Women of the North

Celebrating the fascinating lives of women in the history of North Queensland

The Darling of the Press — Phoebe Lewis

When Miss Phoebe Ailsa Lewis — Australia’s first female Linotype operator — entered into the male-dominated world of newspapers at the age of 14, she was considered to be something of an oddity. Born in Muttaburra in Central Queensland in 1882, she was taught by a private tutor until the family moved to Townsville; after which time she completed a primary school education at Central State School. Around 1896, Phoebe applied for a position with the Townsville Daily Bulletin newspaper as a Linotype operator.

Phoebe Lewis (pictured on the left), with Miss Duffield, both members of the Ladies’ Commercial Rowing Club. Photo: State Library of Queensland

The Linotype machine (a type-setting machine invented and patented by German-American Ottmar Mergenthaler in Baltimore in 1886) revolutionised the newspaper industry by speeding up the printing process and therefore reducing costs. After installing three Linotype machines in the 1890s, the management of the Townsville Newspaper Company came to the conclusion that operating the intricate keyboard was “women’s work”, so they advertised for “young lasses” to apply to be tested for a trial position as an operator of one of the Linotype machines.

Ottmar Mergenthaler’s 2nd Linotype machine.
Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Phoebe Lewis not only tested for the position and was appointed, but she went on to excel at the work and was offered a permanent position. By 1914 she was fully qualified, and she went on to work at the newspaper for more than 60 years.

Despite the fact that she was held in high regard by her fellow tradesmen (all male), a woman in this particular field of the printing industry at this time was not only unheard of but also considered “strictly taboo”.

Phoebe (who later supervised many apprentices at the newspaper during her long career) rose to such fame as a printer, that when she went on international holidays she was invited to inspect printing firms in those locations. According to Phoebe, the manager of a newspaper in Hong Kong didn’t believe that she could actually operate a Linotype machine — so she sat down and proved it to him.

The manager… asked that I prove to him what I claimed to be, by sitting down and operating. He had never heard of a lady Linotype operator before. I was later informed by the foreman that the Chinese workers who had gathered around were horrified to see that a female could equal the males in their work.

Phoebe Lewis, 1969.
A composed line, with matrices and spacebands, in a Linotype machine.
From Linotype Machine Principles, published by Mergenthaler Linotype Company, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1940

While travelling in England and France, Phoebe inspected factories where Linotypes were made and was reportedly invited to lunch with power-brokers of the Press. She visited a printing museum in Antwerp and was intrigued to find that the Linotype machines on display had each been given their own names, such as Diamond, Pearl and Ruby. A representative of the Intertype Corporation, which by this time had produced a typecasting machine that closely resembled the Linotype machine, is said to have offered her a 12-month, all-expenses-paid trip to the United States; and a tour of all Intertype factories.

Miss Phoebe Lewis, in 1969, pictured beside a portrait of her younger self. Source: Australian Women’s Weekly.

A well-travelled, active woman, Phoebe was a member of a local bushwalking club, a coach of a swimming club, and Treasurer of Townsville’s Ladies’ Commercial Rowing Club. At the age of 75, after spending seven months in hospital with glaucoma (which resulted in permanent blindness) Phoebe retired from the Townsville Daily Bulletin. Known throughout the trade by the nickname, “the Fledgling of the Press”, Miss Phoebe Lewis lived to the age of 102. She died in Townsville in September 1984.


Sources:

  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 1 January 1969.
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 9 December 1908.
  • Belgian Gardens Cemetery Register.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Ottmar Mergenthaler”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 May, 2022.

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