'Women and Watch Work'

An exchange of letters in the Clerkenwell News, 1866

On 22 March 1866, the Clerkenwell News, a newspaper serving London’s horology district, carried a letter from an anonymous watchmaker who signed himself ‘Watch Jobber to the Trade.’ In it, he claimed that proposals being considered to employ women in watchmaking would lead, among other things, to drunkenness and unhappy marriages. ‘A Female Watch Maker’ wrote an eloquent and carefully argued riposte.

Over the next three months, the newspaper published an exchange of letters between the two – and others who joined the debate – which shines a fascinating and valuable spotlight on employment practices in horology at the time, and the role of women in watchmaking.

As part of the AHS Women and Horology project, we have transcribed the most relevant letters here. We have added paragraph breaks to make the letters easier to read. The original letters, and much more besides, can be found in the British Newspaper Archive.

22 March 1866

Employment of Females in Watchmaking

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – Seeing an account in your impression of March 5th of a lecture delivered by Mr. Bennett, in which he advocates female labour in watch-work (and which upon first sight seems feasible enough and reasonable), I beg to offer a few observations in opposition to the same. It is all very well for Mr. B. to say, “Why not employ females?” but I think, in fairness to all, we ought to ask those who are more nearly concerned – viz, the girls themselves, and the men who would afterwards be likely to marry them – what they think of it.

If Mr. B. will only look around him I have no doubt he will soon meet with the case of a young married couple, in which the wife went to work before she was married; and if he (Mr. B.) will make inquiries, he will find that their life is not one of the pleasantest, for when the husband comes home and expects his dinner ready, ten to one it is not ready; or if ready, the potatoes are badly cooked, and the beef steak is dried up to a chip, and the next time perhaps not done enough, as the girl found it was burnt before.

All this happens because the girl went to work before marriage, and, of course, did not know how to cook a potato. Then, again, she knows nothing about mending his coat, or putting a new wristband on his shirt, and the end of all this is that the husband and wife, from always having words get gradually to dislike each other, and he goes to the public house to spend his evenings, and eventually turns out a confirmed drunkard. She complains of the bad husband she has got; and yet when she married him he was an industrious mechanic.

I firmly believe that more than half of our drunkards every year are driven to drink from not being comfortable at home; and yet Mr. B. would advocate a system whereby there would be still greater unhappiness in the homes of working men. – I am, &c.,

A Watch Jobber to the Trade.

31 March 1866

Employment of Females in Watchmaking

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – In the Clerkenwell News of the 22nd inst., there appears a letter under the heading “Employment of Females in Watchmaking,” which has reference to a lecture delivered by Mr. Bennet in which he advocated the employment of females in watch work. The writer, who signs himself “A Watch Jobber to the Trade,” appeals to women for their opinion on the subject, and I trust you will allow me to reply to him through your columns.

Having learned the trade I am able to inform him that I think it a most suitable and desirable employment for women, and feel quite sure were there greater facilities for acquiring it, numbers of young women would gladly avail themselves of the opportunity, and I have reason to believe that ere are long those who are desirous of learning will be able to do so.

But a “Watch Jobber to the Trade” argues that if women become watchmakers the results will be an increase of drunken husbands and unhappy homes, in consequence of their not being able to cook a dinner, or perform other domestic duties. This argument applies with equal force to any occupation other than that of household work. If a girl has been properly trained, there is no reason why she should not be able to follow a business, and at the same time be competent to manage a home, as many have proved. I do not see why women should be employed in household work only, even were it possible to provide sufficient. All cannot be servants, neither is it right that they should.

There are numbers of women who, from varied circumstances, are obliged to seek some occupation who have received an education and possess abilities which fit them for a different position. The employments now open to them are so limited, and the want of such so pressing, that it is high time some other occupation suitable for them should be introduced. Among all the projects thought of watch work appears to be one of the best, and when Mr. Bennett advocates such a desirable means of supplying to some extent this great want, his efforts deserve to be appreciated. He certainly ought not to be accused of promoting a system which will produce “confirmed drunkards” and “unhappy homes.”

