Searching for Miss Nellie Kay; Manchester Tailoress and Union Organiser

Chicago Jewish Mural


Transcribing the Minute Books of the Manchester and Salford Women’s Trades Union Council led me to encounter Miss Nellie Kay. She was appointed as a special organiser for the  Tailoresses Society in June 1901. The address of the Tailoresses Branch is the offices of the MSWTUC. In the course of my research into her life and organising I came across this interview. My research continues, please contact me if you have any information about her. 

Journal of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses  Vol.1 No. 8. January 1902


Interview with Miss Kay, of the A.S.T.

Some weeks ago I promised our readers to try to secure an interview with Miss Nellie Kay, organising secretary of the tailoresses branch of the Amalgamated Society of Tailors and Tailoresses in Manchester,  with the  object of learning something of the working lives of the large number of women and girls engaged in the tailoring trade. I have been successful: for in reply to my request Miss Kay readily agreed to meet me and give me all the information she could respecting the society which she represents and the work which she is engaged in.

I went to Manchester and spent an hour with Miss Kay; and came away after our interview filled with indignation; my feelings of anger roused by the recital of the sufferings, the wrongs and the general unhappy conditions under which thousands of women and girls in Manchester toil.

It is nearly sixty years since the poet, Thomas Hood, wrote his famous “Song of the Shirt”; a poem drawing attention to the hard, bitter lives of the seamstresses in London; a poem, too, of which it was said that it had done more towards bringing about an improvement in the lot of London sweated shirtmakers than any agitation.  I would say that a song of the tailoresses –made coat could be written which would have a similar effect to Tom Hood’s poem; only that Manchester as well as London should be affected. There is need for inquiry into the lives of the tailoresses of our first Lancashire city.

Miss Kay is a Manchester woman, and since the age of sixteen has been engaged in the tailoring trade. “My family” she said,  “have been tailors for generations, so I ought to know something about the trade.”

“Now, Miss Kay,” I said, “I would like to know, first of all, something about your society and its work.”

“Well” she replied, “there is not a great deal to say about the Society; that is, the women’s branch. It is this branch which I represent, although we are amalgamated with the Tailor’s Society. We only began about 2 and a half years ago, and we have about 100 members. In the city and district there are about 50 workshops-great and small-and we estimate the number of women and girl-workers in the tailoring trade between 4,000 and 5,000.”

“Not a very large membership compared with the numbers employed” I observed.

“No,” was Miss Kay’s answer, ”but it is very hard, uphill work trying to induce the girls to join.”

“What are the main obstacles in your way?” I asked.

“A combination of causes operate against us,” she replied. First, the trade is somewhat complicated in its working. For instance, it has a slack and a busy period. It is never a constant, steady employment. In the busy times the girls won’t join us, and in the slack times they very often cannot, on account of their meagre earnings, which won’t allow of deductions of union subscriptions. Then, again, dismissal is often the penalty a girl has to pay who joins us. Mrs. Dickenson, I believe, gave you an idea of how we go to work. We visit the girls at their workshops during the dinner-hour, and also arrange for public meetings to be held in the evenings.”

“Now, Miss Kay, “ I said, “I want you to tell me something regarding the lives of tailoresses –their working -lives, I mean. How are they treated in the matter of wages, hours, and their surroundings?”

“In  many workshops,” she replied, “the hours are shockingly long, though the legal hours are from 8-30a.m. to 6p.m., with an hour for dinner. But the law is often set at naught. I have heard of girls working till 2,3, and even until 6 o’clock in the morning during the busy season. Others again start at 6 o’clock instead of 8-30; and the girls are given to understand that if the inspector should inquire they must declare they started at the later hour.”

“But do the girls give these false statements?” I inquired.

“They do,” replied Miss Kay. “It would mean loss of employment if they told the truth.”

“What wages do they get for these hours?  I then asked.

“In the busy season expert hands can earn 25s per week” as Miss Kay’s answer. “It very rarely happens that a tailoress gets more than that, while in the slack season a women may receive 2s. And will have been every day to see if there was any work for her to do.”

“How long does the busy season last?” I queried.

“About six months,” she replied. “Then there are four months during which the wages will range from 6s. to 14s. per week; the rest of the year very little is done.”

“How  do the tailoresses manage to live during the last period?” was my next question.

“Goodness only knows,” exclaimed Miss Kay; “I have known an expert hand work a whole afternoon for 5d.; and the work she was engaged on was supposed to be of a superior quality. Before the employer engaged her he wanted to know if she was sober and respectable. Respectable! On 10d. a day. Not much to spend in drink out of that, is there? That is one of the worst places in the town, though. It is positively indecent for a woman to work there. No sanitary arrangements whatever is provided.”

“What remedy do you propose for the long hours worked?” I then asked Miss Kay.

“That the employer, who in most of these cases is a middleman, should refuse the jobs,” she replied. “You see, it is generally the grasping middleman who takes the work from a large firm of clothiers, and tries to get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible, for his own profit. And he ought either to employ another hand or two, or refuse the job.”

“Is there much outdoor work done in Manchester?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” replied she, “a great amount of home-work is given out.”

“How do the home-workers fare?” I asked Miss Kay.

“Many of them very badly” was her answer. “They have to find their own machine, cotton, and light.And although some of the work is done in fairly decent neighbourhoods, the majority of the home-workers are in the poorer districts. Besides finding their own machines and cotton, these women have to fetch the material from the workshop, and also to carry back the finished article; nothing is given for this. But the system of buying the cotton is not confined to the out-workers; employees inside some of the workshops have to pay as much as 3d.  a reel for their  thread. They are bound, too, to purchase from their employer, although they could obtain the same quality and quantity of cotton outside for 2d. per reel. That is really wrong, although by compelling the employees to sign a paper respecting fines, etc, when they commence working for him, the employer places himself out of the reach of the law.”

