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.

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