The very fact of Mr. Bennett’s lecture being delivered in Surrey Chapel, when the chair was taken by the Rev. Newman Hall, who is second to none in his efforts to promote sobriety and happiness in every home, is a sufficient proof that such sad results are not anticipated. I think I may venture to say that the writer of the letter in question is alarming himself unnecessarily; however, should he be of opinion that female watchmakers will not make good wives, he is at liberty to look elsewhere for a wife (if he be so unfortunate to be a batchelor), for it is very probable that they may be in the happy position described by Mr. Bennett, as not being under “the necessity of accepting the first young man who may offer his hand,” even should he be a “Watch Jobber to the Trade.” I presume young men are not compelled to marry women who are so utterly ignorant of the commonest domestic duties. If they choose to do so, they must abide by the consequences; the remedy is a very simple one, and lies entirely in their own hands.

In spite of the gloomy prophesies of “A Watch Jobber to the Trade,” I believe, sooner or later, watch work is destined to become a remunerative and successful means of employing young women, although at first, as with all new schemes, it will no doubt meet some opposition. Much more might be said on this subject, but I will not trespass further on your valuable space. Trusting you will favour me by inserting this, – I am, &c.

A Female Watch Maker.

31 March 1866

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – The introduction of female labour into various branches of the watch trade has long been a subject which some men delight to ridicule and sneer at, and no man ever received more abuse than Mr. Bennett, with whom the thought originated, at least in England. Like many others your correspondent (a watch-jobber to the trade) seems to me to be like the animal we read of in the fable who, in crossing the brook, let fall into the water the substance and tried to secure the shadow.

On reading ‘Watch Jobber’s” objections to female labour, which are mean and shadowy, I should take him to be one of those narrow-minded old gentleman called bachelors, who shut themselves up in seclusion and forget one great principle, that by helping females to earn a respectable livelihood, we benefit ourselves. “Watch Jobber” wishes to draw the attention of Mr. Bennett to a scene of unhappiness, which he endeavours to portray as arising from female work; but such is not the case, but arises rather in nine cases out of ten from hasty and indiscreet marriages.

But cannot Mr. Bennett turn his attention to something more? cannot he see a poor creature, bowed down with grief, weeping over a lost and departed friend, an affectionate husband, and loving father, who in the deepest agony exclaims “I never learnt a business.” It is hard to see a mother left with a young family, without a business, not knowing where the next day's food is to come from. Or let him turn his eyes to a mother weeping over a daughter who, for want of employment whereby to earn her bread, is following a life of prostitution. Let “Watch Jobber” ask some of those unfortunate creatures who frequent the Pentonville-road the cause of their falling into such a vice. They will tell him the reason was that they had no employment. Let us not think it a disgrace for females to work at a business; nay, it is the duty of a parent, not having means sufficient to place a daughter in a position of comfort, to use such means as shall enable her to help herself in time of need.

Your correspondent misunderstands Mr. Bennett as advocating a system injurious to the homes of working men in future, but says, by introducing a new system, you may employ thousands of females in the watch trade with advantage, and by such means extend your trade. The time is not far distant when the watch trade will revive, and take its stand in the markets of the world, securing employment for thousands of workmen, and embrace within its system hundreds of females, and save them from want and degradation. I would advise Mr. Bennett, in case of future attacks, to muster up his forces, and with Gog and Magog at their head, march on until he conquers old prejudices and rotten systems, then father Time will bring in a more extensive system of manufacture. – I am, &c.,

Horologeur, No. 1866.

March 22nd.

7 April 1866

Employment of Females in Watchmaking

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – Would it not be well for Mr. Bennett to bring his favourite idea of employing females at watchwork to the test of practice? If he could say “I have done thus and thus, and such and such are the results,” it would, to a great extent, stop the caviler, and give those friendly to the matter solid ground to stand upon. Mr. Bennett is not like a “Jobber to the Trade” in regard of means wherewith to give the thing a fair trial. I ask again, would it not be well for Mr. B. to give it a trial rather than keep merely talking about it? – I am, &c.,

Another Jobber to the Trade.

