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The Labour Party & The Left, 1934-39: Case Study II – Immigration & Working-Class Politics in the ‘new industry’ centres of Oxford & Coventry.   Leave a comment

For ‘Migration’ read ‘Transference’? Processes of Resistance & Retention:

The terms ‘Migration’ and ‘Transference’ were continually conflated in contemporary usage. Certainly, ‘migration’ was (and still is) used as an inclusive term covering voluntary and assisted forms of population movement. In simple geographical terms, it refers to that part of the ‘population equation’ which cannot be accounted for by natural increases or decreases brought about by an excess of births over deaths and vice versa. However, in previous chapters on the ups and downs of the Labour Party, the trade union movement and the Left, I have already established that there were important differences in the causes and catalysts involved in the processes of migration, retention and resettlement. The term is not, however, synonymous with importation or deportation, as a form of enforced movement of population. It was in the interests of many contemporary politicians of diverse ideological persuasions to blur these definitions and distinctions to suit their own purposes. In addition, the National Government and its officials in the Ministries of Labour and Health were naturally concerned to demonstrate that the large volume of unassisted migration, which they estimated as being over seventy per cent of the men known to have migrated in 1936-37, was closely related to their efforts to promote transference as the main policy of dealing with mass unemployment. Social Service agencies and social ‘surveyors’ were concerned to demonstrate the need for their intervention in the migration processes and therefore tended to exaggerate and generalise from the worst consequences of ’emigration’ rather making only passing references to the role of autonomous organisation.

Welsh ‘nationalists’, both of the old ‘Cymric-liberal’ and the ‘new’ narrowly partisan variety, were concerned, by 1936, to represent it as expatriation rather than repatriation, as an imposed deportation or ‘diaspora’ rather than as an exodus. These fringe ‘extremists’ developed their viewpoint into a complete inversion of the truth, claiming that:

… sporadic investigations into and reviews of the living conditions of the transferees … are strictly materialist in scope and ignore for the most part the evil consequences of transference – the loss of corporate life, … of religious life, in many cases the enforced change of language, in fact all that goes to putting off one culture and putting on another … the majority of those who leave Wales for work in England do so under compulsion.

The Welsh Nationalist, October 1937.

Propagandists on the ‘Marxist’ Left also tended, quite deliberately, to conflate state-sponsored and voluntary migration, principally because they saw the ‘free movement’ of workers as a capitalist device aimed at the creation of a ‘standing army’, the dilution of labour and the undermining of trade union organisation in the ‘new industry’ centres. Their propagation of a negative image of the immigrant did not allow for an analysis of differences in the organisation of migration. The negative image was again produced by a narrow focus on the worst experiences of the younger transferees. Thus, the interests of both nationalist and communist propagandists combined to ensure that much of the contemporary literature related to migration was ‘pessimistic’ in nature, dominated by the view that it was something which was done to the unemployed against their will. It is therefore understandable that more recent studies, particularly those done in the 1980s, have tended to maintain that narrow focus. These tended to characterise migration from the Coalfield as an act of defeatism, demoralisation and desperation. But although transference was the only significant aspect of Government policy in respect of unemployment in the period to 1936, the actual level of state involvement was quite limited. Even when the scheme was revived and revised, and despite the publicity given to it by a growing body of opposition, the majority of workers who left the ‘Special’ areas chose to ignore its provisions.

The Strange Case of the Cowley ‘Garwites’:

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The researchers for Barnett House in Oxford which published its local Survey in 1936 found a distinct ‘lumpiness’ in the migration streams to the city over the previous decade, providing clear evidence of familial and fraternal networking. This, they noted, militated against the Ministry of Labour’s plans for a more rational and even distribution of manpower in accordance with with the shifts in the demand for labour and the assimilation of the new elements by the old. Of the 1,195 Welsh workers in Oxford at this time, 215 had employment books which originated in the Maesteg District (covering the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys). By comparison, the numbers from all the Rhondda and Pontypridd districts combined amounted to 224 and those from Merthyr and Dowlais to fifty-five. An even more striking statistic was that a hundred and fifty, or one in six of all the Welsh ‘foreigners’ in the city were from the Pontycymmer Exchange area (i.e. the Garw Valley).

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This prompted the Barnett House enquirers to consult their fellow ‘surveyors’ in South Wales, who advised them that the flow from the Garw to Oxford started in 1926 when a few men made the journey, found employment for themselves and subsequently for friends and relatives. From that point onwards, Oxford attracted a large percentage of those leaving the valley. In the period 1930-36, out of the 1,841 people whose unemployment books were transferred from the Pontycymmer Exchange, 270 (15%) went to Oxford and ‘local observers’ stated that the percentage in the late 1920s was probably in the region of a quarter. The Oxford University sociologist, Goronwy Daniel, lent further support to the view that considerable networking had taken place, as forty-six of the sixty immigrants interviewed by him said that they had chosen Oxford because they had relatives living there.

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From the summer of 1934, the Welsh migrants who found themselves in Cowley, Oxford, began to make major contributions to the Labour and trade union movement in the city. Part of the impetus for the early and extensive migration from the Garw to Oxford was the deliberate act of collective victimisation on the part of one of the colliery companies in the wake of the lock-out. Some of the earliest migrants, like Tom Richards of Pantygog, did not wait until the end of the six-month lock-out in 1926 to leave, setting out on foot for London. Having walked to Oxford along the A40, they had found jobs at the giant US-owned Pressed Steel Works, newly-opened, which supplied Morris Motors and other car manufacturers with ready-pressed bodies for their products. A major strike at the factory for better conditions and union recognition was successful, partly as a result of its being led from ex-miners from South Wales. By that time, a number of older men from the Garw and other valleys, with considerable experience of trade union organisation in the SWMF, had arrived at the works. Whilst the Communist Party in Cowley played a significant supporting role in shaping the course and outcome of the strike, the agitation for it from within the works came from the ‘DA’ (depressed areas) men, among the largely immigrant workforce.

