Entwined roots in the past

The Hammonds
April 16, 1999

Biographies are very popular just now. Lives of writers appear regularly, rarely with much that is new except for guesses about the subject's sex life. A biography which is a serious work of history runs the risk of ending up on the wrong shelf in the bookshop. Stewart Weaver's The Hammonds is a genuine contribution both to the study of history as a discipline and to the history of the 20th century. There are no scandals or shocks to be found here, but this is a book which will take its place in the tradition of scholarly but readable works which form part of the British historiographical tradition.

The subtitle suggests rightly that the Hammonds made history as well as writing it. As a high-ranking civil servant and an outstanding political journalist, Lawrence Hammond was involved in the debates and the political acts which led to developments in social welfare and decolonisation after the second world war. Barbara, probably the more able scholar, was the first to use Home Office papers to understand the responses of ordinary people in Britain to the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the early 19th century.

The collaboration between them produced the well-known and still unsurpassed set of works, Village, Town and Skilled Labourers . These volumes presented in an unrivalled way the "pessimistic" view of the effect on ordinary lives of agricultural and industrial changes. They also made sense of responses and movements which had until that time usually been seen as simple animal protests against economic change.

Other joint works and Lawrence's writings on Gladstone are also still necessary reading for scholars of 19th-century political and social history. The judgements they made and the conclusions they came to have been questioned and qualified, but the quality of their scholarship and their writing has kept their work alive.

The two politically committed intellectuals who emerge from the fused title of The Hammonds are attractive people. Even though they lived until after the end of the second world war, they belong to an age totally different from our own. The book makes full use of their apparently extensive private letters and papers and sheds light on the marriage itself and on the social circles in which the Hammonds moved. In many ways they lived in a golden age. Barbara's education was as good as any available to members of her class, of either sex, and her name was published on her work and beside that of her husband on their joint work. She had private money, though perhaps not enough to live on, but with Lawrence's salary and his later earnings from journalism they were both able to work without recourse to the groves of academe, which might have confined their activities and their interests. They were able, moreover, to employ research assistants and other technical help, and although their home in Hertfordshire was modest enough, it had the essential amenity of a cottage in the grounds in which their various domestic servants could live.

There is far more in this book than a short review can indicate. It is written with style and a genuine sympathy and understanding of its subject that never become hagiography. It may well send readers back to the Hammonds' works of history, the three most famous of which are still in print. It also sheds light on many of our contemporary political concerns. Perhaps it may contribute to our current considerations on marriage and family matters, as well as to the principles which underlie the concept of the welfare state. In any case, it will provide a stimulating and interesting reminder of the history through which we and our parents have lived.

Dorothy Thompson is author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power

The Hammonds: A Marriage in History

Author - Stewart A. Weaver
ISBN - 0 8047 3242 6
Publisher - Stanford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 350

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