Monday, 21 October 2013

15 May 1880 - Female Clerks and Book-Keepers (Earning One's Living)

As the G.O.P. was pitched mainly at the middle-class demographic, its readers were strongly encouraged to make themselves useful and busy - in accordance with social standards of respectability and femininity, of course. In this article the author (who is unnamed, sorry, the G.O.P. does this a lot) concisely outlines the above occupations, and how one goes about obtaining a position. Note the reasons cited for engaging young ladies in this kind of employment: namely it's cheaper than hiring men (who have an annoying tendency to leave for better paid positions once they get married and have families to support) and women by their self-sacrificing and self-effacing nature, are less likely to fiddle the books at their employer's expense.

To employment either as a clerk or book-keeper, no one can raise any objection on the score of its being unfeminine. It is respectable to work that we may be independent, and a girl may ju8st as well go every day to write letters and keep accounts for some business establishment as sit at home to add up the housekeeping book or act as her mother’s amanuensis.

Already there is a certain demand for women as clerks. When the last census was taken in 1871 there were five hundred and fifty-two of them engaged in connection with commercial business in London alone, and the attention directed of late years to occupations for women must have tended largely to increase their number. Indeed, we may look for some very interesting and encouraging statistics on this head when the new census comes to be taken next year.

One advantage connected with the occupation of a clerk is that it does not require a special education. It is, therefore, particularly suited to those to whom circumstances have denied the careful training required for other pursuits. What is wanted is a good ordinary education and punctual and orderly habits. Plain neat handwriting is indispensable, and no clerk is anything else than a sorrow to her employers who cannot copy correctly. Accuracy, then must be a special study. The ability to write a short letter, saying neatly what we wish to say, is another requisite. An ill-composed, ill-arranged epistle, beginning with a blot and ending with a scribble, will never do for business. It must be clear and to the point, carefully written and neatly folded – there you have in a nutshell the whole art of correspondence.

These, certainly, are not difficult attainments.  But in this very case with which we can qualify ourselves for ordinary clerkships, there is something unsatisfactory. It throws the occupation open to almost everybody, and in consequence we find each vacancy besieged by crowds upon crowds of applicants. Only one can be successful, and all the rest must turn away, often very sick at heart, to try elsewhere.

To meet this difficulty we would suggest to these girls who think of taking their place at an office-desk, that they should try to add to those every-day qualifications enumerated above, some special branch of knowledge. Short-hand, for example, would greatly increase one’s chance of obtaining a situation, and a girl knowing French or German would attract favourable notice from all employers worth serving. By knowing French or German, we mean ability to read and write these languages fluently, and not that slipshod knowledge by which we painfully spell out passages by the aid of a dictionary.

A girl possessed of these additional accomplishments would obtain much higher pay than one without them. It is a rule, with few exceptions, that what is easily acquired brings small remuneration, and it is a great encouragement to the industrious to know that in proportion to their labour so will be their reward. So then, my friends, if we are to be clerks, let us be the best possible clerks, striving to know everything that will make us more useful to ourselves and other people.

The routine of an office is usually simple, and a clerk seldom has any worry or trouble, except what she makes for herself. With pleasant companions to associate with in the intervals of business, she may be very happy, a great deal happier, indeed, than leading an aimless existence at home.

Omitting for the present the postal and telegraph services, there are some establishments in London which employ considerable numbers of young ladies as clerks. Foremost amongst these is a well-known Assurance Company, whose staff may well be referred to as a model of careful organisation. The young ladies employed by this company must be the daughters of professional men, clergymen, doctors, officers in the army and navy, merchants, and of similar social grade. Their comfort is well attended to, and much kind forethought seems to have been shown in everything connected with them. Their hours are from ten in the morning till five in the evening, with an hour between one and two for luncheon. Luncheon is provided in the building – and well provided, too – as the exact sum which it costs. When it is over there is time left for a walk. On the streets? Oh no; on the roof. The roof has been fitted up as a promenade for the young ladies, and there, on a pretty extensive exercising ground, they can enjoy the fresh air and have interesting views of the slate mountains and volcanic chimneys of the neighbourhood, whilst in the distance Hampstead hills may be seen on a clear day.

There is a library filled with interesting books for those who care to read, and for the musical a singing class is provided, meeting at regular intervals. Both are largely taken advantage of. The news of the day should be well understood, for each young lady takes a newspaper home with her every second day, one newspaper being allowed every two.

And what about the work? That is much the same as falls to the lot of insurance clerks in general. It contains nothing at all intricate, and for its execution requires nothing but ordinarily ability and extraordinary accuracy. The examples of accuracy we saw on the occasion of a recent visit were such that if our living depended on our furnishing similar specimens, we would entreat you, girls, to allow of our retiring on a pension into private life.

The salary begins at £32 a year and rises by stages of £10 till at the end of a few years a young lady finds herself in the enjoyment of £100 or so of annual income, after which she will, no doubt, be content.

There can be no question about the fact that the young ladies like the employment and that the experiment of employing them as clerks has in this instance – thanks, no doubt, to judicious management – been a decided success. This Assurance Company began, in 1872, with the employment of ten young ladies, and their staff now includes no fewer than one hundred and seventy.

