Emily Faithfull by Elliot & Fry (1860s)

Emily Faithfull by Elliot & Fry (1860s)


Publisher's full morocco binding; the work was also issued in elaborately tooled cloth bindings, similar in design.

Faithful ALS to Society of Arts 1860
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

This autograph letter signed by Emily Faithfull was written to Peter le Neve Foster, Secretary of the Royal Society of Arts, on Faithfull's Society for Promoting the Employment of Women letterhead. She asks Foster to recommend competent teachers for classes in bookkeeping to be offered for women students.

Faithful ALS enlargement of letterhead

An enlargement to show detail of Emily Faithfull's very distinctive letterhead for her organization.

Detail map of London, England, United Kingdom Overview map of London, England, United Kingdom

A: London, England, United Kingdom

Emily Faithfull Founds the Victoria Press for the Employment of Women

Carte de visit photograph of Faithfull with her autograph in the lower margin.
Creative Commons LicenseJeremy Norman Collection of Images - Creative Commons

Carte de visit photograph of Faithfull with her autograph in the lower margin.

Influenced by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women founded in 1859, for which she served as Secretary, in 1860 English women's rights activist Emily Faithfull founded the Victoria Press in London. At this press Faithfull employed women as compositors and men to do some of the presswork and heavy lifting, necessitated by the strength to pull a hand-press, and the need to move very heavy formes of type, etc. The most notable book issued by the press was The Victoria Regia: A Volume of Original Contributions in Poetry and Prose. Edited by Adelaide A. Proctor (1861).

In October 1860 Faithful published an article entitled "Victoria Press" in The English Woman's Journal. From this I quote sections relevant to the working conditions of women and men printers at the time. Issues that she raises include potential problems associated with printing that were rarely mentioned, including occupational health hazards from typesetters' extended contact with lead and antimony:

"In the November following the Bradford meeting, the council of this Association appointed a committee to consider and report on the best means which could be adopted for increasing the industrial employments of women; in the course of the investigation set on foot by this committee, of which I was a member, we received information of several attempts made to introduce women into the printing trade, and of the suitableness of the same as a branch of female industry.  A small press, and type sufficient for an experiment, were purchased by Miss Parkes, who was anxious to test, by personal observation, the information thus received.  This press was put up in a private room placed at her disposal by the kindness of a member of this Association.  A printer consented to give her instruction, and she invited me to share in the trial.  A short time sufficed to convince us that if women were properly trained, their physical powers would be singularly adapted to fit them for becoming compositors, though there were other parts of the printing trade—such as the lifting of the iron chases in which the pages are imposed, the carrying of the cases of weighty type from the rack to the frame, and the whole of the presswork (that is the actual striking off of the sheets), entailing, particularly in the latter department, an amount of continuous bodily exertion far beyond average female strength.

"Having ascertained this, the next step was to open an office on a sufficiently large scale to give the experiment a fair opportunity of success.  The machinery and type, and all that is involved in a printer's plant, are so expensive that the outlay would never be covered unless they were kept in constant use.  The pressure of work, the sudden influx of which is often entirely beyond the printer's control, requires the possession of extra type in stock, these and other economical reasons which will be easily understood by all commercial men, necessitate the outlay of a considerable amount of capital on the part of anyone who wishes to turn out first-class printing.  A gentleman, well known for his public efforts in promoting the social and industrial welfare of women, determined to embark with me in the enterprise of establishing a printing business in which female compositors should be employed.  A house was taken in Great Coram Street, Russell square, which, by judicious expenditure, was rendered fit for printing purposes; I name the locality because we were anxious it should be in a light and airy situation, and in a quiet respectable neighbourhood.  We ventured to call it the Victoria Press, after the sovereign to whose influence English women owe so large a debt of gratitude, and in the hope also that the name would prove a happy augury of victory.  I have recently had the gratification of receiving an assurance of Her Majesty's interest in the office, and the kind expression of Her approbation of all such really useful and practical steps for the opening of new branches of industry for women.  The opening of the office was accomplished on the 25th of last March.  The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women apprenticed five girls to me at premiums of £10 each; others were apprenticed by relatives and friends, and we soon found ourselves in the thick of the struggle, for such I do not hesitate to call it; and when you remember that there was not one skilled compositor in the office, you will readily understand the difficulties we encountered.  Work came in immediately, from the earliest day.  In April we commenced our first book, and began practically to test all the difficulties of the trade.  I had previously ascertained that in most printing offices the compositors work in companies of four and five, appointing one of the number to click for the rest, that is, to make up and impose the matter, and carry the forms to the press-room.  The imposition requires more experience than strength, and no untrained compositor could attempt it, and I therefore engaged intelligent, respectable workmen, who undertook to perform this duty for the female compositors at the Victoria Press.

