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Working class histories

Victorian London streets with back to back terraces, from Gustave Doré, London, a Pilgrimage (1872)
Victorian London streets with back to back terraces, from Gustave Doré, London, a Pilgrimage (1872)

An Archive collection about working class social and cultural history, including autobiographies, minutes and reports on working conditions.

The lobbyist Francis Place's political and personal papers, microfilm copies from the originals in the British Library.

Francis Place (1791-1854) was an active lobbyist for working class reform and was a political activist with links to noteworthy campaigners of the day such as Jeremy Bentham and James Mill.  He supported working men's clubs and organisations such as the London Corresponding Society.  He's most well-known for his successful campaign to abolish the Anti Union Laws in 1824.

Place's papers include press cuttings, leaflets and other ephemera associated with Britain's politics and economics from 1770- 1770-1853. The most frequent correspondents include Bentham, Mill, Richard Cobden, and Joseph Hume. The collection, as a result, is a rich historical source chronicling the development of political relationships of working class men from 1779-1842.  It includes the following histories:

  • political trials
  • trade clubs, trade unions and the right to strike
  • Correspondence from the London Corresponding Society (1791-1847) and other political societies from the 18th-19th centuries.
  • political events in England from 1830-1854, including The Great Reform Act, the Bristol Riots and the National Political Union.
  • political histories and Westminster elections from 1771-1837
  • papers and notes about the discovery, history and political matters of Canada
  • speeches and memoranda regarding taxes and administering the Poor Law
  • notes regarding the history of English drama
  • 13 volumes of personal and autobiographical materials
  • materials about the world of drama and the theatre of the day

In addition the Owenite Society minutes from 1838-1845 are kept separately and include:

  • the director of the National Community Friendly Society's minutes, 1838-1843
  • the director of the Rational Society's minutes, 1838-1845
  • the director of the Association of All Classes of All Nations minutes, 1838-1845.

Correspondence and documents of local authorities on public order, protest and agitation, microfilmed from originals at the National Archives. The UK Government’s archives in Home Office Class HO52 consists of records on public order and agitation sent to the Home Secretary by local authorities throughout Britain. This collection gives a vivid picture of conflict and struggle and provide first-hand accounts of working class activities throughout the United Kingdom in these formative years of the world’s first industrial revolution.

This collection of Local Reports to the General Board of Health presents a very specific and detailed picture of industrial Britain, and the consequences of the first Industrial Revolution. The reports include virtually every topic that, according to the inspector, affected the moral and physical welfare and administration of the locality visited.

The Public Health Act of 1848 established a General Board of Health charged with the authority to create local boards of health, either compulsorily when the average mortality rate in an area exceeded 23 per 1000 of the population or when a sufficient number of taxpayers in a district were moved to petition for help. Local health boards were empowered to deal with a whole range of public health issues such as water supplies, sewerage and drainage, lighting, ‘scavengering’, food quality, slaughterhouses, washhouses, street paving, burial grounds, and the control of offensive trades. By 1857, Wales had local health boards in a dozen or so districts and a number of other localities had requested inspection.

Reports included relate to: Aberdare, Bangor, Brecon, Bridgend and Coity, Brynmawr, Cardiff, Carmarthen, Christchurch (Mon.), Cwmdu, Knighton, Llandeilo-Fawr, Llanelli, Llangadock, Llangollen, Merthyr Tydfil and Dowlais, Newport, Swansea, Tenby, Towyn, Welshpool, Wrexham, and Ynyscynhaiarn. The reports include virtually every topic that, according to the inspector, affected the moral and physical welfare and administration of the locality he visited, and provide a detailed picture of the impact of the industrial revolution on Wales.

19th century accounts of working class life, microfilmed from originals at the British Library. A list of contents is available.

Autobiographies constitute the vast majority of all books written by the working class in the 19th century. They reflect the rapid spread of literacy and the realisation of its value as a means of communication with a wider audience beyond the local community.

These writings – military and maritime adventures, spiritual memoirs, thieves' tales and other reminiscences of low life, accounts of self-improvement – provide not only a formal record of living conditions but also the people's own view of their lives presented in ways that may often contradict the version given in history books.

The range of topics covered includes everything from ancestry to childhood and family relationships, from education to work and leisure, and from religion to politics, providing a significant insight into all aspects of working class life and experience in 19th century Britain.

Several hundred publications relating to 19th-early 20th century working class history and socialist issues in France, microfilmed from originals in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

Included are works by well known names such as Balzac and Durkheim, up to the Revue Francaise du Travail in the middle of the 20th century. All topics are covered, from strikes and public health, to reports from socialist congresses.

There are some ideological works in the collection, but priority has been given to statistical and factual studies, including official government reports and private works of doctors, economists, statesmen and men of letters.

Also held in the microfilm collection are the Congress Reports of the Parti Communiste Francais for the mid-20th century. A few issues are held of the proceedings of the French National Assembly, shortly after its establishment, for the 1780s-1790s.

