Autumn 2007

Sixth Essex Conference on Labour History

The sixth Essex Conference on Labour History was held in Witham Labour Hall on Saturday 27th October. Attended by over 60 people it was acclaimed as one of the most successful labour movement meetings to take place in the county.

The Co-operative movement in Essex

Malcolm Wallace (Essex labour historian, former Director of Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society and secretary of Chelmsford Trades Council) spoke on “The history of the Co-operative movement in Essex”.
The inspiration for the Essex co-operators had been Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. Co-ops had small beginnings, often with groups of workers in a factory, or artisans who clubbed together to exchange goods such as coal, food and other vital resources. They were pragmatic people, often fairly ambitious and not representing any one set of political beliefs. Some in Essex had been former Chartists. On the whole agricultural labourers were not included – the co-operators tended to be craftsmen or professionals. In Essex the co-ops were based in industrial towns such as Colchester. Some were based on factories, such as Courtaulds where a co-op dealt in fish and coffee amongst other commodities. Many of these co-ops were shortlived and did not survive, but when the going got tough members would put in their life savings in order to try to keep them going.

Co-ops existed in the 19th century in Malden, Coggeshall, Witham and Stratford. In Braintree silk weavers sold products from a
wheelbarrow, then a rented shop and went on to own a bakery and a slaughterhouse.  Some of them which had begun with a pair of
borrowed scales and a milk bucket ended up as part of a major social movement, by merging into the London Co-operative Society.
The motivation for co-operators was practical – they did not like the poor quality of food or high prices. But they met with resistance from local traders who tried to prevent wholesale suppliers from selling to co-ops. Many had a vision of a “co-operative commonwealth”.
By 1900 1 in 10 families in Essex shopped at a co-op. The co-operative movement took on an educational and entertainment role, organising parades of over 15,000 in Colchester in the 1940s on international co-operative day.
The Women’s Co-operative Guild, which was the first to launch the “white poppy”,  was very effective in organising and educating women. In some areas women’s guilds were shadowed by “co-operative men’s guilds” but these did not last very long.
In the tradition of Robert Owen the first co-operators did not have political affiliations. Some were Liberals and Tories. Sponsoring Labour MPs was to come at a later date. The Co-op as an employer was also ambivalent towards the trades union movement as an increase in wages could be seen as cutting dividends.
The London Co-operative Society pioneered self-service shopping and in the 1940s accounted for 90% of self-service shops in the UK. Today although  having declined somewhat,  the co-op movement lives on in its support for fair trade, co-operative housing, funeral parlours and credit unions. The Co-op is also the largest farmer in the UK.

The Co-operative Movement and Labour

The second speaker was Stan Newens, chair of Labour Heritage, former President of the London Co-operative Society, MP and MEP

He spoke on the contribution of the Co-operative  movement to the labour movement on its 90th anniversary. The roots of co-operation went back to  the Diggers who farmed land in common during the English Civil War, and the 17th and 18th century  trades unions and Friendly Societies. Robert Owen himself believed that the right to vote was a waste of time – the way forward was co-operative ownership. But others who were Chartists as well as co-operators disagreed. Political neutrality was adopted by the Owenites because they wanted to avoid faction fighting,  and in the 1880s the Co-operative movement distanced itself from socialist parties like the Social Democratic Federation. Ben Jones, London Branch Manager  of the Co-operative Wholesale Society  said that the Co-op movement was already putting £3 million per annum into the pockets of working class people, but Henry Hyndman of the SDF replied that he had nothing against co-operation but he thought that it was only benefiting the higher class of labourer.
In 1890 William Morris writing in the Co-operative Wholesale Society annual said that, in his view, workers should replace the present system of competition by socialism or universal co-operation.
Some of the co-op societies  campaigned for a more political stance on the part of the co-op movement.
The debate within the Co-operative Congress for parliamentary representation went on throughout the 1890s and the 1899 Congress came out against it by 905 to 409 votes. An invitation from the TUC to join a joint labour representation committee therefore had to be rejected by the co-op movement. In 1905 however a Co-op Parliamentary Committee was set up as the Congress agreed to take a greater part in government. Links with any political party were however ejected on the advice of the Leeds branch which was run by Conservatives.
Nonetheless the issue did not go away and in 1912 reps from the Co-operative Congress agreed to meet representatives from the TUC and the Labour Party. However the movement still opposed any links with a political party.
World War 1 was to change the thinking of the Co-op Party on this issue. Food Committees set up by the Government were dominated by private tradesmen who tried to block food supplies to co-ops.  Key Co-operative employees were called up while in the private trade they were given exemption. The Co-op dividend also became liable for excess profits tax which was considered to be unfair. So in 1917 the Congress came out in favour of direct parliamentary representation to protect its interests. A key activist from Stratford,  Alf Barnes, a member of the Independent Labour Party, unexpectedly won the Stratford Presidency in 1915 and campaigned strongly for a political commitment.
In 1918 an emergency congress attended by 1,000 delegates set up the Joint Central Parliamentary Co-operation Committee. This met with representatives from the newly reconstructed Labour Party to discuss how to avoid election disputes. The Co-op started to field parliamentary candidates and the Joint Central Parliamentary Committee became the Co-op Party in 1919. In 1922 11 Co-op candidates stood for Parliament, of whom 4 were elected. The issue of direct affiliation to the Labour Party at a constituency level was still under discussion – but only one of the London societies which became the Royal Arsenal Co-op Society was very much in favour. The issue of nationalisation was a contentious issue between the Labour Party and the Co-op as the Co-op put more emphasis on different types of social ownership. They objected to the nationalisation of insurance if this were to include the Co-operative insurance business. They also saw the importance of consumer representation as part of the democratic control of publicly owned resources.
In 1945 23 Co-op candidates stood for Parliament. Some of those elected,  such as Alf Barnes were to be ministers in the 1945 Labour Government. In 1946 the Co-op Party adopted the policy that all its candidates must be individual Labour Party members. The aim of this was to exclude members of the Communist Party as well as  the Liberals or Conservatives who still might be active in the Co-operative movement. In 1958 an agreement was reached for a limit of 30 Co-op MPs. Negotiations took place over many years to  avoid electoral clashes with Labour.
In the field of political campaigning the Co-operative Movement  took a strong line on peace issues and  women’s rights

Witham Branch Labour Party

The third speaker was John Gyford,  labour historian, former Essex County Councillor and current Braintree District Councillor.
He spoke on the history of the Witham Labour Party branch from 1925 to 1975.

The talk was based on minute books from 1925 and which are deposited with the Essex County Record Office. This was the first recording of Labour Party activity in Witham  although there had been Labour candidates before 1925. The Witham Labour Party branch was part of the Malden constituency. In 1975 the Essex County Labour Party wanted the Witham branch wound up and subdivided into ward branches. This happened for a while but was not successful so the Witham branch was re-established. The Labour Hall in Witham in which the conference was taking place, attracted a large membership.

John spoke of the problems of using minute books in that minutes were written for the guidance of activists not for historical research. Conclusions were often ambiguously recorded with the assumption that those reading them would understand their significance. However apart from the local newspapers these are the only records that we have of local Labour Party branch life.
Witham in 1925 was a town of only 4,000 people – it has grown to 25,000 over the last 25 years.
The main source of employment then was agriculture including seasonal activity such as pea-picking. The cattle market stood on the site of the Witham Labour Hall. There was however some industry in the town – Crittalls windows opened in 1919 adjacent to the railway line – a paternalistic employer that had an impact on labour relations in the town. There was also a glove factory where according to a report in the local paper, – “the women employees had danced in support of higher wages.” The railway was also an important employer. But it has also provided transport into London for over 8,000 commuters today.
The railway was  important in establishing Witham as a labour movement centre in Essex. In 1926 over 4,000 attended a rally on the Crittall  site  to hear Ramsay Macdonald speak on the theme of the “emancipation of the farm worker”.  Special trains were chartered to get people along from all over the county.
Local factories often refused to recruit farm workers. They offered higher wages and better conditions, and there was an understanding with local farmers that their workers would not be poached. Labour MPs in the county similarly tried to remain on good terms with both sides of the farming industry.
Witham grew as newcomers from London moved in. They moved on to the Crittalls housing estate at Silverend and later to a London County Council housing estate. Often they were regarded with suspicion by long standing residents.
Labour activists tended not to be farm workers. One of them,  Ebenezer Smith was a railway worker who became a leading councillor. He tried to juggle his shifts with labour movement activity and committee meetings. Issues included water supply, sewerage, street lighting, housing and employment. Labour councillors campaigned on these issues. From the minute books it appears that they sometimes faced criticism for non-attendance at branch meetings and hence becoming out of touch.
Branch meetings were attended on average by 18 people – rather less than the membership of the branch. Other the years the branch passed resolutions against the Common Market, and nuclear weapons. They made donations to strike funds. Often the minutes indicated that only business matters were discussed. What was striking however was the vibrant social life that the branch sustained. This was particularly the case for the Women’s section and the Labour League of Youth which were very active in the 1940s and 1950s. The LLY held a sports day in which they had two teams entitled “Attlee” and “Morrison”. The Women’s Section held an annual fish and chip supper.
The meeting was addressed by a member of the Labour League of Youth from the 1940s who was in attendance with his wife who had also been also an active member. He emphasized the importance of political education in the LLY.
The conference ended with a discussion on all of the three speeches. Then there was a discussion on the way forward for labour history in Essex with suggestions for themes for a conference next year.

The vision of Nye Bevan

In a BBC programme on 11th December last year entitled “The things we forgot to remember”, Michael Portillo took to task Tony Benn and Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government for myth-making Labour’s claim to be the founder of the welfare state. It was all in the Conservative pipeline and only the accidental coming to power of Labour allowed it to steal this golden goose from their chest of benefits awaiting the end of hostilities.
Aneurin Bevan got a cold shoulder as the supposed founder of the NHS. He, it was claimed, put  together reports prepared by previous Conservative administrations, gave them a gloss – then “Eureka” – Labour’s confidence trick was launched.
Of course, it is a travesty. Neither Portillo, Thatcher or any other Conservative would, or indeed, could, have brought into being a NHS as fashioned by Bevan. For proof of this we have to go into the circumstances of working as a coal-miner, its historical location, and the culture such a life generated for its people.
South Wales was at the cutting edge of industrial capitalism. Its supplies of coal, iron, timber and other natural resources provided the basis for its growth as a “tiger” economy. It also came into being when ideas fresh from the renaissance, a capitalism struggling against the remnants of feudalism and other archaic societies and one in which science and politics generally, were progressing apace.
The area became a melting pot of different peoples who travelled there to work in its industries. They added fresh experiences and new ideas to a working class suffering the agonies of an existence not yet ameliorated by the power of labour organised in trades unions.
Robert Owen, William Morris, James Connolly, Jack London, Marx and Engels were but a few of the radicals who sharpened their thoughts into collective, focussed discussion. By the late 1800s working class theorists were already turning thoughts into decisions.

