Classically Inclined

July 21, 2014

The vexed question of the departmental photocopier, circa 1903

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:45 pm
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One of the things I discovered when I was traipsing through the Newnham College archives, more specifically through the minutes of the Education Committee, was a set of exchanges that demonstrated how very little changes in academia. These days, it’s quite common for departments to debate what to do about the departmental photocopier – can we afford a new one? If we can, are we going to get one of those whizzy ones that can scan, and if so, how whizzy do we want to go? Most importantly, who is going to understand how to work the blessed thing once we’ve got it?

The women on the staff of Newnham College in 1903 did not need to worry about creating PDFs and having paperless offices, but they did have produce printed material for various teaching purposes – the classicists, for instance, needed stocks of passages for translation from English into Latin and Greek, as well as ‘fair copies’ of what the passage could look like for students to consult after they had made their own attempts. Given the problems we moderns encounter in setting Greek font, I can only imagine the trouble that my foremothers had. It’s quite telling that in one of Winnie Seebohm’s letters home in October 1885, she mentions that Edith Sharpley was “teaching a printer-boy Greek, so that he can set up Greek types and so gain a higher salary” – I suspect that Edith’s motives may have been driven by a touch of self-interest so she had somebody she could rely on to produce the materials she needed.

By the turn of the century, after many requests in the Education Committee minutes for payments towards printing expenses, the natural science lecturer had an idea. Miss Ida Freund, a woman of considerable determination and verve, had been steadily moving the college’s science teaching towards the most up-to-date methods – rarely a year goes by without some request for new equipment for the laboratory. This was no small matter, given that women were banned from using the same laboratories as the men (at least until they had passed Part One of their Tripos), and so the laboratory in the college garden had to be in good enough shape for them to study all their required subjects. In 1903, Ida wrote a report to the Educational Committee about the fees provided for teaching chemistry and physics, as part of a wider general discussion about appropriate remuneration for hourly paid staff. As part of this, she casually mentioned that the laboratory maid had learnt a lot about the basic chemistry course, to the extent of setting up the apparatus as necessary; her duties also included cleaning and preparing the multiplying machine and printing copies – everything except writing the master stencil from which copies were made.

In the meeting for which Ida circulated her report, a general discussion took place about printing. Edith and Margaret Tuke (modern languages) wanted a grant to fund buying a proper stock of translation papers; Ida and Miss A.B. Collier (mathematics) wanted an annual grant to pay for typing assistance; Alice Gardner (history) didn’t think she needed any papers printed. In the following meeting of November 1903, the discussion continued – and Ida proposed that all printing should be done in-house, by the laboratory maid, preferably during the vacation while things were quiet.

In the end, the staff agreed a compromise. The committee would ask the College’s Council for a grant to supply the printed materials that Edith and Margaret wanted, as well as purchasing an automatic roller for the multiplying machine, and that the possibility of getting the laboratory maid to do duplicating work for other members of staff when Ida did not require her services would be noted.

A number of questions spring to my mind over this exchange, most of which centre on the nameless laboratory maid. How did one become a laboratory maid? Was the post advertised, or did a normal maid in the college find herself taking over more and more jobs in the laboratory and morphing gradually into what we would now recognised as a skilled lab technician? How did she feel about her labour being offered for free to all of the academics in the college, to support their teaching in addition to carrying out her own duties? Was she even asked before Ida suggested the possibility to the committee, or did her benevolent employers assume her compliance if the scheme were taken up?

Sadly, given the limited nature of the committee minutes and other written records, I doubt we will ever know the laboratory maid’s thoughts on Ida’s generous offer.


This post would not have been possible without the help and patience of Anne Thomson at the Newnham College archives. 

Thanks to Chris Stray for helping me understand how Latin and Greek compositions worked!

Winnie Seabohm’s letters are collected in Victoria Glendinning’s A Supressed Cry, published in 1995 by Routledge & Kegan Paul; the quotation here comes from page 70.


  1. […] Classically Inclined: The vexed question of the departmental photocopier, circa 1903 […]

    Pingback by Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. 6 | Whewell's Ghost — July 29, 2014 @ 7:27 pm | Reply

  2. […] A lot of this work drew heavily on material from the Newnham College archives, to whom I owe a great debt of thanks; I wrote about some of the hidden gems I found in this post about what the departmental photocopier looks like in 1903. […]

    Pingback by New publication: This Is Not A Chapter About Jane Harrison | Classically Inclined — November 3, 2016 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

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