Spring 2006

Labour Heritage AGM and centenary meeting

Labour Heritage held its AGM and meeting to commemorate Labour’s centenary at Conway Hall on Saturday 4th March, attended by over 50 people. The four guest speakers addressed the theme of Labour’s centenary from different viewpoints.
Jim Mortimer, a former national secretary of the Labour Party and  author of books on the trades union movement, outlined the role of the trades unions in the formation of the Labour Party. In 1899 the Taff Vale Company had sued the railway workers’ union for damages incurred due to trade losses during an eleven day industrial dispute. The courts found in favour of the company and the union was fined £23,000 (£3-4 million in today’s money). In spite of the need for protection for the unions, a resolution passed by the TUC to set up the Labour Representation Committee was only narrowly carried.
The years 1901-1906 saw a concerted campaign to protect trades union funds and in 1906 the Liberal Government,  with the backing of 29  Labour MPs, passed the Trades Disputes Act. This legislation gave the unions immunity from prosecution for interfering with trade in the event of an industrial dispute and it also legalised picketing, including solidarity action. Even the Conservatives in Parliament could not oppose it. The trades unions were in a better position after the 1906 Trades Disputes Act than they are after seven years of a Labour Government today.
Norman Howard, who had spoken on the 1945 election result at the last Labour Heritage AGM, gave an account of how the campaign for labour representation had resulted from decades of struggle going back  to the days of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists. It was a response to the poverty and repression suffered by working people. He emphasised the role of socialists in the Independent Labour Party, Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation. Socialists like Will Thorne and Ben Tillett had played a role in important industrial disputes such as the one for the “docker’s  tanner”, when the London dockers went on strike to get sixpence an hour. Trades union activists like Keir Hardie, a miner who had started work at the age of eight,  had moved from Liberalism to become the first independent Labour MP for West Ham in 1892. After 1900 jingoism accompanied the Boer War and election results were not good for Labour. However there was a strong progressive movement resulting in the election of a radical Liberal government with Labour support in 1906. This was an achievement as suffrage was still restricted for the working class in those days. This government set up legislation for the implementation of a welfare state with the provision of pensions and school meals.
Terry Ashton, a past general secretary of the London Labour Party, spoke about Labour full time staff since 1905. Jeremy Corbyn MP for Islington North spoke about the legacy of 1906 for the Labour Party today. He cited disillusionment with Labour over the Iraq War and the current malaise within the Party. In the 1970s and 1980s the Party had plenty of activists and good campaigns although it lost elections. During the general election last year there was very little activity. However a note of unity was achieved to celebrate Labour’s centenary in February this year, when all the current members of the  Parliamentary Labour Party came together to sing “The Red Flag”. Apparently everyone knew the words still.
John Grigg, Labour Heritage Committee member, gave notice of a book “Men who made Labour”, which is edited by Diane Hayter and due to be published later in the year. This is to comprise the biographies of the first 29 Labour MPs. John had researched the life of Tom Richards, who was elected as Labour MP for Wolverhampton in 1906 by a 150 majority. Following reports in the local paper – the Express and Star, John had traced his life to Leicester where he had been a councillor. He was also general secretary of the Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives a post which he retained whilst in Parliament. There was no payment for MPs in those days and trade unions were able to provide some of the first Labour MPs with a living. Many of them had begun life impoverished and Tom Richards had spent time in the workhouse.
John also has been given a Star Album, containing postcards of the first 29 Labour MPs. The original is in the Labour History Archives in Manchester but copies have been made for sale.

Ealing and the General Strike

This is a  reduced version of a talk given by Dr Jonathan Oates at the Retrospect series of local history talks held at Ealing Central Lending Library on Monday 23rd January.

It is eighty years since the General Strike. This was a short lived, but very dramatic, episode in national life and industrial relations. Basically, it concerned the breakdown in talks between the coal owners and the National Union of Mine Workers.  The owners said that wages must fall if the industry was to remain competitive in face of cheap foreign imports, the union resisted this, as it would reduce the living standards of the miners. As well as the miners coming out on strike, the Trades Union Congress supported them by asking the other unions to call out their members on strike too. This did not require any ballot to take place. These included transport workers – drivers, conductors and others who worked on the trams, buses and trains. The unions hoped that the government would have to concede as, without transport, the country would surely grind to a halt, and to force the coal owners to concede to the miners’ demands. The government, under Stanley Baldwin, refused to back down from the challenge and so the country was set for confrontation in May 1926.

This talk examines what happened in Ealing and how different institutions and people reacted. Before commencing, a few points about Ealing and its environs need to be made. Ealing itself was generally regarded as being a fairly middle class town and always returned a Conservative candidate to Parliament, with Southall and Acton as being more working class, given the predominance of industry there.   Support for the strike would probably be limited in Ealing, but stronger elsewhere.