Medical Aid Society

Tredegar’s (Bevan’s birthplace) Medical Aid Society was founded in 1890. For 2-3 pence a week any person could join and have the benefit of health treatment and care better than today, a report recently said, as casualties travel 15 miles for treatment formerly conducted streets away.
The South Wales Miners’ Federation was a co-founder in 1911 – along with the Railway Unions, of the London based Central Labour College. This provided two years of study in socialist theory and other subjects of benefit to workers and their unions. From this developed the National Council of Labour Colleges, whereby former students established educational centres in their respective localities, and the Plebs Magazine, which expressed the views and experiences of students.
Students by the mid 1930s, numbered 30,000, bolstered by the correspondence courses that the NCLC also developed. Could this have been a harbinger of the Open University which Jenny Lee fought so hard to get on to the Statute Book?
Bevan’s sister, Arianwen, retained, after his death, a copy of Joseph Dietzgen’s “Positive outcome of philosophy.” This, an inseparable feature of study at the College and NCLC classes, deepened Bevan’s two year stint at the CLC to the grounding already received from well-versed members of the South Wales proletariat.
Dietzgen was introduced as “Our philosopher” by Marx at the Hague conference of the 1st International in 1872, and also credited by Engels as being an independent discoverer of the “materialistic dialectic” along with Marx himself.
In his obituary of Bevan, Michael Foot made the observation that Bevan  should have written a book on logic to explain his known intensity of thought as he strove to apply philosophical principles to problems before activating a policy. Undoubtedly this would have referred to Dietzgen – notice the occasion on a visit to Russia, where he recited a poem of Dietzgen’s and probably, Fred Casey, a NCLC tutor who wrote “Method in thinking” to further expand Dietzgen’s elaboration of Marx’s philosophy.

National Health Service

Further Portillo should learn that the Tredegar Query Club, founded with Bevan, took as a working vision Marx’s “philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it”. And this Club was central to having Bevan elected to the committees of the Tredegar Medical Aid Society and Tredegar Hospital Committee. From these two bodies, he obtained the experience which guided him when in Parliament and when in power to fashion the National Health Service, as nearly as possible, to the principles learnt in Tredegar.
It is no co-incidence therefore that the form, if not the internal democratic structure of the NHS, conformed to a further principle formulated by Karl Marx “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” – included in his description of some of the attributes of a communist society when writing the “The critique of the Gotha Programme”.
Thus, the NHS, emerging from the Welfare State programme of the 1945 Labour Government, offers a glimpse of a future yet to be won, therefore, in aid of this purpose, what better example can we ask for than :
“the most unsordid act of British social policy in the twentieth century which has allowed and encouraged sentiments of altruism, reciprocity, and social duty to express themselves to be made explicit and identifiable in measurable patterns of behaviour by all social groups and classes” – Richard Titmuss.

Alan Spence

PS What does Portillo make a report in the Times (26/12/06) “in a list of 12 great Britons who created the institutions that shaped the country’s history compiled by the Conservatives and eminent historians. The list is chronological in order and begins with St Columa for bringing Christianity to Britain and ends with Nye Bevan (1897-1960) who is included for his role in creating the NHS.


    The Order of Free Gardeners, today almost extinct, is a fraternal society founded in Scotland in the middle of the 17th Century and which later spread to England, Ireland and overseas.  Like numerous other friendly societies of the time, its principal aim at the end of the 17th Century and during the whole of the 18th Century was the sharing of knowledge and secrets linked to the profession, as well as mutual aid.  In the 19th Century its activities of mutual insurance became predominant.
    Although the Free Gardeners always remained independent of Freemasonry, the history and the organisation of the two orders show numerous similarities.
    The most ancient evidence of the order is a record of the minutes of the Haddington East Lothian lodge opened 16 August 1676.  This organisation could be viewed as a primitive form of union, organising co-operation between its members, their practical training, their ethical development and their support of the poor, widows and orphans from the association.
 In 2000 research by Robert Cooper found a single lodge in Bristol. and mentioned the Caribbean British Order of Free Gardeners and a surviving order in Australia.