There is a significant body of both documentary and oral evidence to support the assertion that the retention of the trade union ‘complex’ by these workers was a critical factor in the formation and development of the TGWU 5/60 Branch from 1934 to 1939, which contrasted sharply with the failure of the movement to make headway at the Morris Works. That failure can only in part be explained by Willam Morris’ determined anti-union stance since the management at the US-owned Pressed Steel factory was equally hard-line in its attitude to trade union organisation, both before and after the 1934 strike, and organisers continued to be victimised for related activities throughout the latter part of the decade. Also, wages at the Morris Works remained lower by comparison throughout these years. Most observers from the time shared the perception that this was due to the difference in the cultural background among the two workforces.

Haydn Evans, originally from Merthyr Tydfil who took an active part in the strike and who later became a shop steward and foreman at the Pressed Steel, felt that the Oxfordians and Oxonians, mainly farm workers at Morris’, didn’t know what a union was about, weren’t interested and didn’t want a trade union, their fathers having been used to living off the crumbs from the rich men’s tables in the colleges. On the other hand, the Welsh workers had been brought up in the trade union movement, … had lived on ‘strike, strike, strike’ and had been taught “fight back, fight back!” In fighting back, they were just as much at risk from victimisation as the Morris workers but were more willing to run this risk. Haydn Evans again explained:

We had to win … We’d come from a distressed area. We were battling for our livelihood. It was a matter of life and death. If we had lost, many of us would have been blacklisted by other car firms.

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A ‘neutral’ observer from the Barnett House Survey, writing in 1937, also remarked that the distinction between the two forces was widely acknowledged by contemporaries:

It is said … that workers in the Cowley plant are mostly natives of Oxford and lack therefore any trade union tradition; in Pressed Steel on the contrary the men are largely from other parts of the country …

Thus, there is a strong case to be made for the primacy of social and cultural factors in the growth of trade unionism in Oxford; the sense of heritage and solidarity, or ‘clannishness’ among immigrant workers providing a powerful motivation to getting organised by infusing a quiescent trade union movement with militancy.

This is not to say that the Welsh were ‘nearly all Reds’, as they were popularly labelled by Oxonians. The number who joined the Communist Party was probably as small as those who wittingly undercut wages on building sites. But those who were thrust into the leadership of the trade union movement in the city soon also found themselves in leading positions in left-wing politics either as members of the Labour Party or the Communist Party and sometimes, from 1935 in the period of the ‘United Front’ as members of both parties.

One of them, Tom Harris, was a crane operator in the crane shop. He was born in Monmouthshire in the early 1890s, and emigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in his early twenties. There he worked as a miner and helped John L Lewis in building up the United Mineworkers (UMWA). He then returned to South Wales in the mid-1920s, possibly to Maesteg, becoming active in the SWMF. It was with this transatlantic experience of migration and union organisation that he arrived in Cowley shortly before the 1934 Strike. Dai Huish, probably from the Garw, was also an experienced member of the ‘Fed’ before arriving in Oxford. Huish was one of those elected to serve on the deputation which, once outside the factory gates, met to discuss the strike situation. Although Huish had been planning the strike action over the previous weekend, it was the idea of his wife, who joined the lengthy meeting, that the deputation should send representatives to the Local of the Communist Party. She suggested this because the Communist Party had provided invaluable help and assistance in organising the miners’ struggles in Wales. In this way, they soon became involved in the city’s trade union and political life more broadly, thus reflecting a growing sense of permanence and a growing mood of regenerated confidence among the immigrants to Cowley.

Images of the Immigrants – Coventry, Slough & London.

In Coventry, it was not until 1934 that the engineering employers faced difficulty in recruiting semi-skilled workers, who were previously available locally through the City’s traditional apprenticeship schemes. It was then that they were forced to look to the Government training centres and transference schemes for a fresh supply of labour. Even then, however, the employers were insistent on such youths, aged between eighteen and twenty-five, having ‘factory sense’ and felt it necessary to ‘earmark’ funds in order that the men could be given a period of training in the works, in the hope that they might be absorbed. Not all engineering employers were as progressive as this, and many trainees faced the ignominy of failing to make the grade and being forced to return home disillusioned and discouraged from making any further attempt at resettlement. Even in those cases where the ‘improver’ from the depressed areas was capable of acquiring enough skill to survive, he was not always made particularly welcome by workmates who generally regarded him as a pawn in a ploy by the employers and the government to reduce wage rates.

Even Wal Hannington, although severely critical of the training centres, was also concerned by the attitude of the conservative-minded craft unionist who refused to allow the recruitment of trainees on the grounds that to do so would represent an acceptance of dilution. Hannington argued that to admit them to membership would enable the unions to control their wages and conditions. His admission that this argument was ‘unorthodox’ is a measure of the extent to which the engineering unions deliberately ostracised men who themselves were firmly rooted in trade unionism. A perusal of the minutes of the Coventry District of the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) for this period provides strong supportive evidence that little or nothing was done to integrate trainees and that this inaction stemmed from a policy of principled opposition to the importation of labour in this manner, a policy that was consistently applied throughout the period. Craft-unionists in the engineering industries scapegoated the immigrants for the revolutionary structural changes that were taken place in them, rather than re-organising their unions on an industrial basis, a form of organisation which the immigrants themselves were familiar with and did much to recreate in their new work environments. They were, however, too often seen as perpetrators of dilution rather than as participants in the process. Accusations of under-cutting became generalised to the point where Labour leaders, like Aneurin Bevan, in opposing transference, reinforced the negative stereotype themselves:

… resistance should be made, for considerable resentment and hostility was shown in the South East of England, and Welshmen had acquired a bad reputation for offering their services at wages below the standard Trade Union rates. …

In making this remark, Bevan was probably echoing comments made to A. J. ‘Archie’ Lush in Slough (Lush was a close friend of Aneurin Bevan and acted as his political agent for most of his parliamentary life – see below). It is therefore of paramount importance that, in studying the contemporary sources, historians should distinguish between prejudicial statements and accurate observations based on the actual reality of the impact of immigration upon the new industrial centres. A detailed study of newspaper and oral sources reveals that the Welsh working-class immigrants to these centres were able to counter the negative propaganda and prejudice which confronted them by making a significant contribution to the growth of trade unionism, municipal socialism and working-class culture in these cities. The problem of distinguishing between image and reality was highlighted in contemporary debates concerning the role of Welsh immigrants in trade unionism in the new industries. In 1937, A. D. K. Owen wrote an article for the Sociological Review in which he assessed the Social Consequences of Industrial Transference. Despite his generally negative attitude towards immigration, he concluded that it did have some redeeming features:

It appears that some transferees from South Wales are already enlivening the fellowship of some London political associations and that the tradition of Trade Unionism respected by transferees from Wales and the North is now being appealed to with some prospect effective results as a starting point for organising the workers in many of the new industries in which Trade Unionism has so far obtained no footing.

