Classics of labour history: The Making of the English Working Class

It is almost impossible today to think about labour history without some reference to E.P. Thompson’s classic work The Making of the English Working Class. Read by millions in the fifty years since its publication, and loved by many, it is by any measure a core text of social and economic history, and its importance was recognised from the start. The review republished here, written by the social and economic historian Professor Sidney Pollard (1925-1998), first appeared in the SSLH Bulletin in early 1964, by which time he and Thompson were, respectively, chair and vice-chair of the Society for the Study of Labour History. Inevitably, Thompson’s work has not gone unchallenged, and has been subject to healthy academic criticism at least since the 1980s, when Professor Gareth Stedman Jones published his Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History 1832-1982. Nevertheless, The Making of the English Working Class is a highly readable and influential work.

Not by Bread Alone
Front cover of The Making of the English Working Class

E.P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working Class. (Gollancz, 1963) 848pp., 3½ gns.

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. 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. Alas, the length of the book, and its price, will put off many of those who ought to read it. Yet it represents, without a doubt, a landmark in English historiography and has made its author one of the really significant historians of our time. We shall never again be able to view this period, the critical years 1780-1832, without being influenced by this book… Read the full text.

This is the first in a series highlighting labour history classics to have appeared in the SSLH Bulletin and its successor Labour History Review. See more of our Classics of Labour History series.

All articles published since May 1960 can be accessed through a subscription to Labour History Review.