E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

This post was contributed by Dr Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. A previous version was published in The Future of History from Below Online Symposium.

Half a century ago, E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class. Words like ‘pioneering’ and ‘pivotal’ are overused today, but this was truly a book with no equal in its field. In it, we see the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and struggle for political rights that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Of course these stories had already been told many times before, but Thompson cut a new path by reconstructing these events from the perspective of the working people who experienced them first-hand.

He set out his agenda very clearly in the preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

This phrase, and the 900-page ‘biography of the English working class’ that followed it, inspired an exuberant outpouring of historical research and writing that has made us all richer. Hundreds of historians, both professional and amateur, have followed Thompson in seeking to tell the stories of the innumerable men and women who had long been ignored by traditional histories of kings and battles.

However, the anniversary of this publication also calls for reflection. Thompson’s book may have launched ‘history from below’, but is it still relevant today? And does it have future?

A group of almost fifty historians – both young scholars and eminent professions – gathered at a recent pair of workshops that Mark Hailwood and I organised to answer these questions. We published some of the contributions as an online public symposium and I think it is fair to say that level of interests that it sparked suggests that ‘history from below’ does indeed have a potentially bright future.

I will be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities on January 24th, alongside two very esteemed scholars: Prof. Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory). However, here I’d like to briefly highlight the issues that I think are most important to those who aren’t professional historians.

If we want the practice of history from below to have a meaningful future, we need to continue to push for more a democratic history. For example, access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. We must face this challenge head-on.

We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them.

One promising route forward is local history.  The field of local history is huge and healthy. Practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.

Family history is another rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it. After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even ‘poor stockingers’. So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.

Finally, we need accessible education. The pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching students who would have otherwise missed out on a traditional university education: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. Happily, these institutions are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering evening classes to students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Moreover, open-access publishing and the explosion in history blogging is dramatically expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority.

This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.

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3 thoughts on “E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

  1. History from below is the most democratic way to study the lives of ordinary people.It has been the best way to fight against the history from above, that only gives account of the official history.Personally , I think the best way to empowering ordinary people is giving them access to education.But in spite of all the existent institutions that you mention do you think it is enough to fight against the elitism existent in education in English society today?

  2. The UK Portable Antiquities Scheme has shown how metal detectorists and professional archaeologists have been successfully brought together to their mutual benefit. I’m sure the same sort of initiative could be instigated to connect professional historians with genealogists and local history societies.

  3. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing a little research on that. And he just bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch! “Dreams are real while they last. Can we say more of life” by Henry Havelock Ellis.

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