Victorian London - Professions - Service Industry/General - Clerks

Scattered about, in various holes and corners of the Temple, are certain dark and dirty chambers, in and out of which, all the morning in vacation, and half the evening too in term time, there may be seen constantly hurrying with bundles of papers under their arms, and protruding from their pockets, an almost uninterrupted succession of lawyers' clerks. There are several grades of lawyers' clerks. There is the articled clerk, who has paid a premium, and is an attorney in perspective, who runs a tailor's bill, receives invitations to parties, knows a family in Gower Street, and another in Tavistock Square; who goes out of town every long vacation to see his father, who keeps live horses innumerable; and who is, in short, the very aristocrat of clerks. There is the salaried clerk—out of door, or in door, as the case may be—who devotes the major part of his thirty shillings a week to his Personal pleasure and adornments, repairs half-price to the Adelphi Theatre at least three times a week, dissipates majestically at the cider cellars afterwards, and is a dirty caricature of the fashion which expired six months ago. There is the middle-aged copying clerk, with a large family, who is always shabby, and often drunk. And there are the office lads in their first surtouts, who feel a befitting contempt for boys at day-schools, club as they go home at night, for saveloys and porter, and think there's nothing like 'life.' There are varieties of the genus, too numerous to recapitulate, but however numerous they may be, they are all to be seen, at certain regulated business hours, hurrying to and from the places we have just mentioned.
     These sequestered nooks are the public offices of the legal profession, where writs are issued, judgments signed, declarations filed, and numerous other ingenious machines put in motion for the torture and torment of His Majesty's liege subjects, and the comfort and emolument of the practitioners of the law. They are, for the most part, low-roofed, mouldy rooms, where innumerable rolls of parchment, which have been perspiring in secret for the last century, send forth an agreeable odour, which is mingled by day with the scent of the dry-rot, and by night with the various exhalations which arise from damp cloaks, festering umbrellas, and the coarsest tallow candles.

Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1836


    The word Clerk, which was formerly synonymous with clergyman, included all who had taken orders, and the clerk to this day takes the orders of the customer, or follows the orders of his principal. Clerks are those engaged in the departments of trade or business that require the pen, and any clerk ought therefore to be pen-ny wise, though he should by no means be pound foolish.
    There are almost as many varieties of clerks, am there are different sorts of cloth, from the extra superfine government official down to the coarse copying article in an attorney's office.
    `The education of a clerk is of course a matter of importance, and the following instructions to a parent, intending his child for the desk, should be implicitly followed. First take your son, and soak him well in spelling and writing. Grind in a few ounces of grammar, stuff with arithmetic, and season with geography. Lard with a little Latin, and baste with birch whenever you find it requisite. Serve up on a high stool, at the first convenient opportunity. As our guide is not intended for the parents of clerks, but for clerks themselves, we proceed to give the latter a few general directions for their moral and intellectual guidance.
    Recreation will probably be the first consideration with the clerk himself and we therefore proceed to give this branch of the subject our very earliest attention. The term "recreation" does not necessarily apply to the time after office-hours, for in the absence of the principals the course of the day will furnish many opportunities for relaxation from the toils of business. The newspaper, for instance, expands the mind, and is easily put down when you hear any one coming; while in some offices, not liable to very sudden intrusion, a game at cribbage - which is a great quickener of the faculties - may be ventured on. Where the clerks are all on friendly terms, and particularly in a government office, leap-frog is an agreeable exercise; for it not only fills up the time, but obviates the chief objection to the employment of a clerk, on the ground of its being sedentary. After office-hours you will of course be your own master, and the improvement of your mind will be your chief object.
    The great struggle for the emancipation of the commercial intellect in one in which you are interested, and perhaps no revolution was ever so important as the great counter-revolution which the metropolitan shopmen are now engaged in. You will of course range yourself under the banner of "early closing," and will rally round the said measure in defence of your evenings to yourselves, your domestic hearths, your half-prices at the theatres, your mental improvement, your billiards, your books, your Mechanics' Institutions, your free-and-easies, your cigars, your philosophy, and your brandy-and-water. You will fraternise with those gallant linendrapers who have sworn to bring freedom home to their country's counters, and who would rather perish at the scissars' point than lose one quarter of a nail of the great principle they are contending for.
    Amid the recreations you may select for the evening, you will be told to avoid excitement, and certainly an excited clerk must be an object of some curiosity, if not of downright ridicule. Beware of literary ambition, and do not covet the mad enjoyment of contributing an occasional pun or gush of poetical passion to the pages of a periodical. Many a clerk has found a premature garret, and sunk into an early workhouse through having given way to the promptings of poesy. We knew a case of a poor boy who soared on the wings of a conundrum into the Temple of Fame, and out of the Inner Temple, where he held the situation of clerk to a very promising junior barrister. Avoid the printer as you would the devil; and eschew the Pierian Spring as you would the plug, when the water is rushing fiercely out of it.
    Having given a few directions for the guidance of all clerks in general, let us look at some Of the particular kinds, and set down a few rules applicable to each of the various classes.
    The first clerk of all is the Government Clerk, whose situation is the moat difficult of all; for the filling up of the office-hours from ten till four will require a great amount of ingenuity. The newspaper will furnish conversation, and, in the early part of the month, the magazines will afford light reading that will be a relief to the dreadful monotony of doing nothing. It need hardly be suggested, that if a stranger should enter, he must be received with a stare and a yawn, while some of the old authorities recommend the whistling of a popular air from the last new opera.
    The Bank Clerk differs from the Government Clerk apparently, rather than essentially. If an individual enters with a cheque to be changed, be sure not to raise your eyes from a desk at which you are engaged, in drawing some figures on a pad, probably for your own amusement; and if you are laughing or joking with a fellow clerk, do not cut short a good story to attend to an impatient fellow who comes to pay in or draw out money.
    Railway Clerks are next in importance, and they should endeavour to show their dignity by declining to speak to any one who addresses them. If information is wanted, there are the printed bills to afford it; for the duty of the Railway Clerk is confined to taking the fares, and giving the tickets. If you are in this situation, you should not make yourself toe cheap, and you should therefore only be visible a few minutes before the starting of the train, when, as a crowd will have been waiting impatiently for you for some time, you will be sure at least of a welcome. Always give the tickets very slowly; for as patience is a virtue, you should take every opportunity of teaching others to practise it.
    We now come to Law Clerks, who are divided into Articled Clerks, Attorneys' Clerks, and the Clerks of Barristers.
    Articled Clerks, who have paid a good premium, may imitate those in the government offices to a certain extent; but they must be guided by discretion, for people will not always put up with airs from any one in an attorney's office.
    The Copying Clerk can only enhance his dignity by using the word WE when speaking of the firm, and talking of his principal to other clerks as So and So, without the complimentary prefix of Mister, to his surname. The poor fellow may also flirt with the house-servant, in the hope of getting an occasional draught of small beer or a hunch of bread and cheese when he pops down into the kitchen.
    We have now nothing left but the Barrister's Clerk, who derives life consequence or the reverse from the standing at the bar or the utter brieflessness of his employer. A Barrister's Clerk should never expose the professional secrets of his master; but if a client should come with even a simple motion of course, the clerk should search a large book containing an imaginary list to see whether We - for the Barrister's Clerk usually says We - are retained for the other side. If you have nothing to do at chambers, you may endorse some dummies with tremendous ideal fees in very large figures, and write in a very legible hand "WITH YOU, MR. ATTORNEY-GENERAL," or "CONSULTATION AT THE SOLICITOR-GENERAL'S CHAMBERS AT SIX," and these should be left lying in such a position that every one who comes into the chambers cannot avoid seeing them. If your master's practice is so notoriously nominal that this "dodge" could not by any possibility succeed, you, who are his clerk, will probably be a boy, and you will require juvenile recreation. For this purpose there is the whole of the Temple, where pitch-and-toss may be played at all reasonable hours with any other juvenile clerk who may be disposed for the pastime alluded to.
    One of the greatest accomplishments of a Barrister's Clerk consists in knowing how to shirk attendance at chambers, and what notices placed on the door are the best adapted to lull suspicion. "Return in an hour" is a standard rule in all cases of vagueness, for the chance of your coming hack is so void for remoteness, that few would come to test the validity of the document at the time when you have made yourself returnable. "Gone to Westminster" looks extremely well upon the door, and may apply to your master as well as to yourself. So that when you know he is either fishing or shooting in the country, and is sure not to come back and find you out, you may put up the notice alluded to with credit to all parties.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1845


