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Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiographies

John Burnett (1925 – 2006) was a social historian and a professor at Brunel University from 1972 to 1990. His research examined the day-to-day lives of ordinary British people in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Collection was donated to Brunel University London by the authors, 1984-1989.  

The Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiographies consists of 246 autobiographies collected and retained by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall whilst compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, "The Autobiography of the Working Class" (Harvester Press, 1984-1989).

The authors "sought to identify not only the large numbers of printed works scattered in various local history libraries and record offices, but also extant private memoirs, many of which remain hidden in family attics, known only to the author and a handful of relatives" (Introduction to Vol.1, p. xxix).

The criteria for inclusion were: the writers were working class for at least part of their lives; they wrote in English; and they lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.  The authors did not leave us their definition of "working class".  

Not all the autobiographies referred to in their volumes were owned or retained by Burnett, and therefore not all are held in Brunel University London Special Collections.  The three volumes include descriptions of unpublished autobiographies and indicates their locations, where known.  

Excerpts from some of the autobiographies have also been published in "Destiny obscure: autobiographies of childhood, education, and family from the1820s to the 1920s", edited by John Burnett (Routledge 1994 and A. Lane, 1982).

 The Burnett Collection has recently been recatalogued, with improved descriptions, making it easier to identify narrators from all backgrounds and draw out their stories.  

Access to collection

The catalogue is avaialble onlinere here

The original three volumes of "The Autobiography of the Working Class" (Harvester Press, 1984-1989), are available to view in the Archives and Special Collections Reading Room, by appointment.  

Digitised copies of many items in the Burnett Collection are already available, or can be scanned on request. Please contact Special Collections for further information.  Please specify the reference number, title and author of  each autobiography that you wish to consult.  You will also need to complete our copyright declaration form, which we will email you.  

Original items from the Burnett Collection are also available to view in our Reading Room, by appointment.

Copyright:   The usual copyright regulations for unpublished materials apply: single copies for private study. If you wish to make more extensive use of particular items, or publish them, you will need to obtain permission from the various current copyright owners yourselves.  Brunel University London is not the copyright holder for the majority of the items in the Burnett Collection.

Some items within this collection reflect the prejudices of the era in which they were created, and include language which is offensive and may cause upset. The use of this language is not condoned by Brunel University London, but we preserve and provide access to these items.