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books Ladders Last a Long Time

A collection of essays by Raphael Samuel, the late historian who was one of the intellectual founders of the New Left in the United Kingdom.

Workshop of the World
Essays in People's History

Raphael Samuel
Edited by John Merrick
ISBN: 9781804292808

Raphael Samuel​ adopted his notetaking method from Beatrice and Sidney Webb, progenitors of Fabian socialism, who developed it in the late 19th century:

Each thought or reference to a source was written or pasted onto a single side of a loose sheet of paper. It might be the source itself – an advertisement, a jam-jar label or an extract from a Xerox – it mattered only that it was attributed and subheaded under a theme. Then the notes were filed in groups. Scholarly prestidigitation allowed the pages to be constantly reshuffled so that new combinations of ideas appeared, presuppositions might be overturned and surprising connections thereby generated ... All that was needed was reams of rough paper, scissors and a pot of glue, phalanxes of lever-arch files, and a hole-puncher.

The resulting papers and files ‘perched precariously on the polished treads of the staircase’ and ‘lay in drifts’ on the floor of Samuel’s study, Alison Light wrote in A Radical Romance (2019), her memoir of their marriage. Samuel was one of the most influential historians of his generation, a prodigious teacher, researcher and writer. Hosts of historians, trade unionists and Italian Marxists were forever dropping in on his house in Spitalfields, which Stuart Hall recalled as a ‘sort of permanently open unofficial conference centre with some informal seminar always in permanent session in the kitchen’. In 1967, Samuel founded the History Workshop movement to democratise ‘the act of historical production, enlarging the constituency of historical writers, and bringing the experience of the present to bear upon the interpretation of the past’; it held huge, radical and ecumenical events, published pamphlets and books, and in 1976 founded its own journal, still running today.

Despite – or perhaps because of – all this activity, Samuel only published one sole-authored book in his lifetime, Theatres of Memory (1994), an account of the popular historical imagination in late 20th-century Britain told via case studies, from Laura Ashley fabrics to the touristification of Ironbridge. Since his death from cancer in 1996, however, Samuel has been prolific. A second volume of Theatres of Memory, titled Island Stories: Unravelling Britain, came out in 1998, followed in 2006 by The Lost World of British Communism, a volume of essays combining research and recollections. Today Samuel is best known for his work on popular memory and for History Workshop. John Merrick’s new selection of his essays aims to rectify that: it brings together a sample of Samuel’s historical studies, several of which are still thrilling to read, and most of which would have been difficult to get hold of without access to a good university library. All of them focus on the 19th century, which was, as Light puts it, Samuel’s ‘stamping ground’.

Communism and history were both family affairs for Samuel. His mother, Minna Nerenstein, was one of many relatives who were dedicated Communist Party of Great Britain activists, and his uncle, Chimen Abramsky, was a historian of the First International. Samuel joined the party as soon as he was old enough, but left as part of the mass exodus prompted by Khrushchev’s secret speech and the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Still in his early twenties, he threw himself into the creation of a ‘New Left’. With Stuart Hall and other friends from his undergraduate days at Oxford, he founded Universities and Left Review (which ultimately merged with the New Reasoner to create the New Left Review), as well as the New Left Clubs and the Partisan Coffee House, an espresso bar in Soho catering to political radicals. In 1962 he joined Ruskin College (in but not of Oxford), a centre for working-class and trade-union education. There, he began increasingly to use primary sources in his teaching: accessing history via secondary literature, he thought, often crushed students’ confidence in their own abilities; examining the original documents was far more intellectually stimulating. This was the origin of History Workshop.

The opening essay in Workshop of the World is one of two editorial prefaces Samuel wrote for the proceedings of the December 1979 History Workshop. In it, he set out his stall as a practitioner of ‘people’s history’. This was a capacious category: it could be liberal, radical, nationalist or socialist; macro or microhistorical. Its defining feature was the attempt to ‘broaden the basis of history’ – who wrote it, what it was about and what sources it could be based on. An essay on Headington Quarry included by Merrick shows Samuel doing all three. He began the research with a group of Ruskin students in 1969, and one of them, Alun Howkins (later a distinguished scholar of the rural poor), introduced him to his first interviewees, at a time when oral history was regarded with suspicion by many academic historians.