THE LAWYER'S CLERK enters the office at nine, and leaves at eight. His only holiday is when he is sent into the country to serve a writ. He has a "fine bold hand," and can "fair copy" two brief sheets an hour. He does not throw up his salary because he is too proud to engross skins of parchment; on the contrary, he has a pair of false sleeves (like umbrella-cases) for the purpose. He knows exactly the legal price of everything, from a savage assault to a breach of promise of marriage. He is not fond of taxing, and is ready to cry if not allowed his "Letters and Messengers" every Term. His great delight in an action is to "get costs." He then shows the admirable system of "the office" by proving in how short a time a long bill can be made out, sent in, execution served, with the sheriff's sale, if not paid within a fortnight. He has no patience with people who come to beg for time - he is very sorry, he has but one duty to perform. That duty is invariably an appointment with the obsequious JOHN DOE, made by HER GRACIOUS MAJESTY at the Court of Exchequer, or some other place He does not read novels during office hours nor roast chesnuts, nor apples, nor act plays, nor toss for beer nor learn "The Wolf," or any song, comic or dreary, when "the Governor" is out. His soul is in his master's pocket, and he always appeals or has a rejoinder ready, or a new bill on the file, if the client can only afford it. His cry, like DEMOSTHENES', is always "Action, action, action," and in his opinion the best reward a good action can have is a Chancery suit. He is cautious as he is zealous - keeps a copy of every letter, almost dislikes saying, "How d'ye do" without a witness, has a horror of giving promises on paper, and always tries to inflate 6s 8d. into the dimensions of 13s. 4d. He would blush to take any of the office paper home with him. He understands perfectly when a client has called to complain of delay; in which case, "MR. HOOKHAM has always just stepped out - he believes it is to move in your very suit. He takes but half-an-hour for his dinner, and only allows himself ten minutes for his tea. When he serves you with a writ, he hopes "you will not be offended - it is his most painful duty." The same with a distress he throws a cloak of politeness over every step that gradually leads a man from a lawyer's office to the Queen's Bench. By half-starving, the strongest self-denial, little agencies from friends he has recommended to the office, and the Christmas Boxes of a long range of years, he saves a hundred pounds, and, working upon half salary in lieu of a premium gets articled to his master. However, the County Courts have beggared a fine profession, and LORD BROUGHAM has so cut down the profits of the Law to scarcely a herring a-day, that he is obliged to come back and occupy the same stool he has grown grey upon during his clerkhood. He buries all ambition in his "pad," takes to copying after office hours, in order to gain a few pounds, when his fingers can no longer hold a pen, and ultimately resigns his desk to some young man, who, like himself with a strong constitution, and probably a generous heart, sells himself to lose both, for the matter of eighteen shillings (and "a rise") as a LAWYER'S CLERK. 

    THE RAILWAY CLERK dresses smartly. He is a friend of a Director, or the cousin of a large Shareholder. Business with him is quite a secondary consideration. He opens his little trap-door five minutes before the train, and closes it the minute the clock has struck. He will take your money if you want a ticket, but mind, he is not answerable for any mistake. He has no time to count change, or answer questions about trains, or attend to stupid people who come inquiring about the persons who were killed by yesterday's accident. It is not his business. He cannot attend to every one at once, and he runs his diamond fingers through his rich, Macassared hair. It a really no fault of his if you lose the train - you ought to have come sooner; and then he whips off, with a very pretty penknife, a sharp corner that pains the symmetry of one of his filbert nails. What should he know about dogs ?-you had better inquire at the luggage train. You can write to the newspapers by all means, if you like: the newspapers don't pay him. The parcels are not in his department - the porters perhaps can tell. He is very sorry he has no change for a five pound note - he has no doubt you can get it round the corner. He yawns all the morning - his eyes are only half open at eight o'clock, and his white waistcoat betrays his dreadful impatience to get to the Opera, as the time draws slowly towards the mail train. What he does between the dreary intervals, as we cannot peep over the walls of mahogany into the small circle of his duties, we cannot tell. On a Sunday, however, his usual amiability deserts him. His cambric shirt is beautifully smooth, but his temper is sadly ruffled. The Excursions upset him. The number of absurd questions annoy him. He wonders how people can be so foolish, and at last makes a resolution not to answer anymore inquiries, and the Railway Clerk knows his own dignity too well not to keep it. He becomes as silent as a Government Surveyor's Report over a "Dreadful Collision." He only stares; but occasionally troubles himself to the utmost of his abilities to give a nod that may express "Yes" or "No," just as the person pleases. Beyond this, the Railway Clerk is as obliging as most Clerks, and he has this advantage that he is very good-looking, and after coming out of an omnibus on a wet day, is quite pleasant to look at. In the heat of summer he looks cool - in the depths of winter he always appears warm and comfortable. He is really a pattern of politeness to ladies, and smiles most condescendingly to pretty girls, displaying his gallantry and white teeth in a thousand little ways. He was evidently intended by Nature as an ornament to a tea-party, or born to grace a pic-nic. The only pity is that his friends ever made him a RAILWAY CLERK.

