This blog continues at Tribune History

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Friday, 13 July 2007

Farewell Timemachine, hello Tribune History

Over the past few weeks, I have been working on the launch of a Tribune History blog. Run in association with Tribune Magazine and the Tribune Cartoons blog, it features a range of regular features including:

  • Strike of the month – a look back at an important, curious or off-beat dispute, starting with the hairdressers’ strike of 1918; and
  • Old statesmen/women – short biographies of individuals who, for better or worse, played their part in the developing labour movement, including Mary Macarthur and Robert Applegarth.

The Tribune History blog effectively takes over from Timemachineplus (and this will be the last post here) – so please visit soon and bookmark the new blog.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Aslef treasurer's warning puts Edwardian mansion under threat

Bad news from the train drivers’ union Aslef, which appears to be rapidly running out of money. Over the past four years, spending has outstripped income by a total of nearly £3.7 million, and the union is down to its last £1 million in stocks and shares.

The main drains on the union’s resources over the past few years have included rail inquiries, staff pensions and a legal battle with the former general secretary. But finance officer Tony Yates-Watson told Aslef’s recent annual conference that things could not go on like this.

Alarmingly, according to a thorough report in the union’s journal, he added: “One could argue that if the current deficit trend continues, we have thirty months left before we have to consider selling 9 Arkwright Road.”

Union cash-flow problems are not new, of course, and not really the stuff of this blog. But Arkwright Road, the union’s Hampstead headquarters for more than 80 years, is of historical interest in its own right. I was there recently, and was taken aback by its time-capsule appearance, with wood-panelled walls, brass fittings and fine oak staircase rising to a stained-glass skylight.

If it came to it, I cannot imagine who might buy the building and maintain it as such a shrine to high Edwardian design.

The extract below (and the picture) come from Norman McKillop’s 1949 history of Aslef, titled The Lighted Flame. No doubt there is now the odd computer in some offices and I can’t vouch for the live-in caretaker, but hardly a thing appears to have changed since he wrote it.

“And now, imagine that you and I are walking down Arkwright Road to see our
headquarters for the first time. It is a long road, but carries the minimum
number of buildings – all of them late Edwardian mansions. Number 9, our Head
Office, is not one, but two of these great mansions joined together. It was
built by the late Sir Joseph Beecham in 1903, at a cost of something like
£40,000, and the ASLE&F secured it for £10,000 in 1921.

It stands on a high part of Hampstead Heath, the haunt of the infamous
Dick Turpin, and from its flat roof can be seen a splendid view of London,
stretching from the Tower Bridge to Park Royal, with many of the north-western
suburbs in addition.

Some indication of the size of our headquarters may be gathered from
the fact that it possesses 106 exterior windows and 36 rooms. It stands in its
own grounds, with a lawn and conservatory at the rear. I would hazard that at
present-day values our £10,000 investment in 1921 is now worth 6 or 7 times that
amount [Editor’s note in 2007: The Guardian now puts it at £2 million].

We turn in at the gate of No 9, and after climbing a short flight of steps we pass
through a finely carved door leading to the large entrance hall, panelled from
floor to ceiling in oak, with a great oak staircase leading to the upper floors.

On our right, as we enter, is the room occupied by the Head Office
manager. Straight in front of us is the ‘Movements’ Department, while at a
slight left incline is the room occupied by the General Secretary. All of these
rooms are beautifully panelled in mahogany, and have large windows and bookcases
and all the business adjuncts to make for efficient management.

On the extreme left of the entrance hall is the door to the great
Conference Hall, which is capable of seating over 100 delegates at desk-tables
during the Annual Conference. There is a movable platform at one end of this
truly magnificent room, within whose well proportioned walls fashionable society
in the days of Edward VII was entertained with music. On several of these
occasions, I am told, King Edward was himself present in this room.

The carvings above the handsome doors leading to our Conference Hall
are worthy of mention. They are beautiful examples of the formal decoration of
the period, and were valued some years ago at something like £2,000. All the
panelling in this part of our Head Office is of superb mahogany. Apart from the
constructive ornamentation, however, there is little or no attempt to make a
show place of our Conference Hall. It is a place for business, and as such the
only decoration permitted takes the shape of one or two historical pictures and
photogravures of prominent officers of the ASLE&F, including one of Charles
Perry, our founder.

The broad staircase leading to the first floor sub-divides midway to
lead you to different parts of this floor, on which are situated the Assistant
General Secretary’s room, the Secretarial, Cashier and Typists’ Departments,
along with the auditors’ and committee rooms. By mounting a further stairway to
the second floor you come to the Legal, Compensation, Returns and Voluntary Sick

The former billiard room is now utilised as the Executive Committee
room, and this, with the caretaker’s living quarters, is situated in what is
loosely described as the ‘basement’. The term creates a wrong impression, as
these rooms are not below ground level. The windows look out on the lawn at the
rear of the premises.

This, then, is our HQ – the nerve centre from which all our efforts are
controlled and directed. It will be realised that to conduct such wide-flung
activities, we must employ a fair-sized permanent staff. The ASLE&F employs
no less than 32 members of the Clerical and Administrative Workers’ Union, each
department being under the management of a man with a long-service record in the
work of our Society.”

Information about some of those staff, members of Aslef's early executive committees and a short history of Aslef can be found on the Trade Union Ancestors website.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

CATU - a potter through the archives would be nice

It took many decades to establish enduring trade unions in the Staffordshire potteries. But the slow pace of progress was not for any want of effort on the part of pottery workers.

