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Victoria Press

September 1860 — National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Glasgow, Scotland, UK


When we remember the impetus given to the question of female employment by the discussion which took place at the meeting of this Association, at Bradford, last year, it seems but natural to suppose that one of the practical results of that discussion will be a matter of great interest to the present audience, on which account I venture to bring before your notice the origin and progress of the Victoria Press.

It has often been urged against this Association that it does “nothing but talk’; but those who fail to see the connection existing between the promotion of social science and the development of that science in spheres of practical exertion, must acknowledge that if all discussions led to as much action as followed that which took place upon the employment of women, the accusation would fall to the ground. A thorough ventilation of the question of the necessity for extending the field of woman’s employment, was at that time imperatively needed. The April number of the Edinburgh Review for 1859 had contained a fuller account of the actual state of female industry in this country than perhaps had ever been previously brought before the notice of the public. The question had begun to weigh upon thoughtful minds, and even to force itself upon unwilling ones, and the notion that the destitution of women was a rare and exceptional phenomenon, was swept away, as The Times observed, when Miss Parkes, addressing this Association at Bradford, did not hesitate to ask whether there was a single man in the company who had not, at that moment, among his own connections, an instance of the distress to which her paper referred. The discussion which followed operated in a most beneficial manner; it forced the public to put prejudice aside, and to test the theory hitherto so jealously maintained, that women were, as a general rule, supported in comfort and independence by their male relatives. The press then took up the question, and, with but few exceptions, dealt by it with a zeal and honesty which aided considerably in the partial solution of a problem in which is bound up so much of the welfare and happiness of English homes during this and future generations.

One by one the arguments for and against female employment, apart from the domestic sphere, were brought forward and examined; and where objections arising from feeling could not be vanquished by argument, the simple fact of women being constantly thrown upon the world to get their daily bread by their own exertions, left the stoutest maintainers of the propriety of woman’s entire pecuniary dependence upon man, without an answer.

In the November following the Bradford meeting, the council of this Association appointed a committee to consider and report on the best means which could be adopted for increasing the industrial employments of women; in the course of the investigation set on foot by this committee, of which I was a member, we received information of several attempts made to introduce women into the printing trade, and of the suitableness of the same as a branch of female industry. A small press, and type sufficient for an experiment, were purchased by Miss Parkes, who was anxious to test, by personal observation, the information thus received. This press was put up in a private room placed at her disposal by the kindness of a member of this Association. A printer consented to give her instruction, and she invited me to share in the trial.  A short time sufficed to convince us that if women were properly trained, their physical powers would be singularly adapted to fit them for becoming compositors, though there were other parts of the printing trade — such as the lifting of the iron chases in which the pages are imposed, the carrying of the cases of weighty type from the rack to the frame, and the whole of the presswork (that is the actual striking off of the sheets), entailing, particularly in the latter department, an amount of continuous bodily exertion far beyond average female strength.

Having ascertained this, the next step was to open an office on a sufficiently large scale to give the experiment a fair opportunity of success.  The machinery and type, and all that is involved in a printer’s plant, are so expensive that the outlay would never be covered unless they were kept in constant use. The pressure of work, the sudden influx of which is often entirely beyond the printer’s control, requires the possession of extra type in stock, these and other economical reasons which will be easily understood by all commercial men, necessitate the outlay of a considerable amount of capital on the part of anyone who wishes to turn out first-class printing. A gentleman, well known for his public efforts in promoting the social and industrial welfare of women, determined to embark with me in the enterprise of establishing a printing business in which female compositors should be employed. A house was taken in Great Coram Street, Russell square, which, by judicious expenditure, was rendered fit for printing purposes; I name the locality because we were anxious it should be in a light and airy situation, and in a quiet respectable neighbourhood. We ventured to call it the Victoria Press, after the sovereign to whose influence English women owe so large a debt of gratitude, and in the hope also that the name would prove a happy augury of victory. I have recently had the gratification of receiving an assurance of Her Majesty’s interest in the office, and the kind expression of Her approbation of all such really useful and practical steps for the opening of new branches of industry for women. The opening of the office was accomplished on the 25th of last March. The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women apprenticed five girls to me at premiums of £10 each; others were apprenticed by relatives and friends, and we soon found ourselves in the thick of the struggle, for such I do not hesitate to call it; and when you remember that there was not one skilled compositor in the office, you will readily understand the difficulties we encountered.  Work came in immediately, from the earliest day.  In April we commenced our first book, and began practically to test all the difficulties of the trade.  I had previously ascertained that in most printing offices the compositors work in companies of four and five, appointing one of the number to click for the rest, that is, to make up and impose the matter, and carry the forms to the press-room. The imposition requires more experience than strength, and no untrained compositor could attempt it, and I therefore engaged intelligent, respectable workmen, who undertook to perform this duty for the female compositors at the Victoria Press.

I have at this time sixteen female compositors, and their gradual reception into the office deserves some mention. In the month of April, when work was coming in freely, I was fortunate enough to secure a skilled hand from Limerick. She had been trained as a printer by her father, and had worked under him for twelve years. At his death she had carried on the office, which she was after some time obliged to relinquish, owing to domestic circumstances. Seeing in a country paper that an opening for female compositors had occurred in London, she determined on taking the long journey from Ireland to seek employment in a business for which she was well competent. She came straight to my office, bringing with her a letter from the editor of a Limerick paper, who assured me that I should find her a great assistance in my enterprise.  I engaged her there and then; she came to work the very next day, and has proved herself most valuable.