Headington Quarry is now a residential suburb of Oxford but was originally an ‘open village’ – not built on a great estate but growing up unplanned on wasteland – of claypits, brickworks, narrow alleys and slum housing. It had a reputation for unruliness. In a much longer essay Samuel published on the village in one of History Workshop’s early books, he described its economic and social structure, showing how casual most of the waged labour was and the importance of ‘informal’ and illegal activities such as poaching and pig-keeping – in other words, how tangential to capitalist accumulation much economic activity was. In the shorter essay reprinted here, Samuel observes that it was in studying the social and economic history of poaching that oral sources proved most revelatory. His interviews showed that the relatively small number of poachers who appeared in court records in the late 19th century were not the most prolific but the worst at getting away with it. In the years before the Great War, poaching was organised and knitted into the local economy and seasonal patterns of labour. Gangs of poachers took orders, traded door to door, and sold on to fences who supplied butchers in Oxford’s covered market. A retired practitioner, a longtime antagonist of the local gamekeepers, trained lurchers for the gangs. Amateurs, in it perhaps partly for the thrill, were not considered ‘real’ poachers by the pros.

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Marginal groups were one of Samuel’s abiding interests, and his study of the mid-19th-century itinerant and semi-itinerant poor put him in pursuit of their ‘lairs’ and livelihoods. These men (and some women and children) often slept rough when the weather was good or when circumstances required, huddling next to the kilns of brickworks in cold weather, and congregating under the ‘Dry Arch’ hotels made by bridges or viaducts when it rained. If they had a bit of money, they stayed in common lodging houses, of which there were nearly a thousand in London in 1889. These were often clustered in slum districts, like the area of Merthyr Tydfil that outsiders called ‘a sort of Welsh Alsatia’. Sometimes they resorted to the workhouse casual ward, though in the later 19th century that generally meant a day’s forced labour to ‘earn’ their hard resting place and meagre provisions. According to the journalist Henry Mayhew, many wanderers returned to town in the winter ‘as regularly as noblemen’, and from November free night refuges financed by charitable subscription opened in large cities to accommodate the influx. The Charity Organisation Society (bastion of less eligibility) blamed the refuges for attracting the homeless. In fact, there was often more work in the big cities in winter: in the run-up to Christmas there was a rush of spending, which generated jobs in shops, luxury trades and services; throughout the cold months there was work to be found in gasworks or in occupations like roadsweeping; and when unemployment got bad, vestries often laid on public works. With the coming of spring, many left the cities. Gypsies and performers followed the circuit of wakes and fairs; pedlars sold their wares, and skilled men as well as navvies and labourers of all sorts tramped the country in search of work. Summer brought further migrations, as men, women and children followed harvests around the country. Large numbers left London for a late summer hop-picking jaunt: the common lodging houses were ‘almost deserted’ as their ‘Bohemian inmates’ went down to the ‘pleasant fields of Kent’, and some even departed the workhouses temporarily to join in. Mayhew called these groups ‘wandering tribes’, but Samuel shows that the wandering was very seldom random or purposeless: his ‘comers and goers’ had their routes and routines, even if these were obscure to outsiders.

Samuel too traversed the country, in search of the ‘fugitive sources’ needed to write the history of liminal groups. He invited the reader along to the ‘parishes and record offices of northern England’ where he began seeking records of the Irish Catholic poor in 1966: the churches that often stood in ‘half-deserted urban wastelands’ created by slum clearance; the ‘lumber-room of the town hall’ where he unearthed documents; the dinners he shared with a Wigan priest in a ‘tobacco-stained waistcoat’ and his Irish-born housekeeper. In the 19th century, Irish migrants were among the poorest of the poor, vastly removed from the old recusant families or the elite Catholic revival that kicked off in 1833. Churches were often in rented rooms – one was thrown up in Camberwell in 1863 on a site comprising ‘a ragshop with a pigsty in the rear’ – and were subject to anti-Catholic hostility.

