by Isidore Cyril Cannon

I joined ‘the print’ in 1942, and after a seven-year indentured apprenticeship as a compositor, worked first as a journeyman and then a proof-corrector.  A developing interest in social issues led to me to enrol at the London School of Economics in 1954 to read sociology.  When I graduated three years later, Britain was coming out of the constraints of the war and immediate post-war years: rationing had just ended, the 1951 Festival of Britain had taken place, and the flamboyance of the New Look expressed the optimistic mood.  Important social changes were taking place, there were higher levels of employment and the class structure was modifying with the needs of a more skilled and better off workforce.  The Labour government, which had introduced dynamic changes when first elected, was seen as running out of steam and was losing support, particularly among the more affluent working-class.  As a result, the Conservatives won three consecutive general elections during the 1950s.  Many were concerned that the Labour Party might never again attract majority support.

The author as a young man outside the printing firm of Keliher, Hudson and Kearns in London

I had hoped to undertake postgraduate research after graduation, but with a family to support I could only do so part-time.  I obtained a teaching post at the then London School of Printing which I had attended as an apprentice on day-release.  Alongside my teaching, I began research into the history of the compositor, understanding my research as part of a larger effort to produce detailed studies of specific occupations in order to reveal the complexities of social class.  The London School of Printing was a convenient location, physically close to libraries and other institutions I needed to consult.

The compositor was in an ambiguous class situation.  Compositors were relatively affluent and high in status, and one would have expected them to be just the kind of people likely to be undergoing what would later be called embourgeoisement:1 adopting a more middle-class way of life and losing identification with the Labour Party.  Yet from my experience, whilst the compositor was relatively well-off, he tended to see himself as working-class and to support the Labour Party.  I set out to test whether this was still the case. How did compositors compare with skilled workers generally in life-style and aspirations, did they support the Labour Party more strongly than skilled workers did generally, and if so why might this be the case?

Richard Evans, hand compositor at James Wilkes Ltd, at work in 1953. Image from the Wolverhampton History & Heritage website (http://www.localhistory.scit.wlv.ac.uk/)

Researching the politics of compositors required me also to investigate the history of the occupation.  Working as a compositor required a combination of attributes: a level of education sufficient to facilitate speedy and accurate composition of type; the manual dexterity to aid this; a knowledge of fonts; and an eye for design, especially before the relatively recent rise of professional design typographers.  How did this well-regarded and relatively well-paid occupation, largely unchanged in terms of the skills required in its five hundred years of existence since Caxton, get drawn into identifying with the working-class? 2  And how did the way of life of the then contemporary compositor, including his aspirations, class identity and political ideology compare with other skilled workers?

To answer these questions I traced the social historical background of the occupation since the inception of printing in the fifteenth century, its images and status, income levels, the vicissitudes of employment, the social origins of its (largely male) members, and the rise of union activity.3  I also interviewed one hundred compositors from twenty-eight firms of various sizes.  I asked them about expenditure and life-style patterns, educational and occupational aspirations for their children, class identity and voting behaviour.  I then compared my results with evidence about the skilled working class as a whole.  It became clear that, despite the fact that the compositors’ life-style was more ‘middle class’ than skilled workers generally, they were more radical in their ideology.  The interviews allowed me to create what is now a time-capsule analysis of an occupation, and of an occupational community.

I had come across the concept of ‘occupational community’ as an undergraduate.  Thinking about this I was aware that the compositor had what seemed to me a rich community expressed in a variety of ways.  First, there was the Chapel as the unit of trade union organization in the firm, forming the link with the union (at that time, the London Society of Compositors).  The Chapel also acted to resolve all kinds of disputes that could arise amongst its members, both personal and work-centred; in this role it emphasized the equality of its members, and tended to create pressure for conformity towards certain norms of behaviour; examples of behaviour subject to pressure could range from encouraging beer drinking to political ideology.  In addition to the Chapel, members could be active in a range of organizations, some confined to compositors, others including other printing occupations.  Pension schemes and convalescent homes were among the most significant.  The community also shared customs such as initiation ceremonies and bang-outs (making a cacophony of sound to draw attention to unusual behaviour).  Participation in activities and institutions like these buttressed feelings of identification with the occupation.  Compositors also shared a special vocabulary of words or expressions.  Some have passed into wider usage, such as ‘dissing’, initially used to mean distributing type into wooden cases, a recent and more widely used form of which means getting rid of something; and ‘lower case’, originally referring to the location of the case of type for small characters, but now made familiar through its use in computing.