One of the chief concerns was transport. There were nearly 8,000 people in Ealing and Acton employed in the transport industry. There was a major tram depot in Hanwell and a major bus depot just outside Acton. Many of Ealing’s and Hanwell’s residents did not work locally, but travelled to work in London. According to the 1921 census, some thousands were employed in clerical and professional capacities. Relatively few people had cars. Most commuters relied on public transport. What was going to happen when the transport workers withheld their labour? On the face of it, it would seem that the country would indeed be at a standstill and the unions would win.

There had been a meeting of Labour and union members at Ealing Town Hall a few days before the strike. Councillor Chilton said ‘he hoped it would not be necessary to appeal to the people of Ealing to drop any selfish ideas they might have about difficulty in getting to their work during the strike’. Others spoke of the need to support the miners in their just cause and of the poverty of their lives.
Uncertainty was probably one of the first responses when the strike began on Tuesday, 4 May 1926. No one really knew what was happening. Some people had listened to the announcement on the wireless on the previous evening which said that negotiations had failed, but most had not. Since many of the men employed by the newspapers were on strike, little information was been disseminated by that medium; and even when it was, transportation of newspapers was restricted. With no television and very few people having wireless sets, information was at a premium.
Many people left their homes as usual and headed for Ealing Broadway to see how they could get to work. Some left earlier than usual and most congregated on Ealing Broadway because that was the major nexus of trams, tubes, trains and buses.
In fact, the disruption which was the intention of the unions, was far less extensive than it could have been. Many people, mainly men, volunteered to man the essential services or enrolled as special constables. The stereotype of the volunteer was that he was a young man from one of the Universities. This does not seem to have been the case in Ealing. There were enough local men able and willing to undertake these duties without recourse to outside help. As said, it was a middle class suburb par excellence. Volunteers came from all ranks of life, included Dr Jobson of Corfton Road, electricians, a Greenford councillor, a Greenford council official, salesmen, members of the Ealing Fascist Party and men released by their employers, such as those employed by Stowell’s, wine vendors on Pitshanger Lane. Margot Fonteyn, the famous ballerina, who spent her childhood years in Ealing, recalled that her father, a doctor by the name of Felix Hookham, drove a train in this period. He had acquired his knowledge of locomotives during his childhood days in Brazil. The family came down to the railway station to see him off.

Many men drove trams, buses and trains. One man related how the London General Omnibus Company called for volunteers. Men were sent to the Chiswick depot and received training. They were then sent on a test drive. While many, including a few ex-bus drivers, did well, one man managed to bump into an obstacle and so smash the windows of his bus. They then test drove on the roads around the depot, supervised by the police. Most men passed the test.

Those who did were told to return to the depot at six on the following morning. They would be living at the garage for the next few days at least, so brought essentials with them – including, for the drivers, cushions. On Wednesday morning, the volunteer drivers and conductors were allocated buses. Buses travelled from Ealing to Kensington via Notting Hill.
The service provided by the volunteers, was not, of course, on par with that of the regular service. It was noted that the Hanwell to London Bridge service was a skeleton service. Although on the first day of the strike, the volunteers were uncoordinated and ill prepared, the services got better as time went by. On the third day of the strike, they were not too bad.

Then there were the men who volunteered to man the underground trains. Mr Unwin, of Bedford Park, was an electrical engineer, and helped train them. He said ‘The chief point we taught the volunteers was how to apply the brakes and stop the train’. Almost every man wanted to be a driver, rather than a guard or a member of station staff. Men who had some idea of speed and distance were selected as drivers. Many were over confident and liked travelling at speeds which were too fast. Drivers normally needed 24 days training. The volunteers received 24 hours. Some established drivers did carry on working.
The Ealing Volunteer Service Motor Corps, organised by Major Campbell at Ealing Town Hall, oversaw the use of cars to help people get to work. Thirty car drivers took part in the scheme.  The motorists covered 4,054 miles in a week, working from 7 to 7. There were no accidents. Motorists gave lifts to others wanting to get to work in London.
Some car drivers gave passengers lifts on their way to work. Some charged – six shillings from West Ealing to Oxford Circus and the car was soon full. Others merely asked for donations. Those who did not give lifts were booed by pedestrians. Some firms provided vans to take their employees to work; some provided accommodation on the premises for those who lived afar from their place of work.

Many men enrolled as special constables, in order to supplement the regular police in keeping order when necessary. Such a force had been employed during the First World War, too. In the little village of Greenford, 25 men came forward. In total, 1,000 men volunteered for this service in Ealing. It was said by the police that they could have left the borough of Ealing in the hands of the specials if all the regular force had to be deployed elsewhere in London. Some drove cars up and down the Uxbridge Road as patrols or rode motorbikes. Some patrolled the mass meeting of strikers on Ealing Common. Other people walked to work, or cycled. At least one used roller skates. It was, fortunately, a period of dry weather. However, once the cyclists reached the centre of London, the roads were even more congested and they found travelling conditions very difficult. Some people walked from a very long distance to get to work. One man walked from Barking to Acton, and a girl walked from Leyton to Acton.