14 April 1866

Watchmaking By Women

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – In answer to a recent correspondent on this subject, I beg to say that I object, not so much to women working in watchwork, as to women working in watchmaking factories; and if any one wants to know whether a factory girl would make a man’s home as happy and comfortable as a general servant would, he has only to go to Birmingham, Sheffield, or any of our manufacturing towns, and the question will be answered for him; that is, if he will take the trouble to visit them in their homes.

For I maintain that the influence parents would exercise over their children, if they had work at home, would be such as to make them really good women; but the influence that a number of girls would have all working together over one fresh introduced to them would be anything but beneficial, and I would beg leave to state, for the benefit of “Horologeur,” that I know this from actual personal experience, and I am not a bachelor, as your correspondent supposes, but married, and a parent as well. This is how I know a few of the “goings-on” of work girls, and I am now having reference to some employed in Clerkenwell.

As far as regards the introduction of machinery, I, for one, would advocate it; and if your correspondent will call at my residence I shall be happy to show him some plans of a machine which would cost about £3 to make, but would then make about 1,000 watch plates, all ready for the wheels to go in, depths pitched, &c.

As far as regards your other correspondent, I do not think the writer is a female at all; and, therefore, as he is sailing (I think) under false colours, I decline to answer him. Of course in all my remarks I lay myself open to correction, and shall be glad for any one who can give me facts on the subject to do so. I, for one, should be very happy to attend a meeting where it would be fully discussed, and where a friendly feeling would prevail. I am, &c.,

A Watch Jobber to the Trade.
P.S. – My address can be had at the Clerkenwell News Office.

30 April 1866

Women and Watch Making

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – A “Watch Jobber to the Trade” has arrived at a rather singular conclusion respecting my former letter on the employment of females in watchmaking. He appeared anxious to know what women thought on the subject. Now that one has expressed her opinion, he declines to answer her, and assumes that the letter was written by a man. He must have a very poor opinion of his own sex to imagine them capable of “sailing under false colours” and adopting a false signature. I beg to assure him, however, that the letter was written by a female; but hope he will not think it less worthy of notice on that account. If I am wrong in my opinions, I shall feel greatly obliged to himself or any one who will put me right.

In speaking of women and watch work, I did not contemplate the factory system, neither am I an advocate of it, unless the women employed were placed in a different position to those now working in factories. Never having heard any of Mr. Bennett’s lectures, I am not quite clear as to the plan on which he proposes women should be employed. I certainly think he was unjustly accused of promoting drunkenness and unhappy homes, because he proposed that women should learn watch work, and I do not believe that their doing so would of a necessity produce such results.

I see no reason why a factory could not be conducted free from “Watch Jobber’s” objections. Very much would depend upon the class of girls employed in them, and the supervision exercised there and at home. The factory plan, as far as I can judge, could only be carried out, were a new system of manufacturing watches introduced.

I was referring to the means by which young women could be successfully employed under the present system. I know instances where they have learned the lever escapement making, and the finishing, examining, &c., all of which branches are very suitable for them. They could also be profitably employed at the repairing of watches; at this they would be able to earn a good living anywhere; it would not confine them to a watch manufacturing district such Clerkenwell, and in this respect would possess a decided advantage over a branch of the trade. This would also be free from one of “Watch Jobber’s” objections, as they would be able to carry on their occupations at their own homes, as is the case with myself.

In order to learn any of these branches, or the watch jobbing, it would be necessary that they should be apprenticed for a period sufficiently long to be properly instructed; this would only suit those whose parents or friends were able to support them during that time, such as the daughters of tradesmen, clerks, &c. This is the class of women for whom new employments are much needed, and the class whom I think are most suited for watch work.

I congratulate “Watch Jobber” upon being a married man and a parent, although that fact seems a singular reason for his being so well acquainted with “the goings on” of the Clerkenwell work girls. Work girls may not always make the best wives, but that is not to be altogether attributed to the fact of their being employed at some business. Many of them belong to the poorer classes, have been badly trained, and have not always enjoyed the blessed privileges of a happy home, and the example of good parents; but with all these disadvantages many of them make good wives. Surely it is unjust to condemn all because some have fallen below the standard.

