Archive for the ‘south Wales’ Category

Two Cheers for Democracy!? – The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1903-1931.   1 comment

6 February 2018 marked the centenary of the passing of the ‘Representation of the People’ Act which extended the right to vote, the franchise, to working men over the age of 21 and to ‘propertied’ women over the age of thirty. Although a significant milestone on the long road to a full parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom, it was by no means the end of that road, and the elections which followed in 1918 and throughout the 1920s did not bring about either a major advancement in women’s rights nor the empowerment of working men and women in general. In fact, much of the reforming work done in social and working conditions by the two Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31 was undermined by the economic and political crisis of 1931, followed by a decade and a half of social upheaval resulting from the depression, mass migration and the Second World War. To understand the significance of the electoral reforms of 1918 and 1928, we need to see them in the context of the broad social changes which began before the First World War, were accelerated by it, and continued into the inter-war years. These changes affected both men and women, though perhaps, at least until the 1930s, were more generally positive in their effect on the lives of women.  We might then be able to give two cheers for democracy in Britain, but only two…


Source: The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History (2001)

In  January 1913, the more militant ‘Suffragists’, nicknamed ‘Suffragettes’,  began destroying property in all parts of Britain in an attempt to coerce the Liberal government into granting women the vote in parliamentary elections. They torched churches and cricket pavilions, set letter-boxes ablaze, slashed works of art and detonated bombs. Excluding property of ‘incalculable value’, the most conservative estimate suggests that properties worth well over half a million pounds were destroyed within eighteen months. The ‘arson campaign’ continued right up to the outbreak of World War One. A case in point was Felixstowe, the quiet seaside town in Suffolk, flared, very literally, into the national news one day in April 1914. During the previous night the resort’s most exclusive hotel, the Bath Hotel, had been totally gutted by fire. Arson was immediately suspected, particularly when leaflets were picked up which had been scattered around the building:

There can be no peace until women get the vote!

No vote means war!

A few days later two visitors to the town, Hilda Burkett (31) and Florence Tunks (26) were arrested and charged with the crime. During their various judicial hearings, according to the press, the two women ‘behaved in a hysterical manner which we have now come to expect from fanatics whose devotion to a cause leads them into acts of terrorism’. They shouted, laughed and ridiculed the court. “I am not going to keep quiet,” cried Miss Burkett, when ordered to be silent, “I have come here to enjoy myself”. Reportedly ‘truculent and abusive to the last’, they eventually left the assize court at Bury St. Edmund’s, ‘screaming and shouting’, to begin long periods of imprisonment and hard labour. The damage to the hotel was in excess of ten thousand pounds.

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The arson campaign was the culmination of a long-standing demand for female suffrage. As early as 1832, the year that The Great Reform Act extended the franchise to propertied middle-class men, Mary Smith had presented the first female suffrage petition to parliament. In 1867, the year that some working men got the vote, the Manchester Women’s Suffrage Committee was established, quickly followed by suffrage associations in London, Edinburgh and Bristol. By the 1870s, suffrage societies existed all over Great Britain, from Orkney and Shetland to Brighton. In 1872, these local societies united to form a Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, which became the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in 1897, presided over by Millicent Fawcett. This became the largest suffrage organisation in the United Kingdom.


The arson campaign, however, was organised by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903 with Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, at its head. Although initially, they concerned themselves with lobbying for the vote for women, they soon became disillusioned by the slow progress being made. In contrast to the NUWSS, they proposed a violent approach. From 1909 onwards, the violence of their attacks grew progressively until, by July 1910, a year after he had been attacked by the suffragette Theresa Garnett wielding a whip, Home Secretary Winston Churchill declared in parliament that he would not support the enfranchisement of women.


As with the rioting south Wales miners, on whom he had unleashed the Metropolitan Police and had threatened to unleash the troops earlier that year, earning himself a place in the demonology of the Labour movement, Churchill had at first been, on principle, tepidly sympathetic to the cause of votes for women, not least because his wife Clementine was a warm supporter of it. But as Asquith, at first a principled opponent, squirmed and procrastinated to the point of yielding a ‘Conciliation Bill’ intended to enfranchise women property owners, but then got the legislation snarled up in procedural delays, the patience of the WSPU had, not unreasonably, run out. Cabinet ministers were stalked and harassed, before being physically attacked. Churchill, among other MPs and government ministers, felt that this use of violence should not be given in to by the Government and that it had proved that these women terrorists, at least, were not presently worthy of ‘being given’ the vote and thereby access to the democratic constitutional rights of His Majesty’s law-abiding subjects.


