“I would like to thank a number of typists…”

“I am grateful to Deirdre Barker who did my typing until the moment she was ‘carried off’ to hospital to have her baby and to Wendy Rigg for coming to my aid at the last moment”.

Documents have stories inscribed upon them, but stories are also woven into their creation.

I was recently in the University of Birmingham’s Library studying a couple of dissertations submitted “in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree” of MA and PhD by members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s. In many ways the concerns that the researchers sought to address, de-industrialisation, race and gender relations, underemployment, alienation… have a lot of contemporary resonance. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, the earliest dissertation that I’ve called up from the store was awarded in the spring of 1972 twenty years before I was born, the most recent in the Autumn of 1978 (a few weeks after my parents began their A-Levels). What is surprising, at least for a reader who learnt how to use Microsoft Office Millennium edition alongside how to produce cursive script; is the way the dissertations are presented.

As the quote the that starts this post, taken from the Acknowledgements section of A study of working class women at home : femininity, domesticity and maternity, Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis attests: they were typed, by hand, on manual typewriters.

When first approaching, the bulging, battered, hard bound volumes that contain the CCCS theses, the full import of this doesn’t immediately sink in. Sure, the typescript is smaller, harder, less softly and invitingly serifed than computer fonts, but as, Kindle aside, there isn’t-yet-a commercially available form of reading digital texts that’s especially quick use, (Adobe, and online e-books don’t really cut it) the tactility of the theses as physical objects makes up for it.

Then suddenly it hits you: the little imperfections, a letter out of sync here,


“Letter out of sync” A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

A neatly tippexed correction there,


“Tippexed correction”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

a place where a comma has been discretely added with a pen.


“comma added with a pen”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

Together they add up to show the reader how different a manually typed document is from one which is word processed. This is I reckon, opens up a number of interesting questions to explore about the documents as physical objects, the thought and craft that goes into creating them, and the stories-the social history-that we can gleam from how they came into being.

Terms like word processing betray their origin in manual typing. Manual typing is highly physical work, which requires accuracy and judgement. The CCCS theses I have been studying demonstrate this with aplomb. Whilst typing on a computer I have a lot of software holding my hand: an algorithm automatically moves the cursor at the end of the line, another algorithm wired to a database (both ever more accurate) corrects, or enables me to correct, my spelling, typos and sometimes grammar, yet more algorithms control for spacing and so on.

With a manual typewriter there isn’t any of that, spelling, spacing, margin widths, even reaching the end of a line, are entirely in the hands of the operator. This isn’t the only way in which the operator was key. When I type, I am engaged in a physical process in that my hands are moving, but, I am merely telling my computer which characters to display in which order. It’s at a power station-probably hundreds of miles away-fired by gas, coal, nuclear fission, the wind, whatever; where the hard work of providing the energy that makes the process run happens. By contrast on a manual typewriter it is the typist exerting themselves that provides the power that makes the production of the document possible. You can see the sheer force with which they had to hit the keys on the backs of the pages which comprise the volumes, just like a photographic negative.


“Back of a typed page”, A study of working class women at home: domesticity, femininity and maternity  (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

And indeed it is just like a negative. Much as the sun’s rays are captured through a chemical process by an old style photo film, and the jazz sax solo we hear on an old ‘78 is a sound enabled by the lungs of a musician now decades deceased, so a physical trace of Deirdre and Wendy who toiled to make it possible, remains in every character of Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis.

The job of a typist was rather like that of a lathe operator in a factory, the skilled craftsperson who with some skillful judgement and adjustment here and there, skills won through practice and training, brings the designer’s blueprint to life. In this sense the mid-century intellectual who wanted their work neatly presented in typescript, but who either couldn’t or wouldn’t type it themselves, becomes more like an engineer giving instructions to a fitter. The longhand draft is the blueprint, the typed up chapter the finished widget.

In many regards this is a radically different relationship from one enjoyed by creative worker’s today. Whilst in the early twentieth century, higher education and other forms of knowledge creation and transmission have called into being a whole new range of support professions,  today’s academic or student is far more expected to live up to ideal of the “lone genius” in many crucial regards. Computer word processing at once liberates and enslaves them.

The death of the typing pool, whilst being yet another example of how skilled, yet monotonous, work has been edged out by technology, doubtless changes the kind of work that scholars produce. The media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler has argued with reference to Nietzsche (one of the first writers to use a typewriter) that the machine transformed the form of his work from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

But, it is beyond the scope of this short post, and certainly my abilities as a critic, to unpack this to much, so I shall let another German-Gunter Grass-have the final word on this topic:

“I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I’ve typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I’ve incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.”    

What I can comment upon is some of the social and cultural history that is revealed by the typed theses I have been reading lately. Hobson’s brief mention of her typists in the “Acknowledgements” section of her thesis go beyond the formulaic and express with economy-I think-a lot of genuine gratitude, friendliness and familiarity with them. Whilst also serving as a reminder that computers don’t take maternity leave. It is I think, possible to see in a slight darkening of the ink on the page, the point at which Hobson’s typist changed.

