The Making of the English Working Class is a good example of those books that sometimes penetrate through the history world and find a general readership. It is sometimes cited by people on the political left as a book that inspired them to become active in politics.
The key to the book lies in its title. It tells the story of how, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a new class of people emerged from the process of industrial change that was taking in root in Britain. This new class has gone through various different names, including the proletariat, the lower class(es), the lower orders, even – by those who fear it – the ‘Great Unwashed’. Thompson uses the term by which its members usually refer to themselves, ‘the Working Class’.
Although many historians had written about elements of working class history, at the time Thompson was writing no-one had undertaken a systematic history of the working class itself. This was partly the result of the traditions of historical scholarship, coupled with a certain amount of snobbery: historians, especially in the whig tradition, concerned themselves with the actions of the upper, or ‘ruling’, classes. The result, however, was that the working class only ever appeared in history as it was seen through the eyes of the educated rich. Thompson called this the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, the very patronising manner in which historians deal with events or developments within working class history. For example, the Luddites, those workers whose skills were taken over by the new machines and who resorted to attacking the machines and the mills that installed them, were generally regarded as foolish men trying to stop progress. The Chartists, nineteenth-century working-class political reformers, were often presented as hopelessly naïve in pressing for radical reform before the time was ripe. Thompson’s point was that historians had relied far too much on the versions given by their enemies, the mill owners, the magistrates, the landowners, and had never stopped to listen to what these men had to say for themselves.
In part, this silence was the result of the sources. Governments produce huge quantities of paperwork, so it is usually fairly easy for a historian to get hold of official papers and reports to look at. But what sources are left behind by illiterate farm labourers or millworkers? All too often, their only impact on the official record comes when they are brought before a court: a lot of working class social history is essentially an adjunct of the study of crime. Thompson certainly made extensive use of such court records, visiting local records office and often ordering up bundles of court papers which had lain untouched since the day they were deposited. Court records, when they include the testimony of the accused and the evidence of witnesses, can be very revealing of the lives and opinions of the working classes. However Thompson also recognised that the working class had developed its own culture which left a legacy in stories handed down through generations, or folk art, or songs and ballads, games and sports, in other words in forms very different from the types of documents historians usually look at. It was Thompson’s aim to tell the story of the working class through its own words, however those had been preserved.