Special Collections hold a wealth of twentieth century material relating to social and political movements for democracy, equality and justice. Papers, literature and correspondence survive to chart the activities of local political parties, trades unions, pressure groups and activists.Aberdeen played its part in the radical politics of the twentieth century. There were publishers like James Leatham, active labour and communist party organisations and numerous trade unions with a central Trades Council organising matters. Aberdeen activists joined the 1926 General Strike and during the Spanish Civil War nineteen men fought against Franco’s fascists. Aberdeen groups have also been involved in post-war national protests against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the introduction of the Poll Tax.Whilst the focus of this exhibition is the twentieth century, Special Libraries & Archives also have a web presentation, The Voice of Radicalism, which traces the changes in democratic rights in Northeast Scotland from 1800 to 1930. Materials available include political articles from newspapers, prints, squibs, ephemera and song sheets.

James Leatham ‘The Class War: A lecture delivered in the Northern Friendly Society’s Hall, Aberdeen, under the auspices of the Aberdeen Socialist Society’ (James Leatham, Aberdeen, 1892) (L A K Lea)James Leatham

James Leatham (1865 - 1945) was an Aberdeen-born political activist, author and publisher. He was heavily involved in local socialist organisations and between 1889 and 1892 he ran a printing and publishing co-operative, selling works by writers such as William Morris, Robert Cunningham-Graham and John Bruce Glasier. He also published many of his own well-received pamphlets such as ‘The Class War’, ‘An Eight Hours Day, with Ten Hours’ Pay’ and ‘The Most Important Thing in the World’. Between 1891 and 1892 he also produced ‘Workers Herald’, the first openly socialist weekly paper in Scotland. The collections comprise Leatham’s pamphlets, his periodical ‘Gateway’ and some manuscript material.

Leatham explains why class war is inevitable under capitalism;“The theory of Socialism is that the division of society into classes renders social warfare inevitable … that the poverty of the poor is caused by the robbery on the part of the rich. The mansion explains the hovel. The factory, the foundry, the shipbuilding yard account for the shooting lodge, the yacht, and the tours in foreign lands. The long day’s toil of one class renders possible the lifelong leisure of the other ... ”

Aberdeen Clarion Club minute book 1: 15 September 1899 - 21 November 1903 (MS 2467/1)Aberdeen Clarion Club

The Aberdeen Clarion Club was formed with the intention of being radical and revolutionary. It was an offshoot of the Social Democrats of the time, and flourished from 1899 to 1909. Its foundation was inspired by ‘The Clarion’, a weekly socialist paper based in Manchester which ran between 1891 and 1931. Rule 2 of the Club states "That the Club would exist for the study and public discussion of all questions relating to Literature, Science, Art and the Drama, viewed from the Socialist standpoint … ". The collections comprise three minute books covering the period 1899 to 1909 in which are detailed members lists (including women), topics of lectures and reports on social activities organised by the Club.

Excerpt from minute of 15th February 1902 when the Club discussed a paper read by a Miss RT Craigmile about the fictional character ‘Mrs Grundy’ and what she stood for. Mrs Grundy was a character from Thomas Morton’s 1708 play ‘Speed the Plough’ and was considered the personification of the tyranny of conventional propriety. Her name and the expression became very familiar throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries as an eponym for an extremely conventional or priggish person. The discussions illustrate how women were involved in the labour movement at regional clubs and at national political groups and actively discussed issues relating to sex relations.

General Strike bulletin of the British Worker (Trades Union Council) Aberdeen Edition  (MS 950)General Strike Press Editions

The General Strike of 1926 began with disruption in the coal industry and became general with the involvement of other industries, including road and rail transport, building, printing and iron and steel. Although the miners stayed out for six months, the general strike itself lasted only nine days. The collections comprise rare strike issues of the Aberdeen Press and Journal, Aberdeen Evening Express, The Times and British Worker.

The Strike Bulletin was printed and published by the Central/General Strike Committee based at Trades Hall in Belmont Street, Aberdeen. Five thousand copies of the Bulletin were produced each day, updating the public and strikers with the latest news.


The Plain Man’s Guide to the Coronation: How is the Empire: no. 3 (Anon., Communist Party, [1936]) (MS 2664/1/9/24)Communist Party, Socialist And Trades Union Literature

Special Collections have an outstanding collection of late nineteenth and twentieth century communist, socialist, and union literature from sources including the Aberdeen Trades Council and the Aberdeen Communist Party. The collection comprises pamphlets, leaflets, journals and newspapers from The Communist Party, Labour Party, The Scottish Trades Union Congress and others. The two pamphlets highlighted here are from the core collection of political publications containing over 1000 items.