There is lots yet to be written about the now vanished social formation that was the typing pool. If anyone wants a place to start, during the 1970s and ‘80s the CCCS, especially female members like Hazel Chowcat, some of whom came from secretarial professional backgrounds, produced quite a lot of work the explored skilled and semi-skilled office work as a phenomenon. Typing was a skill that women who were entered for public examinations at school were expected to learn, it was a respectable, but not necessarily especially respected (even in comparison to their male counterpart the lathe operator) trade.

This meant that a great many women who attended university in the second half of the twentieth century would have had some familiarity with typewriters. I think that it might be possible to see this in the production of another CCCS thesis, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham by Paul Willis.

Whereas the typing up of Hobson’s thesis is of a very high quality, giving it a rather polished professional look, the production of Willis’ (admittedly far longer thesis) is rather more hit and miss in terms of its production values.


“Changes on the page” Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham, (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,


“Word added”, Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

elsewhere words haven’t come out well on the page and had to have been added in by hand.

Here and there words, or even entire sections have been added by someone’s, small, spikey, but legible hand; using a black fountain pen,


“Sentence added”, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Whilst in other places sections of the typing seem quite faded, like it was done haltingly, and or on a machine that had a fading ribbon, was poorly calibrated, or perhaps just didn’t work that well.

I wonder whether an explanation for this might be found in the relative Iliad about producing the typescript that is recounted in the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis, which begins:

“I would like to thank a number of typists for their unstinting and often unpaid efforts…”

Willis then goes on to thank a total of six typists (all women) for producing the final version. Towards the end of the typist’s paragraph Willis mentions that he initially attempted to type much of the thesis himself, but that it proved necessary for the women thanked to “rescue [Willis] from two eleventh hour crises… and [his] own indifferent typing”. It is of course possible that the sections riddled with errors and corrections are Willis’ own efforts at typing up his work, however, the fact that most of those who worked to produce the submitted version of Youth Culture were “unpaid” leads me to wonder whether they were fellow students, or possibly friends of Willis and his wife, who offered to help him produce the final version. Given that typing was a very common skill found among women at university during this period, and amongst those educated beyond a very elementary level among the population in general, this seems to me a perfectly plausible explanation.

Does the difference in terms of the “finish” on their respective projects point to the evolution of the CCCS project?

In 1972 when Willis submitted his thesis the CCCS was still in its infancy, it was a very small research centre, with only a couple of staff, offered no taught programmes, and had few sources of funding beyond a grant from Penguin books. In this straightened environment, it possibly made a lot of sense for people to chip in and deploy skills that they had to assist each other. By contrast in 1978 when Hobson submitted her thesis the Centre’s taught MA had been up and running for some years, networks bringing teaching work the way of CCCS research students had opened up, and the Centre itself was (comparatively) secure financially and in terms of its expanding reputation.

This blog post is not intended as a eulogy to the typewriter. For all of typescript’s tactility and romanticism, not to mention the seductive idea of having someone else to do the administration, the benefits (and distractions) of computers outweigh the relative hassle and lack of utility that comes with producing typewritten pages. This blog also makes a number of somewhat speculative claims, however, they serve their primary intention which is to suggest ways in which the construction of documents (or any other types of source) should form part of the histories that we write, and indeed can be history that we write in of themselves.

As a final note in having these discussions today I feel that we have to thank those like the CCCS scholars, who having done it-or grown up with it looming as an overdetermined career choice-began asking questions and taking an interest in the significance and nature of routine office work and the world’s, relationships, structures of feeling and meaning that it creates. I certainly know that my understanding of how things are or aren’t recorded, how decisions are reached and systems of thought reinforced and articulated, was honed, improved and on occasions radically tilted by days, months and years spent filing, data inputting and typing in routine office jobs.        

Tom Hulme-Centre for Metropolitan History

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to grab a word with the University of London’s Tom Hulme.

What is your background?

