Dorothy Katharine Towers, the only daughter and second of five children of Reginald Joseph Towers (1892–1966) and his wife, Katharine Gane Towers (1893–1978), was born on 30 October 1923. Both her parents were professional musicians and Labour Party supporters. Her father owned a music shop in Bromley. (1)
Her grandfathers were a shoemaker and a merchant seaman. Her interest in "outsiders" developed from her experiences as a village girl of modest means at a private suburban school, and from her sense that there was more life and joy in the "villagers and gypsies on the common... than the people at school and their parents." (2)
Her earliest memory was of the General Strike in 1926. "I remember my father bringing some people home - he had a little motorcar - and these people were stranded because of the strike, we were told. My brother sent the contents of his money box to the miners. I remember an item in the newspaper, in the Daily Herald, which said that Tommy Towers had sent the contents of his money box to the miners. So I can date that clearly in 1926. I don't know how far it influenced me but certainly it's an early memory." (3)
As a teenager she joined the Young Communist League. In 1942 she was awarded an exhibition to Girton College. While at university she met and married a fellow student, Gilbert Buchanan Sale (1924–1986). During the Second World War he served in the British Army whereas she worked in a London engineering works as a draughtswoman. However, the couple divorced at the end of the war. (4)
On returning to Cambridge University in 1945 she began a lifelong relationship with Edward P. Thompson. Both were active in the Communist Party of Great Britain and both shared a strong interest in history. Dorothy later explained why she chose to study history. "We had a very good teacher at school who got us very excited by history. It was when I was about sixteen or seventeen that I realized that history was a problem-solving discipline and not just an information-absorbing one. I got interested in history because it linked up with my interest in politics, and with family memories. For instance I was always enormously puzzled that one branch of the family had actually left their native country, left a comfortable living to come and live in the East End of London, simply because their version of Christianity was different from the dominant one." (5)
Dorothy married Edward on 16 December 1948. Dorothy worked as a part-time tutor in Leeds University department of extra-mural studies. Dorothy and Edward Thompson joined Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, A. L. Morton, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, John Saville, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb in forming the Communist Party Historians' Group. In 1952 members of the group founded the journal, Past and Present. Over the next few years the journal pioneered the study of working-class history. Saville was later to write: "The Historian's Group had a considerable long-term influence upon most of its members. It was an interesting moment in time, this coming together of such a lively assembly of young intellectuals, and their influence upon the analysis of certain periods and subjects of British history was to be far-reaching." (6)
As Christos Efstathiou has explained: "Most of the members of the Group had common aspirations as well as common past experiences. The majority of them grew up in the inter-war period and were Oxbridge undergraduates who felt that the path to socialism was the solution to militarism and fascism. It was this common cause that united them as a team of young revolutionaries, who saw themselves as the heir of old radicalism." (7)
During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive". Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. (8)
In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprising an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar. (9)
The Thompsons, like most members of the Communist Party Historians' Group, supported Imre Nagy and as a result, like most Marxists, they left the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Hungarian Uprising and a "New Left movement seemed to emerge, united under the banners of socialist humanism... the New Leftists aimed to renew this spirit by trying to organise a new democratic-leftist coalition, which in their minds would both counter the 'bipolar system' of the cold war and preserve the best cultural legacies of the British people." (10)
Former members of the Communist Party Historians' Group published the socialist journal The New Reasoner. Her biographer and friend, Sheila Rowbotham, pointed out: "Characteristically, her competence meant she was designated business manager, though she also read through submitted manuscripts. The break with the Communist party was painful, but it also brought hope in the creation of a new left. Dorothy worked with the writers, artists, historians and trade unionists who were forming the new left clubs in many towns." (11)
Dorothy Thompson had three children: Ben (1948), Mark (1951) and Kate (1956) and this left little time for sustained historical research. She later argued that her days revolved as much around "bringing up children, running a household and taking an active part in contemporary politics" as around teaching and research.(12)
In 1957 Thompson helped form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Other members included J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot. (13)
During the 1960s she continued adult teaching and did research for the Dictionary of Labour Biography. In 1970 she started her first full-time job as a lecturer in history at the University of Birmingham, where for twenty years she exercised a powerful impact upon her students. She returned to her study of Chartism "and in the agitation for political rights for working people and for women." (14) This led to the publication in 1984 of The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution. (15)
Duane C. Anderson has argued that the book was "many years the landmark history of Chartism reflecting her enormous knowledge and breadth of research in this area. Her research into Chartism was ground breaking, opening up new topics of study from a focus on female Chartists to the role ethnicity in Chartist politics." (16)
It has been pointed out that The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution followed on from her husband's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and "many years the landmark history of Chartism reflecting her enormous knowledge and breadth of research in this area. Her research into Chartism was ground breaking, opening up new topics of study from a focus on female Chartists to the role ethnicity in Chartist politics." (17)
Other books Dorothy Thompson was involved in included her editing Over Our Dead Bodies: Women against the Bomb (1982), Queen Victoria: Gender and Power (1990), a collection of essays, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) and The Duty of Discontent (1995), a collection of essays in her honour. (18)
Dorothy Thompson died on 29 January 2011.
