Sunday, 6 January 2013

How Should We Approach Labour Biography? A Discussion Note

Friday 8 March sees a Conference on History & Biography at the Institute for Historical Research at London University's Senate House. The organisers comment that 'Biography remains one of the most popular forms of non-fiction, and historical biography has often been the genre in which professional historians have written for a wider audience. But what happens when it is the historian who becomes the subject of the biographer? In recent years several major biographies of historians have been published, and others are on their way. The Conference showcases the phenomenon of biographies by and about historians, and also looks across the humanities at current research on life-writing. Biography may well be ‘history without theory’, but that is no reason not to explore why it remains one of the most compelling and challenging ways of understanding the past in relation to the present.' While this Conference is focused on the biographies of historians, it will raise broader questions about the functions of biography in general. However, historians such as Christopher Hill, Edward Thompson, John Saville, Ralph Samuel, who have all been subject to biographical studies, have been more than just historians. They were teachers and political activists as well within the broad labour movement. 

Back in 1997 (15 March) the Society for the Study of Labour History's Conference was ‘A life’s work: Labour Biography today’. Having previously written a review I later posted a discussion note on how we should approach labour biography on the Labour Heritage website in 2003. This what I wrote with slight editing.

Biographies of people who were active in the labour movement are an easy and readable way for non-professionals to become familiar with the history of the labour movement. An ever ending stream of full-length biographies and biographical sketches are published by journalists, politicians, academic political scientists, and academic and non-academic historians. The motives of each author vary from those who view the individual they are writing about as heroes to those who regard them as villains.

These aspects of labour biography rippled through the presentations and discussion at the Conference, which was appropriately held at the then North London University's Learning Centre on Holloway Rd which now houses the TUC Library (bar the John Burns Collection) and Christine Coates, the former TUC Librarian. This is a rich archive for movement and biographical research. It is now part London Metropolitan University and also holds the archive of the Workers’ Educational Association. ( It has recently launched the TUC History Online website:


Traditionally, labour movement history in general and biography in particular has concentrated on men. There are of course notable exceptions such as biographies on Margaret Bondfield and Ellen Wilkinson. But the motives of many writers on women stem from a perfectly valid feminist perspective. e.g. Margaret Mulhvihall's biography of Charlotte Despard. This can result in less emphasis being paid to women's labour movement involvements, so that further biographical essays are needed. It was, however, right that the Conference sought to redress the imbalance towards women and to have only one paper on a man.

Angela John (Greenwich University) talked about ‘Gendering labour biography’. She was too theoretical and assumed the listeners knew about the authors and the women she was talking about. It became more down to earth when she illustrated her talk by citing information about Caroline Ganley, who had been researched by one of her (John's) students. Ganley is an important figure in the Battersea movement on the local Council, the LCC and after the war as MP for Battersea South. She was also a leading figure in the London co-operative movement. I was delighted to hear about this work, particularly as the student had located a relative and discovered Ganley's own autobiographical notes. Potentially this could be a very important new source for the history of the Battersea labour and the co-operative movement. I hope the dissertation will be turned into a book.

Difficulties of Writing Biography

Nina Fishman (University of Westminster), who was working at the time on a biography of Arthur Horner, and a sketch of Jack Tanner, spoke on ‘The importance of labour biography as a resource’. She shared some observations on the difficulties of writing labour movement biography, especially about individuals who were known by people who are still alive.

She regretted that too often in the past the history of the movement and its organisations has been parallel but separate to biographies of movement activists. Nina suggested that one of the problems of this lack of integration is that the role of the individual can be overemphasised.

Individuals and Movements

I enthusiastically nodded my agreement with the points she was making. In the course of my own research and writing into the history of the Battersea labour movement I have discussed the relationship between the individual and the movement, and tried to integrate biographical sketches of leading figures into the discussion on the movement. I stress that people could only rise to regional and national level because of their local base. The relationship is a two way process. They are nurtured and developed by that local base, and they can help to change its nature, as John Burns and Tom Mann did in the Battersea movement in the second half of the 1880s.

