Dictionary of Labour History

It may seem perverse to recommend a series of reference books based firmly in Labour history but I consult one or other of the fourteen volumes more often than most Liberal publications. Early Labour history is also Liberal history and most Labour pioneers, even Keir Hardie, began as members of the Liberal party and only moved on when frustrated by the inability, as they saw it, of the Liberal party adequately to accommodate the justified aspirations of working men and, more particularly, its failure to enfranchise women. The whole period of Lib-Labbery is portrayed within the biographies. Later, with the post First World War decline of the Liberal party and its failure to deal with internal divisions, more Liberal luminaries moved to Labour and figure in the relevant biographies. Finally, the term “Labour” is interpreted very broadly and a number of men and women figure who have Liberal a background are included, including Arthur Acland, Richard Bell, Charles Bradlaugh, Henry Broadhurst, John Burns, Thomas Burt, Charles Roden Buxton, Noel Edward Buxton, William Randal Cremer, Richard Denman, Barbara Bodichon Gould, Vernon Hartshorn, John Atkinson Hobson, William Jowitt, David Low and Arthur Ponsonby.

The occasion for reviewing the whole series is the publication of Volume XIV after an interval of eight years! The first volume appeared in 1972 and a swift calculation shows that it has taken forty-six years to produce fourteen volumes - certainly no race to the finish. There are now over one thousand biographies covered, plus a number of generic articles on aspects of Labour history such as the entry in the current volume on “The Working Class Movement Library” alongside an essay on its two founders, Ruth and Eddie Frow. The original editors were Joyce Bellamy and John Saville, based at Hull University, and they remained in charge until volume X - a span of twenty-eight years. The constants over the past four volumes have been Keith Gildart, Professor of Labour and Social History at the University of Wolverhampton, and David Howell, Professor of Politics at the University of York. Geldart and Howell have followed the wise and eclectic example of Bellamy and Saville in including worthy subjects as they were available from reputable writers. Each succeeding volume contains a cumulative index of the subject biographies enabling them to be easily referred to, plus, of course, a detailed index to each individual volume. Each essay contains full references, a list of the subject’s writings plus a note of related essays. In researching articles on Liberals and Liberal history, I find myself not only checking whether there is an essay on my subject, but also going through the individual indices for relevant references.

The main problem for individual historians is the high price, typical, alas, of most academic books these days. It is always worth asking the publishers, Palgrave Macmillan, whether they would give a discount for an individual purchaser. If not, then at least recommend your local library to obtain them.

Dictionary of Labour History Volume XIV, ed. Keith Gildart and David Howell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, ISBN 978-1-137-45742-4