The Pelling Collection

Voice of the peopleExcitingly, special collections are not static – they grow! In 2015 Senate House Library was given a new special collection, the Pelling Collection. We are delighted to announce that this has now been fully catalogued and thereby made accessible to researchers.

The Pelling collection comprises some 800 left-wing political pamphlets assembled by Henry Pelling (1920-1997), author of Origins of the Labour Party (1954) and A Short History of the Labour Party (1961), and the foremost empirical labour historian of his generation. Pelling transformed work on the early history of the Labour Party, “a field where triumphalist myth making yielded to his exact scholarship” (ODNB) and trailblazed researcher in the field of electoral history. His pamphlets constitute raw material for his work.

The pamphlets provide insight into the society, economy and momentous events of their times. Many pertain to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Others are anti-Communist pamphlets, or pertain to the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, or to RILU, the Red International of Labor Unions. The oldest are from the 1880s, and cover such matters as Why Men Strike, or, Strikes and How to Get Rid of Them (a lecture given in New York in 1889 for the benefit of unemployed street-car drivers and conductors, arguing for improved working conditions as a solution to strikes) and Landlords' Rights and Englishmen's Wrongs (about land nationalisation) alongside the Communist manifesto. The pamphlets extend up to the 1970s. Some late titles which may resonate today include Britain 1980 – Out or In? (about British membership of the European Economic Community) and Labour's Manifesto: Now Britain's Strong Let's Make it Great to Live in (taken from The Guardian, 28 May 1970).

Why you should be a CommunistWhile there are some periodical parts and slim books, many items comprise just four pages or so and cost a penny or two at the point of initial sale. Some were free leaflets, such as a voting manifesto for Michael Parker, a 26-year-old barrister standing as Labour candidate for South Kensington in the 1925 general election. The Speakers’ Handbook of the Labour Party for 1948-9 jostles forces with William Morris’s The Reward of Labour: A Dialogue, the earliest title in the Hammersmith Socialist Library (despite its title, actually a three-way conversation between an earnest enquirer, an East-End weaver, and a West-End landowner) and other documents pertaining to the Hammersmith Socialist Society. Titles range from the emotive, such as Emile Burns’s Jobs, Homes, Security: Post-War Britain and the Way to Socialism (1944) to the blunt, such as Why You Should be a Communist, by William Wainwright. (The answer begins: ‘Because only the Communist Party can unite the working class to lead the nation to victory over Hitler and his Allies’. An application form to join the Communist Party and a brief reading list are at the back). Aspects of everyday life are caught up with pure politics: Spotlight on the Channel Islands, for example, descriptions by Sam Russell of the Daily Worker of Jersey and Guernsey under and just after German occupation, lists the weekly rations available in July 1945.

The collection complements strong section on labour history material in Senate House Library’s modern collections, the Higgins/Richardson archives in labour history, and several book collections within its named special collections: the Burns Collection (the working library of labour leader John Burns on British politics, social conditions and economics); the Heisler Collection, relating to labour and radical political movements; to a lesser extent, the Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature.  Beyond Senate House Library, it complements such collections as the Dutt collection at the British Library, the TUC Library at London Metropolitan University, and, further afield, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Items within the Pelling collection can be searched by author, title, subject, or keyword. To gain an overview of all items in the Pelling collection, go to the Classic Catalogue and do a mixed classmark search on 'Pelling'.

The article features in the Camden New Journal of 18 August 2016.

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