The clerk's tale

The clerk's tale

Richard Willis looks at the growth of the white-collar workforce in the 19th century

Richard Willis, a visiting professor at the University of South Wales

Richard Willis

a visiting professor at the University of South Wales


By the mid-19th century, the British economy witnessed the beginnings of the growth in numbers of office clerks. Although an exception to the rule was the position of banking clerks, who enjoyed excellent conditions and terms of employment, many clerks were exploited in a way that would be unheard of today; and they were reluctant to form trade unions to voice their unhappiness brought about by callous and unscrupulous employers who did little to improve their employees’ working conditions and pay.

An insurance clerk, c1890
An insurance clerk, c1890

The expansion in Victorian business in the service sector from the 1850s was accompanied by the onset of an increase in white-collar occupations. The gloomy, decrepit state of the Victorian office clerk became a classic image in commercial history. In 1851, 140,000 office workers in Britain, representing an estimated 0.8 per cent of the total labour force, were employed and just before the outbreak of World War One, the figure had grown to about one million, over four per cent nationally. In London, growth in the numbers of pen-pushers was notably considerable. The areas of employment for these clerks grew as the Victorian service sector expanded and there were vast inroads into banking and insurance, plus a wide array of office assistants required to administer the growing railway network. Many experienced monotonous work as it could be very repetitive and dull. Yet it was not all doom and gloom for all clerks, as some middle-class or lower-middle-class employees could find for themselves relatively comfortable lives. As time went by, their terms and conditions did improve, for example with more provision of pensions, but such concessions were not widespread.

The accountant’s bank note office at the Bank of England, 1870
The accountant’s bank note office at the Bank of England, 1870

Recruitment focused on good dress and appearance, and it was essential for the clerk to have neat and legible handwriting. Employment agencies kept lists of vacancies, and preferences gave priority to tried-and-tested applicants or where someone had been recommended. Minor job opportunities could be found in the appointment columns of the newspapers, though these tended only to advertise low-level apprenticeships or vacancies where the pay was poor. Employers reluctantly placed details of clerical positions in the press, as such adverts generated a huge response in interested candidates, leading to hundreds of applicants for a single vacancy. In some cases, tests were set to establish who was most suitable.

Clerks at the Stock Exchange clearing house in 1887
Clerks at the Stock Exchange clearing house in 1887

In the early 1850s, it was rare for female clerks to be employed, but gradually there were examples of women being recruited in the lower levels of clerical work. Women more and more took on clerkships in offices, assuming the role of typist and telephonist as technology developed. As in the case of some female teachers at this time, a marriage bar dictated that women should resign should they marry. This condition did not apply to men, who often found that an annual salary of £100 was enough to support a wife and himself and he could easily commute to work. Overall his employment was secure and many, albeit by no means all, considered that here was gainful employment in a golden age for the middle classes.

Post office clerks stamping and sorting letters, 1875
Post office clerks stamping and sorting letters, 1875

The elite of clerks
During the last quarter of the century, it was also noticed that the salaries of clerks tended to increase and that promotion from a junior role was evident where the office worker excelled; this was particularly the norm within the banking sector. As a result of the rise in complexity of banking methods and practices, clerkships in this area were highly cherished and they were only made available to scrupulous workers who displayed qualities such as patience and trust. Banking clerks were then referred to as the ‘aristocracy’ of the administrative world. Their position was cosseted and only those with impeccable credentials were employed. Thus, known to represent the ‘elite’ of clerks, they were well paid and offered the prospect of climbing the social ladder. It is not then surprising that often such employees were selected following personal recommendation, so the practice of a network of patronage was evident.

Yet reliance on testimonials could also play a significant part in the recruitment process. Management concluded that this was the best way of preventing fraud committed by staff. Wayward behaviour such as drunkenness and insolvency were particularly frowned upon. Glamorganshire Banking Company sacked one of its clerks who had been found guilty of criminal activity. Once in employment, regular appraisals took place to keep banking clerks on their toes and it was not unknown for a clerk to be dismissed where his handwriting was of a low standard.

