Northern writer and socialist Jim Allen said of his plays, “I hope the audience demand answers and action. I’m not keen on sending them to bed happy – I want them angry to get change.” This is how I feel about working class history. Knowing your own history is important in encouraging people to take action to change their lives and make this a better and happier society.

We live in a society that equates history and learning with academia and debt. Learning for pleasure or self improvement went out with the funding of adult education. Getting an education about working class history is very difficult, if not impossible. Funding to organisations that put on adult education courses has been cut, so history courses are few in number and those that do exist can be quite expensive.

Alternatively, you can attend one of the many conferences or dayschools that spring up, it seems like all the time, but they are exclusive in terms of how much they cost. At a conference took place last March during International Women’s month the cheapest ticket was £15. Often they are held on university premises, which for a lot of people, particularly the working class, is very off-putting.

The Working Class Movement Library in Salford, set up by two communists, Ruth and Edmund Frow, offers an interesting range of films, talks and book launches which are free, but held during the day. This means those lucky enough to still have jobs cannot attend. They offered some lectures over a few evenings in October, but apart from veteran activist Mike Luft’s talk on anti-fascism, they were the usual academic speakers who have no involvement in political activity, so there’s not much anger there.

The annual Anarchist Book Fair is an interesting mixture of book stalls, campaign groups and talks on a variety of subjects. It is held at the People’s History Museum and has attracted a wide range of people from all ages and backgrounds, which is fairly unusual these days.

So what do you do if, like me, you believe that working class history should be more accessible to those people who need it the most – the working classes who are also involved in political campaigns, such as the anti-cuts campaigns?

Last year, I was involved in setting up the Mary Quaile Club, a history and activism group that offers inspiring talks in a variety of venues across the Greater Manchester area at a low cost. The group positively encourages people to learn their own history and do something about it.

Mary Quaile was chosen because her life reflects a very Mancunian history. She was an Irish immigrant who worked in a cafe and organised her comrades into a trade union to fight for a living wage and better working conditions. She was involved in many progressive movements during her lifetime and became one of the few women to be elected to the Trade Union Congress General Council in 1924. There are many parallels between Mary’s life and those of people today, including issues around immigration, low pay and organising workers. Our intention is to raise these issues in a variety of formats, such as showing relevant films, hosting history talks, inviting authors to talk about new history books and involving activists as speakers at each meeting.

Michael Herbert of Red Flag Walks, a radical historian and one of the founders of the Mary Quaile Club, says, “If history cannot link up to what is happening in society today, then what is its purpose? Is it just to make people feel comfortable about a past where working class people fought all the battles so they can bathe in the nostalgic glow?”

Our events take place in local venues that are accessible, including veggie cafes, community centres and a theatre. Costs are kept low thanks to contributions from trade unions. For people on benefits, we have offered free places and have encouraged them to speak at or take part in the meetings and events. Our aim is inclusivity, to encourage people to know their history and in doing so become active in campaigns.

Life in 2014 is dispiriting, particularly for those people on the frontline of the assault on benefits, jobs and living standards. But knowing the radical history of the North West can inspire people to challenge and change society. This is our aim in the MQC. Join us, get to know your history, get angry and change society for the better.
Bernadette writes a blog here:


Bernadette Hyland