Thirty Years on

This year the North East Labour History Society (NELHS) celebrates its thirtieth birthday. The North East was the first English region to form its own labour history group, distinct from the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH) which was founded in 1960 as a kind of umbrella organisation covering Britain, and later followed by the formation of national societies in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

The origins of the NELHS can be traced to a meeting of four individual members of the SSLH resident in the North East, who met at the Rutherford College of Technology in Newcastle on 15 September 1966. These four people – Ted Allen, Joe Clarke, Terry McDermott and Archie Potts – formed an ad hoc committee with Ted Allen as Chairman and Joe Clarke as Secretary, with the aim of drafting a constitution and convening an inaugural meeting. The meeting was duly held on 2nd December 1966, the draft constitution approved, officers were elected and a programme agreed. The first meeting of the programme was held at Rutherford College on 3 February 1967. John Saville of Hull University got the society off to a good start with a lecture on ‘The present and future prospects for labour history’.

In its early years the membership tended to be dominated by economic historians who were largely interested in such matters as the membership figures of trade unions, wage movements and unemployment levels but social historians extended the Society’s interests to housing conditions and Poor Law administration, and political historians drew attention to working class movements such as Chartism and the Labour Party. Sociologists who joined the Society had some interesting things to say on, for instance, the links between coalminers and Methodism; and in recent years attention has shifted to aspects of working class culture including leisure activities such as sport, music halls, working men’s clubs and proletarian writing. The Society’s interests have also moved away from exclusively male dominated activities to consider the important role played by women in the region.

One of the reasons for the survival of the NELHS is that it has had able people occupying key posts in the Society. As in most organisations a hard core of members have shouldered the tasks of running the Society and some individuals have served in different posts at various times. Edward Allen, known to almost everyone as ‘Ted’, was the Society’s first Chairman (1966-73). Ted was Professor of Economics at the University of Durham and was keenly interested in regional development. He was a modest man and well versed in chairing meetings. When he retired from the Committee in 1981 he was elected the Society’s first President. He died shortly afterwards in December 1981 and the Edward Allen Memorial Lecture is given annually in his honour. Norman McCord succeeded Ted Allen as Chairman (1973-74), followed by Ray Challinor (1974-77), Terry McDermott (1977-82), Roy Sturgess (1982-86), Maureen Callcott (1986-91) and Archie Potts (1991-96). Norman McCord was elected President in 1974 and was succeeded by Ray Challinor in 1987. When Maureen Callcott retired from the Chair she was elected the Society’s first Vice-President in recognition of her services to the NELHS.

The Society’s first Vice-Chairman was Archie Potts (1966-68), followed by Sid Chaplin (1968-7). The post fell vacant until 1986 when Archie Potts, coming full circle, was re-elected to the position he had held twenty years earlier. Bill Lancaster was Vice-Chair (1991-96) and has recently been elected Chair of the Society. The current Vice-Chair is Nigel Todd. After Sid Chaplin’s death in 1986 the Society instituted the annual Sid Chaplin Memorial Essay Competition in Labour History open to all students of the subject.

In the first year of the Society’s life it was decided that there should be an annual publication, to be known as the Bulletin. The Bulletin had four main aims: to furnish a record of the Society’s activities and meetings, by summarising lectures, transcribing interviews etc; to publish bibliographies and to provide guides to archives and records; to print notes, comments, short articles and documents on matters of local interest; and to review books on local history. The first six issues of the Bulletin followed these guidelines. However, the editors found that they were receiving substantial articles of good quality and it was decided to open up the Bulletin to such work. This proved to be a popular move with the Society’s membership and with writers who found an additional outlet for their work.

The first five issues of the Bulletin were run off by hand on a spirit duplicator in a staff room Newcastle Polytechnic. The finished product was rather like the samizdat journals produced by dissidents in the Soviet Union. However the editors discovered that a polytechnic technician had his own printing press housed in a shed in his back garden. His rates were very cheap and the next nineteen issues were produced in this way. The Bulletin was, on the whole, well received by members and it actually made a profit. So much so that in 1990 it became possible to have the Bulletin professionally printed.

In addition to the Bulletin the Society has brought out four volumes of essays. The first, Essays in Tyneside Labour History, was published in 1977, followed four years later by Working Class Politics in North East England, Pitmen, Viewers and Coalminers, published in 1986 and Shipbuilders and Engineers in 1987. The books, produced at minimal cost and marketed at low prices, sold extremely well. In 1982 the Library Association published A Bibliography of Northern Labour History which was prepared by two members of the Society with financial help from the Social Science Research Council. Society members Keith Harris and Joan Knott helped to secure the SSRC grant and Archie Potts and Elaine Jones compiled the bibliography.

The NELHS has undergone a smooth transition in recent years as ageing pashas have been replaced by young turks. This process was completed at the Society’s 1996 Annual General Meeting and a team of young people is now in position with fresh ideas on the direction the Society should take. This is how it should be. The NELHS has never stood still, it must move on. Given another thirty years and the Society will be celebrating its Diamond Jubilee: now there’s something to look forward to.

Abridged from an article by Archie Potts written in 1996.