The invention of the career ladder

Bank of England clerks, 1890 Image copyright Getty Images

The dreary, hunched Victorian office clerk, with his ink-stained fingers and pale skin, is a classic figure. They were magically motivated by the invention of the "career ladder", explains Lucy Kellaway.

Charles Dickens loved them.

There are 104 in his collected works - though in my head they've merged into a single downtrodden, skeletal figure, dressed always in dusty black.

Describing running into a fellow clerk in St James Park in April 1835, Dickens writes: "He was a tall, thin, pale person, in a black coat. He had an umbrella in his hand - not for use, for the day was fine - but, evidently, because he always carried one to the office in the morning."

In 1851, there were 140,000 office workers - making up just 2.5% of the workforce. But by 1911 the number had grown to almost a million.

In London, the rise was fastest of all - the need for pen-pushers to track the explosion in trade was making it into the black-coated capital of the world.

But was it really the inky drudgery that Dickens described?

A Manchester magazine described how clerks in the 1860s would "disappear mysteriously down passages or into doorways that lead to narrow staircases, some doubtless to little tanks like that in which poor Bob Cratchit toiled under Scrooge's uncharitable eye while others are absorbed into dingy warehouses that look as dreary as prisons".

In these wretched counting houses boredom ruled. The work was repetitive and mind-bendingly dull, leaving clerks exhausted by the end of the day.

An article in Liverpool's Daily Post from 1877 noted: "The clerk returns home tired, certainly, but there is this difference between his and the mechanic's fatigue, he is tired of, not with his work."

It wasn't just the boredom. The status wasn't what it had been 50 years earlier and the money had got worse too. Much of the wage had to go on keeping up appearances - the absolute necessity of the black suit, and the need to rent a house in the terraces of Clapham and elsewhere.

Often, to make ends meet, clerks would sublet rooms to manual workers, who were almost certainly earning more than they were. Worse still, the manual workers, far from respecting the better educated clerks, actually looked down on them.

One clerk, Benjamin Orchard, wrote the following bitter account of his existence in 1871:

"We aren't real men. We don't do men's work. Pen-drivers - miserable little pen-drivers - fellows in black coats, with inky fingers and shiny seats on their trousers - that's what we are. Think of crossing T's and dotting I's all day long. No wonder bricklayers and omnibus drivers have contempt for us. We haven't even health."

But it's possible that some of the gloom and doom may have been overdone.

Being a clerk was a good job for the time. This was a group of middle or lower middle class workers with relatively comfortable lives.

In the Museum of London is a clerk's desk taken from Barings Bank in 1890. It is a high desk with a high chair, and on it ledger and quills. It actually looks quite nice. Nothing like as grim as Dickens would have us believe.

"The physical environment was pretty good," says Alex Werner, head of collections at the museum.

"It's quite a different picture to the image we have of Christmas Carol and Bob Cratchit sitting by the fire trying to keep warm. This clerk would have been quite comfortable."

One book that captures the clerk's suburban lifestyle is the Grossmiths' Diary of a Nobody, in which the hero is the buffoonish petty-snob Charles Pooter (who specialises in domestic escapades such as managing to paint himself red in his bath).

If Pooter's account is to be believed, clerical work in the 1880s was stress-free and even borderline-agreeable.

I'm inclined to think the Grossmiths knew what they were talking about because in Pooter they created a character who reminds me of at least half the middle managers I've ever met - he's got that wildly inflated idea of his own importance and a sublime ignorance of how others see him.

"April 28 - At the office, the new and very young clerk Pitt, who was very impudent to me a week or so ago, was late again. I told him it would be my duty to inform Mr Perkupp, the principal. To my surprise, Pitt apologised most humbly and in a most gentlemanly fashion. I was unfeignedly pleased to notice this improvement in his manner towards me, and told him I would look over his unpunctuality. Passing down the room an hour later, I received a smart smack in the face from a rolled-up ball of hard foolscap. I turned round sharply, but all the clerks were apparently riveted to their work. I am not a rich man, but I would give half-a-sovereign to know whether that was thrown by accident or design."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Victorian Clapham - popular place to live for office workers

But even Pooter doesn't pretend the work is interesting. So how did the million-strong army of clerks cope with such tedium?

Partly, their lives were becoming easier, thanks to pensions and laws of employment. But more important still was the invention in the late 19th Century of the career ladder.

This idea - stolen from the military - was sheer genius when applied to office work. Promotion made the workers happier, giving them status - of the sort that pathetic Pooter craved - and some sort of emotional boost.

More important still, the ladder was a crafty way of exerting control. If you are hoping for promotion, you behave. Which means your managers don't have to keep such a close eye on you.

In the Lloyds Bank archive, far underground, is a big ledger of names of clerks who worked there in the 19th Century. There are also the workers' reports, which certainly didn't pull any punches.

"There were scathing judgments about individuals," says Alan McKinlay from Newcastle University.

"Didn't grow into manhood. Too small a juvenile appearance, hunched shoulders. Voice a little peculiar. Also somebody who was too short sighted. Redhead or jug ear." The practice seems to have been particularly cruel in Scotland.

There were no euphemisms about opportunities for improvement, no 360-degree appraisals. If they were marked down for having red hair, well that was just tough.

Conformity was rewarded, then as now. Modern corporations still prefer people who toe the corporate line, even if they pretend to value those who think outside the box.

In the 19th Century, there was no such nonsense. The Bank of Scotland was specific about wanting courtesy, patience and self-effacement and workers were warned that "cranks - artistic, scientific, religious or political - never succeed".

Back then, bankers were seen as the aristocracy of clerks. They were paid more and had better conditions. Sound familiar?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Reuters news agency, 1900

But what doesn't sound familiar at all was that a banking career was then seen as a moral duty.

In 1912, AW Kerr, a senior figure in Scottish banking, gave an address to a packed meeting of the Institute of Bankers in Edinburgh.

"The banker engages in capitalistic economising not purely as a matter of expediency, of constrained adaptation to the mundane necessity of making a living, but in the expectation that such activity would test his inner resources as a person in charge of his own existence, and affirm his human worth," he said.

Those were different times. Though, curiously, since the financial crisis top bankers are once again banging on about human worth.

Just a couple of months ago the new head of Barclays gave a speech in which he told staff that if they didn't hold values such as respect, integrity and stewardship dear, they should quit.

Kerr, I think, would have approved.

Then, as now, the rank and file may have seen it rather differently.

A sketch by Robert Shirlaw, who worked at the bank in 1900, shows a clerk who has climbed a stair of ledgers and is waving a victory flag. He looks pretty pleased with himself there at the top, yet trapped below him are squashed clerical workers.

The caption reads: "We climb upwards on the stepping stones of our own dead selves."

This piece is based on an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life, produced by Russell Finch, of Somethin' Else, for Radio 4. Episode four, The Arrival of Women in the Office, is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 25 July