George Rowles: Life and Labour

Compositors stood out from ordinary men. There was a heritage to their work, a prestige and a sense of pride towards the history of the industry that gave the word the written word. Education and government would be nothing without the Compositor;

Pause Stranger

Pause, Stranger: you stand in


Here Metal Stamps called Types

are assembled by skilful hands

into the Master-Patterns

from which the visible word is multiplied


Five Hundred Years ago

the invention of movable type

opened a new epoch

in the history of civilization:

releasing the common people

from the thraldom of illiteracy.

It set their feet upon the road

To self-government.


You who travel that high road

touch not without reverence

these leaden symbols of your freedom:

remember your incalculable debt


who in the proud servitude of craftsmanship

builds, word upon word

your stairway to the stars

By Beatrice Warde



In the early days of the sixteenth century the average Compositor would have resided in his local church, hence the title of a Chapel. (The first publications being of a religious order; bibles, sermons and hymns). In 1525 there were only 10 printing Chapels in England (Duffy, The Skilled Compositor 2000, p25). The compositor at this time is a very skilful man and more than likely a priest or a monk. The renaissance period gave the public the hunger for literature and education. By 1785 the number of printing Chapels had increased to 124.print houses









At the end of the eighteenth century, pressmen and compositors occupied a social station higher than most craftsman and were paid accordingly. Throughout the nineteenth century both slowly lost status, and compositors in particular increasingly looked back wistfully to the earlier days. (Elliot, The History of the Oxford Press p219)

Broadsheets soon turned into newspapers and ‘Locals’ were being published weekly in almost every town and city. Through demand the compositor became more common, and his wage was therefore affected. By 1855 there were 423 official Printing Chapels in England and Wales.

As compositors became more common, the knowledge of trade secrets and jargon held more power. A true chap among the caps would know his history and the history of the written word. He would also be ready for the shout ” The Line Is On!”

CHARLES DICKENS wrote : “ I am certain that there are not in any ordinary branch of  manual dexterity so many remarkable men as might be found in the printing trade. For quickness of perception, amount of endurance, and willingness to oblige, I have found the compositor pre-eminent.” (Rowles, The ‘Line’ is on, 1948, p98)

Dickens’ himself had been a reporter, editor, author and publisher and therefore was sufficiently qualified to comment on the average compositor and printer.

Compositors felt they had a right to feel superior to opposing trades such as cabinetmakers, builders, and engineers but their status in the hierarchy of labour in the nineteenth century was suffering and their wages reflected this.


By 1911 there were 157,457 people working in the printing trade in just London, Lancashire and Cheshire. Out of which over a third were women, 58,261 showing that the trade itself was moving with the times (Duffy, p34.).

Bibliography: Rowles, George. Chaps Among the Caps. Unpublished. Burnett Collection of Working-Class Autobiography, Special Collection, Brunel University Library, 1:600

Rowles, George E. The Line is on. London: The London Society of Compositors, 1948.

Duffy, Patrick. The Skilled Compositor 1850-1914. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2000.

Lee, Alan J. The Origns of the Popular Press in England,1855-1914. New Jersey, USA: Rowman and Littlefield. 1976.

Gadd, Ian. The History of Oxford University Press volume 1, Oxford, Uk: The Oxford University Press, 2013.

Gadd, Ian. The History of Oxford University Press volume 2, Oxford, Uk: The Oxford University Press, 2013.

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