Priests lived among their congregations, often in ordinary workmen’s cottages, in constant and familiar intercourse, yet also ‘remote’, enjoying a ‘peculiar and esoteric power’. In addition to leading services and hearing confession, which earlier in the century they sometimes did in the rooms where they lived, they spent their days ‘child hunting’ for their ‘Poor Schools’, visiting the sick, defusing fistfights and domestic rows, and generally ministering to the secular as well as religious needs of their congregations. The social investigator Charles Booth thought they were ‘lenient judges of the frailties that are not sins, and of the disorder that is not crime’. In 1843, the temperance advocate Father Mathew administered the pledge to some penitents who were actually ‘in a state of intoxication’ and may well have been, as Samuel suggests, experiencing the fleeting regret of the very drunk rather than a lasting desire for reform. In Birmingham in 1863, a priest implored his flock to put in requests for sick calls before 10 a.m., ‘except in very urgent cases which seldom happen as those which are called urgent are nearly always nothing of the kind’. The meetings of St Bridget’s Confraternity in the early 1880s, led by Father Sheridan, a priest at St Patrick’s in Soho, mainly comprised humorous readings, with rosaries the only brief nod to observance. In his register, Sheridan constantly congratulated himself on the uproarious laughter he provoked. Priests had a relationship not only with the devout but also with the lapsed: when one passed ‘groups of girls whose looks and attire betrayed their infamous calling’ in Drury Lane, they dropped curtseys to him.

The Church treated ‘Irish’ and ‘Catholic’ as synonyms, and its infrastructure sustained Irish communities and identities. In Irish homes, religious and patriotic decorations sat side by side: ‘a picture of the Saviour on one wall and one of J.L. Sullivan, the bare-knuckle fighter, opposite’. Oral tradition, too, entangled national identity and religion. (Samuel wasn’t interested only in oral history as a technique of the professional historian but in oral traditions as live transmitters of political history and collective identity.) One autobiographer, who grew up in Leicester in the 1860s, wrote that his father ‘was a Limerick man, and we were often hearing of the hero Patrick Sarsfield [a Jacobite military commander], and the women of Limerick who fought and repelled the English during the siege of that city’; if he found himself accidentally singing a Protestant hymn, he would ‘spit out to cleanse my mouth’. As a ‘form of inquiry’, Samuel wrote in the LRB of 14 June 1990, history is a ‘journey into the unknown’. These essays suggest how keenly he felt this to be true.

In​ 1880 Britain could with some justification be called the ‘workshop of the world’: it produced more than 20 per cent of global industrial output and about 40 per cent of the world’s manufactured exports. In the nearly half-century since Samuel published his essay of that name, historians have done much to undermine the narrative of an ‘industrial revolution’ bookended by the invention of the spinning jenny in 1764 and the New Poor Law of 1834. Nevertheless, it endures as one of our defining national myths. The ‘industrial revolution’ is often understood imprecisely and expansively, encompassing anything and everything from mechanisation and the development of the factory system to the division of labour and the shift of employment from agriculture to manufacturing, as well as commercial and financial innovations, the take-off of economic growth and the development of capitalism itself. This conceptual slippage makes the heroic British inventor the protagonist of the story of 19th-century economic accumulation, instead of, for example, the employer of sweated labour or the investor in the transatlantic slave trade. The classic account of industrialisation was David Landes’s The Unbound Prometheus (1969), which argued that economic transformation was rooted in three crucial substitutions: of ‘machines ... for human skill and effort’, of ‘inanimate for animate sources of power’, and of ‘mineral for vegetable or animal substances’ as raw materials.

