The lost worlds of Raphael Samuel

  • Themes: Books

Popular history had one of its most eloquent advocates in Raphael Samuel, who deserves recognition as a major force in English letters.

Victorian engraving of London.
Victorian engraving of London. Credit: Lanmas / Alamy Stock Photo

Workshop of the World: Essays in People’s History, Raphael Samuel, ed. John Merrick, Verso, £25

What do you think of when you hear Victorian Britain described as the workshop of the world? The steam-powered spinning jennies of Lancashire mills perhaps, or molten iron in Cort’s puddling furnaces. The historian Raphael Samuel (1934-96) wanted us to consider the half-naked Londoners employed to paddle in tubs of seal-skins to make them ‘softer and silkier’, the glass-blowers whose overtaxed lungs blew every pane of the Crystal Palace and the countrywomen who heaved over giant wheels of maturing cheddar cheese. Samuel’s 1977 essay ‘Workshop of the World’, which supplies John Merrick’s excellent selection of his writings with its title, used these examples to contest celebratory accounts of the industrial revolution.

The growth in Britain’s manufacturing economy owed less to ingenious machines, which substituted fossil-fuel power for muscles, than to the intensification and specialisation of human toil. To Samuel, who believed in resurrecting the past as well as merely arguing about it, these details were also precious as glimpses into the lost life of the people. Merrick’s smart introduction and deftly chosen texts should revive interest and admiration in a socialist historian whose eye for unconsidered trifles led him beyond the political binaries of his time and ours.

Samuel’s interest in popular history was initially an expression of his youthful communism. His childhood home in Kentish Town was decorated with a bust of Stalin. An undergraduate contemporary at Oxford remembered him appearing in a black tie and bursting into tears on the day ‘Uncle Joe’ passed away. Samuel had chosen Balliol College in order to study with Christopher Hill, a Communist Party member, although he did not enjoy his forbidding tutorials.

Hill’s studies of the English Revolution suggested the possibility of writing British history as an oppositional epic, in which the common people were pilgrims on the long and winding road to the dictatorship of the proletariat. But after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Samuel joined other members of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Historian’s Group in leaving the Party – Eric Hobsbawm alone stayed. In the restless decade that followed his graduation, Samuel searched eclectically for less dogmatic ways to enlist the human sciences in support of socialism. He joined the sociologist Michael Young in investigating Bethnal Green in London’s East End, concluding that its community was bound together by ties of neighbourhood and kinship that owed little to conventional notions of working-class consciousness.

Such experiences inform the essays in this collection. So did Samuel’s career at Ruskin College, Oxford where Hill got him appointed as a tutor after a severe bout of depression induced by a rash move to Ireland. Here he operated at a productive remove from the university, teaching working men – among them future Labour minister John Prescott – their past in fresh ways. He launched the History Workshop and its journal. ‘Workshop of the World’, which first appeared there, was typical in its studied flouting of academic convention. He introduced it as the first of three articles ‘based on an unwritten chapter of a half-finished book’. The other two never appeared. Neither did the book.

His research method involved writing down single facts on single pieces of paper (or on receipts, or even on tissues), which could be shuffled until an argument emerged. His essays rarely give one example when they could list four. He emulated his favourite sources, the Victorian social investigators Henry Mayhew and Charles Booth, in using a titanic aggregation of examples to make secret realities tangible. What keeps these vivid phantasmagorias from becoming merely confusing is a gift for lapidary generalisation. ‘Nineteenth-century capitalism created many more skills than it destroyed’, he observes at the end of the ‘Workshop of the World’, triumphantly recapitulating his panorama of industrial occupations, which he likened to the seething canvases of Bosch or Breughel.

