George Rowles (b.1887): An Introduction. – Writing Lives

George Rowles (b.1887): An Introduction.

My chosen Author is Mr. George Rowles, who wrote an unread autobiography titled Chaps Among the Caps (68-70). Rowles was born in 1887 (1901 England and Wales Census) he was raised in a two up- two down terrace, in the poor part of Fulham, London with his non-conformist parents and three siblings.

George gives little insight into his upbringing and background but the majority of the memoir is themed around  his working environment and his life as a printer, compositor, proof reader, freelance journalist and later Editor. He explains to the reader what life was like for one of the chaps among the caps.

compositor at work
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

George was a war veteran who served in the Irish Dublin Fusilier regiment during the Great War. He lost both feet during the battle of the Somme, the mention of which takes up very little reading space throughout his memoir. He speaks very little of his home or family life, including his wife who he briefly mentions passing away in 1963. Very little information is given about his own immediate family, and the reader is left unsure to whether or not Mr George Rowles had children of his own. The Second World War is mentioned only briefly and the hardships of rationing and the ever changing world is also left off the agenda, instead he writes all about the world of Press and the trade that is Compositing.
A Compositor at work.
The theme throughout this memoir is the working Press Industry, and the people connected to it; from runners to journalists, from the ‘Imperial father’ to ‘chapels’ and ‘ratting’, ‘grassing’ and ‘tramping’. In order to fully understand this autobiography one must uncover and decipher the hidden language amongst ‘Old Comps’, George helps the reader with this problem by dedicating a chapter to this issue (See Glossary).


Another theme throughout this memoir is the inevitability of change within the industry and trade. George tells tales of progression and advances in technology in regards to getting news out to the average man more efficiently. There are stories of young men in rowing boats, rowing out in the Mersey towards big ocean liners in order to collect news from afar (notably USA and Canada). He mentions that the young daredevils would risk their lives in order to save maybe an hour or two. Once the news was brought into the ‘Chapel’ it was then the job of the proof reader to double check every word and once done it would then be the job of the ‘Old Comps’ to get it to print as soon as possible.
Broadsheets and the early newspapers were printed individually in a press or a ‘frame’ very much like a stamp. The giant steam powered stamp would then stamp away and produce thousands of copies. The true skill of a compositor was to speedily create the giant stamp word for word, letter by letter, space by space, in what ever font size required. Machines where built with recording clocks attached, so the compositor could see precisely how many words he/she had typed, hourly, daily, weekly etc.

As far as News in concerned, time is always of the essence.

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

The Bedplate Press Museum, New Zealand,, accessed 10 Nov 2014

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