east, however, the combined Lambeth Street Police Station and Court was picking up the pieces of the darker side of this economic miracle.
Lambeth Street served the Whitechapel area of the East End of London. The area had been once inhabited by prosperous silk weavers but the trade had suffered from mechanised textile factories in the north of England. The area remained a centre of the rag trade, with its markets at Rag Fair and Petticoat Lane attracting thousands, particularly on Sundays, but competition from this northern powerhouse had taken its toll on the local economy.
The area had begun to deteriorate into slums, its population swelled by immigrants from European socio-economic problems and those seeking work in the nearby docks to the south. Cholera had ravaged the area a decade before, the disease finding an easy home in poor sanitation and overcrowding.
Mrs. Biddell appeared before the Court that day in a wretched state. Her husband had been killed in a violent accident at work the previous January, leaving her with a child and another on the way. Determined to fend for herself, the poor widow had tried to survive by making clothes, one of the limited choices left to her.
Mr. Moses was from nearby Tower Hill, an area noted for its second-hand clothes trade centred around Rosemary Lane street market. He was a ‘slopseller’; a merchant dealing in slops or cheap ready-made clothing and rough working dress. Typically these slopsellers would contract out their work to a number of individual seamstresses for very low money. Mrs. Biddell was one of these. Unable to earn enough the clothes had been pawned to raise enough money to survive. When Mrs. Biddell couldn’t pay her employer back, Mr Moses wanted retribution through the Courts and Mrs Biddell was not the first he had sent there.
Dublin-born Thomas Henry had been a Judge at Lambeth Street for three years. His career was on the rise, having been called to the bar twelve years before and serving much of his subsequent time in Yorkshire. For Henry, the case of Mrs. Biddell was an all-too familiar tale that session in his Court. Henry was sympathetic to the defendant, commenting on the circumstances that drove her to it: “I am sorry to say it is too much the practice to pawn goods of this description but the fact is that the pittance which the people receive for their work is so wretchedly small, that being without means of subsistence to go on with their work, they are in many cases, actually compelled to resort to the practice of pawning the things.”
Mrs. Biddell could have sought help for her plight. A decade before her case one of the most significant pieces of social legislation in British history, The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced, sweeping away in its path a series of poor-laws going back to the reign of Elizabeth I. However the reforms were controversial. Designed to reduce the cost of looking after the poor it took away help given by a local parish and transferred it to larger Poor Law Unions, each administered by a local Board of Guardians, responsible for the provision of a workhouse building.
If people wanted help they had to go into a workhouse to get it where they were given clothes and food, usually in exchange for several hours of manual labour each day. Where once help was given by a local parish community we now had larger and harsh state institutions which people feared rather than look to them for support. Tales of punishments, separation of family members and a harsh work regime were emerging from these institutions. At the Court hearing, Judge Henry summarised how Mrs. Biddell “in endeavouring to keep out of the poorhouse and in attempting to make a living by the miserable pittance of a slopseller, had got herself into her then condition”.
Far from being a solution to the poor the workhouses were becoming part of the problem. Indeed it had been emerging almost as soon as the Poor Law came into force that workhouses were being used as cheap labour factories, carrying out ‘slop’ work and undermining established businesses. One of the largest shirt-making companies, S. W. Silver & Co., which employed up to 3,000 people across England at the time, complained to the Board of London Guardians in 1840 about the practice and the “monstrously low prices” it was paying. The workhouses appeared to have carried on. In 1841, one East End slop seller reported that the cost of some goods had halved in ten years, partly as a consequence of workhouses forcing down prices. As a result, his employment of families making shirts for him had been cut from 150 to 30.
The Times newspaper had long been critical of the 1834 Poor Law. In Mrs. Biddell it had a visible victim to back up its rhetoric. It was scathing about the case at Lambeth Street that Autumn day, reserving particularly harsh — and often anti-Semitic — criticism of her employer. Publishing a commentary titled ‘white slaves‘ two days after the trail, the paper said of Mrs Biddell how “she is, in every moral point of view as much a slave as any negro who ever toiled under a cruel taskmasters in the West Indies”.
The poet Thomas Hood picked up on The Times articles and penned a poem which he submitted (initially anonymously) to Punch entitled The Song of the Shirt. Punch was part of a crop of recent periodicals and books that questioned those left behind in this free-market rush to industrialise. The two-nation gap of wealth and poverty was being exposed and condemned by authors such as Thomas Caryle, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskill amongst others whilst movements such as Chartism lobbied for a fair wage for a fair days pay.
Whilst many prospered in this age of industry, many more were falling into despair. At the time of Mrs. Biddell’s plight, the German philosopher and one of the founders of the Socialist movement, Friedrich Engels was observing in Manchester how the Industrial Revolution made many of the working classes worse off. He would put his findings into the famous exposé The Condition of the Working Class in England.