Personal Lives

Nina Fishman warned about the problems of tackling aspects of people's personal lives, such as sexual affairs and excessive drinking. The problem is how to assess whether they are important in terms of the movement's activities, and if they were not, how much detail should go into. There is clearly a danger of a Sun or News of the World mentality being applied to the personal lives of dead people. To what extent should people's private lives be respected after their death?

Personal Interlinks

Jane Martin (Nene College) talked about her research into Mrs Bridges Adams, the SDFer, educational and peace campaigner. It was a very interesting report on work in progress. One of the pieces of information she recounted was that Adams had worked for a time for the aristocratic SDF supporter Lady Warwick, which was of particular interest to a member of the audience who was researching Lady Warwick.

Motives and Selection

Anna Greening of the Fawcett Library (now the Women’s Library) spoke about resources for women’s biography. Her warning that no source or biography should be trusted was well made. The material in archive collections has been selected; so what has been left out? Researchers select from that material depending on their motives for writing to biography.

Working Women

Greening illustrated her talk with pictures from the Collection showing different representations of women at work, and with samples of material that could be used to write a biography. She cited Tom Mann suggesting that no woman would want to be a working man's wife, and wondering how it could be interpreted. This and the pictorial images of working women prompted a question about how the myth that women did not go out of work had developed, as it was clearly not true for women in the nineteenth century. It was pointed out that often trade unions were hostile to working women. This was often couched in language such as 'dilution of labour'. I made the point that this was not entirely the answer. There were expanding industries in the nineteenth century in which the employment practices were determined by the bosses long before trade unionist was even organised e.g. on the railways. This issue of the relationship between women and men's work is discussed in published work by my brother Colin at Hull University.

The Value of  Press Cuttings

An interesting disagreement during the Conference related to the usefulness of collections of press cuttings. One person regarded them as a nuisance with little value. Others thought they were useful in providing the starting off point for building up biographical material that can be followed up. In my own researches I have found the collections of contemporary press cuttings from Battersea newspapers invaluable in allowing me to pinpoint key meetings and debates, which I have then been able to follow up in more detail without having to plough through endless issues of local newspapers with little reward.


There was also a discussion about whether obituaries are a useful starting off point. It was pointed out that the facts in some contemporary national press obituaries can be wrong, and the assessments given in them can be open to bitter challenge by others who knew the dead person. It was suggested that local newspaper obituaries were less likely to suffer from these problems.

Material Spread Across Archives

The last paper was given by the journalist Frances Beckett on his work researching a biography of Clem Attlee, subsequently published as ‘Clem Attlee. A Biography’ (Richard Cohen’s Books 1997, and Politico’s Publishing, 2000). He spoke about the way in which relevant archives were spread around different institutions. This highlights the problems for non-professionals who do not have the time e.g. because of their work, to go to a wide variety of institutions.

Janie Buchan enlivened the proceedings by explaining the importance in the Scottish movement of short ditties that ridiculed politicians' shortcomings. She gave a rendition of the re-wording on a traditional ditty by a young man outraged by Harriett Harman's decision to send her son to a selective school.

The discussion provided a useful reminder that the biographies and autobiographies of colleagues of people like Clem Attlee were themselves useful sources of material, and that further light can be shed on their colleagues. e.g. the very close working relationship between Attlee and Bevin.

The Motives of Biographers

It has been my experience that another problem with many biographies of national figures is that, the individuals being written about are not always properly placed and analysed in the context of their local area base. One biographer of John Burns, for example, says that the formation of the Battersea Labour League was a deliberate move to finally break with the local SDF. The local press reports on the formation meeting, however, clearly show that the SDF jointly proposed the resolution with the local Radical Association. The League was set up as a progressive alliance organisation. Apart from the period when he was a leading figure in New Unionism, Burns has come down as a villain for not associating with the Labour Representation Committee and Labour Party, and for joining the Liberal Cabinet despite the fact that his local supporters had suggested this months beforehand, and the TUC welcomed it. Yet despite the hostility towards him from the local socialists from the early 1900s he was adopted as Parliamentary candidate by the newly formed Battersea Trades Council & Labour Party for the 1918 General Election, hardly an indication of him being totally beyond the pale. He had after all resigned from the Cabinet in protest at the declaration of War in 1914. The reason he did not run in the Election was that he withdrew because he was not prepared to accept the discipline of the Parliamentary Whip system.