The following year, Michael Daly published a reply to Owen’s article in which he claimed that, after several months of research into the difficulty of organising the workers in the South East and the Midlands, he was convinced that… the most difficult people to organise are the Welsh transferees. He asserted that the fact that the Welsh came from an area with a low standard of living made them more willing to accept low wage rates and that they were universally hated because of their alleged tendency both to undercut wages and to ‘rat’ on their fellow workers. From this flawed analysis, based largely on the experiences of Welsh transferees in Slough, Daly went on to produce a caricature which undermines his validity as a dependable source. He concluded that the staunch trade unionists among the Welsh had remained in Wales:

For the most part, they are the older type of craftsmen  whose belief in trade unionism is emotional rather than reasoned, and who tend to appreciate unduly the beer-drinking aspect of branch activities … even if they had transferred to the newer areas, it is doubtful if they would be given a hearing.

Unsurprisingly, Daly’s remarks met with stinging criticism in Owen’s rejoinder:

I have personal knowledge of far too many Welshmen who are pulling all their weight in trade union branches in the London area to accept Mr Daly’s broad generalisations on this subject. Moreover, his remarks about the social characteristics of the ‘staunch trade unionists among the Welsh’ are … completely wide of the mark … The ‘older type of craftsmen’ are far from being characteristic of the active membership of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. A ‘reasoned attitude’ to trade unionism is probably commoner in South Wales than in most other parts of the country with a long tradition of working-class organisation. …

‘Archie’ Lush, who was conducting his researches in Slough and elsewhere in the South East, also found considerable anti-Welsh feeling which was usually attributed to a tendency of Welsh workers to work for less than Trade Union rates. Both he and Owen accepted that this allegation was true only in a small number of cases, and in particular where a long period of unemployment had preceded transference, but what is most significant in Lush’s report is the remark that he found no evidence of trade union activity anywhere on the estate. There is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Slough was less typical of the experience of Welsh exiles than was made out by Daly, and it is also important not to confuse the role played by individual Welshmen, either positive or negative, with a collective assertion of trade union values among the Welsh in London. Unfortunately, some contemporary politicians, like Nye Bevan, some in the social service movement and some historians, writing in the 1980s, adopted and restated Daly’s unfounded assertions, and those of Lush, uncritically, the latter in the context of assessing the role of the Welsh in trade unionism elsewhere in the South and Midlands of England. Eli Ginzberg recorded that:

… it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishman would dream of accepting. 

006Owen also heard many of these criticisms of the transferees who were often subjected to very hostile criticism of their fellow-workers who resented their presence on the grounds that they depress wages. Although much of this criticism was completely unfounded, he found that it sometimes had a basis in fact. The NCSS’s 1939 report on Migration to London from South Wales was equally equivocal in dealing with the issue:

… there have been, and still are, criticisms made of Welshmen  that they are ready to work for low wages, accepting as little as 8d or 10d an hour. Such stories, some mythical and some authentic, are at the root of a certain prejudice against Welshmen on the part of Londoners. … It is, however, not difficult to understand the temptation to a man who has managed to scrape up enough money for a trip to London to take work at any wage rather than go home defeated, or to face unemployment in a strange and impersonal city with no friends behind him.

The Immigrants in Industry – Propaganda & Prejudice:

Of course, this image of the immigrant as one brow-beaten into submission by long-term unemployment which had broken his courage was one which suited the purposes of the ‘social surveyors’. But the reality was that the vast majority of those who migrated had been unemployed for comparatively short periods, if at all. That reality was often conveniently ignored by those who needed to paint the destitution and demoralisation of the ‘depressed area’ men as bleakly as possible. Although more frequently heard in Slough and London, the accusation also carried some potency in Oxford, where it seems to have derived from the immigrants who secured jobs in the building trade and in particular in relation to the Merthyr-based firm of Moss and Sons. This firm was said to have brought many workers with it from South Wales and to have employed them at rates which were below the standards which existed in the Midlands. It did not take long for this to lead to a widespread prejudice against Welsh immigrants in general, wherever they worked. One of Goronwy Daniel’s interviewees remarked about how she had been offended by hearing a woman commenting on a bus that the Welsh were stealing jobs by working for low wages. Marxist propagandists also asserted that the ‘DA’ immigrants depressed wages in order to show that they were in need of the leadership which only the Communist Party could provide. Abe Lazarus, the Party’s leader in Oxford, regurgitated this myth in his article for the Communist Review in 1934:

They came from Wales, from the North-East Coast, glad enough many of them to accept low standards after years of unemployment.

But Lazarus also acknowledged that the major factors involved in wage depression were automation, rationalisation and the dilution, or de-skilling of engineering jobs which the new processes of production entailed. He also accepted that it was the Oxonian agricultural workers who were far more likely, given their non-industrial background, to accept low rates of pay in the car industry, rather than the Welsh miners. In fact, the evidence shows that although at first, the American managers at Pressed Steel tried to use DA men to depress wages, they were unsuccessful in doing so and that, by the time of the 1934 strike, this was not an issue among a largely immigrant semi-skilled workforce whose wage rates were better than those paid to skilled engineers at Morris Motors, where there were far fewer DA men employed. Nevertheless, popular prejudices prevailed. One of Daniel’s interviewees who had migrated to Oxford in 1933 recalled how he had found:

… a strong dislike of Welsh people on the part of Oxford men, who thought the Welsh were taking their work and were all ‘reds’. 

The juxtaposition of these two remarks provides a graphic illustration of the irrational nature of much of the invective which was directed against the Welsh immigrants; they could be branded as ‘diluters’ and militants literally in the same breath. There were others among Daniel’s witnesses who found these labels freely applied to them and their fellow countrymen. One man who moved to Oxford in the late twenties said that the native Oxfordians regarded the Welsh as rowdy and nearly all communists. In turn, the same man’s attitude towards the natives had not changed in the decade he had been in the city. He saw them as insular and prejudiced and politically dead … A much younger man, with little direct trade union experience before leaving Wales also found Oxford natives to be:

… very reserved and independent, and found it hard to understand their Conservative politics and apathetic attitude towards trade unions. 