Hood’s sentimental verse became an instant hit and helped propel the plight of the seamstress far and wide. The Times reproduced the poem. Just a day later it was reporting on a Coroners’ inquest into the death of a woman at St. Pancras workhouse where it emerged that women there were being paid a pittance working 18 hours a day just to make a shirt a day. It was only enough to buy tea and sugar. Given that the workhouses had been recently established by the government to house the vulnerable, The Times was scathing asking “was it for this, we ask, that union-houses were constructed? To be public institutions for the support and ‘payment of the workwomen of slopsellers? To be instruments of torture and extortion,—of extortion, to enable the slop-dealer to get his work done at the expense of the ratepayer,—and of torture, to enable him to insist upon people working for him 18 hours a-day at something less than could find a union pauper in tea and sugar!“
Punch benefited enormously from the story and was said to have helped triple circulation. The editor capitalised on his magazine’s success with his own play a few months later. The Song of the Shirt was picked up by foreign newspapers and turned to music. The verses inspired the artist Richard Redgrave to paint an image of The Sempstress, exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. A number of similar paintings appeared over the course of the next fifty years as its theme remained popular. In 1908, pioneering Hollywood filmmaker D. W. Griffith turned the poem to celluloid. They say there is currency in controversy and the plight of the lone seamstress seems to have pricked more than a few hearts.
The outrage of Mrs. Biddell and other cases helped propel seamstresses’ plight into the public conscience. A few months later, some benefactors helped set up The Society for the Protection and Employment of Distressed Needlewomen with the aim to “assist shirtmakers, and other women living by plain needlework, to obtain the proper remuneration for their labour, and to find work for them when thrown into distress by temporary want of employment”. By the time of its second annual report, it had helped over 1200 women, with the aim of offering a fair wage. It was only a stop-gap. Eventually, the cottage industry, estimated to employ 15,000 people in the early 1840’s, would be all but wiped out by machines and a race to drive prices down.
Back at Lambeth Street, when it came to sentencing Mrs. Biddell asked the Judge if she could be sent to the workhouse as punishment. Judge Henry obliged, remarking that this would be better than the House of Correction. There was no duration of sentence in any reports and she was taken from the Court straight to the workhouse, a place she had struggled hard to avoid. Ironically, the next case before Henry that day would be another case of a seamstress who had pawned goods belonging to a slop seller in order to survive. But whereas many have long been forgotten, the reporting of Mrs. Biddell’s would be a small victory in court of public opinion. Her plight helped expose the working conditions of a burgeoning industrial world. The moral compass of Victorian society was set for realignment, swinging towards a direction that would ultimately lead to many of the labour reforms that we enjoy today.
Copyright (c) 2017. The Circumlocution Office. This article was written and published in May, 2017. Minor revisions and design changes: April 2020; September 2023.
The poem went on to inspire paintings also entitled The Song of the Shirt by, amongst others, F. Watts (1850), Charles Rossiter (1854), Anna Blunden (1854), Frank Holl (1874), Edward Radford (1887) and Albert Rutherston (1902). Other artists produced works on this theme but with different titles such as E. Millais (1876, called Stitch, Stitch, Stich).
If you are interested in exploring the subject of Mrs. Biddell or the plight of seamstresses further, these are the sources of information we used in compiling this article, with links where appropriate to access them online. Articles were accessed, and links correct as of, May 2017:
- Associate Institution for improving and enforcing the Laws for the Protection of Women, The (1846). The Female’s Friend. London: Houlston and Stoneman.
- Edelstein, T. J. (1980). They Sang The Song of the Shirt: The Visual Iconology of the Seamstress. Journal of Victorian Studies. Vol. 23, No. 2. pp. 183-210.
- Examiner, The (1843). Price of Labour. Saturday, 28 October (p.13). Accessed at: British Newspaper Archive.
- Harris, B (2017). Slaves of the Needle: The Seamstress in the 1840s. In: Victorian Web (online). Accessed at: http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/ugoretz1.html.
- Punch (1843). The Song of the Shirt. Reproduced in The Times, Saturday, 15 December (p.5). Accessed at: The Times archive.
- The Times (1843). Untitled news article (on the Court case of Hannah Newton and the Children’s Employment Commission’s Report Second Report (Grainger’s Report)). Monday, 18 September (p.4). Accessed at: The Times archive.
- The Times (1843). Advertisement (from S. W. Silver & Co.). Wednesday, 27 September (p.6). Accessed at: The Times archive.
- The Times (1843). Untitled news article (on the Court case of Mrs Biddell). Friday, 27 October (p.4). Accessed at: The Times archive.
The Times (1843). Untitled news article (on the Court case of Elizabeth Harding and criticism of the system of providing security). Tuesday, 7 November (p.4). Accessed at: The Times archive.
- The Times (1843). Untitled news article (on Coroners’ inquest into the death of a woman at St Pancras workhouse and criticism of slop work by workhouses). Friday, 15 December (p.4). Accessed at: The Times archive.
- Wikipedia (2017). The Song of the Shirt. Accessed at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Song_of_the_Shirt.