Available in print, and digitally via DigitalSearch.

Annual reports by the Cardiff Medical Officer on the state of public health and living conditions in the city, for the years 1853-1926. Reports refer to the City of Cardiff (and often break down data into individual districts), the School system, and the Docks.

The level of detail contained in the reports grew substantially over time. Early reports provide census-style data on birth rates, death rates, marriages, infant mortality, housing conditions, deaths in public institutions, violent deaths, and details of incidences of disease and death broken down by cause, age and sex. Causes of death were often compared with data from rural areas, other large towns, or England, enabling comparative studies. Meteorological data was also gathered, as it was long thought that climate was responsible for the outbreak and spread of certain diseases.

From the 1870s, reports are expanded to refer to specific diseases, such as small pox, measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis and cholera. From the 1890s, reports start to interrogate birth-rate data in more detail, providing marital status by age, causes of infant mortality, and breakdowns of legitimate and illegitimate births by Cardiff district, including the Union workhouse. From 1902 there are reports relating to the Midwives Act 1902 and from 1908, the Notification of Births Act 1907.

From 1914, specific information is provided on maternity and child welfare, including: notifications of births and still births, child welfare consultations, ante-natal consultations, dental clinic, maternity hospitals, domiciliary visits by health visitors, supply of free milk, training of midwives, midwives practicing in Cardiff, medical practitioners called in by midwives, home nursing, home helps, homeless children, and venereal disease.

From 1923, reports are provided relating to the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, including classification of known cases, and summaries of cases in institutions, under guardianship or under supervision at home.

Minutes, memoranda and case histories of the Unemployment Board, microfilmed from originals at the National Archives.

Detailed case histories showing the poverty of many families are included, public reactions to the new system, and decisions on working practices of the Board. The Unemployment Act of 1934 established the Unemployment Assistance Board, which was to become responsible for paying unemployment assistance to those who did not qualify for unemployment benefit based on contributions. Care for the relief of the able-bodied poor thus became the responsibility of central rather than local government, marking the end of an era of social policy begun in the reign of Elizabeth I.

The documents reveal the poverty of many families, differences in regional living standards and customs, and the hostility the Board’s initial proposals provoked. Also detailed are the subsequent revision of relief-scales, methods of payment decisions and the gradual acceptance of the Board during the War.  The files of the Assessment Sub-Committee illustrate the relationship between wages and unemployment pay, demoralisation and scrounging, and youth unemployment. This collection is of great importance to historians and social scientists alike. It tells the inside story of one of the most significant political battles in the foundation of the British Welfare State: the historic transfer of responsibility of the poor from local to central government.

Contents of reels:

  • Board's memoranda 1934-1935, reel 1
  • Board's memoranda 1935-1937, reel 2
  • Board's memoranda 1937-1938, reel 3
  • Board's memoranda 1938-1943, reel 4
  • Board's minutes 1934-1935, reel 5
  • Board's minutes 1935, reel 6
  • Board's minutes 1936-1943, reel 7
  • Board's annual reports 1939-1944, reel 8
  • Administrative procedure 1936-1946; Training and Welfare Sub-Committee 1936-1938; Regional Officers Conferences 1935-1941; Regional Officers Conferences 1941-1946, reel 9
  • Board's memoranda 1944-1948; Board's minutes 1944-1948; Regional Officers Conference 1946, reel 10
  • Regional Officers Conference 1946-1948, reel 11

A well-organised and comprehensive collection of national and local press coverage on all aspects of the coal mining industry and its post-war decline in South Wales. Mine closures and strikes are documented in detail. Articles on gas, water and electricity privatisation in the early 1990s are also included, as well as a file of articles on nuclear power. The articles are primarily, but not entirely, taken from the Western Mail, South Wales Argus, Guardian and Observer. A number of photocopied reference works on the South Wales mining industry are also included. Browse the online catalogue.

  • Labour history review (Sheffield, England)
  • International labor and working class history (Los Angeles, USA)
  • Labor (journal of the labor and working-class history association, North Carolina, USA)
  • Bulletin - Society for the Study of Labour History (Sheffield, England)
  • Rebecca: a radical magazine for Wales (Cardiff, Wales)
  • Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society (Aberdeen, Scotland)
  • Labour: journal of the Committee on Canadian Labour History (Novascotia, Canada)
  • Scottish labour history review, Scottish labour history (Glasgow, Scotland)
  • Mitteilungsblatt des Instituts zur Erforschung der europäischen Arbeiterbewegung / Bulletin of the Institute for the Study of the European workers' movement (Bochum, Germany)
  • Llafur: journal of Welsh labour history = cylchgrawn hanes llafur Cymru (Aberyswyth, Wales)
  • Saothar: journal of the Irish Labour History Society (Dublin, Ireland)