Constructing Post-War Britain: Building Workers' Stories 1950-70
22 May 2017
Dr Christine Wallis and Linda Clarke will be presenting highlights from the Leverhulme Trust funded project, which collected the oral histories of building workers employed on five major post-war developments. These accounts reveal the importance of oral history for understanding working life in construction and the construction process itself, as illustrated in the exhibition accompanying the seminar. They concluded by outlining the continuation of this work, focussed on workers employed in local authority building departments or direct labour organisations (DLOs) in the 1970s.
Accounts were given by construction workers who built the Barbican, M1 Motorway, Sizewell A Nuclear Power Station, Southbank Arts Centre, and Stevenage New Town. Their oral histories constitute an invaluable record of working life in a harsh industry. They also provide insights into many under-researched aspects of this period. Their words illuminate changes in building methods and technologies, trade union organisation, training, and new wage and employment systems, in particular, bonus systems and labour-only subcontracting. They reveal the hazards endemic in the industry before Health and Safety legislation, the use of blacklisting and the human cost of this practice on the families of building workers.
The interviews also highlighted the ethnically diverse nature of the construction industry workforce on many sites in this period, the role of particular groups, such as the Irish workers, the solidarity that many building workers had with each other, and the networks of mutual support that were forged in conditions that were often very tough. In short, they revealed the invaluable contribution of building workers to the creation of the post-war built environment in Britain and the changing nature of the industry in which they were employed.
Dr Christine Wallis
Christine is a reader in Architectural and Construction History and Co-Director of the ProBE research group at the University of Westminster. She has researched and published widely on the history of the built environment. She is on the editorial board of the Oral History Journal and co-editor of The Construction History Journal.
Linda is Professor of European Industrial Relations at the Westminster Business School. She has long experience of comparative research on labour, labour history, vocational education, skills, and wage relations in a range of European countries, particularly in the construction sector. She is on the board of the European Institute for Construction Labour Research (CLR).
ProBE (Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment), is a joint research centre between the Westminster Business School (WBS) and the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment (FABE), committed to the development of a rich programme of research and related activities, including projects, oral history, film, exhibitions, and seminars. ProBE provides a research hub, a forum for debate and discussion, and a focus for interdisciplinary and international activity related to the production of the built environment, as a social process, and its members have long experience of research on labour in the construction industry in Britain and abroad and work in association with the European Institute for Construction Labour Research.
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