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Britain at Work (B@W)

Britain at Work, 1945-60: Oral History Project to capture memories of the people who joined, organised and were active in trade unions, and negotiated with them!  

Nina made great efforts over the past four years to realise a post-war oral history project. It is thanks to her that the project is now up and running, with great potential for expansion and for a lasting impact. Here we set out the background to the project and outline Nina’s lasting contribution.

In 2004-5, the TUC, National Pensioners Convention, and the TUC Library Collection received a grant from the Big Lottery Fund for a project, The Home Front, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE-Day.  Its Director, Dave Welsh, traversed Britain and Northern Ireland, recording interviews with men and women who had been engaged in war work.  Most of them had warm memories of joining and being active in trade unions. The project was a resounding success; its exhibition (a model war factory) was displayed at the 2005 Trades Union Congress in Brighton and the official VE-Day show at St. James’s Park.  The TUC Library Collections constructed a website, The Home Front, which includes posters, interview transcripts and snapshots.  It is one of the Library Collections most popular electronic features.

Nina was keen to follow up this success by organising a further oral history project, focusing on the post-war reconstruction, a period of expanding union membership and new, ‘modern’ union activities, in which both women and ethnic minority members of trade unions began to be active. She got together an ad hoc committee in September 2005 - consisting initially of Nina, Dave, Chris Coates of the TUC Library, Michael Gold of Royal Holloway College, and Linda Clarke of the University of Westminster – which began to meet regularly, usually in the tea room of the Institute of Historical Research. A wide variety of individuals and institutions were consulted, including Nigel Stanley at the TUC and Nick Mansfield of the People’s History Museum, Manchester, Rob Perks of the National Sound Archive, British Library, and the Society for the Study of Labour History. And a clear consensus emerged that a project to record memories about the workplace and trade union life is relevant, and indeed important.

The project began to be formulated more clearly. Nina always saw it as a matter of genuine urgency to collect the memories and reflections of men and women who helped to reconstruct the British economy and made such significant contributions to the newly emergent society. Despite the forebodings of full-time union officials who had been young men and women in the aftermath of World War I, union membership increased throughout the 1950s and 1960s, penetrating white collar departments in engineering factories and also extending to women. And yet, there is no satisfactory academic account of this – and this was seen as a key rationale for the Britain at Work project. There were no obvious burning causes in the economic sphere which required collective action to put right; indeed, until 1955, the amount of industrial conflict in Britain was negligible and it was not until the 1957 national engineering and shipbuilding strikes that the 1926 record for the number of days lost due to industrial disputes was surpassed. After this national strike, there were no further large-scale disturbances until the 1972 NUM strike. There is though impressionistic evidence that many of the men and women who joined unions in the postwar period enjoyed being members and participating in their social and educational activities after work. The secondary written sources also point to an increase in workplace participation in union activities, both through the increase in the number of shop stewards and also membership of consultative committees.

These and many other ideas were discussed, with Nina as the ‘dynamo’, the guiding and prodding spirit. At a practical level proposals included the organisation of regional conferences, to enable interviewees to participate and interact with students in FE and HE institutions as well as secondary school pupils, and disseminating results, for instance by means of a further website in the TUC Library Collection. We began to approach funding organisations, beginning with an unsuccessful pre-application to the Heritage Lottery Foundation Southeast with Michael Gold as lead applicant, and followed by another attempt in collaboration with the WEA. In April 2008 the steering group was joined by: Graham Smith (Royal Holloway and chair of the Oral History Society); Stefan Dickers of the Bishopsgate Institute, Michael Kandiah, Ilaria Favretto, and then later Christine Wall of London Metropolitan University and Mary Davis. Following our discussions, it was decided to promote a series of projects under the Britain at Work umbrella. This model has proved successful and projects currently underway include:

HISTORYtalk: oral history of the West London, West and Northwest Middlesex labour movement: Dave Welsh or Rima Joebear , for which a team of volunteers has been carrying out interviws

Constructing Post War Britain: oral histories of building workers 1950- 1970. A project beginning early 2010, supported by the Leverhulme Foundation and revolving around workers engaged in building Stevenage New Town, The South Bank Centre, the Isle of Grain, Sizewell B Power Station, and the Barbican. Professor Linda Clarke ( or Dr Christine Wall, 

           Britain at Work website project Chris Coates           

And so the Britain at Work project was launched formally at a packed meeting in the House of Commons in June 2009, with John McDonnell MP as a key speaker. Despite ill health, Nina introduced it:

This project is very dear to my heart. I know how important it is to capture people’s memories of their work experiences and trade union activities. It is a wonderful project, which will help future generations to understand the past.

We and all those who are and will be involved in the project are indebted to Nina for all the inspiration she gave to it. She was at every meeting, chiding and encouraging, and pushing things forward. Her enthusiasm has infected us all with a great determination to continue.