 Jose Cox-Lindop writes about the Friendly Society Movement and her days as Secretary to the General Secretary of the National United Order of Free Gardeners’ Friendly Society

   The Head Office of the Free Gardeners' was in High Street, Sandbach, Cheshire. It was a large brick building and part of it was leased to the local branch of the Social Services with separate entrances for each set of offices. It stood next to the Woolworth's Store, in the busy little main street of the small historical market town.
   In 1962 I became Secretary to the General Secretary of the Society. There was only one other member of staff who was in an office upstairs, surrounded by walls full of files. There was a pleasant, easy atmosphere in the offices. After being in the General Offices of the Railway Company in Crewe, it was very quiet.
   My job was mainly taking dictation, typing letters and preparing for the Annual Conference and other meetings.  Preparing for the Conference was the busiest time.  Lots of typing and printing on a Gestetner printing machine. We produced  a Booklet for everyone attending the Conference.
   I attended two Conferences, one at Harrogate and one at Scarborough.(I still have group photographs taken at these events.)  The Grand Master and others wore their Chains of Office. I remember at that time, the Grand Master was from Hull. ( A number of years later when visiting Hull, I saw a Public House called the Free Gardeners.)
   I didn't know much about Friendly Societies. I was a member of the Girls' Friendly Society, at Christ Church in Crewe, when I was very young. I remember learning to embroider in a sewing class there. The big Friendly Societies had been formed many years earlier.
In England, men worked mainly on the land before the Industrial Revolution. They were employed at the whim of the Lord of the Manor and tied to his Estate. If they decided to look for work elsewhere, for better conditions for themselves and the family, they had to do it in secret, and this is where the secret signs started. Later,if they had a certain craft or trade, they would invent secret handshakes or passwords to be recognised by those who were organising groups of men for work.
   Some were given a metal disc with a mark or number on.   These were sometimes given as payment for work done and could also be used to prove that they could do that work. As time went on, they became more organised and formed into groups of the same trade and became, Gardeners,  Foresters, Stonemasons and others. The Oddfellows  were men of different trades that grouped together, hence the name. There is a Social Club in Crewe called the 'Oddfellows'. (Although it is undergoing changes at the moment.)
   The Stonemasons who mainly stayed in one place for a number of years while they built cathedrals and other large buildings, developed their own secret signs to do with their craft. They would leave their tools in a shed which they called a lodge.
  Eventually, Friendly Societies emerged and became known by their trade name.   They had different Lodges in an area , giving their Lodge a name to do with their trade, and all belonged to the main branch of the Society in that area.  The Society evolved and as a group was able to protect members. They paid an amount each week and so helped each other in times of sickness or when work was scarce.
   After the Friendly Societies Act 1792, members were able to sign and register their Rules with the local Magistrate  which gave them protection from fraud and embezzlement.
   In the early 1800s, the Tolpuddle Martyrs formed a Friendly Society of Agricultural Workers, in their home village in Dorset.
   There were quite a number of men in the 1900s working in the shoe making industry in the Northampton area who joined the Free Gardeners. One member had produced a polish to give his boots a high gloss and he was offered a patent for the polish. He said that he would like it to be named after his Lodge - the Cherry Blossom Lodge.  Hence Cherry Blossom Shoe Polish.
   A friend of mine told me that her father had been a member of the Free Gardeners' in Stockport, Cheshire in the 1930s and sent me a report on the National Conference of Friendly Societies. It was held at Leicester     on Thursday and Friday, the 15th and 16th September, 1932. Brother George Wright , the General Secretary of the Free Gardeners had  presided at the Conference.
   On the Executive Committee of the Conference were members from: - Ancient Order of Foresters, Independent Order of Oddfellows, Order of Druids, Independent Order of Rechabites, (temperance),  Hearts of Oak Benefit Society, Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds and the President from the Gardeners. 
   During the President’s Address to the Conference, he said: 'Our Movement  has always been a Peace Movement and World Peace is a matter of the greatest moment to all Friendly Societies. It is time that fear of each other was banished from among the nations of the World for it  is this which begets wars. Brotherliness is the soul of the Movement and if the spirit of Brotherhood ruled the affairs of the nations, as it rules the affairs of our Societies, wars would cease, universal disarmament would take place and World Peace would be achieved.' 
   On Sunday , January 18th, 2004 on the B.B.C. T.V. programme, 'Antiques Roadshow' from Scarborough, a man had brought in a Banner from the Lodge of Claughton of the Free Gardeners'. The man examining the Banner had not heard of the Free Gardener’s.  The man with the Banner explained what he knew and said that it was like a 'Sick Club' that paid for Funeral Expenses.  I think that it was so much more than that!
   I believe that these Societies were the origins of the Trade Unions, who later decided to support candidates to stand for Parliament and so the Labour Party was born.
   Regarding the Head Office in Sandbach. I think that it closed around 1969 and was moved into smaller premises, in Sandbach and then closed completely in 1975.

Jose Cox-Lindop, a long standing member of Labour Heritage, lived in Mickleover in Derbyshire for 25 years where she was a Ward Secretary, School Governor and founder member of the Women’s Section.  Jose now lives in Crewe.