Samuel’s argument with Marxist understandings of social history in this essay is old news. It is now obvious that Britain’s industrialisation was too ‘uneven’ to sustain a single working class with a unified politics. If dated as historiography, the essay remains compelling as a humanist testament, documenting the savage toil that made the fabric of the British world. The bricks of its buildings were all cut by hand; so, too, the paving stones of its streets. The construction of railway lines required the Neolithic moving of earth: navvies making the cutting through Primrose Hill had to take handsaws to its heavy clays. Samuel explores the disturbing point that not only manufacturers but also workers accepted that industrialisation should run on sweat and tears rather than steam. Potters refused to mechanise their wheels, preferring to employ women who turned them by a ‘perpetual jumping on one foot’ for hours. Paint manufacturers still sent women up ladders to dump lead into puddling furnaces, condemning them to certain death by poisoning. They all understood that their consumers fetishised the ‘artistic’ effects of handmade goods. Karl Marx – a savvy observer for Samuel, even if his merits as a theorist of capitalist society had slipped – noted wryly that the British shipped machines to other countries rather than use them themselves.

The 1973 essay ‘Comers and Goers’ is a haunting complement to ‘Workshop of the World’, which is no less eloquent in rescuing the painful conservatism of Victorian labour from the condescending sympathy of posterity. Here, Samuel resurrects the ‘floating populations’ that annually drifted in and out of cities: class conflict or ideas of social revolution pale in significance next to the almighty ‘revolution of the seasons’. In the summertime, demand for harvesters, hop-pickers and brick-makers emptied the poorer tracts of London. As winter drew in, tramps, prostitutes, sandwich-board men and brewers flocked to cities for work, shelter or charity.

Samuel traces the rhythms and routes of this lost world of nomadism: the Thames bridges, which served as ‘Dry Arch’ hotels for transients, and the colonnade of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, a monument to civic pride which became a ‘lodging house’ for the destitute. There was squalor here, but freedom, too: as the green leaves unfurled in London parks, men trapped in such unhealthy trades as fur pulling or enamelling could start to dream of sunburnt release in the Kentish hop fields. Samuel’s rich mosaic of examples challenges a teleological understanding of popular history. The lives of many working ‘tribes’ were not better or worse than they later became after the walls of cities ‘closed’ permanently around them, but just different – in ways we now struggle to comprehend.

The steep decline of organised Christianity since the sixties is another development, which has made the people of the near past feel remote to us. Although Samuel abandoned the Jewish religion in childhood, he resembled his friend E.P. Thompson, an atheist who both excoriated and honoured his ancestral Methodism, in grasping the plastic power of piety. Merrick prints a superb essay on Roman Catholicism, which explains how Irish immigrant communities kept their shape under the shrewd despotism of the parish priest. He was no less acute on Protestantism. A sharp essay here on Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, once the Bible of Labour politicians, muses that even socialists who rejected Protestantism remained in thrall to its yearnings. ‘Spiritual vagrants’, they viewed themselves as missionaries who came to save the people rather than to lead them. They preferred to dwell on their ‘beautiful word pictures’ of a future paradise than to speak with them in a language they understood.

Samuel’s fond scepticism about British socialism later developed into provocative questions about whether the Left’s investment in academic history could ever pay off politically. Merrick’s tightly focused portrait of Samuel as an engaged labour historian understandably excludes his voluminous publications of the 1980s and 1990s on memory and national identity. Although criticised by historians for their capitulation to simplistic notions of patriotism and their indulgent attitude towards the faux-heritage boom of the Thatcher era, they now look prescient.

Having written people’s history from below, Samuel now sought to democratise the past itself. He cheerfully informed professional historians that they were not as important as they thought they were. For all their technical prowess, they could only at best nudge the operations of popular memory. This did not make him a secret Tory or a proto-Culture Warrior. He did not confuse memory with timeless tradition: like history itself, it was ‘inherently revisionist, and never more chameleon than when it appears to stay the same’. He wrote fluent articles about the need to consider the imperialist context of everything, from country houses to the love of tea and bananas, which he thought both Tories and socialist historians had colluded in forgetting. Yet he felt no pressing call to condemn nostalgia, which was hardly a ‘peculiarly British disease’ anyway. He thought it more important to understand why popular culture remembers the figures and events it does than to call it out on errors of fact or to dismiss it as the product of elite manipulation. If Samuel’s career taught him anything, it was to trust the people.


Michael Ledger-Lomas