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Sensational Stories, Endangered Bodies: Women’s Work and the New Journalism in England in the 1890s

  • Carolyn Malone


The cry of labor has seized the world’s ear. The Press, the Legislature, and the world at large is listening to the voice of labor…. When this journal first resolved to secure a hearing for all working-class questions, there was scarcely a column of a leading London newspaper which was then open. Now, following our lead, every great daily paper has its labor section…. Nor is it only the press which is watchful. It is the readers of the Press….

This self-promoting editorial in the Star in 1891 made a critical point: labor issues were becoming a standard feature in daily newspapers. Sweating, loopholes in factory legislation, and the famous Dock and Match Girls’ strikes were among the subjects found in the pages of papers such as the Star. This trend in reporting was part of the “New Journalism” that developed in England between the 1880s and 1914. In an attempt to cater to the tastes of mass audiences, there was a shift in emphasis from parliamentary and political news to sports, gossip, crime, and sex. Papers, for instance, reported on the brutal Jack the Ripper murders in the East End of London. New journalists and editors, like W. T. Stead and Thomas P. O’Connor, also produced interviews, exposes, and political editorials in order to influence public opinion and promote what Stead called “government by journalism.” Stead produced what has been called the most successful piece of scandal journalism of the nineteenth century, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” which depicted young girls for sale to older men. Passage of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act, which raised the age of consent for sex to sixteen, was one of its political consequences.



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1 “What We Think—A Listening Nation,” Star, 5 September 1891.

2 Political events retained their importance but their coverage was modified. Verbatim reports of parliamentary debates were reduced while more attention was paid to political editorials.

3 Walkowitz, Judith, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992), ch. 3.

4 The most valuable work is Weiner, Joel H., ed., Papers for the Millions, The New Journalism in Britain, 1850s to 1914, (London, 1988). Also see, Brown, Lucy, Victorian News and Newspapers (New York, 1985), Koss, Stephen, The Rise and Fall of the Political Press in Britain: The Nineteenth Century (Chapel Hill, 1981), and Lee, Alan J., The Origins of the Popular Press 1855-1914 (London, 1976).

5 See, John Goodbody, “The Star. Its Role in the Rise of the New Journalism,” in Papers for the Millions, pp. 143-163, and Brown, Victorian News.

6 The few references to stories about women’s work have been found outside of the New Journalistic literature. For example, McFeeley, Mary Drake has briefly mentioned stories about women’s work in the potteries in Lady Inspectors: The Campaign for a Better Workplace, 1893-1921 (Athens, Ga., 1988), ch. 9. Stories about women’s work in the match trade have received somewhat greater attention because of the famous Bryant and May Match girls strike of 1888. See, Harrison, Barbara, “The Politics of Occupational Ill-Health in Late Nineteenth Century Britain: The Case of the Match Industry,” Sociology of Health and Illness 17, 1 (January 1995): 2041 , Satre, Lowell J., “After the Match Girls’ Strike: Bryant and May in the 1890s,” Victorian Studies 26, 1 (Autumn 1982): 731 , and Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight. Dina Copelman has examined the implications of the image of the sweated woman worker in the press in “The Gendered Metropolis: Fin-de-Siècle London,” Radical History Review 60 (Fall 1994): 38-56.

7 See Boston, Ray, “W. T. Stead and Democracy by Journalism,” in Papers for the Millions, pp. 91106 .

8 Stead, William T., “Government by Journalism,” Contemporary Review 49 (1886), p. 656.

9 Ibid., pp. 661-62.

10 Ibid., p. 673.

11 Ibid., p. 653.

12 O’Connor, T. P., “The New Journalism,” New Review, 1889, p. 434 .

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 John Goodbody claims it was the first daily paper designated for a mass audience rather than an educated few. See, Goodbody, “The Star,” p. 143.

16 Star, 17 January 1888.

17 Besant’s literary crusade in the Link included “White Slavery in London,” 23 June, “White and Black Lists,” 30 June, “How Messrs. Bryant and May Fight” and “The Revolt of the Matchmakers,” 7 July, A Letter to the Shareholders, 26 July, “The Ethics of Shareholding,” 28 July, and “The Next Point of Attack,” 4 August 1888.