As late as the 1950s, industrial trade unionism was still seen by many Oxfordians as being alien to the City’s traditions and as a means for the immigrants to exploit a high-wage economy. Unions such as the TGWU were seen as primarily the province of ‘the Scotch and the Welsh’ and whilst it was acknowledged that trade unions are necessary in some jobs like mining, in Oxford they caused nothing but trouble with the chief trouble-makers being the Welsh who were out for all they can get. 

The minute books of the Coventry District AEU demonstrate a continual concern about the impact of immigrant labour upon wages and, in particular, about the tendency of some DA men to go to the factory gates and offer themselves ‘at any price’. However, the frequency with which complaints like this appear in the minutes is perhaps more indicative of a Union which was struggling to overcome its own conservatism and to come to terms with the transformation of work patterns in the engineering industry, than of a tendency among immigrants to accept lower wages. If some of the younger transferees and migrants were involved in undercutting, propagandists such as Wal Hannington had no doubt where the responsibility for this should be laid. However, rather than taking up the challenge of developing new solutions to the problem of dilution, the craft unions simply gave justification to their members’ prejudices. This sometimes gave rise to abusive behaviour on the part of, and even to disciplinary action against some AEU members. When a Welsh shop steward gave evidence to a sub-committee of the District AEU set up to investigate complaints against Bro. Underhill, a particularly uncooperative and belligerent member at the Humber works, Underhill stated that:

… they were not likely to have harmony in the shop when the other members were Welshmen but were only paying into the trade union for their own advantage.

Well into the 1930s, the possibility that Welsh migrant workers might transfer their trade union traditions to their new environments was a major concern of the industrialists participating in the Industrial Transference Scheme. Their image of the Welsh miner, ever since the 1926 lock-out, had remained one of a potential disease-carrier: the disease was ‘Militancy’. The same applied in the new industries more generally; personnel departments were ordered not to hire Welshmen; employment exchanges were asked not to send Welshmen for interviews; the immigrants were blamed for strikes regardless of the origin of the dispute. As Eli Ginzberg, this evidence suggests that the Welsh were no favourites with English foremen and managers. He also suggested that, while in general terms the Welsh were not the major instigators of the drive for organisation, they frequently lent their support to that drive and were seldom as uninterested as they appeared to be in Slough. At the same time, he thought it not unreasonable to expect that out of half a million immigrants there would be some who cut wages and many who would obtain work locally before the local unemployed had been absorbed. When she conducted a survey among the young immigrants in London in 1939, Hilda Jennings was difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were so slow to join trade unions in the capital. One of the reasons given was that membership of the Federation was seen as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought:

It was felt generally that Welshmen are not unduly backward at joining the Trade Union movement compared with Londoners and workers from other parts of the country. Indeed, several key positions are held by men who have recently come from the mining valleys. But, considering the traditions of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, it was urged by the Trade Unionists who had contributed to the enquiry that there were too many Welshmen  in London outside the movement, and too much tendency to apathy among them. 

From this evidence, it is clear that it would be wrong to assume that strong, collective trade union traditions could simply and easily be transferred from the coalfield context of homogeneous, close-knit communities to the diasporic and atomised existence which many migrants found themselves living in a large and heterogeneous metropolis. Conditions within the recipient areas needed to be favourable in order for retention to take place successfully. By contrast, although some of the trade unions in Coventry were concerned about dilution to the point of being slow to organise among the unskilled and semi-skilled immigrants, there is little doubt that by the end of the decade these immigrants had settled well into the pattern of militant trade unionism which had already been well established in the city’s factories before they arrived. Also, from about 1934, trade union membership began to grow again in Coventry, as elsewhere, though it wasn’t until 1937 that this became more rapid. Richard Crossman, the Labour parliamentary candidate at this time and subsequently MP, wrote of the DA men in 1970 that:

Once they had uprooted themselves they looked back with horror on the distressed areas they had left, and accepted both the management’s insistence on ever increased intensity of labour in return for the swelling wage packet, and the collective solidarity and discipline on which the shop-stewards from the first insisted, as the price of admission to the mass production line.

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The St. John Ambulance Brigade leads a parade along Cross Cheaping in Coventry in 1933 (photo by Sidney Stringer).

The ‘Influx’ to the Cities & its Impact on Local Politics:

Organisationally, the local Labour Party in Coventry was successful in drawing together a team of spokesmen and women who could handle municipal politics. More time and effort was required to prepare for municipal power, and Labour slowly came to attract candidates who were not active in their union or working in factories. Of the thirty-one Labour councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in 1936-38, only seven were, or had close links with engineering workers. There were a number of middle-class activists, including clergymen, a number of women recorded as housewives, and about one-third were Co-op employees. A number of Labour activists got jobs with Coventry Co-op because jobs in engineering would not give them enough time off to attend Council meetings and carry out Council business.  The Co-op was the only source of patronage, and thus a useful refuge for Labour activists. However, it’s clear that Labour in the 1930s was also able to attract some non-working-class support, while its leadership was only able to remain in office because they had severed many of their links with the trade unions.

Over a period of fifteen years, Labour leaders had succeeded in taking the Party from a situation where it had ill-defined policies and no clear electoral strategy to one where it concentrated all its energies into the drive for municipal power. The result of its victory over ageing if not senile opposition meant that Labour, far from having stormed a citadel of capitalism, had to preside over the renewal of the city, making up for several decades of neglect. Though many of Labour’s policies were aimed at improving the conditions among working people, such measures were bound to improve the services to employers as well.

