Edmund Frow, who died recently a few weeks short of his 91st birthday, will, together with his partner Ruth, be a familiar figure to many readers of Socialist Review. Edmund and Ruth were often to be seen at the Socialist Worker Easter rallies at Skegness publicising their works on labour history and discussing the role of the Communist Party of which they were both members for many years.
Edmund Frow joined the Communist Party in 1924 as a young engineer. He was active in the 1926 General Strike. Working as an engineer in Wakefield, Frow felt frustrated that the TUC General Council planned to call engineers out only in the second wave of strikers. He went out anyway and went to join in miners' demonstrations in the Yorkshire coalfield.
Left wing activity led to victimisation by employers. Frow was active in the National Unemployed Workers Movement in Salford in the early 1930s and went on to be a leading figure in unemployed agitations. From 1934 he held a succession of jobs in the engineering industry and became a leading workplace militant in the north west. He has written, brilliantly, and as ever in collaboration with Ruth Frow, about this period of his life in the book, Engineering Struggles, Episodes in the Story of the Shop Stewards' Movement (1982).
Frow came to serve on the Manchester district committee and the national committee of the AEU. From 1961 to 1971 he was elected full time district secretary of the AEU in Manchester.
Retiring at 65 Edmund Frow was then able to devote himself again with his partner Ruth to his interest in labour history, books and memorabilia. The Frows, together with Michael Katanka, had already published 1868 Year of the Unions (1968). A succession of books and pamphlets was to follow, including To Make That Future Now!: a History of the Manchester and Salford Trades Council (1976). The fight in the AEU was not neglected in his retirement, however, and in 1982 Edmund and Ruth co-authored with Ernie Roberts Democracy in the Engineering Union.
Edmund and Ruth Frow built up the Working Class Movement Library in Salford over many years. It is one of the most impressive resources for labour and socialist historians in the country. The work and effort involved in building it up should not be underestimated. From 1987 it has been under the municipal control of Salford council, ensuring that it will continue for years to come. The library publishes regular bulletins and has also been central to the publication of the regular north west Labour History bulletin. As well as being labour historians themselves, Edmund and Ruth Frow have greatly encouraged others in the same field.
Although critical of the drift towards Euro communism in the Communist Party, Edmund Frow never gave up or descended into bitterness and recrimination. In an interview that he gave to Socialist Review in May 1996 he argued that it was time to look critically at what had happened in Russia. He also said he was as optimistic then about the chances for change and socialism as he had been when he was 17.
He was a frequent attender at the sessions of the Northern Marxist Historians' Group in Manchester. I well recall his sharp and critical comments on a paper I gave some years ago to the group they were exactly what a research historian always hopes for, but so rarely gets. Edmund with his many years of experience as both an activist and a labour historian was able to focus constructive criticism where others could not.
Edmund Frow, although he undoubtedly regarded himself as a revolutionary socialist, was not in the political tradition of those associated with Socialist Review. In fact his entire life was a remarkable demonstration of how someone could be a Communist Party member and still, often despite that organisation's rotten politics, be a leading workplace militant and then a stout defender of socialism and have a class approach to history and politics in later life.
Frow was above all an activist. He brought to labour and socialist history the all too rare perspective of someone who had themselves engaged in workplace struggles, and much of the history he wrote was from this perspective. Pamphlets on Marx and Engels in Manchester and the Chartists in Manchester and Salford, while of interest to the academic historian, are absolutely fascinating to anyone who has ever actively engaged in the socialist movement. Edmund and Ruth's 1978 pamphlet The Communist Party in Manchester 1920-26 is a model for anyone interested in how the networks of working class activists are built which can lead to the building of socialist organisation.
It was certainly not the case, however, that Edmund ignored what might be called the new labour and socialist history. Political Women 1800-1850 (1989) was followed by Radical and Red Poets and Poetry (1994).
It is perhaps ironic that Edmund died in the very week that David Blunkett announced his plans for 'lifelong learning'. If anyone deserves to be honoured in some way by a Labour government it is surely Edmund Frow. The newly elected Labour MP for Salford, Hazel Blears, used her maiden speech in parliament to pay tribute to Edmund Frow. Ms Blears is a trustee of the Working Class Movement Library. One doubts, however, if more than a handful of her colleagues in the Labour cabinet have ever even heard of him.