There are records of pottery workers in the area combining in pursuit of better pay as far back as the 1790s, and the first official strike is recorded in the 1820s, within a year or two of the repeal of the Combination Acts. But a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the factory owners during the 1820s and 1830s made it hard for trade unionism to flourish.

Towards the end of the 19th century, pottery workers had become heavily unionised, but they were divided between many small and local unions, most of which lasted only a few years at a time. It was not until the early years of the 20th century that mergers and amalgamations created a single focus of organisation in what would later become the Ceramic and Allied Trades Union.

I recently posted a CATU family tree and a short history of the union on my Trade Union Ancestors website.Incidentally, CATU has now been renamed Unity, not to be confused with Unite, the product of this year’s TGWU/Amicus merger.

What I don’t know is the fate of the unions’ historical records. Although I emailed the union some weeks back, I haven’t had a reply and can find no trace of an archive in the likely places. The union’s website talks about its “long and proud history” but has very little to say about it and makes no mention of archives. Any ideas?

Thursday, 21 June 2007

History and policy making - it's what Bevan would have wanted...

Despite the presence of a number of ministers trained in history (step forward Gordon Brown and John Reid), the present government’s approach to policy-making has often showed all the historical perspective of a forgetful goldfish. Policies are adopted and implemented, abandoned and readopted as the next bright shiny new solution to age-old problems within the space of a few short years.

And when politicians do look to historical precedent, their range of “folk memories” is limited and selective. Nye Bevan’s stewardship of the new National Health Service from 1948 being a particular favourite, his name invoked as someone who “were he alive today” would have supported the most unlikely health policies. Meanwhile, all that happened before 1948 has been forgotten.

Writing in The Guardian yesterday, and on the History & Policy website, Professor Virginia Berridge called for a “rethink of the politics-history boundary”. She argues that history is currently being used in policy making in an ad hoc way, usually without the involvement of historians themselves, and wants a more consistent and coherent approach.

To summarise her findings (with grateful thanks to whoever wrote her press release):

1. The use of history in health policymaking is currently dependent on political expediency, personal networks, timing and particular policy situations.

2. Politicians make limited use of the history and historical interpretation available to them, relying instead on ‘folk histories’ that revolve around familiar individuals, epoques and interpretations;

3. In particular, the founding of the NHS in 1948 has a powerful hold over the current government, with ministers invoking the same narrow history - dominated by Nye Bevan - to lend credence to current policies;

4. Historians are rarely invited into the policy arena, while social scientists, economists and historically-trained politicians act as ‘history brokers’;

5. Those historians who are ‘invited in’ are selected on the basis of their public profile or entertainment value, rather than the relevance of their historical expertise;

6. Policymakers remain ignorant of and fail to learn from important precedents to some key policy issues, such as the long history of public opposition to vaccination;

7. Historians are recognised as providing a perspective that no other discipline can offer, being more enlightening and less prescriptive than political scientists, but their ‘message’ can be difficult to discern; and

8. Historians need to do more to identify and communicate the policy relevance of their research and to explain differing historical interpretations.

This is a fascinating piece of research that should be read by all those involved in policy-making, particularly but not exclusively in the health sphere. The full report, titled History Matters? History’s Role in Health Policy-Making is available on the History & Policy website.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Recognition for the Bevin Boys 60 years after demob

Sixty years ago, the last of the Bevin Boys was demobbed. Called up to work in the country’s coal mines during the second world war, one in ten young men aged 18 to 25 was sent to the coalfields rather than to the front.

The scheme only became necessary because the war-time government had failed to understand the important role that coal miners played in keeping the country’s war effort going, and badly needed to replace those sent off on active military service.

The work was hard and dangerous, and came as a terrible shock to many of those sent deep underground, some of whom might otherwise have expected a commission in the armed forces.

Those who served as Bevin Boys have often felt neglected, and even in war-time their role was misunderstood. Because they were not in uniform, they were often stopped by the police or branded as cowards by the ignorant.

So it is good to see that the Department of Trade and Industry is finally recognising the efforts of the 48,000 men who were conscripted (about 43% of them) or volunteered (57%) for this work by introducing a badge (shown here) that will be available to the surviving Bevin Boys.

Speaking at Question Time today prime minister Tony Blair said: "This special badge will give recognition to the tremendous work done and the sense of gratitude the country owes to the Bevin Boys."

Energy minister Lord Truscott added: "These men played a key role in keeping a vital industry going during World War Two and it is with honour and gratitude that we recognise their important contribution with this lapel badge.

"We have worked closely with the Bevin Boys Association to ensure that the design of the Badge suitably reflects the work they carried out. It is important that we never forget the sacrifices that were made both at home and abroad during the war, and this badge is a fitting way to remember the Bevin Boys' work to keep the coalfields going."

Warwick Taylor, vice president of the Bevin Boys Association said:

"I am extremely pleased to see the introduction of this badge, which recognises a sometimes forgotten group of men who were either selected or volunteered to serve their country by not fighting in the war to ensure that those at home and on the front line were able to keep the war effort going. I look forward to seeing the first badge next year."

Famous Bevin Boys included Brian Rix, the late Eric Morecambe and Jimmy Savile, who later recalled, “I went down as a boy and came up as a man."

According to the Department of Trade and Industry, based on the uptake for the MoD HM Armed Forces Veteran's Badge in the region of 6,000-11,000 applicants are expected for the new badge.

The Bevin Boys badge is a survivors badge and can be worn in public to visibly raise awareness of the important role they played during World War Two and in the post-war reconstruction of the UK. Widows and estates will not be eligible.

The application process for the Badge will be launched towards the end of the year and will be co-ordinated by the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) with a view to the first badge being awarded to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the demobilisation of the final Bevin Boys in March 2008.