The Corps of Commissionaires was founded in 1859 by Edward Walter as – in modern parlance - an employment agency, which was dedicated to finding work for disabled British ex-servicemen. This was a group of men whose employment prospects could be hindered by prejudice, and the identity of the commissionaire was conceived by the founder to help counter these attitudes. This identity rested on a claimed exceptionalism for these men, and was rooted in the masculinised attitudes of the mid-nineteenth century British Army. The behaviour of the commissionaires was maintained through a system of exacting rules and strict discipline, which left little room for negotiation between them and Walter. However, in return for upholding them, the commissionaire could expect secure employment, and a level of welfare provision that exceeded what was available to the majority of working-class men and their families in this period.
This paper will consider how the founding principles of the Corps were embodied in the masculinised identity of the disabled commissionaire, the means by which these fundamentals were maintained, and how they were communicated to employers. In doing so it will locate Walter’s paternalistic philosophy in the philanthropic conventions of the period. Furthermore, it will demonstrate that the ideal of the commissionaire, and the model behaviour that he expected ‘his’ men to deliver, was not an achievable ideal for many of the Corps’ disabled men. Indeed, disabled men came to be marginalised within the Corps, in terms of the organisation’s membership, its regulations, and its public presentation. Despite this, other disabled commissionaires thrived in the mainstream – non rehabilitative – work environment that the Corps offered, and these men enjoyed long-term material security, and, in some cases, public recognition for the service. Acknowledging that these outcomes were restricted to a minority of men, and that over time the interests of the able bodied were prioritised over their disabled colleagues, I will argue that the Corps was a progressive organisation; it foreshadowed the employment schemes that were established for disabled ex-servicemen in the mixed welfare economy of the post First World War period, and created an identity for these men that was configured around ability, opportunity, and independence.
Through combining institutional analysis with a prosopographical approach, this paper will deliver evidence of a voluntary body that has hitherto received little academic focus.
Nick Bailey is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Leeds. His study is investigating the Corps of Commissionaires, an employment agency that was established in 1859 to secure work for disabled British ex-servicemen. It is adopting a gendered approach, and analyses the interaction between the masculinised identities of the Corps and its commissionaires, as well as the role that this relationship played in allowing these men to transition back into civilian life.
The PhD is a partnership between the University of Leeds and Corps Security, the modern incarnation of the Corps. This is the first academic study of the organisation.
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