There are many instances of good women and good wives in every sense of the word who are so unfortunate as to have drunken husbands, not because they have ever been employed at any factory or business, or could not cook a beef steak properly, or were unable to sew a wristband on a shirt, but because the passion for drink is so strong in some men that the best wife and the best ordered home is not always a sufficient counteraction.

One is almost at a loss to understand “Watch Jobber’s” extreme anxiety to prove that female watch makers will not make good wives. Is he a philanthropist who, foreseeing certain disasters as the results of women learning the trade, is anxious to save all bachelors from experiencing them? I really think there are many objects more deserving of his sympathy; or is it possible that he thinks the introduction of female labour may in any way affect his interests?

If young men prefer to marry servant girls let them do so by all means. I do not wish for a moment to speak despairingly of servants, but if they are perfection, how is it we hear such constant complaints from mistresses? The search for a good servant seems almost as unsuccessful as that of Diogenes for an honest man. I suppose a bad servant is not unlikely to make a bad wife. I am quite sure if they only knew the high opinion “Watch Jobber” has of them they would lose no time in presenting him with a testimonial, and elect him as knight of their order.

It is not my intention to enter into any discussion as to whether general servants or women employed in business are likely to make best wives. It is agreed on all sides that new employments for women are urgently needed, and the question which should be discussed is, as to whether watchmaking is a suitable occupation for them; if so, what branches, and in what way they can best learn.

I must return my best thanks for your kind insertion of my last letter, and trust you will again favour me by allowing this to appear in your columns. In conclusion I beg to remind “Watch Jobber” that this letter, as also the last, was really and entirely written by

A Female Watch Maker.

9 May 1866

Women and Watch Work

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – “Female Watchmaker” sees no reason why a factory could not be carried on without the evils which I have pointed out as pertaining to it, but although she may see no reason others may, and I beg to inform her that I have given her facts, and ask for facts in return, not a mere surmise, or “I don't see any reason why it should not be,” &c. In my other letter I stated a fact when I spoke about factories in Birmingham, Sheffield, &c., and therefore there is no occasion to wonder how it would work in Clerkenwell.

Prevention is better than cure any day, and, as I said before, if we (working men) get really good and virtuous wives by not adopting the factory system, then never mind if we don't export a single watch in the whole year. As far as “jobbing” goes, I don't think females would make good jobbers, as it wants much experience, and as soon as they begin to get experience they would be of a suitable age to marry (and I suppose the greater part would get married).

If “Female Watchmaker” will come to a meeting of watchmakers in Clerkenwell, I shall be most happy to discuss the question with her. – I am, &c.,

A Watch Jobber to the Trade.

18 May 1866

Women and Watch Work

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – “Watch Jobber,” in his last letter, begs to inform me that he has given me facts, and ask for facts in return, not mere surmise. If he will take the trouble to compare our letters he will, I am quite sure, find more facts and less surmises in mine than in his own.

He argues that if women learn watch work, drunken husbands and unhappy homes will be the results, and as a proof he states that factory girls make bad wives. But this statement should be qualified, for there is no rule without an exception, and some good wives are to be found even amongst those who have worked in factories.

I beg to remind “Watch Jobber” that he has not answered my facts. My first letter he surmised to be written by a man, and for that reason he declined to answer it. The other he has replied to by quibbling over part of a sentence in which I expressed an opinion that factories might be conducted so as to be free from those objections now attached to them. He has not yet given me any reason why it is impossible that the improvements which take place with regard to every thing else should not also be applied to them. I again repeat that I am no advocate for the factory system, the plan which I name as a means by which women may learn the trade has nothing whatever to do with that system, and is entirely free from any evils or objections that pertain to it. Therefore the mere repetition of those objections is no answer to my arguments.