Although we know a reasonable amount about the volunteers, less is known about the strikers and their supporters. The local branches of the Labour Party were, of course, sympathetic. The Labour Hall in Dorset Road was the Ealing strike headquarters. Hanwell Broadway was usually crowded with small groups of strikers. On 5 May, a crowd was addressed there by members of the local Labour Party. They advised the men to stand together and avoid any confrontation.

There were a number of marches and mass meetings of the strikers. Men and women marched to these meetings along the Uxbridge Road in a very disciplined and orderly fashion. Those who had served in the War wore their medals proudly.  Meetings were held in Acton Park and Ealing Common, the two largest open spaces in the locality, which were also near to the centre of each town. There were 4,000 people assembled on the Common on 4 May and the ‘proceedings were perfectly orderly’.  Of these 4,000, there were railway men, bus men, tram men and coal porters. At this meeting, it was announced that the Electrical Trades Union had shut down the GWR electric supply. Mr Griffiths, a Welsh miner, talked about the situation in the coal fields and about his daily work. He said that the coal owners’ proposals to cut weekly wages to £2 2s and to increase hours worked were impossible terms to accept. Apparently he had been passing the Common, decided to see what was happening, and was inveigled into giving a talk. Councillor Chilton also addressed the meeting.

On the following day there was another large meeting on the Common. As well as railway and tram men, there were electrical workers, 1500 men from Eastman’s, the dyers in Acton, and another 300 unionists from Acton firms. Many matters were talked of. One was the resolution to send a deposition to Acton council to demand free school meals for children during the strike.  Birth control and the coal industry were discussed.

On Saturday 8 May, there was the largest gathering of the strike  – about 10,000 men and women. They had come from a number of nearby districts – Chiswick, Acton, Hanwell, Brentford, Hammersmith, as well as Ealing. They marched behind their banners. Women attended, pushing prams. According to Mr Sherman,(secretary of Ealing Trades Council), ‘It was one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen on Ealing Common…You could not see the grass for the number of people’. Presumably the usual topics were spoken about. There was even some humour – one speaker referred to allegedly dubious news on the radio, with the following remark, ‘It may have been the wireless, but it was not liarless’.
Families of strikers suffered real distress in this period through loss of wages. In order to try and alleviate this, he Hanwell Trades Council organised a relief fund for distressed families of strikers. In Acton, there were door to door collections for the families concerned. 
Local councils had to ensure the supply of food and fuel. Special ad hoc committees were formed to deal with the questions of coal supply and food supply, as they had during the recent War. A food committee was formed at Ealing and at Acton. Food lorries, with soldiers on guard, passed through Ealing to supply the outlying areas. One was unloaded in Ealing High Street. This helped to bring home the fact that the strike was serious. Some shops did experience panic buying, as had occurred during the early part of the First World War. Any shopkeeper experiencing supply problems was told to contact the food office. In some shops, the price of a quart of milk rose from 6d to 8d as supplies were halved. Vegetable prices also rose. In Acton, coal was rationed, each individual being allowed only one hundred weight each, with firms only being given half their usual supply.

A deputation from the strikers was heard at a council meeting at Acton on 11 May with regard to the motion that the strikers be allowed to hold meetings in Acton Park and that a local Food Council be formed. The former was discussed, but no action taken and in any case, the strike was called off soon afterwards. The latter was refused as a food committee had already been formed, but the council agreed to investigate any cases of food profiteering.

It is worth noting that many employees did not go on strike. Southall factories were running without any problems. In north Acton the story was the same and the Ebonite factory in south Hanwell put a notice in the local press to announce that they were open for business. The government buildings in Bromyard Avenue, Acton, reported that 82% of their employees were at work. Some companies reported that they could supply local firms easily enough, but that it was difficult to supply those further afield.

On the whole, the General Strike in Ealing passed off fairly peaceably, although there were no instances of strikers and policemen playing football together. Some people, however, were alarmed. An Acton school boy, Henry St. John, wrote in his diary ‘Revolution seems imminent. 3,000 troops with fixed bayonets and machine guns reported to be at the London General Omnibus Company works, Gunnersbury’.
Most of the little violence which did occur was aimed at property; scarcely any against the person. It was the buses and trams which were occasionally damaged. William Ryan, a 44 year old former tram driver from Hanwell was charged with smashing tram windows and causing £3 15s worth of damage. Furthermore, he incited others to do the same. This was on the evening of Friday, 7 May. He was alleged to have shouted ‘Come on boys. Here they are. Let them have it!’