Of course, the majority of King Edward VII’s female subjects had also been law-abiding, and not just the middle-class members of Mrs Fawcett’s nonviolent ‘suffragist’ movement. Working-class and lower-middle-class women were perhaps the main beneficiaries of social and economic, if not political, change before 1914. The preference for smaller families, which became more marked in the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, and had begun to spread to certain sections of the working classes in ‘Edwardian’ Britain, was making the lives of many married women considerably easier; and the coming of the typewriter and the telephone were among the developments which added more employment opportunities for girls and young women. More scholarships, often to the new schools and technical colleges gave bright young people of both sexes a better start in life than their parents had had.


All of these changes, however, were coming about slowly. There may have been more women teachers and nurses, shop assistants and telephonists, typists and machine-operators; but there was still a vast army in domestic service. Added to this, the Liberal government’s reforms which took piecemeal shape after their 1906 landslide electoral victory could not come about quickly enough for working-class families. Under increasing pressure from Labour MPs, old age pensions began to be paid by the state only at the beginning of 1909, and health and unemployment benefit did not begin until the beginning of 1913 after the battles with the Conservative majority in the House of Lords were won. Even after this, poverty was still alarmingly extensive in 1914. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many working-class men and women did not always see an automatic relationship between gaining the franchise and the improving their immediate conditions of life and labour. They were more likely to turn to the trades unions to achieve these improvements through more direct, syndicalist methods in this period.

Although Mrs Pankhurst’s slogan was ‘Votes for Women’, she only wanted women to get the vote on the same terms as men. Many working men did not have the vote since they owned no property, so Mrs Pankhurst didn’t want working women to have the vote either. When her own daughter, Sylvia, called for votes for working women, her mother had her thrown out of the suffragette movement.

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As Home Secretary faced with industrial action by revolutionary trades unionists in south Wales and elsewhere, and, at the same time, with mass suffragette demonstrations in Parliament Square, Churchill gave directives to the police not to arrest the demonstrators but, on the other hand, not to allow them access to parliament. Intended to be cautious, the guidelines for ‘handling’ what he imagined would be disorganised ‘crowds’ of women protesters were, in fact, a recipe for disaster. Thousands of women and their male sympathisers, extremely well-marshalled in phalanxes, pushed hard against the massed ranks of the police. Helmets were naturally knocked off in the mêlée, and rude words were exchanged. Spectators also gathered and the police found themselves in unknown territory, not being used to being mocked by one crowd and physically pressed by another. On 18 November 1910, ‘Bloody Friday’, the pushing and shoving turned into six hours of fighting, with the police manhandling and beating up as many suffragettes as they could get their hands on, and discovering, in their turn, the power and pain of the raking scratch and the well-aimed kick. Instead of zero arrests, as Churchill had wanted, there were 280 by the end of the day.

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Naturally enough, too, this only added fuel to the fire as far as the WSPU was concerned. Inside Holloway prison, following the lead of Mrs Pankhurst and Mrs Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, suffragette prisoners went on hunger strike and in response were brutally force-fed using metal clamps, rubber tubes and nauseous fluids that they usually vomited up again. Ice-cold water was hosed into some of their cells to a depth of six inches. Outside, the WSPU campaign was evidently targeting property, especially that associated with men’s stereotypical images of womanly behaviour. Stores such as Marshall & Snellgrove, Swears & Wells and Liberty had their big windows smashed in. The fancier streets of London – government offices in Whitehall, clubland in Pall Mall – became carpets of broken glass. Other sanctuaries of the British way of life were ‘shockingly’ violated. ‘Votes for Women’ was spelt out by acid-burns on the greens of golf-courses including one at Balmoral.


In the years 1912-14, WSPU members began making even more serious attacks on property. They had been deliberately encouraged to do so by Emmeline Pankhurst, speaking in the Albert Hall in October 1912:

Those of you who can break windows – break them! Those of you who can still further attack property so as to make the government realise that property is as greatly endangered by Women Suffrage as it was by the Chartists of old – do so! And my last words to the government: I incite this meeting to rebellion!

The arson campaign certainly brought the suffragettes, the militant wing of the movement, to public attention, but it also alienated many politicians who had been broadly in favour of reform and led the barring of suffragists, the moderate, propagandist wing, from large halls and other public platforms. In part, this escalation in violence was a response to the frustration at the slow rate of progress and the increasingly violent response of the police and prison officials. This was particularly noticeable after the hunger strikes of imprisoned suffragettes led to forced feeding and the passing of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill Health) Act, better known as the Cat and Mouse Act, in April 1913:


One of the most militant of the suffragettes, Emily Wilding Davison, was constantly coming up with new tactics to take the women’s guerrilla war into the heartland of ‘the respectable classes’. First, she was caught standing by the Parliament Square postbox holding a paraffin-soaked piece of linen, about to light it. After a spell in prison, she then organised an attack on Lloyd George’s new house at Walton-on-the-Hill in Surrey, which succeeded in destroying half of it, although she was not caught in the act. And, finally and most famously, Emily achieved what to some has been seen as her evident wish for martyrdom by throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on 31 May 1913.

