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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
tech
Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
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

SEN Teachers and Support Staff

£50 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an SEN Teacher or L...

English and Media Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: English & Media Teacher - ...

Y1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Y1 Teacher required for a So...

Senior Financial Services Associate - City

Highly Competitive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - FINANCIAL SERVICES - Senior...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week