    THE GOVERNMENT CLERK* [*EXPLANATION CLAUSE - Be it Understood. That whenever a Government Clerk is mentioned, the words do not apply to those Gentlemen who get the least pay, and do the most work.] is the most refined specimen He has grown so mild by practice that he never loses his temper He knows his station better than to argue, or dispute, or contradict, or differ in opinion with any one. He has a sovereign remedy that protects him from all complaints, mild or virulent, and that is deafness. Do what he will he cannot hear. It is a great impediment that has never been cured, though very often tried. You must speak two or three times, and very loudly too before you can make him hear a single word. He has then a very indistinct notion of what you want, and must read the account of last night's farce deliberately through, and look at himself in the glass, before he can arrive to a perfect comprehension that you are in want of anything. It is fact the art of putting a person off, that the Government Clerk is especially clever. He does this so politely, that, though offended, you are yet afraid to give explosion to your anger. "He will be with you in one instant;" and he retires with a new coat into the next room to give audience to one of his tailors. "He shall be happy to attend upon you directly;" and he finishes to his fellow-clerks a most curious incident that occurred to him last night at the Polish Ball. "Will you be kind enough to take a chair?" whilst he perfect a Sweep for the next St. Leger. You cannot possibly be rude with one who is so polite. At three o'clock he locks his desk, and commences his toilet. After that hour every one is most blandly requested to take the trouble to call again the following day. At four o'clock, as soon as the quarter before it strikes, he is to be seen on the water, or in Hyde Park, or on top of an omnibus so neatly attired, you never would suspect he had been doing a hard day's business. In fact, who can tell the papers he has diligently read, or the tender notes he has beautifully written; or the happy little bits of literature he has knocked off for Punch or  Blackwood's Magazine; or the numbers of "Don't love" or "Do love," he has strung together for gorgeous illuminated songs, if BALFE only likes to have them; or the quires of paper he has richly cartooned; or the endless quills he has cut into tooth-picks, or the  countless variety of things, all requiring time and some degree of ability, that a Government Clerk is expected to do when he gives his presence to his ungrateful country, from the very early hour of ten in the morning to as late an hour as four in the afternoon. Sometimes, also, he is a Dramatic author, that is to say, he translates French pieces, and it cannot be pleasant to be interrupted in the middle of a most impassioned scene, between a Countess and a sentimental barber's boy, merely to give a date, or to hand over the office copy of some dreary document. Hasn't he to keep himself clean too, all the while? for call when you will, you always find the poor fellow busily employed in washing his hands, or combing his hair, or dusting his boots, or mending his nails. Before we laugh, we should really pause to consider whether there any one who could do as many things so well in the same short space of time, as the GOVERNMENT CLERK.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1848


[-15-] 

CHAPTER III.

MY OFFICE.

