Off to work in bowler-hats and bonnets

The blurred black-and-white photograph showed a man in a bowler-hat with a walking-stick rushing up a multi-storey staircase to demonstrate how quickly he climbs up in his career in a certain bank. It caught my eye in the 1963 edition of the Careers encyclopedia : a work of reference upon 250 occupations.

Books on careers and vocational education, 1900's to 1960's, on trolley.In a 1938 directory of Vocational schools some ladies with perfect perms creating perfect perms on other ladies struck my eye; so did the “Mayfair Secretarial College (For Gentlewomen)”.

In a guide to female occupations of 1935, an ad for a nursery training college listed “housewifery” besides needlework and cooking; I am not sure what it covered. “Full uniform outfit” was provided.

Woman looking after five toddlers. Black-and-white photo of ca. 1963.For most of the 20th century, there was certainly a strong tendency to restrict women to a few career paths and, preferably, to their duty as housewives and mothers. On the other hand, literature from the 1920s to 1960s opens your eyes for the many opportunities already open to them and the great encouragement to study, train, work, perhaps teach in turn, become a manager, or start a business.

Our guide to Careers and vocational training … for educated women and girls (1935) covers professional cooking, baking, or dress-making but also suggests practising as a veterinary doctor, designing and building ships, or going into diplomacy or politics!

Five men working in factory. Black-and-white photo of 1968.An outline of farming claims that agriculture is at the forefront of science and technology, therefore demanding application of body and mind. The writer ascribes any lack of opportunities to girls’ circumstances (preferably join a brother or fiancé in order to run a farm) and not their natural abilities.

The attitude to gender seemed to differ between the general guide to occupations and the one for women; perhaps you can find out more.

Ad from: Careers encylopedia (1963). Correspondence courses in draughtsmanship.

A chapter on engineering careers for girls contained the very interesting remark that in mathematical and experimental work, a woman might have equal chances to a man, but not so in administration (I suppose this refers to management): because they would have to exert “control of men”.

Seeing that the advertisements in such guidebooks and directories reveal so much about society in past times, I have added the note “commercial advertisements” to a catalogue record. Many publications even have an index of advertising companies and organisations.

Ads from: Careers encylopedia (1963). Courses at School of Slavonic Studies and London School of Economics.


In the first two books mentioned above, I noticed ads for au-pair positions and other opportunities overseas; a domestic science school at Lake Geneva; furnished flats in Parliament Hill; fully equipped offices in Victoria; correspondence courses to become a draughtsman (for men only); loans for professional development (for women only).

There were also references to or notices from some colleges which now are part of UCL, such as the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) and the Institute of Education (IOE).


In our older books on education, you will already find most of our current heated debates half a century ago and longer:

  • educational methods like group work, individualised instruction, peer teaching, experiential learning;
  • the value of manual skills, the balance of academic and practical subjects, the training of craftsmen and their teachers;
  • access to education, equal opportunity; poor living and working conditions; the plight of ignorance, unemployment, or addiction.

An essay on child labour revealed that during World War I, children toiled in munition factories from the age of 14… and often for over 60 hours per week. Boy work : exploitation or training (1919) laments exhausting dead-end jobs, with the situation only exacerbated by unemployment after the war. The author develops a plan of continuing education and career guidance.

A study of The day continuation school in England (1923) features examples from other countries. In Germany, young workers were usually apprentices, benefiting from lessons directly useful for their trade but also from physical education, civic education, and cultural education.

If you now want to know which Special Collection you need to consult: most of these treasures are languishing in our general Stores (Stacks) with other older books until you let them see the light of the library again.

Screenshot of UCL Explore, demonstrating request from stores.

Search for your subjects on the UCL catalogue, sign in, and click on “Request” above your title. If you may not borrow a book, we shall keep it behind the enquiry desk for as long as you need it. We are looking forward to your research into child labour and women’s employment, vocational education and career guidance of previous generations; the next screenshot gives you some search terms to start with.

Screenshot of UCL Explore, demonstrating subject search.

Historical photographs: 

Factory workers in Guben, Germany [GDR], 1968. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-G0925-0036-001 / Stöhr [CC BY-SA 3.0 de].

Nursery nurse in Binz on Rügen, Germany [GDR], ca. 1963. Deutsche Fotothek [CC BY-SA 3.0 de].

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