Scott Rawlinson (University of East Anglia) on the labour movement and Labour Party in Peterborough, 1898-1939

My PhD research looks at the development of the labour movement and Labour Party in Peterborough from 1898 to 1939, with a particular focus on the period from 1918 to 1939. The aim is to understand the nature of Labour organisation and identity in a mixed constituency beyond the heartlands (that is, an area which does not occupy a special place in standard histories of the party’s development, and where victories in parliamentary elections have been hard to come by), and understand the organisational and ideational challenges faced. The emphasis is on distinctness – there were multiple Labour parties rather than a single Labour Party. This research raises a flag to the importance of listening to and understanding local people and local dynamics wherever they may be, as well as structural factors. Therefore, it speaks to the present moment where the Labour Party has seen the fracturing of its traditional electoral coalition.

Pre 1939 postcard of Peterborough.
Peterborough before 1939 lay beyond
the Labour heartlands.

The formation of the Peterborough Divisional Labour Party (DLP) coincided with substantial changes to the territorial extent of the Peterborough Division. From 1918 to 1935, the City of Peterborough as well as the Soke of Peterborough was joined with the bulk of the old North Northamptonshire division, a predominantly rural area. Peterborough DLP had to navigate this environment, dealing with the combined challenges of strained finances and the wish to organise across the Division’s full extent, presenting balanced (in reality often unbalanced!) appeals to urban and rural sectors of the electorate; negative external perceptions which made securing and retaining prospective parliamentary candidates difficult; as well as organised and seasoned opposition. The boundary changes, historical and contemporary setting (individual, local and beyond), alongside institutional reforms such as the Representation of the People Act 1918 and Labour’s own 1918 Constitution, had a profound impact on the organisational form and identity of the Peterborough DLP.

Research Trip: The People’s History Museum, Labour History Archive & Study Centre

The bursary from the SSLH enabled me to undertake a three-day research trip to the People’s History Museum. Peterborough’s position beyond Labour’s heartlands means the search for material is essentially one of looking for fragments. However, some of the material was a little more direct. I viewed correspondence, dated 1900 to 1907, from the Peterborough and District Trades and Labour Council (the Council) to the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), and others. It soon became evident that issues that would afflict the future Peterborough DLP were problems for the Council – the history of the labour movement in Peterborough is the history of ‘lack of funds’ (LRC 28/405). 

Despite the lack of funds, members of the local trades’ council were keen to push for, if not independent representation of labour, then a candidate who pledged to support the Labour group in parliament. The Council initially opposed the candidature of a Mr George Greenwood on account of their opposition to his attitude on housing and desire to ‘vote for what the Liberal Party brings forward’ (LRC 5/310/1). This view later softened following some reassurances from Greenwood. However, it was not until 1918 that Peterborough put forward its first (independent) Labour candidate.

I spent some time working through LRC Conference Reports, back copies of Labour WomanLabour Organiser and the Land Worker which provided hints regarding the organisational and ideational state of Labour in Peterborough. For instance, the material suggests steady development in terms of the Peterborough Labour Party’s Women’s Section. Sarah (Louise) Donaldson, wife of Church of England clergyman and Christian socialist Frederick Lewis Donaldson, was at the forefront of organisation in the constituency, holding regular meetings and speaking on topics such as “What is the Labour Movement?”

Contributions to research
People's History Museum
People’s History Museum and Labour
History Archive & Study Centre

The labour movement and Labour Party in Peterborough attempted many of the same things as their equivalents elsewhere. They organised both men and women, spoke up on issues relevant to working people and pushed for independent Labour representation. However, Peterborough was not and would not become a historical or electoral heartland for Labour. It was not just lack of money. In 1902, W.H. Hackett, the secretary of the Council, wrote: ‘I must say that Peterboro’ is far from a Labour constituency’ (LRC 6/316). Despite a large number of railwaymen and brickworkers being amongst the electorate there was a feeling that they were generally politically uninterested. This intimated a need to raise the political interest/education of the local electorate. These were the foundations on which the Peterborough DLP would be built.

Reflecting on my reading of the minutes of the Peterborough DLP (1918-1951), they can now be contextualised as part of a longer historical process. The research trip has allowed for greater understanding of the Peterborough DLP’s efforts to raise the profile of Labour between 1918-1939, albeit with mixed though respectable results given the obstacles faced,through organisation and political education.

I would like to express my deep gratitude and thanks to the SSLH for making this research trip to the People’s History Museum possible.

Find out more about SSLH bursary schemes.