“Britain’s greatest labour lawyer”: cataloguing the papers of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton


I joined the Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, as Assistant Archivist in March 2016 on a year contract. My brief was to sort, arrange and catalogue the archive of Lord Kenneth William “Bill” Wedderburn, Baron Wedderburn of Charlton (1927-2012) QC, Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at LSE, British politician and member of the House of Lords. His papers were deposited at MRC during 2013-2014 by Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University, and former student at the University of Warwick. Funding for this post was provided through a successful grant application to the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, administered by The National Archives, and donations from both individuals and organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This significant and extensive collection (over 100 boxes) covers the period from the late 1950s to 2010, and reflects Lord Wedderburn’s role as one of the most important and respected European academic lawyers in Europe, advisor to the TUC, and advocate in many significant legal cases. The papers also complement MRC’s main collections which cover industrial relations, politics and labour history in the UK from the nineteenth century onwards, and include national records of trade unions, trade associations and related organisations.

Page of notes on developments in labour law in the UKPage of notes on developments in labour law in the UK

The Wedderburn archive offers an invaluable resource for students of politics, law, history and industrial relations, because of the detailed records on all the key issues in labour law and industrial relations since the early 1960’s. During this time the first edition of Lord Wedderburn’s ground-breaking work The Worker and the Law was published (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965). The papers cover his involvement with the Donovan Commission and the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy, legislation of both Conservative governments (1979-1997) and Labour governments (1997-2010), the European Community, legal cases, teaching papers, annotated books and published and unpublished papers. There are also papers and reports from the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU), which has been based at the University of Warwick since 1970.

The Wedderburn papers were sorted into topics based on Lord Wedderburn’s filing system, and boxed at the family in London, prior to transfer to the MRC. Using Excel spreadsheets to list the papers offered a pragmatic approach for obtaining an overview of this large collection and its functional activities. The box listing phase also included sorting and appraising the papers, and weeding out duplicates. Given the size of the collection, I have concentrated on topics which I perceived to be the most important in terms of MRC’s own collections. The papers have been divided into five sections covering UK Political and Advisory, Legal, European and International, Teaching and Publications. The data has been imported into CALM and I have added biographical and description content to the catalogue. All the papers have been numbered as per the catalogue references.

Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities - acts or threats, 1980 Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities – acts or threats, 1980

I have enjoyed the challenges of arranging and cataloguing these important papers, and creating order out of “relative” chaos! It has been a fascinating insight into Lord Wedderburn’s career. His charming and somewhat satirical sketches scattered across the collection, are an unexpected highlight. Coming to the end of my year at MRC, the Wedderburn papers’ project has given me valuable experience in the cataloguing of labour and political history papers. One of the best things about being an archivist is the continual acquisition of knowledge in the day to day application of archival procedures.

The catalogue may be viewed at: http://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/WED

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, has arranged and catalogued part of the Wedderburn collection of papers.


[i] “Britain’s greatest labour lawyer” quoted from: Professor Bob Hepple, “Obituary: Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC”,  Industrial Law Journal (ILJ) vol.41, no. 2 July 2012 (133)


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