Leah Manning

A celebration of the life and work of Dame Leah Manning M.P. ( Islington East 1931 , Epping 1945 – 1950, ) was held  at Homerton College, Cambridge on 9 March 2007, where 100 years before,  she had trained as a teacher.
Her two biographers , Ron Bill and Stan Newens began by explaining that Leah had left instructions that all her papers were to be destroyed on her death. However this had not deterred them from embarking on a biography, involving impressive scholarship to reconstruct the story of her life and achievements, particularly as it involved correcting mistakes she herself had written in her autobiography at the age of 84,  ‘ A Life for Education ‘ (Victor Gollancz, 1970). Research in the Family Records Centre showed that her father was not the timber merchant she described , but a Captain in the Salvation  Army who left his daughter in the care of her grandparents to pursue his work in Canada.  At school  Leah met the Reverend Stuart Headlam, an unorthodox but influential Christian Socialist . It was he who suggested that she should apply for a place at  Homerton, then a Teacher Training College in Cambridge.
Stuart Headlam was also responsible for her first meeting with Hugh Dalton, then an undergraduate at King’s College, who introduced her to meetings of the Fabian Society and what she later described as “ a political friendship which lasted a lifetime”.
Leah loved Cambridge and Ron Bill carefully mapped and photographed  all the landmarks  she described in her autobiography . Once qualified , she took up a teaching post at New Street School where she found herself challenged by the needs of poor,  under-nourished children , quite the opposite of the rich and privileged young men and women she had encountered in the University. With a colleague, she organised an after-school club for the children to further enrich their educational experience.  At the same time , she became an active member of the newly – formed Cambridge Labour Party who were preparing to fight their first General Election in 1918 where she enlisted the support of the Principal of Homerton College, Mary Allan , who agreed to sign the candidate’s nomination papers.
From this point on Labour politics and education became the defining points of her life and career , even though married to a staunch Liberal.

Labour candidate

The NUT  provided a platform and Cambridge Labour Party  a context for political activity which led eventually to her adoption as Labour candidate in a bye-election in Islington in 1931. Ron Bill’s tenacious investigations unearthed an early piece of newsreel film showing Leah leaving Islington Town Hall after the count, but sadly she was not to be returned at the General Election seven months later , nor in the General Election of 1935, where she was faced by a hostile press in Sunderland.
However, in 1937 , she fulfilled one of her greatest achievements , when she arrived in Bilbao, charged with the task of evacuating Spanish children from the war zone to safety in London. Against all odds, she personally supervised the embarkation of nearly 4,000 children with their teachers on behalf of the anti-fascist  National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief. One of the children from the voyage was present at the event.
The war years were spent as Education Officer for the NUT but in 1945, by then 59 years old, she was successfully elected as M.P for Epping by a majority of 987. 

Campaign issues

Stan Newens took the story on, concentrating on her campaigns for nursery places, family planning , women’s issues and agricultural concerns in part of her constituency in the Lea Valley . She was an ardent supporter of the  New Towns Act of 1946, as Harlow was in her constituency.  On international affairs , she spoke out against the Cold War , opposed the American loan to Europe and supported Indian independence while never abandoning her main area of interest and expertise – women, children and education. Her narrow re-election in 1950 however was not repeated in the 1951 Election. She continued to campaign for the causes dear to her heart, vigorously opposing the Suez invasion on 1956 and  speaking on election platforms until 1970. She took the opportunity to travel widely in eastern Europe and the USA whenever possible. Stan Newens,  who eventually succeeded her as M.P for Harlow spoke vividly about his personal  memories of her. She was, he said  a very forceful character , a big woman , physically and mentally,  who had been unlucky in her political career  - unlucky not to have been selected for a seat in Bristol in the 1930s and unlucky to lose in Islington after only 7 months . She had never had a Cabinet post , despite her  wide knowledge and experience and her dedication to work.

Basque children

The final session of the afternoon was a presentation by Natalia Benjamin, Secretary of the Basque Children of ’37 Association . Her session included the showing of a film entitled Cambridge Colony – Children of Spain , now preserved as a DVD at the Imperial War Museum. It was a moving moment for the one surviving refugee who had been accommodated at the home established, with Leah’s influence in Cambridge but who subsequently married an English girl. He not only saw himself in the film which showed the daily routines of the children , but also his sister, who has since died. Natalia had many photographs and documents on display boards and her Association arranges reunions of the surviving children, their children and grandchildren.
The celebration was held in the newly-designated Leah Manning Room at Homerton College where 80 people can be accommodated for private or conference events. All details for hiring the room  can be found on the website

Sallie Purkis    

Tom Norris

   Tom Norris was a prominent Socialist and Independent Labour Party activist in Ealing one hundred years ago.  He stood for Ealing Council and lost in 1904. The following article by him appeared in the Chiswick Gazette on 4th January 1907 under the heading The Past Year – Socialism.  My research on Tom Norris continues.    
John Grigg

    The subject of Socialism has been on everybody’s lips.  Newspapers have attacked it – particularly the Daily Express that sought to sow dissension in the ranks of Labour but rendered it a high service.  We chortle with glee because the more our cause is assailed the more firmly the truth of it gets established.
    Keir Hardie is the very embodiment of the spirit of Socialism.   When I first heard him in Ealing, over 12 years ago, he was despised and rejected.  Now, possessors of ill-gotten gains fear him and he is listened to with great respect because he is sincere and the great cause he champions so bravely is the one cause which will survive the present strife of tongues.
    The Labour Party, consisting of only four MPs a year ago suddenly became thirty. The Liberal Party fought bitterly against it because in the words of John the Baptist ‘He must increase but I must decrease’.  The Liberals pretended that the aims of both parties were the same and called the Labour Party ‘wreckers’.
    Why did the House of Lords let through three bills introduced due to the Labour Party – The Trades Disputes, the Workmen’s Compensation, and the Feeding of Children Acts – while rejecting the Education and other bills?  Because they know they can safely flout the Liberal Party whose feet are largely of clay while those of Labour are iron right through.
    Socialism has been gaining its hold in Europe, Japan, South Africa and Australia.  Wonderful strides have been made by the ‘Votes for Women’ movement made during the year.  Municipal enterprise is to be recommended and what the Daily Mail calls municipal debt the business man calls ‘capital’.
    The ILP has a fearful task in a place like Ealing.  In the local elections beer and blarney won in one ward and deception and ignorance in the other two.  Schemers take full advantage of the appalling ignorance in national and municipal politics.
    Poverty and squalor is caused by our commercial system – infant mortalities, unemployment, prostitution, drink, the Poor Law.
    Socialism is not the panacea for everything but it would cure these economic ills. Ignorance is our great obstacle.  We Socialists did our best in 1906 and we mean to do better in 1907. 

