The Working Class Movement Library is a national collection of the history of labour movement in Britain, founded in the mid-1950s by Ruth and Edmund Frow, whose personal and political partnership lasted for over 40 years and led to the creation of this unique and wonderful archive.
Eddie Frow was born in Lincolnshire in 1906, the son of tenant farmer. After leaving school he became a toolmaker in the engineering industry. In 1924 Eddie joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and in subsequent years lost many jobs because of his political and trade union activity. During the Depression he was active in the unemployed workers movement in Salford and served four months in Strangeways prison after being badly beaten up by police after leading a march to Salford Town Hall in October 1931, an event that Walter Greenwood included in his novel Love On The Dole and which also featured in the film version. He found work again on his release, became a leading member of the engineering union and was eventually elected as the full-time Secretary for the Manchester District, a position he held for just under ten years, retiring in 1971.
Ruth Frow was born in 1922 and served in the RAF during the war, going into teaching afterwards. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1945, whilst canvassing amongst Kent miners during the general election. In the 1950s and 1960s she was active in the peace movement, as well as the National Union of Teachers. Ruth finished her teaching career in 1980 as deputy head of a large comprehensive school in Manchester.
Ruth and Eddie first met at a Communist Party school in 1953 and soon merged their lives – and their respective book collections. They began collecting material on the history of the trade union, radical and labour movement, travelling the country in their holidays
In 1976 they recounted their experiences in article for History Workshop journal:
Our first journeys were in a 1937 Morris van. We carried a small tent into which we crawled wherever we found a grass verge or field conveniently near a town where a bookseller traded. We formed then the pattern which we have followed in the main for over twenty years. In the morning when we are fresh and full of energy we comb the shelves of the unsuspecting bookseller. In the afternoon we laze in the summer sun reading and gloating over our morning purchases. In the evening we walk and possibly move on to the next wide open bookshop. When our money is gone or the van is full, we return to Manchester.
Later developments included a larger tent and a superior car, a Skoda which made down into beds, a larger van and our present combination of a caravan and car. The large tent was fine, although not so easy to site, but in the course of time it became torn and less water-proof. Advancing years warned that the dampness associated with tents was an invitation to rheumatism, so we bought the Skoda. This dealt with the damp situation, but there was never enough room for books. There was the additional difficulty that we could not cook in the car and since it nearly always rains when one needs to cook, our mealtimes became too erratic to be consistent with health. The Morris 1000 van was in many ways ideal. Certainly it had the same problems with cooking, but we became adjusted to cold food and the storage situation was solved by placing our purchases underneath the foam beds on which we slept. As the holiday proceeded and we were fortunate in our book buying forays, we slept ever nearer and nearer the roof of the van. Eventually we were only just able to crawl in the space between the beds and the roof, and books do tend to be unstable in a pile.
The result of these journeys was that their house in Old Trafford became a treasure trove, with bookshelves in every room as well as banners, emblems, prints and much else all meticulously catalogued by Ruth and Eddie – although they could often locate a volume with bothering to look it up so well acquainted were they . They also began writing books, pamphlets, and articles and were in great demand as lecturers, as well as being active in the Society for the Study of Labour History. News of their library spread and many researchers made their way to Old Trafford, their studies fuelled by regular cups of coffee and Ruth’s home-made buns.
By 1987 the house was full to overflowing. Fortunately at this point Salford City Council offered to provide a new home for the library, together with full-time library staff, and later that year the entire collection moved to Jubilee House, (a former nurses’ home opened in 1901) which is situated on Salford Crescent opposite Salford University. In the seventeen years since the collection has continued to grow and rarely a week goes by without some new material being donated. Often a donor will arrive unannounced with a bag full of wonderful archive material that may have been in a family for several generations.
Eddie died in May 1997, just short of his 91st birthday, His obituary appeared in the Morning Star, The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and even (this would have amused him) the Daily Telegraph. Hundreds attended his funeral.
Veteran communist to her fingertips, Ruth carried on their work, visiting the library, neatly dressed and carrying her small case with everything she needed to do for the day. Visitors to the library were often amazed (and on occasions awed) to be personally taken on a tour by Ruth, who would then make tea and happily chat about history.
Ruth died suddenly in January 2008, just hours after attending a library committee. There was no funeral as Ruth had donated her body to science but hundreds attended a commemoration with songs and poetry in her hour in Peel Hall.
The library left by Ruth and Eddie is now recognized as one of the most important labour and working class history collections in the country. It begins in the 1770s and goes up to the present day. It is open to all and welcomes visitors and researchers.
Article by Michael Herbert
The Working Class Movement Library is at Jubilee House, 51 Crescent
Salford, M5 4WX
email: enquiries [at] wcml.org.uk
Tel: 0161 736 3601