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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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 People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea