Classics of labour history: volume one of the Dictionary of Labour Biography

Fifteen volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography have now appeared in print, and there is as yet no sign that the series is anywhere near complete. When the labour historian Royden Harrison (1927-2002) reviewed volume one for the SSLH Bulletin back in 1972 (below), his main complaint was that the price of £10 was clearly ‘preposterous’. For generations of students, however, the ever-growing resource originally edited by John Saville and Joyce Bellamy and now by Professor Keith Gildart has been an invaluable source of biographical information of trade unionists, radicals and socialists stretching back almost 250 years. As with so much else in the field of labour history, the idea of a Dictionary of this sort originated with G.D.H Cole; following his death in 1959, Margaret Cole passed his files to Saville. Although news of the project first appeared in the SSLH Bulletin as far back as 1960, it would be a further 12 years until the first hardback book was published. More about the Dictionary of Labour Biography and a list of named entries.

Front cover of the Dictionary of Labour Biography volume 1

J.M. Bellamy and J. Saville (editors), Dictionary of Labour Biography. Volume 1. Macmillan, 1972. Pp. xxiv + 388. £10. D. Marquand (introduction)

To project a Dictionary of Labour Biography requires audacity: to conceive of it in terms, not merely of those who secured national office and celebrity, but also of those who worked away at the grassroots, requires audacity again: to actually embark upon the work requires audacity and something more – in fact, no one less than the late G.D.H. Cole could have been expected to attempt it. He had, indeed, begun the work and one may see what he was making of it from the volumes in the collection at Nuffield. After his death John Saville was invited to continue the project. This opening volume confirms the excellence of that choice. In breadth of learning and care for detail, in boldness of vision joined to a realistic understanding of the ‘long haul’, Saville has exactly the qualities required. Yet it is important to recognize the limits within which one can discuss this Dictionary in terms of personal achievement : it is a public rather than a private enterprise and one which is still at the earliest stage of its development. Thus, the first volume contains entries for some 220 subjects. To be sure, the lion’s share of these have been supplied by Saville and by his marvellously industrious co-editor, Dr Joyce Bellamy; but there are no fewer than 27 other contributors while the list of ‘acknowledgments’ takes up three entire pages. Individual genius can never be in oversupply, but some of the most pressing tasks of British labour historiography are beyond its reach and can only be accomplished collectively. However, what begins as a qualification ends as an endorsement: not the least of the editors’ claims to our respect is the generous spirit which informs their work. They are not content to merely invite our help (which they ought to receive on an ever-increasing scale), but to offer their own to us. ‘Our files’ they write ‘are at all times open to research workers and to scholars everywhere’. When one remembers that even Marx had a strong sense of private property in the matter of research and literary production there is much to be grateful for in this! … Read the full text.

This is the third 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.