Perils of earning pin money

Published on: 29 Jan 2018

IN Bristol, you can’t move for references to the men who helped to shape our city… but what about the women? When all but one of the statues in the city feature men (and the solitary female statue is of a goddess, not even a human woman!) and there are some history books about Bristol that barely even mention women, you would be forgiven for thinking there were no notable females in Bristol’s past. But you’d be wrong!

Which is why in ‘The Women Who Built Bristol’, I have compiled a compendium of 250 wonderful women who helped to shape the city we know and love today. From the better known names such as reformer Mary Carpenter and suffragette Annie Kenney, to the more obscure such as fruit seller Jane Martin and haematologist Janet Vaughan… I’ve tried to leave no stone unturned in my quest to represent women from all walks of life who contributed something - no matter how small - to the Bristol we live in today. 

We don’t have many sportswomen in ‘The Women Who Built Bristol’ sadly but we do have Dorothy Ivory, who was the first captain of the Downend Ladies’ Cricket XI, founded in 1925. Her unconventional wedding photo, taken on 17 April 1933, shows her with her husband George Lant behind the wicket. Pleasingly, subsequent references to Dorothy in the Western Daily Press announce her also winning whist and tennis tournaments.

Downend was also home to one of Bristol’s pin factories. Pin making was a major industry in Bristol from the middle of the 16th century and it was an example of a pre-industrial outworking system, outwork being work done at home. 

In 1841, the government carried out a report into the factories which showed there were 110 women and girls plus 50 men and boys working at one of the pin factories, as well as 500 female outworkers. The report rightly noted: "There is a great disproportion between the wages of the men and the females". Yet nothing was done to affect change.

Pointing the pins was dangerous because the fine brass dust was breathed in by the grinding operators. Despite this, report writer Elijah Waring stated he "observed no unhealthy appearances" among the pin makers. He added: "Many of the girls are even remarkably blooming, and their persons and dress particularly clean and neat. I saw no curvature of the spine, or other deformity; and, judging from their merry carolling whilst at their work, they do not feel oppressed by it."

However, Waring did note the dangers posed by the machines used: "The old-fashioned heading-machines are semi-barbarous contrivances, which it would be desirable to see annihilated."

The decline of the pin industry in Downend at the end of the Victorian era mirrored the decrease of outwork in England generally and there is now next to nothing left in the city as a reminder of the thousands of women and girls who worked tirelessly making pins – and money – for their masters. 

For the full story on Dorothy and the pin makers, and all 250 women profiled in the book, you can buy  The Women Who Built Bristol from bristolwomensvoice.bigcartel.com. All profits go straight to the charity Bristol Women’s Voice and to better benefit the charity please buy direct.

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