The Compositor in London: The Rise and Fall of a Labour Aristocracy

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 (

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 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.


  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.

    1. 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. 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,

    1. 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?

    1. 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

      1. Regret no further information, relating to Sherri enquiry.!

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

    1. Yes, as compositors, being able to read and write and were regarded as gentlemen compositors, they were able to walk the streets of London wearing top hat and a sword.

  10. 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.

    1. Hi Iain. My name is Alan Urqhart. I served my time in Robert MacLehose, Anniesland Cross from 1968- 1974. Tremendous education. Was one of fifteen apprentices.
      Studied the technicians course at college.

  11. I was an apprentice compositor in the mid 70s with Greenaways the financial printer running 24 hour cover in a comp room of 50 odd compositors, monotype setters-casters, readers and stores, working on days with a night shift as well. Letterpress ended in 1980 and sadly that way of working life ended we transferred to another of Greenaways factories in Stroud where litho and the new technology of cut n paste, camera and film planner/platemaker was already in progress. The tweezers, the call of pickin for type, the stick, the stone, casting off, the chase, the pica, the case and of course dissin when the work went quiet. You had to be there an experience still remembered to this day.

  12. Because compositors were dealing with newspaper stories every day for years, (and reading them upside down), for years, sometimes all their life, they became excellent at their language and particularly in grammar and spelling. Compositors also became very knowledgeable in a wide variety of subjects, AND still are.

  13. I was very interested in the article, especially the way the unions offered extra benefits ie a pension scheme and care homes. This maybe something they should bring back in these turbulent times.
    I also enjoyed Oliver’s comment as I was a student at Williams Lea, in Scrutton Street in the 70s, they were another financial printer in London.
    Now I have just retired I have some letterpress equipemnt to play with and keep my hand in. One problem is that is very hard to find an engineer to fix hot metal equipment now!

  14. Hello My Great Grandmother was a Compositor. I was told this many times by my family as I was growing up. They said that she was the first female Compositor. I have a copy of her apprenticeship and that of her husband. I would like to know if this were to be true as she was born in 1866 so I guess she might only have been able to do this work until she had her first child.

  15. Diana Weekes
    I would be interested in trying to find my Fathers indentures.
    He was employed by a firm called Kemp Brothers and Wooten, in Gosport,Hampshire.
    He would have been employed there in approx 1935/6, but was called up for WW2.
    As a young girl I know that he always worked at printing firms.
    He even worked as a printer on the old Queen Mary that called at,Lisbon,New York and South America.I even had a visit on her with my Mum one day.
    Can anyone help? His name was Robert Ernest Flint Shaw

  16. Is there any truth to the fact that many years ago compositors were the only people, due to their ability to read and write, were able to use the title “Esquire” in the City of London? I’ve looked at many references but can’t find definitive evidence and not sure if it’s truth or myth

  17. I was an apprentice Compositor in the early 1960s – the indentures stated that the “master’s” permission was required if you wished to marry!

  18. great piece, growing up in lower working class Dublin in the 50’s i became an electrician, one of my friends a very bright lad became a compositor, for no specific reason his job seemed like a profession whereas mine was a trade.
    although i haven’t seen or heard of my old friend in decades i began to wonder what ever happened to the compositors. i’m sure like myself who moved on from electrical work the compositors evolved with the fluid workforce.

  19. My father was a compositor in the 1950s and 60s but sadly died when I was quite young in 1965. I know he worked for a firm near Liverpool Street. I have his London Typographical Society card from 1958, he joined in 1954. Is it possible to find a record of its members ? It might be a way I can find the name of his best friend and work colleague from that time. His company had its annual works do at Claridges in May 1965. Thanks.

    1. I have my grandfathers London Society of Compositors cards, 7-9 St Bride Street, London E.C. from 1903 to 1939 when I assume he retired. Having had them for decades there seems little point in my keeping them any longer but before I consign them to the rubbish, I feel I ought to try and find out if they are of historical interest and should be preserved in which case I would appreciate any information of where I should enquire further.

      1. Hallo Wendy ,,Well! Just seen your post about the Union Cards, Well worth’ keeping, We had 101 years worth of cards, which were for My Father, His Father, and Grandfather, ! My nephew , in Perth Australia , now has them ! please Do Not Throw. Then out, they are treasured art work!

