Sunday, November 7, 2010

Book Review - Who Do You Workers Think You Are?

Mark Crail, Tracing Your Labour Movement Ancestors: A Guide for Family Historians. Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books, 2009. 176pp, £12.99 pbk. (Or try public libraries around shelf-mark 929.107, or in the family history section)
You don’t have to be a celebrity or a distant descendant of aristos, royalty or other dodgy characters to stand a good chance of finding some interesting twigs on your family tree. This small information-packed volume indicates some of the directions enquiries may lead in if there is, for example, a trade-unionist, Chartist, or Co-op supporter among the ancestors, and how they might be followed up. It includes many illustrations from the author’s own collection of labour movement memorabilia, showing that his knowledge of the subject is more than academic.
Great Dock Strike 1889


Unfortunately for libertarians, bureaucratic organisations tend to keep and preserve better records, and it is inevitably the mainstream movement that gets most attention here. Then again, few of us can expect to have an impeccably anti-authoritarian pedigree, and at least in the chapters on the historical context, a substantial part of the book, the author includes a lot more than the obvious big players. The Great (syndicalist) Unrest of 1911-12 is mentioned along with other episodes of intensified industrial struggle, including the two world wars, and not forgetting the state’s repressive response. For some researchers, police (special branch) files and prison records may therefore be a fruitful source.

Some smaller organisations are briefly described including sundry Trotskyists, the Co-op Party, and Common Wealth which Crail says took a ‘libertarian socialist stance’.  He doesn’t go so far as to give anarchists as such a look in, but anyway as he points out with reference to other groups, those who are openly up against the law are not likely to keep too many personal details written down. Here too the reports of their watchers in the good old National Archives may be helpful.

Altogether there are many useful pointers to help in the continuing work of uncovering hidden history, in addition to and beyond the family, not only of struggle but of workers’ lives and constructive action.
LW
October 2010

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