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labour history

labour history is an important specialism which has greatly extended its scope in the last 50 years. Scholars' perspectives, apart from exceptions such as J. L. and B. Hammond, concentrated on institutions and activists within them or the very poor. Moreover, it was widely believed that sentiment clouded scholarly judgement when in other branches of history researchers were attempting to adopt and adapt techniques pioneered in the social sciences. Labour history has come to terms with these techniques and recognized the importance of work undertaken by social anthropologists, labour economists, historical demographers, and business historians. Consequently, subjects for investigation have changed, and methods of analysis have become more rigorous and less open to the charge of subjectivity and political bias.

There has also been a marriage between the ‘old’ labour history and the ‘new’. Union histories often tend to follow the narrative style set by the Webbs in their History of Trade Unionism (1894) but are more analytical in their treatment of issues such as wage movements, labour productivity, and labour markets (which were either ignored in earlier work or passed over quickly). The past is not interpreted by sole reference to the trade union officials or activists at local level as it would have been earlier; rather, labour history has become concerned with the whole experience of workers.

Treatment is uneven and patchy; urban workers and their experience have received more attention than workers in factory villages and small towns. However, it might be reasonably argued that the big battalions are more representative and more important. Some subjects have prompted massive debate and swamped the periodical literature, notably the standard of living between 1790 and 1850; more work needs to be done on other periods. In most periods the majority of the labour force has not been unionized; good work has been done on female, seasonal, and casual labour for some areas of Britain, but geographical and occupational unevenness is a problem. For instance, the very important category (up to 1914) of domestic servants has increasingly attracted scholarly attention, but female clerical workers in the 20th cent. have been neglected.

On the positive side, excellent new work has been done on working-class agitations and movements. chartism, for example, which in the 1950s seemed to demonstrate only two characteristics—moral and physical force and a national homogeneity—has been exposed as essentially a diverse local and regional movement. Structural changes in the demand for labour have been clearly analysed, taking account of labour productivity, and the history of groups such as hand-loom weavers has been much improved. Machine-breaking was simply seen as a blind reaction to industrial capitalism; recent work emphasizes its role in the process of industrial relations. Employers' strategies were commonly discussed when newly-won trade union rights were challenged in the courts. The latest work emphasizes workplace experience of workers and employers' responses at the factory or industrial level.

Excellent new work is available on workers' consumption. This discusses the physique, diets, and health of workers and their families. Child labour and its regulation has always attracted the attention of historians, but only recently has it been understood how old and how widespread this was. More energy has been expended on female labour, often analysing census data, parliamentary papers, and business records in a more systematic fashion than was possible earlier. The family and housing have received more attention. Migration, immigration, and emigration have been studied in greater depth, and the incidence of poverty, which Booth, Rowntree, and their imitators examined locally over 100 years ago, has been examined over a wider area. Labour history prospers and has a healthy specialist periodical literature.

John Butt

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