Of all my haunts my office is the one most important to me, and therefore, of course, entitled to the first description. It is not a lawyer's office, nor a merchant's office, nor a broker's office, nor an insurance office, but a Government office,—a good, sound, wholesome, work-delaying, evasive-answer- giving, ten-to-four-staying Government office. And now, perhaps, you think that I am about to give a thorough account of the penetralia of the place, an entire exposé of the system on which its business is conducted! Tomkins nudges Jackson when he comes to the foregoing passage, and says, " Now, sir, we have it at last,—an account of the secrets of one of those infernal public departments, and of the goings- on of those rascally lazy clerks, for whose support we pay taxes, Jackson ; by one of themselves, sir!" Steady, Tomkins; not so fast, my friend: I want you to pay a few more taxes for my support, and if mysteries were revealed, a dread penalty would await [-16-] the betrayer: so that of the inward working of my office you shall know nothing. I will tell you its name though, and its situation. No! I won't mention that, for fear I should lose my own; but it is called the Draft and Docket Office, and lies down in the very heart of the City. None of your flaunting west-end establishments, such as the Treasury, Home, or Privy Council, covered with stucco, and guarded by sentries, but a quiet, unpretending little building, perfectly thrown into the shade by the splendour of its immediate neighbour, a hall of one of the large city companies. In the vicinity are numerous enormous warehouses, in the little offices of which incalculable wealth is made by men large as to their hands, feet, and trousers patterns, and wonderful as to the collars of their shirts; and at the doors of these warehouses may generally be seen standing heavy vans and waggons, being laden with vast bales by men of gigantic stature and a tendency to working in their shirt-sleeves, who in the summer are being perpetually supplied with porter from the neighbouring public-houses, and who madden the clerks in my office, hot and tired by their daily grind, by the intense enjoyment they display over the refreshing beverage. The rooms of my office are fitted up in that chaste and classic style befitting the place in which so much labour for the nation is [-17-] carried on. The carpets have no distinctive pattern, no noble cauliflowers or blushing peonies, but are of one uniform sober colour; the tables are covered with green baize, refreshing to the official eye wearied with attempts at deciphering the signature of some applicant to whom Smart and Carstairs are unknown; and the seats are made of leather or cane, thus elevating us far above mere lawyers' clerks, who are compelled to sit on three-legged stools, and those, too, covered with horse-hair. By the regulations of my office we are compelled to be there at ten a.m., and to sign in a book our names and hour of arrival. I cannot say that the clerks are so punctual in their attendance as might be wished; but on looking at the afore-named book I find that, from the unparalleled difficulties daily gone through by the late ones, it is, indeed, a matter of wonder how they manage to get there at all. For instance, I find an entry, " Jas. Taper (omnibus broke down), 10-20." Again, " Rupert Ball (sprained ankle), 10-25;" and " T. Shark, 10-46 (Fleet Street up again)." The clerks in my office seem marked out by fate as victims of innumerable casualties. Thus I find poor Ball with a sprained ankle. Ball, whom I left at three o'clock the same morning at Lady Popham Weasel's, dancing like a male Giselle; and [-18-]  as for Shurk, he certainly must be much spited by the Commissioners of Paving, for Fleet Street was in as complete a state of repair as it ever is (and that's not saying much) when I passed through it at ten minutes to ten.
    It has often been said that a school is a miniature world, and I am sure my office is a miniature world also. Among the clerks there seems scarcely a phase of human nature unrepresented. There is Hareless, one of our seniors; that man, sir, as he will tell you, " has been two-and-forty years in this infernal hole," he has " begged leave to acquaint," and been "directed to inform" more people than would fill Drury Lane Theatre, and has been the " obedient, humble servant" of thousands. He came to the office when there were but thirteen men in it, and now there are thirty : " but they're not like the good old lot, sir; the present men are a set of book-reading young thieves, whose sole pleasure consists in attending lectures or going to humbugging dancing-parties, whereas in the old time we drank port wine all day, and played whist or écarté all night. Many a time I've made one of a whist party after four o'clock on a Saturday, and we've had in plenty of grub, and never unlocked the door until ten on Monday morning, sir;" and then young Jack [-19-]  Rasper, who has just joined us, will shake his head reprovingly at Hareless, aud call him " a dissipated and profane old party."