In 1961, when I completed my PhD research on compositors, the occupation was flourishing.  This was before the photo-composition revolution which obliterated the entire occupation (apart from a very small number of specialist workshops which still use hot metal composition).  When I revisited the firm I was apprenticed at many years later, there were no compositors to be seen.  All had been replaced by less-skilled computer operators.  An occupation, together with its community, was dead.

Isidore Cyril Cannon’s The Compositor in London: the Rise and Fall of a Labour Aristocracy is published by St. Bride Foundation.  Purchases can be made from St Bride Foundation’s online bookshop at stbride.org/shop or phone 020 7353 3331.

1 Goldthorpe, J.H., Lockwood, D., Bechhover, F., Platt, J., The Affluent Worker (Cambridge University Press, 1968).

2 The major technological change was the introduction of machine composition, mainly with the development of Linotype and Monotype machines at the end of the 19th century. This was still for hot metal composition, and the operators were generally former hand compositors.

3 Composing was seen as a desirable occupation for middle class women seeking to expand the range of suitable occupations for them other than teaching or being a governess. The compositor’s work was claimed to be one where women could use their ’superior delicacy of touch’ and enabled them to ‘exercise their feminine quality of taste’ in layout Cannon, pp. 84-86. Despite such claims because of the continued hostility of the men very few women entered the trade.

15 Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I will certainly be tracking down your book – it is very close to home: I am a third-generation printworker now retraining as a history teacher !

  2. I recall attending an LSC  AGM at the Albert Hall (I think) c. 1953, where the Gen. Sec. Bob Willis, opened the proceedings with “Lady and gentlemen” – the only female member of the LSC – a Linotype op.
    This remark was greeted with a big round of applause! 
    As one of the group of now defunct compositors, I feel that my embalmed body should go on display in Ottawa – “The last of the Comps”!

  3. Thank you for this. My father was a compositor/linotype operator who ended his career in the proofreading room of a large national newspaper in the late 70s. I grew up playing with bits of hot metal type, remember fascinating visits to my dad’s work, and above all remember the pride he showed in his occupation. He always drew the distinction between himself and mere “printers”, his being the higher status occupation. He certainly had artistic flair and an eye for design and detail. His enthusiasm was passed on to me in that I studied the history of printing, and any artistic ability I can lay claim to stems from him. As a young woman, I asked him to share the skills of proofreading with me but he refused, I think out of a sense that one could only do such a job after years of proper training, and perhaps an old fashioned view that women should not seek to take men’s jobs. I subsequently worked as an editor, but he did not live to see this. My father was proud of his level of education, having come from a working class background. In the mid 50s he became a homeowner, something I only realised later was rather unusual, given his background. He certainly lamented the passing of an era with the advent of computer technology and deplored what he saw as slipping standards. I still have his books from his student days and his medals and certificates testifying to the fact that he was the best among his peers. I wish I had told him how proud I was of him.

    • I totally agree with ‘aleydis’ remarks about her father.
      However, my father did not follow his father into the printing industry.
      Later my father saw what he believed to be the eorror of his ways, and made sure that I entered the industry. My g/father was first a compositor, then graduated to the vaunted level of “Corrector of the “Press”; before dying of a (possibly) lead-related liver disease, in 1935
      There seems to be a very close parallel between aledys’ father and myself, being both of the same era-more-or-less. I too deplore the lowering of ‘standards’ as related to the printing industry of today.
      I have never seen so many ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’ as i do today . . .