I urge the great necessity which exists for new employments for women, the exceeding suitability of watch work as one means of supplying that want, and I name various branches of the trade which are particularly suited for women, and the way in which they may learn them. I quite agree with “Watch Jobber” that prevention is better than cure, and think I can point out one or two ways in which women being employed in watchmaking will prevent drunkenness and unhappiness instead of increasing it.

If women were better paid they would not be, as they often are, only too glad to marry the first man who offered himself; they would think the matter over more deliberately, and look more carefully into his character and disposition, and by so doing many an unsuitable marriage would be prevented. Such marriages are very frequently the cause of much unhappiness, and of the husband resorting to the public-house. Work girls as a class are so ill paid, that in spite of their upmost exertions they are quite unable to make any provision for the future. When the slack season comes, and there is no work, what are they to do? Is it a matter of surprise if they should enter upon a course of life which will embitter their whole future, and cause not alone unhappiness to themselves, but to those belonging to them?

When we inquire into the causes of women being so badly paid, we find it arises from the competition which exists among themselves for the work – if one will not do it at the price offered, there are many others who will, and think themselves fortunate in getting work at all. The introduction of watch work and other new employments would relieve this competition, and place women in a more favourable position.

The present condition of female employment seems to me a very serious question, and one which deserves more consideration than it receives. Let “Watch Jobber” spare a little of his sympathy for those women who are striving to earn a respectable livelihood, which is a much harder task than he perhaps imagines. It is quite thrown away upon bachelors who are well able to look after their own interests, and who, as a rule, take care to do so.

Whether a woman will make a good wife or not depends much more upon herself than upon her occupation. If she has religious principles and a sincere desire to do her duty there is little doubt but that she will be a good and virtuous wife; without them the chances are very much against her being one, whether she be a titled lady or a poor work-girl.

“Watch Jobber” invites me to a meeting of watch makers to discuss the question with him, an invitation I most decidedly decline, not that I fear I should be unable to answer his objections, but simply because I consider that a woman would be quite out of place in taking the principal part in a public discussion. I am much surprised that such a proposal should have been made. I had no intention of entering into any discussion, and had he not suggested the idea that women should say what they thought on the subject, in all probability I should never have made my first attempt at writing a letter for publication.

At the same time if “Watch Jobber” wishes to discuss the question with me I am willing to do so (with your kind permission) through the columns of the Clerkenwell News. I propose that the letters be limited to a certain number, say three on each side. If this arrangement will not meet his views, and he does not find some better arguments then he has hitherto done in reply to mine, I shall be obliged to come to the conclusion that he is unable to do so.

Should my letters have drawn any attention to watchmaking as a suitable and remunerative means of employing young women my object in writing them will have been fully accomplished. Thanking you for inserting them, – I am, &c.,

A Female Watch Maker.

22 May 1866

Do Factory Girls Make Bad Wives?

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – “Watch Jobber” argues that if women learn watch-work, drunken husbands and unhappy homes will be the results, and as a proof he states that factory girls make bad wives.

“Watch Jobber” must be very little acquainted with factory women. I had the opportunity many years to know several factories where women were employed. I have seen plenty of factory girls in their married life, and I can say the most of these are good housewives. I have seen factory wives give their children a very good education. I am still myself in a factory, H.W., and see every day the life of factory girls and wives; I know a foreigner (not a “Watch Jobber”) who has been married nine years to a factory girl (W.T.S). He told me several times he was very fortunate in having married a factory girl.

I could give plenty more specimens of good factory wives, but my dinner hour is over. Will “Watch Jobber” take my advice and leave factory girls and wives alone, and look for more experiences in factory life. I am, &c.,


26 June 1866

Women And Watch Work

To the Editor of the Clerkenwell News

Sir, – I have read with much interest the letters which have appeared in your Paper with reference to the introduction of female labour in watch making. Having a practical knowledge of watch manufacturing, I am convinced that there are many branches well adapted for females; my only surprise is that this source of employment should have been so long overlooked, and that women have not been employed in it to some extent.