    Jack Rasper may be taken as a specimen of our fast clerk. He is always in a faultless state of get- up. His collars are the stiffest and his hands the whitest in the office. He writes a worse hand, too, and is more loose in his orthography, than the majority. No sooner has the clock struck four than Jack sallies forth, jumps into a Hansom, and rushes westward. If it be the season, he is to be seen in the course of half an hour on one of the leggiest mares in the Park; and as he canters by the side of Mrs. Highflyer's brougham, and holds sparkling conversation with its fair inmate, or listens to the band in Kensington Gardens, you might mistake him for a swell Guardsman. He knows everybody, does Jack. Goes out to all the déjeuners and thés, and soirées dansantes of London. His looking-glass is so obscured with cards of invitation, that he can scarcely see his wizen little face in it. He is intimate with comic authors, too, and has been into Paul Bedford's dressing-room. His acquaintance with the ballet is unbounded ; coryphées, corps de ballet and extras, he knows them all, and calls them by their Christian names ; and he generally makes one of old Sir Jasper Fakeaway's Sunday ballet-[-20-]parties, which are given at the Trafalgar at Greenwich, once or twice during the season, and at which Jack mimics the unsuspecting and revered baronet in the most barefaced manner, to the delight of the assembled guests. He generally takes his vacation, in January, and goes to Paris, whence he returns full of bals masques, cabinets particuliers, and a certain Eugenie or Augustine: he will sober down some day, marry, have a large family, and become what is called a respectable member of society, which at present shrinks when his name is mentioned, and expresses its conviction that he is lost.
    Fast also, but of a different kind of fastness, is Tom Doland. He is of a sporting turn, brings surreptitious terriers to the office in the pockets of his great-coat, takes a daily stroll to the various betting- offices in the neighbourhood, carries a little memorandum-book, which he calls his " metallic," lays liberal odds against anything, and is reported to make a very good thing out of his would-be knowing, fellow-clerks. He is a species of peripatetic " Bell's Life," and perfectly competent to give any information usually sought for in that erudite journal. The date of any race, rowing-match, fight, pedestrian feat, or rat-hunt of notoriety, he can give at once; and it is whispered he has been initiated into the [-21-] secrets of the mystic game of " nurr and spell." At sporting public-houses he is entirely in his element: the landlord, a retired fighting-man, is friendly with him; the waiter, a species of amateur prize-fighter, respects him; and when there is a grand dinner, the " Fulham Fibber in the chair, faced by Nobby Clarke," you may depend upon it Tom Doland is to be found at the right hand of one of these gentlemen, revered and looked up to by the assemblage.
    Other clerks have we, curious characters. There is Jack Laffin, who ran away from school and served for four years in the Mexican army, who has been a slave agent, a sailor, a Montreal merchant, a dramatic writer, a newspaper editor, and who is now, with a bald head and a large family, comfortably beginning life again at forty years of age, as a junior clerk in the Draft and Docket, with a salary of 90l. a-year, working hard for promotion. There is old Feathers, whose life is passed in reading the newspaper and attending to his Cochin China fowls; and old Cockle, who devotes his existence to the consumption of antibilious medicine. Last, and least (at all events, in stature, though certainly not in his own importance), is little Crossbones, the most melancholy of blighted mortals, who can be backed to break the spirit even of the lightest-hearted Irishman,[-22-] and render him wretched in a month. No disease can be mentioned to which, by his own account, he has not been a martyr, and at this moment he is suffering, I believe, under a combined attack of atrophy and leprosy. However, illness is never suffered to disturb the action of his bruin: he is intensely scientific, and has discovered the circulation of the blood, the electric telegraph, and the art of taking sun-pictures. I say " discovered," because, in a loud and lucid discourse of two hours' length, he satisfactorily proved to me that the reputed inventors, Messrs. Harvey, Wheatstone, and Daguerre, were mere charlatans, and that all the merit lies with him alone. But among this motley assemblage are men, true gentlemen in every sense of the word, from whom I have received assistance and kindness in time of need, and to whom I am sincerely attached ; indeed, however much I am occasionally induced to grumble, I question whether there is any station in life in which I should be better treated or less worried than in my office.

