The Making of the English Working Class  

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"We must remember the 'underground' of the ballad singer and the fairground which handed on traditions to the nineteenth century (to the music hall, or Dickens' circus folk or Hardy's pedlars and showmen); for in these ways the 'inarticulate' [masses of people] conserve certain values - a spontaneity and capacity for enjoyment and mutual loyalties - despite the inhibiting pressures of magistrates, mill-owners, and Methodists." --(E. P. Thompson 1963)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Making of the English Working Class (ISBN 0-140-13603-7) is an influential work of English social history, written by E. P. Thompson, a notable 'New Left' historian; it was published in 1963 (revised 1968) by Victor Gollancz Ltd, and later republished at Pelican, becoming an early Open University Set Book. It concentrates on English artisan and working class society "in its formative years 1780 to 1832."

Its tone is captured by the oft-quoted line from the preface:

"I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity."

Thompson attempts to add a humanist element to social history, being critical of those who turn the people of the working class into an inhuman statistical bloc. These people were not just the victims of history: Thompson displays them as being in control of their own making. He also discusses the popular movements that are oft forgotten in history, such as obscure Jacobin societies like the London Corresponding Society. Thompson makes great effort to recreate the life-experience of the working class(es), which is what often marks it out as such an influential work.

Thompson uses the term "working class" rather than "classes" throughout, to emphasis the growth of a working-class consciousness. He claims in the Preface that "in the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers."

Thompson's re-evaluation of the Luddite movement, and his (unsympathetic) treatment of the influence of the early Methodist movement on working class aspirations are also particularly memorable. (Thompson's parents were Methodist missionaries.)





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