meaning and origin of the British phrase ‘sitting by Nellie’

The colloquial British phrase sitting by Nellie means learning a job by observing how an experienced worker does it.

Here, Nellie, pet form of the female forenames Eleanor and Helen, has simply been chosen as a generic name for a trained worker—this also applies to the forenames used in the synonymous phrases watching Joe, standing by Fred and standing by Syd (see below).

(Two forenames are similarly used in plain Jane, denoting a plain, dowdy, unremarkable girl or woman, and in Joe Bloggs, denoting a hypothetical average or ordinary man.)

Most of the texts in which I have found the earliest instances of sitting by Nellie describe the practice that this phrase denotes as outdated.

The earliest of those instances is from The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire) of Saturday 6th October 1956:

‘NOT ENOUGH’ TRAINING OF OPERATIVES
Too Much ‘Sitting by Nellie
MINISTER URGES NEW ATTITUDE

Systematic training of operatives is not being given enough attention in Britain, Mr. lain Macleod, Minister of Labour and National Service, said at the annual dinner of the Institution of Production Engineers in London last night.
“There is too much ‘sitting by Nellie,’ or, more technically, ‘exposure training,’” he said. “The difference between the present and past eras lies in the speed of the application of inventions. The discoveries of the ‘boffins’ affect the work and careers of men on the shop floor very quickly. The need for a new attitude to the tranng [sic] of operatves [sic] andi [sic] supervisors follows from this.”

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from Where apprentices are not at journeymen’s beck and call: Training school breaks with tradition, an article about the Eastern Electricity Board’s new training school at Harold Hill, near Romford, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of Saturday 7th November 1959:

The E.E.B. is using the school chiefly to provide induction courses where the boys will learn the correct use of the tools and equipment used in the industry. At Harold Hill the course lasts eight months, most of which is undertaken during their probationary period before the indentures are signed. The school can in this way serve as a useful check on the suitability of the apprentice before he is finally committed to his five years in the industry. The remaining period of the apprenticeship will be spent—as before—in the boy’s own district with a journeyman—learning by “sitting by Nellie”—as it is called in the trade.

Synonymous phrases include watching Joe; for example, the following is from The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of Friday 13th April 1962:

'sitting by Nellie' 'watching Joe' - The Guardian (Manchester - Lancs) 13 April 1962

MORE DAY-RELEASE TRAINING URGED
Watching Joe” not enough

Mr Alan Green, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, yesterday urged employers to grant more boys and girls day release for technical training. He said at Widnes, Lancashire:
“The ‘sitting by Nellie’ or ‘watching Joe’ method of teaching boys in industry, on its own just is not appropriate to the complex and competitive world of industry today. It cannot be in any employer’s interests to have his young employees taught entirely in this haphazard, unsystematic way. It certainly is not in the nation’s interest, nor in that of the young people concerned.”
Mr Green was speaking at a one-day conference on training for industry.

Another synonymous phase, standing by Fred, was mentioned in the following from The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire) of Monday 1st July 1963:

THE ‘SITTING BY NELLIE’ METHOD

The industrial training of potential managers is less well developed than their education, it is stated in a report published to-day. Though much scorn has been levelled at the “Sitting by Nellie” technique of training craftsmen and operatives, this is still the method used in many instances for training young managers, it adds.
The 27-page report on management education and training needs of industry is by a working party of the Federation of British Industries under the chairmanship of Mr. G. S. Bosworth, director of group personnel services with the English Electric Company.
[…]
Note: The phrases “Sitting by Nellie” and “Standing by Fred” are sometimes used to describe the method of learning a job by observing and copying an experienced worker.

Finally, the phrase standing by Syd was mentioned in Talks on training of nurserymen, an account of a conference of nursery employers, published in the Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, Warwickshire) of Saturday 3rd January 1970; during that conference, David Shelton, horticulture training adviser to the Agricultural, Horticultural and Forestry Industry Training Board centre at Stoneleigh,

announced training recommendations that are designed to provide a blue print for training workers in the most effective methods of production.
“The days when training meant ‘standing by Syd’ or ‘sitting by Nellie’ are over on the enlightened nurseries.”

The Observer (London) of Sunday 18th July 1965 published an advertisement placed by the Phillips, Scott & Turner Company, St. Mark’s Hill, Surbiton, Surrey, in which a synonym of sitting by Nellie is Cook’s Tour, alluding to a tour organised by the travel firm founded by the English businessman Thomas Cook (1808-92):

We are looking for two more young men who graduated this year or last to strengthen our team of Brand Assistants. Initially you would have six months in the sales force to bring you face to face with the realities of business life before joining your Brand Manager, who would soon involve you in his brands by giving you specific projects associated with them. This is training by “doing,” not by “sitting with Nellie” or by a “Cook’s Tour.”

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