Philobiblon: The death of Harriet Walters

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The death of Harriet Walters

The problem with unpacking and sorting books is that it is so easy to get distracted.
(I'm supposed to be replacing a lightfitting just now, so that I can hoist up the left-over laminate boards to a shelf in the storeroom, but I just have to record this before I switch off the power ...)

"The Committee are directed to investigate the circumstances under which Harriet Walters met her death, 12th June last, at the age of 17.
Her History as an Enamel Worker
She lived with her grandparents in rather poor circumstances at Sedgley. She entered the enamel works of Messrs Ralph & Jordan at Bilston, at the age of 16, in 1892, working as a brusher, and was there for six months.
From the foregoing Report it will be seen that the brushing department is the one where most danger exists in enamelling works.
The distance between her home and the enamelling works at Bilston is about three miles, which distance the girl had to walk in all weathers, in addition to which she had to stand practically all day, stooping over the plate upon which she was engaged, and brushing off this deleterious powder.
In January 1893 she entered Messrs Orme, Evans and Company's works at Wolverhampton, where she also worked at brushing, the distance she had to work to and from her work being about the same as in her previous employment. Here she worked up to 5th June, on which day she felt so ill she asked the foreman to be allowed to go home. This she was permitted to do, and she accordingly walked back to Sedgley in the company of a fellow worker.
On the 6th she was first seen by Mr Ballenden, who attended her and prescribed for her until her death. This occurred rather suddenly on the 12th June...

The Committee's Finding

The Committee agreed that she died of lead poisoning ... They further believe that her death was accelerated by a persistence in the practice ... of walking from Sedgley to Wolverhampton, a distance of three miles, without having tasted food, and of then working till the dinner hour, for, although the employers provided milk at one time, the milk was discontinued when the special rules were issued necessitating the supply of acid drink.
By this means the deceased got into a very low state of health, with great anaemia and constant want of appetite. The result was that, when attacked by lead poisoning, she had no reserve of health with which to resist it. Since the death of this girl the firm have recommenced the supply of milk at 11am....
The Committee found that the respirator in use at the time of Harriet Walter's death was in reality a common handkerchief. It is probably that in the extreme heat of last May and June the younger and more inexperienced workers would take many opportunities of slipping these off."
From: report from the Departmental Committee on the Various Lead Industries, C7239 (1983) pp. 20-21; P.P 1893/4, vol 17, reprinted in Human Documents of the Age of the Forsytes, E. Royston Pike, Victorian Book Club, Newton Abbot, 1972, pp. 258-9.

Those who lament compensation rights of today might like to ponder their importance.

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