Chartism & The Chartists

Musings, information & illustrations about the Chartists from Stephen Roberts

Dorothy Thompson, 1923-2011

Dorothy Thompson made the study of Chartism her life's work. Her publications completely changed the way in which the movement was seen. In this section some of her former students recall the years they worked with her ...


This interview first appeared on the Chartist Ancestors website.

Mark Crail: You knew Dorothy Thompson well, and in your introduction to The Dignity of Chartism you talk warmly of her role as a teacher. What was it like to be taught by Dorothy Thompson? Is it fair to say that Chartist studies would have been much poorer had she not been there to nurture a whole generation of historians who came to share her passion for Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: I had heard about Dorothy Thompson from my history teacher in the sixth form - we later dedicated Images of Chartism (1998) to him - but I didn't meet her until the end of my second year at the University of Birmingham when I enrolled on her final year special subject course on Chartism. In our first class she opened the door of an ancient cupboard and out came a copy for every one of The Early Chartists (1971) - typical of her generosity. We knew she was married to a famous historian and had herself been studying the Chartists for many years. What we were about to discover, though, was that she had supervised the work of a large number of postgraduate students. That was one of the exciting things about that year - she would refer to the work of her postgrads. and we felt that we really were on the cutting edge of scholarly research on the subject. Dorothy had supervised James Epstein's revisionist Ph.D on Feargus O'Connor, and we were all sent off to read it in the UL. I had enjoyed all the reading I had done on the course, but that thesis, and a brilliant review essay Jim had also written, had a profound impact on me: if this was what postgrad. research was all about, I wanted to do it! Shortly before graduating, I went to see Dorothy but couldn't summon up the courage to tell her what I was thinking. I did tell her, however, how much I had enjoyed reading the autobiography of Thomas Cooper - and a week later a copy of the book arrived quite unexpectedly 'by way of congratulations on a very good finals result'. Dorothy was off for a year to the United States, but eventually I wrote to her. There was no email in those days and I had to wait a fortnight for her reply - I was delighted when she said she'd supervise my research. Of course, I was just one of many postgraduate students she supervised - she had all the theses lined up in chronological order in her study at Wick Episcopi and there were a lot of them! Once or twice a year Dorothy and Edward would throw parties at Wick Episcopi, and here you'd meet her former postgrads. as well as their longstanding friends. It wouldn't be fair to provide a list of the names of Dorothy's postgrads. in case I missed anyone out - but you are correct, she nurtured a lot of the people who went on to write about Chartism. And it wasn't just them she encouraged and helped - you'll see her name in the acknowledgements sections of almost all of the books that were published on Chartism from the 1970s onwards. Really anyone working on Chartism had contact with Dorothy - on the phone or by letter or was invited to Wick Episcopi for lunch.

Mark Crail: Beyond Dorothy Thompson's role as a teacher, how important was her own research and writing on Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: Dorothy first made known that she was writing a book about Chartism in the early 1970s - but it was another ten years before it appeared. I certainly remember a real degree of anticipation - other single volume studies at that time were either half-a-century old or echoed the earlier, pretty unsympathetic, views of Feargus. In the way that it re-defined how we see the movement, The Chartists (1984) is unquestionably the most important book written on the subject. I wrote in the introduction to The Dignity of Chartism (2015) that she singlehandedly changed the way the movement is understood. I don't think that's an exaggeration - everything, Feargus, women, the rank-and-file, the Irish, changed because of her.

Mark Crail: It has been nearly twenty years since Dorothy Thompson published her final major piece of work. What do you think is the importance today of the essays you have chosen to include in The Dignity of Chartism and what shaped the selection?

Stephen Roberts: Very appropriately the idea for this book came to me at one of the Chartism Days - I say very appropriately because the idea of an annual meeting of all the people working on Chartism was hers. I was sitting in the Brotherton Library in the University of Leeds in summer 2011, listening to people talking about Dorothy's work, when I suddenly realised that so much of what she had written was hidden away in journals in library stacks and difficult to get access to. There and then I decided that I would gather all this material together between the covers of one book so that people could find it on the shelves of bookshops. I contacted Verso - who, incidentally are fantastic to work with, very supportive and patient - and The Dignity of Chartism was born! The title came to me quickly - it's an adaption of a phrase that can be found deep in a long unpublished essay on Halifax Chartism, which forms the centre-piece of the book. I worked very hard on this book- it's not just about collecting all the material together, it's also about putting it into a coherent order so that it becomes a book. I decided not to include anything Dorothy had included in Outsiders (1993), her earlier collection of essays, but this book brings together pretty much everything else she wrote, a lot of it difficult now to get hold off.

Mark Crail: Dorothy Thompson was, of course, married to Edward (E.P.) Thompson, author among other things of The Making of the English Working Class. How did they influence each other's work and thinking?