Other men who were said to have done similar damage were Leonard Greeves of Southall, James Frost of Hillingdon and Frederick Mault of Hanwell. All were young men and were given light gaol sentences – from 6 weeks to 2 months. Mault also assaulted PC Collett, when he was being arrested. Another man threw a stone at a bus in Ealing High Street. Some abuse was merely verbal – some of the vehicles carrying people to work were ‘greeted with derision by the strikers’.

There was also a disturbance in King Street, Southall, where police were attacked by a crowd throwing missiles. The police baton charged the demonstrators in order to restore order.

Buses had barbed wire placed around their bonnets and a policeman rode with the driver of each bus in order to reduce the number of attacks. On one bus, a striker made himself objectionable and so the volunteer driver stopped the bus any challenged any striker to a fight. None accepted, but he knocked out the original offender before driving off. But even here, there was room for humour. A windowless bus had ‘Emergency Exit Only’, chalked up by one window. Another read ‘Travel in an open air sanatorium’ and ‘Entrance for bricks only’.

On one occasion a regular member of staff, who was on strike, helped out at Turnham Green when the volunteers got into difficulty. Pickets and volunteers mingled freely and there was a lack of hostility on both sides. At the end of the strike, volunteers congratulated the strikers on the fact that normal services would soon be prevailing.  At Hanwell, when the tram workers returned to work, the men cheered the police and volunteers. The Mayor of Acton later said of the strikers ‘Praise is due to the general body of those who conscientiously felt impelled to withdraw their labour…Apart from isolated instances of hooliganism…the conduct of the strikers…was exemplary. Temper and patience were sorely tried, nerves were on edge, party feeling became intense…but all these feelings were successfully kept under control by the traditional common sense of British citizens’. Crowds of strikers at mass meetings were controlled by their own marshals, and men marched in columns, as if regiments of soldiers. Some even had their own bands or bagpipers.
The police, as well as the vast bulk of the strikers, had played their part, too. Councillor Sturgess later said ‘The real heroes of the strike are the police. I’ve seen them at work in town and here. Wonderful! It takes two to make a quarrel and the police won’t be one. I reckon they’ve saved London’. The specials also appreciated the police, and thought that they had been very helpful.

The local newspapers were affected. The Middlesex County Times was reduced to four pages. On the first day back after the strike was over it was only 8 pages. Readers said that they missed the crossword more than anything else, and it is significant that the reduced newspaper did print the name of the winner of the previous week’s puzzle and that her prize was on its way.

The strike was called off on 12 May, less than ten days since it had begun. There was widespread disbelief among the Left that after nine days, the strike was being called off. Mr Sherman recalled ‘we suddenly heard that the strike has been called off and nobody believed it. As far as Ealing had been concerned it had been a marvellous demonstration of solidarity. Every Trade Union, every organisation, had taken part’. The problem, for the unions, was that the country could, though with difficulties, get by without their labour, but many, including Sherman, seem not to have realised it.

On the next day, men began to drift back to work. By the 14th, things were back to normal.  According to the local paper ‘To all outward appearances, the factories were running as usual. Smoke and steam were coming from stacks and vents, and the whirr of machinery could be heard’. Work at Napiers was all usual, but a few men, living in outlying districts, had not heard that the strike had been called off, so did not return to work immediately. Any who had not returned to work by Saturday risked losing their jobs. Some works could report that all the men were now back by the Friday, however.

In Hanwell, when the 300 tram workers returned to the depot there to work, many were wearing their war medals and red favours. Some carried red flags.

Yet there was still some controversy between employers and employees. At some of the factories in Acton, there were rumours of victimisation of strikers and of reduced wages. In one factory on Acton Vale, 300 men walked out on the 14th because of these concerns. At Vandervells, issues between the two sides were being discussed. A railway signal man of 16 years service, on returning to work, was told that he would have to sign on as if he was a new employee and this he refused to do. Mr Creesey, the secretary of the West Ealing branch of the NUR was told he would not be allowed back to work because he had played such a prominent role in the strike. Some of the strikers were angry and confused about the strike being called off. Because they had broken their contracts of employment, there was the worry that they might not be taken on again. They felt that the unions had betrayed them and that they were being taken advantage of by their employers. Newspaper employees came back and were given their old positions and conditions of service back, as  it was argued that they had been stampeded into the strike and were very ready to abandon that stance when the time came. Two of Ealing council’s employees had been on strike and there was fierce debate as to whether they should be reinstated. A narrow majority resolved that they should be kept on.  However, in Hanwell, four men were not reinstated after taking part in the strike.