I grew up in Buxton in Derbyshire, a small town with a big identity, and did all of my degrees (BA History, MA Urban History, PhD Urban History) in Leicester – a big town with a small identity! After my PhD I worked for a few months on an AHRC project which aimed to understand the transition of the area of St George’s into Leicester’s flagship regeneration area: the Cultural Quarter. This research uncovered all sorts of cultures in this former industrial area – gay, drag, rave, Afro-Caribbean, and swinger. Some are well remembered and cherished, such as the still-open gay bar Helsinki, and others are forgotten – or, at least, the city council wishes they were (the sex-club G-Spot being one example!). Two years working at King’s College London as a researcher for the fantastic historical pageants in Britain (1905-2016) project followed, before I took up a lecturing position in urban history at the Institute of Historical Research at the end of last year.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Most of my work is about the culture of urban places, both large and small. My work has been shaped by growing up somewhere that has a sure and stable identity, and then studying for so long in a city that is harder to typify. As an undergraduate I was taught by Sally Horrocks, who turned me onto inter-war history and public housing. I was too slow and disorganised to secure Sally as my dissertation supervisor, but she passed me on to Simon Gunn – who went on to be my PhD supervisor and is still an ever-present mentor. The resulting work showed how housing policy was shaped by civic identity and civic culture. My MA, PhD, and resulting monograph (under contract with the Royal Historical Society) continued in a similar vein, but swapped Buxton for Manchester and Chicago (!), and replaced housing with citizenship. Buxton is close to Manchester, and the place where we escaped for a taste of Big City life. Chicago was a new city to me – but shares a similar position in the national imaginary: industrial entrepot, possible second city, former shock city, etc. Asa Briggs fantastic book on Victorian Cities was a key influence in this respect.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Simon has inspired and shaped my work while giving me enough space to make it my own. His book on the Victorian city is a classic, and sparked my interest in the public spaces of the city, and the rituals and performance of power that the city contains and enables. Chris Otter’s work on the materiality of the city – and how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms. My article on the materiality of the school would not appeared without his influence.

“…how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms”

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

That the British inter-war city contained a citizenship and local government culture all of its own: one that remade Victorian civic pride for the age of mass democracy and entertainment. Analyses of decline in local government and civic idealism haven’t always captured this shift, and can be replaced with a more careful story of evolution. When the book comes out, I hope it will make us think about citizenship as being very strongly tied to the modern city in both Britain and the USA – complicating the story of national identity and patriotic citizenship with local examples from festivals, pageants, education, housing, and welfare.

What impressions have you built up of how people’s relationship to the towns and cities that they live in has changed since the 19th Century?

We should be careful of using crude generalisations, but I think we can see ebbs and flows in civic culture and individual relationships to the city over the last two hundred years. There are many different strands to this, so I’ll only mention one: civic belonging. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, according to a lot of historians, was the period in which people – especially the middle classes and civic elites – most commonly thought about their identity in relation to the place in which they lived. Municipal socialism and the Civic Gospel in places like Birmingham and Manchester – grand infrastructure (from sewers to trams), and civic betterment (such as art galleries and libraries) – was one result. A lot of the historiography of the inter-war period has seen the decline of local belonging, as the middle classes left the industrially-damaged city for the salubrious suburb, and central government began to take over local government functions.

But this can be overstated. In the 1920s and 1930s, as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging. Look at something like historical pageants – these events had up to 10,000 performers, and brought in crowds of even more. Storylines from the local past encouraged civic pride, and pageant-directors had few problems in recruiting the local population to perform on behalf of the city. There had been some decanting of the ‘better sorts’ from the city, and possibly a decline in ‘high-brow’ civic culture, but many left behind were still happy to subscribe to urban pride.

After WWII this did change: the foundation of a big central state, even more suburbanisation (especially through working-class estates), what Raymond Williams calls the ‘mobile privatisation’ of television, increased mobility and growth of university education that has drawn people away from their hometown, industrial decline, and arguably the weakening of an uncontested or simplistic sense of ‘place’ as the demographics and built environment have rapidly changed. But the last couple of decades are starting to see a returning shift. Think of the Buy Local campaigns, the return of city-centre living, urban regeneration and gentrification, and – as London becomes ever-more expensive – the pulling back of young professionals to regional cities. Whether we will ever see a return to a strong sense of local belonging in this age of globalisation is debatable, but *something* is happening.

“…as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging.”

How has adopting a comparative approach to cities and urban regions enhanced the research that you’ve conducted?

Back in the 1960s, when the discipline of urban history was getting going (see Shane Ewen’s book What is Urban History?) assessing the ‘urban variable’ was a central pursuit. Was the city an independent or dependent variable in relation to broader processes of change? Over the years the importance attached to the urban variable has waxed and waned, and it made an appearance at the recent Urban History Group Conference… but I’m a believer. Looking at cities in more than one place, and across national boundaries, has helped me argue for the city as not just a neutral or passive container of social change, but a key part of the construction of modern citizenship.

Can (if indeed they should) urban historians add anything to the current debates about local government and devolution in the UK?

I think so! Though I’m wary of making concrete value judgements, local government in the inter-war period seemed much more capable of connecting with the local community. This was partly because it was so entwined with their lives, providing almost all of the services that are now more commonly managed by the central state. But local government, and its many champions, also saw the locality as the place where people can be made into better citizens – actively taking part in local culture for the benefit of everyone. As cities continue to change, can we root a sense of continuity and belonging in urban residents? Inter-war local government, for all its faults and frequent moralising, can provide some useful lessons.

For more about Tom and his work; check out his page on the website of the Institute for Historical Research’s Centre for Metropolitan History. His academia.edu profile can be viewed here.