“Watch Jobber to the Trade” appears to think it necessary not only to ask the opinion of young women who are likely to learn, but also of the young men who are likely to marry them. After reading his first letter I came to the conclusion that it was so devoid of all argument, and displayed so much prejudice, that it was not worth a reply; as others, however, have taken the matter up, a few remarks may not be out of place.

I am not so fortunate as “Watch Jobber” in possessing a wife, but am a bachelor, and as far as occupation alone is concerned, I should certainly choose a wife from among female watchmakers, in preference to general servants. I know I should find the assistance of a wife who had learned the business, very valuable; in case of absence from home or illness, I should much prefer to leave my affairs in her care to that of anyone whom I might employ. I should not disregard domestic qualifications, although if she was not well skilled in the art of boiling a potato, or was unsuccessful in the attempt to make a tough beef steak tender, she might obtain the assistance of a general servant who was, as possibly, her time might be more profitably occupied.

I have often had opportunities of noticing the conduct of servants in gentlemen's families (I do not give as a reason the fact of my being a bachelor) and differ from “Watch Jobber’s” opinion of them – few of them know how to manage a working man's home economically, where means and conveniences are limited, after living where everything is provided in abundance, without care or thought on their part.

As to the chances of their making virtuous wives, if “Watch Jobber” will take the trouble to inquire he will find that servants have a larger proportion of illegitimate children than any other class, and in statistics lately published of the cases of infanticide in the various parishes of the metropolis, the returns of those parishes where there is the largest number of servants, such as St. George’s, Hanover-square, are highest in number; while that of Clerkenwell, with its work girls, is actually the lowest, a fact which says much in favour of the class which he so perseveringly condemns.

I would call “Watch Jobber’s” attention to a report of the midnight meeting movement in the London Mirror of April 16th, and to the speech of Rev. V. Charlesworth, in which he states, “By the report of the society for 1864, 480 young women were received into the various houses, and of that number no less than 425 were of the class of domestic servants. He found they were 55 dress makers, artificial flower makers, and persons of that class. That was a small number, but there were employers who employed from 200 to 500 young girls, and paid them wages utterly inadequate to their maintenance. How could a girl maintain herself comfortably and respectably on 8s, 9s, or 10s. a week?”

How, indeed? And yet they contrast favourably with servants in that report – 423 on the one hand, 55 on the other. Remember the great advantages servants possess over work girls: they are better fed, better paid, better clothed, experience less difficulty in finding employment, have less anxiety, and having less liberty are less exposed to temptation. I am not partial to work-girls, rather the contrary; but give them their due; if they have no favour let them have justice.

In one of the letters which have appeared reference was made to the fable of “The dog and the shadow.” I was forcibly reminded of the fable of “The dog in the manger,” and believe that “Watch Jobber” is more anxious to prevent women learning the trade than he is about the sort of wives young men are likely to get. Surely such a body of men as “Watch Jobbers to the Trade” need not fear the consequences of a few women learning their business.

I have been looking but in vain for “Watch Jobber’s” reply to “Female Watchmaker,” and was greatly astonished that instead of answering her letters he should have resorted to such a proposal as a public discussion with an audience of watch makers, amongst whom, as a body, a decided prejudice exists against female labour. If the letters may be taken as samples of the good sense and ability of their respective writers, I am not surprised that “Watch Jobber” should “hang fire” and find it expedient to make such a proposal.

As an employer of labour I should be willing to give women who are competents fair trial, as I am not aware of anything which would prevent their doing the work as well as men. It is to be hoped they will not copy the example of the majority of the present watchjobbers to the trade in the matter of broken promises and obstinate adherence to old plans and old prejudices.

If “Watch Jobber” finds his trade fall off in consequence of women learning, I should advise him to set up a registry office for the supply of good and virtuous wives, where the names and qualifications of general servants only should be registered, though I should certainly not be among the applicants. As for his statement that “it is of no consequence if we don't export a single watch in the whole year,” it is quite ridiculous. I should say it would be a matter of the greatest consequence to some thousands of persons. What influence such a state of things would have in making either good or bad wives I am at a loss to imagine. – I am, &c.,

Watch Maker.
Notting Hill.