Death at the Needle: The Tragedy of Victorian Seamstress Mary Walkley

The Seamstress by Josef Gisela, 1897.

“Sir,—I am a dressmaker, living in a large West-end house of business. I work in a crowded room with twenty-eight others. This morning one of my companions was found dead in her bed, and we all of us think that long hours and close confinement have had a great deal to do with her end.” 

So starts the anonymous letter which brought the death of seamstress Mary Ann Walkley to the forefront of public attention. Originally printed in a June 17, 1863 edition of The Times, the letter—signed simply “A Tired Dressmaker”—details the miserable work and living conditions of seamstresses, not in the East End of London, but in one of the finest dressmaking establishments in London’s West End.

Mary Walkley was a twenty-year-old seamstress in the employ of court dressmaker Madame Elise. Located at 170 Regent Street, Madame Elise’s shop catered to the most fashionable ladies in London society. In order to meet their exacting demands, the seamstresses who lived and worked on the premises were obliged to begin their day at half-past six in the morning and work straight through until eleven at night. On some occasions—such as those days preceding a Queen’s drawing-room or other major society event—they were even required to work all night and into the next morning to finish an order.

Quadrant, Regent Street engraved by J.Woods after J.Salmon, 1837.

When the seamstresses were finally permitted to retire to bed, they found little respite. Describing the suffocating accommodations at Madame Elise’s establishment, the “Tired Dressmaker” writes:

“At night we retire to rest in a room divided into little cells, each just large enough to contain two beds. There are two of us in each bed. There is no ventilation; I could scarcely breathe in them when I first came from the country. The doctor who came this morning said they were not fit for dogs to sleep in.”

Mary Walkley took ill on a Friday. By Sunday she was worse. The other seamstresses at Madame Elise’s sat up with her that night until she fell asleep. The next morning, Mary Walkley’s bedfellow woke to find Mary dead beside her.

The death of Mary Walkley sparked a firestorm of public outrage. People were horrified by the conditions under which West End seamstresses lived and worked. Many argued for reforms, including strict regulations governing the workrooms. Others wanted Madame Elise and her husband to be prosecuted for their perceived role in Mary’s death. The scandal even prompted the July 4, 1863 edition of Punch to publish a cartoon titled “The Haunted Lady,  or The Ghost in the Looking Glass” which shows a fashionable young woman admiring her new gown in the mirror only to see the reflection of the seamstress who died in the process of making it.

Punch, June 4, 1863.

The fact that many of the young seamstresses employed at establishments like that of Madame Elise were orphans or girls who had fallen on hard times made their working conditions that much more despicable in the public view. Some even compared the exploitation of vulnerable seamstresses to a form of slavery. As an article in the June 27, 1863 edition of the Preston Chronicle states:

“We should even now have been unaware of the extent to which ‘white slavery’ exists at the west end of London had not this poor girl died under circumstances which caused an investigation by a coroner.”

The inquest into the death of Mary Walkley received a great deal of public attention. Ultimately, the jury found that Mary had died of apoplexy, likely accelerated by overwork and poor ventilation. Those who had hoped for Madame Elise and her husband to be charged with murder were deeply disappointed. An article in the July 2, 1863 edition of the Stirling Observer calls the verdict “dissatisfying in the extreme,” writing:

“If to work seventeen and eighteen hours a-day all the year round; to be allowed no out-door exercise or spare time at dinner or tea, but just sufficient to take hurried meals, and then, after slaving at the needle till eye and hand fails, and head and heart grow sick, to be marched off to ‘dens’ four abreast, where throughout the short night, instead of being refreshed by ‘tired Nature’s sweet restorer—balmy sleep,’ they are stifled with the venom of carbonic acid gas, and other active impure agents in bad ventilation—if master or mistress in any millinery or other establishment in the kingdom, compels his or her employees to undergo such an ordeal, or else go without work, in the sight of God and man, nay, according to a fair and just interpretation of the law of the land, they are as deliberately taking away life by slow poison, as sure and deadly in its work as that by which L’Angelier met his death.  If that is not murder, what is it?”

