My friend Eric Taplin, the foremost labour historian of Liverpool, has died of cancer aged 87. When, in 1960, he arrived in the city as a lecturer at the Liverpool College of Commerce, no serious research into the development of dockers’ trade unionism had been conducted. As an enthusiastic member of the Economic History Society, Eric set out to redress this situation, starting with research into the papers of the National Union of Dock Labourers.
With his books Liverpool Dockers and Seamen 1870-1890 (1974) and The Dockers’ Union: A Study of the National Union of Dock Labourers 1889-1922 (1986), Eric established himself internationally as the acknowledged authority on the Liverpool dockers and opened up the field for others who followed him. It took great skill to unravel and explain the complex work-relations on the docks, and the often fraught relationship between union leaders and the rank and file; Eric succeeded magnificently.
This was no mean feat, as his teaching left little time for research. After the College of Commerce merged into Liverpool Polytechnic, he became head of the department of social studies in 1972. His role in developing the department and the Polytechnic was pivotal. He was an able administrator and always treated his colleagues graciously, fairly and generously.
His book Near to Revolution: The Liverpool General Transport Strike of 1911 (1994) was based on a set of photographs of the strike taken by the Carbonara photographic firm, which had lain almost unnoticed in the archives. Eric weaved a succinct account of the strike around the images, providing a memorable history of what was perhaps the greatest achievement of the Liverpool labour movement.
Eric was born in London and attended Willesden county grammar school. In 1939 he was evacuated to Northampton. A conscientious objector in the war, he ended up guarding PoWs in Staffordshire. Because his education had not been interrupted by the war, Eric was ineligible for an undergraduate grant, even though he had been offered a place at Manchester University. He therefore became a primary school teacher in Manchester and London, while studying in the evenings for an external University of London degree, graduating in 1957. After a short spell at a college in Cardiff, he was appointed as a lecturer at the Liverpool College of Commerce.
Eric retired in 1984, but continued to publish many articles; he submitted the final corrections to his last article for a historical journal a few days before his death. He was appointed a research fellow at Liverpool University and was the founder and longtime president of the North West Labour History Society, as well as a founder member of the Maghull and Lydiate branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a member of the Labour party in Maghull.
Eric was a fine man who made friends wherever he went, and remained as sharp as ever until the end. He was predeceased by his wife, Joan McCourt, and is survived by his children, Stephen and Heather, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.