AWCS badge and cartoon
One of the most striking changes in the modern workplace has been the expansion of office work. The typewriter, first generation computer, fax machine and email have transformed working lives within this occupation.
The revolution in administration had important repercussions for women, with female clerks outnumbering their male colleagues by the 1950s. The Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries (AWCS) was formed to encourage a higher standard of training in clerical work, to secure a fair wage for its members and to provide advice and support.
Originally founded in 1903 as the Association of Shorthand Writers and Typists, it did not explicitly exclude men. Its name changed to the AWCS in 1912 and it then restricted membership to women. It took the auk sea bird as its emblem (as seen on its badge).
The AWCS became a trade union in 1916, affiliating to the TUC in 1919. As well as campaigning to improve working conditions for its members (for example, fighting for healthier office environments with better ventilation and less overcrowding), social events also formed part of its activities. The Club, a number of rooms at 116 Belgrave Road in London, was opened by Lady Rhondda on 26 October 1921. Here ‘business girls’ could meet, socialise and form friendships among ‘like-minded individuals’.
The first major event was a Hallowe’en Party, which included dancing, games, fortune telling and refreshments. A variety of activities and entertainment followed, as depicted in this cartoon from The Woman Clerk (Spring 1923). It was drawn shortly after the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, which clearly had an impact on the cartoonist’s style!
The Library acquired a rich collection of AWCS material in the late 1990s, providing a fascinating insight into the working lives of female secretaries and clerks. Material includes the journal of the AWCS (The Woman Clerk), annual reports and numerous pamphlets. In 1941, the AWCS amalgamated with the National Union of Clerks and Administrative Workers to become the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union. It became known as APEX in 1972 and merged with the GMB in 1989.
More information here.
Nicole Robertson, Northumbria University.
Nicole's current research project, ‘The Clerical Profession and the Administrative Revolution: the Rise of the Modern Workplace in Britain 1919-1979’, is supported by the AHRC Leadership Fellows Scheme.