The Earl of Shaftesbury by Carlo Pellegrini, Vanity Fair, 1869.

In response to Mary Walkley’s death, the Earl of Shaftesbury brought the matter before the House of Lords. A June 26, 1863 edition of the Peterhead Sentinel and General Advertiser for Buchan District reports that the earl asked if the Government would “bring a bill to provide for the sanitary regulations of the workrooms in which seamstresses were employed,” pointing out that the Legislature had “already granted similar relief in other occupations.” In response, the Earl of Granville is reported to have responded that:

“…the question was a very difficult one, and the Government at present had no power to interfere, but he could not say that the Government would undertake further legislation; but, if the noble Earl himself would, they would give his proposals every consideration.”

Despite the public outcry over the working conditions of West End seamstresses, no laws were ever enacted to regulate their hours and working conditions. Even if they had been, they would have been difficult to enforce as dressmakers worked in private establishments which were not open to government inspectors.

I close this article with an image of a fashionable dress from 1863, accompanied by the final lines of the anonymous letter that first brought the death of Mary Walkley to public attention. Those lines read as follows:

“Of course we are all very much shocked, and although we do not complain of our house, which is better conducted than many, we should be so glad if some plan could be discovered by which we could get a little less work and a little more air.—I remain, Sir,
“A Tired Dressmaker.”

1860-1864 British Silk Dress.(Met Museum)
1860-1864 British Silk Dress.
(Met Museum)
Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

“Death in the Work-Room.” Burnley Gazette. 20 June 1863.

“Death in the Workroom.” Stirling Observer. 02 July 1863.

“Death of a Seamstress by Overwork.” Salisbury and Winchester Journal. 27 June 1863.

Kortsch, Christine Bayles. Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2009.

London Times. 17 June 1863.

“Worked to Death.” Brighton Gazette. 02 July 1863.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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38 Comments on "Death at the Needle: The Tragedy of Victorian Seamstress Mary Walkley"

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thenaughtybun
Guest

Good heavens, I knew it was bad, but for some reason thought it was not as bad as this. Unfortunately, I don’t think the fast fashion providers are much better off. It’s too easy to not care about “the others” – we need to wake up to the fact that we’re one humanity…

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I completely agree. Today, much like in the nineteenth century, many don’t pay attention to the plight of those who make our clothing & other products. I love historical fashion, but there was a lot of suffering at the other end of those fancy gowns!

Judith Barnes
Guest

I knew that East End conditions were bad but am surprised to learn about the deplorable West End situation. Thanks. Interesting article. Since the dresssmakers were female, do you think that contributed to the lack of legislation to improve their plight?

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I do think that gender had a lot to do with why more wasn’t done to ensure that the seamstresses were treated humanely. Just my personal opinion, though!

paper doll
Guest

Excellent post! One of the fascinating aspects of history is how little we humans change, This reminds me of the Chinese factories of today, where the work force must be watched to insure they will not jump from the roof. There would still be such factories in the West today, if we still had factories. After we express our outrage, we say where’s my iphone? I don’t exclude myself from this finger wag .

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Glad you enjoyed it :) I agree completely about human nature. After an initial burst of outrage, it’s easy to revert back to the status quo, especially for those of us who benefit from the injustices (both large and small) perpetrated against these workers. I suppose in many respects it’s a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind.’

paper doll
Guest

Indeed. Our immutable nature does however closely connect us with those in the past. This makes history alive. Circumstances change , people don’t lol!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Well put!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

it seems likely that the poor girl may have had an underlying heart murmur which contributed to her faster succumbing to these terrible conditions. Which does not in the least excuse them! in the Regency the girls who worked for modistes were openly called ‘slaveys’

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh yes, this was not just a problem in the Victorian era. It has existed for as long as wealthy ladies have been wearing stylish gowns. It’s the dark side of historical fashion!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Guest

Thank you for sharing this horrific piece of history with us. It is sad that the working conditions didn’t improve.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Lindsay :) And I agree!

passionforlife22
Guest

This is bone-chilling. I’ll have even more respect now for every stitch that I’m making, in tribute to those women who gave their lives for it.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

What a nice sentiment! I think that it’s always good to remember the seamstresses behind some of the gorgeous 19th century gowns we all admire.

