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
  • Get to the point
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: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing