Conference on labour history in Essex 2008

The joint Labour Heritage-Essex County Labour Party Conference on Labour History was held at Witham Labour Hall on Saturday 25th October 2008 and chaired throughout by John Kotz, who welcomed everyone at 11 am, briefly referring to the continued success of these occasions. Over 50 people attended.

Robert Owen
Stan Newens, chair of Labour Heritage, was the opening speaker on the subject of Robert Owen,  born on 14th March, 1771, and the 150th anniversary of his death was 17th November, 2008.

Stan recalled that in 1958, the centenary of Owen’s death, he had written an article on the pioneer co-operator, and in 1971 had listened to Harold Wilson at a bicentenary event, in memory of his birth.

Owen began work with a London draper, Mr. Heptinstall, but moved to an apprenticeship in Stamford, back to London and then to Manchester.  In Manchester, he set up a textile venture with Ernest Jones.  Here, he contributed to literary and philosophical societies, meeting a variety of intellectuals and gaining experience of public speaking, while being involved in running a succession of ever bigger cotton mills.

He then came into contact with David Dale of New Lanark Mills, near Glasgow, and eventually married his daughter.  With partners, he bought New Lanark Mills and introduced model conditions.  Workers’ houses were built, an effective superannuation scheme was set up, and an improved school was established for workers’ children.  This was in accordance with his dictum: “Man’s character is made for him and not by him”.  He believed workers would change under different conditions.  The best state would be judged by its education system.

Owen never shied away from appealing to those at the top, presenting his ideas to Lord Liverpool, Lord Sidmouth and the Archbishop of Canterbury and receiving visits at New Lanark from royalty, including the Tsar of Russia.  Owen gave £1,000 to Joseph Lancaster’s British & Foreign Schools Society, which was promoting the monitorial system in schools, and would have given the same to Andrew Bell’s National Society had they agreed to open schools to pupils of every creed.

Before 1832 only one in forty men and no women had the vote and Parliament was totally unrepresentative.  However, Owen co-operated with Sir Robert Peel the elder (father of the future Prime Minister) to get the 1819 Factory Act passed, restricting child labour in the factories – although there were no inspectors to enforce it.

When his ideas were finally rejected by the ruling classes, Owen went to America and established a community, New Harmony, in Indiana after purchasing land from a German peasant community set up by George Rapp.

Meanwhile, however, co-operative experiments inspired by Owen’s ideas multiplied in Britain, especially in London.  The first London Co-operative Society was launched in October 1824 and the word ‘socialism’ originated in its publication The Co-operative Magazine of November 1827.

Robert Owen returned to Britain after New Harmony had failed and his efforts to convince others – including the Mexican leader Santa Anna – had proved unsuccessful.  Undaunted, he continued to organise and founded the Grand National & Consolidated Trade Union based on associations for each trade going down to parochial lodges, which also failed.  During this period, he was in the forefront of the campaign in support of the exiled Tolpuddle Martyrs.

He met King Louis Philippe of France to try to influence him, and promoted Queenswood Co-operative Community which was dissolved in 1845.  In later years he became interested in spiritualism, but was still projecting his ideas to within a fortnight of his death in 1858.

He saw himself as ahead of his time, and his long-term influence was enormous.  Twelve of the Rochdale Pioneers, who established the co-operative model which swept the country, were Owenites.  Karl Marx referred to him at the inauguration of the First International in 1864.  The trade unions and the working class movement at home and abroad derived much from him.  The huge debt should be fully acknowledged and remembered at this the 150th anniversary of his death.

Votes for women
Mary Davis, (Professor of History at London Metropolitan University) then spoke on how the vote for women was won and the significance of Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation of Suffragettes. From the outset the Pankhursts were split on “class/gender” versus “just gender” politics – Sylvia totally for the former, Emmeline and Christobel for the latter.

After 1884, the third Reform Act had left a third of the male population disenfranchised and the property qualification would mean a much larger proportion of women would be left without the vote even after Emmeline’s goal had been achieved. Indeed this resulted in Asquith and Lloyd George decrying the sum of the proposals of the Women’s Social and Political Union as a “ladies bill”. Moreover some members of  the Social Democratic Federation (Harry Quelch and Belford Bax) were dogmatically opposed to any female suffrage.   In a  “New Leader” article, Gertrude Tuckwell, honorary secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, pointed out that  women’s property vote  would generally support the then incumbent Tory Government.

Furthermore the WPSU lacked internal democracy leading to a rift with the labour movement which, Sylvia Pankhurst, a close friend of Keir Hardie, strongly opposed. Sylvia objected to the coolness shown to the Independent Labour Party by the WPSU and was dubious of its “terrorist campaign” readily appreciating why working class women could not afford to gaol, with the resulting loss of job and source of income.  The “Cat and Mouse Act” with release into relaxing conditions for  recuperation was only for the “comfortably unemployed.” Rather naively, she went to the East End, where “toffs” were viewed with suspicion, as it was a nearly homogeneous working class area. Sylvia was not afraid to speak out against other locals on the left and when George Lansbury resigned his seat, Bromley and Bow in 1912 to fight a by-election on “votes for women”, she  described his actions as “rash and premature”.

 She was also a strong opponent of racism and when Moet referred to black troops on the Rhine as the “black scourge of Europe” in a”Herald” article, she vehemently objected. Later she was a staunch supporter of Ethiopian freedom (indeed later generations of the family are still much involved with that country). Sylvia’s organ of communication was the “Workers Dreadnought” which counter-balanced “Britannia” which whilst having the slogan “votes for women” was embarrassingly nationalistic. Sylvia was eventually expelled from the WPSU but, with an established base in the East End, helped organise an Albert Hall rally to raise money for the Dublin lockout victims and became a friend of Connelly and Larkin.

 Christobel became one of seventeen candidates of the short-lived and extremely reactionary Women’s Party,  while Emmeline, as viciously anti-socialist as ever became Tory candidate for Whitechapel St George but died before the 1929 General Election. Sylvia was briefly in the Communist Party, attended their first international conference, corresponded with Lenin and continued with progressive causes for the rest of her life.

The NHS
After an excellent and much-appreciated lunch the afternoon commenced with John Macnicol, Visiting Professor of Social Policy at the LSE, whose subject was the establishment of the NHS in 1948 and sixty years of its achievement.

In Victorian times, doctors were wealthy men with wealthier patients. There was public health legislation but working people were reliant on friendly societies or more limited sources. This was depicted by there being a doctor for every 476 people in Hampstead, but for 4,568 in Bermondsey. The wealthy relieved their aches and pains with a variety of, nowadays, questionable drugs such that “Victorians were quite spectacular substance abusers”. Cover for the non-wealthy was patchy and inadequate – schemes had an income limit of £160 per annum with no cover for dependents or self-employed and black-coated workers could find themselves outside the financial boundaries. In total nineteen million were covered by health insurance , fifteen million were not  covered, with a further one million left outside.

The Dawson and British Medical Association reports of the 1930s stated that the average GP income was £1,000 per annum, but Harley Street incomes could be 100 guineas a day – indeed charging travel at one guinea a mile, a trip to attend 100 miles away could result in 300 guineas being paid for less than 24 hours work, nearly one third of the GP’ s average income. Although there were voluntary and local authority (ex-Poor Law) hospitals there was far more deprivation and distress than originally thought. The Tories opposed the 1946 NHS Bill line by line and clause by clause, necessitating four readings. They  especially opposed emergency medical services.

Despite common misconceptions Nye Bevan’s remarks that he “stuffed their mouths with gold” was made ten years later and not boastfully but ruefully, feeling that GPs had been allowed too high a price. The NHS most benefited old folk, women and children. No more did people rummage through tin boxes at sales in search of the nearest suitable pair of glasses; new spectacles were, initially, free at the point of need. However until this time the poor had generally not had to pay taxes.