Edmund Yates, My Haunts and their Frequenters, 1854


    As we went upstairs [at Caldwell's dancing-rooms, ed.] I asked one of the girls who were standing about the door of the ballroom, When dancing would begin again? She did not know. 'I've only just come in,' she said (it was 10.15 p.m.): 'I came straight from business.' Struck by such a phrase in a woman's mouth, I insinuated the enquiry, What business? And in reply, was informed that she 'had been writing all day'. This answer was so singular, that I at once proposed to dance the next polka with her: a penalty which it seemed necessary to pay, in order to gain her confidence and so obtain the information I wanted. 
    The dance - which was a perfect bore to me, especially as I really could not spin round with the rapidity which she required - gave me the right to a subsequent tête-a-tête: so taking her downstairs to the rude & simple refreshment room, I gave her what she asked for (sherry & sodawater) and got in return, by dint of judicious management, an account of her business and her habits. It was well worth the effort: for she was a merchant's clerk!
    A bona fide female 'city clerk': a copying clerk, in fact, at a mercantile house in Old Broad Street. It was interesting to know the details & results of such a phenomenon. One of these results was, that she had none of the frippery and giggling frivolity of other girls of her class. She had spoken to me frankly at first, and now she talked soberly and gravely, just as a young man might have done, about her affairs. She was twenty-two, and had been three years a clerk under her present employers. It was the only business she had ever been engaged in: and it took a good deal of interest to get her her place.
    There were only three or four other firms that she knew of, who have any female clerks. In the office where she is, there are several other girls; & their work is the same as the men's. 'We are instead of gentlemen', she said.
    The girls however are all mere copying clerks, and have nothing to do with the accounts. She knew nothing of accounts: but 'it requires you to have had a good plain education', she said, 'to do our work'. There is one German girl in the office, who copies the German letters: and she herself is able to copy French ones tolerably. There is no matron, but 'a head gentleman-clerk who is over us'; and the male & female clerks all sit together in a large room. For herself, she sits on a high stool, at a desk, with the others, copying invoices letters or whatnot, all day: 'our sleeves get worn with leaning on the desk, & our white cuffs get dreadfully inked', says she. The male clerks are pleasant companions enough; but there is no flirting: 'when you're all in business together, it's different; and besides, we've no time.' As to the relative commercial value of the two sexes, her view was that the firm liked the 'ladyclerks' best: for they do the work as well as the 'gentlemen', and are paid less. As a woman of business, in fact, she looked upon some of her male companions as poor creatures at their work: and her opinion of the 'headgentleman' was not high. Our employers, however, she said, are very kind, and do all they can to make us comfortable. As to the salaries: the head female clerk, who is young like the rest, gets thirty shillings a week; and none of us get less than a pound a week. Our office hours are, eight hours a day: from 9 to 5, or from 10 to 6, or from 12 to 8, according to circumstances. 'I've been on late duty this week', said the fair copyist . . . 
    The two Severns had by this time come to us: and I introduced Walter, in the fashion which seemed most appropriate, saying to my clerkly friend 'Here is a man who will dance with you to your heart's content': and straightway he did so, when we had all gone upstairs together.
    The dancers were all shop-girls, milliners, & the like, & men of the same class: and though several of the women were pretty, the Broad Street clerk was decidedly the finest girl in the room . . . bright-eyed, white-toothed, ruddy lipped; a complexion glowing with rosy health (strange to say), and a countenance expressing strong sense and lively resolution. . . . Her hands, too, would have delighted Rossetti; they were large, and brown with exposure, and somewhat thick and heavy; but they were well shaped, long-fingered, and by no means coarse. Her easy way of showing them, and her superb indifference to coquetry, in general, was itself a charm . . .  she looked a most queenly self-reliant young woman, able to make her way in the world, & neither diffident nor over-bold . . .  It was now 11.30 pm, and her fellow clerk was anxious to go.
    I offered to accompany them; to the disgust of Walter, who was struck with the tall beauty, especially when I told him her occupation; and tried in vain to persuade himself that Oxford Street was on the way to Westminster.
    So he and Arthur shook hands all round; and the two clerks, who had frankly accepted my guidance, each of them as frankly took my arm . . . Presently her companion retired to an omnibus, and she and I walked on together towards the Tottenham Court Road, where she said she lived, at home with her parents. She began to express a fear lest she should 'catch it'. . . . 'I have to tell so many fibs!' said she when I'm out late. I tell my father I've been kept at work at the office: and then he says what a shame it is to keep girls working till such hours, & why don't they put the men clerks to it? So they do, I tell him. But my mother suspects I can't be at business till eleven o'clock at night, & she don't like it at all.' . . . We had now got to University Street; & here she stopped, saying she was close at home. Like a prudent girl as she was, she abstained from telling me either her name or her address; and shaking hands with me as if she had been a male acquaintance, she departed, again exclaiming that she would be sure to 'catch it'. 