18 The Pall Mall Gazette, for instance, published “Annie Besant, What Can the Match Girls Do?,” 8 July, “A Remarkable Deputation,” 14 July, “The Match Girls Strike, Paying the Strikers,” 16 July, and “A Great and Notable Victory,” and “The Heroines of the Hour,” 18 July 1888. The Star presented a series entitled “Match Girls on Strike” that included “About 1300 Employees of Bryant and May Leave Work,” 6 July, “The Agitation Goes Vigorously—The Firm Present Their Case,” 7 July, “A Careful Inquiry Establishes the Truth of their Statements,” 17 July, and “What We Think—Congratulation to Match Girls and Leaders on Victory,” 18 July 1888.

19 See Satre, “After the Match Girls’ Strike,” pp. 13-15.

20 The ‘Phos’: A Terrible Disease that Scourges the Matchmakers.” He told the story of a woman who began to experience tooth and jaw aches after five years of work. The company doctor sent her home and then extracted four teeth. But, she had told the reporter, That didn’t do no good. Then the pain got worse…. It was just as if somebody had got something scraping the bones in my cheek. And then he said my husband and the children must not be in the same room with me, because the smell was so bad. The doctor went for his holidays, and while he was away lumps of my bone worked right out through my cheek—it was festering dreadful. I kept the bone to show him, but it smelt so awful I had to throw it away.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 “The “Phos”: More About Death in the “Dipping-Room,” Star, 19 January 1892.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 “The “Phos”: Medical Opinion on Its Causes and Treatment,” Star, 25 January 1892.

28 Ibid.

29 According to Satre, the company’s chairman made no reference to the reported cases of illness. He replied to a shareholder, who referred to the Star articles, that it would be “very undignified for us to notice any articles” and assured them that “your factories are model factories.” Satre, “After the Match Girls’ Strike,” 18.

30 “The ‘Phos’: The Grave Responsibility of Bryant and May,” Star, 27 January 1892.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 See, the Star’s “What We Think” column from 29 January 1892.

34 For details of the Home Office investigation see, Harrison, “The Politics of Occupational Ill-Health.”

35 “What We Think: Matthews is Moving!,” Star, 8 June 1892.

36 Ibid.

37 “Phossy Jaw”: The Regulations of Continental Match Factories,” Star, 10 June 1892.

38 “The Phos: Medical Opinion on Its Causes and Treatment: The Press is Awaking from the fearful Suffering of the Poor Matchmakers, and from all Sides Come Demands for their Prevention,” Star, 25 January 2, 1892.

39 “Listen to the British Medical Journal,” Star, 28 January 1892.

40 Ibid.

41 Lucy Brown has singled out the Daily Chronicle as an example of the new and improved industrial reporting of the 1890s. She has characterized its efforts as “at the other extreme from the haphazard and uninteresting reporting shown in the 1870s and 1880s.” Victorian News and Newspapers, p. 269.

42 Death in the Workshops: White Cemeteries: How Women Are Poisoned,” Daily Chronicle, 15 December 1892, item #4 in H045/9848/B12393A, Public Record Office, London.

43 Ibid.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid.

46 “Death in the Workshops: The White Cemeteries: Massacre of the Innocents: Fighting the Poison With Nail Brushes,” Daily Chronicle, 21 December 1892.

47 Ibid.

48 These developments have been more fully developed in Malone, Carolyn, “The Gendering of Dangerous Trades: Govemment Regulation of Women’s Work in the White Lead Trade in England, 1892-1898,” Journal of Women’s History 8, 1 (Spring 1996): 1535 and Harrison, Barbara, “‘Some of Them Gets Lead Poisoned’: Occupational Lead Exposure in Women, 1880-1914,” Social History of Medicine 2, 2 (1989): 17195.

49 “Massacre of the Innocents,” Daily Chronicle, 21 December 1892.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Letter from Chief Inspector of Factories Sprague Oram to Sir Godfrey Lushington, Permanent Under Secretary of the Home Office, dated February 9, 1893, item #12 in H045/9848/B12393A, P.R.O., London.

