History from below: working class autobiography as a source for economic historians

Professor Jane Humphries



The paper introduces students to working-class autobiography of the 18th and 19th centuries and explores the ways in which it can be used by economic historians.  Students will consider the relative neglect of working-class memoir and the reasons why historians have been suspicious of such accounts especially when so few sources exist to provide insight into many aspects of everyday life. The strengths and weaknesses of the source will be discussed.  The transition from using proletarian memoir as a literary source to searching it for the kinds of quantitative and qualitative evidence needed by social science historians will be discussed and defended.  The course convener's recent book, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution will be  read as an example of a social science approach to the source and will be contrasted with David Vincent's Bread, Knowledge and Freedom, which represents a classic interpretation.   The ways in which working people's accounts of their own lives can be used to unlock many outstanding questions in social and economic history will be pursued. Students will be required to study several working-class autobiographies and to develop their own ideas about how these might be used to cast light on the past as it was experienced by ordinary people.

Preliminary reading                               Outline                          Full bibliography