There were some important gaps in the programme. The inclusion of Beckett's talk highlighted the absence of a paper on someone who was not so well known. While Mrs Bridges Adams is not as well known as Clem Atlee, she is frequently mentioned in a wide range of books about movement organisations, activities and personalities. There were at least four people in the audience who could have given talks about how they have gone about researching individuals, and which would have been encouraged others who are not academics or journalists to start research on people they are interested in. Peggy Attlee had published a biography of Thomas Attlee (Clem's brother). Paul Tyler was researching Will Crooks. Harold Smith was trying to get a plaque put up on the Battersea house of George Potter, a leader of the building workers' in 1859/60, the owner of The Beehive newspaper and the opponent of the trade union Junta. Bruce Aubrey had been researching Arthur Field, the Maidstone ILP activist, photographer, who moved to Battersea and threw himself into the movement for Indian Independence, and was a friend of Saklatvala, Battersea's Labour and Communist MP. 

New Dictionary of National Biography

The New Dictionary of National Biography project was the subject of a talk by Duncan Bythell. It intended to redress the traditional DNB imbalance against women and trade union leaders. At the time Bythell was the adviser on trade union personalities. There was scope for people to recommend names for possible inclusion, and for people to put themselves forward to write about them.

At the time there appeared to be problems with the project in that it seemed that some people did not fit comfortably into the editorial categories. How would the project team fit in nineteenth century reform radicals like Baxter Langley, who became President of the ASRS? How they would they fit in labour movement figures who were not active trade unionists, like Stephen Sanders, one of the architects of the alliance that successfully backed John Burns for Parliament in 1892 and took control of the Vestry in 1894. He became a leading Fabian and ethical socialist, Alderman on the LCC, and worked for the ILP, and became an expert on Germany. After the First World he worked for the International Labour Office. After the split with the Communists, North Battersea Labour invited him to be its Parliamentary candidate, defeating Saklatvala and becoming member of the MacDonald's Labour Government, remaining with Labour after the establishment of the National Government.

It was also important to ensure that black activists in Britain are included, such as William Cuffay (the Chartist leader who was transported to Australia), John Archer (Progressive Mayor of Battersea in 1913, Pan Africanist, Labour Party activist from 1918, backer of Saklatvala in the early 20s, and 'K.C.' on the Board of Guardians for the local unemployed), and Saklatvala himself.

Local Activists

A gap in the Conference programme was how to recognise the unsung millions who have made their contribution to the movement, in their unions and their communities. One way is for local historians to produce Local ‘Who's Who’s or Dictionaries of Labour Biographies. Martin Tupper and I have been working for some time on the first edition of such a Who's Who of people active in Battersea's labour movement. It comprises names gathered during our own and other people's researches of trade unionists, SDF, ILP, Labour and Communist activists, and co-operators, from about 1850 to 1964 when Battersea was merged into Wandsworth. Some have only one or two line entries, and some will be the subject of sketches. It will be available in photocopied format, so that new names and new information about existing entries can be added. 

Future Discussion

A future Conference on labour movement biography could usefully go into more depth into research approaches and pitfalls, especially for the benefit of non-professional historians, using speakers who have been working on lesser known figures in the national labour movement, on prominent activists at local level, and on those whose contribution spanned more that one locality. It would also be interesting to try and encourage people whose approach is family history to talk about members of their families who were active in the movement.

A big problem that needs to be overcome is the lack of knowledge about who is working on which biographical projects, so that information and ideas can be shared as part of a process of helping people produce better biographies.


- Nina Fishman sadly died in 2009 (

- I hope my review of Martin Hoyle's biography of William Cuffay demonstrates the wider point I made about biography as an introduction to labour movement history: 

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