Working History

John de Meyrick

In this article John de Meyrick highlights the need for labour historians to pay more attention to the history of work itself, both past and contemporary.

Whilst the social and political struggles of workers over the centuries and our empathy with them is the very stuff of labour history, labour historians have tended to neglect, or at least to treat only incidentally, the history of the work itself. That is to say, we know a good deal about the kind of work that was done in the past and the difficult circumstances under which it was done. But what do we know about how it was done: the skills, the methods, the organisation and systems of control, and the various processes involved, and so on.

This quest that we call “Labour History” is very largely centred on the written word. The bulk of it alas, is also viewed from the experience of the worker. Little is known about the perceptions of the employer. Fortunately, with the advent of the tape recorder some oral history is also now finding its way into posterity. In recent times too, certain museums and archives have recognised the value of preserving artefacts of working life (tools, machinery, etc.) and the paraphernalia of trade union activity (banners, posters, pamphlets, etc.). But virtually all of this is directed to the “human struggle” in socio-political and economic terms. Yet, the way in which work was done is, surely, in itself, an important subject for historical record and research.

On a recent visit to Europe I was pleased to find some developing (but limited) interest being taken by certain museums in the part work has played in the advancement of mankind. Of special interest in England is the Museum of Labour History in Liverpool and the excellent “living” history exhibits of working life in the Beamish Museum at Durham (which has become an outstanding tourist attraction). There is also a small but impressive Museum of Work which I found in (of all places) Bath, which is dedicated to preserving not only the artefacts of the local industries, trades and occupations that have gone, or arc dying out, in the district, but also the organisation and methods by which that work was done.

In this, it must surely be recognised that whilst the history of mankind is not only inextricably linked with the work that is done, it is also involved with how that work is done.

Alas, there are many kinds of work that have long disappeared, including, thankfully, some very arduous tasks. Some other kinds of work have changed dramatically with technology (one of the more recent crafts to go being watchmaking, which has been devastated by the silicon chip and its use in the production of digital timing devices).

The skills, methods, organisation and processes of some kinds of work that have steadily declined to virtual extinction are, however, still to be found in the care of a very few dedicated artisans. For example, wigmaking, candlemaking, coopering, blacksmithing, thatching, and french polishing, still survive in a few places as trades (and not just as craft hobbies). No doubt, in the course oftime, even these remnants of once flourishing occupations will disappear entirely.

Among the treasures of civilisation are many examples of mankind’s achievements through the application of work, both past and present. But the curators of these objects (whether magnificent buildings and grand monuments, or just the ordinary domestic utensils and items of personal adornment found in ancient tombs) seem less interested in how such things were made than with their intrinsic historical, social or artistic worth.

For example, visit any of the glorious palaces or cathedrals to be found throughout Europe and elsewhere, and the keepers of their history will tell you much about who had them built, when and why, the significance of the events in which they featured, and of the lives and times of their occupants over the years, but little or nothing about those who built them, or who made the fine things to be found inside them, nor the way they were made and the arrangements and conditions under which such things came into being.

Imagine being able to look in upon the working day of (say) Eldred the humble son of Stephen the stonemason and his brother Walter the woodcarver, and their fellow workers, in the middle ages, as they went about the building of some grand castle perched up at the top of an inaccessible mountain; or John the jeweller as he cut and shaped a precious stone for a prince’s crown.

Certainly there is less historical evidence to draw upon in this regard but a great deal may be gathered from a study of the objects themselves, just as archaeologists have learnt much about the way ancient people lived by studying the remains of their living environment. Indeed, perhaps what is needed is a new field of study in Labour Archaeology involving historically-oriented technologists with knowledge of industrial skills, organisation, methods and processes, who are able to discern from past achievements how the work might have been done.

Until then, even where the implements and objects of work have been preserved, they are displayed as museum pieces and not as “living” models, so that it requires a great deal of imagination to connect the doing of the work with the achievement itself.

This tendency to disregard the techniques and processes by which all kinds of work is embodied in the finished object, is evident in our view of present -day “working history”. For example, the many techniques involved in the creation of a modern skyscraper abide in the know-how of those engaged in such work. To them it is important and valuable information. To the rest of the community it is the finished product that matters – the end result. Yet, as time passes, some or all of that know-how may be lost with changing technology and changing social circumstances. With the advent of the video-camera, the means of recording how work is done is now widely, and reasonably cheaply, possible. (It has, for example in another field, revolutionised the recording of choreography, previously the subject of an elaborate signalised method of notation.) Some valuable material is already on record (being mostly pre-video film) but almost all of this has not been produced specifically for the purpose of recording how certain work is done, but more as a coincidence of a documentary on some related subject.

What seems to be needed is u program of “working history” especially designed to record on video how certain kinds of work is done; not only so that these skills and techniques can be more easily passed on to others, but also to preserve such information for posterity when it ceases to be in use. (In this, there are just as many reasons to record the skills and techniques of fine craftsmen as there are to record the artistry of the prima donnas of ballet.)

How gratifying it would be if we were able to see such things as the Sphinx or the Pyramids of Egypt being built, instead of having to speculate on how they were achieved. Yet had video cameras been available then, one suspects that the only thing they would have recorded would have been the Pharaoh at the opening ceremony unveiling the plaque.