Some Labour leaders tried to put a positive spin on matters. Kenneth Lindsay, a prospective MP said ‘the strike was a remarkable instance of working-class solidarity, such as had never been known before, and it was destined to change the history of the country’. A schoolboy Communist put it more bluntly to St. John ‘Comrade, I hope you’re pleased with this result of capitalism’.
Ealing’s experience of the General Strike was varied. Much depended on who you were. For the trades unionists in the transport industry and elsewhere, it was a time of solidarity, peaceful protest, picketings and mass meetings, but, ultimately, failure. Few, however, were violent. For the volunteers it was a time of challenge and adventure, and for most, enjoyment. They were able to provide a reasonable transport service. For city workers, it was a time of long and uncertain journeys. The authorities were concerned with the supply of food and fuel. Schoolchildren’s education was somewhat disrupted if teachers were absent, but few were. Above all, after the initial confusion on the first day of the strike, peace and order prevailed, on both sides. Times were uncertain, but they were not chaotic.  

More on the General Strike in Ealing

The following is from the transcript of a tape recording of Joe Sherman who was secretary of the Ealing Trades Council in 1926

“During the 1926 General Strike I was secretary of the Trades Council. Believe it or not, Ealing was dead. Everything stopped. We had a taxi put at our disposal. I used to run around in a taxi cab by permission of the Ealing strike committee. I had a letter from the borough surveyor, Hicks, asking whether the strike committee would give permission to deliver two tons of coal to the Ealing Memorial Hospital. It showed how strong we were. Fortunately we had the Labour Hall open. We had about 1,000 people there every day. We had a demonstration on Ealing Common, vast numbers coming from Hammersmith, vast numbers coming from Acton, vast numbers coming from Southall. It was one of the biggest demonstrations ever seen on Ealing Common. There must have been 50,000 people. You could not have seen the grass for the number of people. We had a most effectively organised General Strike Committee.
Eight or nine days after the strike had begun on the Friday evening, we suddenly heard that the strike had been called off and nobody believed it. As far as Ealing was concerned, it had been a marvellous demonstration of solidarity. Every trades union, every organisation had taken part. I have a theory. Just like the Polish trades union, Solidarity, who at one time were challenging the authority of the state, you either have to challenge the authority of the state and have a revolutionary situation or give way. This is precisely what happened. The big mistake was to leave the miners completely isolated.

After the strike, sixteen or eighteen miners came down. A miner’s choir from the Rhonda came to raise money. Within two hours I had all eighteen fixed up with accommodation. They were here nine months. I organised concerts for them in cinemas, in pubs. We had an open air concert. We raised hundreds of pounds, a lot of which was sent home to Wales. Two of them wouldn’t go home.”

Some of the local Labour activists who were interviewed for the Labour Oral History Project also had memories of the General Strike in Ealing and elsewhere.

Syd Bidwell, former MP for Ealing Southall was nine years old at the time of the strike. His father was on the strike committee in Southall. “Southall was a working class fraternity unlike its neighbour (Ealing) the Queen of Suburbs.” He recalled striking busmen attacking buses driven by student labour and one bus was pushed right over.

Joan Parr, a Labour Party member in Acton remembers that her father worked on the buses in Southall and was involved in the General Strike. Her mother and sister together with Joan would go out and boo at buses being driven along the main road by scab labour. Her father collected money and clothes for the miners and her mother was involved in running soup kitchens. Of course there was poverty in Acton as well – children without shoes living in Churchfield Road, Acton.

Tom Allsopp, an Ealing Labour councillor in the 1960s was born in a South Wales mining village and come to London in 1936 to find work. He was ten years old at the time of the strike and his father was a miner. The family had no money for months and Tom recalls picking coal from a tip. Often bread and soup supplied at soup kitchens was the only meal that miners and their families had during these months on strike. This is what made Tom political – it was not right.

Wartime by-elections from 1943 onwards

This article continues a talk given by Labour Heritage Committee member, Bill Bolland on by-elections during World War 2 at the West London day school in November 2005.