Elizabeth Beck Bunting
Guest

Lord Shaftsbury was also very instrumental in the abolition of slavery and in the plight of young girls in prostitution.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh yes, he was a great reformer. It really says something that he could not make progress in this area.

witness2fashion
Guest

This semi-slavery also explains why dressmakers and milliners sometimes turned to prostitution. In his diaries, Arthur Munby was shocked when he interviewed a group of young women who said they were part-time prostitutes whenever they had no work as milliners: he and his friends had shopped for a wedding at the same exclusive shop where the girls worked. I’m sorry that I can’t find the exact passage; it’s not in the index of Munby, Man of Two Worlds.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

A very good point about seamstresses turning to prostitution. Their work wasn’t generally well compensated and, during times when work was slim, they often had to find other ways to make ends meet.

Ellen
Guest

So sad but not surprising. Conditions for workers were so horrible then… no protections at all. And also some of the materials they used to create dresses (like the green dye that had mercury – I think it was mercury) that were dangerous to work with.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Yes, it wasn’t a great time in history for workers. And you’re right about the toxins. This was before we knew how dangerous some of these things really were!

nottooshabby
Guest

your research is incredible! thank you so much for this post.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

Vickie
Guest

This makes me think – what were they thinking about while they were sewing these exquisite gowns – to be so ill treated while producing something so beautiful – seems a testament to the seamstress that these dresses should be in museums. Mimi – thank you for bringing us the beauty and the pain and suffering behind it.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome :) And I agree about these gowns being a testament to the seamstresses. They never did get enough credit for them in life.

AlexandriaConstantinova
Guest

Though I realized thar gowns were handmade at the time, I never thought if outside women making the gowns for fashionable or wealthy women. Thank you for yet another fascinating post, Mimi

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Alexandria :) It’s easy to forget how many of the poor (and often mistreated) contributed to some of those lovely 19th century gowns. One doesn’t usually associate those kinds of things with high fashion, which is why I think the Victorians were so shocked by Mary’s death.

AlexandriaConstantinova
Guest

I’m glad they were shocked. I thought the wealthy eomen had private servants making their clothes. Another wonderful post, Mimi

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks Alexandria :) I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

GeorgeNotBush
Guest

It is a testament to the nature of capitalism that once legislation and unions bring about decent working conditions, the factories will move to where the abuses and miserable working conditions can continue unabated: China, Mexico, Bangladesh…

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Sad, but quite true, I’m afraid.

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authorangelabell
Guest

I knew the Victorian era often lacked humane working conditions, but for some reason I’d imagined that a seamstress–especially one employed by a larger West End fashion establishment–would have been better off.

Thanks for sharing this great research!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Angela :) And you’re not alone in your feelings. The Victorians were just as surprised that such a thing could take place in the West End. It was shocking at the time.

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William Savage
Guest

As Terry Pratchet knew well, ‘seamstress’ was also used as a euphemism for prostitute, probably because so many of these poor women had to increase their earnings any way they could. It was all very well pious Victorians being shocked, but there’s no logic in blaming the women or the conditions alone. It takes two to play ‘the beast with two backs’ and many Victorian men were only too eager to take advantage of poor women. Quick pleasure, no comeback.

Christina Walkley
Guest

Hi Mimi, have you read my book The Ghost in the Looking Glass? Published by Peter Owen in 1981. The key chapter is an account of the Mary Ann Walkley affair, and the dust jacket features the Punch cartoon. If you haven’t I think you would find it interesting.

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