Treasures from the index: mapping six decades of labour history research

“Sooner or later, this book had to be written, describing the creation of the first working class in the world, the first of this type of phenomenon as such,” declared the historian of industrialisation Sidney Pollard in his 1964 review of The Making of the English Working Class. He continued: “As it was written by Edward Thompson, it was bound to combine the qualities of brilliant flashes of insight, of massive scholarship, of swift generalisation, as also of discursiveness and, at times, irrelevance.

Front cover of The Making of the English Working Class.
The Making of the English Working Class.

Across more than 3,000 words, Pollard’s critique for the Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History (of which he was then joint editor) provided an expert and detailed first take on a book that even today would top many lists of works on social and labour history. As Pollard correctly and presciently noted, Thompson’s work “represents, without a doubt, a landmark in English historiography and has made its author one of the really significant historians of our time”.

The article is just one of many, many treasures waiting to be rediscovered, first in the SSLH Bulletin from its launch in 1960, and then in its relaunch since 1990 as Labour History Review; more than 60 years’ worth of research, reviews, commentaries, debates and reports on the development of labour history, intermixed with news of the activities of the Society for the Study of Labour History.

In the early years of the Society and of the Bulletin, there are contributions from R Page Arnot, who even 60 years ago was being described as a “veteran” Communist historian, on his reminiscences of labour history pioneers 2 (1961); there are reflections on the Webbs as historians of trade unionism from Asa Briggs, A.E. Musson and Vic Allen 4 (1962); and there is a lengthy essay by Eric Hobsbawm on trade union historiography 8 (1964).

All of these articles, along with everything else ever published in the Bulletin and Labour History Review, can be found online – access to the complete archive being part and parcel of individual membership of the Society. But, of course, you need to know where to look.

Thankfully, and for the first time in more than 20 years, the entirety of the Society’s output has now been indexed, and the indexes are open to all to read and download. With publication of an index for the first ten years of Labour History Review from 1990 to 1999 (volumes 55 to 64), the set is now complete.

Go to SSLH Bulletin/Labour History Review Indexes page.

This is not the first attempt to create a comprehensive listing. An index of the first 30 issues of the Bulletin was produced in 1975 and published as a standalone booklet. A second volume covering issues 31-50 brought the index up to 1985. And a third covered the final years of the Bulletin up to 1989 and the first years of LHR, ending in 1999. Parts one and two were the work of Victor F Gilbert, while the third was compiled by Malcolm Chase. Finally, indexes covering the years 2001 and 2002, compiled by Ken Lunn, were published in LHR 66:3 (2001) and LHR 67:2 (2003) respectively.

And there the work of indexing came to an end for nearly two decades. It has taken a great deal of work to bring the indexes up to date – and for this, the credit goes to Dr Mike Mecham of St Mary’s University London, a member of the Society’s EC. He digitised parts one and two, split the existing third volume into two (one part each for the Bulletin and LHR) and substantially reworked it; and he created a further two standalone volumes for the periods 2000-2009 and 2010-2020.

Indexing is a time-consuming business – all the more so, as Mike Mecham freely admits, when many of the articles to be indexed are so diverting.

As the years roll by through the index, the names of the giants of 20th (and 21st) century labour history can be found in the pages. Dorothy Thompson shares the fruits of her early research and thoughts on Chartism. John Saville outlines plans for a Dictionary of Labour Biography, working with Joyce M. Bellamy from the notes passed on following the death of the project’s originator, G.D.H. Cole. And Dame Margaret Cole, a founder member, writes regular book reviews and letters to the editors throughout the Bulletin’s first 20 years.

Portrait of GDH Cole and Margaret Isabel Cole. Copyright National Portrait Gallery
George Douglas Howard Cole; Dame Margaret Isabel Cole
by Howard Coster, Copyright National Portrait Gallery

As Saville would note when writing Dame Margaret’s obituary 4:1 (1980): “Her sharply written letters correcting interpretations of the past or errors of fact were well known.”

It would also fall to Saville to write the obituary for R. Page Arnot 51:3 (1986). “He did much to enliven the early meetings of the Society for the Study of Labour History,” Saville recalled. “His short figure, wearing the familiar skullcap given to him, I think, in Samarkand, would walk to the front seats of the meeting, and he always had a contribution to make.”

Other big names similarly make their contributions: Michael Foot writes about Harold Wilson and Ramsay Macdonald (even while serving in government as a senior Cabinet Minister). John McIlroy writes on the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain (and on the history of the SSLH itself). Malcolm Chase sets out his research and ideas on Chartism. And so it continues.

There is, too, a sense of time moving on within the Society – and not just in the succession of chairs, secretaries, presidents and others giving their time to the organisation. As early as 1987, SSLH Bulletin editor John Halstead (now SSLH vice-president) writes that the possibility of communicating “by electronic mail” is being investigated 52:1 (1987). “Many of our contributors are abandoning their typewriters and turning to word processors. Indeed for some younger scholars, it is increasingly likely that their first encounter with a typewriter will be in a museum.”

It is perhaps advisable to stop listing authors at this point rather than attempt the hopeless task of naming all those whose work has made publication of every issue of first the Bulletin and subsequently Labour History Review such an eagerly awaited event. In a debate at the inaugural meeting of the SSLH in May 1960, Raymond Postgate had urged on the Society “a more popular manner of presentation”, while Eric Hobsbawm “protested against the tendency to reduce labour history to the history of labour organisations”. Their advice has been well heeded down the years.

But, of course, the main point of publishing both the full content of the SSLH Bulletin and Labour History Review online, and of indexing them, is not to entertain but to enable scholars to find and access the work of previous generations whose writing can still inform thinking today. As such, the indexes we have now published should prove to be a useful working tool.

And so to the formats of the indexes we now offer.

  • SSLH Bulletin Index 1960 – Spring 1975 (Vol 1 to Vol 30) is available in PDF format, having been scanned from an original print copy;
  • SSLH Bulletin Index Autumn 1975 – Spring 1985 (Vol 31 to Vol 50) similarly is available only in PDF format;
  • SSLH Bulletin Index 1986-1989 (Vol 51 to Vol 54) is available both in Word (.doc) and PDF formats;
  • Labour History Review Index 1990-1999 (Vol 55 to Vol 64) is available both in Word (.doc) and PDF formats;
  • Labour History Review Index 2000-2009 (Vol 65 to Vol 74) is available both in Word (.doc) and PDF formats; and
  • Labour History Review Index 2010-2020 (Vol 75 to Vol 85) is available both in Word (.doc) and PDF formats.

Finally, there is a combined Labour History Review Index for 2000-2020 (Vol 65 to Vol 85) in Excel format, allowing more freedom to search and filter the results.

And just as history never ends, so neither does the writing of history or the publication of articles. Already, the first issue of Labour History Review to post-date our indexes has gone to press, and work has begun on providing an update that will appear at the end of this year.

Go to SSLH Bulletin/Labour History Review Indexes page.
Find out more about Labour History Review.