Eddie and Ruth Frow were a married couple from modest backgrounds. They shared a life-long passion in documenting the true unsung heroes and heroines (i.e. the workforce) of the industrial changes in the north of England. This has led to a quite remarkable institution – the Working Class Movement Library.
I met with library manager Lynette Cawthra in a room steeped in the history of true local heroes and heroines – the workers whose labours put the epithet of ‘Great’ into Britain. Over a cup of coffee I soaked up the history: a claret and blue banner of the West Ham electricity power suppliers union to one side, a banner of Lenin to the other, and the collection of Clarion chairs. These were from the Clarion Cafe on Manchester’s Market Street – The Clarion was a thriving socialist movement which had clubs, meeting rooms and a newspaper which started in 1891.
Eddie and Ruth got together in the early 1950s, having both been involved in workers’ struggles in their early years. Eddie took part in the Battle of Bexley Square in 1931. This was outside the old Salford Town Hall, when a peaceful demonstration of workers, enraged by government cuts, were set upon by the police and a battle followed which saw Eddie amongst others imprisoned.
With a shared interest, Eddie and Ruth’s joint collection of political and historical books and pamphlets started small, filling a single bookcase. Their insatiable appetite for both the rare and the more mundane manuscripts soon become apparent though. They would travel the country scouring bookshops in far flung towns, spending happy evenings perusing their purchases and sleeping in their van. The books often became an impromptu mattress. As time went on they moved to a more comfortable and practical solution of a caravan, towed by a Czechoslovakian car – a Skoda.
As married life moved on, their collection in Kings Road in Trafford grew and grew. Their archive of working class history became well known to historians and researchers, students and politicians. Banners and photos, prints and journals took up so much space that in 1987, with council funding and other donations, the collection moved to Jubilee house in Salford.
Thousands of visitors cross its threshold. Researchers, actors, artists, students and even politicians have used it as an important resource to further their understanding of how working class culture shaped Britain today. One week’s visitors included a professor who had come from Japan to research silk weavers’ unions, and a wrestler who needed help with his first writing project, the story of his mother’s growing up in Ancoats. On a visit in 2009, veteran MP Tony Benn called it “one of the greatest educational institutions in Britain”.
Lynette Cawthra says: “Our founders started the Library in their own home, driven by the belief that working people should remember and value their own history. Together they rescued countless items which would have otherwise been lost to the future. In these turbulent times, that history has never been more relevant – and the survival of the Library will depend on the generosity of our supporters”.
The collection dates back to 1760 and has 130,000 items, including volumes of the Plebs Journal and board games such as Class Struggle (I had this game myself in the 1980s). A reading and research room, exhibitions, a room full of commemorative crockery and pottery and a shop full of wonderful books and information published by the North West Labour History Group and the Working Class Movement Library, make it a place of wonder and learning. I could literally feel the history, which led to many hours where I quietly reflected on all the hardships of those Salfordian and Mancunian workers.
And with that paean to us ordinary and honest hard working folk of the north, my week’s curation has come to an end.
It’s been terrific fun researching and writing for you and I hope you have enjoyed the trips in my time machine – next time around maybe my time machine will be powered by graphene (useful for fast electronic devices). Two Manchester scientists won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics for their pioneering work on graphene, which is being pioneered in Manchester as I write.
It’s time for me to hand the creative baton onto Degna Stone in the north-east. My question to her is, “If you were to host a festival to showcase north-eastern culture to the world, who and what would be on the bill?”