Work, Identity and Letterpress Printers in Britain, 1750-1850

  • Emma Greenwood

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the relationship between work and identity amongst letterpress printers in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain. It probes the sources of work-based identity and considers efforts to maintain, and even manipulate, a distinctive sense of trade belonging. The effect of work on other interrelated personal and social identities is also examined. In contrast to other histories of work, particularly class-based studies, all levels of the trade are scrutinized, from apprentices through journeymen to masters and proprietors. Differences in the experience of work between these varying members of the trade are analysed, together with their effect on working relationships.The first part of this thesis follows the hierarchy of the trade with chapters on apprentices, journeymen and masters. Apprentice printers endured increasingly exploitative conditions and came from more diverse social backgrounds than was commonly assumed. Journeymen took pride in the history of their trade, and had a strong tradition of fraternity, but their sense of identity was increasingly threatened by rising unemployment levels. Meanwhile, masters were less likely to have been brought up to the trade, and had few formal or informal trade associations. The second part of the thesis looks at how work-based identities intersected with familial, political, and socio-economic identities. Family relationships were crucial to the success of many printing businesses with intergenerational transfer being unusually prevalent compared with other trades. Political discussion played an important role in the formation of printers' collective identity, particularly where campaigns for freedom of the press were concerned. Finally, social mobility became increasingly divergent among printers in the early industrial period.The changes highlighted in this thesis had a profound effect on working relationships. A new generation of master printers was distant from the physical process of work and at times dismissive of the culture and customs of the workplace. This led to tension and conflict with journeymen over issues such as apprentice numbers. But there were also many stabilizing influences, such as the strength of journeymen's fraternity, or a shared belief in the history and social significance of the press. By uncovering these complexities, even within a single trade, this thesis argues that occupation is a poor basis on which to base socio-economic classifications. Furthermore, the specific characteristics of occupational communities were in themselves strong contributors to personal and social identity, influencing working relationships, as well as the way in which people interacted with wider society.
Date of Award1 Aug 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorHannah Barker (Supervisor) & Aashish Velkar (Supervisor)


  • letterpress printers
  • identity
  • work
  • 18th century British history
  • 19th century British history
  • labour history
  • industrial revolution
  • printing trade
  • social history

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