1943 saw the opposition build on the four successes of the previous year with eight contests within 25 days beginning on 30th January. The second of these witnessed one of the strangest anomalies of the War. On 9th February Jack Beattie took Belfast West from the Tories but since the Labour Party did not accept members from the six counties his party affiliation was Eire (Republican) Labour, a party based in a country not at war.
The Common Wealth Party won 30% of the vote at Ashford and 48.5% of the vote at Midlothian and Peebles two days later with Tom WIntringham as the candidate (former commander of the British Section of the International Brigade). On 12th February Fred Wise an independent Labour candidate won 46% of the vote at Kings Lynn. Four days  Tom Sargeant got 40% at Portsmouth North, and on the 23rd Raymond Blackburn came near to taking Watford with 46.1% Sadly the ILP vote had been badly split at Bristol Central with Jenny Lee obtaining 38% to John McNair’s 7.7%
The breakthrough came on 7th April when the Common Wealth Party took Eddisbury from the National Liberals (whose candidate was a Tory) with 43.7% against 40% in a three-cornered fight. Again Churchill bleated about lacking the will to fight to the end. The Commonwealth Party candidate Wing Commander John Lovesend had flown for the Republican Air Force in the Spanish Civil War and in the Battle of Britain and did not need a lecture on courage from him. The Common Wealth Party gained 39% and 21.6% at Newark and Birmingham, Aston in June. On 24th August an Independent Liberal candidate took 49.3% at Chippenham and in mid-October another ‘independent Labour’ candidate got 48% at Peterborough against the only Tory to back Beveridge. In December the Tories threw everything into retaining Acton but before the Independent Labour Party could be tainted with the ‘unpatriotic’ label, Walter Padley pointed out that up to September 1939 the Tory candidate Longhurst had boatsted that he was ‘Hitler’s favourite golfer’, and was backed by the Evening Standard. The following day Honor Balfour, an independent Liberal won 49.7% of the vote at Darwin and came within 100 votes of victory.
Lt. Hugh Lawson won a second seat for the Common Wealth Party in 1944 with a small majority. (45% to 44% with 11% of the vote going to a third party candidate). Support from local Labour supporters was obtained on the understanding that he would not oppose a future Labour candidate. He departed for Harrow West. The rock solid Tory seat of Derbyshire West fell to an independent Labour candidate Charlie White,  who took 60% of the vote. Twelve days later Mrs Corbett Ashley, a Liberal, polled 43% at Bury St Edmonds and in July the Common Wealth Party got almost 43% at Manchester, Rusholme and in mid October William Beveridge himself got 88% at Berwick, as an official Liberal only to lose it at the general election.
Meanwhile, on 20th September the ILP had its best result of the War when Arthur Eaton polled 49.1% at Bilston; ten months later this was reduced to 1.8% when an official Labour candidate dared to stand. Less spectacular but useful progress was made in November when Tom Boleyn took 27.7% at Woolwich West.
Early in 1945 updating of the electoral registers began and the first contest in England under the revised lists was on 26th April at Chelmsford where Wing Commander Ernest Millington scored the Common Wealth Party’s third victory. Weeks later at the general election he was that Party’s only MP to hold his seat. Significantly this was with Labour support. In what was now left of the 1935 Parliament two further by-elections were notable. In the first poll north of the border under the new register the Labour stronghold of Motherwell, held by the Communist Party in the early 1920s fell to the Scottish Nationalists, chiefly through a desire to hit Labour by Tories tactically voting. Finally with only days to go Bob Edwards polled 45.5% at Newport for the ILP.
Others have dealt with this period in far greater depth but the above gives an ‘extract’ of the constant overall growth of the centre-left opposition to the ‘old order’. In this second half of the War, many challenges were effectively surrogate Labour candidates doing the official Party’s work for it by building, via a process of solid political education, the indestructable foundations for the 1945 landslide victory.

Bill Bolland

What was the Common Wealth Party?

The Common Wealth Party only existed for a few years during which it secured some spectacular by-election results against the wartime coalition government. Little has been written about the Party but it published dozens of pamphlets of which many are held by the Library of the London School of Economics.
What were its policies? It was very strong on “common ownership” of industry to be run by “the representatives of the community in the interests of the community and not by the representatives of owners in the interests of profit”. There was to be central planning but devolution of full responsibility to the workers, technicians and managers in factories and industries.
Common ownership should be extended to  all land, banks, insurance companies, building societies, fuel, transport, manufacturing, distribution and trading enterprises. Compensation for taking an enterprise into common ownership should be based on a sliding scale with 100% for the smallest owners and a tiny percentage for the large owners.  In wartime they argued that life had been conscripted but not property ,and called for the nationalisation of the armaments industry. No profits should be made from the war effort.
They believed in “vital democracy” and wanted an end to the wartime coalition. There had not been an election in Britain between 1935 and 1945.
On a world scale they believed in colonial freedom, world unity and the establishment of a world economic council. As ideals they valued the brotherhood of humanity and international fellowship.


Review of “A New Dawn” by Norman Howard

Members of Labour Heritage who heard Norman speak on “Labour’s surprise election victory in 1945” at the AGM or Essex Conference last year will not be disappointed with this book. Based on biographies and interviews with politicians who were around at the time, this book captures the atmosphere of 1945. The desire for change, determination that there should be no return to the 1930s, experience of five years of war and an enthusiasm for post-war reconstruction all contributed to Labour’s election victory. Norman also captures the demise of the Conservative Party and the shock to its supporters when the Labour landslide became known. Many felt that it was a snub to wartime leader Winston Churchill. But the reality was that he was not typical of the Conservative Party which had become associated with the appeasement policy of the 1930s. The Tory Party in the 1945 election showed no signs of having learnt the lessons of the 1930s – they campaigned for an end to planning and for free enterprise to get on with reconstruction and Churchill’s remarks about “Labour and the Gestapo” were enough to persuade voters that they had not changed.
Norman challenges some of the long held assumptions about the 1945 election. First that Labour’s vote was entirely due to the forces’ vote. Although George Wallace, the successful candidate for Chislehurst, claimed that 90% of the forces’ vote for his constituency was Labour, overall the forces’ vote only accounted for 7% of the total votes cast, so Labour’s election victory must have been won on the home front as well.
Secondly it is often claimed that Labour won because of the experience of wartime collectivism. Norman has this to say in concluding his book-
“The silent and slow revolution which had begun to take shape immediately after the 1935 General Election and gathered pace in the inter-war years, took on a new urgency during the war. Society’s values had changed, people had changed, alongside these changing attitudes had developed a new comradeship among the fighting services and the emergence of a community spirit at home”.

