8 October 2021

Archives revealed: The Blunkett archives

In July 2019 The University of Sheffield library was awarded a grant from the Archives Revealed programme to catalogue the archive of David Blunkett, a Sheffield MP for 28 years and former Home Secretary.

David Blunkett standing in front of an exhibition

 Archives Revealed is a partnership funding programme from The National Archives which supports the cataloguing of archive collections in the UK.

Its goals are to ensure that significant archive collections, representing the lives and perspectives of people across the country, are made accessible to the public for research and enjoyment.

The Blunkett Archives is a unique collection of national importance which records the former Home Secretary’s remarkable journey from a working-class community in Sheffield to the highest level of British politics.

One of the most significant aspects of the collection is that it covers a transformative period in British political history from a unique perspective – that of the first blind cabinet minister in the UK.

David Blunkett’s childhood and education

David Blunkett was born in Sheffield in 1947 and grew up in the Parson Cross area of the city. Blind from birth, his parents were forced to send him to a council boarding school for the visually impaired on the other side of the city at the age of only four.

When he was 12 years old his father died in an industrial accident, and the family were left virtually penniless, fighting a long battle for compensation from his father’s employer.

This tragic event, along with the poverty he witnessed growing up, spurred Blunkett’s interest in politics from an early age.

Having failed to be accepted into the only grammar school in the country for blind pupils, Blunkett attended the Royal Normal College for the Blind at Rowton Castle near Shrewsbury, which offered no provision for its pupils to undertake formal qualification but instead offered a more vocational education.

At the age of 16, Blunkett transferred to the further education branch of the College, Albrighton Hall, where he was offered the choice of pursuing qualifications in shorthand typing or piano tuning, two of the small number of job opportunities deemed suitable for the visually impaired at that time.

Blunkett chose the commercial course learning Braille shorthand and how to use a standard typewriter, as well as classes in English and business studies.

Disappointed that he was not able to undertake the formal qualifications that he believed he would need to pursue a fulfilling career, Blunkett enrolled in evening classes at a local technical college and gained several O levels and one A Level.  

In 1967 Blunkett left Shrewsbury and returned to his home city of Sheffield to take up employment as a shorthand typist at the East Midlands Gas Board, earning £12 a week.

Not long after starting the role, he not only became a trade union representative but persuaded the Gas Board to allow him to have day-release at a local further education college where he studied for a national certificate in business studies, as well as studying for further A Levels on two evenings a week.

Having worked so hard to secure the academic qualifications required to further his education, Blunkett initially applied to train to be a teacher but was unsuccessful and advised that his blindness would be a hindrance to working in education.

Although still keen to pursue a career in teaching, Blunkett took the advice that first obtaining a university degree would allow him to be more easily accepted into the profession.

Blunkett, therefore, applied to several universities and was offered places at Durham and York before accepting a place to study Political Theory at the University of Sheffield starting in 1969.

Blunkett was the first member of his family to go to university and the first blind student to win a place at university for a course designed for fully-sighted students.

He graduated in 1972 and went on to gain a certificate in teaching from what is now the University of Huddersfield.

Local politics

Blunkett had an interest in politics from a young age. He joined the Labour Party at the age of 17 and was active in local politics in both Shrewsbury and on his return to Sheffield.

He soon decided that he wanted to become more involved in the decision-making processes and put his name forward to be a candidate for election to Sheffield City Council.

He was selected to stand for his own ward of Southey Green, a traditionally safe seat for the Labour Party, and he was elected with a comfortable majority in May 1970.

At the age of only 22, and still a student, Blunkett was the youngest ever member of the council.

In 1973 he went on to take up the position of Lecturer in industrial relations and politics at Barnsley College of Technology and undertook the two roles side by side for a number of years. In 1980 he became the youngest ever leader of Sheffield Council.

Blunkett’s move into national politics

Blunkett’s aim was always to move into national politics and in 1974 he had stood as Labour candidate in Sheffield Hallam, at the time a traditionally Conservative seat.

