Women’s Work

In 1800, the Isle of Dogs contained only thirty inhabited buildings, and had a population of roughly 150. When the West India Docks opened in 1802, employment opportunities in the docks and growing industry on the Island meant the population grew to 1,346 by 1831. 1841 census returns revealed the most common occupations of heads of households to be:

Manufacturing 40.9%
Industrial Service 23.2%
Transportation 10.7%
Dealing 7.7%
Building 5.1%
Domestic Service 2.9%

Other than Domestic Service, these were all “men’s jobs”. Of course, these figures show the occupations of household heads, who were almost always men. But they do clearly represent the type of work available on the Island in the early 19th century; in shipbuilding, ironworks, docks, heavy manufacturing, and similar. Also, industry on the Island was among the most advanced in Britain, if not the world; which meant its workforce was relatively highly skilled. At the time, the domain of men.

Essentially, in the first half of the 19th century, men moved to the Island to find work, and their women and children followed them. There were no jobs waiting for the women, some of whom would have given up any jobs they already had to make the move to the Island. Even if the family moved from as close by as Stepney or Bow, the distance prevented travelling to/from the Island. Public transport was poor (and unaffordable to most) and ‘bridgers’ at that time could last 30 mins or more as sail ships were manoeuvered in and out of the docks.

As a consequence, women represented less than 15% of the workforce for most of the 1800s, which was less than half the percentage for London as a whole. Half those women were working in domestic service, and less than a third in manufacturing.

The situation started to change in the late 1800s. By this time, the traditional industries which employed skilled men workers were in decline. A combination of economic and cost developments made it cheaper for heavy manufacturing firms to move off the Island, to the north of England or even to Scotland.  The character of Island businesses began to change, with a focus on lighter manufacturing industries: rope and cable building, food processing, flour milling, flag-making, paint & chemical manufacturing, oil processing, etc.

It was during this period that many well-known Island firms started, some of whom moved to the Island in part because of its supply of cheap female labour, for example:

  • Food Processing: Maconochies, Morton’s
  • Paints & Dyes: Burrell’s
  • Ropes & Cables: Hawkins & Tipson, Bullivants, Binks
  • Timber: Lenantons, Montague Meyer
  • Chemicals & Oil: Snowdon, Atlas Chemical Works (later Pfizers), Cumberland Oil Mills, Duckhams, Winkley, Burrell’s
  • Flour: McDougall’s
  • Lead Works: Locke, Lancaster & Co. (later Associated Lead)

Many of these ‘new’ industries did not require skilled labour, which meant more job opportunities for women. Moreover, women could be paid less than men, and they were not likely to be members of trades unions. At Morton’s and Maconochie’s, the largest employers on the Island (outside of the docks), 75% of the workforce was composed of women and girls. The same could be said for other large employers, including paint makers, rope and cable manufacturers, flour millers, and similar.

Often, women went to work to supplement a family income which was decreasing as skilled-labour was in lesser demand on the Island; men who had been involved in shipbuilding, iron working or other heavy industries found it harder to get a job. In 1897 one investigator reported that:

The number of girls employed in the Island increases year by year . . . The work for women indeed shows a tendency to increase in a far greater proportion than that for men . . . [0]n the whole men’s industries show a tendency to leave the Island just as those for women give signs of greater development. In the future it is quite possible that men may begin to depend on the . . . women to be the bread winners . . .

A decade later. Poplar Labour leader Will Crooks remarked that:

We have got casual women workers now, a thing that . . . did not exist 10 or 15 years ago . . . [T]he fact is there are thousands of these women on the look out for a day’s work. The employer sees the advantage and takes them on for an hour or two [at very low wages].

Thomas Cole (in his thesis, Life & Labor in the Isle of Dogs (sic)):

In addition to low pay, the work of Island women was often exhausting. One local plant manager admitted that he had worked all over the world, but the worst sight he had ever seen was that of the women in his factory, so incapacitated that they lay on the ground, unable to go home.

The owner of an Island rope works acknowledged that if it were not for the factory acts he would have worked his female employees “every night till 11 or 12, as their wages were so much smaller than that of men . . . ”

In food factories owners frequently did just that, for, since their firms handled perishable items which could quickly spoil, they were exempt from laws regulating hours and overtime. Sometimes such employers worked their female employees for fourteen to sixteen hours at a stretch. One social worker charged that, “If the girls complain or ask for higher wages, [they get the sack]. There are plenty outside waiting and anxious to be taken on . . .”

