This is an absolutely splendid book. Well written and beautifully illustrated. I first saw it when I visited the Peoples History Museum in Manchester, Nick Mansfield’s old home, he was Director for 21 years. It was irresistible the picture on the cover of the Workers Institute in Cradley Heath drew me in. I have always had a love for the buildings of the British Labour Movement, from Co-op shops to Chartist Cottages, from the Arts and Crafts of the Clarion cafes to the high modernism of the Daily Workers headquarters in Covent Garden.
As Nick points out you would not think there was much to link these structures however deeper research shows “unexpected links, which if pursued, can give a coherent narrative.” In the preface Nick gives credit to Raphael Samuel “the founder of History Workshop and guru of the new public history” who researched the preservation movement in the two fascinating volumes of Theatres of Memory (originally published in 1994 a new edition available from Verso 2012).
Samuel spoke at a Conference at the TUC in 1991 entitled “The Landscape of Labour History”. This lead to English Heritage supporting a leaflet, “Where do you stand? The Landscape of Labour History”, which was widely distributed and introduced a typology of labour movement buildings and the criteria for listing.
For many of our finest labour movement buildings this was already too late. Established architectural historians like Nikolaus Pevsnor studiously ignored these buildings (like sports grounds and stadiums) and even the labour movement itself with the year zero attitude of many in the Labour Party had no interest in saving these magnificent buildings.
I am very hopeful that this book will have the same effect that John Gormans magnificent book Banner Bright (1986) did for labour movement banners. Today Trade Union, Co-operative Society and Socialist banners are considered works of art and if anyone finds and old one in the attic they are rescued and presented as the beautiful artefacts that they are.
Nicks book on Labour Movement Buildings is not the last word, he admits he does not cover Scotland or Wales, and so there is work to be done. There is also the task of filling in the gaps in the narrative and in buildings that Nick has missed.
Nonetheless, with chapters on Trade Societies, Non-conformity, Radicalism, Owenism, Chartism, Co-operation, Trade Unions, Mechanic Institutes` and education, Socialism, the Clarion Movement, The Labour Party , also Nicks speciality the rural labour movement, Ex-servicemen and Commemoration of War, and Holidays and Leisure, he has been very comprehensive.
He also includes Buildings Identified with key events that whilst not necessarily built by the movement have had a huge impact on its development. I remember my complete state of shock when exploring Manchester’s radical history when I realised that the Free Trade Hall with its plaque commemorating the Peterloo massacre, was now the frontage of a ghastly modern hotel. He also laments those we have lost, some like the original Holyoake House home of the UK Co-operative Movement, thanks to the Luftwaffe, some thanks to neglect and indifference often from Labour local authorities. In many ways as Nick points out “labour movement buildings continue to be the Cinderella of architectural conservation.”
Nonetheless a start has been made there are some well conserved crucial buildings, like Rosdean, the Chartist Cottgae in Dodford Worcestershire now in the care of the National Trust, The Rochade Pioneers Museum reopened after a mature facelift, The Burston Strike School in Norfolk, and my beloved Cradley Heath Workers Institute now moved brick by brick into the Black Country Museum.
I think this is a very important book. I particularly welcome the fact it has been published by English Heritage. After all England’s heritage belongs as much to workers and their institutions as it does to Kings and Queens and Lords and Ladies.
These buildings are the landscape of our history and we must continue to pressure both English Heritage and the National Trust to take our heritage and our history seriously. Lastly I am sure all of us active in the movement will know of buildings not in this book. My thoughts turned to Leicester’s Secular Hall for example and the other work of the architect Larner Sugden in Leek in Staffordshire.
Maybe English Heritage and Nick could be prevailed upon to create a website where we could document buildings of significance and build campaigns to save the best of them.
Thank you Nick Mansfield for starting this off – buy this book.