Peterborough Trades Union Council 1899-1974: A Neglected Arena for Working Class Politics

Peterborough and District Trades Council publications - Jubilee celebration and Rules book 1964

Peterborough and District Trades Council publications – Jubilee celebration and Rules book 1964

Guest blogger Hazel Perry, MA, History OU has been researching for a PhD thesis entitled ‘Peterborough Trades Union Council 1899-1974: A Neglected Arena for Working Class Politics’ at De Montfort University, Leicester, since October 2016. 

In 2014 a friend asked if I could work on a manuscript. The manuscript was written by Tom Browning, a former delegate to Peterborough Trades Union Council (PTUC), which contained 90 sides of A4 paper listing facts, events and opinions on various political, social and economic matters during the twentieth century. The manuscript contained the history of PTUC which Browning was unable to publish before passing away in the mid-1990s. Consequently, as a History MA student and delegate to PTUC I agreed to take a look and shortly after proposed the subject as a topic for a PhD.  

Initial research led me to understand that trades councils were an important, yet largely neglected part of the trade union movement. Made up of delegates from different union branches in a town, city, or county, trades councils acted as ‘unions in the community,’ and some of the earliest bodies, such as Sheffield and Salford (established 1858 and 1866) predated the formation of the TUC (1868) – to put this research into context PTUC was formally constituted on 1 January 1899.

Further research showed that trades councils contained the most radical elements of the working class. Moreover, delegates created local labour parties in 1919, campaigned for industrial unionism and led Councils of Action during the 1926 general strike. Additionally, trades council functions changed frequently resulting in an interesting mix of subjects for wider social, political and economic research.

Labour historians ignored trades councils, therefore some felt it necessary to produce their own histories. For instance, Malcolm Wallace wrote Nothing to Lose… A World to Win: A History of Chelmsford and District Trades Council (1979), however, two academic studies, Alan Clinton’s Trade Union Rank and File: Trades Councils in Britain 1900-40 (1975) and Richard Stevens’ PhD thesis Trades Councils in the East Midlands 1929-1951 (1995), eventually produced some history in an academic form.

My research has been problematic however. For instance, in 1949 PTUCs executive committee took the decision to destroy many of the trades council’s older documents due to water damage from being stored in a shed. Luckily this research covered a larger historical period and there were many documents from the 1950s onwards, available at the Trades Union Congress Library Collections at the London Metropolitan University Library. The library contained PTUCs Diamond Jubilee Year Book, which listed the main activities that delegates took part in between 1899 and 1959 which could then be further researched in old newspapers. There were also copies of the PTUC rules and constitutions which were useful when trying to establish the organisation’s functions.

Moreover, the library provided access to PTUC year-books which gave life to individual delegates. The year books contained not only factual information and opinions, but jokes, poems and anecdotes which demonstrated the personable characters of the individual men and women delegates and the spaces they inhabited. This information has allowed me to weave a narrative of a people’s history into my thesis, which I intend to complete in 2021.


Professional and amateur music-making in England – the role of the WEA


WEA leaflet

Our guest blogger is David Dewar, researching the intersections between professional and amateur music-making in 20th century, looking at the lives and work of a range of musicians and the institutions which supported them. David is at the University of Bristol and recently looked at our Workers’ Educational Association Collection.

My research in Professional and Amateur Music-Making in England, in the early 20th century, contains a strand considering the educational provisions available for adult amateur musicians. As such, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) came to mind for a short case study. Though it was not by any means confined to music, some branches provided courses about music, in various forms. This organisation has had considerable longevity, having been founded in 1903 and still in existence now. Over the years it has adapted to the changing needs of adults who wish to further their intellectual interests.

I was interested to find out about its founders, and their own backgrounds, as well as to see how early its sense of adaptability started, and anything else related to music and adult educational needs.

My path led, naturally enough, to the WEA’s current website, from which enquiry I was recommended to a particular branch in the East of England. This, it turned out, had archives relating only to its own inception and activities. These were potentially interesting in seeing how a WEA branch came into being – but was not likely to give me chapter and verse about the organisation’s original aims, how it came into being, or how it managed its early years and agile evolution.

Thus, I could simply look in library and archives catalogues for references to the WEA and its founders – principally Albert Mansbridge (1876-1952), who was the initial secretary of the association. I was fortunate to find his description, in the form of a book, in the Special Reserves of my university’s library, and some further documentation in the Bodleian Library.

This was helpful – certainly in relation to Mansbridge’s leadership in the early days. There was also some information about the WEA’s organisational structure, and of a constitution. But these felt a little inadequate for my purpose.

Recently, I came across an unpublished thesis by a musicologist colleague, which enabled me to realise that, contrary to the impression I had of there being little in the way of central archives of the WEA, the TUC Library actually had most of the documents needed for me to gain a good impression of how the WEA managed changing external requirements during the period of my study. I’m very happy finally to have come across the location of the Association’s records!

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has, of course, precluded a visit to the Library. I’m deeply grateful, therefore, for the help of Jeff and his colleagues at the TUC Collection who have provided me the copies of minutes and constitutions which I request, and very speedily, too.

