“A Street of Clerks”
Ardfillan Road in September 2020, looking north
Ardfillan Road lies in the south-west of the Estate, which was the last section of Corbett’s land to be built on. It was constructed in 1904/5, at the same time as its neighbour Birkhall.
The Early Residents: details from the 1911 Census
The 1911 Census listed 64 houses, with 255 inhabitants (two of whom were Visitors). That meant an average of just under four people living in each house, which was amongst the lowest on the Estate (the average across the 27 streets was 4.4 people). 73% of residents had been born within Greater London, and 27% outside.
Unusually, the most common adult names weren’t Mary and William (easily the most popular on the Estate generally), but Annie and George. For children (11 and under) the most common were Cyril and Stanley for boys (not high on the Estate’s popularity list); and Winifred for girls (right on trend – it was the most popular girl’s name in the area).
Five properties had live-in servants (and many more would have had a ‘Charwoman’ to come in and do all the cleaning etc). Isabella Bannister (age 15) worked for the Broughton family at No. 7; Eva Hatcliffe (22) was at No. 21; Louisa Johnston (28) was at No. 55; Eva Hooper (16) worked at No. 65; and finally there was Margaret Viney (15) at No. 69. No. 69 was where Alfred and Henrietta Wigmore lived with their young daughter Ursula. Alfred was a ‘Physician and Surgeon in General Practice’, so could presumably afford a live-in servant – and probably felt it befitted his social standing as a doctor.
The oldest resident on the street was Edward Buckland, who lived with his daughter and son-in-law at No. 26. He was 75, and a veteran of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Coincidently, he lived opposite one of the very youngest residents, Vera Baker, at No. 27: she wasn’t yet a year old.
The busiest family could well have been the Ingrams at No. 4, where 47-year-old Emily Ingram was the Head of Household. She had nine children living with her – five daughters and four sons – but we have no record of Mr Ingram (possibly he was away on business on the night of the census). The children weren’t small either: they were mostly in their 20’s, so it must have been a very tight squeeze in the 3-bedroom house.
A street of Clerks
So far, Ardfillan seems like a very typical Corbett street (with a typically Scottish name to boot), but in one aspect it really does stand out from the rest. Whilst it’s true that many Estate residents earned their living as clerks, the sheer number of them in Ardfillan is remarkable. Of the 95 people listed as having a job, 42 of them put down ‘clerk’ of one kind or another, which is 44% of the street’s workforce (far higher than the average, which was 20%). It could hardly have been more different to Sandhurst Road, where just 3% of the 424 workers were clerks.
And it wasn’t just the young people who did the job: on Ardfillan they ranged in age from 16 to 49. Being a clerk in those days often meant a decent steady income with the possibility of career progression, so it was a job to be coveted. 27 of the clerks in Ardfillan were the Head of Household (the main breadwinner), with 11 listed as sons and 2 as lodgers.
That leaves 2 clerk roles unaccounted for, and that’s because the ones living at No. 11 and No. 20 were female. Women were making inroads into a predominantly male world, as demonstrated by Corbett residents Janet Fulcher (18) and Maude Filmer (24). Maude’s younger brothers Percy and Alfred (17 and 20) were also clerks, but we don’t know if they all worked for the same company.
Back down the street at the Ingrams (No. 4), we already know there were five daughters and four sons, but as you might have guessed, the job of clerk figured prominently there too: 3 of Edith’s sons were clerks, and whilst the other was still at school, I wouldn’t be surprised if he too eventually joined the massed ranks of Ardfillan clerks!
HISTORICAL CONTEXT: The Clerk
Commuters arriving in central London, no doubt with many clerks amongst them
It’s no accident that there were so many clerks on the Corbett Estate. It had been built very much with commuters in mind, and the biggest growth area in jobs that those commuters might be travelling to was as a clerk of one kind or another.
In 1851, there were 140,000 office workers in Britain – making up just 2.5% of the workforce. But by 1911 the number had grown to almost a million, as trade to all parts of the Empire increased.
The word ‘clerk’ has roots in religion, and comes from the Latin ‘clericalis’ (‘clerical’), which is itself derived from ‘clericus’ (meaning ‘clergyman’ or ‘priest’). This alludes to the fact that in the middle ages in England, it was usually the clergy who did the writing of important documents – they were much better educated than the majority of the population, who were often illiterate. Still today, the official designation of a priest of the Church of England is ‘Clerk in Holy Orders’
In terms of what all the clerks did after they got off the train in central London; well, it was quite varied. Here’s an extract from a thesis called London Clerical Workers 1880 – 1914, by Michael Heller (2003):
As the magazine, The Office, commented in October 1889, ‘…‘clerk’ is a general term admitting of no precise definition’. Having noted that the term had become completely revolutionised in meaning, the article commented that to some the word meant anyone employed in an office in any capacity apart from the manager, while to others the cashier, bookkeeper, stenographer and anyone not doing work of a purely routine nature would also be excluded. It was this failure to come to a precise definition that made the creation of a clerical union impossible.
To make matters worse, as the term was felt to have a pejorative undertone, many people who were working in a clerical capacity refused to apply the term to themselves. The Office adopted the latter definition, and not wishing to upset the sensibilities of its readers preferred to use the phrase ‘office workers’.
In many respects, however, this definition was too exclusive. The term continued to be used throughout this period, and indeed up to the Second World War and beyond to refer to office workers encompassing virtually all grades of work both skilled and unskilled. The New Survey of London Life and Labour in 1934, for example, stated, ‘The term ‘clerk’ is applied to persons engaged in a large number of heterogeneous occupations of very different character and grade, the only common feature being that they work at a desk, in an office’.
One important caveat that the above work in its chapter on clerical work contributed to a definition was that, ‘… clerical work.. .is not an industry in itself, but an occupation or service common to a large number of industries, and generally speaking it may be distinguished from other commercial occupations by the fact that its technique is essentially concerned with methods of recording and accounting rather than with the nature of the transactions to which the records and accounts relate.’
Although it was frequently pointed out that what precluded any precise definition of clerk was the numerous industries and services they were spread across, it should be remembered that the work being carried out in all these areas was essentially the same; recording, accounting, registering, retrieving and corresponding.