“Colourless, Dry and Dull”: Why British Trade Unionists Lack Biographers and What (if Anything) Should be Done About it


  • Kevin Morgan




trade unionism, biography, Purcell, Britain, general strike


Using the Trades Union Congress general council of 1925–26 as an example, this paper considers the relatively weak development of a biographical literature on such subjects within the field of British labour history. Practical and methodological challenges in the production of such lives are noted, as are the pitfalls of a genre of “tombstone” biography that can of necessity be extended only to the few. Nevertheless, the case is made for the wider employment of biographical methods in the writing of trade-union history and the problematisation in this way of the sociological stereotypes that have hitherto dominated the field. These points are further developed by specific reference to the author’s recent study of the militant trade-union leader Albert Arthur Purcell. The case is made, not only for further biographical work on such figures, but for a conception of the life-history method that recognises the distinctive articulations of both individual and collective that was characteristic of the British Labour movement.