Fifty years a labour historian: SSLH President Keith Laybourn on half a century at Huddersfield University

As a school leaver, Keith Laybourn was told, “Don’t be too ambitious”. This year, the SSLH President marks 30 years as a professor and 50 at the University of Huddersfield. We asked him about a lifetime in labour history.

Head and shoulders photo of Keith Laybourn

Keith Laybourn has good reason to remember 1 September 1971. It was his first day in a new job as assistant lecturer at the University of Huddersfield – and to all intents and purposes, the first day of what was then a brand new history department. Half a century on, and Keith is still there, and having risen through the academic ranks is now Diamond Jubilee Professor Emeritus.

Looking back, he says, it was a time of excitement. “The first thing we had to do was to create a job for ourselves – writing new courses for new students.” Huddersfield was then relatively small, with no more than 2,000 or 3,000 students compared with its current 20,000. “There was a real sense of hope and potential – these were people who were going to make their mark in my area of interest, labour history.” That sense was to be borne out in the years to come as the then new members of the department progressed to become well known and widely respected academics, either at Huddersfield or elsewhere.

Keith’s own entry into academic life and in due course to a professorial chair was by no means a foregone conclusion. Born in 1946 into a mining family in Barnsley, he describes the handful of O levels he achieved as “unimpressive”, but he did well in his A levels and won a place at the University of Bradford. Keith remembers his grammar school headmaster advising him: “Don’t be too ambitious, lad.” But from the very start studying under schoolteacher turned university lecturer Jack Reynolds, Keith knew that he was going to be a labour historian. Some years later, he would co-author his first major publication with Reynolds, and more than fifty years on he still speaks fondly of his old tutor.

Keith followed up his first degree in social sciences with a PGCE from the University of Manchester, and a Master’s in social history at the University of Lancaster. He was still completing his PhD when he took up the post of assistant lecturer at Huddersfield. In view of his dual commitments, Keith had been told that he would have a lighter teaching workload than his colleagues – but he soon discovered that this was not the case. “I went to see the vice-chancellor, and I said, ‘this is wrong’, and I demanded to be raised to Lecturer 1.” By 1975, he was a senior lecturer.

Elevation to Professor of History came in 1991, and in 2012 Keith was made Diamond Jubilee Professor of History. He confesses to “writing” his inaugural lecture in his head while on a big family holiday in Disneyland. The emeritus designation followed in 2019 as he reduced his time commitment at the university.

Keith Laybourn at the birthplace of the ILP. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Gill

After fifty years, Keith has long since lost count of the number of undergraduate students who have passed through his courses. “I was working it out, and I have successfully supervised at least 50 MAs and 43 PhDs, along with examining 23 or 24 external PhD students,” he says, adding, “I have always enjoyed teaching.” And while he admits that there have been times that he could have left Huddersfield for academic pastures new, he has no regrets at staying. If nothing else, interview trips to other universities were an opportunity to catch up with friends over a pint of Guinness.

Keith is also a prolific author, having written or edited more than fifty books and substantially more than twice that number of journal articles. He recalls a colleague who once commented that while he produced perhaps a book a decade, Keith appeared capable of managing at least one every year.

As a specialist in the labour history of the first half of the twentieth century, Keith Laybourn has published extensively on the early histories of the Labour Party, Independent Labour Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain and the trade union movement. But he has also written more widely on working class history, including books on the history of greyhound racing (titled Going to the Dogs), and on the policing of Britain’s roads in the century of the car.

Among the works he singles out as having a special place in his heart are The Guild of Help and the Changing Face of Edwardian Philanthropy (1994), The Rise of Socialism in Britain (1997), Britain on the Breadline (1998), Under the Red Flag (1999) and his most recent book, The Independent Labour Party, 1914-1939 (2020). “I am quite pleased with that. Especially with the chapter looking at the experiences of working-class supporters of the ILP.”

Keith is currently working on a book on football pools and the British working class, to be published by Routledge. Although he has been delayed by covid restrictions on access to archives over the past eighteen months, he says the book is now about two-thirds of the way to completion.

As a labour historian, Keith has, of course, been involved with the Society for the Study of Labour History from the early days of his career. He recalls conferences at which the likes of Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson would deliver papers. He recalls one memorable SSLH conference in the 1970s at which the veteran communist historian and journalist Robin Page Arnott began a question from the floor with the words, “When I was last talking to Robert Applegarth…”

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Keith. “I had to go and look it up; but yes, Robert Applegarth, the general secretary of the Carpenters and Joiners from way back in the 1860s, was still alive – and known to Page Arnott – in the 1920s.”

Influenced by his friend John Halstead (now a vice-president of the SSLH), he became more active in the Society in the 1990s, eventually becoming one of its longest-serving secretaries. And following the death of Eric Hobsbawm in 2012, he became president (while remaining for some years as secretary too).  

Professor Keith Laybourn discusses Nye Bevan in a video for the University of Huddersfield.

Although, like most organisations, the Society for the Study of Labour History has had its share of financial difficulties in the past, Keith is pleased that for many years it has been on a firm footing that enables it to fund a range of bursaries and grants, and to hold an annual essay competition, the winner of which sees their work published in Labour History Review. He has, he says, immense respect for former SSLH chair John Belchem (now a vice-president of the Society), and he has nothing but praise for his successor as secretary, Quentin Outram, and for the Society’s current chair, Joan Allen.

“I look with hope at the future of labour history. There was a time maybe ten years ago when there was a feeling that perhaps labour history was dead and done. But I don’t think that’s the case. It has fragmented, and what was once seen as labour history is now women’s history, or urban history, or as something else – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t labour history.” Part of the role of an organisation like the Society for the Study of Labour History, he says, is to make the connections – with labour historians and their societies in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and elsewhere, and with other groups.

“And if you look at it, labour history has always been international: Keir Hardie, and Ramsay MacDonald, and Philip Snowden were going around the world discussing their ideas and new ideas were coming back here,” says Keith. He points towards the growth in transnational labour history (albeit that the term can be used in a number of different ways) as evidence of the health of labour history worldwide.

For many attending labour history events for the first time, Keith is instantly recognisable from his trademark hat. He had, he says, been wearing it for years at the Whitby folk festivals he attended each summer, but eventually wondered how it would be to wear it at other times.  “I kept taking it off and putting it on again at the festival, and eventually the bloke behind me said, ‘Put it on, it’s better like that’. So I did.” And the hat has stayed.

Keith says he is unlikely to be celebrating his fiftieth anniversary at Huddersfield on 1 September – having a prior engagement at an important family wedding. But then, as he fully intends to carry on teaching, supervising Masters and PhD students, and writing new books, the day is far from a full stop on his academic career – indeed, it would seem to be little more than a well-timed comma.

Just some of the many books Keith Laybourn has authored, co-authored and edited.

More about Keith Laybourn