Obituary: Edmund Frow

Edmund Frow will best be remembered as the founder, with his wife, Ruth, of the Working Class Movement Library.

As with all the great historical libraries, the past is everywhere palpable in the Frows' famous collections of radical literature and in the banners, emblems, squibs and broadsheets that jostle for space on every wall. What has made the library special, though, is the Frows themselves: informed, engaged and in Edmund's case, embodying a sizeable chunk of working-class history in his own person.

Edmund Frow was born to Lincolnshire farming stock in 1906, an auspicious year of Conservative electoral humiliation. The usual palliatives of Liberal or Labour governments did not, however, hold much attraction for Frow as he finished his schooling against a backdrop of European revolutionary upheaval. Serving his time as a toolmaker in Wakefield, the restless youngster mixed readily with older socialists but found himself drawn by the bolder course of Bolshevism.

In March 1924, after reading Lenin's book State and Revolution (1917), he joined the infant Communist Party and was to remain a member until the bitter factional conflicts of the 1980s. Moving across the Pennines, he rapidly made his mark on the party in Lancashire and in 1930, still only 24, was sent to Moscow to sit on a British commission of the Communist International.

Although a highly skilled worker - "a time-served craftsman", he later recalled with mock snobbery - it was inevitable that so conspicuous a rebel would find work elusive in those years of mass unemployment. Frow became active in the Salford unemployed workers' movement. In October 1931, he received both a broken nose and five-month prison sentence for his role in one tempestuous de-monstration, quickly dubbed "the Battle of Bexley Square". The episode provided a climacteric for Walter Greenwood's 1933 novel, Love on the Dole, Frow himself figuring as "a finely featured young man . . . heaping invective upon all with whom he disassociated himself in the social scale". In later years, he may perhaps have lost a little of his youthful intransigence, but never the passion for social justice that underlay it.

With the beginnings of economic recovery in the mid-1930s, Frow resumed work in the engineering industry and until his retirement in 1971, his main activities were focused on his trade union, the Amalgamated Engineering Union. As a shop floor activist, a shop stewards' convenor, an AEU national committee and TUC delegate and eventually a full-time union district secretary, there was little in the world of engineering trade unionism with which he did not become acquainted. As a succession of oral historians can testify, few could expound as lucidly as he on the dynamics and constraints of industrial militancy.

Always, whatever else he was doing, there were books, more books and a fervour for working-class education. As early as his teens, already secretary to Wakefield Labour College, Frow had begun wrestling with the new world of Marxist ideas, Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908) causing him a particularly furrowed brow. Increasingly, though, it was British radical history that occupied his thoughts. On meeting Ruth, his wife-to-be, in the 1950s, they eyed up each other's bookshelves and their meeting of minds and spirits seemed almost pre-ordained: a memorable partnership was established.

These were the days before E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and the academic vogue for labour history. Trailing round England with a tent, later a caravan, the Frows were thus able to scour bookshops countrywide for the bargains that radical literature then provided. By the late 1960s their book-lined house in Old Trafford was acquiring a semi-legendary status, encouraging the further building up of their collections through donations and bequests. Many distinguished historians will have warm memories of the library, but there wasn't a student, political activist or trade union branch that didn't receive exactly the same welcome. In the library itself, now housed and maintained by Salford City Council, and in the inestimable Ruth Frow, that tradition lives on.

Edmund, even more than Ruth, was a bibliomaniac. If the library had some 10,000 items, it nevertheless seemed impossible to identify the one that he could not track down immediately and tell you everything about. When Salford took over the collections in 1987, the biggest challenge for the new librarian, Alain Kahan, was how to get this encyclopaedic knowledge down on paper. Meanwhile, the Frows turned increasingly to their own publications and the wide range of enthusiasms they revealed: Chartism, Feminism, syndicalism, republicanism, nearly all, in fact, of the "isms" that have challenged the existing political order over the last 200 years.

Eddie Frow remained to the end the most invigorating company: declaiming Shelley, evoking Tom Mann, bounding after pamphlets two stairs at a time or just sharing his abundant knowledge and intellectual curiosity. To be left breathless halfway up a Welsh hill was, for younger companions, both chastening and heart-warming. With Frow's death, we lost one of the last and finest representatives of an extraordinary generation of working- class autodidacts and agitators. His library survives as a memorial both to the man himself and to the rich plebeian culture which produced him.

Kevin Morgan

Stephen Edmund Frow, tool maker, trade unionist and bibliophile: born Harrington, Lincolnshire 5 June 1906; married 1st Marjorie Sherwood (one son; marriage dissolved), 2nd 1960 Ruth Haines (nee Engel); died Salford 15 May 1997.