“A working-class hero is something to be,” sang John Lennon. The heroes of history and fiction, however, are typically middle class. Our modern novelists like their protagonists to be sexually transgressive, personally conflicted and comfortably bourgeois. For historians, “the masses” often remain anonymous and impersonal.
The point about workers, however, is that they are not just poor, but necessarily creative and networked. The wage worker navigates a complex, integrated labour market in which the balance of power is set against them. There is something intrinsically heroic about this way of life.
A hero is not a saint and Emmanuel Barthélemy, the central figure of my book The Murderer of Warren Street, was neither. He was, in many ways, a dark and villainous character, but he aimed for heroism. His was a life of daring and adventure: fighting on barricades, escaping from prison, conspiring, duelling, plotting and loving.
The true hero, as Barthélemy never quite realised, finds nobility not in hatred but in a generous self-belief. Working-class dignity characterises my selection of 10 books, both fiction and non-fiction. I’m a historian of the 19th and 20th centuries, and my choice reflects this. We should all have our own list of working-class heroes.
1. The Chimes by Charles Dickens
For decades this Christmas story was at least as famous and beloved as A Christmas Carol. Its hero, Trotty, scrapes a living delivering messages for well-heeled customers. They tell him that his people are ungrateful and degraded. Trotty contemplates suicide, but supernatural visions teach him the importance of working-class pride and self-reliance. This is an inspiring story reminding workers never to give up.
2. The Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell
Wellington described his own army, overwhelmingly recruited from the bottom ranks of society, as the “scum of the Earth”. The Sharpe novels follow one soldier’s career from the slums of London to the field of Waterloo. Sneered at by snooty officers, Sharpe proves himself an indomitable fighter and natural leader. As an added bonus, Sean Bean, with glorious Yorkshire accent, played Sharpe as the ultimate working-class hero in the long-running television series.
3. William Cuffay: The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader by Martin Hoyles
Born in 1788, the son of an African slave from St Kitts, Cuffay the Chartist was mild in temperament, modest in demeanour, and unflaggingly militant in his struggle for British democracy. In 1848, Cuffay conspired with others to launch a revolution from London. He was transported for 21 years, never to be heard from again. So long as honour and integrity are held in esteem, his comrades wrote in 1851, “so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Africa’s oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion”.
4. The Journey of Martin Nadaud: A Life and Turbulent Times by Gillian Tindall
If Emmanuel Barthélemy had been a little less extreme, a little less violent, and a little less ruthless, he might have had a life very much like that of Martin Nadaud. A French stonemason and socialist, Nadaud avoided the barricades of the 1848 revolution in France, but nonetheless found himself, like Barthélemy, exiled to London. A far more emollient character, he kept his balance and lived long enough to return and take his place as a respectable parliamentarian in the French Third Republic. Tindall’s biography is a beautifully written evocation of a life well spent.
5. Michael Davitt by Carla King
Davitt’s family was evicted during the Great Famine in Ireland and he grew up as an immigrant worker in Lancashire, where he lost his right arm to a spinning machine. He joined the revolutionary Irish nationalist Fenians and spent seven years in Dartmoor prison for conspiracy. On his release, Davitt returned to Ireland and established the Land League, which fought to destroy the landlord system. As an MP, Davitt was a doughty supporter of British and Irish labour rights. In 1903, not long before his death, he visited Russia to expose state-sanctioned anti-Jewish pogroms. Lovable and noble, Davitt was a true working-class hero.
6. The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel
Born in 1872, Mitchell never benefited from formal education, making her living as a seamstress. Nonetheless, she tells her story of socialist and suffragette activism – and her rebellion against the constraints of married life – with tremendous power and humour.
“One of the greatest compliments (not meant as one) that I received was once when I overheard a man say, with a sneer:
‘Hannah Mitchell! Oh! she’s a sort of Dickens in petticoats.”
‘Sort of! Sir, I thank you,’ I said under my breath.”
Mitchell’s autobiography is a classic of working-class memoir: inspiring, moving, and often very funny indeed.
7. Out of the Night by Jan Valtin
Real name Richard Krebs, Valtin was a worker on the Hamburg docks, an insurrectionist, a professional revolutionary, and a member of the resistance in the early years of the Nazi regime. He was seized and tortured by the Gestapo but tricked his captors and went on to operate as a double agent. Betrayed by his communist masters, Valtin fled to the US where he published his bestselling memoir in 1941. Undoubtedly spiced up, Out of the Night is nonetheless one of the most exciting memoirs you will ever read, a story of idealism, love, heartbreak, extraordinary bravery and tragic betrayal.
8. God’s Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembène
The Senegalese author’s rich novel tells the story of a strike by railway workers. It was first published in 1960, the same year his country won independence from France. The central character is Ibrahim Bakayoko, the courageous leader of the workers, but as the story unfolds the most heroic figures are revealed to be the women. First they follow their menfolk, then they take over the hard struggle to hold the striking community together, and finally they lead the workers in pitched battle against the bosses. There are few better novels dealing with class conflict and colonialism.
9. The Order of Industrial Heroism by WH Fevyer, JW Wilson and JE Cribb
In 1923, the Daily Herald, an obstreperously leftwing newspaper, instituted the eponymous honour, a kind of Victoria Cross for workers. During its lifetime, 440 awards were given out for those workers who risked their lives to save others. Industrial accidents were legion: collapsed mines, trains racing out of control, explosions in sewers, walkways collapsing into water, farm animals running amok. The award predictably came to an end in 1964 when the Herald was taken over by the Sun, but the Order gets its due in this fine publication from the Medals Research Society.
10. Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith
Born in 1923, Smith barely survived grinding poverty in interwar Yorkshire. In 1941, he joined the RAF to fight the Nazi menace. He was never opposed to the ordinary people of Germany, and he married one of them. The postwar state, feeling for the first time the full weight of working-class opinion, prioritised welfare, high employment and rising wages. But solidarity is renewed – or not – in every generation. Smith understood the courageous progress of a working class remaking itself as multicultural. In the bleak age of punitive austerity since 2008, he takes his “last stand” for working-class dignity and resistance. He fights the good fight still, in peerless style. The baton is passed on.