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The buildings of the labour movement

23 July 2013

Chris Theobald

New book by UCLan historian surveys the built culture of the labour movement

Pic: Dr Mansfield is pictured at the launch of his book at TUC headquarters in London.

Dr Nick Mansfield, Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has written an illustrated survey of the built culture of the labour movement. The English Heritage book examines the communal buildings of the early 19th-century political radicals, Owenites and Chartists, through arts and crafts influenced socialist structures of the late Victorian and Edwardian period to the grand union ‘castles’ of the mid 20th century.

Although Britain’s labour movement is the oldest in the world it has been relatively poor at preserving its own material culture. Labour movement buildings in England have been subject to tremendous change in a comparatively short time, reflecting the heightened social and economic conditions of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath. They were above all, functional, and their comparatively short lifespan means that information about them was not recorded.

“Though many buildings have been lost over the years, the book outlines the recent struggle for their preservation, and details many that can still be visited."

When it comes to the time-consuming and often costly work of preserving archives, objects and sites of significance to the labour movement, then the work has fallen to dedicated individuals and small groups rather than large organisations. This means that a huge amount of material and knowledge on the subject has been lost. As a result there has been little directly written on British or English labour movement buildings – hence the real need for this volume.

This publication outlines English labour movement buildings, whose survival often has related more to chance than systematic preservation. Examples cover a wide range over a period of two hundred years. There are chapters on the ubiquitous co-operative architecture, long forgotten socialist holiday camps, and those memorials associated with the hidden story of radical ex-servicemen and their remembrance of war dead. The countryside is also not forgotten with rural labour buildings, as well as the clubhouses of idealistic socialist cyclists.

The book though is not just about bricks and mortar but uncovers the social history of the men and women who worked so hard locally to achieve their goals.

In his foreword to the book Tony Benn states: “Though many buildings have been lost over the years, the book outlines the recent struggle for their preservation, and details many that can still be visited. The rich photographic records of the English Heritage Archive have been used to help trace some of what has been lost and English Heritage should be congratulated for supporting this record of labour movement buildings. I am delighted to champion the project.”

Dr Nick Mansfield is Senior Research Fellow in History at the University of Central Lancashire. He spent 30 years working in museums, 21 as Director of the People's History Museum, Manchester. As a labour historian he has published over 40 books, book chapters and journal articles covering artisans, servants, farmworkers, patriotic labour and post war Great War political allegiances, war memorials ex-servicemen, historic banners, folk art and buildings.