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By 1937, the car industry in Coventry was enjoying unbridled expansion and the editor of the Telegraph acknowledged that Coventry’s problem was not one of a shortage of employment, but rather one of a shortage of the right type of labour. Such unemployment as existed, he suggested, was due to an increase in the number of people who had come to the city to try to find work for which they were unsuited. Thus, the continuation of unemployment at five per cent could largely be accounted for by these ‘industrial misfits’. In an interview with the enigmatic Captain Black of the Standard Motor Company, the Telegraph discovered that over five hundred additional workers had been taken on by the Company in the previous twelve months. New factories were being built or planned and existing workshops reorganised to cope with the demand for increased supplies. The output of one large manufacturing works was fifty per cent up on ‘the normal’ for September. Thousands of cars were leaving the city every day. The following month it was reported that two firms of body-builders were setting up new factories on the outskirts of the city, giving employment to a further seven thousand workers. The expansion was so overwhelming that some elected representatives began to ‘call halt’ and to reflect the growing national concern about the concentration of industry. In October 1937, the Midland Daily Telegraph was reporting almost daily on the debate among councillors which was becoming non-partisan:

Councillor J. C. Lee-Gordon … questioned whether Coventry required these new factories, and raised the issue of the new schools and houses that would have to be provided to meet the needs of the labour which, he assumed, would have to be imported … Similar opinions have been heard in Labour circles … The viewpoint has been expressed that towns situated in the prosperous areas should not encourage the construction of new factories, but that industrialists in search of these sites should be quietly shepherded into the distressed areas. …

By this time the Labour Party in the distressed areas and nationally had begun calling unequivocally for the end of the Transference policy and its replacement with the planned relocation of new industries. Its report on the ‘Distressed Areas’ had been published earlier in the year, produced under the chairmanship of Hugh Dalton MP. Its recommendations included these two points. Brinley Thomas’ 1938 article on The Influx of Labour into the Midlands examined the origin of ‘foreign’ employment books exchanged in the Midlands Division of the Ministry of Labour in July 1937. As in Oxford, the presence of these ‘foreign’ books in the Coventry Labour Exchange indicated that at some point between 1920 and the middle of 1937 the owners of the books had moved into the area. The Coventry and North Warwickshire area, including Rugby and Nuneaton, had 18,822 foreign books exchanged within it, of which 4,044 (21.5%) were originally issued in Wales, 2,364 in Scotland (12.6%), 2,010 (10.7%) from the North East and 3,271 (17.4%) from the North West.

In Oxford, the Communists had remained weak until the founding of the October Club at the University in December 1931. This doubled their membership and led to the reorganisation of the party branch in 1932. However, it was the Pressed Steel strike of 1934 which transformed the branch into an effective force in local politics with a significant working-class base. The ‘twelve days that shook Oxford’ provided the spring-board for the growth in tandem of trade unionism and working-class politics within the city. Soon after the strike, the party had about seventy members, though less than five per cent of these were openly members. The majority were public members of the Labour Party. Local leaders were already moving away from the ‘Class Against Class’ policy, doing their best to play down the ideological divisions between the two parties. For their part, local trade unionists and councillors had little time for the TUC circular which called for Communists to be debarred from office. The leaders of the Pressed Steel TGWU 5/60 Branch decided to appoint what delegates the branch so wished. The ‘United Front’ line won support in the Trades Council, which adopted the following resolution in April 1935:

(The Council’s) strength and activity is due in no small measure to the presence on the Council of members of the Communist Party … In our daily experience CP members have … thrown themselves into the work of strengthening the Trade Union movement … In the past twelve months, the local Trade Union membership has increased by well over three thousand and we cannot understand why the TUC should want to disrupt this splendid work …

In July 1935, the Cowley and Iffley Labour Party and the local CP agreed to a ‘United Front’ slate for the forthcoming local elections. Their decision was endorsed by the City Labour Party with only one vote against. This ‘United Front’ was led by workers from the ‘DAs’ who were beginning to gain prominence in local politics. In September, four of them were endorsed as Labour Party candidates, though they were also secretly CP members, with one nominated as an openly CP candidate on the same ‘slate’. One of the five, Tom Harris, told the Oxford Mail that he was a strong supporter of the municipalisation of all the public services… However, by the end of the local party was clearly under some pressure to adopt a more moderate slate and the CP candidate was persuaded to withdraw his nomination in order to relieve the situation and maintain the unity of the Party (presumably, the Labour Party).

At this point, a young man who had cut his political teeth helping to organise the housing campaign in south Oxford earlier in the year, Richard Crossman, was announced as a candidate for the Headington Ward. Later in life, after becoming a Labour MP in Coventry and a Cabinet minister in the Attlee Government, Crossman acknowledged the debt he owed to the working-class politicians he had worked alongside in Oxford. Another post-war national political figure, Patrick Gordon-Walker, was adopted as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate for Oxford for the General Election of November 1935, in which he was unsuccessful. Throughout 1936 and 1937, the Oxford Labour Party continued to defy the line taken by the national party, supporting affiliation by the CP. The Labour Party NEC’s rejection of this was deplored by the local party. By the Spring of 1936, the strength of the party in both the colleges and ‘the town’ was such that Oswald Mosley was forced to leave the City ‘by the back gate’.

Concern about the frequency of ‘wildcat’ strikes at the Pressed Steel, where the 5/60 Branch had come under increasing control by the CP, led to Ernest Bevin and the National Executive of the TGWU to appoint a full-time organiser for the area. Tom Harris was one of the candidates for the new post, but he was passed over in favour of Jack Thomas, who hailed from the Aberdare Valley. Thomas had become Chairman of the Lodge at Aberavon pit at the age of eighteen and then moved to Swansea to work as a labourer for the Corporation, becoming a rank and file delegate at the first TGWU Conference at Scarborough in 1925. As the Secretary of the Union’s Corporation Branch in Swansea for twelve years, he also became Chairman of the Swansea Labour Association in 1935. He began work in Oxford in January 1937. The Communists at Pressed Steel had their suspicions about his appointment which were confirmed by a speech he made to the Trades Council soon after his arrival, and they issued a stern warning to him in their factory broadsheet, The Spark:

Let him remember that the Pressed Steel Branch of the TGWU was built up by the UNITED forces of the workers long before Mr Thomas had heard of Pressed Steel. The workers in Oxford active in the Trade Union and Labour Movement believe in Unity. Mr Bevin’s anti-unity ideas don’t cut any ice here. Mr Thomas’ job is not to make anti-unity speeches … but to get our works organised.