 Over the years many other changes have come about although there has been no increase in the percentage of GDP spent on the NHS (approximately 3.5%). New charges came into use in the 1960-5 period, although the post-code lottery remained. The trend over nearly two decades of Tory rule had been to enforce monetarism, to push through industrial legislation in an attempt to destroy the unions followed by  dismantling the welfare state. Under New Labour more hospitals have been built with more funds being made available,  plus attempts to reverse some of previous Tory cuts,  but this has been done with private-public partnerships,  plus privatisation of health care to foreign capitalists encouraged by New Labour. Private practice has continued in areas like dentistry. An enormous amount needs to be done but the NHS is still very badly needed.
The final talk was a shorter contribution by John Grigg, Labour Heritage treasurer and former member of Hounslow Council, on the background to the NHS. Beveridge’s report was published in 1942.  Three years later during the 1945 election the BMA was meeting in Tavistock Square and the news that Beveridge  had lost his Berwick seat was greeted with cheers.

 Not all GPs were of this ilk.  Indeed Dr Edith Summerskill – a Labour MP for 23 years, said that it was a middle of the night visit to deliver a baby  under appalling housing conditions that convinced her how necessary it was to have a free health service.  GPs felt that they were being turned from small businessmen into civil servants, and they greatly resented the state meddling in their affairs in  such a way and feared  that confidentiality and freedom  were at stake.

 Based on the average working class wage a GP visit cost 5% of gross earnings.  Rather than charge for a second call some doctors had sufficient decency to leave gloves to be collected later then check the patient’s progress when returning to pick up “the forgotten gloves”.  Later opposition from doctors was centred on the basic salary which the more irrational described as a “fascist measure”. However after a brilliant speech and strategy by Nye Bevan Tory opposition was weakened. 20,000 doctors signed up while 90% of the public joined and by the year’s end this had become 97%.

Questions and a general discussion covering all four talks followed plus a discussion on future activity in Essex and the conference closed at 4.15 pm.
Report by Bill Bolland

West London Labour History Day 2008

This was held on Saturday 22nd November in the Chiswick Labour Party Rooms and was attended by over 40 people.

John Wheatley
The first speaker was Stephen Schifferes who had studied the history of Labour housing policy at Warwick University and is working on a biography of John Wheatley.
John Wheatley was a leader of the Red Clydesiders and became Minister of Health in the first Labour Government. He was principle architect of the 1924 Housing Act that saw a massive programme of municipal housing at affordable rents.

He was born in Ireland in 1869 and migrated to Lanarkshire. His father was a miner and John himself went down the pits at the age of eleven. Getting out of the mines he sold religious calendars door to door and later set up a printing business.

John was converted to the Labour Party by the poverty and housing conditions that he saw and he joined the Party in 1906. He had roots in the catholic community and was also a member of the Catholic Socialist Society and the Catholic Working Men’s Association.

When he became a member of Lanarkshire County Council in 1912 he argued that profits from tram fares should go to provide cheap housing in Glasgow.
During World War 1 housing conditions in Glasgow worsened as workers flooded into to work in the munitions factories needed accommodation. There was serious over-crowding. With growing demand landlords took the opportunity to raise rents and tenants unable to pay were evicted. The Labour Party took up their cause campaigning against poor housing and evictions. Some of those evicted were war widows or wives of soldiers who ended up out on  the street with their children. Such was the feeling that one of the slogans of the rent strike of 1915 was “Let’s get rid of the huns at  home” – meaning the landlords!

In 1915 Prime Minister Asquith introduced national rent controls for the wartime years,  but in the 1920s these controls came to an end and rents soared by 40%. Clydeside continued to be a centre of political protest, partly on the rents issue. In the general election of 1918, Wheatley campaigned for “homes fit for heroes” but he lost his seat by 72 votes. In 1922 however he was elected along with 11 other “Clydesiders” who went to Parliament championing the cause of “Red Clydeside”.