Book reviews

“The Women’s Labour League 1906-1918 : for labour and for women”

2006 was the Labour Party’s centenary year which was commemorated by Labour Heritage, the Society for the Study of Labour History and the Labour History Group, and even the Parliamentary Labour Party.
However it was also the centenary of a less well known organisation which paralleled the growth of the Labour Party between 1906-1918, called the Women’s Labour League. This organisation which was wound up in 1918 has all but disappeared from the memory of the labour movement. When I was asked by a friend to find out about it I discovered by chance a book written in the 1980s by Labour Heritage member, Christine Collette. In the introduction to her book Christine says that the League remained obscure and received little attention even during the 1980s, a time of vigorous expansion of labour history. One of the reasons for this she believes is that the archives were largely destroyed. Marion Philips the last secretary was empowered to destroy correspondence dating before 1912. Margaret MacDonald  was president until 1911, when she died left papers which were burnt by her husband, Ramsay after her death. What is left of the archives are kept at LSE.

The Women’s Labour League was for labour and for women. It did not set out to be a separate organisation from the Labour Party (often called the Men’s Party). It worked with Labour Representation Committees at local level. It affiliated to the Party and after 1911 received financial assistance from it. To understand the role that it played in these years we have to look at the situation facing women, both middle class and working class in 1906. Women were excluded from society. They did not have the vote. Many worked in home based sweated industries and, where they worked outside the home,they were excluded from the trades unions. In 1906 only seven  trades unions admitted women. When the Labour Representation Committee (later to become the Labour Party)  was set up to secure labour representation in Parliament  membership was on an affiliated rather than individual basis so women in any large numbers were virtually excluded. Furthermore issues affecting women – health, school meals and the welfare of children, were not priorities for what was overwhelmingly a male trades union party. Women not in the work place did not have insurance cover.
Even on the issue of women’s suffrage the Labour Party and its affiliated organisations were divided. There was hostility to the concept of suffrage being extended to propertied women. When Salford ILP met in a Men’s Club one of their women members Mrs Pankhurst left and formed the Women’s Social and Political Union. None of the socialist parties such as the Social Democratic Federation  had national women’s sections although there were organisations at local level. The only significant labour movement organisation for women was the Women’s Co-operative Guild which had 32,000 members and 611 branches by 1914.
The WLL was founded by Mary Macpherson, a translator who worked for the Railway Women’s Guild. She approached the Labour Party about forming a national women’s committee. When this was rejected she set up the Women’s Labour League. Its first conference was held in 1906 in Leicester with 100 members. The issues discussed included medical inspections, free compulsory secondary education and registration of women voters. It sought to get women elected to local bodies such as Boards of Guardians. Unlike the Labour Party it had an individual membership and branches met at times when women could get along – during daytime hours. By 1913 it had 5,000 members,100 branches in London, the North West, South Wales, Birmingham and Manchester.
It worked with other women’s  organisations at a local level – women’s sections of the ILP, the Social Democratic Federation and the WCG. Initiatives to set up a branch and campaigning activities came from local activists. The League was engaged in election work, campaigns for children’s clinics, maternity allowances, the sweating trades,  lobbying the Poor Law Boards and running tea parties for children. With funds it set up a clinic in London for pre-school children.
In 1911 the League faced a crisis losing both its secretary and chair, who died. But this heralded a new direction. The mother and baby image of its earlier years was to be superseded under new leadership to an emphasis on working women and class politics. A journal, “ Labour Woman” was launched. Funding from the Labour Party meant a certain loss of independence. In the years of industrial militancy from 1912 to 1914 the League raised funds to feed the children of strikers. It also became more involved with the women’s suffrage campaign. It campaigned on international policy issues such as war and peace.
Eventually the WLL  affiliated directly to the Labour Party. In 1918 the Party adopted a new constitution which allowed for individual membership. Women over 30 were enfranchised after 1918.  The WLL had all but collapsed during the war years. Only the Central London branch still existed. One of its campaigns had been to overcome the exclusion of women from politics and social activities by their domestic commitments. It called for communal kitchens to replace domestic ones. During the war it campaigned for the children of munitions workers to be provided with free meals by the government.
The League was finally wound up in 1918 in return for the Labour Party establishing women’s sections. Christine writes that separatism was not a failure  as the WLL had played an important role. The Labour Party received votes from women who had been registered by the WLL and the Party campaigned on issues such as child poverty which would otherwise have been neglected. The Labour Party retained an active women’s section and several prominent Labour women MPs had been active in the WLL, including Margaret Bondfield, Marion Philips and Ellen Wilkinson. One notable achievement is not mentioned – that the Labour Party gained  a higher proportion of women members than socialist parties on the continent. By 1939 50% if the membership of the Labour Party were women.  But the women’s section of the Labour Party went into decline. The Women’s Trade Union League was also dissolved and even the WCG had been in  decline after 1918.
The issue of women’s sections, active in the 1930s,  was not to be raised again until the 1980s when there was a growing awareness of women’s issues in the labour movement. However women did not face the same exclusion as they had in 1906.
“The Women’s Labour League 1906-1918 : for labour and for women”, by Christine Collette, was published in 1989 by Manchester University Press. – try and get a copy from your local library.

