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Monday, 26 August 2013 01:00

Buildings Of The Labour Movement

Non-Fiction
by Nick Mansfield (English Heritage, £30)
by Nick Matthews

A book on the heritage of buildings constructed by and for working-class activism

This well-written and beautifully illustrated book is the work of Nick Mansfield, director of the People's History Museum in Manchester for 21 years.

The cover picture of the Workers' Institute in Cradley Heath is an irresistible draw as are the buildings of the British labour movement, from co-op shops to Chartist cottages, from the arts and crafts of the Clarion cafes to the high modernism of the Daily Workers headquarters in London's Covent Garden.

Mansfield takes pains to point out that on the surface there's not much to connect these structures but that deeper research shows "unexpected links, which if pursued, can give a coherent narrative."

He credits Raphael Samuel, founder of History Workshop and "guru of the new public history," who researched the preservation movement in the fascinating Theatres Of Memory which was republished last year.

Samuel addressed TUC conference in 1991 on the landscape of Labour history and this led to a widely distributed English Heritage-backed leaflet of the same name which introduced a typology of labour movement buildings and the criteria for listing.

But for many of the finest this was already too late.

Established architectural historians like Nikolaus Pevsner studiously ignored buildings like sports grounds and stadiums and even the labour movement itself.

The year-zero attitude of many in the Labour Party reflected the lack of interest in saving these magnificent buildings.

This book is by no means the last word because, as the author himself admits, it does not cover Scotland or Wales and there's the task of filling in the gaps in the narrative and on buildings that Mansfield has missed too.

Nonetheless it is comprehensive with information on trade societies, non-conformism, radicalism, Owenism, Chartism, co-operation, trade unions and education, socialism, the Clarion Movement, the Labour Party and Mansfield's speciality, the rural labour movement.

He also identifies buildings associated with key events which, while not necessarily built by the movement, have had a huge impact on its development.

An example is Manchester's Free Trade Hall, its plaque commemorating the Peterloo massacre, which is now the frontage of a ghastly modern hotel.

Others Mansfield laments are the original Holyoake House, home of the UK Co-operative Movement, destroyed thanks to WWII bombing and neglect or indifference, often from Labour local authorities.

As Mansfield points out, "labour movement buildings continue to be the Cinderella of architectural conservation."

But there is change in the air. Crucial buildings like Rosdean and the Chartist Cottage in Dodford, Worcestershire, are now in the care of the National Trust.

The Rochdale Pioneers Museum reopened after a facelift as has The Burston Strike School in Norfolk and the much-loved Cradley Heath Workers Institute which has been moved brick by brick to the Black Country Museum. It's particularly welcome that this important book has been published by English Heritage - after all this country's heritage belongs as much to workers and their institutions as it does to the upper crust.

These buildings are the landscape of our history and English Heritage and the National Trust must continue to be pressed into taking that heritage and history seriously.

Many active in the movement will know of buildings not in this book - Leicester's Secular Hall and other works by the architect Larner Sugden in Leek, Staffordshire, spring to mind.

English Heritage and Mansfield could perhaps consider creating a website where buildings of significance could be documented and campaigns instigated to save the best of them.

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