Samuel took issue with all three claims. In Lancashire cotton production, coal power, machinery and the factory system were completely dominant by the mid-19th century – but Lancashire was an outlier. What about the armies of needlewomen still toiling away in their own homes? What about the inhabitants of Headington Quarry, with their arduous work in the brickmaking industry, their market gardens, pigsties and poaching? The spread of capitalism was profoundly uneven, Samuel argued; economic growth was ‘rooted in a subsoil of small-scale enterprise’ and often driven by hand power – by men, women and children. In the later 19th century ‘there were few parts of the economy which steam power and machinery had left untouched’, but there were ‘fewer still where it ruled unchallenged’.

Employers fantasised about a ‘self-acting’ mechanism, particularly when faced with the rise of trade unionism, but only specific parts of labour processes were amenable to mechanisation. A machine invented in 1824 was supposed to produce a complete pin, but four decades later the heads were still often being put on by hand. Though biscuits could be mass-produced, breadmaking was, as Marx put it in Capital, still ‘pre-Christian’. In 1892 a leatherworker told the Royal Commission on Labour that ‘I do not think you will ever get machinery into our trade until you can grow all the animals of one size with just the same blemishes.’ Many trades, like building, expanded output through the proliferation of small tradesmen and through tapping the vast reserve army of labour. Sawmills could produce only the crudest products; rather than putting masses of woodworkers out of business, they made raw materials cheaper, allowing what had once been luxury goods to become available to sections of the working class (hence anxieties in the 1870s about miners with pianos).

Steam-powered ventilation and drainage allowed coal mines to expand, but at the coalface the shovel and pick, ‘tools of the most primitive description’, prevailed. In fact mining remained shockingly primitive in most pits until nationalisation in 1947, when one of the new National Coal Board’s main goals was mechanisation. China and crockery were produced in factories as early as the 1760s, but ‘the same essential appliances as were used in Egypt four thousand years ago’ were still in use in the mid-19th century; new machinery made only slow progress from the 1870s onwards, as workers resisted its encroachment. In some cases, it was employers who resisted mechanisation. Paint manufacturers in Newcastle reacted negatively to the idea of installing hoists to replace the women employees who carried pots of lead weighing between thirty and fifty pounds up 15-foot ladders: machinery ‘wants to be put in order’, but ladders ‘last a long time’. A large amount of human input was often required to make a finished product of sufficiently high quality. In 1914 railwaymen still thought that rivets ‘put in by hand are far more trustworthy’ than a machine’s work. If trade union agitation made employers keener on mechanisation, an excess of cheap labour in the mid-Victorian period, as Marx suggested in Capital, constrained the extension of mechanisation and steam power. In America, where labour was scarcer and wages higher, machinery more frequently represented a good investment: in the US ‘navvy’ refers to the steam navvy, patented there in 1841; in Britain, the term still evokes the armies of itinerant labourers, often Irish, who were still doing much of the heavy lifting for big infrastructure projects into the 1890s.

Samuel’s thesis has obvious relevance for our current debates about AI. In 1750, more than a million women and children were employed in spinning, and their earnings accounted, in many cases, for more than a third of their household income. When new technology put them out of work, these families suffered. But spinning was an extreme case. One study of the linen industry in 1860 suggested that while mechanisation improved productivity in spinning by a factor of 320, it only quadrupled output in weaving and often reduced the quality: the progress of mechanisation in the latter area was therefore much slower. The impact of machine learning will likely be similar: graphic designers or call-centre workers or radiographers or solicitors may turn out to be the spinners of the 21st century, but change will be lumpier and more contradictory than both tech-boosters and tech-doomers assume. ChatGPT is good at answering some questions, but computers still can’t even read as well as humans – optical character recognition makes frequent mistakes (digitising ‘Workshop of the World’ it rendered Wal Hannington, the communist agitator, as ‘Hennington’). Who will be our equivalent of those out-workers still putting the heads on machine-made pins in the 1860s?

As well as unpicking neat ideas about orderly ‘economic development’ under the guidance of the invisible hand of the market and the genius of British invention, Samuel wanted to turn historians’ attention away from tables of wages and prices and towards the experience of labour. Factories and machines certainly did not make work lighter: in fact, there was an ‘enormous deterioration in working conditions’ as workplaces sped up and got hotter, wages and piece rates were held down, and sweating and ‘dangerous’ trades proliferated.

