George Augustus Sala (1828–1895) was a journalist, foreign correspondent, bon vivant and sometime pornographer. A friend of Charles Dickens, he was one of the chief leader writers for The Daily Telegraph. His bumptious, half-scandalised prose suited – and perhaps defined – that publication’s reputation for eye-popping horror at minor scandals of etiquette among the well-to-do.
Published in 1959, Twice Round the Clock is Sala’s journalistic exploration of bustling London life. He depicts the city hour-by-hour throughout the day and night. In the extract shown here, Sala’s characteristically colourful prose describes the morning arrival of commercial clerks at their jobs in London’s banking centre:
[a] great army of clerk martyrs … set down their loads of cash-book and ledger fillers … They file off to their several avocations, to spin money for others, often, poor fellows, while they themselves are blest with but meagre stipend … Upon my word, I think if I were doomed to clerkdom, that I should run away and enlist.
19th-century Britain saw the growth of what we would now call ‘white collar’ workers: people paid to oversee, administrate and annotate financial or legal transactions ordered by heads of business. With Britain’s simultaneous manufacturing and trading boom, the number of clerks in commercial industries grew enormously. The 1841 census records only 20,000 commercial clerks in Britain, but by 1871 the number of ‘clerks, accountants and bankers’ had grown to 119,000. As the word clerk suggests (it is Old English for ‘lettered person’, via ‘cleric’), the job was mostly transcription. A letter from a manager would have to be copied and recopied by hand until there were enough to send to all involved parties; likewise every invoice and account ledger.