53 For the importance of women’s work to the trade and the family economy see, Dupree, Marguerite, “The Community Perspective in Family History: The Potteries during the Nineteenth Century,” in The First Modern Society: Essays in English History in Honour of Lawrence Stone, ed. Beier, A. L., Cannadine, David, and Rosenheim, James M. (Cambridge, 1989) and Whipp, Richard, “Kinship, Labour and Enterprise: The Staffordshire Pottery Industry, 1890-1920,” in Women’s Work and the Family Economy in Historical Perspective, ed. Hudson, Pat and Lee, W. R. (Manchester, 1991).

54 This trade was declared dangerous on December 24, 1892, special rules were drawn up in February of 1893, and, after protracted interchange with manufacturers, enacted in 1894. Further rules were enacted in 1898, again in 1903 after a lengthy arbitration, and in 1913.

55 The paper was very interested in the testimony of male pottery workers before the 1892 Royal Commission on Labour. On the fourteenth and twenty fourth of November 1892 the paper published “Death in the Workshops: Through the Potteries: The Dust Death” and “Death in the Workshops: Through the Potteries: Dust and Poison and the Remedies.”

56 The Women’s Trade Union League was part of a campaign for the appointment of a female inspector to ensure the implementation of the existing special rules. Numerous communications on the subject are found in HO45/9933/B26110, P.R.O., London. Manufacturers expressed their objection to the designation of their trade as dangerous and subsequent regulation, for instance, in letters in H045/9851/B12393E and multiple articles in the Pottery Gazette in 1893 through 1895.

57 The critical investigations were the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Conditions of Labour in the Potteries, the Injurious Effects Upon the Health of the Workpeople, and Proposed Remedies, vol. 17, C. 7240 (1893-94), and the Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories for 1897, vol. 16 C. 8965 (1898).

58 “Blind From the Lead: A Visit to the Pottery Girls,” Daily Chronicle, 14 May 1898.

59 They stipulated interalia that employers provide overalls and head covering for women as well as provide soap, water, brushes, and brooms to clean all employees and workrooms.

60 “Blind From The Lead: A Visit to the Pottery Girls II: What Will Sir Matthew Ridley Do?” Daily Chronicle, 19 May 1898.

61 “Death in the Potteries,” Daily Chronicle, 20 May 1898.

62 For more on this campaign, see Mary Drake McFeeley, Lady Inspectors, chapter nine.

63 Notes of Deputation of May 19, 1898, item #10 in HO45/9933/B22610, P.R.O., London.

64 Oliver and Thorpe received these instructions by letter dated April 28, 1898, item #1 in HO45/10117/B12393P, P.R.O., London.

65 Daily Chronicle, 21 May 1898.

66 Daily Chronicle, 19 May 1898.

67 St. James’s Gazette, 23 May 1898.

68 Ibid.

69 “White Lead Martyrs,” Star, 21 May 1898.

70 “What We Think: Potter’s Rot and Ridley,” Star, 30 July 1898.

71 Daily Chronicle, 19 May 1898.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid.

74 Westminster Gazette, 20 May 1898.

75 Daily Chronicle, 6 June 1898.

76 “Sir Charles Dilke Champions the Lead Poisoned Workers of the Potteries,” Penny Illustrated Paper, 4 June 1898.

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid.

79 “Lead in the Home: Infanticide in the Potteries: Weeping for Her Children Because They Are Not,” Daily Chronicle, 27 June 1898.

80 Ibid.

81 Ibid.

82 “Lead Poisoning: Day by Day,” Daily Chronicle, 4 July 1898.

83 Ibid.

84 Daily Chronicle, 23 June 1898.

85 Ibid.

86 Daily Chronicle, 30 June 1898.

87 Ibid.

88 Letter from Burgess and Leigh (pottery manufacturers) to the Editor of the Daily Chronicle, 27 May 1898.

89 “The Lead Poisoning Question in the Potteries: The ‘Pottery Gazette’ View of the Matter,” Pottery Gazette, 1 April 1898.

90 A more sustained criticism of the press was found in the Pottery Gazette’s series of articles under the heading “Lead Poisoning” published 1 June, 1 July, 1 August, and 1 October 1898.

91 “The Lead Poisoning Problem,” Pottery Gazette, 1 April 1898.

92 Pottery Gazette, 1 August 1898.

93 Ibid.

94 For the conclusion to the campaign for a resident female factory inspector in the potteries see McFeeley, Lady Inspectors, ch. 9.