The pamphlet was published by the Communist Party in opposition to the Coronation of George VI. It was the third in a series of ‘The Plain Man’s Guide to the Coronation’: the others being ‘One Happy Family’ and ‘Parade of War’. The pamphlet series attack the monarchy generally, the coronation festivities, imperialist warfare and capitalist economies. The vivid front illustration shows a mock Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. The lion and unicorn supporters are replaced with caricatures of Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, both with tails that are symbolic of a mace weapon; the lion crest has been replaced with a gas mask with military helmet; the quartered shield depicts two money bags, a missile and a police baton and lastly the motto has been replaced with the purported cost of the Coronation festivities.

American Spider (Arthur Clegg, The Communist Party, 1947) (MS 2664/5/3/36)The spider is a metaphor for the power of America around the world and the author explains that Britain is the fly and prey of the spider. The pamphlet claims that America aims to become the dominant world player and will achieve this through war profiteering, rampant capitalist policies and militaristic Western imperialism. The pamphlet makes further claims that Britain will become an American colony, citing the number of American military bases on British soil.




Aberdeen Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Mary Esslemont (1891-1984) was an Aberdeen graduate who had a long and prominent career as a local doctor. She was also a stalwart of Liberal politics, as well as playing a prominent role on a national and international stage in the fields of education, medicine and humanitarianism. Amongst her papers in the University’s archives is literature from pressure groups such as the National Council for Civil Liberties (now called Liberty), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and the Electoral Reform Society.

These papers are from the Aberdeen branch of CND, dating just two years after the founding of the national organisation in 1958. The march in Glasgow was called ‘Scotland Aldermaston’ and mimicked the famous march from London to Aldermaston which heralded the beginning of the pressure group.

Wildcat No.1, September 1974 (MS 3025/Library - Wildcat)Aberdeen People's Press

Aberdeen People's Press was established as a non-profit making company in 1973. Its primary function was the production of the fortnightly community newspaper, 'Aberdeen People's Press', but it also ran a commercial printing service, providing cheap printing for socialist and community groups, and maintained a small library of radical and community group literature. The collection’s library includes hundreds of publications from across the UK and a number from overseas. The publications date from the 1960s through to the 1980s and represent a variety of socialist, anarchist, ecologist, anti-capitalist and feminist groups.

Wildcat was an anarchist publication from London. It states as its aim: “We want Wildcat to be both a chain of information for active readers and a forum for discussion. Above all, we want to reach people who do not consider themselves libertarians – and persuade them to consider our ideas.” It contained news, reviews, notes and arguments and included special supplements. This first issue had a special supplement on disaffecting the troops in Northern Ireland and contains very hard- hitting graphics.

Wise-Up Theatre Company poster for production of ‘The Trial of Margaret Thatcher in Aberdeen’ held in Aberdeen Trades Council in 1987. (MS 2270/4/2)Aberdeen Trades Council

Aberdeen Trades Council was established in 1868. Its formation at this time was prompted by the effects of the great strike of that year. The Council assumed responsibility for organising the annual summer holiday for the Aberdeen trades, and from the outset, took an active role in both trade and municipal matters within the city. The papers of the Council contain minutes, annual reports, subject files and ephemera. As well as the Trades Council, Special Libraries & Archives have over 40 collections of local trades unions.

This production took place as part of the Trades Council’s May Day celebrations in 1987. The Theatre Company was made up of unemployed people and relied on sponsorship from unemployment and community projects. The poster is an irreverent cartoon image of the Prime Minister as a punk complete with a nose piercing.

t-shirt titled ‘Don’t pay the Poll Tax’Aberdeen Against the Poll Tax

These papers were transferred via the Aberdeen Trades Council and bear witness to a time of nationwide protest against the Conservative government and the introduction of the community charge or poll tax. The tax was introduced to Scotland in 1989, a year earlier than the rest of the UK. Its implementation in England and Wales a year later saw civil disobediance on a massive scale culminating in non-payment and riots in London. The protests are considered a major contribution to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher who resigned from office in 1991. The collection includes material relating to the movement in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.

Relevant collections

Archive collections
online archive collections catalogue

  • James Leatham papers: 1911-1958 (MS 2776)
  • Aberdeen Clarion Club papers: 1899-1909 (MS 2467)
  • General Strike press editions: 1926 (MS 950 & MS 951)
  • Communist Party, Socialist, and Trades Union Literature: 1886-1997 (MS 2664)
  • Aberdeen Trades Council papers: 1876-current (MS 2270)
  • Mary Esslemont papers: twentieth century (MS 3179)
  • Aberdeen People’s Press papers: 1969-1979 (MS 3025)
  • Aberdeen Against the Poll Tax papers: 1989-1991 (Accession 359). This collection is uncatalogued so please enquire about access.
  • Miscellaneous trades union papers: 1938-1966 (MS 2671)
  • Also, more than 40 local trades union branches, local labour party branches, local business and employers’ associations: nineteenth and twentieth centuries (various collections so please search the archive catalogue)

Printed collections

The open access Local Collection includes newspapers and pamphlets including the Aberdeen People’s Press newspaper and pamphlets by James Leatham.