How to use 'The Town that was Murdered' today

Gargi Bhattacharyya's new foreword to Ellen Wilkinson's 1939 book suggests we read it as a manual for excavating labour histories for current struggles.

6 min read

The Left Book Club is delighted to release The Town that was Murdered to its members. This book by ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson was published by the original Left Book Club in September 1939. The old LBC had a short life from 1936 until 1948, but had a massive impact on British politics. Its publications and local book clubs generated popular opposition to rising fascism at a time when the ruling classes prevaricated, and helped build grassroots support for socialism, playing a significant part in paving the way for the Post-War Labour government led by Clement Attlee. Wilkinson herself became Minister of Education in Attlee’s government. Fellow ministers John Strachey, Stafford Cripps and Philip Noel-Baker also all published books with the LBC, as well as Clement Attlee himself. Over the coming months and years we plan to re-issue more books published by the original LBC in our own LBC Classics series.

The introduction by Matt Perry which follows this foreword provides an excellent overview of the book and the context in which it was written. In this foreword, I will be writing about how The Town that was Murdered might be used today.

Knowing your place was a core element of labour organising in the past. Perhaps it is again. However, whereas previously the labour movement could rely on the folk history passed down within and around workplaces, our more fragmented experience of work and of place can disrupt this intergenerational sharing. A lot of the time, we might forget to inquire what came just before, how a certain form of work came to dominate the landscape. Rarely now do we see consideration of what was replaced or what people used to do as one form of work disappeared and another took over.

Instead of reading this book as a version of Left Heritage, perhaps readers might take this work as a manual in excavating labour histories as resources for current struggles?

The Corporate History of a Place

Mapping the shift in major employers in your town or city opens a different approach to understanding local politics. Perhaps start by trying to map the top three employers in terms of numbers of workers today, a decade ago, twenty years ago and fifty years ago.

Some of this we know from local folklore and remnants of the industrial past that remain in urban landscapes. Often these former large employers haunt the present in the form of redeveloped residential or leisure spaces, such as the gentrifying makeover of the Lucas building in Birmingham. Looking at the tourist marketing material for your town or city may open some routes to explore here, because former industry is repackaged as heritage spectacle across Britain.

The question of who was a major employer twenty and ten years ago is trickier but perhaps more interesting. The Office for National Statistics holds data on employment and employee types over time, with some breakdown by region. Once you know what kinds of things people did for a living, you can search the National Archives and follow links to local archives via their guide to business history records. If you are really energetic, you might be able to identify any local elected offices held by key personnel among the major local employers. Being able to map and comprehend the convergence of economic and political interests in your locality is eye-opening – and could be useful for the battles of today.

The undocumented or under-documented experiences of workplace struggle

The book includes the collected folk-memory of class struggle in one place – and these stories form the heart of the whole narrative. These are stories that exist everywhere but are rarely captured and recorded. Too often the key actors move on, or are exhausted by the battle, or just want to stay in work and shelve the experience of industrial dispute as another relic of youth. But somewhere, in a thousand lofts and chats and vaguely remembered references from older relatives, the history of the labour movement is there to be retrieved. Some of this retrieval is being carried out for the most famous disputes such as Grunwick. But the day-to-day battles to make work liveable can disappear from view.

Somewhere, in a thousand lofts and chats and vaguely remembered references from older relatives, the history of the labour movement is there to be retrieved.

Start by asking around to see if anyone remembers local strikes. If you have found the names of the major employers, check records from the local press to see if any industrial disputes were covered. Find the main trade unions and check their archives – every union will hold some of their own local materials. If you can find any individual who took part in industrial action – interview them quickly! The voices of ordinary trade unionists are lost all too swiftly. If people remember older relatives being part of a strike or a union, record their memories. Speak to your local librarian, if you are lucky enough to have a local librarian still. Once you have identified one or more disputes, put out a call on social media to find people with records and/or memories.

Mapping the place of your town in a national and international economic context

The next step, which perhaps is not for everyone, might be to place local struggles in a broader economic context. Hansard can help us see the questions raised by local MPs, and often also the moments where some place or other is heralded as a beacon of government policy. Data from the Office for National Statistics on regional employment can let us see how our place compares to neighbours; are people more or less likely to be in work, more or less likely to be prosperous? Are any of the major employers in any period part of an international parent company? Looking back at the direction of the parent company can reveal overlooked factors shaping your local labour history. Tracking the associations and roles held by key figures within relevant corporations can transform the most level-headed leftist into a near conspiracy theorist. Although the rich may well know each other already, the associations they choose to cultivate are rarely accidental.

Identifying the key transitions in working life

Learning something of how towns go from being, say, communities of steelworkers to communities of hospitality workers gives us an insight into how we see each other and seek to plan our lives. In fact, it could be argued that some of the most fraught questions of contemporary political life arise from our failure to appreciate how changes in working lives shape the scope and register of class politics. The move away from some established industries wrecked trade union infrastructures – not only in the workplace but also beyond, where unions organised Christmas clubs and family days and social clubs. Excavating memories of how people entered new kinds of work and the impact of changing kinds of work on the community helps us to narrate a labour history that registers the impact of economic restructuring on everyday life and on our understandings of class identity. Local newspapers might be a source here, as new employers can enjoy celebratory coverage on arrival. As always, it is worth asking around.

Most places have seen an increase in women working – ask what they did, how it changed from what they did before, what happened as some forms of ‘men’s work’ declined and sectors employing more women expanded? Most of all, try to understand what people did to survive and carry on. Did new people come to the area? When and why and where did they work? How did the local landscape change as working lives changed? What did people do for fun and where did they hang out? Ask these questions and we start to grasp something of the texture of lives lived through and despite industrial change.

Understanding how these changes, taken together, shape who is here and our (potential) connections to each other

Labour history matters most of all as a resource for our collective resistance and survival. The rich may commemorate their lives out of vanity, sometimes retelling the most cruel and violent episodes as evidence of rightly victorious privilege. For the rest of us, uncovering lost histories is an exercise in gathering our shared resources. We are being sold a version of working-class life as heritage which removes the antagonisms and the innovations of collective survival. Instead, we are told (repeatedly and with venom), working-class life is a story of lost whiteness, of being left behind, of losing the groundedness of place and instead being discombobulated by the arrival of migrants. When we turn our collective intellectual resources to excavating the histories of place that constitute class struggle in our neighbourhoods, another history can become visible.

Labour history matters most of all as a resource for our collective resistance and survival.

The Town That Was Murdered: The Life Story of Jarrow is the Left Book Club title for July. It has a new foreword by Gargi Bhattacharyya. The Left Book Club sends beautiful books by the world’s leading radical thinkers, direct to your door. Everyone who joins the Left Book Club before midnight on Friday 23rd July will get a free copy of Frantz Fanon’s canonical text The Wretched Of The Earth in addition to their copy of The Town That Was Murdered. Join here.


Gargi Bhattacharyya (@Gargi_at_home)

Gargi Bhattacharyya is a member of the Left Book Club panel which selects the books that the club provides for its members.