Inside a Victorian red brick library in Salford, Greater Manchester, lies a box of badges bearing slogans such as Fight Poverty Pay and Britain Needs a Payrise.
They sound current but are historic emblems, lying among dozens of other causes won and lost – against the Vietnam war, for CND, a 1993 Mirror ‘splat the VAT on heat’ campaign.
Walk further into the library and hand-stitched banners adorn the walls supporting causes like the East Bradford Socialist Sunday School. Beneath them, a display is dedicated to the mass trespass at Kinder Scout – an epic 1932 protest by ramblers in Derbyshire.
Welcome to the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) – as unique and eccentric a collection of books, art, documents, culture and struggle as you’ll find anywhere in the UK.
This Sunday the library, which holds trade union documents dating back to the 1820s, itself becomes a cause celebre.
After local Tory councillors attacked it in an election leaflet, its celebrity fans are mounting a defence. Actresses Maxine Peake and Sheila Hancock, and the former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce are performing a series of readings from some of the library’s legendary works.
Another supporter, former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston, was on the posters but had to pull out through filming commitments. They all hope the Salford Stories and Radical Readings will raise both funds, and the library’s profile.
For Peake – who brought the entire cast of The Village to visit the library – the attack is just another way of undermining working class people.
“For anyone to criticise such an amazing establishment is disgraceful,” says Peake, 40, who lives locally. “It is just another attack on the poorer people in our society by the Government. Maybe there are things the Tories hope we don’t see.”
Originally created by book-loving husband and wife Eddie and Ruth Frow, the library outgrew their semi-detached home in Trafford by the mid-80s. Since 1987, Salford Council has housed it in a former children’s home. A trust has run it since 2007, but the council still provides free rent and a small grant. The rest of the £120,000 running costs comes from donations.
Royston Futter, 68, secretary of the WCML trustees, says: “The library is the only one of its kind in the world entirely dedicated to organisations and individuals whose whole aim in life was to better the lot of ordinary people.”
Eddie and Ruth Frow, an extraordinary pair of human beings, met in 1953 and discovered a shared interest in books and tennis. They weren’t rich, but they had an extraordinary passion for collecting books, filling the gaps in their library by touring the country in a 1937 Morris van with a tent in the back. The tent would be put up in a field near to the last bookshop of the day.
Ruth was a schoolteacher who spent the Second World War in a Fighter Command operations room. She spent the rest of her life fighting for peace. Eddie was a skilled engineer who said he’d lost all but one out of 21 jobs because of his union activities. He was a key figure in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.
Born in 1906, Eddie joined 10,000 demonstrators in Salford in 1931 at what became known as the Battle of Bexley Square – a march opposing cuts to unemployment benefit and the hated means test. He was arrested, beaten up by police and thrown into Strangeways for five months. His ordeal became part of Walter Greenwood’s 1933 novel Love On The Dole.
But while the couple fought injustice, the collection kept growing. By the mid-80s, their house was bursting at the seams. It was Futter who came up with the idea for The Working Class Movement Library when he was Head of Arts and Leisure at Salford Council.
The building is fittingly close to the Crescent, the pub where Karl Marx and Friedrich met in the 1940s. And only streets from Bexley Square.
When the library was set up, the Frows moved in too, perhaps because they couldn’t bear to live without their books. Eddie died in 1997, aged 90, and Ruth in 2008 at 85, but their legacy lives on.
For years, the WCML has had streams of visitors coming to consult its Spanish Civil War archive or to look at the protest crockery collection. So this month’s Tory leaflet saying the library had been receiving tens of thousands in public money even though people “cannot walk in and read material” hit a raw nerve.
Peake, who discovered the library when she was at Salford Tech studying performing arts, was livid. “The Library is a vital resource,” she told me this week. “People suffered and died for basic rights in this country – for the vote, for decent pay and living conditions and for unions to protect themselves against unscrupulous capitalist employers and victimisation by the ruling class.
“We can learn so much from history and again in these times where the working class are battling for survival we need to look back to learn, to question, to fight back and say no. For inspiration we need look no further than our own history and no further than the library.”
The Library is open to the public without appointment on Wednesday Thursday and Friday afternoons and the first Saturday of the month ( from January). Other times need to be by appointment.