Although the suffragettes did indeed gain their first martyr by her Derby Day death, most recent historians writing about the event  refer to the evidence of close witnesses and those who knew her best, who regarded it as an accidental attempt to pin the suffragette colours in the form of a banner or sash onto the bridle of the first horse as it sped past, and not as an act of suicide. It just so happened that the king’s horse was in the lead when she launched herself from the rails. She was trampled under the horse, as pictured below, dying later from her injuries.

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The photograph below shows another arrest at the same demonstration, with Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial behind the mounted policeman:


The geography of the arson campaign was remarkably wide, the exception being Ireland, which was scarcely affected outside Dublin and northeast Ulster. There, feminists faced a dilemma as to whether they should support the campaign for national independence first and foremost. Most decided that this was their top priority over the campaign for female suffrage. Wales had many active suffragists but saw little of the arson campaign. Nonetheless, the campaign spread like wildfire throughout England and Scotland (see the map at the top of this article), in part because it was largely carried out by a relatively small group of highly mobile women.


The police, in general, showed little sympathy for the women’s cause. Indeed, it was the intolerance of protest shown by the authorities, and the government’s refusal to listen to the suffragettes, that drove them to violence.


By July 1914, the Liberal Government was only just in power, propped up by Labour and the moderate Irish nationalists in Parliament. Its programme of social reform lay behind it and a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. The wave of strikes which had begun in 1910, continued to sweep through the country, leaving a legacy of bitterness on all sides, with every prospect of a ‘final’ confrontation in the autumn. Instead, Britain suddenly found itself going to war on the continent, and the same men who had been involved in strikes and clashes with the police just a few days before were now marching away to Flanders. On the declaration of war at the beginning of August 1914, the WSPU became overtly patriotic. Its paper, The Suffragette, was renamed Britannia and pledged itself… For King, For Country, For Freedom. The “hysterical, wild women” became “indomitable war-workers” almost immediately.


In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915, 256,000, showed only a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 it was 520,000. By July 1917 the figure was 819,000. In industry as a whole, the total employment of women and girls over ten had increased by about 800,000 between 1914 and 1918.



The initial answer of the government to the shortage of labour was the Shells and Fuses Agreement whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing practices in industry and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force upon the unions the dilution of labour by unskilled men and women. While many trade union and labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the dilution of labour, others resisted this by demanding the rate for the job where new workers were introduced, a control of company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs to return to after the war.

011One of the effects of these protests and the continued agitation by women trade unionists was an amendment to the Munitions Act to give statutory force to ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Tram, bus and railway companies were forced to pay the rate for the job when the women substituted for men and scores of unions took up the campaign on behalf of women at work. The unions emerged from the war with an increase of two and a half million members. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants and working class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and had thereby been brought into the organised trade union movement. The photographs below are of workers in a shell factory and oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.


The imposition of universal conscription in 1915 was an event of central importance in the social history of the war: it began the second and definitive growth in women’s employment and determined that the changes involved should go far beyond a limited expansion and of industrial labour, given additional piquancy by the entry for the first time into hard physical work of a few adventurous members of the upper classes. Just two weeks after the passing of the Act, the Government launched its first national drive to fill the places vacated or about to be vacated by men. The advent of so many female workers into the wartime labour force was already having a major impact on the general perception of the role of women in society. The editor of the Observer, J. L. Garvin, wrote in a leader on 13 August 1916:

Time was when I thought that men alone maintained the State. Now I know that men alone never could have maintained it, and that henceforth the modern State must be dependent on men and women alike for the progressive strength and vitality of its whole organisation.

For the Coalition government, E. S. Montague, Lloyd George’s successor as Minister of Munitions echoed the views of many others when he said, on 15 August 1916:

Women of every station… have proved themselves able to undertake work that before the war was regarded as solely the province of men… Where… is the man now who would deny to women the civil rights which she has earned by her hard work?


Above: Female guards employed on the London underground.

By February 1917, the total number of bus conductress had jumped up to around 2,500. Transport showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment, from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. After transport, the biggest proportional increases were in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finance, there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917, demonstrating the rise in importance of ‘the business girl’. In creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of men, the war brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of women civil servants.


