Gems of Labour history unveiled at Senate House Library

Wednesday 10 August 2016

From the emotive to the blunt, the 800 left-wing political pamphlets assembled by leading labour and trade union historian Henry Pelling are a treasure trove of UK history. And they have just been made public by Senate House Library (SHL), University of London.

Titles such as Emile Burns’s Jobs, homes, security: post-war Britain and the Way to socialism, and William Wainwright Why you should be a Communist, jostle for position alongside The speakers’ handbook of the Labour Party for 1948–9 and William Morris’s The reward of Labour: a dialogue, the earliest title in the Hammersmith Socialist Library relating to the borough’s Socialist Society. Despite the latter’s label, it was actually a three-way conversation between an earnest enquirer, an East End weaver and a West End landowner.

The Pelling Collection provides unrivalled insight into the society, economy and momentous events of their times, and a reminder of the motivations and ideals that led to the birth of the Labour Party. The publications provided raw material for Henry Pelling’s own books, Origins of the Labour Party (1954) and A Short History of the Labour Party (1961).

‘Henry Pelling was one of the first labour historians in Britain who wrote pioneer histories of the Labour Party and its origins, and of the British trade union movement,’ confirms Professor Lawrence Goldman, director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London’s School of Advanced Study (SAS). ‘He was also an acute social historian and biographer, publishing one of the best biographies of Winston Churchill that we have.’

‘An expert in modern American history also, he wrote a study of the connections between American and British Labour. He taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, and his Cambridge research seminar in modern British history was the nursery for many of today’s leading historians. His collection of pamphlets, some of them rare and relatively unknown, is a remarkable addition to the collections of Senate House Library, adding strength to the current holdings on the history of British radicalism and socialism.’

Pamphlets in this fascinating collection, a gift from Professor Alastair Reid, a former Cambridge colleague of Henry Pelling and fellow labour historian, date from the 1880s and go up to the 1970s. Some late titles that may resonate today include one about British membership of the European Economic Community, Britain 1980 – out or in?, and Labour's Manifesto: now Britain's strong let's make it great to live in (taken from The Guardian in 1970). And perhaps more timely, How to end muddle on the railways, which was published in the 1940s.

Aspects of everyday life are caught up with pure politics. ‘Spotlight on the Channel Islands’, for example, descriptions by Sam Russell of the Daily Worker, of Jersey and Guernsey under and just after German occupation, lists the weekly rations available in July 1945.

Many items, which range from leaflets to newsletters and to substantial booklets, relate to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Others are anti-Communist pamphlets, or pertain to the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, or to the Red International of Labour Unions. The oldest, from the 1880s, cover such matters as Why men strike, or, Strikes and how to get rid of them, the Communist Manifesto and land nationalisation.

‘The Pelling pamphlets represent a significant donation to the Library and will enrich our existing material on labour history, such as that of labour leader and Liberal minister John Elliott Burns (1858-1943) and the Ron Heisler Collection of labour and radical political material,’ adds Jackie Marfleet, SHL’s Librarian. ‘I am extremely grateful to Professor Reid for this donation which will enhance the library’s Modern and Special Collections.’


Notes for editors:

1. For further information please contact Maureen McTaggart at the School of Advanced Study, University of London at / 020 7862 8653. Images available on request.

2.  Senate House Library (SHL) is one of the world’s most significant collections in the arts, humanities and social sciences. With its partner libraries of the institutes of the School of Advanced Study, it provides services to readers from the School of Advanced Study, the colleges of the federal University of London, and from London, regional, national and international research communities. All are welcome to join the Library through a membership programme for the University of London, other UK universities, overseas universities, or as a member of the public. The Library and its collections have been continuously developed since the 1870s. It now holds over 2m printed books, thousands of printed and electronic journals, and the highest proportion of historic collections of any university library in the UK. Modern materials in printed and electronic formats are collected at research level and in western European languages to support cross- and inter-disciplinary research in subjects such as English studies, history, philosophy, music, Romance and Germanic languages, palaeography, art history and area studies. Senate House Library also holds the University of London Archive – the historic record of the university – and is responsible for the University of London Artworks Collection. Acquisitions are also made to the Historic Collections, and notable collections include the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature, the Sterling Library and the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.

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