Ruth Frow, who died recently was the type of progressive militant who had their lives shaped and formed by the now dissolved Communist Party of Great Britain. They were tireless in their activism and their political and social lives revolved around the Party. Along with her husband Edmund she created what became known as the Working Class Movement Library,* which now has a permanent home in Salford, Manchester. Today it is run by a Trust and comprises tens of thousands of pamphlets, books and artifacts on working class history and struggle and serves the Working Class Movement as a whole, but it began life as a row of well thumbed books on a shelf in Ruth and Edmonds house, and was not dissimilar to that which could and still can be found in the homes of thousands of ‘working class intellectuals’.
For that is exactly what her husband Edmund Frow was, plus an engineering worker, trade unionist and Communist Party militant. Whilst Ruth came from a middle class background, she became part of a distinguished working class duo after meeting her future husband Edmund at a CPGB weekend school, when they discovered they both had a great love of books, which along with their leftist politics helped them sustain their life long partnership in struggle.
* The Working Class Movement Library is here, http://www.wcml.org.uk/
In the splendid Working Class Movement Library she founded with her husband Edmund, Ruth Frow, who has died aged 85, already has her lasting memorial. Originating in the Frows’ shared love of labour history, by the 1980s the collection was bursting from every seam of their Manchester home. Fortunately, in 1987, neighbouring Salford council had the sense and public spirit to house the collection in the converted nursing home where it remains.
Run by an independent trust, the library today comprises tens of thousands of pamphlets, books and artefacts, dating from the days of Tom Paine and William Cobbett to more recent battles in which the Frows themselves played their part. It is one of the outstanding collections of its kind, in Britain and internationally.
Frow was born Ruth Engel, of partly Jewish, partly Irish extraction, and grew up between the wars in the north London suburb of Mill Hill. Her father had been a concert pianist who, due to rheumatism, had become an international commercial traveller. She was educated at Downhurst private high school in Hendon – receiving the grooming and education of a “young lady” and later taking pleasure in recording its failure.
The outbreak of war when she was 17 introduced her to the altogether less restrictive environment of the WAAF. Enlisting under age in time for the Battle of Britain in 1940, she spent the war in Fighter Command on the Kent coast.
Having encountered leftwing politics, she campaigned for Labour in the 1945 general election, and on the advice of a Kent miner at Betteshanger colliery, joined the Communist party at the same time. Her first husband, whom she had met in the RAF, joined with her.
Returning to London after the war, Frow was one of many young party members whose appetite for social reform found an outlet in the emergency teacher training programme. She was trained at Hampton, took her first teaching job in Mile End, east London, in 1949, and throughout the 50s was active in CP-sponsored peace campaigns. She was secretary of Teachers for Peace and the Manchester Peace Committee, and cofounder, and first chair, of Manchester CND.
She had met Edmund Frow, a Manchester shop steward, at a Communist party school in Sussex in 1953. Their first encounter was on the tennis court – Ruth was a former Middlesex junior county player – and they also discovered a common love of books. A memorable partnership was born. Eddie was a seasoned activist of impressive self-education, and Ruth never lost her admiration for his political understanding, though she did chip away at the male chauvinism she found in his shopfloor culture.
Their commitment to the CP was quickly tested. Eddie, too, had been previously married and the party was wary of any scandal that might affect its political activities. The couple were therefore directed to live apart and, for a year, Ruth worked in Liverpool while Eddie visited at weekends. This was the rule the party had pronounced – and, she later recalled, “we were nitwits enough to stick to it”. Theirs was a steadfast commitment, and one of the shocks of Ruth’s later years was her expulsion from the CP during the bitter factional rivalries of the 1980s. Though under no illusions as to the extent of its decline, she remained convinced of better days to come. From the overnight collapse of Europe’s communist regimes, she took at least one positive lesson, that history had not yet done with great political changes.
This conviction underlay all the couple’s activities. For the Frows, as they readily admitted, book-collecting was not just a pastime but a disease. Educators and proselytisers for the cause they believed in, they saw in the knowledge of working people’s history both an argument for socialism and a precondition for its achievement. Academics were always welcome to their library, and their friends included many eminent historians. Nevertheless, they took special pride in the union and community activists who visited the library, and it was to them that their own publications were chiefly addressed. Titles on Robert Owen, Karl Marx, William Morris and Citizen Guillotine give a flavour of their enthusiasms. Their important collection on political women shows Ruth tilting the balance of a largely male socialist pantheon.
When the library moved to Salford, the Frows moved in with it. Although the constant round of visitors eventually proved too much for them, Ruth remained a regular presence, even after Eddie’s death in 1997. Two days before she died, she was there as usual, attending the library committee. Her warmth, generosity and unflappable common sense will be missed. But she died with the satisfaction of having left not just a memorial, but a resource with which to take on future challenges.
Ruth Frow, teacher and librarian, born July 28 1922; died January 11 2008