History Workshop seminar write up

Ian Gwinn, associate lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, led the latest oral history seminar with a talk titled History Knocking Shop: Sex, class and the politics of the History Workshop movement.

Gwinn outlined the history of the workshop, started by Ralph Samuels, lecturer at Ruskin College, Oxford, an institution which accepted a broad range of mature students.

The workshop was a mixture of “socialism, feminism and anarchism, with a strong libertarian impulse,” said Gwinn. It was committed to the history of working class, women and all those “hidden from history”, he added.

The workshop was a coalition of professional historians, students and workers. “Some observers have argued that it was this capacity to create coalitions across these divides that was its distinct quality,” said Gwinn.

The workshop and Ruskin College were radical in that students were encouraged to carry out primary research.

“The emphasis on [students’ own] life and work experience was not just a starting point for research but given great authority,” said Gwinn.

It was one of Gwinn’s interviewees who gave the workshop the title “history knocking shop”. She described “lots of trendies swooping in for the weekend and leaving a mess.”

The first History Workshop meeting was held in 1967 and by the 1970s around 1000 people were attending the meetings. In 1970 the first women’s liberation conference took place at Ruskin and in 1976 the first issue of the History Workshop Journal was published. However, the workshop’s place at Ruskin was not assured and Samuels talked about being “harassed” by the college authorities.

The 13th History Workshop meeting took place in 1979 and was described by Gwinn as both a high and low point for the movement. It was a high point for the internationalism of the meeting but a low point because historians Stuart Hall and EP Thompson clashed over theory. The last workshop took place in 1994 with the ominous title The End of History.

However, despite the clashes and the resentments that sometimes surfaced between the different groups Gwinn’s interviewees had fond memories of the movement.

One described meetings as “fantastically vibrant and enjoyable. There was a huge diversity of people, not just academics but a very good mix of people from universities and politics. There were also ordinary working class people talking about their own lives and being put on stage as agents of history.”

The range of speakers and listeners “cut across class, gender and generation lines”, said Gwinn. The meetings were ad hoc and chaotic, attendees slept on floors and there was folk music and theatre performances.

“There was the idea that this was a ‘scene’,” said Gwinn.

Sally Alexander, founding editor of the History Workshop Journal, studied at Ruskin and described how at the time “people felt starved of knowledge.”

A working class interviewee told Gwinn about his fears that he “selling out”. “Why did I need the approval of the bourgeois establishment? With some trepidation and excitement I went there,” he said.

Gwinn said the History Workshop has had a powerful effect on the academic, cultural and intellectual world.

“But it can be seen as a victim of its own success as history is a lot more mainstream now, “ he said.

Despite saying that he did not want to be too tragic or romantic he said that the workshop was part of a world that was now lost.

  • The next oral history research seminar will be led by Charlotte Ines Faucher of Queen Mary, University of London. She will be giving a talk titled, The evacuation of children during the Second World War: the experiences of Francophone refugee children in Britain. The talk takes place at on Thursday June 2 at 6pm at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet St, London SC1E 7HU. For more details click here. Seminars are free and open to all.