‘Workshop of the World’ was supposed to be the first instalment of a trilogy: the second and third parts never appeared, but some of the directions of Samuel’s thinking can be traced through the files on ‘sweating’ in his archive, held at the Bishopsgate Institute. An account from early 19th-century Lancashire describes one ‘putter-out’ of weaving work who was known as ‘Jimmy Squeezum’ since he always deducted large sums from his workers’ pay for supposed flaws. In 1856 a trade union for Glasgow tailors challenged anyone to find a sewing machine and ‘machine-driver’ who could beat a pair of tailors in making any garment a ‘gentleman’ might wear. The Labour MP George Edwards recalled in his autobiography, From Crow-Scaring to Westminster, that in the mid-19th century, he had ‘known my mother to be at the loom 16 hours out of the 24, and for these long hours she would not average more than 4s a week, and very often less than that’. James Allen, a shoemaker, took his employer to the Northampton Petty Sessions in 1879 alleging that he had not been paid £1 12s 7d for work closing uppers. In 1882 London shoemakers went on strike to protest against the practice of docking part of their wages to pay rent and lighting costs for the factories in which they worked. A note in The Hosiery Review from 1888 pointed out that in Leicestershire workers were still being charged frame rent by their employers.

There are blind spots in Samuel’s perspective. Empire figures remarkably little in Workshop of the World, despite its title. Britain didn’t just expand its share of global trade in the 19th century, it did so as an imperial power: it didn’t just replace India as the biggest transoceanic exporter of cotton fabrics, but turned India into the largest market for its own exports. In many regards, however, Samuel’s research agendas remain live today and his arguments have only been supported and extended by later writers. Economic historians such as Nick Crafts now emphasise that productivity gains from new technology in the late 18th century (and well into the 19th) were modest. They also point out how long it took to get foundational technologies like steam engines working effectively. Samuel’s rejection of the idea of ‘mechanisation as a self-generating process’ and his suggestion that employers’ fears of worker combination helped drive the adoption of some technology finds support in Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital, which holds that factory owners turned definitively from water power to coal after around 1830 not because coal was more abundant or more powerful, but rather because steam-powered machinery made it possible for them to relocate factories, discipline unruly labour and escape from the system of shared reservoirs and streams that required them to collaborate rather than compete with other employers. David Edgerton’s global history of technology since 1900, The Shock of the Old, demonstrates how halting the march of scientific progress was. Samuel lamented in 1977 that there were no historians attempting to ‘compute the comparative mortality of the trades’ or ‘reconstitute the aetiology of industrial disease’. Since then there has been an explosion of historical interest in experiences at work. The ‘Living with Machines’ project, a collaboration between the Turing Institute and the British Library along with several universities, deployed optical character recognition, computer power and machine learning to examine the ways new technology changed everyday life and death in the long 19th century; between 2018 and 2023, it was funded to the tune of £9 million.

The​ 1979 History Workshop staged a rehashing of what was already one of the most vituperative disputes on the New Left, between E.P. Thompson and the advocates of ‘theory’. Thompson ripped into the other speakers, Stuart Hall and Richard Johnson. The atmosphere, as Sophie Scott-Brown describes in her excellent biography of Samuel from 2017, was already bad. The Ruskin student collective organising the conference wasn’t keen on the theoretical preoccupations of many academics in the History Workshop editorial collective; some members had already suggested forming a breakaway workshop to get back to the study of labour history. After Thompson’s blow-up, the final plenary session was quietly cancelled. Samuel, who probably took this decision, was essentially a Thompsonian: he defended a focus on ‘real life experience’ and empirical work, which he suggested could ‘do more for our theoretical understanding of ideology and consciousness than any number of further “interpellations” on the theme of “relative autonomy”’. (A dig at Althusserians.) Samuel pointed out that, like ‘any other intellectual artefact’, theory isn’t timeless but ‘has its material and ideological conditions of existence’. But he wasn’t entirely a sceptic, arguing that good history required a ‘theoretically informed’ understanding of language, and that socialism required a serious analysis of ‘bourgeois ideology’.

Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 diverted Samuel’s intellectual energies down several new courses. First, he turned his attention to the deconstruction of Thatcherite appeals to ‘Victorian values’ and nationalist myths, organising a History Workshop to examine the ‘jingoism’ of the Falklands War and editing three resulting volumes on patriotism. Samuel, who had long been interested in J.R. Green’s Short History of the English People (1874), a sort of Volksgeschichte for England which he saw as part of the genealogy of ‘people’s history’, had not only a typically leftist scepticism of intolerant nationalism, but also a more unusual openness to the positive attractions of imaginative identification with the nation. In 1984-85 he supported the miners’ strike, and convened a group of miners and their wives to write their own history of the dispute. Later in the decade, he weighed in on debates about the new national curriculum, finding himself in unlikely agreement with the arch-conservative Geoffrey Elton, historian of the Tudors, on the value of historical training in inculcating critical and imaginative skills, and on the importance of teaching British history in Britain. Samuel thought the latter made sense pedagogically – students would bring some knowledge and interest to the subject from the outset – and because it would enable them to engage critically with the images of the past they would encounter in the culture at large (‘Victorian values’ again). All these projects fed into Samuel’s main preoccupation in the 1980s and early 1990s: public history and popular memory. But where many on the left viewed the history boom of the 1980s as a retreat from politics into conservative nostalgia, Samuel was excited, seeing popular historical enthusiasm as democratic, pluralist, potentially even radical – another way of doing ‘people’s history’.

Samuel remained engaged with History Workshop and its journal, but more distantly. The Workshop was still ecumenical and political, but it detached from Ruskin and moved around the country, working increasingly with polytechnics and local heritage and arts organisations. The journal, by contrast, had long been leaning away from activism and towards academia, and in 1990 joined Oxford University Press. Shifts were underway at Ruskin too: during Thatcher’s time as prime minister, the college’s commitment to educating trade unionists and activists who would return to their workplaces and communities as agitators was under pressure. Nevertheless, Samuel remained there until the last year of his life, when he moved to the University of East London to set up a Centre for East London History. After his death, it was renamed the Raphael Samuel History Centre. The institutions Samuel helped to found are just as significant for his legacy as his published work. They embody not a doctrine but an ethos: socialist and pluralist, oppositional but committed, experimental and enthusiastic.

In 1978, Samuel recommended the Bishopsgate Institute to readers of History Workshop. It is now a popular destination for scholars working on all sorts of radical movements, but was then ‘very much off the beaten academic track’. Samuel supplied some of the institute’s history: founded in 1894 by the vicar of St Botolph’s, a promoter of secular education for the masses, it developed its special collections under the aegis of the librarian Charles William Goss, who set about acquiring specialist tomes on London history and the archival collections of trade unionists and political radicals. In 1910 Goss got his hands on the minutes of the First International, which after 1917 became hot property: alarmed by Soviet requests to see the minutes, the governors of the institute declared that no one would ever be allowed to look at them and locked them in a deed box in the strongroom of the Midland Bank in Bishopsgate. They were only released after the Anglo-Soviet Agreement of 1941, when Churchill himself intervened on behalf of Moscow, and the Soviet ambassador’s wife was able to make a complete transcription of the originals. Ever alive to readers’ temporal as well as intellectual needs, Samuel also informed prospective researchers that the Bishopsgate had an ‘excellent cafeteria’ with ‘real coffee, freshly scrubbed vegetables and old-fashioned English cooking’: ‘ham and egg tart, mashed potatoes and carrots, 48p; steamed fish, 62p; jam pudding 12p’.


Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite teaches history at UCL. She is co-editor of The Neoliberal Age?, about Britain since the 1970s. Women and the Miners’ Strike, co-authored with Natalie Thomlinson, is due in October.