As the Communists’ strength grew, their argument in favour of the ‘United Front’ grew louder, and a resolution was carried which led to the establishment of the Oxford Unity Committee. The Labour Party almost doubled its membership between 1936 and 1938, to over six hundred, including many Communists. The real roots of this growth were laid, not in the October Club or the University Labour Club, but in the building up of a strong party organisation in Cowley and Iffley, dominated by car workers and especially by former South Wales miners. In January 1937, in addition to the Chairman, treasurer and her husband, Frank Pakenham, all the other six ward officials were Welsh. In 1938, Patrick Gordon-Walker was selected to stand again in the Oxford by-election. The Liberal Party had selected Ivor Davies, who offered to stand down from the by-election if Labour did the same and backed a Popular Front candidate against the Conservatives. Eventually, Gordon Walker reluctantly stood down and both parties supported Andrew Lindsay, the Master of Balliol, as an Independent Progressive. Quintin Hogg, the Conservative candidate, defeated Lindsay in the by-election, but the latter was in no doubt about how the political complexion of the City had been changed by what had happened in Cowley:

We have heard a lot about Oxford ceasing to be a sleepy University town in an agricultural county. There lies the fundamental reason for Labour’s growth.

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Red ‘Influx’ – Rule by the Sweepings of Great Britain:

The phenomenal growth of working-class politics in Oxford in the five years before the outbreak of war to a point where a left-wing victory, previously unimaginable, had become possible, was a key indicator of what might have happened in other ‘new industry’ centres had a general election taken place in 1940. However, the process of political recovery on the Left had to wait a further six years to come to fruition, though the seeds were widely sown before the war. Historians have argued about the role of the war itself in bringing about the Labour ‘landslide’ victory of 1945. What is clear is that immigrant workers from the Depressed Areas played a key role in this political recovery. Their success lay in the way they were able to reflect, articulate and organise a general mood of resistance and recovery among the new working class in Cowley and East Oxford, which was forged from old traditions of trade union organisation and militancy originating in the older industrial areas. The fact that Abe Lazarus, District Organiser for the CPGB, missed election as a Cowley Councillor by only twenty votes in 1937 gives a clear indication of the extent to which the newcomers had succeeded in shifting Oxford politics to the left. The assertion of a leading Welsh immigrant – we changed their outlook – reflects the reality of the immigrant contribution to the transformation of the political life of ‘the City of Dreaming Spires’ in the 1930s.

In 1935, the Communist Party developed a campaign about the housing conditions on the new Florence Park Estate which began with a deputation of the estates’ tenants to the Sanitary Committee of the Town Council in May. It had been built on marshland which had regularly flooded and when the estate was finished there were a series of related problems, both major and minor, which resulted partly from the speed with which the houses were erected. These problems have been described by one of the first tenants on the estate, a Welsh immigrant, and are well documented in the civic archives. The Tenants’ Committee published a pamphlet entitled The Oxford Rent and Housing Scandal – Who is Responsible? But from the other sources, and in particular, from the report of the independent surveyor, it is apparent that, although the problems provided a focus for a broad-based tenants’ campaign, serious cases were isolated and that the majority of the housing on the estate provided attractive, if expensive homes, to immigrants who had generally experienced far worse housing conditions in South Wales. The Allport family from the Garw Valley described the contrast:

When we arrived we were impressed. … we were coming from Wales and the house had the old fires in the best rooms. This was a modern house with the small grates – it was heaven! I can remember how I ran around the rooms. There was a bathroom, which we had never had before – we had had baths in front of the fire. … just imagine the difference – we were delighted – like walking on air…

By the late 1930s, the militancy of the immigrants had spread to the housing estates in East Oxford. The Welsh workers interviewed by Goronwy Daniel were paying between twenty and twenty-five shillings for five-roomed houses. The average net weekly pay packet of the fifty-five men interviewed was fifty-eight shillings and their usual payment for board and lodging was twenty-five shillings, almost identical to the rent they had paid in Wales. The married Oxford Welshman, however, had rented colliery houses for his family for only 10s. 6d. in south Wales, but paid 17s. 9d. in Oxford. Moreover, the loss of the ‘sub-economy’ made available through allotments, coal ‘patches’ and slag-heaps affected the migrant family more than it did the individual migrant. Thus, the relatively high wages which could be earned in periods of full-time working in the car factories were offset to a considerable extent by high rents and other financial factors which closed the gap between income and expenditure.

The rent strike which took place on the Great Headley Estate in July 1939 demonstrated the apparent intractability of these problems. The majority of the husbands on the estate were employed at Morris’ or Pressed Steel and were continually faced with the risk of being laid off, often for extended periods. The lowest rent on the estate was nineteen shillings and the highest twenty-four. The Gazette, the Labour Party’s local periodical paper, claimed that the risk of the landlords in building the estate was negligible compared with that taken by many of the tenants who have been compelled to emigrate from the Distressed Areas. Faced with the impossibility of getting a cheap house, they had no alternative but to take houses at exorbitant rents. The paper went on to report the case of one man who had been out of work for five years before arriving in Oxford and securing a job at the Morris Radiator factory. He then sent for his wife and family, who had only been in Oxford for a fortnight when he was thrown out of work. He received thirty-three shillings unemployment benefit for himself, his wife and two children, out of which he was expected to pay nineteen shillings per week in rent. He was being threatened with eviction. With the migration streams to Oxford drying up in 1938-39, as workers were being attracted to Coventry and elsewhere, the local Labour Party campaigned for greater security for migrant workers and their families in terms of their housing needs as well as in employment.

