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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as an older child

Shorthand-typing - the most common employment
for women in 1950s Britain

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Shorthand typing - a career for girls

One job for female school leavers that was particularly common in the 1950s and has completely disappeared now was that of the 'shorthand-typist' cum 'secretary".

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The need for shorthand-typists in the 1950s

A typing pool of typists, 1950s

A typing pool. Screen shot from an old film.

Before the digital age which led to professional men typing their own letters and documents, they always had or shared a shorthand-typist or secretary who typed for them. Such men would never type their own letters! They was not expected to know how, and it would have been beneath their dignity anyway.

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Job descriptions for shorthand-typists and secretaries

There was a difference between shorthand-typists and secretaries.

Shorthand-typists just took dictation and typed letters and documents, often working in a pool with other shorthand-typists.

What it was like to work in a typing pool

When I started work at a big construction company, in Leicester Square, I was in a typing pool. There was a manager sitting at the front of the large office in which we sat in rows (all girls, of course), almost exactly like school. She allocated jobs when the (all male) drawing office needed secretarial help, and we'd be sent down there.

We - the shorthand takers - had to sit on high stools, just like the drawing office blokes, in tight short skirts and high heels. We were so embarrassed. Then, when we finished taking dictation, we had to shuffle off our stools and walk out, with 20 pairs of eyes watching our reverse ... horrible. In a horrible and cynical way, it's quite entertaining to hear all the uproar nowadays about sexual harassment in the past. I and all women I knew thought that it was completely normal, from that very low level stuff from the draughtsmen, knowing how shy and uncomfortable we all were, to being physically groped on over-full tube trains. No-one ever talked about it.

Back to the typing pool: We were allocated a time to visit the lavatories, right to the actual minute, woe betide you if you missed your slot.

Sue Beer

A secretary was better paid and was expected to answer phones, file, keeping diaries, and be at the beck and call of her boss. She would also be a trained shorthand-typist. Much the same job exists today but the job title has changed to Personal Assistant or Administrator.

Whenever a man wanted a letter sent, a shorthand-typist would be called into his office, notebook and pencil in hand, and he would dictate the letter at normal speech speed. She wrote it down in what was known as 'shorthand' and took it away to type on her manual typewriter.

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Finalising letters and documents after typing

Once a short-hand typist had typed the letters or documents, she normally placed them inside a hard-covered book, designed for the purpose, with each document separated by a page. This book was presented to the boss, who checked everything and signed the letters.

If he had second thoughts an entire page often had to be retyped. With single letter corrections, though, there were special strips of white-coated paper that could be rubbed over the wrong letter to cover it with white and effectively erase it. There was also a white masking fluid called Tipp-ex or Snowpake that could be painted on, which dried on the paper.

Once the wrong letter had been erased, the correct one had to be typed on top. It was normally near impossible to align the document precisely in the typewriter. So the new letter was never quite in line with the rest of the typing, but no-one tended to be particularly critical because these mistakes were so common.

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Training for shorthand-typists

Training as a shorthand-typist took a year after leaving school, usually at the local technical college. There was no shortage of places, just as there was no shortage of jobs for shorthand-typists.

There were several versions of shorthand, and although I never learnt one as I never was a shorthand-typist, I am full of admiration for those who did. It seemed and still seems very difficult to me, although numerous women managed it.

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

The typing was 'touch-typing' which meant that the typist was not to look at the keys while she typed. This was so that she could keep her eyes on her shorthand notebook. My mother-in-law told me that her training involved the keyboard being covered with a cloth, but there must have been other methods.

The skill of a typist was measured in terms of how many words per minute she could type.

I did teach myself to touch type from a book in the 1960s and the skill has been extremely useful to me. In my view, in this digital age, touch typing ought to be taught in schools as a compulsory subject for both sexes.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.