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The Chapel

When William Caxton set up the country’s first printing press at Westminster in 1476, the process separated into two operations that remained little changed for some 400 years. First, compositors arranged from their case of type individual letters and spaces to form lines of text, which were assembled in galleys before being locked into place. Then machine men inked the surface of the assembled type and pressed it against sheets of paper. In addition to these two groups of workers, there were proofreaders, flyboys and apprentices usually indentured for between seven and ten years.

Long before the arrival of printing trade unions, printers exercised self-government through the chapel, a term whose origins remain unclear. Some say it is connected to the location of early printing offices in or near churches or a reference to the large number of religious books and bibles that were the bread and butter work of earlier printers. Given medieval guilds had their own chapel; the term is possibly connected to the historical organisation of the trade. The Stationers’ Company was the guild for both master printers and other workers.

The chapel legislated both on how production was organised and how its members behaved in the workplace. Membership was compulsory for compositors and pressmen hired on a permanent basis. Apprentices only joined on finishing their apprenticeship. Masters, foremen and proofreaders were all excluded. Chapel income came from entry fees and fines from enforcing its rules. The five misdemeanours incurring fines were fighting, swearing, bad language, being drunk at work and failing to snuff out a candle when leaving the workshop. Chapel organisation, however, was democratic and its members decided each issue. This democratic ideal was compromised by the turn of the 18th century as by that time the chapel was under employer control. New life, however, was given by the arrival of trade societies and trade unions.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 28 January 2014 10:32