Eric Taplin: Pioneering historian of dock labour


No social historian of 19th-century Britain and no expert of labour history in port cities will fail to have read Eric Taplin's pathbreaking 1986 work The Docker's Union: a study of the National Union of Dock Labourers 1889-1922. It shifted the focus of British labour history from artisan elites and factory workers to the casual labour forces and labour markets that dominated Britain's major cities after the industrial revolution. Such workers had until then failed to find their historian.

The book was a follow-up to his thesis, Liverpool Dockers and Seamen 1870-1890 (1974), which placed the lives of dock workers and seafarers, and the history of their efforts to unionise, on the map. Publication brought Eric a host of admirers and lifelong friends, including the late Jack Jones. Eric's later book Near to Revolution: the Liverpool general transport strike of 1911 (1994) provided the focus for a major exhibition, "Art in Revolution", at the Walker Art Gallery in 2011. A video in which Eric nimbly narrated the events of 1911 from the sites of major disturbance was played in a loop as a centrepiece.

Although from 1960 he spent most of his career on Merseyside, Eric Leonard Taplin was born in 1925 near the London docks, the son of a clerk in the Pool of London and an only child. The family moved to Neasden in 1932, and he attended Willesden Grammar School. The family enjoyed holidays in Cornwall, travelling by motorbike with Taplin riding pillion, and his mother in a sidecar. In 1939 he was evacuated to Northampton with schoolfriends who included Richard Baker, later a BBC newsreader.

Eric grew up reading the leftish daily papers of his socialist father. Columnists, James Cameron in particular, were a major influence on the development of his political sensibilities. Leaving school at 16, he was drafted at 18 and became a conscientious objector. Guarding Italian and German POWs at a camp in Rugely, Staffordshire, he befriended a German prisoner who had entered a British encampment in Europe asking to be arrested. Despite the risk of a court martial, Eric and he would slip out of camp to go dancing and to the cinema in Stafford. While in Rugely he met his future Joan McCourt, who was working as secretary to a camp colonel.

Taplin fought many campaigns: for comprehensive education and, as a founder member of Maghull and Lydiate CND, against nuclear weapons. He was a prominent figure in the Labour Party in Maghull.

Because his education had not been interrupted by the war, Taplin was ineligible for an undergraduate grant, though he had been offered a place at Manchester University. Instead he became a primary-school teacher in Manchester, studying for an external University of London degree. He graduated in 1957 with a BSc, specialising in Economic History, and came smitten with that field of study. Influences as an undergraduate were the works of RH Tawney, GDH Cole and Asa Briggs. As his specialism in labour history developed, he was influenced by EJ Hobsbawm, EP Thompson, John Saville and Hugh Clegg.

After three unsatisfactory years teaching liberal studies to gas fitters and others at Llandaff College, Cardiff, Taplin secured employment at the Liverpool College of Commerce where he developed Economic History as a special subject for the external BSc (Econ) of London University. However, he had also to teach subjects less central to his interests, such as the economics of packaging which until then he "had assumed was a matter of brown paper and string!" When the college was later absorbed by the formation of Liverpool Polytechnic, Taplin led the development of an honours degree in Social Studies. Only at this point, and alongside his increasingly arduous role as head of social studies (held at the Polytechnic from 1972-84), was he able to pursue and publish his own research.

In 1984 Taplin was appointed research fellow at the University of Liverpool where he developed a second set of devoted colleagues and from where he continued with research and writing, publishing in journals and other works including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. For two decades he continued to teach undergraduates: his enthusiastic voice could be heard throughout the building. He was the founder and long-term president of the North West Labour History Society and active in the Economic History Society. Taplin died of cancer; his final article was in press. In later life he travelled extensively, enjoyed sailing and caravanning.

Eric Leonard Taplin, historian: born London 22 February 1925; married 1946 Joan McCourt (died 1988; one son, one daughter); died 22 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all