I suppose anyone growing up in England starts asking questions about class almost as soon as they can speak and I suppose the milieu that I grew up in - a South London theatrical and craft background - cut across traditional working-class areas. Nobody in my family ever worked for anyone else, except in the short term, but on the other hand nobody ever employed more than a few people. We were the artisanal layer, I suppose, and we had a very strong tradition of independence and self-education. My paternal grandfather, a shoemaker by trade, worked part time on the music halls. Two of my uncles were full-time dance band musicians. Others were tumblers and that kind of thing. My father and mother were both professional musicians, although my father set up a business running music shops and my mother mostly spent her life teaching, but also did some performing.
Yes, I'm quite proud of being a third-generation Londoner. We are rather a rare species; people usually move out of London by the time they earn enough money to be able to afford it. I had a lot of relatives in places like Forest Gate, Woolwich and Greenwich. I was born in Greenwich and so I knew a lot of London families, mainly connected with the river or with the theatre - at the lower levels not the top theatre people. And there was also a branch of the family who were descended from Huguenot weavers in Bethnal Green. They still had their own memories of the weaving community.
It's difficult to date this kind of thing but I do remember the General Strike in 1926. I remember my father bringing some people home - he had a little motorcar - and these people were stranded because of the strike, we were told. My brother sent the contents of his money box to the miners. I remember an item in the newspaper, in the Daily Herald, which said that Tommy Towers had sent the contents of his money box to the miners. So I can date that clearly in 1926. I don't know how far it influenced me but certainly it's an early memory.
My earliest childhood memories are of a time when we'd moved out of central London to Keston, in northern Kent, and we lived in a village mainly occupied by labourers' families. I remember the little girl who was our daily maid telling me very indignantly that the people next door had taken a lift from my father to the polling station and he was only offering to take Labour voters. But she knew they were Tories because they took the Daily Mail . So I was aware of the difference between the Daily Mail and Daily Herald by the time I was about five. That's not really politics but it's certainly the rhetoric of politics.
Yes. The family always supported Labour and I decided I was a communist quite early on. I joined something called the Labour Monthly Discussion Group when I was about fourteen, then the Young Communist League and then the Communist Party. There was very much a political atmosphere in my family although no one ever belonged to anything. I was the first one I think to do that. But they had always read radical journals and newspapers.
I had to make my choices about subjects at university just at the beginning of the War and my first choice would have been languages, linguistics or European languages, but that was obviously out because of the War - one couldn't travel, I couldn't go and study abroad. We had a very good teacher at school who got us very excited by history. It was when I was about sixteen or seventeen that I realized that history was a problem-solving discipline and not just an information-absorbing one. I got interested in history because it linked up with my interest in politics, and with family memories. For instance I was always enormously puzzled that one branch of the family had actually left their native country, left a comfortable living to come and live in the East End of London, simply because their version of Christianity was different from the dominant one. This seemed to be a major historical problem of considerable interest, because in my generation nobody seemed to feel that strongly in England about religion. To have given up everything for a sectarian difference, seemed remarkable. This led on to political questions - why one group of people differ so profoundly when in fact they're on the same side in a sense. The question of political theory, political thought, political analysis was something that I got very interested in as a teenager.
In 1942. a year after Edward. He had been there for a year by the time I went and he had already gone off into the Army. I didn't meet him till we both came back in 1945. By 1942 the political situation was very tense, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the need to open a second front. The campaign to persuade the British authorities to invade Europe occupied an enormous amount of people's time on the Left. There were huge demonstrations in Trafalgar Square. I remember nothing of that size until the cnd demonstrations. I went up to Cambridge and the second front came during my first year as a student so that the War and the politics of the War, the question of the Soviet alliance, all these things came together in the student politics of that time. We had a huge socialist club of a thousand members. Even in Bromley, Kent, where I lived at this time, we had a YCL of nearly a hundred. I shouldn't think they've ever had more than about four or five before or since. This was a time when - with the Soviet Alliance - there was a tremendous interest in left-wing and communist politics.
(1) Sheila Rowbotham, Dorothy Thompson: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8 January 2015)
(2) Dorothy Thompson, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) page 3
(3) Dorothy Thompson, New Left Review (July/August, 1993)
(4) Sheila Rowbotham, Dorothy Thompson: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8 January 2015)
(5) Dorothy Thompson, New Left Review (July/August, 1993)
(6) John Saville, Memoirs from the Left (2003) page 88
(7) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 28
(8) William J. Tompson, Khrushchev: A Political Life (1995) pages 153-154
(9) Simon Hall, 1956: The World in Revolt (2015) pages 346-347
(10) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 55
(11) Sheila Rowbotham, The Guardian (7th February 2011)
(12) Dorothy Thompson, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) page 1
(13) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 118
(14) Dorothy Thompson, Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation (1993) page 14
(15) Sheila Rowbotham, Dorothy Thompson: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8 January 2015)
(16) Duane C. Anderson, The American Historical Review (April 1985)
(17) Keith Flett, Dorothy Thompson (14 February 2011)
(18) Sheila Rowbotham, The Guardian (7th February 2011)