Over young men young ladies possess several advantages as clerks. For the same salary you would not get such a respectable class, and it is a doubtful point whether you would get the same amount of steady application. Women, again, as a rule, are more happy and contended; a man must in the nature of things be pushing ahead, and after he has been three or four years at work, he is pretty sure to be marrying and settling down and so requiring a larger income.

A considerable number of young men are employed in the office of which we have been giving an account, but with them the young ladies never come into personal communication. So far as meeting is concerned, they might be a hundred miles apart, the two divisions of clerks even coming into the building by separate entrances.

Another establishment in the metropolis where women are employed as clerks is that of the printers of the Post Office Directories. The experiment of employing young women was begun here quite recently, and the result has been so satisfactory that a handsome room has been built, capable of accommodating forty clerks, and is now quickly filling up. The success of this experiment, we learn from the Committee of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, is in a great measure due to the good sense and earnestness of the lady superintendent and to the good conduct of the two clerks who first learned the work with her in her own private rooms. Everything is done throughout in the most methodical manner; no talking is allowed, and each clerk goes steadily on with her work, which is too varied to become monotonous.

Railway companies have in a few instances engaged young women as clerks, and provided them with occupation at country stations. We are not, however, sure that a railway booking-office is the right place for a girl. On the Continent, no doubt, it is a common field for women’s work, but our ideas of modesty and retirement are against it.

Banks present more suitable openings, and we should be glad to see these institutions throwing open their doors to young women of intelligence and capacity. There is a demand for this class of labour also from large warehouses and private counting-houses, and though, as we have said before, every vacancy has a host of applicants, one candidate has as good a chance as another; and to keep from applying because we are not certain of success would be nothing short of ridiculous.

Allied to the occupation we are now speaking about is the business of copying petitions, law copying, and engrossing. “This work,” says one authority, “may be taken by the piece, and can be done at home, provided the strictest business habits of neatness, punctuality, and dispatch can be maintained there. I have heard, however, of a single erasure condemning a whole deed, and except in cases of necessity such work is far better done in an office.”

We believe there is an office in London where girls may be entered for the study of the art. The apprenticeship should begin whilst they are young, for the special qualification of a clear, round legal hand is difficult to acquire after the ordinary running hand has been once formed.

For engrossing – which means the writing out of deeds in full and regular form on parchment or paper for signature – good eyesight is required and one must have a precision and delicacy of touch not unlike that needed for illuminating. In point of remuneration it is not a brilliant occupation. When business is brisk a good write can earn £2 a week, but there is a slack season, which brings down the average weekly earnings of the year to about seventeen shillings and sixpence.

We come now to speak of book-keeping. To be a good book-keeper requires much more preliminary training, and study than would be needed to qualify for a clerkship. Not that the mere mechanical work of book-keeping is at all difficult; it is in thoroughly comprehending why this and that is done that the real difficulty lies. An adult book-keeping class was started some years since by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, the place of meeting being the office of the Society, 22, Berners-street, Oxford-Street. The first step towards entering this class is for the student to bring recommendations from two householders guaranteeing her thorough steadiness and respectability. In cases where the student has just left school, a letter from the mistress or her latest school report is required. No one can be admitted to the class who does not write clearly and neatly, spell correctly, and work accurately the first four rules of arithmetic, simple and compound.

The course if training ordinarily extends over four or five months. During that time students are instructed in all the mysteries of single and double entry, besides which, every effect is made to fill them with a high sense of responsibility, and teach them to be punctual, orderly, and earnest in the discharge of their duties. Training over, then comes examination by a competent authority and the granting of certificates. Only those are allowed to go up for examination whose conduct in the class has been satisfactory and who have shown a desire to do their work conscientiously. During the year 1878-79 this class was joined by fifty students, and certificates were granted to twenty-five candidates, all of whom gained at least seventy-five per cent of the maximum marks.

After having taken all this preliminary trouble, the chances the young book-keeper has of succeeding in the world are just what might have been expected. In the annual report of the Society we are informed that “book-keepers who have gained certificates almost invariably retain their situations with credit. It is often difficult to obtain a first situation, for practical experience is generally required; but in this the certificate is a great help, as it forms a good introduction and is a guarantee of efficiency and respectability. When she has once made a fair start, a certificated book-keeper is seldom unemployed.”

The number of book-keepers and clerks for whom the Society was fortunate enough to find permanent employment in 1878-79 was eighteen.

A certified book-keeper generally received in her first situation about fifteen shillings a week; after that the remuneration is from about eighteen to twenty-five shillings or its equivalent. If meals are provided, of course less is given. There are a few exceptional cases in which the pay is higher, but the holders of these situations are usually able to speak or correspond in foreign languages. The occupation of book-keeping is a highly responsible one. Upon the care and accuracy with which its books are kept depends the prosperity of many a business establishment. In not a few instances, bankruptcy even has been traced to no other causes than the keeping of an insufficient set of books, and the keeping of these badly.

When the duties of cashier are united with those of book-keeper, the preference is often given to women over men. And why? It has been found by experience that women are, as a rule, more trustworthy than men, and that they are less likely to be found making free with what is not their own. One reason for this is, perhaps, that they are, generally speaking, exposed to fewer temptations in the way of spending; but we hope that a deeper reason will be found in their superior sense of rectitude and their more self-sacrificing devotion to duty.

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