I have now also three other hands who have received some measure of training in their fathers’ offices, having been taught by them in order to afford help in any time of pressure, or in case any opening should present itself in the trade, of which a vague hope seemed present to their mind.  From letters which I have received from various parts of the country, I find that the introduction of women into the trade has been contemplated by many printers. Intelligent workmen do not view this movement with distrust, they feel very strongly woman’s cause is man’s; and they anxiously look for some opening for the employment of those otherwise solely dependent on them.

Four of the other compositors are very young, being under fifteen years of age; of the remaining eight, some were apprenticed by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, having heard of the Victoria Press through the register kept at Langham Place; and others through private channels. They are of all ages, and have devoted themselves to their new occupation with great industry and perseverance, and have accomplished an amount of work which I did not expect untrained hands could perform in the time. I was also induced to try the experiment of training a little deaf and dumb girl, one of the youngest above mentioned; she was apprenticed to me by the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, in the Old Kent Road, at the instance of a blind gentleman, Mr John Bird, who called on me soon after the office was opened.  This child will make a very good compositor in time, her attention being naturally undistracted from her work, though the difficulty of teaching her is very considerable, and the process of learning takes a longer time.

Having given you a general description of my compositors, I will only add that the hours of work are from nine till one and from two till six.  Those who live near, go home to dinner between one and two; others have the use of a room in the house, some bringing their own dinners ready cooked, and some preparing it on the spot. When they work overtime, as is occasionally unavoidable, for which of course they receive extra pay per hour, they have tea at half-past five, so as to break the time.

It has been urged that printing is an unhealthy occupation.  The mortality known to exist among printers had led people to this conclusion, but when we consider the principal causes producing this result, we find it arises in a great measure from removable evils.  For instance, the imperfect ventilation, the impurity of the air being increased by the quantity and bad quality of the gas consumed, and not least by the gin, rum, and brandy, so freely imbibed by printers.  The chief offices being situated in the most unwholesome localities, are dark and close, and thus become hotbeds for the propagation of phthisis.

In the annual reports for the last ten years of the Widows’ Metropolitan Typographical Fund, we find the average age of the death of printers was forty-eight years.  The number of deaths caused by phthisis and other diseases of that class, among the members in the ten years ending December 31, 1859, was 101 out of a total number of 173, being fifty-eight three-fourths [58¾] per cent of the whole.

It is too early yet to judge of the effect of this employment upon the health of women, even under careful sanitary arrangements; but I may state that one of my compositors, whom I hesitated to receive on account of the extreme delicacy of her health (inducing a fear of immediate consumption, for which she was receiving medical treatment) has, since she undertook her new occupation become quite strong, and her visits to her doctor have entirely ceased.

The inhalation of dust from the types, which are composed of antimony and lead, is an evil less capable of remedy. The type when heated emits a noxious fume, injurious to respiration, which in course of years occasionally produces a partial palsy of the hands. The sight of the compositor is frequently very much injured, apparently by close application to minute type, but probably, as Mr H. W. Porter remarks in his paper read before the Institute of Actuaries, from the quantity of snuff they take, which cannot fail to be prejudicial.  This habit, at all events, is one from which we cannot suppose that the compositors of the Victoria Press will suffer.

It has also been urged that the digestive functions may suffer from the long-continued standing position which the compositor practises at case.  This, I believe, nothing but habit has necessitated. Each compositor at the Victoria Press is provided with a high stool, seated on which she can work as quickly as when standing.

There is one branch of printing which, if pursued by the most cultivated class of women, would suffice to give them an independence—namely, reading and correcting for the press. Men who undertake this department earn two guineas a week; classical readers, capable of correcting the dead languages, and those conversant with German and Italian, receive more than this. But before the office of reader can be properly undertaken, a regular apprenticeship to printing must have been worked out; accuracy, quickness of eye, and a thorough knowledge of punctuation and grammar, are not sufficient qualifications for a reader in a printing office; she must have practically learnt the technicalities of the trade.  And I would urge a few educated women of a higher class to resolutely enter upon an apprenticeship for this purpose.

But for compositorship it is most desirable that girls should be apprenticed early in life, as they cannot earn enough to support themselves under three or four years, and should, therefore, commence learning the trade while living under their father’s roof. Boys are always apprenticed early in life, at the age of fourteen; and if women are to be introduced into the mechanical arts, it must be under the same conditions.  I can hardly lay enough stress upon this point; so convinced am I of its truth, that I now receive no new hands over eighteen years of age.

Many applications have been made to me to receive girls from the country; but the want of proper accommodation for lodging them under the necessary influence has hitherto prevented me from accepting them, but I have now formed a plan for this purpose, and when I am assured of six girls from a distance, I shall be able to provide for their being safely lodged and cared for.

In conclusion, I will only attract your attention to the proof of our work; for, while I am unable to produce the numerous circulars, prospectuses, and reports of societies which have been accomplished and sent away during these six months in which we have been at work, I can point to copies of The English Woman’s Journal, a monthly periodical now printed at the Victoria Press, and also to a volume printed for this Association, both of which can be obtained in the reception room, and which will, I think, be allowed to be sufficient proof of the fact that printing can be successfully undertaken by women.



Source: The English Woman’s Journal, October 1860.