Mary Petherbridge (1870-1940)

Sector: Support Services (Indexing)

In 2014, the Archives and Records Association and CILIP, the library and information association, commissioned research on the industry workforce. It showed that while 78% of the workforce was female, men occupied 2/3rds of the senior management roles and, surprise, surprise, there was a significant gender pay gap.

I would love to know what Mary Petherbridge would have said and done after reading these deeply depressing statistics. Over a long career starting in the early 1890s she role-modelled business leadership and repeatedly made the case that women needed to be paid properly for the work they did. Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking the starting point for the equal opportunity discussion was the 1970s, the 1950s or perhaps even the 1920s. But in this profession, we are looking at a 125-year period where the pace in delivering improvement in outcomes for women has been glacial.

Mary Petherbridge first came to public attention when she presented a paper at a conference of the Library Association held in Cardiff in September 1895. While the other two women at the conference stuck to safe topics with papers on hospital and parish libraries, Mary proposed a grandiose scheme for a national Cataloguing Bureau. All cataloguing currently done across all public libraries would be centralised and carried out by men and women educated to degree level. The money saved by public libraries could be used to pay decent salaries to those at the Bureau, which would raise the status of the profession, and to fund more assistants in the libraries to help readers.

Needless to say, like any proposal that challenges the status quo, it met with ‘great opposition’ and while a couple of attendees found her ideas interesting, she was roundly criticised for being too technical, too forward-thinking and unrealistic.

Mary Petherbridge, photographed by Kate Pragnell, n.d.
From ‘Good Housekeeping’, September 1923

Mary was 25 when she stood up to speak in Cardiff. Born on 30th April 1870, she was the first daughter after three brothers and was named after her mother. Her father was a corn merchant and was both successful and progressive: Mary received a very good education, attending a small boarding school in Mitcham, then going on to the prestigious North London Collegiate School and rounding off her studies at Newnham College, Cambridge where she read Natural Sciences and graduated in 1892 with a First.

From there she went straight into the world of library management. By March 1894 she was working at the grand octagonal library in the People’s Palace in Mile End under Minnie Stewart Rhodes James (M.S.R James) (1865-1903). Interviewed by Margaret Bateson that month, Minnie commented on the ‘excellent work’ Miss Petherbridge was doing.

People’s Palace Library in Mile End
Minnie James n.d. From a photograph by Russell & Sons.

By then Minnie had been in charge for six years. A graduate of Westfield College, she was also a proponent of a formal training school for librarians in the UK along the lines of schemes run in the US. Shortly after this interview, she left her job in London to see for herself what the US had to offer, leaving Mary in charge. Sadly her US career was relatively short: she died in Boston in 1903, aged just 38 years old.

Either before or after her work at the People’s Palace Library Mary spent some time at the Bodleian and worked in the United States herself, possibly as a result of Minnie’s connections. Then in 1895, around the time of her Cardiff speech, Mary set up her own business, the Secretarial Bureau, at 9, Strand near Charing Cross station.

Mary Petherbridge, business woman
Mary always described herself as a business woman. As well as running her own business, she was the London business manager of Overdale School for Girls in Settle, Yorkshire, run by one of her Newnham peers, Esther Pickard and promoted by Helen Gladstone, ex vice-principal of Newnham College and the youngest daughter of the, by then former, prime minister.

While Nancy Bailey focused solely on indexing, Mary offered a range of a wide range of services: indexing, cataloguing, tracing plans and secretarial services. She herself was both indexer and Dutch translator to the India Office and the Royal Geographical Society and the International Library Congress were among her other clients.

She also offered to train other women, with a nine-month indexing course for 20 guineas and a fifteen-month course covering all secretarial and index work for 30 guineas. What set her training apart from other available courses was that she taught indexing in ‘the most practical way’, giving her students real work to do. She expected her pupils to earn between £100 and £300 a year on completing their course and had clear views on the attributes they needed for success. She explained:

‘Cleverness is not required in an indexer; brilliancy is dangerous. The desirable quality is clearness. Sound sense, sound education and a good technical training are the makings of an indexer. The indexer must remember that while he knows all about the book, the man for whom he makes the index may know nothing. In making an index, the point of view to be taken is the reader.’