Stephen Roberts: I think many scholars would love to be able to form the sort of relationship that Dorothy and Edward had - they were husband and wife, the parents of three children, but also collaborators in both political agitation and scholarly research. Edward was always at great pains to make clear how much he owed to Dorothy - she shared her discoveries, read everything he wrote and her arguments deeply informed, in particular, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and Whigs and Hunters (1975). They wanted to maintain their separate scholarly identities and didn't publish anything together - and only once seem to have contemplated doing this. From 1948 until 1965 Dorothy and Edward lived in Halifax in the West Riding. Here they could easily acquire nineteenth century volumes and soon built up a very impressive library. With Asa Briggs as its editor, a volume of local studies of Chartism was planned. Edward and Dorothy began work on an essay on Halifax, a major stronghold of Chartism. It certainly seems to have been intended to be a collaboration - phrases such as 'we accept' and 'in our possession' in the text confirm this. What emerged was a very long essay, more than 30,000 words, and also not quite finished - the reasons, presumably, why it didn't appear in Chartist Studies (1959). So here it is now, in The Dignity of Chartism. It's a magnificent essay, in my opinion - I particularly love the opening section which graphically describes the plight of the weavers and combers of the West Riding. Aside from its own qualities, it's an important essay because it fed directly into The Making, which Edward began work on immediately afterwards.

Mark Crail: Do you see continuing signs of vitality in the study of Chartism? It has been six years now since Dorothy Thompson died. Would she still be excited at what still remains to be done or have we now discovered all we can about Chartism?

Stephen Roberts: You can't shake the Chartists off! Dorothy couldn't and I can't! Though she stopped writing about the movement when she got into her seventies, she remained very interested in what was being done and the possibilities for further research - we continued to talk about the subject until the end of her life. Dorothy could be a severe critic - but that meant that when she praised something, she really meant it! She was always concerned that Feargus got his due - I remember she very much approved of Paul Pickering's biography (2008).

Mark Crail: One final question: with The Dignity of Chartism now safely in print, what are you working on now?

Stephen Roberts: For better or worse, I have been writing about the Chartists for thirty years now. Everything I have done - apart from the essay in her festschrift! - has been discussed with Dorothy before it got into print. I had thought that a collection of essays by my teacher would be an appropriate way to sign off. However, I find myself drawn back to the Chartists. One thing I always thought - and remember discussing with Dorothy - was that the late nineteenth century provincial press could yield a lot of interesting information about the Chartist movement in its recollections and obituaries. But attempting to go through all of those newspapers would have been an impossible task. Now, with the arrival of digitised newspapers, it isn't. So I've gathered together a lot of material from locating these obituaries. Some of it has been used in a number of entries I have written for the Dictionary of Labour Biography. The rest of it will probably go up on my website in some form at some point.


Carl Chinn is Professor of Birmingham Community History at the University of Birmingham.

When did you first meet Dorothy Thompson?

I had no contact with Dorothy as an undergraduate, though I did have contact with Clive Behagg, another of her former students. I first met her after I graduated in 1978 when I decided to apply for postgraduate research at the University of Birmingham. I originally wanted to do something on Dark Ages Britain, but I did not have Latin at A Level and beyond and it was suggested to me by the archaeologist Philip Rahtz that because of my background and interest in working-class history I should talk with Dorothy. I remain grateful that he made this suggestion as, without Dorothy, it is most unlikely that I would have been able to pursue a career as an historian.

How did it come about that you decided to work with Dorothy on a study of working-class life in Sparkbrook?

Dorothy influenced me deeply. She encouraged me to tell the stories that I had about my family - Dad's family from Sparkbrook and Mom's from Aston. Dorothy gave me the confidence to realise that the stories of the people to whom I belong and the people like them were worthy of study and were important to history.

This encouragement was essential to me. I was the first one of my family to go on at school past fifteen, let alone go to university, and back in the mid-1970s students from such a background were in a minority. A small group of us socialised as undergraduates because we felt that we were outsiders in a middle-class institution and indeed some of us, including myself, faced prejudice against our accents and backgrounds, both institutionally and from other students. Dorothy was unusual as a tutor as she understood that I felt on the outside and brought me in to academia by respecting my background and actively encouraging me to build my research upon it.

From the age of thirteen I had worked part-time in Dad's betting shops in Sparkbrook and, knowing this and having heard my stories of working in the shops, Dorothy encouraged me to focus on the Ladypool Road of Sparkbrook between 1871 and 1914 for my thesis. I secured funding and a grant and began two years' research.

Dorothy's guidance was essential. I married young, soon after my graduation in 1978, and after two years of research and working in the betting shops part-time, I stopped my postgraduate studies to run the betting shops for Dad. However, I carried on attending the postgraduate/staff seminar in the Department of modern History and Dorothy continued to encourage me to return to my research, which I did late in 1983 when I secured a third year's funding. A few months later Dad sold our last two betting shops and, after my grant ended, I had to sign on the dole, which was a humiliating experience. However, I was now more motivated to work determinedly on my thesis - which I did.

