Obituary: Harold Smith

Librarian and small-press publisher

"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 emigre, 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 . . .?"

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

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