John Wheatley went on to become Minister of Health,  also responsible for housing in the first Labour Government of 1924. He was concerned with building more houses of a good standard (why couldn’t working class housing have parlours?) and with keeping rents down. The success of Wheatley’s housing policy was that 180,000 to 450,000 new houses were to be built in the five years after his Housing Act had been passed. This posed the need for control over the building industry to supply the bricks and training of apprentices. Altogether 2 million council houses were built in the inter-war years.

Wheatley became associated with the left-wing of the Party after Labour was defeated after a short time in office. He along with other Clydeside MPs supported the Cook-Maxton Manifesto in opposition to the financial orthodoxy increasingly adopted by Labour leaders such as Ramsay Macdonald and Philip Snowdon.   He died in 1930.

The talk was followed by a lively discussion in which members of the audience drew some of the lessons that we can learn from John Wheatley’s housing policy to solve the housing crisis of today and how current government ministers should take that on board.

The Putney Debates
The second speaker of the day was Anne Polden, an Open University tutor in history on the 1647 Putney debates which took place during the English Civil War. For the first time the issues of universal suffrage and the control  of Parliament over the King and Lords, were raised.

Anne gave an introduction to the Putney Debates and how they arose during the course of the Civil War. The New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Rainsborough had been the main force for overthrowing the monarchy. Radical ideas through a group which came to be known as the “Levellers” with a strong base amongst London artisans, fluctuated widely throughout the Army. Pamphlets were issued by the Levellers to influence soldiers to support universal suffrage. The leaders of Parliament however had the restoration of the King in their sights. Religious radicalism also took hold as the power of the established Church was challenged. Although many of the Levellers could have been claimed to have been agnostics. The issues for the Army was that of pay – many were owed arrears of pay in 1647 and protection from legal proceedings for treason.
The Army had moved to Putney, which was in 1647, a village on the outskirts of London. They were there to protect Parliament from the Presbyterians who wanted an agreement with the King. But they stayed away from London itself so as not to be seen to be pressurising the MPs.

The Putney Debates took place in St Mary’s Church in October 1647. The rank and file of the Army debated the “Agreement of the People”, a radical programme of rights for all citizens. There was opposition though from those who assumed that universal suffrage and election of all MPs would mean a re-distribution of property. Those in support opposed this scare-mongering – after all they all obeyed God’s law that “thou shalt not steal!” However historical  events were against the Levellers and their supporters in the Army,  and they suffered a military defeat at Burford, Oxfordshire in 1649.

There was a discussion on how far the tradition of the Levellers affected future generations of radicals, such as the Chartists who were to call for universal suffrage almost two hundred years later. Evidence was produced that radical societies in some 18th century English towns such as Norwich, made references to the Levellers but more were made to the Jacobins across the Channel in France. The term “Leveller” was to be used negatively by the ruling class following the restoration of the Monarchy and this revolutionary tradition in English history was allowed to be buried for many years.

Twickenham elections and by-elections 1929-1935
The third speaker of the afternoon was John Grigg from Labour Heritage and a former Hounslow councillor. He spoke on the theme of elections and by-elections in Twickenham between 1929 and 1935, of which there were six. The Twickenham constituency was formed in 1918 covering Twickenham, Isleworth, Hounslow and Heston. Formerly it had been part of the Brentford Division. Although the fortunes of the Labour Party fluctuated during the time of these elections, it never returned a Labour MP. There was however a Labour council for a short while in Twickenham after 1945.

In 1929 the Conservative candidate was William Joynson-Hicks, known as Jix. He had been Home Secretary between 1924 and 1929 and had adopted a hard line during the 1926 General Strike. He had also cracked down on nightclubs and “other aspects of the roaring twenties”.

The Labour candidate was Tom Mason. He had commenced his political career as a Liberal but came to join the Labour Party in Hounslow where he was elected President of the Party and stood for the council unsuccessfully on three occasions. He had a flair for organisation.

