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

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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.

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