FOR the past three years the Independent Working Class Association has hosted Working Class History Month to keep Oxford’s history alive. Alex Wynick reports
OXFORD’S working class origins are being celebrated for the third year running in Working Class History Month.
Keeping the heritage of working class life in the city has become a focus for the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA), a former political party which now focuses on making changes away from the polls.
Now the group is bringing together the lives of the everyday Oxford folk who built communties around their employment – charting their stories to honour their heritage.
The dictionary definition of “working class” is given as: “The social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work.”
For event co-founder Stuart Craft, it is those people who formed the foundations of the city.
The former IWCA councillor for Blackbird Leys and coach driver said: “The history of Oxford’s estates is essentially the history of work, because most people who came here did so because they worked at the car factory.
“You had people from all backgrounds – those who moved in the slum clearances of St Ebbe's, miners from South Wales and people from Ireland, Scotland and the Caribbean.”
Mr Craft said: “This isn't just about working-class history, it’s about people having pride in the fact they are working class.
“You only ever hear negative things about living on an estate so this is about celebrating the positive.”
The theme of Working Class History Month changes each year, from Oxford’s earliest industrial activity to remembering the 30th anniversary of the Miner’s Strikes.
The month includes talks and debates, as well as films, trips and projects from school children.
Mr Craft, 48, said: “We started it because it didn’t focus on certain social groups, it includes people right across the board and doesn’t discriminate.
“The treatment of working classes is the main fault line in society and they are one of the most important groups of people.
“It’s all about where we came from.”
One of Oxford’s largest employers has always been the Cowley works, which is over 100 years old and thought to be the oldest mass-production plant in the UK.
More than 11.5m cars, including the Morris, the MG, the Maestro and the Mini, have been made at the Cowley plant.
Today, the factory is owned by BMW and employs about 3,700 people. More than 4,500 Minis are manufactured there every week.
One of the IWCA’s speakers and members Dona Velluti said: “We feel that the role of the working class is vital.
“Every progress that has been done has come from people pushing from below upwards. Nothing has been given that wasn't hard work.”
The 53-year-old book editor from Cowley said: “In the current climate this role has been forgotten, and we try to keep this knowledge alive by showing history to youngsters.
“Every progress to find a more civilised Britain came from pressure from working people. We’re trying to remember that.”
Working Class History Month officially runs throughout the month of May, but the IWCA is extending this year’s celebrations.
A trip to former mining pits in South Wales is being planned, along with talks from Dave Douglass, former Doncaster branch delegate for the National Union of Mineworkers.
For more information visit iwca-athletics.org
HARD LABOUR: Employees in the Pressed Steel Plant making chairs in 1961
Sense of pride
David Troth is one of the IWCA’s longest-standing members, and a former factory employee.
The Blackbird Leys resident said: “Being working class is something to be proud of.
“If you look back to the industrial revolution, the working classes were the most powerful.
“We helped make the money for many of the rich people in this country.“ Mr Troth, 51, said: “Areas that were a strong working community are all gone. The car factory probably employs a third of what it used to.
“I worked there in the 1980s. I welded doors and I was on the production line for a while.”
Now a bus driver, Mr Troth added: “Most of those people now haven’t got jobs or those that do get paid badly.
“Nothing is being built in this country any more. It’s all being shipped overseas.“
‘There’s no support for today’s youngsters’
Peter Craft, pictured, fondly remembers watching the factory workers cycling down Cowley Road at the end of a shift.
The former bus driver said: “They just took over the road. There were a lot of rude gestures at the time.
“It’s a lot cleaner in the factories now, but there are thousands fewer of them.”
Iffley resident Mr Craft, 72, Stuart’s dad, added: “The government don’t care for the unemployed. There’s no encouragement for the youngsters.
“Back in the 50s and 60s there was plenty of work about, but not any more.
“There’s very little support for working class in general. We’ve not had any pay rises, and rent’s going up every year.
“We’re very tolerant though. You’ve only got to go to Spain to see they are all up in arms. Not here.”
‘ONE JOB ALL MY LIFE’
Alan Thomas has lived in the same house in Jericho for his whole life.
While most of Mr Thomas’s school friends went to work at the car factory, he became an electrician.
He said: “I have had one job all my life. When I went to school the teachers told us we were factory fodder, I didn’t fancy that.”
While he is happy that he never went to university, he has different aspirations for his 17-year-old daughter.
He said: “My daughter is taking her A Levels at Headington Girls School and she’s a part-time waitress.
“I hope she gets on in this world. She couldn’t survive in Oxford on a waitress salary.”
‘I started from the bottom’
Florence Park resident Janet Morris, 69, has had more than 200 jobs in her lifetime – including secretarial work, cleaning and clerical jobs.
The grandmother-of-four said: “I have always lived in Oxford. It was brilliant, everybody knew each other, everybody just got on so well. It was wonderful then.
“It’s so busy now, it’s sad. Oxford people aren’t very friendly, it’s the outsiders who are friendly now.”
She said: “Nobody’s better than anybody else. When I was a cleaner in a shop none of the till girls would talk to me because they were so snobby. You don’t get that now.”
Despite the changing job climate, Mrs Morris does not want her family going into further education to kick-start their careers.
She said: “I don’t think this thing of university is going to make you a better person. You need to start from the bottom and work your way up.”
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