One of the highlights of the 1929 campaign in Twickenham was a visit from AJ Cook, the miners’ leader. He came to Twickenham, probably to campaign against Joynson-Hicks who had been so confrontational during the 1926 strike. Scores of meetings held by both sides were reported in the Middlesex Chronicle. Tom Mason held 25 meetings in 10 days. There was still a carnival like atmosphere about elections in those days. For instance, the Labour Party organised a march from Hounslow to Isleworth and a flotilla of boats displaying slogans from Isleworth to Eel Pie Island. The climax was election day when thousands gathered in Treaty Road to hear the result. Tom campaigned against the record of the Tory Government on unemployment and also on slum clearance. The government’s slum clearance scheme, he said, had only affected 30,000 people. Houses which had been built, had been as a result of the Wheatley Housing Act of 1924. Although Labour speakers called for socialism to be achieved by gradual means, the Tories accused them of wanting to start a revolution, as in Russia.

“Jix” claimed that living standards were going up, as seen by increasingly car ownership and the number of letters being posted!  He was a supporter of Protection to guard British industry – Labour and the Liberals supported free trade as they claimed import duties would increase the cost of living. Lord Beaverbrook was a champion of “empire free trade” – free trade within the British Empire. The Conservatives also wanted to reduce income tax and return to the gold standard. Labour campaigned for nationalisation of the mines, raising of the school leaving age, slum clearance, a housing programme to be financed by death duties and raising income tax.

On the night of the election a large crowd gathered in Treaty Road, Hounslow, singing rival party songs such as “Solidarity forever”. At the end of the evening they sang “Sonny boy” and “Tipperary”.

Although the Tory candidate held the seat, his majority was reduced from 11,000 to 6,000 and Labour formed a minority government.

“Sir John could not run a tea shop!
Joynson-Hicks however was soon to elevated to the peerage and became Lord Brentford. This necessitated a by-election two months later, in August 1929, Tom Mason again stood for Labour. Sir John Ferguson was selected by the local Tory Party and he became a strong supporter of Lord Beaverbrook’s policy of Empire Free Trade. This policy was not popular as taxing food from the US and Argentina would increase prices. Dominions such as Australia already had their own tariff policies. Sir John claimed that as a businessman he was fit to run the country but Tom Mason pointed out that as chairman of Lipton Ltd., a tea importing company, he had been responsible for losses. “Sir John could not run a tea shop” said Mason!

Because of his support for Empire Free Trade the Conservative Party withdrew support from its candidate. Because of this and as it was a by-election many Labour MPs came to Twickenham to support the Labour candidate. The issue of trade with Russia was raised and it was pointed out by George Lansbury that the Co-operative Wholesale Society had been doing millions of pounds of trade with Russia for ten years and the Russians had always paid up on time.

So it was a high profile campaign and both sides brought in many cars to take supporters to the polls. In Isleworth children were organised with red flags, rosettes and posters with photos of Tom Mason. Five thousand people crowded Treaty Road to await the result, Songs were sung and there was occasional rough play but the best of order was kept by the police. Sadly Sir John Ferguson the Tory candidate scraped home by 500 votes. There were boos and cheers from the crowd such that the speeches of the candidates could not be heard.

Labour had formed a minority government in June 1929. Within months came the Wall Street crash and by Spring 1930 unemployment had risen by 500,000 and by July 1931 over 2,700,000 were unemployed. This was happening under a government which had promised to cut unemployment and not much there was  they could do about it with a world slump gathering pace. There was a run on sterling and MacDonald put forward a package of cuts to cover the budget deficit – including cutting unemployment benefit and salaries of civil servants and teachers.

MacDonald anticipated that he would have difficulty in getting this through the Labour Cabinet and warned the King, Liberals and Conservatives that he might have to resign. The Conservatives and Liberals had told the King that they would back MacDonald continuing as Prime Minister so that when the Labour Cabinet turned down the proposals, MacDonald’s offer to the King to resign was turned down. The King, MacDonald, and the opposition leaders met on August 24th and in August 1931 a National Government was formed with MacDonald as Prime Minister and Baldwin as his deputy. But the run on sterling continued and in September Britain came off the Gold Standard. A general  election was called for October.