Review of “Labour inside the gate”: a history of the British Labour Party between the wars
By Matthew Worsley, Tauris 2005

Following Matthew Worsley’s edited “Labour’s grass roots”, a collection of studies on local Labour Parties published in 2005 and reviewed in the Labour Heritage Bulletin (Winter 2005),  this book follows the same theme of a history of the Labour Party at grass-roots level. Local history however is not used to prove national trends but to illustrate the diversity of Labour’s history in the local areas and to show the complex relationship that the membership has always had with the national party structure.
Between 1918-1924 Labour changed from a pressure group to the main party of opposition in the UK, then to form a minority government. In 1903 the Labour Representation Committee had published a cartoon entitled “Labour at the gate”. By the 1920s Labour was “inside the gate”. The number of parliamentary seats held by Labour rose from 42 in 1910 to 191 in 1923. In 1918 a new constitution had been adopted aimed at organising the party centrally with an individual rather than affiliated membership. The extension of the franchise in 1918 had played a key part in Labour breaking the mould of parliamentary politics.
However in spite of electoral gains Labour in the 1920s remained a party of the industrial heartlands. Arthur Henderson,  the architect of Labour’s new organisation was unable to fully put his stamp on a Party which owed its roots to a diverse working class. In areas such as Durham, the Miners Federation still ran the Party; Labour had difficulties in breaking into areas with working class Tory allegiances such as Lancashire and the Midlands. Even in London the style of Labour politics varied from one borough to another – George  Lansbury having influence in Poplar and Herbert Morrison south of the river.
Party organisation was given high priority at a national level but only a few constituencies achieved the model mass membership which was aimed for. These included Woolwich, Reading, Norwich and Romford which had over 1,000 members. A large membership did not go hand in hand with election victories. In Labour strongholds such as Ebbw Vale the Party hardly existed. Although Labour’s support and membership were typically working class men belonging to trades unions there were significant sections of even this section of  the working class who were not with the Party.

The impact of 1929-1931

After the split of 1931 Labour was reduced to 46 seats in Parliament but the strength of support for the Party at grassroots level ensured that it did not permanently go into decline but went on to make gains by the mid 1930s. Most of the membership remained loyal to the Labour Party and so did the trades union membership although the impact of the recession meant that trades unions in mining and textiles lost members.
In 1932 a campaign was launched to gain one million members. The Party based itself not just on organisation for elections but on social events such as the Durham Miners Gala, and a whole range of local organisations – choral and dramatic societies, dances, Socialist Sunday Schools, festivals and firework displays, whist drives, football teams, socialist film shows, and there was even a London Labour Symphony Orchestra. Political education was also important. Young people aged 14-21 joined the Labour League of Youth which allegedly got “out of hand”, socially and politically.
Political issues for the Labour Party included the  1930s recession,  for although the British economy was growing at 3.4% per annum by 1934 , this did not affect the “distressed areas” where unemployment remained high. Over 75% of the population of the UK were manual workers but places of work changed – new industries in engineering grew up in areas like the Midlands, Greater London, Oxford and Slough. This redistribution of the working population was to assist Labour to break out of its old industrial heartlands.
For those in work,  real wages grew in the 1930s. Patterns of consumption changed – the radio and cinema were new developments, as was the mass media. These consumption patterns helped to produced a homogeneous working class but cut across social activities created by the Labour Party and the trades unions.
In the 1930s Labour was still not attracting the support of the rural working class, non union members or the middle class (the black-coated worker) but was making electoral gains in new areas such as Chelmsford, Luton and Oxford. To win the 1935 General Election would have been an impossible feat – a 20% swing from 1931 would have been needed,  but the gains made in terms of votes were to become seats in the 1945 election victory. So it was not just the War which changed Labour’s electoral fortunes, according to the author.
Most MPs were still trades union sponsored but the unions were changing – fewer from the Miners Association and more from the Transport and General Workers Union. In terms of membership Labour’s individual as opposed to affiliated membership rose from 214,970 in 1928 (9.4%) to 447,159 (17%). Women’s membership of the Party increased although women’s sections declined.

This is a very important contribution to Labour’s history. 