        1. The problem is my family’s spread around the globe and nobody wants them which is why I’m left with the cards and other bits which through sentiment I’ve kept for 50 years. Being of an age when I’m now getting rid of my own old stuff (which nobody wants either!), it looks as if I will just have to be ruthless dump everything. Thanks for your reply anyway.

  20. A very interesting read, I became a comp in the mid sixties, a journeyman in an ordinary run of the mill printshop. I then became an adsetter, still hot metal. Most of the adsetting houses were based in the Clerkenwell area of London. An extensive range of typefaces had to be carried, because of the nature of the adsetting business, every ad couldn’t be set up in Gill or Times Roman! Because you could run out of type we had dedicated ‘storemen’ who would go out in the night and borrow type from another rival typesetter, this type obviously had to be returned, these people were known as ‘mumpers’. There was also a ritual of going to the pubs in Smithfield, particularly on a Friday morning, you finished at 6am, after a nights print and the pubs in the market were open for business, many a happy hour was spent in ‘The Vic’, ‘The Smithfield Tavern’ or ‘The Cock’. Slowly but surely digitalisation took over, the ‘Berthold Diatronic’ in particular, had a very good image projected through a glass grid, again the grids were often ‘mumped’ because they cost about £300 pound each I believe. Film make up was then used to produce the final job, which had to be stamped on the back before the newspapers would accept it. The Apple Macs then took over, the difference being that a typesetter could then do the whole job, place images, run type around etc. I think I would tend to disagree with the comment that this was easier, I have worked across the whole gamut, Comp, proof reader, film make up, Diatronic, ADS then Macs.
    When I first became a comp the union was called the London Typographical Society (LTS), and if you changed jobs you had to go to ‘the Soc’ and obtain a ‘green card’ before you started your new job. Some of the London setting houses I worked for: Apex, Funnell Graphic, Art Reprographic, Heavyweight, Studio Ten, Mechs, Quick Brown Fox and a few more which I cannot remember. I retired about ten years ago, ending up in packaging, what I do know is that if I had a case of type in front of me and a stick in my hand I could still set a line of hot metal!
    Raymond Silk

  21. Did ad setting myself, Wace & Co, Noakes Bros. and a good few others. Union started as London Soc. of Compositors, the the N.G.A. then the L.T.S.

  22. Enjoyed reading all the comments. I also became a Compositor in the 1960’s after six years including one day release at the NW Poly in North London and two nights a week evening classes for the first year of being an apprentice. Still fondly remember the layout of a ‘California Job Case’. Worked at the Furnival Press in Holborn and Brixton before leaving for Canada in 1974. Started work at a local newspaper with 140 members and left in 1996 when the workforce had dropped to 50 due to technology!! There was a pride and skill that went with the job, more so in Commercial print shops. I still have a book ‘Compositors Work in Printing’ that I get out and look at now and then, met lots of good men and women over the years. Always in a union thankfully.

  23. My Father was brought up in a Barbados home and he was given two choices of career, either carpentry or print. He chose print and entered into a apprentiship. He met my Mother at a print works in London where she was a book binder. They married in 1952 and I was born in 1956. In 1960 we moved from Hammersmith, London to Chesham in Bucks into a firm’s house. He paid £1.00 per week rent and we thought it was pure luxury. He worked for the Carlton Press in Chesham and I would regularly go into the comp room to watch him work and it was there I learned to read upside down and back to front. They used to print Whats On in London and Speedway.I remember his hands were always black from the ink and every night when he came home from work, he would wash his hands with Swarfega but the ink never did come out completely. Later, he moved to the Chesham press where he produced the Bucks examiner and a lot of scientific mags. Eventually he ended up doing Lino for IT Matters in London on the night shift when he retired. He is now 90 years old and can still recall his memories of compositing and his hands are now very clean and yes he can still read upside down