The 1930s – a lost decade for Labour?

The 1930s have been regarded as a lost decade for Labour – the Party was out of office from 1931 following the defection of Ramsay MacDonald – during a decade of mass unemployment, war and fascism. At home the National Government implemented cuts in the dole. The trades unions had suffered a decisive defeat in the general strike of 1926.  And yet the report of the National Executive Committee of the Party concluded in 1938 that –
“the growth of our Party has been the most significant achievement of modern times”. The 1930s saw a vast migration of working class people from areas of high unemployment in Labour’s heartlands to new industrial areas in London, the South East and the Midlands. They came to work in motor, aircraft  and electrical engineering factories. By bringing their political traditions with them they helped to change the political landscape. Within cities such as London new council estates brought working class tenants into boroughs like Ealing, formerly dominated by the Conservatives.
Labour Party membership grew in the 1930s particularly in these new industrial areas. As employment grew,  unions like the AEU and the TGWU picked up members and developed workplace organisations.
But the campaigning work of the Labour Party in the 1930s did much to put the Party on the map. In 1935 a “Victory for socialism campaign” was launched with a million leaflets distributed. Labour campaigned for “Holidays with pay”, for “a new deal for the farm worker”. Pamphlets were issued in  large numbers on how Labour would run agriculture, finance and transport. Labour’s paper – the Daily Herald, was sold to one in five households. Party organisation, particularly in the new industrial areas included social activities.
In local government Labour made gains, winning Glasgow and in 1934 the London County Council. Herbert Morrison, in charge of the “first city of the Empire” laid out a plan for housing, health and education. In 1933 there came the first of the Labour by-election victories in Fulham where a 29.1% swing overturned a 14,000 Tory majority. The General Election of 1935 was overshadowed by a war scare but by 1938 Labour was again overturning Conservative majorities at by-elections in Ipswich, Islington and Dartford. By then the policies which the bankers had demanded that a Labour Government introduce – cuts in the dole and pay in order to balance the books – were seen not only as unjust but economically unjustifiable, as the New Deal took off in the US and economic planning became the order of the day. Labour was swimming with the tide and the Tories were not.

Reviewed by Barbara Humphries

Review of a “History of Witham” by Janet Gyford

Janet Gyford is the leading modern historian of Witham in Essex. She has written at least seven books and a large number of articles on the town in which and her husband, John- also a historian- have lived the greater part of their married life.
Her latest publication “A history of Witham”, covers the story of the town from its earliest origins to 1945. She includes in it a guide for walks about the area and lists and describes every place of interest. Many of them are shown in attractive colour photographs, while black and white photographs illustrate other aspects of Witham’s past.
Although the book is concerned with the general history of Witham, it includes a considerable amount of information on the less affluent sections of the community. In the earlier chapters, the impact of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the conditions of workers in the cloth industry and the growth of Puritanism among the lowly are by no means neglected.
Witham was a small town subsisting in a very rural environment and dominated for centuries by landowning families. The manner in which their hegemony was challenged is of great interest. As Janet shows, it was associated with nonconformity which was embraced, in one form or another, by many of those engaged in the cloth industry and by small traders and craftsmen.
Their temporary triumph in the English Civil War of 1642-49 was reversed by the Restoration in 1660. Congregationalism – the faith of the Independents in the Parliamentary Army – however, survived, and consolidated itself in Witham in the period which followed.
The settlement of gentry in the area was balanced by the expansion of industry – milling, malting, tanning, cloth manufacture and later the making of paintbrushes and gloves. The workforce employed in these trades and in agriculture was, however, vulnerable to fluctuations in trade. Janet describes the Poor Law system and the workhouses designed to provide for those who were near destitute.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the cessation of war orders and a general downturn in trade produced an upsurge in misery among the lower classes. A very few of those who suffered resorted to rickburning or other crimes, and Janet deals with several cases of trial for arson and transportation to Australia.
In 1834, 1600 people, half the population of Witham, were poor, but the 1834 Poor Law Act stopped all outdoor relief for the destitute. In 1841 there were 131 inmates in the new workhouse at Hatfield Road – many of them children.
Some of the more thoughtful workers, often nonconformists, campaigned for Parliamentary reform and votes for all men. Some later joined the Chartist Movement. Others petitioned for mains water and proper sewerage schemes. However, the majority of the ratepayers stood out against public health reforms, as they begrudged meeting the cost.
In 1867, nearly 50 people died in a typhoid epidemic at nearby Terling, which at last brought change. In the last three decades of the 19th century, farmworkers, who were in a desperate plight, organised under Joseph Arch in the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union, and many emigrated. Others organised the Witham Co-operative Society.
The coming of the main line railway to Witham brought employment to many and in the 20th century the town had a strong trades union movement based on this, which manifested itself in the 1919 strike and the 1926 General Strike. By this time women in Witham were demanding the right to vote and other rights.
The building of Francis Crittalls new metal window factory, after the First World War, and other industrial developments led to the growth of the working class movement in the area.
In 1923, Valentine Crittall became the first ever Labour MP. In 1924, Ramsay MacDonald and Ellen Wilkinson addressed  rally of 4,000 to celebrate the opening of an extension to the Crittall factory.
All this and much more is recounted in Janet Gyford’s excellent book. Anyone with an interest in the growth of the labour movement in Essex –or, for that matter, in any rural area- should obtain a copy. The story is, of course, set in the context of a general history of the town of Witham, on which Janet is the acknowledged expert. All members of Labour Heritage should be proud that this book has been produced by one of our members and at such a reasonable price.

