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Women Compositors 

1861 — National Association for the Promotion of Social Science


After the meeting in Glasgow, last September, a considerable controversy arose respecting the facts contained in my Paper relative to the establishment of the Victoria Press for the employment of women compositors.

It was once again urged that printing by women was an impossibility: that the business requires the application of a mechanical mind, and that the female mind is not mechanical; that it is a fatiguing, unhealthy trade, and that women, being physically weaker than men, would sooner sink under this fatigue and labour; and to these objections an opinion was added, which it is the principal object of this Paper to controvert, namely, that the result of the introduction of women into the printing trade will be the reduction of the present rate of wages.

With reference to the observations respecting the arduous nature of printing, I am quite willing to admit that it is a trade requiring a great deal of physical and mental labour.  But with regard to the second objection, I can only say, that either the female mind is mechanical or that printing does not require a mechanical mind — for that women can print there is no doubt; and I think everyone will accept as a sufficient proof of this the fact that the Transactions of this Association at Glasgow is among the volumes printed by the women compositors at the Victoria Press. Let this fact speak for itself, together with another equally important — namely, that the Victoria Press is already self-supporting, which is as much as can generally be said of any business scarcely eighteen months old, and far more than could have been expected of a thoroughly new experiment, conducted by one who had only visited a printing office on two occasions before the opening of the Victoria Press, and who had therefore to buy experience at every step; for although such experience is the most available, it is not the least costly.

The argument that the wages of men will be reduced by the introduction of women into the business was also urged against the introduction of machinery, a far more powerful invader of man’s labour than women’s hands, but this has fallen before the test of experience. It must be remembered, as is well argued by the author of the “Industrial and Social Condition of Women”, that the dreaded increase of competition is of a kind essentially different from the increase of competition in the labour market arising from ordinary causes — such increase commonly arising from an increased population, either by birth or immigration, or a decrease in the capital available for the labouring population. But in the case we are contemplating this will not occur, since women already form part of the population. Nor will the wages capital be drawn on for the maintenance of a greater number of individuals than it now supports. The real and only consequences will be an increase of the productive power of the country, and a slight re-adjustment of wages; and while heads of families will be relieved of some of the burdens that now press on them so heavily, there is no ground for the fear that the scale of remuneration earned by them will be really injured — the percentage withdrawn will be so small that the loss will be proportionably less than the burden from which they will be relieved, for as the percentage destined for the support of such dependents is necessarily distributed to all men indiscriminately, whether their relations in life require it or not, it is inadequate to meet the real burden borne by such as have these said dependents.

It has been asserted that the “key note to the employment of women is cheap labour!” — that while the professed cry is to open a new and remunerative field for the employment of women, the real object is to lessen the cost of production.

It is not necessary to give this statement, so far as the printing is concerned, any further denial than that which is found in the fact that the wages paid to the compositors at the Victoria Press are according to the men’s recognised scale. The women work together in companies, with ‘a clicker’ to each companionship, and they write their bills on the same principle and are paid at the same rate as in men’s offices.

At present the Victoria Press is labouring under the disadvantage of having no women of the standing of journeymen; the compositors have to serve an apprenticeship of four years, during which they receive apprentices’ wages, which, though not large, are still good compared to the wages women receive in most industrial employments. These wages differ according to the amount of work done. When signing the indentures of one of my first apprentices, her father, who is himself a journeyman printer, suggested to me that instead of fixing a weekly salary the apprentices should be paid by the piece, two-thirds of their earnings, according to the Compositors’ Scale (English prices), which is indeed higher payment than that of boy apprentices, as they seldom receive two-thirds until the sixth or seventh year of their apprenticeship, whereas it is paid at the Victoria Press after the first six months, during which time no remuneration is given, but a premium of ten pounds required for the instruction received.  I think this system more effective than that of an established weekly wage; it is more likely to stimulate exertion, and to make each apprentice feel that she earns more or less according to her attention and industry. It is not correct to suppose that printing simply requires a fair education, sufficient knowledge of manuscript and punctuation, and that all else is simple manipulation.