  4. Christopher Beament

    I read this web site with interest, as both my Father, Stanley James Beament, and his father, and other descendants, were associated with the London Society of Compositors, for over 100 years, as my nephew in Australia, has all the Annual membership cards for the various members, up until my Father retired as Head Printer of the Guardian, in 1977′ having worked for Associated Newspapers, until he was appointed by Guardian , as a Deputy Head Printer,up when the newspaper came to London, in the 1960s in Grays Inn road,
    My Grandfather, was a leading light in Labour Party politics, in London, worked for Odhams Press, in Covent Garden, and was Father of the Chapel, he retired in 1955′ died in January 1961′
    My Father, started his seven year compositors apprenticeship, just prior to WW Two, With Victoria Printing company, assume they were part of Odhams ?
    when he went to join army, and returned to complete apprenticeship , circa 1948′ he went on to work in various national newspapers, and aspired to house purchase in 1951′ never approved of by Grandfather,, the true socialist,
    Like others , have mentioned Fathers career, enabled him and our late mother to offer our family, a very affluent lifestyle,
    Please contact me for further information,

    • Mr Grandfather was a Compositor with Odhams in Long Acre ; he would have served is apprentice at the beginning of the 1900s. Can you tell me where I could see an apprenticeship agreement of that period ; one narrow point I have a particular interest in is whether he needed the approval of the Union or employer to marry. Are there any references or memoirs / memories of actually working in Odhams on that site. The newspaper my grandfather worked on was The Daily Herald and he retired around the 1950s.

  5. My grandfather came to the United States from Barbados, and was a stone hand compositor, he was also a proof reader. I know from what my father and uncle told me, that he was a ” crack one too.” I was told by my late father that I could be proud of him. I wonder what the status implications would be given that he was an immigrant in America during the depression?

    • Administrator

      Sherri, thanks for your engagement with this post. We can pass your comment to the author to see whether she can cast any light on this. Kind regards, Andrew

    • Sherri Thorne

      Thanks for trying to get me the information. I am trying to piece together the family history and I remember being told what my grandfather did. Now, I am trying to pass this information on to my nephew Brooks.

  6. Hi, I was a compositor based in London, I served my apprenticeship at Smith and Ebbs Ltd back in the ’50’s and attended the London School of Printing. I found your article really interesting and as a result wrote to you outlining my experiences. This was published on this site in the first instance but today I revisit this page and it is no more??? Just wondered why that would be. Kind regards, Michael Maher

  7. Richard Howard

    Hi, I too was apprenticed at Smith & Ebbs limited, my indenture dates from 1935. War service interrupted my career but after serving in the RAF I returned to Smith & Ebbs and remained with them serving in a number of capacities until they ceased trading round about 1970. My current interest follows a visit to the city where much to my surprise I found that the building in Northumberland Alley has recently been demolished. Your apprenticeship commenced during the war years and I cannot quite place you from the photo on the computer. I would very much like to hear from you and to know whether you remember us returning apprentices including Jim Hall.

  8. Jane Clifton

    Very interested to read about this as most of the men in my father’s family were compositors or linotype operators. My dad trained at St Clement’s Press and worked in the 1930s as a compositor at the Financial Times. After he came back from the war he worked for the News Chronicle and then switched to the London Evening Star when my brother was born as the hours were better. After the Evening Star folded he was taken on by the Evening News and sadly died while he was working there in the 1970s.
    He was the last generation of the family to be a compositor or linotype operator – his nephew was due to start his training after his National Service but sadly was killed. However I’ve worked for the last twenty years as a proofreader/ copy editor/ sub editor and my daughter too is a writer/editor and has worked on newspapers so I guess we must have ink running through our veins!

  9. Charles Erb

    Can anybody confirm the yarn that compositors apprenticed within the City of London were entitled to wear a sword?

  10. Iain Urquhart

    I served my time as a comp in Robert MacLehose & Co in Glasgow, we were the University of Glasgow printers and printed all to do with them, including exam papers! This was from 1961. We were also a very large book printing and binding company.
    I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the fact that comp’s could read upside down, and I still can aged 70. This came in handy when sitting opposite a person who was reading from a sheet of paper in front of them, I could read it along with them, while facing them.

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