95 Copelman, “The Gendered Metropolis,” p. 45.

96 The subject of moral panic has also been discussed in Dreher, Nan H., “The Virtuous and the Verminous: Tum-of-the-Century Moral Panics in London’s Public Parks,” Albion 29, 2 (Summer 1997): 24667 , and Goode, Erich and Ben-Yehuda, Nachman, Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (New York, 1994).

97 Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight, p. 121.

98 In 1895, for instance, Bryant and May employed about 2,000 total workers with 1,200-1,500 of them female. According to statistics from the Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories for 1898, this was the overall trend for all match companies. This point has been made in Harrison, “The Politics of Occupation Illness,” p. 22.

99 See, Tosh, John, “What Should Historians do with Masculinity? Reflections on Nineteenth-century Britain,” History Workshop Journal 38 (Autumn 1994): 186.

100 Anthony Wohl has argued that industrial diseases were an unpleasant but accepted part of working life (Endangered Lives: Public Life in Victorian England [London, 1983]), p. 264.

101 Transcript of Arbitration, November 1901, HO45/10120/B12393P, p. 9.

102 For this information I have relied primarily upon Goodbody, “The Star,” and Havighurst, Alfred F., Radical Journalist: H. W. Massingham 1860-1924 (London, 1974).

103 Massingham, Henry W., The London Daily Press (New York, 1892), p. 121.

104 Ibid.

105 Havighurst, Radical Journalist, p. 20.

106 Phillipps, Evelyn March identified him as their author in “Factory Legislation for Women,” Fortnightly Review 56, 341 (May 1, 1895): 743.

107 His involvement with the dock workers and the co-operative movement has been noted in MacKenzie, Norman, ed., The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Volume 1: Apprenticeship, 1873-1892 (London, 1978), pp. 138, 226, 254 , and Norman, and MacKenzie, Jeanne, The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Volume 1: 1873-1892, Glitter Around and Darkness Within (Cambridge, Mass., 1982), pp. 343, 346, and 351.

108 Dilke, Lady Emilia, The Industrial Position of Women (London, 1895), p. 9.

109 The Gertrude Tuckwell Collection contains her scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings.

110 Tuckwell, Gertrude, Women’s Work and Factory Legislation: The Amending Act of 1895 (London 1895), p. 7.

111 Ibid.

112 See, for example, articles in the Staffordshire Sentinel, “Lead Poisoning in the Potteries: Interview with Miss Tuckwell: Test Cases Foreshadowed,” 2 September 1905 or her opinions when she served on the 1908 government committee considering further regulations for the trade “The Home Office and the Potting Trade: Miss Tuckwell’s Memorandum: The Lead Question,” 19 July 1910.

113 Rosalind Nash published a pamphlet, Life and Death in the Potteries, in 1898 while Phillipps, Evelyn March published two articles in the Fortnightly Review, “Factory Legislation,” and “The New Factory Bill: As It Affects Women,” Vol. 55, 330 (June 1894): 73848.

114 March Phillipps, “Factory Legislation,” p. 743.

115 “Women Worker’s Point of View: Life in the Factory and Home: Why Married Women Go to Work,” Staffordshire Sentinel, 21 July 1909.

116 Ibid.

117 See, for example, Davin, Anna, “Imperialism and Motherhood,” History Workshop 5 (Spring 1978): 666 , Dwork, Deborah, War Is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 (London, 1987), Carol Dyhouse, “Working-Class Mothers and Infant Mortality in England, 1895-1914, “Journal of Social History 12 (1978): 7398 , Lewis, Jane, The Politics of Motherhood, Child and Maternal Welfare Schemes in England, 1900-1939 (London, 1980), and “The Working-Class Wife and Mother and State Intervention 1870-1918,” in Labour and Love: Women’s Experience of Home and Family 1850-1940, ed. Jane Lewis (Oxford, 1986), and Seth Koven and Sonya Michel, “Womanly Duties: Matemalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States, 1880-1920,” American Historical Review 95 (October 1990): 1076-1108.

118 These points have been developed more substantially in Malone, Carolyn, “Gendered Discourses and the Making of Protective Labor Legislation in England, 1830-1914,” Journal of British Studies 37, 2 (April 1998): 16691.

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Sensational Stories, Endangered Bodies: Women’s Work and the New Journalism in England in the 1890s

  • Carolyn Malone


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