The Essex entrepreneur accused of white slavery
- Credit: Archant
Firm pioneered mass-production of clothes, but came under fire for using cheap labour – mostly women
Did they wound, all the accusations of white slavery and using cheap female labour to churn out shoddy clothes, or was an Essex entrepreneur simply content to count the pennies as they poured in?
Queen Victoria hadn't long settled on her throne when a group of businesses stood accused of helping to put thousands of skilled tailors out of a job. Among those cited was the Hyam family of Colchester.
The Lloyds Weekly London Newspaper had weighed in on November 12, 1844. It bracketed the Hyam empire with other "flash tailors" as some of the major "slop sellers" operating in London - selling cheap and nasty clothing and raking in the profits.
Nine months earlier, The Northern Star had put Hyam & Co in the metaphorical dock for taking advantage of armies of "White Slaves" - female workers eking out a sad existence to fill the pockets of their masters.
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The Northern Star alleged Hyam had up to 1,500 such toilers grafting on its behalf.
The story of this Essex empire is fascinating and will probably surprise people. As will the suggestion that Colchester was once at the heart of England's "rag trade".
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Historian Patrick Denney has done a tremendous job bringing the past to life in earlier books such as Secret Colchester. His latest title looks at the town's industries over the centuries. Hyam Hyam (that was actually his name) is one of the characters to stand out.
Birth of a dynasty
Hyam Hyam was born in Ipswich in 1775. Patrick tells us he was the son of Simon Hyam, an immigrant born in Hamburg who settled in Suffolk with wife Rose in the early 1770s.
By 1800, Simon was operating (with his son) as a pawnbroker and salesman in Carr Street. "In particular," stated the Ipswich Journal, "they were offering for sale 'a large assortment of men's, boys' and women's new and second-hand clothes, which they are determined to sell as cheap as in London…'"
Early in 1803 the partnership ended. Hyam carried on trading, without dad.
By 1817 he had left Ipswich and begun trading at the King's Head in Harwich as a broker and clothier, writes Patrick.
Two years later he was on the move again: to St Botolph's Street in Colchester, where Hyam operated as a pawnbroker and clothier.
"What happened during the next ten or so years is unclear but according to a surviving advertising hand bill, produced around 1828, his business appears to have been prospering."
"It would appear that Hyam was getting local tailors to make many of these garments for him." Patrick cites one of the businessman's newspaper adverts from 1838, offering constant winter employment for tailors - "evidence that Hyam had moved into manufacturing of men's clothing on a fairly large scale".
He wasn't stopping there.
At the time of the 1841 census, says Patrick, two thirds of Colchester's 266 tailoring workers were men. By 1851, the workforce had leapt to 620 and the gender balance shifted dramatically. Three quarters of those workers were now female.
"This female-dominated mix of tailoring workers continued through the following decades, with female workers gaining an even greater share of the work."
Dig deeper and it appears that, at the time of the 1841 census, many of the local tailors had been subcontracting some of their finishing work and other minor tasks to female relatives - and paying cheap rates.
"Now," Patrick muses, "could it have been that at some stage Hyam became aware of this activity and decided to make a radical move by sidelining his male workforce altogether and employing these female workers directly himself?"
The businessman could have done this, the author suggests, by breaking down the manufacturing process into individual tasks. The female workers could be trained to do all of them, "without the need of possessing the tailoring skills required to produce the complete garment - and thus negating the need to pay the higher wages demanded by the experienced tailors".
This must have worked in practice, for "within a very short time" the Hyam family was being accused by newspapers such as The Northern Star and others of immoral business tactics.
No stopping them
Hyam Hyam had actually retired from the business in 1842. Sons Moses and Simon took the helm and began expanding their premises in St Botolph's Street and Queen Street. The trade was healthy, and they were soon joined by a clutch of competitors.
By 1845, the enterprise could boast of a string of retail "Emporiums" around the country.
"The Hyam family were therefore at the very forefront of the tailoring industry nationally, and certainly would appear to have preceded that of Leeds, which is thought to have started around 1853," writes Patrick.
In 1867 the Hyam brothers opened a purpose-built factory in Abbeygate Street, Colchester, for about 100 machinists. They also had hundreds more outworkers toiling in their own homes. By the late 1880s, the number of factory workers had grown to about 300.
"Most of the cloth at this time was being cut out by the firm's skilled cutters in London and sent down to Colchester by rail to be made up by their local female workers."
By the early 1900s, several more tailoring firms had moved production to Colchester, Patrick points out. These included Hart & Levy, from Leicester, and Hollington's from London.
Did tailoring staff prosper? The book says that in 1912, at the time of an inquiry into the earnings of female outworkers, Colchester Manufacturing Company stated the average weekly wage of rural outworkers was 10 shillings and three pence. The typical agricultural worker was getting between 12-and-a-half shillings and 14 shillings.
End of a golden era
Patrick says the Colchester tailoring industry continued to thrive between the wars, with mothers, daughters and granddaughters following each other into the sector.
"However, from around the 1950s the trade entered into a period of decline, and within twenty or so years it had virtually ceased to exist. Today there is very little evidence on display to suggest that a tailoring industry ever existed in the town."
He also concedes it is "probably one of the best-kept secrets relating to Colchester's recent industrial past".
Patrick Denney's paperback 'Colchester at Work - People and industries through the years' traces local commerce and enterprise from the late Iron Age. He covers, among other periods, the woollen cloth era of the Middle Ages and the importance of the Paxman engineering business.
In the early 1900s, for instance, many Paxman engines and boilers left the factory for far-off places such as South Africa, Russia, China and Japan. In 1902 the company installed steam-generating equipment for the Mexico Gas and Electric Light Company in Monterey.
Colchester at Work is from Amberley Publishing at £14.99.