Working Class Heroes: the Early Labour party Revisited


Anyone who’s had the misfortune to be taught 20th century British history by my good self will probably groan as soon as I mention two men: my grandfather, and Ernest Bevin (right). I do so though, for a reason. The early Labour party had much that was remarkable about it: from the Fabian tradition, to the first generation or two of remarkable women in British politics, or the socialism of the middle class and university. One kind of Labour man (and here I do mean man) was perhaps the most remarkable. There was, in a sense, one type of man, all of whom were part of the early history of Labour. They were, of course, all different, indeed often very different characters and different in their beliefs. However, there were some strands that many had in common and, in their way, strands which made these remarkable men.

jkeirhardiebiogr00stewiala-11In the first place, they were all working class men. Many had started their lives doing what were very ordinary jobs. The founder of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie (right), started work age 11, in 1867, down the pit, as a trapper, ventilating the mine by releasing and closing an air trap. That was dangerous, as was the job he eventually had as a hewer. George Lansbury (Labour leader, 1932-35) did a variety of manual jobs, such as unloading coal wagons. Upon leaving school, JH Thomas started work as an errand boy, aged nine, before taking various similar jobs; aged fifteen, he joined the Great Western Railway as an engine cleaner. Aged eleven, John Wheatley went down the pit like his father.


No less noteworthy is the background of many. Hardie was the illegitimate son of a farm servant, as was Labour’s first prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. Jimmy Thomas (right) was the illegitimate son of a domestic servant raised in dire poverty by his widowed aunt, a washerwoman. Arthur Henderson, the man who did more than anyone else to fashion the modern Labour party, was the illegitimate son of an illiterate domestic servant. Philip Snowden, Labour’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the son of weavers. John Wheatley grew up with a family of seven in a single room with no drainage or water supply.

p01yshd9From such backgrounds, no less a remarkable theme is that of self-improvement. John Wheatley (left) left the pit aged twenty-four, working in shops and a pub, before collecting advertising copy and then setting up his own publishing company. Arthur Henderson’s mother married a policeman, and Henderson was apprenticed as an iron-moulder, before joining the Newcastle Evening News. George Lansbury married well, and ran a timber yard. Keir Hardie became an insurance agent and journalist. Jimmy Thomas became an engine driver.

Ramsay_MacDonald_ggbain.29588Whereas Hardie had no formal education, for Ramsay MacDonald education provided the route of his advance, becoming a pupil teacher. Philip Snowden’s parents were paradigms of Victorian thrift, and saved over £200 to pay for his education. Like the others, Snowden did not work in the mill for half his time, instead taking further lessons in the likes of Latin. Like MacDonald, he became a pupil teacher, before passing the civil service examination with honours and entering the Inland Revenue (appropriately enough for the man that would become Labour’s iron Chancellor). More important, though, was the education these men gave themselves. Snowden read widely, including a wide range of Victorian literary classics and would go on to have a substantial library. MacDonald was equally widely read, but was also a keen scientist. At home in Lossiemouth he founded a scientific society; in London he frequented the Guildhall Library and the Birkbeck Institute (the forerunner of my old college), pursuing his interest in science.

Keir Hardie may have had no formal education, but that did not stop him pursuing an informal education more impressive than many who had the advantages he had never known. He attended night school, taught himself shorthand in the pit; he read widely in history and literature (like Snowden he was a great lover of Thomas Carlyle). Even while working down the pit, John Wheatley attended night school and read widely too.

1900s_Arthur_Henderson_MPJust as important in the intellectual development of these men, and of British socialism, were the religious traditions from which they came and many were part of. John Wheatley was unusual in being Catholic, and Irish in background. His Catholicism remained central to his socialism. In the same year he joined the ILP, 1906, he also founded a Catholic Socialist Society. Far more common was an association with non-conformism. Hardie was a lay preacher in the Evangelical Union, a radical Protestant group (he had converted to Christianity); he was also a temperance campaigner (his father head been a drunkard). He would leave the Evangelical Union, but never lost his Christian faith. Arthur Henderson (left) cane from Congregationalists; he had a conversion experience and became a passionate Wesleyan Methodist. He was a national figure in that movement, and a lifelong advocate of temperance.

PRlansburyJust as importantly, for all these men the Christian tradition informed, gave passion and language to their socialism. For some, that was a legacy of a faith they had lost: Jimmy Thomas had been an active Baptist, George Lansbury (right) was strongly influenced by a nonconformist grandmother and an Anglican minister. The Christian tradition he grew up with remained a part of Ramsay MacDonald’s socialism. Perhaps the most interesting case was Philip Snowden. The Snowdens were Wesleyan Methodists: education and self-improvement, thrift and temperance would remain constant themes in his political career. No less importantly, Christian language and Christianity itself suffused his language: among his most famous works was The Christ that is to be.

Philip_Snowden,_1st_Viscount_SnowdenWhat often came with that Christian milieu was Liberalism. Ernie Bevin once quipped that ‘they say Gladstone was at the treasury from 1860 to 1930’. He was wrong, though only by a year. Snowden left number 11 in 1931. If he inherited Gladstone’s economics (he resigned from the national government when it abandoned free trade), he inherited so much more from his father’s radical Gladstonian Liberalism. Snowden’s socialism retained its attachment to classic Liberal causes such as support for the disestablishment of the Church of England and temperance. Snowden (left) was never a Liberal, though. John Wheatley cut his political teeth in Irish home rule politics in Scotland. Ramsay MacDonald was briefly associated with the Scottish Home Rule Association and worked for the Liberal Thomas Lough (and ran his election campaign in 1895). George Lansbury began his political life as a radical Liberal. In contrast to all, Arthur Henderson was a Liberal: an admirer of Gladstone and a Lib-Lab councillor (a Liberal with the support of local trade unions) in Newcastle. Henderson had come close to being adopted as a Liberal candidate for Newcastle in 1895; in the same year, he went on to be agent for the Liberal MP for Barnard Castle.

