In his latest history feature Daniel Shannon-Hughes highlights the mums who worked from home to pay their bills
Homework. Up until the early hours to hit a deadline, work spread over the dining table; mum, dad, children and grandparents all involved.
No, not a teenager’s GCSE project, but women doing low-paid repetitive piecework in kitchens and living rooms across the country. Homeworking, or ‘out work’, was a common phenomenon for most of the 20th Century. Most goods back then were made in the UK and, though Waltham Forest’s manufacturing industries employed thousands of people in their factories, they also relied on the labour of countless women working at home.
Memories of some of these homeworkers are preserved in the Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop’s archive. Their recorded interviews provide firsthand accounts of what homework really involved and why women often had no choice but to work that way.
The women here are all from less well-off backgrounds, all previously held jobs outside the home, and all started homeworking when they had children. Childcare was too expensive and, more than that, looking after children was regarded in those days as women’s work. Indeed, as late as the 1970s, women were routinely sacked when they became pregnant.
Carol Brooks lived in Leyton Grange. She had been making shoes at Selwoods in Hackney but stopped when her son was born in 1972: “When he was five I did outdoor machining, making children’s clothes. I did that for ten years, piecework rates; the more you did, the more you got paid. I worked three mornings a week from half-past eight ’til half-past eleven. It fitted nice with him at nursery.”
Shirley Fraser, born 1928, moved from Guyana to London in the 1960s, settling in Leyton: “I used to work for Daywear, on Church Road. Then I start to get Dawn [her daughter], then I stop off, and I used to do the indoor sewing.
“I used to take sewing from them and bring it home during the night, take it back, and next night I’d do the same thing.”
Though child benefit, along with other welfare support, improved massively over the course of the century, poorer households frequently struggled to get by on the income of the man’s wage, particularly in the early decades. This meant women at home had to find a way to earn too.
Households without a male breadwinner faced even greater financial pressure.
Mary Cornwell lost her husband in the First World War. She remembers: “I had to work then because I had my little girl. I had out work, machine work, ladies’ coats. All you got for the war pension was a guinea a week.”
Similarly, Nellie Williams’ husband could not work in the 1930s and ’40s because he had rheumatic fever. He received disability benefit, but it was not enough to live on. To feed her children Nellie painted toy soldiers: “I did outdoor work, this is a true story. I used to work from half-past eight until half-past six, and from eight o’clock ’til twelve o’clock Saturday, and fetch up four kids.”
The borough’s toy factories employed lots of homeworkers. Jean Ralston was born in Walthamstow in 1932 and lived in Elphinstone Road. In the early 1960s she had young children to look after: “I couldn’t go out to work so I thought the next best thing is to do homework at Britains [toy factory].
“All on the kitchen table… these tiny [toy] soldiers… all different paint colours, face, helmet, uniform, you had a rifle, black boots and you had to keep changing your colours.
“You’ve got the family around you, try to get them to bed early… I’ve been there at three o’clock in the morning painting them to get them finished. Panic stations – got to get them in by tomorrow. And when I finished I used to look forward to the great pay day.”
For painting a total of 144 soldiers, several hours’ work, Jean was paid seven shillings – roughly £7 today. In 1949, Nellie got £2 – £65 today – for painting close to 3,000 soldiers, a whole week’s work. The “great pay day” was a poverty wage, as was the case with most homework.
In addition, homework offered no sick pay, no pension, no redundancy, and no health and safety. Carole remembers: “Putting a needle through my finger… You just carried on. Because you were working at home, the factory weren’t responsible for you.”
When Jean’s children were older she returned to work outside the home as a typist and her mother took over childcare. Others, like Shirley, did not have the same luxury of choice. She continued homeworking alongside two part-time jobs: “Eleven o’clock I used to do school dinners [as a dinner lady], come back in, then go to [Langthorne] hospital, work in the evening, then in the night sit down and do the sewing. It was very hard, just to bring up the kids… no security, nothing.”
Shirley calls homeworking “convenient” – it enabled women both to look after children and earn some money – but the need to do both allowed for little choice in this convenience.
With few options available, these women had to accept exploitative low wages for homework. For single parents such as Mary, carers like Nellie, or recent immigrants like Shirley, all struggling to scrape by, their options were even more restricted.
When manufacturing moved abroad in the 1980s and 90s, homework, as recalled in the archive, largely disappeared in the UK. Though, as HomeWorkers Worldwide (homeworkersww.org.uk) makes clear, the low wages and insecure conditions have just migrated elsewhere.
Today at home, cuts to child benefits and state support are again putting pressure on women (and some men) to find work that fits around caring for children and relatives.
Meanwhile, ‘portfolio employment’, the ‘gig economy’, and ‘zero-hours’ contracts have become synonymous with insecure low-paid work with few or no employment rights. Homeworking may take a different form in the 21st Century but the exploitation is likely to remain.
The Waltham Forest Oral History Workshop is a volunteer group who have been recording oral histories with local residents for the past 30 years. For information on the workshop’s archive, joining the group, or being interviewed: