George Rowles: Identity and Class

It is clear from his own words that George loved his trade, the environment, the jargon and most of all the people who worked within the press industry. The history of the Inky Way intrigued him as George mentions his pride and knowledge of the art form of composition.

Although it was still considered to be a prestigious trade at the turn of the twentieth century, the wages didn’t reflect such an ideology, knowledge was power and unemployment hit hard for the inexperienced.

Comps, cabinet, engin wages

Rowles explains how unemployment led some young compositors to cab duck. In times before the modern taxi, there were four wheel stage-coaches known as “growlers” an unemployed compositor would spot when the fare was safely aboard and then he would run and jump on the rear axle and hold on for dear life, sometimes being whipped by the coach-driver (who took a disliking to all cab duckers). In failing to jump on he would simply run behind the growler until it reached its destination. When the coach did stop, the cab ducker would jump down and open the door, and if he was lucky would receive a penny, if he was extremely lucky he would receive two.

4 wheel growler
A Four Wheel Growler


George mentions this tale about a certain cab-ducker (p71A) and maybe by accident then repeats it at the very end of his memoir. Now this could be a mistake as it was written over a two year period, it has many errors crossed which remain unchanged, showing that this memoir was still a work in progress.

If it was purposely repeated then one may be able to deconstruct Rowles memoirs and uncover an actual moment from his working environment and most importantly have a glimpse into the hardships of the average tramp printer:

The cab ducker evidently did receive sympathy from some people. I remember a young lady from the country writing about her first visit to London. What she said emphasised the fact that there were many class distinctions among the so-called lower classes. She wrote: “When we arrived at our hotel our cab door was opened by a poorly dressed who had run behind the cab all the way from the railway station in hope of carrying in our luggage and earning a few coppers, but before we could express our sympathy with him in a practical manner the hotel porter had driven him away. (Rowles, The Chaps Amongst the Caps. p71A)

One may wonder who the upper class ‘lady from the country’ was? But I believe the cab ducker was the one and only Mr George E Rowles, which shows the class distinctions at that time and perhaps an indication to the hardships of a ‘tramp’ printer.

George is fortunate enough to find employment after becoming disabled and it seems he remained working right up unto his retirement. George was a well educated working class hero who made his way from the base of society.




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.

Photo London compositors 1

Four wheel growler

Fleet street






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