Throughout this very difficult time for me and my wife Kay and our three young children, Dorothy played a vital role alongside that of my family. She believed in my research and emphasised the importance of an egalitarian approach to history and the significance of the memories of working- class people to such an approach, which meant that I gained the confidence to include many oral history interviews in my thesis. Dorothy also supported me by encouraging me to move into teaching, which I did whilst on the dole, through part-time adult education classes for the WEA and the University of Birmingham extramural department. In 1986 I was awarded my Ph.D and I stated in my acknowledgements that 'this thesis is the result not just of my own research but also of the advice, assistance and urging of other people. Foremost amongst these is one person who embodies all these factors and to whom I gratefully acknowledge my debt: Dorothy Thompson. Without her encouragement and counselling this would never have been written.

You are strongly associated with writing about the working people of Birmingham. What encouragement did Dorothy give you after you obtained your Ph.D?

Soon after getting my Ph.D I was sent for a re-training scheme by the dole office and it was suggested that, instead of re-training, I should become a self-employed historian on the government enterprise allowance scheme. This was for one year and it involved me in taking on more adult education classes for the WEA and the University of Birmingham extramural department. The following year I carried on part-time teaching and also worked part-time as a van driver for my dad's new small business in stationery and office furniture. Then in 1988 I gained an hourly-paid job as a lecturer at Fircroft College of Adult Education, having to sign on again as unemployed during the vacations. This was also a very difficult period, but throughout it all Dorothy supported me socially and intellectually. She invited me, my wife Kay and our three young children to events at her house and, in 1987, she recommended me to Manchester University Press. They were bringing out several books about women's history and wanted someone to write a book on poorer working-class women. I had a chapter on the role of poorer women in my thesis and, thanks to Dorothy's recommendation, my proposal was accepted and I had my first book published.

This was They Worked All Their Lives. Women of the Urban Poor in England 1880-1939 (1988). In my acknowledgements I again paid tribute to Dorothy, who had read various drafts of the book 'and offered criticism and assistance throughout its writings. Without her support in the past, this book would not have been written.' My third book Poverty amidst Prosperity: The Urban Poor in England 1834-1914 was also with MUP. Again I emphasised the influence of Dorothy 'whose urgings and advice led me to be a historian.'

I remain indebted to Dorothy Thompson as I would never have become an historian or written over 30 books without having her as my supervisor, mentor, enabler and friend.


When did you first meet Dorothy Thompson? What impact did her approach to the study of history have on your work?

I first met Dorothy in 1977 when I went to discuss my vague ideas for applying to do a PhD on the Kidderminster carpet weavers. Her influence was quite profound. It was she who reinforced my interest in social history. I had a B.Sc Econ. from the LSE, with a specialism in economic history, and an M.Sc in economic history, also from the LSE, which I completed in 1969. My interest in history was rekindled whilst doing social work training in Leeds (1972-3), and living and working in Manchester (1973-6) and travelling around the north and linking places with incidents and information from The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which I had been reading for the first time. I moved to Kidderminster for work in 1976, and those interests led me to check out the local carpet industry and its history. I was able to give Dorothy sufficient information for her to see that there were possibilities. She encouraged me to draw out the social historical and trade union/labour history aspects of the topic. At that stage there was not much mention of Chartism: that element came rather later. I think another aspect of her approach was also very important. She did not impart lots of information or tell me to read loads of secondary sources - she rather made recommendations such as Iorwerth Prothero and John Foster. She put me in touch with Kate Tiller, who had also worked on Kidderminster. She mainly encouraged me to use my initiative and go off and track down sources. Also of course the evening social history seminar at Birmingham was of the greatest importance and influence - the speakers, the papers, the discussion, the style of enquiry etc.

What memories do you have of Edward and visiting Wick Episcopi?

My first memory of Edward has always stayed with me, and I have related it many times. The first time I presented a paper to the social history seminar, on the 1828 Great Strike, he attended. My nervousness was increased considerably. Afterwards I was in the staff toilet and he came in and was stood in the adjoining urinal. He said to me in his characteristic manner - 'Enjoyed the paper'. I have never forgotten that incident, and have likened it to a young practitioner having an encounter with Sigmund Freud himself. As for Wick Episcopi, I only went two or three times to parties there. I found it somewhat daunting. I think I felt a bit of a fraud with all those political and historical intellectuals. I was also most impressed (and envious) regarding their collection of antiquarian books.

Of all the books you have written or edited, what is your favourite? And what is your favourite book written or edited by Dorothy?

Of my own books, I am probably most pleased with the last one - Insanity, Race and Colonialism: Managing Mental Disorder in the Post-Emancipation Caribbean 1838-1914 (2014), though an earlier one 'Cure, Comfort and Safe Custody': Public Lunatic Asylums in Early Nineteenth Century England (1999) has proved to be more influential. As regards Dorothy's, it has to be the first one I read - The Early Chartists (1971).