She was interested in the wider aspects of women’s employment and was present along with Margaret Bateson and Clara Collet at the meeting in May 1897 organised by Louise Creighton, President of the National Union of Women Workers to discuss the idea of establishing a central employment bureau for women. Mary was supportive as long as the women looking for work were properly trained – presumably, if they wanted to do indexing, by her.

The International Women’s Congress
In 1899, London hosted the second International Women’s Congress. Hundreds of women descended on London from all parts of the UK as well as from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and across Europe, for two weeks of speeches, networking and parties.

Mary spoke at Westminster Town Hall on the very last day. While May Morris was speaking in the larger Council Chamber as part of a session on handicrafts, downbeat about the prospects of women being properly paid for decorative needlework, Mary was in the small hall for a session on ‘The Training of Women Librarians’, where she painted a gloomy picture of the economic prospects for women entering indexing, at least to start with. They would need to pay for their training and would be unlikely to be able to earn a living in their first year of work so would need a private income to survive the first 2-3 years. Indeed, this was something she insisted on before she took on trainees. Nevertheless, there was plenty of work around so the key was negotiating a good rate.

Industry expert
In 1904 Mary moved her offices to 52A Conduit Street and published a book on ‘The Technique of Indexing’, dedicated to the mysterious ‘C.S. de S’.

Mary’s clients and the services her company provided: ‘The Technique of Indexing’ (1904)

Outline / skeleton; write the slips; alphabetising; pinning up and arranging; criticising

The Henry James connection
One of Mary’s more unexpected connections is to the writer Henry James. James changed his approach to writing in the spring of 1897 as a result of rheumatism in his right hand and enabled by the invention of the typewriter. He hired a secretary to act as his amanuensis and started dictating his books. Within a year he had fired xx and hired a woman so he could pay less. In 1904, his then secretary Mary Weld left to get married and it seems he went to Mary Petherbridge to find a replacement. In her book, ‘Henry James at Work’, Theodora Bosanquet (1880-1961) described how she got the job.

‘Then as I sat in a top-floor office near Whitehall on August morning, compiling a very full index to the Report of the Royal Commission on Coast Erosion, my ears were struck by the astonishing sound of passages from ‘The Ambassadors’ being dictated to a young typist.’

When Theodora realised this typist was practising because there was a job with Henry James in the offing, she put herself forward for the role instead:

‘The friend to whom he had applied for an amanuensis had told him that I was sufficiently the right young woman for his purpose and he relied on her word.’

In this context, who could this friend have been but Mary?

Thrilled, Theodora went off to Rye, living in rooms on Mermaid Street and heading to Lamb House every day to take dictation. James called her his ‘Remington priestess’ (this was apparently the only brand of typewriter he would allow to be used due to the sound it made). She worked for him until his death in 1916 and would go on work for Time and Tide, living with its owner, Lady Rhondda.

There is little information about Mary’s life after 1904. Her last major ‘public appearance’ was an article she wrote on indexing for Good Housekeeping in September 1923, possibly a result of her having attended the same school as the editor, Alice Head, though many years earlier. However, Alice would have been aware of her and what she was doing via the school magazine. By then Mary was 63. She wrote that ‘ the very qualities that go to the making of a good indexer are the reverse of those required for obtaining the work. The indexer works quietly in the background; the business woman must be continually in the public eye, always exerting initiative and organising power.’ The fact that she was able to combine these competencies was clearly, in her view at least, the secret to her success. It is not clear exactly when she decided to retire but she carried on living in London until her death on 12th April 1940.

Sources include:

South Wales Daily News 13/9/1895; The Queen 21/9/1895; 22/5/1897; Morning Post 28/8/1897; The Queen 18/9/1897; Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion 1/1/1898; The Gentlewoman 1/4/1899; Westminster Gazette 4/7/1899; The Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 5/7/1899; Good Housekeeping

Report of the International Council of Women (1899); Handbook of the International Council of Women (1899)

‘The Technique of Indexing’ by Mary Petherbridge (1904); ‘Henry James at Work’ by Theodora Bosanquet (1924)

‘The Man Who Talked Like a Book, Wrote Like He Spoke’ by Sarah Campbell (2009) in Interval(le)s II.2-III.1; ‘Her Master’s Voice: Dictation, the Typewriter and Henry James’s Trouble with the Speech of American Women’ by Fabio L Vericat (2015) in South Atlantic Review Vol 80 no 1-2, p.1-23

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