The difference between a good printer and a bad one is rather in the quality of mind and the care applied to the work than in the knowledge of the work itself. Take the case of two apprentices, employed from the same date, working at the same frame, and with an equally good knowledge of the business; one will earn eighteen shillings a week and the other only ten shillings. The former applies mind to her work, the latter acts as a mere machine, and expends as much time in correcting proofs as the other takes in doing the work well at once. But for every consideration it is necessary that the work should be commenced early; neither man nor woman will make much of an accidental occupation, taken up to fill a few blank years, or resorted to in the full maturity of life, without previous use or training, on the pressure of necessity alone. And those women who become printers, or enter upon any of the mechanical trades, must have the determination to make that sacrifice which alone can ensure the faithful discharge of their work. It is impossible to afford help to those who only consent to maintain themselves when youth is over, and who commence by considering it a matter of injustice and unfair dealing that the work they cannot do is not offered at once to their uninstructed hands. I cannot insist too strongly upon this — every day’s experience at the Victoria Press enforces on my mind the absolute necessity of an early training, and habits of precision and punctuality — from the want of it I receive useless applications from the daughters of officers, clergymen, and solicitors, gentlewomen who have been tenderly nurtured in the belief that they will never have any occasion to work for daily bread, but who from the death of their father, or some unforeseen calamity, are plunged into utter destitution, at an age when it is difficult, I had almost said impossible, to acquire new habits of life, and which leaves them no time to learn a business which shall support them. Thus, life’s heaviest burdens fall on the weakest shoulders, and, by man’s short-sighted and mistaken kindness, bereavements are rendered tenfold more disastrous than they would otherwise have been. The proposal that fathers, who are unable to make some settled provision for their daughters, should train them as they train their sons, to some useful employment, is still received as startling and novel — it runs counter to a thousand prejudices, yet it bears the stamp of sound common sense, and it is at least in accordance with the spirit of Christianity.  We have all at some time or other pitied men who, brought up to no business, are suddenly deprived of their fortunes, and obliged to work for their living — we have speculated on the result of their struggles, and if success has followed their efforts, we have pronounced the case exceptional. Is it then a marvel that the general want of training among women meets us as one of the greatest difficulties in each branch of the new employments opening for them? The irreparable mischief caused by it, and the conviction that it is only the exceptional case in either sex which masters the position, determined me on receiving no apprentice to the printing business after eighteen years of age. Boys begin the business very young, and if women are to become compositors it must be under the same conditions.

Still, in spite of all the difficulties we have encountered, I can report a steady and most encouraging progress — the Victoria Press can now execute at least twice the amount of work it was able to accomplish at the time of the Association’s last Meeting.  We have undertaken a weekly newspaper, the Friend of the People, and a quarterly, the Law Magazine; we have printed an appeal case for the House of Lords, and have had a considerable amount of Chancery printing, together with sermons and pamphlets from all parts of the kingdom — and I have recently secured the valuable co-operation of a partner in Miss Hays, who has long worked in the movement as one of the editors of The English Woman’s Journal and as an active member of the Committee of Management of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women.  We are now engaged in bringing out a volume under Her Majesty’s sanction as a specimen of the perfection to which women’s printing can be brought. The initial letters are being designed by Miss Crowe, the Secretary to the Society before mentioned, and are being cut by one of the Society’s pupils. The volume will be edited by Miss Adelaide Procter, and will be one of considerable literary merit; the leading writers of the day, such as Tennyson, Kingsley, Thackeray, Anthony and Tom Trollope, Mrs Norton, the Author of Paul Ferrol, Miss Muloch, Barry Cornwall, Dean Milman, Coventry Patmore, Mrs Gaskell, Miss Jewsbury, Monckton Milnes, Owen Meredith, Gerald Massey, Mrs Grote, and, since my arrival in Dublin, I am grateful to be able to add the name of Lord Carlisle, and many others, have given us original contributions, and with kind and cordial expressions of interest have encouraged us with good wishes for our permanent success in a work the importance of which it is scarcely possible to overestimate.



Source: The English Woman’s Journal, September 1861.