Island women’s work was frequently exhausting and sometime dangerous. Ropemaking was infamously dangerous with its razor sharp, revolving machinery. Common accidents including lost digits or limbs, but truly horrific accidents occured when women were trapped by and dragged into the whirling machinery. My great aunt, Johanna Lemmerman, was scalped in a similar accident in a sweet factory in Cable St, Stepney (she survived).

1917 Johanna Lemmermann

Thomas Cole again:

An extraordinarily high proportion of working women — 41.2 percent— worked in food processing plants, principally Morton’s and Maconochie’s. By comparison, other female occupational sub-groups were rather small: rope and sack making, 8.3 percent; iron and steel work, 6.9 percent; domestic service, 6.9 percent; and clerical, 6.9 percent.

Women were generally less concerned about protecting occupational and wage differentials, but they were equally anxious to find work. Most girls, like their male counterparts, began work at age fourteen. Office work was considered the most desirable form of employment by girls and women, but few could get It. The greatest number, as noted above, ended up In the food processing plants. Of the two great Island firms In this field, Morton’s and Maconochie’s, the former was considered to be the better employer. Its wages were no higher than those of Its rival, but working conditions were better and the management was thought to be fairer .

So far as factory work was concerned, rope making was regarded as the most difficult. One woman remarked that her two-year stint in the local rope works, “nearly killed me . . . Anything went, more or less . . . It was real hard . . . work.” Yet even rope making was considered preferable to domestic service. As one former parlor maid who later worked in a paint factory noted, “when you were factory, like, it was limited, wasn’t it? Say, 8 ’til 5 [or] 8 ’til half past 6, but [as a servant] you was on all hours, wasn’t you?” Another ex-servant agreed, saying “you got fed up with it. You knew that you was being used as a slave . . . “

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Women did not always accept their treatment without complaint or reaction. In March 1914, Morton’s hired 4 young girls aged between 14 and 15 in the tin-box making section – for less than the 18s to 20s a week that skilled women could expect to earn. Suspecting a management ploy to reduce wages in general, the women demanded that the girls be moved to a department where no skilled work was involved. The management refused and 300 women walked out on strike, followed shortly after by other workers from other parts of the company.



Looking for union help, 800 women joined the National Federation of Women Workers (NFWW) while the men joined the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers Union. On 28 March a procession was organised from Millwall to Trafalgar Square.


Striker’s March to Trafalgar Square

The strike lasted twelve days before the management, overwhelmed by the public support the strikers received, and embarrassed by the media coverage showing the girls singing and dancing in the streets, caved in and agreed to the strikers’ demands.

A 1929 survey indicated that over four-fifths (80.6%) of the Island’s regular female labor force were single. Of the remainder, roughly half were married and half widowed. “After women got married,” declared one Islander, “very few . . . ever went out to work.” Statistics appear to bear out this claim. Only 7.8 percent of the Isle’s married women regularly worked outside the home in the late 1920s . Husbands who could afford it preferred to keep their wives at home. Men and women alike considered a non-working wife as both prestigious and good for the family. “I didn’t ever go out to work after I was married,” remarked one Island woman. “He didn’t believe in it, my husband. Mind you, I was married ten years before I had my [first child]. I mean I could have gone to work, but he wouldn’t let me go.”

Sometimes women returned to work as their family obligations diminished. A female worker at Morton’s recalled that “when they got married a lot of [women] left . . . As their children grew up, they came back.” Those who did not return to the factory tried to earn money in other ways. The more ambitious attempted to open their own shops. To one shopkeeper, the wife of a tailor, it seemed that “every house was a shop . . . Everybody was a business person.” More commonly women did a bit of mangling, sewing, or became “ship scrubbers”— cleaning women who serviced the vessels calling at the docks. Overall, comparatively few women were able to avoid working for pay at sometime or other during their married lives.

In the Island, the women’s trades proved especially difficult to organize. The youth of female workers, their unwillingness to view their occupations as careers, and the high turnover within their ranks made them exceptionally difficult to organize. Though sometimes willing to participate In spontaneous and usually defensive job action, few women were willing to join a trade union. “The women used to rely on their husbands,” observed one former female worker. They viewed their earnings as supplemental to the family Income. Neither their fathers/husbands nor the women themselves thought It likely that they would remain at work In the same place or occupation long enough to really benefit from union membership.

Thomas Cole

It is commonly asserted that the absence of male workers during World War II meant that women began to work in traditionally male trades, which caused a shift of balance in the employment market. On the Island this effect was not significant. By 1942, conscription was applied to all male British subjects between 18 and 51 years old, as well as all females 20 to 30 years old resident in Britain.