Female clerks at a china factory
Female clerks at a china factory

After occupying a high position in the bank, it was not uncommon for the clerk to remain in his job beyond retirement age. Clerks could continue working at more than 80 years of age before the law sanctioned compulsory retirement at 65. The offices in which banking clerks worked were also noted for their impressive architectural design and these contributed to their status, leading to a commonly held view that their workplaces were the best in Britain. Where the clerk fell ill or where they retired, pensions offered financial security which could also be extended to their dependents.

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Way from the special privileges of banking clerks, there were considerable variations in the pay and conditions experienced by their counterparts in other industries and firms. Insurance clerks also faced favourable circumstances in their work, but the lot of railway and legal clerks was very poor. The railway clerk would be expected to work after normal working hours and in general their salary and status were lower, and they might even have earned less than skilled manual workers. Railway clerks’ working conditions could be particularly bleak, often referred to as the ‘dust hole’ of the station. They would have to work in offices with very little natural light and in cramped conditions. The buildings were rarely cleaned and the ventilation very poor and this often led to illness. They would endure long hours of duty.

Railway clerks could be overburdened with the pressure of excessive workload made even worse at stations such as Clapham, aggravated by the extensive traffic flow. The extent of overtime might average as much as 90 hours per clerk each month. Railway clerks also experienced far less job security and holiday leave could be cancelled owing to work overload. The rule was that whoever worked the longest with the least pay would stay in their job; the others would not be guaranteed work and would be laid off. The weekly wage was so low that the clerk and his wife virtually lived in poverty.

Male and female clerks working together at the Central Telegraph Office, 1874
Male and female clerks working together at the Central Telegraph Office, 1874

The legal clerk, specialising in clerical work relating to law courts and practices, as in the case of the railway assistant, found that overtime was not financially rewarded. This again impinged on workers’ health and sense of well-being, but because of the supply of clerks outstripping demand, there was greater tolerance for a willingness to stay in post. Burning the midnight oil led to illness and employers, in dismissing clerks, showed little sympathy, knowing that there was a waiting list to replace those unable to cope with the demands of work. Many clerks in these times were deferential to their managers and reluctant to set up trade unions to protect their rights. Few were willing to air their grievances in public, fearing retaliation from their greedy and heartless employers.

Local, provident and burial catering societies were often the only means of protection for the clerk and it was not until 1890 that the National Union of Clerks (NUC) was formed. It became a thorn in the side of employers who resented office workers’ desire for job security and an improvement in their working conditions. Yet nine years earlier postal workers had set up the Postal Telegraph Clerks Association, a body having less impact than a union such as the NUC but one having some influence on employers nonetheless. Even so, the hostility towards unions became a dominant feature of life for middle-class clerks, who resisted any moves to upset their employers.

An instructional manual for young clerks, dating from 1848
An instructional manual for young clerks, dating from 1848

Research sources
Sources of interest to the family historian for further research into the work and lives of the Victorian office clerk are varied. Archive material, such as that owned by C Hoare and Company, a private bank founded in 1672, might be accessed, though there would be greater availability in more public organisations such as the records offered by the British Library and The National Archives. The Discovery search facility on TNA’s website can reveal individual records of Victorian clerks and there are still some surviving ledgers that office assistants were tasked with updating. References such as MH 47/68/18 relate to individual records of clerks.

Museums can also provide an array of personal records. The National Railway Museum in York is a case in point. A good starting point is to establish the ancestor’s address and occupation, perhaps through the census or a birth, marriage or death certificate. After finding the company they worked for, you can discover if their staff records have survived. These can display rudimentary information. For example, the record should indicate the clerk’s name, their position within the organisation, their place of work and details about their pay. Local record offices can provide a rich source of data and perseverance can be fruitful. Where individual companies are approached, there may be a reluctance to help and this is particularly applicable to law firms. I once approached two established practices in the City and both failed to respond. Data associated with the Association of General Railway Clerks can be found at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

The extent of records giving information on clerks is immense, largely as office workers’ impact on the Victorian economy was considerable. This army of employees gave way in modern times to the recruitment of the administrative assistant and corresponding admin staff. Except for mainly banking employment, a high proportion of clerks in Victorian Britain faced much hardship and were expected to put up with harsh conditions and low pay.

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