Dispatches from the Underground: Gendered Labour and Communications Technology in the remaking of London, 1870-1916

Katie Hindmarch-Watson
PhD Candidate, Dept. of History
Johns Hopkins University



Abstract: Dispatches from the Underground:  Gendered Labour and Communications Technology in the remaking of London, 1870-1916, demonstrates how the British Post Office’s late Victorian and Edwardian telegraph and telephone system both underpinned London’s role as cultural and imperial capital and provided a strategic framework for social, sexual, and colonial transgressions.  The state telegraph’s mechanical and human infrastructure organized key aspects of London’s urban environment.  At the same time, it was a target of urban anxieties centering on gendered labour and sexual underworlds.   

I examine the relationship between men and women’s work, technological innovation, and new forms of sexual bartering in the capital: telegraph and telephone workers were interconnected elements of Britain’s most mechanized, modernized bureaucratic project.  These social actors were spatially, socially, and sexually regulated in the name of efficiency and security of information transfer, but they often found themselves caught up in sexual scandal and labour unrest. Subject to intense bureaucratic discipline, they became cultural icons of both modern possibilities and subversion in an industrial landscape.  The telegraph was, moreover, an essential component of ruling the empire from London.  By the middle of the First World War, the telegraph’s triangulated connection to metropole, a new workforce, and the increasingly restless colonial city of Dublin, had profoundly altered British subjects’ perception of state communications and gender identities.