What moved Henderson to Labour was his trade unionism. Trade unionism was central to the history of the Labour party. In part that was because of the way in which the burgeoning trade union movement gave opportunities to bright, young and ambitious working class men. It was trade unionism that saw Keir Hardie sacked from the pit. A few years later Hardie was a full time trade unionist. It was also the politics of the miners that led Hardie into conflict with the Lib-Lab establishment and towards socialism: from there would come then creation of the ILP. For Jimmy Thomas, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants gave him a career as a trade unionist and, by the time he was a senior official, national prominence. For Thomas, every inch a moderate and a constitutionalist, it was his trade unionism that led him to Labour

For Henderson, the trade union movement was central to his a career as well as his move to Labour. The real start of Henderson’s political career was his rise in the Iron Founders. It was when that union affiliated to the new Labour Representation Committee, that Henderson loyally followed his union and sensationally won the Barnard Castle by-election in 1903: that victory was crucial to Labour’s breakthrough, persuading the Liberals to allow labour a free run in some constituencies, guaranteeing them some seats in the next general election.

Famously, his inability to find a seat in Liberal politics is often cited as the reason for Hardie abandoning the Liberals. No less important were ideological influences. In London he met the radical socialist Tom Mann, and Marx’s sidekick, Friederich Engels. Already, in Lossiemouth, Ramsay MacDonald was reading early socialist literature, such as the Christian Socialist. When living in Bristol, he had joined Britain’s tiny Marxist party, the Social Democratic Federation. In London, he joined the Socialist Union. As yet, he had no fixed loyalties. Having once looked to work from within Liberalism, he in turn became converted to the ILP. He never lost his connections with wider radical politics, including New Liberalism, as the case of the broadly progressive Rainbow Circle. George Lansbury’s frustrations with Liberalism were ideological: it was far too timid over issues such as social reform, women’s suffrage or a maximum eight hour working day. He joined Hyndman’s SDF, before finally converting to the ILP in 1904.

by Elliott & Fry, 12 x 10 inch glass plate negative, 1924
by Elliott & Fry, 12 x 10 inch glass plate negative, 1924
The important thing is that these men made a real difference. First of all to the Labour party. Hardie was in effect Labour’s John the Baptist: without him there might well have been no ILP, nor a Labour party. Together, during and just after the Great War, Henderson and MacDonald would turn Labour into a national party and a party of government. They, along with Snowden, made Labour a party of government (the first Labour cabinet, left). In that government, Wheatley’s Housing Act would transform the lives of many thousands of working people.

In 1931, Snowden and Thomas went with MacDonald into the arms of Baldwin’s national government. That experience almost shattered Labour, leaving it led by the ineffective George Lansbury, and by 1935 the effective careers of that first generation of Labour were all but over. That the Labour party survived owed much to a new generation, such as its new leader Clement Attlee or London’s Herbert Morrison. Perhaps the real saviours of the party were the unions, and the strongman of the unions was Ernest Bevin (it was Bevin that forced Lansbury’s resignation in 1935).

(c) Joanna Dunham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Joanna Dunham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
In some ways Bevin crossed the generations. He was born in Victorian Britain. Four years before Bevin was born, her husband had deserted his mother: the identity of Bevin’s father remains unknown. Like many of the others, he had series of menial jobs: from farm work to a tram conductor to a van driver, among others. His education was very limited, most of the education he had that really mattered came from the church. He attended chapel as a boy, and then became an active Baptist: Sunday School teacher, sidesman and lay preacher. He participated in Christian discussion groups, took Sunday and evening classes. It was philanthropic support for striking dockers that lead Bevin into active trade unionism, and politics.

I will write much more of Bevin anon. What of my grandfather? Whereas Bevin had no Liberalism, my grandfather came from a Liberal and Irish Home Rule family, and there was a bit of Methodism in there too. For my grandfather, the route into Labour politics was trade unionism, and Ernie Bevin: he was a member, and shop steward, in Bevin’s Transport and General Workers’ Union. It was through the TGWU that my granddad joined the Labour Party, and it was also how he came to make his proudest boast: ‘I met Ernie Bevin’.

My granddad was a socialist of the Bevin sort, of what Henry Pelling called ‘undogmatic Labourism’. It was a pragmatic, fiercely patriotic and just as fiercely tribal belief in what Bevin liked to call ‘our people’, the British working class. It was also the socialism of a proud self-improvement, from a man who left school at 12. My grandparent’s house had a fine selection of Victorian novels and poetry, and more; the first serious history book I read was Henry Pelling’s biography of Churchill, at my granddad’s recommendation.

They were the heirs of that great British Labour tradition, one of which we should, whatever our political hue, be proud. Some, notably MacDonald and Bevin, played pivotal roles in the history of 20th century Britain. Others were lesser figures, Some were deeply flawed. Some, like my grandfather were just ordinary working class men, but men who, in their own small way, made a positive difference. They were all, in their way, real working class heroes.

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