  24. Just found this article and really enjoyed it.
    I was born in 1942, brought up in Shoreditch and Bethnal Green.
    My introduction to the print was through the Jewish Board of Guardians, who found me an apprenticeship to become a Compositor and on the insistance of my mother it had to be a full union shop. Six years apprenticeship in Superior Printers in New Road, Whitechapel. Jobbing work, magazines, foreign language newspapers, Polish, Hebrew on the Intertype machine with reversed matrixs, Russian. After six years of training and college I left to work for St. Clements Press, Bracken house in the ad setting department, going on to many different companies, Curwen Press, W. Spragues, Star Engraving, back to St. Clements on magazines, Waterlows, and finally at the Ilford Recorder from where I retired at 68.
    I enjoyed every minute of my time in “the print”. I was also a Chapel Officer, a Chapel Clerk, and an FOC.
    Your description of the Compositor is absolutely spot on, we worked together, we supported each other and we laughed together, most of all we aimed to make our working hours and conditions better, our pay better.
    Just to finish, new technology and the likes of Murdoch ended all that. I personally ended up working in cut and paste followed by fifteen years on a computer, surrounded mostly by young women in an office where there used be Linos, Elrods, Ludlows, Molding presses, Stones, Funditor saws, and 66 men in the Composing and Reading room department.
    Best Regards, Jack

  25. I was a copyholder (1953-1959) and then a proofreader for three years, both employments being at Odhams Press. I would suggest that there is a market for a book on professional proofreaders and proofreading. The profession stretched beyond Charles Dickens, who made very flattering remarks about his proofreaders. Earlier, amateur and well-educated people performed the task for the kudos. Shakespeare’s printer, it is said, pinned up his manuscripts in a public place for passers-by to correct them. It was said that proofreaders were almost always slightly mad and I can confirm that many of my colleagues were at least idiosyncratic.

  26. I am researching a friends family history and would like to ask a question if thats agreeable. I’m trying to establish whether a law stationers apprentice might go on to become a printer compositor ? Not having any knowledge of the printing trade I would really appreciate some guidance.

  27. I started off as a Compositor in 1979. Mine was a four year indentured apprenticeship. I initially worked for Saunders the Printers, Isle of Wight Chronicle and Guardian. I went to Southampton College of Art, one week a month, for four years. There were over 100 printing students in my year at college. My company folded and as I was a 2nd year apprentice, I was taken on by the Isle of Wight County Press, initially in the Jobbing Room. I was, as all of the Printing staff were, a member of the National Graphical Association (NGA). When I was in my 3rd year, I moved to the company’s ‘newsroom’ and became a ‘paste-up’ artist. Later I went on to become an Apple Mac Operator. I finally left the printing industry in 2003. Sadly, though the newspaper is still going, there are no printing staff left.

  28. I started work as an apprentice Hand Compositor at the Grosvenor Press in London. Attended the London School of Printing in Stamford Street. This led to my typographic design as well as hand composition. Received the City and Guilds Full Tech Certificate. Mr Monkton the principle of the Composing Dept. Advising me to become a Part Time Teacher. At the College Where I met teacher Harry Beck in a Typography Class. He talked me into teaching Typographic Design. I left the printing Industry and became an Assistant Works Manager at a Printer near Kings Cross in London.Later I became a typographer at three Ad Agencies. I emigrated to Sydney Australia and worked in Advertising. After 3 years moved to New Jersey in the USA. I became Font Development Manager at RCA VideoComp Division. One of the first generated Computer Typesetter. Opened a Design Studio in New Jersey. After 3 years moved back to Australia and opened a company called OmniGraphic specialing in Typgraphy and 35mm slide production. After a while opened a Graphic Design Studio called OmniGraphic where we specialised in Typographic design. And at 86 still working where my wife and I produce a 48pp magazine for the Australian Geological Society every quarter.

  29. I am researching my Grandfather’s life : Albert Mellor 1888-1958. He was a print compositer ; estimated dates 1902, on leaving school at 14 to mid 1940s. I know in his later working years he worked at the Odhams print works in Long Acre, London WC2.
    Can anyone tell me if he would have had a 7 year formal indenture : would that indenture involve a payment from his parents to his Employer/Master/Skilled Manager : or would he havehad reduced wages for those 7 years before being paid the full ‘going rate’ ; would that indenture require him to seek consent to marriage – was it always granted? If anyone has or knows where I can get a copy set of indentures, that would be much appreciated.
    In relation to this article it sets out the attitudes precisely of my grandfather. He had a semi-detached house in a leafy London suburb, when buying a house was a minority activity, but he was fiercely Socialist, and I have reason to think he was a peace campaigner in the run up to WW1, but not in a significant capacity, just a strong supporter.

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