By 1936 in Coventry, the pressure for accommodation and the increased cost of living in the new housing estates was such that sub-letting was a common practice, especially among immigrants. Despite the Corporation’s belated attempts to catch up with the demand for cheap housing, there were regular complaints in the local press throughout the summer and autumn of 1937 that the costs were ‘greater than in most places’ and were ‘ridiculous’ with many immigrants finding themselves ‘at the mercy of landlords’. In September 1938, a local report on Coventry by the NCSS found that many migrant families had no choice but to rent housing at high rents. Nevertheless, oral evidence shows that, by 1939, migrant families were able to rent houses at fourteen shillings per week. The Labour administrations after 1937 had, by this time, led to the Corporation’s house-building programmes so that immigrants to Coventry were able to maintain a significant gap between earnings and rental payments. Neither did Coventry’s builders have similar problems to those faced in Oxford. The Nuffield Survey’s war-time report on Coventry and East Warwickshire found that in 1941, despite the effects of the November 1940 Blitz, the City’s sixty thousand houses and shops were a goodly number for the population as it had stood at the outbreak of war and that, although larger family houses were few, the great majority of houses provided accommodation superior to the average for the whole country. Mary Jones described her reaction, similar to that of the Allports in Cowley, to the change in accommodation involved in her migration from the Rhondda to Coventry:

Comparing the house I was living in with the house I came from I thought I was in heaven! I thought of the old house and black-leading the grates. …

In Coventry in 1929, Philip Noel-Baker had captured nearly half of all the votes cast at the general election and whilst the fortunes of the Party in the 1931 election followed the national trend, in 1935 the role of former Welsh miners in municipal affairs in England attracted the attention of leading politicians. In November, Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in Coventry in support of Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the practical failures of Government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working-class politicians:

Mr Oliver Stanley, the Minister of Labour, with all his university education, had made a mess of his job. The Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet in the speaker’s opinion was better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.

In the local elections in Coventry, the Labour Party made steady headway against the Lib-Con coalition until it finally won control of the City Council in 1937, becoming one of the first local parties in the country to take control of a municipal authority. The taking of municipal powers by the Party had no impact on class relations within the city, nor on industrial relations in the workplace, but it remained dedicated to advancing the cause of municipal socialism. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the gulf between workplace and municipal politics was such that the growing power of Labour in the Council was not challenged by the growing power of the Communist Party in the unions. It seems from this that ‘activism’ in the trade union movement, especially among engineering workers, did not generally lead to candidacy for the city council. There appears to have been a clear division between the two representative roles.

The tendency of Welsh migrants to Coventry towards left-wing politics reinforced a pre-existing tradition, in marked contrast to the situation in Oxford. This tradition was primarily ‘syndicalist’ in nature since it focused its attention upon industrial struggles within the factories. Immigrant trade unionists such as Jock Gibson were already spreading the influence of the Communist Party in the 1930s to the point where it had a ‘significant presence’ at forty factories throughout the city. However, its growing industrial strength was not reflected in the general party politics, since those engaged in ‘the struggle’ in the economic field did not show any great interest in the social field, unlike in Oxford, mirroring the position adopted by many of the leading employers who, despite many appeals, refused to involve themselves in local politics. Hence the dominant political élite in the life of the city remained a group of small businessmen and professionals who formed themselves into a Lib-Con coalition which by the Thirties had remodelled itself as ‘the Progressive Party’. Their loss of supremacy, from 1937 onwards, was attributed by their supporters, not to an overspilling of militancy from the factories into the social sphere but, according to the Midland Daily Telegraph to:

… the rapid drift of population from the depressed areas … a steady stream of potential left-wing supporters. 

The truth was that, with no common principles other than the opposition to socialism, no policies other than curbs on public spending, no electoral machinery and a declining social base, it was clear by the mid-thirties in Coventry that the Con-Lib Coalition had been clinging to power by default. It had been able to protect itself as the social leadership of the city and use its powers to look after its social base but had lacked the will and ability to develop policies that could have encouraged industry to support it, or to attract working-class voters to it. Its inability to plan to meet the needs of the city and develop a modern infrastructure meant that its removal ended an obstacle to progress, not just for working people, but to a wide range of commercial and industrial interests. It had outlived its usefulness, and Labour’s victory in November 1937, besides making possible the application of genuinely progressive policies, also provided an opportunity to make the city more responsive to the needs of modern mass manufacturers. The ‘influx’ in itself provided a further factor in Labour’s progress to power in Coventry, but it was not a primary one. Nevertheless, in the 1938 municipal by-election, the ‘Progressive’ (Lib-Con) candidate in St. Mary’s Ward, near the city centre, had played upon the prejudices of electors who were predominantly ‘old Coventrian’ in winning his seat. This ploy was attacked in a Labour eve-of-poll leaflet, which in turn brought a strong retort from the Progressives’ leader:

They had picked out from Mr Friswell’s speech at his adoption a sentence referring to rule by the sweepings of Great Britain, and had divorced it from its context … What Mr Friswell had indicated was that the coming of so many of the Labour Party’s supporters to Coventry had had a serious effect on Council elections. He was sure that the old Coventry people did not want Socialists in control of their affairs.

Midland Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1938.

The ‘context’ referred to was Friswell’s claim that when he had spoken of ‘the sweepings of Great Britain’ he was quoting what a small shopkeeper had said to him about his district. However, in the full civic elections the Labour Party, surprisingly, did not advance on its 1937 position. This was due to the fact, as George Hodgkinson noted, that many of the newcomers had not yet been registered to vote despite the rapid growth of artisan dwellings reported by the Telegraph. Evidently, the immigrants to Coventry from the South Wales valleys were not as settled in the city by the late thirties as were their compatriots in Cowley, although larger in numbers. Thus, the argument advanced by Conservative agencies within the City that it was the large influx of labour from socialist areas over the year preceding November 1937 that was the major factor in the Labour victory reflected their belief in ‘the myth of the old Coventrian’ as much as it did the reality of the processes of migration and settlement.

The 1937 victory was greatly facilitated by the creation of a large individual party membership which enabled many managerial, professional and clerical workers to play an increasingly important role alongside shop stewards, conveners and trade union officials. It was an ‘alliance’ which was carefully nurtured by strong leaders like George Hodgkinson and Sidney Stringer who shaped the Party into an organisation which was capable of winning elections and running the City successfully. In addition, the radical liberalism of many chapel-goers in the City was transformed into support for Labour’s progressive provision and planning of social services at the municipal level. In particular, the advocacy of Christian Socialism by Rev. Richard Lee, the Unitarian minister; George Binns, Methodist lay-preacher; John Fennel, Ivor Reece (Congregationalist) and Howard Ingli James (Baptist), led to growing support among their congregations fuelled by the influx of workers from areas of the country, like South Wales, where Nonconformity was still comparatively strong. All of these pastors spoke on Labour platforms within the city.

