Working-Class History

Emma Griffin charts the postwar emergence of working-class history as a scholarly discipline and argues that, thanks to the torch-bearers, the rationale for it has ebbed away.

A North London street, 1950s.

When history emerged as a scholarly discipline in British universities at the end of the 19th century, it rarely took working-class people as its focus. History was about the great and the good – about kings, queens, archbishops and diplomats. Historians studied reigns, constitutions, parliaments, wars and religion. Although some historians inevitably strayed from the mainstream, they rarely organised their ideas around the concept of ‘the working class’.  For example, Ivy Pinchbeck’s Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (1930) and, with Margaret Hewitt, Children in English Society (1969) certainly foreshadowed the concerns of a later generation of social historians, yet took ‘women’ and ‘children’, rather than the ‘working class’ as their subject.

This changed with the emergence of the social history movement in the second half of the 20th century. At the end of the Second World War and – a decade or so later – as the universities expanded, the historian’s remit widened enormously. Poor and disenfranchised subjects, such as the working women and orph-aned children that Pinchbeck had studied, swiftly moved from the intellectual margins to the mainstream. The newly-formed social history movement splint-ered into numerous branches – black history, subaltern studies, women’s history, urban history, rural history and so on. Soon working-class history had also emerged as a distinct historical specialism. The Communist Party History Group (founded 1946) and the Society for the Study of Labour History (1960) together consolidated its place in the universities. The History Workshop movement, established in the late 1960s with a slightly broader remit, provided an important platform for the study of ordinary people. Now historians of the working class enjoyed all the trappings of a modern academic sub-discipline, with their own societies, annual conferences and journals.

The cause of this fledgling historical strand was greatly advanced through association with some of the leading scholars of the age, including the Communist Party History Group members Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Raphael Samuel and E. P. Thompson. These four were also part of the group that founded the journal Past & Present, now widely regarded as one of the most important historical journals published in Britain today. Thompson’s monumental The Making of the English Working Class (1963) was arguably the single most significant contribution to working-class history, but it is easy to forget that he was just one part of a larger community of scholars with a shared interest in the emergence and experiences of the working class at the time of the British Industrial Revolution.

Much of Hobsbawm’s early work was devoted to explaining the absence of a working-class revolution in Britain. He made his entry to academia with the influential essays ‘General Labour Unions in Britain, 1889-1914’ (1949) and ‘The Tramping Artisan’ (1951) in the Economic History Review; ‘The Machine Breakers’ in Past & Present (1952); and ‘The labour aristocracy in 19th-century Britain’, which appeared in John Saville’s, Democracy and the Labour Movement: essays in honour of Dona Torr (1954). Like Thompson, he was part of a much larger community of scholars interested in the working class. Hobsbawm’s interventions on the ‘standard of living debate’ in Economic History Review in the late 1950s and 1960s only achieved such prominence because the question of what happened to the working class during the Industrial Revolution was a question of enormous academic interest in those years.

Working-class history does not arouse the passions that it once did and, although historians continue to question what happened to working people during the Industrial Revolution, for the most part they do so without the vitriol that characterised debate in the 1960s. There are a number of reasons for this. An important essay by Gareth Stedman Jones, ‘Rethinking Chartism’, published in his Languages of Class: Studies in English Working-Class History, 1832-1982 (1983), caused scholars to question a core working assumption of historians of the working class, namely whether such a thing as a ‘working class’ actually existed. Stedman Jones asked, what if the emergence of this term was a linguistic and rhetorical development rather than a reflection of a new social reality? This incendiary suggestion struck at the core of the Marxist account of class that had long underpinned working-class history. For a number of years afterwards, historians were distracted by debating whether or not the working class actually existed, rather than thinking about what happened to those working people during the Industrial Revolution (a debate played out at length in the pages of the journal Social History in the 1990s). At the same time, the 1980s saw a waning of the initial energy and enthusiasm of the social history movement and a shift towards a much more apolitical style of writing. Impassioned, angry scholarship and the figure of the activist-cum-scholar were becoming increasingly rare across the profession.

Working-class history as originally established has not disappeared completely. The Society for the Study of Labour History and History Workshop movement still exist, as does the successor to the Communist Party History Group, the Socialist History Society. All three publish journals and remain committed to the study of the working class broadly conceived. Nonetheless, most historians studying working people in 19th- and 20th-century Britain do not publish under the working-class history banner. Much of the work published today with working people as its focus takes a quantitative form and comes from practitioners who consider themselves to be economic historians rather than working-class ones. Others find an intellectual home in the broader traditions of social and cultural history, which illustrate the diverse interests of historians of the working class today, such as Andrew August’s The British Working Class, 1832-1940 (2007); Julie-Marie Strange’s Fatherhood, Attachment and the British Working Class, c.1871-1914 (2013); and Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (2014). My own Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution (2013) looked at hundreds of autobiographies written by working people to reconsider the question of what happened to them during the Industrial Revolution, but framed the research around questions of experience, family and culture rather than ‘class’. In this respect, ‘working-class history’ has shared the fate of many of the other branches that splintered from the social history tree in the 1960s. Thanks to their efforts, we no longer need to justify our interest in marginalised groups. Now that the working class has been firmly established as a legitimate topic for serious academic enquiry, the rationale for being a separate sub-discipline has simply ebbed away. 

Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. She is writing a history of working-class life during the Industrial Revolution for Yale.