Labour in the city: the development of the Labour Party in Manchester 1918-1931
By Declan McHugh, published by Manchester University Press, 2007

This book looks at the role of Labour Party activists in Manchester during the 1920s and 1930s and is therefore another important contribution to the history of the Labour Party at a grass roots level.
The adoption of the 1918 constitution laid the basis for the transformation of the Labour Party from a federation of trades unions, co-operative and socialist societies to a mass party with an individual membership. Its architects looked to the model of the Social Democratic Party in Germany which organised its members lives and provided an entire range of leisure activities, not just politics.
McHugh begins by giving an outline of the development of Labour politics in Manchester  up to 1918. Manchester’s main industry was cotton in common with other Lancashire towns, but it was also an important financial centre. Many of its inhabitants were also employed in transport and engineering. By 1901 it had half a million inhabitants. There was a distinctive split between the industrial north and middle class suburbs on the south side of the city.
In 1902 the Manchester and Salford Trades Council established the Manchester and Salford Labour Representation Committee. The main component of this was the Manchester Independent Labour Party founded in 1892. By 1902 this had 810 members in 13 branches in Manchester.
How successful was the Labour Party in securing a “new bond of comradeship” and a “socialist community” rather than an election machine? McHugh looks at the Manchester experience. His first observation is that the majority of members tended to be skilled workers – the same sort of people who had formed the affiliated membership of the Labour Representation Committee. These were the people who would be members of trades unions and in many areas they simply took over the running of the Labour Party. The influence of the unorganised unskilled and the middle class was marginal, although this varied between different parts of the city. The Labour Party although more active than today never reached the two million membership of the German Social Democratic Party. Its member retained their basic pragmatic trades union outlook rather than the “communities of solidarity” envisaged by socialist pioneers. Also in Manchester there were more commercial outlets for the leisure time of the working class – pubs, football and greyhound racing, as well as religious organisations which competed for the allegiance of working people. So the Labour Party never gained the same hegemony as the German Party. Nevertheless by today’s comparisons the membership and activities of the Party were considerable.
Two of the local parties in Manchester – Hulme and Ardwick organised typically up to 200 public meetings a year in the 1920s. Members were also involved in welfare work and tea parties for needy children were organised. In 1926 special attention was given to support for the families of miners. Ardwick Labour Party had its own journal, of which 10,000 copies were printed each month. The Party ran study groups and educational classes, including lectures on subjects such as “Human nature and capitalism” and “Municipal and national banking”. The Party also organised a whole range of social activities. So the Party was not just an electoral machine.
In fact McHugh concludes that this programme of organisation did not affect the Labour Party’s electoral chances at all. Labour’s vote in the 1920s was based on class politics and the collapse of the Liberal vote in Manchester as in other parts of the country. The efforts of Labour activists did not change this. Labour’s support remained confined to its industrial heartlands particularly after the 1931 split in the Parliamentary party. Labour did not show signs of becoming a national party in the 1930s.
However even within Manchester there were local variations in the extent and activity of the Party. In some areas the Labour Party was effectively run by one trades union branch. But where there was no trades union as in Ardwick the organisation of Party activists was more important. This could be said of the Labour Party nationally, there was indeed a wide variation in the composition and activity of the local parties. Labour’s organisation was often weakest in its industrial heartlands and where paradoxically it obtained its highest votes. However the efforts of activists in areas outside Labour’s heartlands were to be more critical in changing the political landscape of Britain and paving the way for the 1945 election victory. This was important in an age where there was a large movement of population away from the heartlands and into new industrial areas. Labour’s gains in the 1930s put the Party on the map to becoming a party of government. This book illustrates the strengths and  weakness of drawing political conclusions from a local political study.

Reviews  by Barbara Humphries


Dear Barbara
Congratulations on another very interesting Bulletin.
I was interested to read Alan Spence's article and agree with him that John Burns should be reclaimed  for socialism.   My only disagreement is with his statement that Battersea would have continued to support Burns electorally if he had stood in 1918.
Opponents of the war fared badly in the General Election of 1918: George Lansbury was beaten in Poplar, Ramsay Mc Donald was beaten in West Leicester by more than 14,000 votes and Philip Snowden was beaten by a similar margin in Blackburn.
The election of 1918 was fought in an emotional atmosphere in the aftermath of victory as can be seen by some of the slogans used by the Coalition candidates in Battersea: 'The Kaiser must be tried for murder', 'The Hun must pay pound for pound and ton for ton', 'Expel the Huns and keep them out'.   In the absence of Burns, the Labour candidate in North Battersea was Mrs Charlotte Despard, well respected locally for her good works in the Borough.   But it was to no avail and she secured only 5,634 votes while Morris, the Coalition Liberal  obtained 11,231.
Although Burns had a local following , he was not universally popular and the local newspaper, 'The South Western Star' pointed out that for more than four years he had not presented  to his constituents any account of his stewardship.   It seems to me highly unlikely that Burns would have been elected had he stood in North Battersea in 1918.   I agree with William Kent, the author of 'John Burns - Labour's Lost leader', who took the view  that if Burns had stood in Battersea in 1918 he would have been defeated and that the effect of his candidature would have  slightly reduced the Coalition candidate's  majority.   Burns would probably have been re-elected in the changed atmosphere of 1922.
Terence Chapman

Roundtable on Chartism

A Roundtable discussion on Chartism was organised by the Society for the Study of Labour History on Saturday 24th November at the Institute of Historical Research.

This was to publicise a new book which has just been published –

“Chartism: a new history” by Malcolm Chase, published by the Manchester University Press

And a web site “Chartist ancestors”  edited by Mark Crail.

Check it out.