McDougall's Workers 17029574322

Workers on the roof of McDougall’s

However, some categories were exempted: clergy, married women and students for example. Also excluded were people working in key jobs, those on the Schedule of Reserved Occupations. This covered about five million people in jobs in industries such as railways, mining, farming, education, medicine and – of particular significance for the Island – the docks.  The docks were a male bastion, dockers were not conscripted, and so there were no new opportunities for women. A similar effect could be seen in other male-dominated industries on the Island. For example, the few remaining shipbuilding companies turned their attention to war work, repairing naval vessels. Metal engineering companies became involved in the construction of military structures.

The Island was also a very dangerous place to live during World War II, and thus saw more evacuation than other parts of London. Mostly, only people with a compelling reason to be on the Island – dockers, reserved occupation workers, civil defence workers and similar – remained there during World War II. The rest (including most women) moved to safer homes – the population of the Isle of Dogs dropped from 21,000 to 9,000 between 1939 and 1945. Many of the women who worked on the Island during that period were involved in the war effort, but discrimination was persistent. For example, the Fire Service admitted women for the first time during the war. They could drive vehicles, perform administrative or catering tasks, but they were not permitted to fight fires.

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McDougall’s Workers

IMG_20140904_134929 14953360907

It was the increasing legislative protection for worker’s rights, health and safety after the war which really made a difference to the lot of women working on the Island, but it would be 1975 before the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training; and 1976 before the introduction of the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act.

By this time, however, the docks and all industry on the Island were in terminal decline. Between 1971 and 1977, Poplar’s unemployment rate rose from 5% to 16%, twice the British average. At the end of the decade, a very large majority of Islanders – men and women – travelled to jobs off the Isle of Dogs.

80s-burrells-1 15070323262

Burrell’s in the 1980s (Photo (c) Mike Seaborne)

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Burrell’s in the 1980s (Photo (c) Mike Seaborne)

Matters only worsened, though. The closure of the West India Docks and Millwall Docks in 1980 were accompanied by the closure of the last vestiges of the Island’s industry. In 1984, male unemployment on the Island ran at 30% and that of women at 15%, compared with average unemployment levels of 9.6% for Greater London and 12.4% for Britain as a whole.

It was around this time that the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was formed. The initial aims of the LDDC were to:

  • Retain existing businesses
  • Attract new firms to the area
  • Train and stimulate new initiatives

No specific attention was paid to female employment, nor was it considered necessary. After a few years, the success of the LDDC was limited; a few small firms who did not provide significant numbers of jobs, or the transfer of businesses such as the Telegraph print works or Billingsgate Fish Market who brought there (mostly-male) workers with them, with no added employment benefit for Islanders.

My sisters benefited, though; Karen worked for Bovis in Millwall Docks. Much later, Angie worked in a new bar in the Canary Wharf area.

1983 Karen Bovis

Karen Holland nee Lemmerman (on phone). 1983

The success of the Canary Wharf development marked a change in LDDC’s strategy (or perhaps not). Instead of stimulating and supporting new businesses, the focus was on attracting finance and banking businesses. Tens of thousands of jobs were transferred from the City and elsewhere.

Some jobs have been created as a result and the housing mix has been changed in a way which would not have seemed conceivable twenty years ago. There is, of course, a downside to these achievements, best expressed in terms of who has benefited from this process. ‘Trickle down’, to the extent that it has happened at all, has been selective: women have benefited, but only from the usual low-wage part-time work.

The Enterprise Culture and the Inner City, Nicholas Deakin, John Edwards

No change there, then.

In the first few years of the 21st century, the population of the Isle of Dogs has changed with the arrival of many first or second generation immigrants (although some were not new to the East End, having been displaced from Limehouse and Poplar). Bangladeshi women in particular are even less represented in the local employment market.

More than two hundred years after the opening of the West India Docks, many Island women are still at the bottom of a very long employment ladder.

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4 Responses to Women’s Work

  1. Jan Hill says:

    Interesting! Just wanted to mention the pottery as an employer of women. My great grandparents moved down from the Stoke on Trent area in around 1862 to work at a pottery on the Island. By the time of the 1881 census, she was employed as a potter, but he was a ‘potter out of employ’.This bears out what you said about women being more economically important in the second half of the century.

  2. jan says:

    Mick, No, not sure where it was. My great grandparents lived in Stebondale Street so it was presumably that side of the Island.

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