National Government
In the Twickenham constituency Tom Mason had stepped down as Labour candidate and Percy Holman was selected. Percy Holman had also started his political life in the Liberal Party, joining the Hornsey Young Liberals in 1907. He had drifted into the Labour Party through the Co-operative Party in Teddington in 1927. He was a paper merchant and director of three companies engaging in printing and stationary.

During the campaign Percy Holman condemned the policies of the National Government, saying that it was madness to cut salaries and unemployment benefit during a recession. The cure would be to raise the standard of living of workers so they could consume more. He called for free trade and a re-organisation of industry and agriculture so that products and proceeds benefited the community instead of profiteers. He called for an eight hour day. It was a dirty campaign with the Tories (representing the National Government) claiming that Labour would confiscate Post Office Savings and would lead to “ruin, starvation and revolution”. Ferguson also attacked the Co-op saying that it had an unfair advantage over other shopkeepers. As it happened, polling day coincided with the Co-op dividend withdrawal and as the members left the shops they were handed leaflets seeking them to support Holman, the Co-op candidate to “safeguard your dividend”.

There was a huge swing against Labour and they only won 46 seats. In Twickenham the Conservatives won by over 25,000 votes. Within a year Sir John Ferguson died of a heart attack and another by-election was called.

Labour regains ground
In the by-election of September 1932 Percy Holman was opposed by H.R.Murray-Philipson, another supporter of Empire Free Trade. During the campaign this issue was pushed to the fore and the Co-op also was attacked by the Conservatives.

Holman called for a shorter working week to cut unemployment. George Lansbury and Clement Attlee came down to speak at public meetings, attended by hundreds of people in support of the Labour candidate. The Conservative majority from the General Election was cut down to 5,500 from 25,000 and a crowd of 1,500 sang the Red Flag in Treaty Road when the result was announced.

Less than two years after being elected Murray-Philipson died and the local Conservatives came up with another Empire Free Trader called Brigadier-General A.C.Critchley. However by now the issue was overshadowed by foreign policy. Holman advocated support for the League of Nations and Critchley called for re-armament. Herbert Morrison came down to support Percy Holman. He called for the planning of natural wealth for the good of the people, not private gain. Critchley won by 5,500 votes, which he claimed vindicated the policies of the government on defence, tariffs and the “menace of the Co-op”.

1935 General Election
In November 1935 there was a General Election and this time the main issue was Abyssinia which was being attacked by Italy. Holman again stood as the Labour candidate and the Tories selected Edward Keeling. Holman was a staunch defendant of disarmament whilst Keeling backed sanctions against Italy and building up armed forces to deal with Germany and Italy. In defence of Labour’s policy Holman said that Britain was responsible for one third of the world’s arms trade and without it Abyssinia would not have been attacked.

The result was not good for Labour. The results of the previous by-elections had shown that Labour was quickly recovering from the National Government debacle even in Conservative seats such as Twickenham. In the face of the threat of war however the electorate backed the government and Keeling won by 37,635 votes to Holman’s 22,823, a majority of 14,812. Compared to the previous general election however the Conservative vote fell by 1,500, Labour’s rose by 9,000 and there was a 12% swing to Labour. In his speech to Labour supporters, Holman said that they had been beaten again but were steadily mounting. Already a considerable number of Labour gains had been announced up and down the country and in another few years would win Twickenham! He urged his workers not to be downhearted by the result.

“Every convert we make to socialism is a convert for life, and every step of progress we make …is a foundation stone for socialism. …Our growth has been little short of a miracle…if you call on me again you can rely on me to be always willing to carry the flag of socialism faithfully.”

The workers joined in singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” and cheered.
During the meeting chair of Labour Heritage Stan Newens made an appeal for those not already members to join, and to work to safeguard labour movement archives.

Dave Welsh appealed for help for a “Britain at work “oral history project.