Harold Smith

Librarian and small-press publisher

Harold Smith, librarian, publisher and writer: born London 6 May 1918; married 1967 Mary Sporle; died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 2 February 2005.

"Morning, Comrade!" was Harold Smith's favourite way of addressing friends, his password for people who more or less shared the socialist values he maintained throughout his life. Hanging in his study was a document dated March 1936 that read: "Certificate of the London Co-operative Society Ltd Education Department, Awarded to Harold Smith, Subject: Trade Unionism". On his desk stood a photograph of him and his wife Mary at Tolpuddle on their last visit there in July 2004.

In between those dates Smith was husband, librarian, publisher, writer, scholar, bibliophile, Communist, socialist, trade unionist and supporter of many radical causes. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain as soon as he was old enough but resigned in 1957 after the Russian invasion of Hungary. He immediately joined the Labour Party, sitting firmly on the left and donating generously to party funds - until the advent of Tony Blair. In 1997 he stopped the monthly contributions and by 2000 had resigned with great sadness.

Harold Smith was born in 1918 in Hackney Salvation Army Women's Hospital to a poor Polish Jewish mother. He was an only child whose father, also a Jewish émigré, died when Harold was six months old, and it seems likely that his campaigning socialism was forged during a far-from-easy childhood.

Educated at Highbury School, he spent the Second World War in the Royal Army Pay Corps, mostly in South Africa, a country to which he formed a close attachment. His bibliography Apartheid in the Union of South Africa was published by the Library Association in 1956.

Whilst in the Army he began studying librarianship in the Durban Public Library, a career he was to develop in London over the next 30 years. He started as an assistant librarian in Westminster in 1947, and after stints elsewhere became Deputy Borough Librarian in Battersea, 1961-65, where he developed a new branch library acknowledged to be one of the best; it was pleasant to be in, accessible to users and had wonderful programmes for children. This was typical of Smith, who believed that libraries were for people, particularly children.

In 1965 he was appointed Deputy Chief Librarian at Wandsworth during a particularly unsettled time, and internal politicking and personality clashes saw him lose his job in 1975. He sued for wrongful dismissal, won comprehensively, was awarded substantial compensation and offered his job back. But with his integrity intact he chose independence.

Smith's major publications were The British Labour Movement to 1970: a bibliography (1981: Asa Briggs wrote the foreword), The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, 1826-1846: a social and bibliographical evaluation (1974: his 1972 MA thesis for London University), and a slim book-list, Remember 1926 (1976).

After leaving Wandsworth he began a 30-year association with the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell, where he was a committed volunteer and committee member, serving as vice-chairman from 1981 to 1998 and as chairman in 1998-99. The library became his passion. He made weekly journeys there and used his librarian's expertise to sort exhaustively and catalogue thousands of books and pamphlets. When the library was awarded a lottery grant enabling it to make 50,000 of its titles available on the internet, Smith was over the moon that socialist history and thought was at last being made available to a wider audience. Asked by a friend about his normal disapproval of the Lottery, Smith retorted, "The money's for a good cause, so you take it where you can get it, comrade!"

His broad enthusiasms extended to the Society for Labour History, the William Morris Society, the Economic History Society, the Putney Society and the Roehampton Garden Society. In the late Seventies he founded the Nine Elms Press, publishing, among other works, a series of six short monographs on socialist artists and writers. William Morris, C.R. Ashbee and the Arts and Crafts by Peter Stansky (1984) was the first, and Walter Crane and the Rhetoric of Art by David Gerard (1999) the last.

In 1961 Harold Smith met Mary Sporle, who had just returned from teaching in South Africa. In 1963 he bought his fine house in Putney, and they were married in 1967. Mary developed a new career as a silk weaver, with her loom in the house, and Harold started lining the walls with the beginnings of his fine collection of over 3,000 books.

They loved to travel and made several trips to Canada, the United States and Australia. But an operation in 2001 put an end to Harold's long-haul flying - though they were still able to make it to their favourite hideaway, Gozo.

Increasing immobility during the last three years limited Harold Smith's activities, but his mind and memory remained amazingly sharp, honed by his rigorous scanning of the political scene in the UK, Europe, Iraq, everywhere. "Morning, comrade. Have you seen the article in . . .?"

Bob Knowles

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test