Arthur Munby, Diary, 10 April 1863


She was a young woman of 23 or so, respectable and decently drest; a Cockney girl however, with something of the pertness and sham-gentility of the species: she took off her bonnet & cloak (or overcoat rather), flung them on a chair, pulled out a pen, stuck it behind her ear, through the braids of her hair, and sat down at once to write. Having started her, I went to another table & wrote, smoking also, which she rather liked. She kept on writing, in a hand like an office-boy's, quietly & steadily, coming to me now and then for explanation, till 6; then declared she was not at all tired, thought the time had passed very quick; & so wrote away till 8 - four hours in all, and after her day's work. Said she liked copying very much; had worked for Kerr the law stationer, who keeps 29 female hands, & earned 20/ a week; more than she gets now, but Kerr's girls were low and larky', she did not like them. Her name is Morley, & she lives with married sister in Pentonville. After 8, she put on her things & went; but will finish her work on Monday. I gave her a ticket for the Working Women's College meeting next Thursday: would like to go: means to learn mapping. Her quiet unconcern at being in my chambers was amusing.

Arthur Munby, Diary, 15 July 1865


[Edmund Yates on working for the Post Office, ed.]

All this work was done in the Secretary's office, the staff of which then numbered about fifty men, all told, who were paid according to the following rate. On entering the service a salary of 901. a year no increase for three years, when the pay was made 110l. ; no increase for another three years, when it. was raised to 140l.; but this involved admission in to the body of "clerks in waiting," who took it in turn to sleep at the office, and had to pay for the meals consumed there without any extra allowance. In this, the "assistant," class the salaries advanced by 10l. a year until they reached the sum of 260l. a year, where they stopped. So that unless he managed to get, through a death-vacancy, into the senior class, which was limited in number, where the salaries commenced at 350l. and advanced to 500l., a man after twenty-five years' service would receive 260l. a year, and might never get beyond it. In those days, too, a deduction was made for "superannuation allowance" - that is to say, we were mulcted in a contribution to future pensions, which we might or might not receive. Thus, when I was supposed to be getting 90l. a year, my quarterly receipt was 21l. 18s. 9d. This cruel tax was afterwards abolished, mainly through the influence of Mr. Disraeli.
    It was desperately poor pay, and various efforts had been made to obtain an improved scale, but without effect. Esprit de corps, so far as in any way assisting his official inferiors, was wholly lacking in Colonel Maberly's composition. I recollect mentioning, parenthetically, to him once that I had been up nearly all night in connection with some of the clerks'-in-waiting duties. "Well, my good fellow, you're paid for it!" was his sympathetic remark. Thus the Colonel, having just arrived at eleven o'clock, munching his breakfast in easy comfort - the Colonel with his 1500l. a year salary, his half-pay, his Irish rents and private fortune - to me, tired out, blind with want of sleep, and passing rich on a hundred and forty pounds a year!
    Just about this time - i.e., soon after I reached the "assistant" class - the Postmaster-General of Malta died or resigned; and the appointment being in the gift of our Postmaster-General, with a salary of 500l. a year-at that time, to me, an income beyond the dreams of avarice - I applied for it. Colonel Maberly good-naturedly agreed to recommend me for the vacant berth, which I believe I should have obtained, when news came that our last petition for a revision of salaries had been favourably received, and that a Treasury commission would be appointed to inquire into our grievances.
    This news materially altered my plans. I had already doubted the wisdom of my course in exchanging the delights of London life, even in poverty, for such an existence as Malta could offer, and I determined to hang on and hope for better times. I accordingly waited on the Colonel, and told him I wished to withdraw my application. "What for ?" "Because, sir, I hear there is a chance of improvement here. They say that we are to have a Commission of Inquiry." "A commission !" he cried testily. "My good fellow, do you know what a commission is? A commission is an official machine for cutting down salaries!" However, to my own subsequent delight, I persisted, my application was withdrawn, and another appointment made to Malta.  . . .  We got a very much improved scale of pay; what was called, in delightful oflicialese, "the double Secretariat" was abolished; Colonel Maberly was made an extra Commissioner of Audit, with his existing salary; and Rowland Hill was appointed sole Secretary to the Post Office.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1855]


see also Tempted London - click here