Shopgirls and Store-Keepers

9781108052528fc3dDid you see the programme about ‘shopgirls’ by Dr Pamela Cox on BBC 2 TV on Tuesday night? It’s the first of a short series examining the social and economic effects on the retail trade of having women working in shops. Parts were filmed in Cambridge, where Robert Sayle’s department store still had accommodation for the ‘girls’ at the top of the shop until the 1960s.

Jessie Boucherett, whose Hints on Self-Help (first published in 1863, and not to be confused with Samuel Smiles’ more famous work) we are about to reissue, was mentioned in the programme, along with her colleagues in the Langham Place group, as the mover and shaker who began a training school for educated women who had to earn their own livings outside the conventional sphere of governess or lady companion.

According to the ODNB, Boucherett ‘never ceased to believe that of all women’s grievances, the want of paid employment was the most heartfelt and least difficult to remedy. Lack of training and prejudice against women entering certain trades were obstacles which could and should be removed.’

A generation later, we can get an overview of how ‘professional women’ were faring in the employment stakes from Margaret Bateson’s Professional Women upon their Professions, published in 1895. Bateson (1860–1938), a professional journalist, was the sister of Mary Bateson the medievalist and William Bateson the pioneer of genetics, and later married the Cambridge classicist W.E. Heitland. In this book, she presents short interviews with professional women chosen as exemplars in their careers, each with a photo, except for the anonymous ‘eminent Lady Doctor’.

In the course of her interesting preface, she gives her opinion that what educated girls need – unless they are content to sit at home until someone comes and marries them – is sensible career advice: ‘half an hour’s talk with an experienced woman who has ideas to offer about the profession towards which the girl’s own thoughts incline’. This book, she hopes, will work along the same lines.

The professions covered fall into three broad categories (though not presented in this order): artistic/creative (acting, singing, painting, illustration, printing, photography, ballet dancing); medical/educational (education, medicine, dentistry, nursing and infirmary nursing, education of deficient children, physical training, librarianship, indexing and journalism), and a mixed bag of administrative/managerial/professional work (school board work, poor law administration, vestry work, stockbroking, accountant and auditor, domestic training, laundry work, store-keeping and clerkships).

‘Shopgirl’ is not apparently a ‘profession’: the exemplary ‘store-keeper’ is a Miss Mary E. Richardson, a wealthy woman who owned property in Bedford Park, London (the first ‘garden suburb’), and who took over the running of the failing ‘Bedford Park Stores’ in 1884. She was now the principal shareholder, and was acting as director of the fourteen departments, of which the junior employees were almost all women, and the heads of department all men. As they were paid on commission, ‘It is naturally of extreme importance to find able men to control the departments.’

Miss Mary Richardson, store-keeper

Miss Mary Richardson, store-keeper

Mrs Harold Cox (née Helen Clegg), accountant

Mrs Harold Cox (née Helen Clegg), accountant










An interview with accountant ‘Mrs Harold Cox’ raises a fascinating issue: that of ‘Equal play for equal work!’ Helen Clegg (‘before her marriage with Mr Harold Cox, the well-known writer’) wanted to be an independent woman, so she started to study book-keeping ‘at the College for Working Women in Fitzroy-street’, and ‘proceeded to the College for Men and Women in Queen’s-square’. At both institutions she was taught but good and helpful men; she also visited ‘the Birkbeck Institute’, and ‘enlarged my knowledge by observing what questions were asked by students, and how they were answered’. She took a Society of Arts examination twice, and the second time ‘came out among the firsts’.

Bateson asks a crucial question: ‘Being one of the handicapped sex, you could not, I suppose, become an articled pupil to an accountant in the usual way?’ ‘It would have wanted a courageous accountant to take me’, was the reply, but Miss Clegg was shown the ropes by an elderly accountant who allowed her to accompany him: ‘He introduced me as his clerk, but I recollect that the youths sitting on their high stools in the counting house were overcome with laughter on seeing a woman amongst them.’

The Institute of Chartered Accountants had been established as recently as 1880, but as Bateson trenchantly remarks, ‘the approaching entry of women into the profession was not foreseen’, and it was not until 1919 that the charter was amended to admit the first woman chartered accountant. As a result, there was an expectation that women (as not ‘chartered’) would charge lower fees for the same work as the ‘chartered’ men.

Bateson ‘would gladly believe that the majority of women accounts follow the example … and steadfastly decline all work that is not offered to them upon the same terms as it would be offered to a man’. In fact, Mrs Cox’s clients seem mostly to be female-run organisations. Her first break came though a shared interest in amateur dramatics with a Miss Goold, whose charity accounts she audited, and girls’ schools later formed the greater part of her client base.

Bateson wrote the essay on journalism from her own experience. She contrasts opportunities for women writers of the 1890s with those of thirty years before, when women inevitably wrote only on ‘gossip, fashion and cookery’ (plus ça change, one sometimes feels, even today). Today, ‘In journalism, women have a more assured position than in almost any of the great arts and professions’, and ‘absolute equality of treatment is meted out to both sexes by the Institute of Journalists’ (founded in 1884).

It is cheering to note that Bateson continued both her writing and her energetic pursuit of women’s suffrage when she married in 1901. She clearly fulfilled in her own life the aspiration she outlined in this book: to feel ‘the intense happiness that merely being and doing something yields’. I haven’t been able to find a picture of her, but here is her (and her husband’s) grave at the beautiful Ascension burial ground in Cambridge.


The grave of Margaret Bateson and W.E. Heitland

The grave of Margaret Bateson and W.E. Heitland


This entry was posted in Biography, Cambridge, Education, History, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shopgirls and Store-Keepers

  1. Pingback: Literary, Scientific, and Mechanics’ Institutions | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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