Classics of labour history: a research programme for the 1960s and beyond

The Society for the Study of Labour History was launched on 6 May 1960 in a meeting room at Birkbeck College, University of London. Those present included many of the big names of what was then a rapidly rising specialist area of historical study, including Raymond Postgate and Henry Pelling. Others, among them Eric Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband, were yet to publish much of the work that would make their names. In his inaugural address as chair, Professor Asa Briggs set out what he termed the ‘open questions’ of labour history, and an abstract of his speech was published in the very first issue of the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin that same year. Reading through this brief summary today, it is remarkable just how prescient Briggs’s agenda would be in describing the development of labour history in the 1960s and 1970s. And while the report carried little of what was said by others in response, in many cases the selected words could serve almost as epitaphs to their careers.

Open Questions of Labour History.

(The following is an abstract of Professor Briggs’ Inaugural Address to the Society for the Study of Labour History, delivered at Birkbeck College, London, 6th. May 1960).

Asa Briggs, photographed by Godfrey Argent in January 1970. Copyright National Portrait Gallery. Click for larger image

In so far as there are any institutional trends in the academic writing of Labour History in Britain they are primarily associated with Oxford and the L.S.E. Interest in Labour History tends to be concentrated in these places; a development associated with the work of Cole and Beales. They established the basis in their Universities for much of the recent academic work In this field; work which has come to reinforce the earlier popular tradition.

Broadly, the writing of Labour History has hitherto fallen into one or other of five traditions. The first is reminiscence. (Cooper, Soutter, etc). The second is a literature which attempts a rounded picture of working class life as a whole, as part of society and depends upon a knowledge of the pre-industrial world. (The Hammonds). The third is Marxist (Rothstein and many others influenced to a greater or lesser degree by Marxism). The fourth is official histories of trade unions, co-operative societies, trades councils etc. The fifth is the Webbs. They are entitled to the status of a tradition, since they set the chronology and established a picture of the structure of Labour History within which succeeding historians have organised their work. Perhaps the time has come to call this structure Into question and to try and subject it to critical examination.

There remains a number of large gaps which need to be filled. Early Labour History is full of breaks and discontinuities. We want a full study of labour on the eve of the industrial revolution and another that will give an adequate account of the impact of the French Revolution on British Labour.

Chartism still presents many unsolved problems and there is still, for example, no account of Chartist activities in London.

The eighteen sixties still tempt historians into parlous and facile comparisons with the forties. With reference to the mid-Victorian years the need for more local histories is particularly pronounced.

The early years of the Labour Party have been explored fairly intensively; but we still have no adequate life of Ramsay Macdonald. We need fuller studies of the Labour Party in office.

More important, Labour History as a whole has suffered from the neglect of its international dimension. There is a real need to break with insularity and to develop comparisons.

Not only are there gaps waiting to be filled, there are new lines of approach which suggest themselves – for example, a study of the working class “situation” taken in terms of health, leisure, etc. Social history In the fullest sense, including politics, but not tied exclusively to politics; studies which focus attention on class relations, the Impact of other classes and class organisations on the workers; and a strictly economic history of labour. There is also a need for studies of leadership rank and file relations in labour organisations, for a closer examination of “militancy” and “commitment”. All these studies demand a human as well as an analytical approach, insight and imagination as well as discipline. They should draw on work done in other branches of history. We still lack biographies of many important labour leaders.

With respect to biographical work, John Saville, who has taken up Cole’s project of Dictionary of Labour Biography promises greatly to extend our knowledge of labour personalities. This venture also points to the role of team-work; it has Immense possibilities , but like other co-operative projects can only be developed by voluntary enthusiasm and not by direction of labour.


Among those who took part in the discussion which followed Professor Briggs’ lecture, Postgate appealed for a popular manner of presentation; Pelling pointed out the need for more work on the impact of religion on labour movements; Hobsbawm protested against the tendency to reduce labour history to the history of labour organisations; Abramsky stressed the need for more bibliographical work; Miliband referred to the poverty of Interpretative studies. (We had nothing to compare with Perlman’s Theory of the Labour Movement In the United States); Pearce insisted on the importance of working for the preservation of labour archives and Clegg talked of Nuffield’s readiness to house them.

This is the seventh 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.