"I have at this time sixteen female compositors, and their gradual reception into the office deserves some mention.  In the month of April, when work was coming in freely, I was fortunate enough to secure a skilled hand from Limerick.  She had been trained as a printer by her father, and had worked under him for twelve years.  At his death she had carried on the office, which she was after some time obliged to relinquish, owing to domestic circumstances.  Seeing in a country paper that an opening for female compositors had occurred in London, she determined on taking the long journey from Ireland to seek employment in a business for which she was well competent.  She came straight to my office, bringing with her a letter from the editor of a Limerick paper, who assured me that I should find her a great assistance in my enterprise.  I engaged her there and then; she came to work the very next day, and has proved herself most valuable.

"I have now also three other hands who have received some measure of training in their fathers' offices, having been taught by them in order to afford help in any time of pressure, or in case any opening should present itself in the trade, of which a vague hope seemed present to their mind.  From letters which I have received from various parts of the country, I find that the introduction of women into the trade has been contemplated by many printers.  Intelligent workmen do not view this movement with distrust, they feel very strongly woman's cause is man's; and they anxiously look for some opening for the employment of those otherwise solely dependent on them.

"Four of the other compositors are very young, being under fifteen years of age; of the remaining eight, some were apprenticed by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, having heard of the Victoria Press through the register kept at Langham Place; and others through private channels.  They are of all ages, and have devoted themselves to their new occupation with great industry and perseverance, and have accomplished an amount of work which I did not expect untrained hands could perform in the time.  I was also induced to try the experiment of training a little deaf and dumb girl, one of the youngest above mentioned; she was apprenticed to me by the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, in the Old Kent Road, at the instance of a blind gentleman, Mr John Bird, who called on me soon after the office was opened.  This child will make a very good compositor in time, her attention being naturally undistracted from her work, though the difficulty of teaching her is very considerable, and the process of learning takes a longer time.

"Having given you a general description of my compositors, I will only add that the hours of work are from nine till one and from two till six.  Those who live near, go home to dinner between one and two; others have the use of a room in the house, some bringing their own dinners ready cooked, and some preparing it on the spot.  When they work overtime, as is occasionally unavoidable, for which of course they receive extra pay per hour, they have tea at half-past five, so as to break the time.

"It has been urged that printing is an unhealthy occupation. The mortality known to exist among printers had led people to this conclusion, but when we consider the principal causes producing this result, we find it arises in a great measure from removable evils. For instance, the imperfect ventilation, the impurity of the air being increased by the quantity and bad quality of the gas consumed, and not least by the gin, rum, and brandy, so freely imbibed by printers.  The chief offices being situated in the most unwholesome localities, are dark and close, and thus become hotbeds for the propagation of phthisis [ED—pulmonary tuberculosis].

 "In the annual reports for the last ten years of the Widows' Metropolitan Typographical Fund, we find the average age of the death of printers was forty-eight years.  The number of deaths caused by phthisis and other diseases of that class, among the members in the ten years ending December 31, 1859, was 101 out of a total number of 173, being fifty-eight three-fourths [58¾per cent of the whole....

"The inhalation of dust from the types, which are composed of antimony and lead, is an evil less capable of remedy. The type when heated emits a noxious fume, injurious to respiration, which in course of years occasionally produces a partial palsy of the hands.  The sight of the compositor is frequently very much injured, apparently by close application to minute type, but probably, as Mr H. W. Porter remarks in his paper read before the Institute of Actuaries, from the quantity of snuff they take, which cannot fail to be prejudicial. This habit, at all events, is one from which we cannot suppose that the compositors of the Victoria Press will suffer.

"It has also been urged that the digestive functions may suffer from the long-continued standing position which the compositor practises at case. This, I believe, nothing but habit has necessitated. Each compositor at the Victoria Press is provided with a high stool, seated on which she can work as quickly as when standing.

"There is one branch of printing which, if pursued by the most cultivated class of women, would suffice to give them an independence—namely, reading and correcting for the press. Men who undertake this department earn two guineas a week; classical readers, capable of correcting the dead languages, and those conversant with German and Italian, receive more than this. But before the office of reader can be properly undertaken, a regular apprenticeship to printing must have been worked out; accuracy, quickness of eye, and a thorough knowledge of punctuation and grammar, are not sufficient qualifications for a reader in a printing office; she must have practically learnt the technicalities of the trade.  And I would urge a few educated women of a higher class to resolutely enter upon an apprenticeship for this purpose...."

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