“By the way,” I remarked, what about ladies tailor-made dresses and costumes? Do tailors or tailoresses make them?”

“Very few tailoresses are engaged in this class of work; except just a few in the wholesale trade. Most private firms employ a special ladies’ tailor. There is a great difference between the wholesale and the private firm trade. Then again, the ordinary ladies’ costumes are not tailor made at all; indeed, the costume maker is not included in our association, as costume-making is more allied to the mantle-making trade; and they both join one union formed for their special class of workers. There is a large well-known firm in Manchester, whose speciality is costumes; yet I don’t suppose they have a tailor about the place.”

“You remaked about a difference between the wholesale and the private firm trade,” I said; and then asked,  “What is the difference?”

“It is almost like the difference, “ replied Miss Kay, “which is seem in a jerry-built house, and one built on fair and square lines. For instance, in the private trade there are no women coat-makers. Gentlemen’s coats are made exclusively by men; women being employed in making vests and trousers. In the wholesale trade, women often make the entire suit. Where men are employed in the wholesale houses it is on  the  better class order trade.”

“But does a woman who makes a coat in the wholesale workshop get the same pay as the tailor who makes a coat for the private firm?” I asked.

Miss Kay smiled at my simplicity, and replied, “oh, dear, no! You see the coat made by the woman has nothing near the same amount of work put into it as the one made by the man. There you get the idea of the illustration between the jerry-builder’s work and the conscientious builder. The wholesale trade is really the cheap, ready-made trade. And you know that a ready-made coat is almost always inferior to the one made to measure and fitted on by a private firm. Of course, you will sometimes see in a tailor’s establishment a card bearing the legend-“Suits ready-made or to measure” at the same price, or sometimes with very slight increase for the “measured “ coat. As a matter of fact there is not the slightest difference in the making of them. It is a trick of the trade.”

“Who are the largest employers in Manchester?” I then asked Miss Kay.

“Oh, the Cooperative Wholesale Society employ by far the largest number of women and girls” was her reply. “I dare say in the busy season nearly 500 are engaged there.”

“I should think they are model employers,” I remarked.

“One would naturally think so,”  replied Miss Kay, with a peculiar expression on her face; “but I am sorry to say we have had a lot of trouble with them. Indeed, the birth of our women’s branch dates from the time of the struggle between the Oldham Cooperative Society and its tailors- a struggle which extended to the C.W.S. Owing to some dispute at Oldham, the Society sent their work to Manchester to be completed. The tailors at the C.W.S. objected to doing work about which their brother “knights of the needle” of another town were disputing, and they came out on strike. The women came out with them. That is two and a half years ago. The union in this factory is in a very difficult position. Since the operatives resumed work a number of union girls have been discharged without  any adequate reason. And it is no secret that the union is looked on with disfavour by the authorities.”

I looked incredulous, but Miss Kay was most emphatic on the matter. She continued: “I have appeared before the directors, who pooh-poohed  the idea of their manager doing such a thing; and explained the dismissal of a unionist as a coincidence. It is a  very strange coincidence in my mind. They say they are not opposed to trade-unionism; but their actions seem to belie their words.”

I leave our readers to make their own comments, and draw their own conclusions.

Miss Kay told me much more of the tailoring industry as conducted in Manchester. She has worked at the C.W.S., and at private firms; she has been employed in the same workshops as Jews and Christians. “The Jews,” she observed, “often work on quite a different system to the Christian tailors. It is difficult to explain to an outsider, but their trade is a medium between the wholesale and the private trade system. They are often engaged on day work; and employers often make this system a means of getting labour cheap: as he will run, say, one-and-half-days’ work  into one day. Generally speaking, Jews work at cheaper rates and longer hours than Christians. Many of them jump into the trade with scarcely any training. In the wholesale trade their is no real system of apprenticeship; and I know of Russian Jews, who have been blacksmiths in their native land, on arriving in England have become tailors. That is why their labour is so much cheaper than Christian tailors.”


There are few pictures of Tailoresses so I am grateful to Arieh Lebowitz
Executive Director, Jewish Labor Committee who sent me this wonderful picture of the Chicago Jewish Mural. Find out more here

The Journal of the A.S.T.T. can be found at the WCML.


About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. .If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
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2 Responses to Searching for Miss Nellie Kay; Manchester Tailoress and Union Organiser

  1. Hilary Jones says:

    This is brilliant. Well done for uncovering it. I kept thinking about the snippets of information which connected me to my own family and the rag trade. . All but one of my mothers sisters and two brothers were employed in this business. My Grandfather also. Even in their time the conditions were similar t o this. I went to the workplace/ s of mum occasionally and it was very chaotic. I remember men were cutters…and mum did ‘ homework’ also. The sound of the machine drove us all mad… Mum was keen to encourage union membership…and this often brought trouble – even dismissal. She particularly disliked the piecework system saying it was drudgery…and much preferred making the whole garment. This interview shows that the conditions hardly changed in 50 years. She was an amazing woman…deserving of your efforts to highlight her progressive attitudes and the bravery and sheer hard work that went into encouraging the engagement with women workers at this time. Interesting also to se the attitudes not only gender based , but the referral to the Jewish ie immigrant workers settling for less. Some things haven’t changed! Speak soon. H x

    Sent from my iPad


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