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The Immigrant Road to 1947:

Many of the Welsh immigrant workers, like ‘Jehu’ Shepherd, were attracted to Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre, where Ingli James had his ministry in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Shepherd became the organist and choirmaster and for many years ran a Male Voice ‘Glee Society’ in the city for the young Welsh immigrants. Besides supporting the initiatives which the immigrants had taken to establish an image of respectability in their new environment, such as the Glee Singers, Ingli James also affirmed to a wide audience, the society and culture from which they had come. He continually referred to the miners in his sermons, and his unashamed championing of working-class causes and politics brought him into conflict with the established professional Coventrians among on the diaconate in the church and more broadly in the city. May Shepherd recalled one of his sermons:

Ingli James was a great preacher, very down to earth, and a pacifist. He was a strong Labour man and he upset quite a few people because he just said what he felt – he was true to himself, he would not say one thing and mean another, or say something to please people. Ingli was not bombastic and what he said was true. I always remember once when he talked about the miners, he said:

“I had a load of coal the other day, and paid for it. Did I say I paid for it? No, never, when I think what those men had to go through to get that coal for me to enjoy, and then I say I paid for it. No money would pay for what they did!”

I can see him now in that pulpit!  

001

James’ sermons also dealt constantly with unemployment. In 1942, he preached a sermon entitled How Green Was My Valley, coinciding with the distribution of the Holywood film in Britain. The politics of the young immigrant men and women in his congregation, like the Shepherds, had a major effect on the development and direction of James’ ministry, as his 1936 article for the Midland Daily Telegraph reveals:

Coventry is today faced with the difficult task of welding a host of newcomers into a community, in fact of making a city, which is not the same thing as a mere collection of streets, or conglomeration of people… Almost every week strangers appear in our congregation, often in such numbers that one has difficulty  in getting in touch with them. Many are young, and trying their wings for the first time. It is an important part of our work to meet their needs both spiritual and social, to provide them with a place where they may find friends and feel at home.

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‘Before the Blitz’: Broadgate, Coventry City Centre in 1939.

Some of these newcomers were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions. James shared their impetus to social reform, which he articulated in his book, Communism and the Christian Faith, published in 1950, in which he acknowledged his indebtedness to the Queen’s Road congregation for the way they had given him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe how he came to his vision of Christian Socialism during his ministry in Swansea before arriving in Coventry:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed … I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people. However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no active part in the struggle of the unemployed.  At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…  

Of course, many of those he ministered to in Coventry had experienced ‘the struggle’ first hand but came to their visions via a variety of routes. But in his writing, as in his sermons, he was also distilling the essence of the shared experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars, the migrating millions from the Depressed Areas. Compared with Cowley, some of the most prominent Welsh figures in the local party in Coventry did not arrive in Coventry until the later 1930s and made their impact after the Second World War. These included Ernie Roberts, AEU District Chairman, William Parfitt from Tylorstown and Harry Richards from Tonypandy, both of whom became Lord Mayor, and Cllr. Elsie Jones, who, in 1958, made the following poetic contribution to a Party publication celebrating twenty-one years of Labour rule in the City:

Born and reared in a mining area I realised the need for reforms very early in life –

Because I loved loved light and sunshine I knew men and young boys who, during winter, seldom saw either –

Because I loved peace and a tranquil home, and I saw peaceful men become violent at the spectacle of their semi-starved families –

Because I loved music and culture, and the arts, and I knew boys and girls with wonderful natural gifts who would never get a chance to express them –

Because I loved freedom and independence, and I saw proud men grovelling for the ‘privilege’ of working for a week road-mending.

How green and beautiful was my valley. How black the despair in the heats of its people.

001

More broadly, it is apparent that together with Elsie Jones, the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were largely conditioned by their memories of the ‘depression years’ elsewhere in Britain. When the Labour Government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Aneurin Bevan chose to defend it in Coventry and issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and, according to the Coventry Tribune (Labour’s own local paper) was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. If we are to take this statement literally,  there certainly was quite a large ‘lump’ of exiles from the Monmouthshire Valleys in Coventry at the end of the thirties, so it is quite possible that a number of them would have known him personally as their former MP. The growth of municipal socialism in Coventry, from 1937 onwards was, like Bevan’s own role as Minister for Health and Housing, a practical expression of the principles of progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to attain to better living conditions than those which they had been forced to endure between the wars. Reflecting on his experience of the ‘two Britains’ he witnessed in the Thirties, Ingli James recognised that although Marxism was ultimately incompatible with his Christian Faith, it provided an empirical means for Christian Socialists to explain the injustices and inequalities of the capitalist system:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home.  The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence. … we must show how it might be done.

Labour’s coming to municipal power in 1937 proved to be a harbinger of their post-war supremacy in local and parliamentary politics; the election of Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman as the City’s two MPs in 1945 confirmed the Party’s status as the leading political party in Coventry. By that time, the migrants from the Depressed Areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales had shown, by their various contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the new industry towns, that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns in an economic and political system which had displaced them. Nor were they prepared to be acquiescent in the face of stereotyping, which was often grotesque and prejudices which were always difficult to overcome. In the retention and transposition of their traditional values and institutions, they made an ‘ark of the covenant’ for themselves and thereby found a powerful means of confronting and overpowering those stereotypes and prejudices, and of fostering a positive self-image in their new environment. In doing so, they enabled and enhanced the recovery of working-class politics and culture in the 1930s. When the Lord Mayor of Oxford visited the Garw Valley in 1960, he told those assembled that those who had left the valley thirty or so years before had…

… entered into the life of the community of Oxford to the fullest, … in churches, chapels, football matches and in the Council; in all walks of life … they were highly respected citizens of Oxford.

The memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain, old and new, long before 1945. Those who had lost everything had also lost their fear; they had everything to regain and were determined to be in control of their own remaking. The trade union movement and the Labour Party were the major and long-term beneficiaries of this resistance and recovery.

Sources (for both ‘case studies’):

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, c. 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers).

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Bridgend: Poetry Wales Press. (Especially Peter Stead’s chapter on ‘Wales in the Movies’).

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (eds.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press (University of Warwick).

Denys Blakeway (2010), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

 

 

 

 

Posted January 26, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Assimilation, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Coventry, democracy, Deportation, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, emigration, Ethnicity, Factories, First World War, Genesis, George VI, History, Immigration, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, multiculturalism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Oxford, Poverty, Proletariat, Remembrance, Respectability, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Wales, Warfare, Welfare State, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, xenophobia

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The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.

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Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.

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