This guest blog post is written by Janine Booth, who recently visited the library in order to consult the archive papers of the Workers’ Educational Association:
Minnie Lansbury is my hero. She was a socialist, suffragette, and school teacher, who opposed World War I while championing the rights and welfare of its victims, became an Alderman of Poplar Council, and spent six weeks in prison as part of the successful fight by councillors for a fairer rating system across London boroughs. And she did all this by the age of 32, when she died tragically young, probably as a result of her imprisonment.
Minnie (a name that means “rebel”) was a suffragette who was not called Pankhurst, a Lansbury but only through marriage, and an East Ender born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents. When I was researching my book on the Poplar Council struggle (Guilty and Proud of it, published by Merlin Press in 2009), I sometimes felt like I lived with the ‘Fighting Thirty’ councillors, and Minnie was the one who I really fell for.
History often forgets women like Minnie, and I have made it my mission to ensure that she is not forgotten. So I continued to research her life, I regularly give public talks about her (the next one is on 19 February, hosted by the East London History Society), and I am working towards a biography.
This research has taken me to various archives, including the London Metropolitan Archive, the Tower Hamlets Local History Archive, and the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. It was at the latter that I discovered that Minnie had been elected as a delegate from the Workers’ Suffrage Federation (WSF) to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) in 1917. The WEA (which, by coincidence, I work for as an occasional sessional tutor) has its archive at the TUC Library. So that is what led me to the building opposite Holloway Road tube station.
A couple of hours browsing confirmed that Minnie had not attended any WEA Council meetings. Oh well. Often, visits to archives reveal what a person did not do, rather than what s/he did, and I have learned that despite the immediate feeling of disappointment, it is still worthwhile visiting, if only to cross that particular line of enquiry off the list.
But there was more. The very helpful chap in the Library (hello Jeff!) showed an interest in my research and wondered whether century-old documents from the National Union of Teachers would be of interest to me. Yes please. I came away with quite a few photocopies from these. None mentioned Minnie (I had already perused her union branch’s old minutes at the Tower Hamlets Archive and found her mentioned several times), but they provided very useful information about the NUT at that time, particularly its attitudes towards the War and towards equal pay for women (both of which left a bit to be desired!).
I found the Library comfortable, quiet and friendly, and found my visit well worthwhile. I will certainly visit again, whether it be for this particular research or for whatever project I get stuck into next. And anyway, I still have credit on my photocopying card!