Reviewed by Stan Newens

A History of Witham by Janet Gyford, published by the author, 2005 ISBN 0946434042
Obtainable for £12.99 (postage and packing included) from Janet Gyford, Blanfred, Chalks Road, Witham, Essex, CM8 2BT (cheques payable to Janet Gyford).

Letters to the Editor

From Stan Newens on Caroline Ganley

“I noted with great interest Terence Chapman’s article on Mrs Caroline Ganley, Labour and Co-operative MP for Battersea South, 1945-51.
In addition to her outstanding work for the Labour Party, Caroline Ganley achieved considerable distinction as a co-operator. She was elected to the board of the West London Co-operative Society in 1918 and became a member of the board of the London Co-operative Society when West London amalgamated with it in 1921 – a year after its foundation.
She served in this capacity until 1942, when she was elected to the Presidency and headed the Society through the war years, until her election to Parliament in 1945.
She was also very active in the Co-operative Women’s Guild and, from 1921 until 1925, was President of the London Women’s Co-operative Guild Committee.
Her contribution to the Co-operative Movement could be recorded at considerable length. There is an excellent account of Caroline Ganley’s life in the Dictionary of Labour Biography vol.1, edited by Joyce M.Bellamy and John Saville, Macmillan, 1972.
When I was myself President of the London Co-operative Society, a box of her papers arrived at our offices in Maryland Street and these will have been transferred to the Bishopgate Institute, with other LCS archives, under an arrangement with which I was involved.”

From Michael Leahy on the 1945 Labour Government  and other issues

“Whilst you are correct in mentioning the Welfare State and the National Health Service, it was nonetheless a miserable period. There is a general tendency in all popular history to have a selective memory in favour of “good” things and selective amnesia in respect of “bad” things.
Top of the list of bad things was rationing,  which I believe lasted until 1955. Bread rationing (never during wartime) and eight pence worth of meat were examples. Permits and other documentation were needed, no doubt for very good reasons. For example priority had to be given to housing, so valuable resources could not be squandered on “frivolous” buildings.
This was also the “hottest” period of the Cold War, examples being the Berlin Blockade and the Korean War. So people had a miserable time. Also during war time people had a tendency to let their hair down, stating that they wanted to enjoy life while there was the opportunity. All that ended in 1945.
You may ask how and why did this misery end? In the late 1950s the premier Harold Macmillan stated the immortal words “You’ve never had it so good”. By that he meant people had material goods such as TV sets, washing machines, refrigerators and even small cars. It is true that there was little educational attainment. Nevertheless people desired those material goods.
The other side of the coin was the birth of popular freedom. The TV show “That was the week that was” which was irreverent towards authority figures was the first throw. You then had pop music or more accurately popular culture. Later universities, such as Essex were in turmoil. The authorities had to back down with the voting age reduced to 18 and “permissive” legislation such as relative freedom for abortion and homosexuality being introduced. Roy Jenkins stated that it was not a permissive society but a civilised one.

The obituary of Harold Smith states that apartheid in South Africa “ was introduced in 1948”. Apartheid is an Africaans word meaning separate development. Of course, the African population had absolutely no say in this matter. The whites were in charge probably since the time of Jan Van Riesbeck about the 17th century. The opposition was made up of the United Party, led by General Smuts. Differences? The nationalist party of Dr Malan stated that there had to be separate buses for blacks and whites. General Smuts of the United Party stated that blacks must sit at the back of the same bus. Both parties stated that blacks had no say in elections. The differences before and after 1948 were minimal.”