Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Women’s Labour Exchange

From The Times, 15th April, 1915.



The most interesting of the women's Labour Exchanges is that at Great Marlborough-street, where women and “juveniles” only are registered, and the daily visitors include almost every type of woman, from the chattering char-lady to the B.Sc. looking for a school post.

This Labour Exchange is above all things, the great clearing-house for women's employment in the West-end, and the labour of various grades is sorted out with infinite tact, so that it shall not meet on the stairs or wait in the same waiting-room.

On the ground-floor at the Great Marlborough-street Exchange, where the chop assistants, clerks, dressmakers, milliners, teachers, social workers, and "superior" workers register, the steady flow of women begins at 9 o'clock in the morning, and continues until about 11; after that a desultory trickle comes in and out.  Dressmakers and milliners' assistants were the first comers yesterday morning.  There was a tremendous demand for both, and the assistants, taking each girl in turn, inquired where she had registered (all the Exchanges are in constant communication notifying each other of vacancies the moment they occur), what she had done before, her wages, and what she desired.  The rapidity with which the worker's capabilities are summed up and she is put in touch with a suitable employer is a continual marvel to the unsophisticated listener.  The result is seen when the shower of green introduction cards, without which a worker is not seen by the employer, begins to pour back with the note that the vacancy has been filled.  All the time the telephone keeps going asking for workers to be sent immediately or complimenting the Exchange on the workers sent.

The bell rings.  “Can you send us 25 motor-drivers and women porters to replace men going to the front?  Driving light vans and delivering parcels.” The call is from a big West-end firm.  The card-index is looked up.  This is something for the war-service women.  There is a lady chauffeur in a "private" job who is willing to give it up to take a man's place and who can do running repairs.  She is the first chosen; there are many society women willing to drive vans, but the "industrial” women who have been working come first.  Another ring-— "Wanted a woman to drive a pair of horses and wear livery, to replace coachman going to the front. Groom kept."  The subscriber holds on; the register is looked up; a woman used to horses who has never done paid work before but will "do anything" is found.

The girls come and go; things grow quiet.  The clerk has been waiting for the telephone to be free.  She rings a Mayfair number. "Hear you wanted two lift-men and couldn't get them.  Will you take two lift-women instead?  You will?  What?  Same as you have been giving the men?  Good.  Will send you two along presently.  Good appearance; suitable for uniform. Thank you."  The clerk is glowing with pride; the women are her protégées.  She is delighted when they get good jobs and new jobs.  She cannot insist on the wages being good, but sometimes her voice of pained surprise on the telephone when some small sum is suggested has the effect of moral suasion.

On the first floor arc the coat hands and machinists.  They are in great request; the tailoresses and their heads have been a little turned over all the money they can make on khaki.  An upholsteress comes in: clean, neat, capable, with considerable experience and used to a power machine for making embroidery.  The index is turned up; she gets a green card and goes off.  A girl wants a job as sweet-dipper, another as chocolate packer; quickly their wants are seen to.

The next floor has a character all its own.  You would think there was a mothers’ meeting going on, but the group of highly respectable ladies taking part in it are charwomen and daily workers whom the kindly clerk has invited to remain in case of something turning up later, as they have not been suited early in the day.  They all know each other, and their stream of family news sometimes calls for suppression.  On the other side of the “counter” are the waitresses &c. and attendants for tea-shops.

On the next floor the indoor servants, staff maids, corridor maids, housemaids, and linen maids apply for work.  On the fourth floor is the most interesting exchange of all.  Here the "juveniles" under 17 are seen.  But the small boy is a rare visitor nowadays.  Yesterday a tall, shy lad was an early comer.  He only wanted a job for a month until his next birthday, when he would be taken in the Navy, and he went away with a choice of work in a warehouse as a boy porter to ride a parcels tricycle or as a lift-boy.  A mother brought in her little girl, a pretty, shy child.  She had gone to a place the day before and found she would have to go out for the dinner hour.  “Her father doesn't like her walking about,” the mother explained, and a place was found in the index that seemed like Pandora's box, where she could "hot up" food she brought from home and have the use of a staff room in the dinner hour.  A tall girl was sent to a firm that wanted a girl in livery to open the door for customers to replace a boy who had enlisted, at the same wages.

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