He lost the election, and it wasn’t until 1987 that he achieved his ambition with his election as MP for Sheffield Brightside, his home constituency and one he was to represent for the next 28 years.

Blunkett went on the hold several positions in the Labour Shadow Cabinet and was also a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, playing a key role in the modernisation of the party.

Blunkett was appointed Secretary of State for Education after Labour’s landslide election victory in 1997 and Home Secretary in 2001. He held the position of Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2005, before leaving the cabinet at the end of that year.

Blunkett remained an MP until his retirement in 2015 when he was awarded a peerage and was appointed Professor of Politics in Practice at the University of Sheffield.

The Blunkett archives collection

The Blunkett Archives is an extensive collection of over 260 boxes dating from the 1940s to the present day and includes political and personal correspondence, policy papers, press cuttings, diaries, sound recordings and photographs.

The collection holds material relating to Blunkett’s roles in opposition including important records concerning his roles as shadow spokesperson for local government and the Poll Tax, and shadow minister for health and then education, including correspondence with government ministers as well as colleagues within the Labour Party.

The majority of records relating to Blunkett’s ministerial positions are held by the National Archives and will be released over the coming years in line with the Public Records Act. However, the collection does include personal correspondence and photographs of his time in government.

The collection also contains material relating to the history of the Labour Party and contains Blunkett’s correspondence relating to his work on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party from 1983 to 1997.

These records concern Labour Party strategy, policy formation and the modernisation and reorganisation of the party following the losses of the 1987 and 1992 general elections.

Correspondence with Labour leaders including Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair form part of the archive and offers interesting insights into the inner workings of the Labour Party.

As well as political papers the collection includes records relating to Blunkett’s working methods and the ways in which he compensated for his blindness.

For example, the archive contains correspondence with the Parliamentary Computer Officer when he first became an MP in 1987, discussing his requirements for a braille machine and other specialist equipment.

The archive contains some material in braille, although this is mainly limited to labels on file covers. As an MP and minister Blunkett used braille for notes of facts and figures he wanted to retain for important meetings and speeches.

However, it was impractical to braille large amounts of material and having staff read papers onto tape was his preferred method of consuming information.

The archive contains over 100 cassette tapes some of which contain correspondence and papers read onto tape by his staff, which Blunkett would listen to at double speed in order to process the material as quickly as possible.

Blunkett’s guide dogs also feature heavily in the archive and there are photographs and press cuttings relating to all seven of his dogs including Ruby who accompanied him to University, Teddy, the first dog allowed into the House of Commons Chamber, and his current dog Barley.

The archive holds records which offer a more personal look at Blunkett’s life such as childhood photographs and personal correspondence.

For example, there are letters between his mother and his schools relating to his education and pastoral care, as well as copies of his school reports.

The collection also includes letters from friends and family congratulating him on his graduation and his election as leader of the council, and messages of support following his resignation as Home Secretary.

There are files of press cuttings and mementoes which Blunkett kept including programmes, invitations and awards which track his career from his acceptance into university to his election as an MP and beyond.

The project

The Archives Revealed project has allowed for the arrangement and cataloguing of this extensive and important collection and has provided access to the catalogue for the first time via the library’s new online catalogue, Discover our archives.

The project also aims to engage with new audiences through outreach activities with local schools, both to promote the use of the Blunkett archives and to encourage broader engagement with archive collections.

A workshop with local schools is planned for autumn 2021 and material from the collection will also be on display in Western Bank Library.

Undertaking a cataloguing project during a global pandemic has had its challenges, and inevitably the completion of the project has been delayed from its original end date.

Luckily, work on digital material within the collection was able to be undertaken from home during the first lockdown, as well as work on preparing the existing catalogue data for ingest into the library’s new catalogue system.

The project archivist was able to return to campus to continue cataloguing from autumn 2020 and therefore the project was only delayed by six months.

The completed catalogue for the Blunkett archives is now available to search on Discover our archives and material will be available to view by appointment by all interested researchers and members of the public at Western Bank library.

For further information about the Blunkett archives contact Special collections.

Mariam Yamin, Project archivist

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