One of the most enjoyable features of carrying out historical research is the generosity with which librarians and archivists give their time and expertise to, I imagine, a never-ending stream of researchers seeking material! I’m very grateful.


The importance of digital archives


Cover of booklet "GFTU 120 years"

Ten years ago I spent a summer digitising all the GFTU publications stored in Bishopsgate Institute working with Stef Dickers. I was very proud to learn this week that PhD research student Edda Nicolson is basing her whole thesis on the study of them.


The ‘low-skilled’ workforce saved us before. They will do so again.

Gas Workers and General Labourers Union

Badge from Gas Workers and General Labourers Union in TUC Library’s badge collection

Our guest blogger is Edda Nicolson, PhD Researcher in Labour and Social History at University of Wolverhampton

On the afternoon of the 13th June 1938, Sir Walter Citrine of the Trade Union Congress held a meeting with several notable characters of the labour movement. None of them were younger than 75; all of them had seen just how quickly the world can change through the resilience and determination of the ‘low-skilled’ workforce. From starting their working lives as young as six years old, they played key roles in growing the labour movement that provided us with the working environments that we rely on today: weekends, paid holidays, safety equipment and fair wages.

Once again, it is our workforce rather than our political leaders that are striding towards this challenge and showing resilience, ingenuity and solidarity. This observation does not negate the need for leadership during crisis, but simply seeks to consider who we think of as world-changing heroes. 1938 was a good time to pause for reflection: in three decades Britain had seen its first global war, a flu pandemic, mass unemployment and a return to slum-level deprivation that had been punctuated by episodes of industrial unrest. With Hitler having annexed Austria only a couple of months before this meeting, what new challenges were they about to face?

Portrait of Ben Tillett 1889

The present-day social media commentary on the Covid-19 crisis has been punctuated by repeated observations that our present-day heroes are our so-called ‘unskilled’ workers. Despite overwhelming evidence that workers in low-paid roles are integral to the economy, a yearly earnings floor for migrants coming to the UK of just £20,480 has been suggested by the Home Secretary. This has served to alienate a large sector of our valuable workforce in sectors from construction to nursing and given rise to questions about which roles we value, and why.

Looking back to those sept- and octogenarians gathered around a table in 1938, I cannot see anyone who would have made today’s threshold when they started their working lives. Nevertheless, they played integral roles in creating what it means to have a job in the UK. Ben Tillett, leader of the 1889 London Dock strike, told his friends that afternoon of the time he was ordered to scoop the flattened remains of his colleague out of the way following a fatal accident, before having to get on with his task of loading cargo onto a ship. Will Thorne, then an MP for Plaistow but formally the general secretary of the Gas Workers union, spoke of being unable to read even at the time of his marriage as a young man.

Their frustration at these dangerous and hopeless working conditions spurred them on to seek a new way of living and working that benefited society as a whole. Their fight brought us the weekend, the idea of universal education and the concept of a minimum wage. Today’s low skilled workers, those currently stacking our depleted shelves, caring for our vulnerable elderly and those nursing our most desperately ill, have much in common with those men that reminisced on their achievements in 1938. It seems that we now have an opportunity once more to look towards our vital workforce as the heroes that are going to once again change the world.


Persecution in Nazi Germany


Boycott German goods

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. These pamphlets from the TUC Library are just a small example of what we have that were published between 1933 and 1945 to raise awareness of the persecution and murder of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Some were produced by Jewish groups in Britain, including German refugees, others are by trade unionists and the Labour Party. It’s heartbreaking to read these pleas to recognise the persecution and calls for it to be stopped, knowing now what was to come. There are more…/persecution-in-nazi-germany/

Persecution of Jewish people


Merry Christmas


Cover of Electron

The TUC Library is closing today for the holidays. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. See you in 2020.


Comics and your Children. Moral Panic!


Campaign against comics

What are your children reading? Moral panic! We came across this pamphlet from the Comics Campaign Council in 1954. This must have been one of their first publications as they were set up the year before in 1953 concerned about the bad influence of imported American comics.

Their work helped lead to the government legislating with the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955.


Righting the Wrong – Cathy Hunt and Mary Macarthur


Cathy's presentation

Here is the film of author Cathy Hunt presenting at the TUC on the topic of her new book Righting the Wrong, a biography of Mary Macarthur with an introduction by Jeff Howarth from the TUC Library.


Ragged Trousered Philanthropists



The TUC Library featured in the final episode of the BBC2 series The Novels That Shaped Our World which was focused on class (10pm, Saturday 23rd November). We have the original, hand-written manuscript of the iconic working class novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell and the production company that made the series came in to film it and interview academic Ian Haywood of Roehampton University.

The manuscript was digitised and can be found on our website along with biographical information about the author Robert Tressell.


Righting the Wrong


Thanks very much to Cathy Hunt for making two fascinating presentations yesterday, one at the TUC and a second at London Metropolitan University on the topic of her new book Mary Macarthur the first was recorded so we will hopefully be able to share the talk with you.

Cathy's presentation