Nancy Bailey (1860-1913)

Born: Ann Bailey

Sector: Support Services (Indexing)

It is said that when anyone vaguely famous publishes a racy memoir, the first place anyone who knows them looks is the index: are they in it or aren’t they?

Indexes started to appear in books with the arrival of the printing press and initially were usually written by the author. The first generally recognised professional index-maker was Samuel Ayscough (1745-1804). Indexers could compile an index for a new or current publication but were also often asked to create indexes for books already published and back catalogues of newspapers, magazines, committee meeting reports and society minutes. ‘It is not enough to have knowledge in sight, but it is necessary also that it should be within reach,’ said the Earl of Carnarvon as he presided over the first general meeting of the Society of Indexers in May 1879.

One of the first women to carve out a successful niche in this profession was Nancy Bailey. Nancy was born in Dawley in Shropshire, the third of five children born to Susanna, a dress-maker and Robert, a charter master (a contractor / odd-jobber). Robert died in 1867 leaving Susanna with five young children to bring up on her own. In 1871, aged 11, Nancy was still at school in Wrockwardine where they were living but her 12-year old brother was working as an errand boy and her elder sister, Lilian, aged 14 was assisting her mother. It is highly probable that Nancy also left school when she was 12, making her subsequent success all the more notable.

Nancy Bailey (1860-1913) set up her own indexing business
Nancy Bailey, from ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions’ by Margaret Bateson (1895)

Nancy had moved to London by the age of sixteen and seems to have started out by writing articles on art for magazines. Margaret Bateson, who interviewed Nancy in 1893, thought that ‘the London paving stones had been possibly rather stonier to her feet than to others’ but she had great determination and was soon compiling an index for ‘The Year’s Art’ as well as doing some editing and cataloguing work for, among others. the Heralds’ College.

Nancy’s gift for ‘winnowing the wheat from the chaff’ brought her to the attention of the editor of Hansard and she was given the job of indexing the Parliamentary Debates, which she did between 1889 and 1891, lodging at 31 Store Street, which runs between Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road. However, in 1892, the work was given to someone else. Undeterred, Nancy put together an ‘indexing circular’ and started touring offices to drum up some more work, securing a contract from Pearson’s Weekly.

When twelve month’s later she was re-appointed to index Hansard she received a letter from the great W.T. Stead (1849-1912), newspaper editor and pioneering investigative journalist:

William Thomas Stead was a newspaper editor and investigative journalist
William Thomas Stead.
by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company;
albumen cabinet card, August 1890
NPG x24952. © National Portrait Gallery, London

‘For intrinsic importance I would prefer to index Hansard rather than have a seat in the House of Commons. And that important post you have won for womanhood. We all owe you thanks, as human beings, for demonstrating the capacity of woman to do the work – the arduous, responsible work – of actually creating the memory of the Imperial Parliament, session by session.’

As well as carving out this career for herself, Nancy was also committed to opening up the profession to other women, viewing the fact that it could be done from home as a huge advantage. She started to offer training positions, but had demanding standards, initially accepting only two applicants from more than a hundred. The main barrier she saw was that the education many women received left them with narrow fields of knowledge. This was problematic when Nancy’s indexing jobs covered subjects as diverse as a travel guide to Ireland, a history of the Somerset Religious Houses, a commission report on Mining Royalties or the committee meeting reports of the Birmingham and Gloucester Canal. In each case, key topics quickly needed to be identified to start the indexing process.

When Margaret Bateson met her in September 1893 at her new home, 2 Poet’s Corner in Old Palace Yard by the Houses of Westminster, this is why she found Nancy surrounded by small slips of paper on which she gave ‘the essence of a subject in the fewest and most salient words’ and created a system for each publication. Nancy was one of the first women to feature in her series of articles, ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions’ and at this point was perhaps half a dozen women in the United Kingdom who were professional indexers. She was breaking new ground.

By 1894 Nancy’s fame had spread across the Atlantic, featured in the American Ladies Home Journal. She took on the mammoth task of indexing 356 volumes of Hansard, eventually producing four volumes with 2000 pages of index in each one.

In June 1897 she was one of the women asked to speak at a conference on the training of women in business organised by Daisy Grenville, Countess of Warwick, one of a series on women’s education. Nancy had now trained forty women and had racked up a lot of experience. When a book of all the different conference proceedings was published in 1898, of the fifty essays, hers was judged ‘one of the most entertaining’. ‘It is really a revelation to find in some many fields of employment, which were formerly regarded as sacred to men, women are now able to hold their own,’ commented the Irish Independent.

In 1899, Nancy added a monthly index of The Times to her slate, also published by Eyre & Spottiswoode. It was advertised with the characteristics of ‘Accuracy, Facility of Reference, Clearness and Simplicity’ and sold for 3 shillings a month or 30 shillings for an annual subscription.

By 1900 Bailey’s Indexing Office was operating from larger offices at 5 Great College Street. Contracts included indexes for the Artist, the Gentlewoman, the Journal of Finance, the Liberal Magazine, the Morning Leader and Truth, indicating that all of these publications were more than happy to give work to women, in a business run by a woman.

Nancy’s index to ‘The Times’

There was still the odd hiccup. Nancy took a job compiling an index for 45 years’ worth of vestry minutes for Camberwell Council in 1901 and estimated the cost, in today’s prices, at £16,000 but, due to a misunderstanding in scope, the final bill was £23,5000. Fortunately the rationale that Nancy gave and the quality of the work she delivered meant that Camberwell Council decided to pay her the full amount; but no doubt she gave more attention to how she scoped and costed work after this.

A year later she had moved once more to 12 Little College Street, now able to afford a lease on the whole house for which she was paying £25,000 p.a., giving some sense of what she must have now been generating in income. She had twelve women working for her full time ‘in a large cheery room.. with nests of pigeon holes around the walls, each containing slips placed in alphabetical order’.

Several references are made in The Queen’s employment columns that indexing was not the best paid work: women wanting to train with Nancy paid the equivalent of £3,000 – £4,000 for a course of nine months a year and could only expect to earn c.£10,000 – £12,000 a year at the end. Taken together with the level of education needed, this meant indexing was more often offered as a supplementary skill as part of a wider secretarial training course rather than as a specialist discipline and Nancy’s is the only specialist indexing school which crops up during this period.

Nancy was still living at 12 Little College Street when she died on 25th January 1913, aged 52. From the relatively sparse facts stitched together to make her story, she cuts a quietly inspirational figure, a determined woman who entered the world of work without the benefit of a top-drawer education or any useful social connections but was still able to carve out a profitable niche. This took a combination of vision and hard graft, as well as a willingness to take some risk. If she were doing this today, she would be described as entrepreneurial. Doing it 100 years ago, she should also be described as remarkable.


If you are interested in a career in indexing, you can find more information here.

Sources: London Evening Standard 27/3/1879; ‘Professional Women Upon Their Professions’ by Margaret Bateson in The Queen 23/9/1893; Progress in Women’s Education in the British Empire: Report of the Education Section, Victorian Era Exhibition (1898); Pall Mall Gazette 20/4/1898; Irish Independent 04/04/1989; Lloyds List 12/4/1899; The Queen 18/08/1900; South London Press 10/8/1901; Dundee Telegraph 20/6/1902; The Queen 14/9/1907

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