Besides working as lamplighters and window cleaners, working-class women also did very heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. One of the simple remedies used when the women succumbed to the arduous conditions is remembered thus:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then drink a bottle of Guinness.

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Outside the factories and foundries, women replaced men in making household deliveries, including milk and coal (above).  Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, however, these had not been conspicuously successful. In July 1915 there were about 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than in July 1914. As in the case of domestic service, the war had liberated many women and girls from tied working relationships.

Active campaigning for votes for women had ceased with the war, but debates in 1917 about changing the law to re-enfranchise men who had served in the armed forces overseas for more than twelve months gave the NUWSS an opportunity to lobby again for female suffrage. On 29 March, Michael MacDonagh reported for The Times on the debate which took place in the House of Commons the previous day, which led to its voting by 341 to 62 in favour of Women’s suffrage to be included in a scheme of electoral reform which would come into operation at the end of the War:

The motion was moved by Asquith, who in a fine speech recanted the stout opposition which he gave to votes for women before the War. Women, he said, had worked out their own salvation in the War. The War could not have been carried on without them: and he felt it impossible that to withhold from them the right of making their voice heard on the problems of the country’s reconstruction when the War was over.

While the suffragettes ceased to exist after 1918, the suffragists continued to fight for universal female suffrage on the same basis as men. Millicent Fawcett agreed to negotiate the terms of a Reform Bill as it would affect women. Many men had supported the Suffragettes, but others still thought that their militant campaign showed that women were too unstable and unpredictable to be entrusted with the vote. Some soldiers at the Front saw it as a ploy by the Government to get married women to enlist in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, and one of them wrote home to his wife in no uncertain terms on the subject in May 1918:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the W.A.A.C. We men can stand a lot, but they are nearing the danger zone when they wish to force our wives into service. Goodness, the damned infernal impudence of wanting our wives! Why, if anyone came for you whilst I was at home, I’d slit his throat open. I’m not bragging, I’m saying what I mean. How little they understand us, they are running up against trouble with a vengeance, they will find they have signed their death warrant.

It has long been argued that it was the mass participation of women in the war effort – in industry (factories and munitions works), in transport (on the buses, tramways and railways), in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced this result so deeply desired by the pre-war suffragist and suffragette movements. The Bill was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, however, nor were the means by which it was achieved always admired. The arson campaign had alienated many politicians, as it had women who had disapproved of the suffragettes’ rejection of conventional femininity or resented the upper-middle-class domination of the suffragette movement. Certainly, in 1918, Asquith continued to declare that women had proved themselves worthy of the vote by the way they had “aided in the most effective way the in the prosecution of the war”. Nevertheless, its terms were limited in their effects on female suffrage, as the historian Simon Schama has recently reminded us:

Would post-war Britain, then, as Lloyd George had promised, be a ‘country fit for heroes’? It would at any rate be a democracy of twenty-seven million, even if the vote at last given to women in 1918 began at the age of thirty whilst twenty-one-year-old men were deemed adult enough to exercise it; there would be no flapper franchise.  

Both the ‘flappers’ and the working-class heroines would have to wait for another decade until social attitudes to the role of women in society had changed more radically.  But broader changes in society, some hastened by the war, were decisive.

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The historian of ‘total war’, Arthur Marwick, has argued that to say that the war brought votes for women is to make a very crude generalisation, yet one which contains essential truth. The question of women’s rights needs to be seen in the context of social relationships and political change. He has pointed out that in 1914, the political advancement of women was still blocked by two great fortresses of prejudice: the vigorous hostility of men, and the often fearful reluctance… of many women. The war, he has argued, brought a new confidence to women, dissipated apathy, silenced the female anti-suffragists… Added to this, the replacement of militant… activity by frantic patriotic endeavour played its part as well. Above all, the concentrated shared experience showed up the absurdities of the many prejudices about what women were capable of.


Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses.

On 19 June 1917, the House of Commons accepted the female-suffrage clause in the Representation of the People Bill by 385 votes to 55. In the House of Lords, it was passed by a vote of 134 to 71. It became an Act of Parliament on 6 February 1918, giving the vote to women over 30 who were local government electors or married to them or who were university graduates. In other words, they had to meet a property qualification as well as being restricted by age compared with male adults. The basic and most important terms, as they affected both men and women were:

1. (I) A man shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency (other than a university constituency) if he is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity, and –

(a) has the requisite residence qualification; or

(b) has the requisite premises qualification… 

4. (1) A Woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector (other than a university constituency), if he or she –

(a) has attained the age of thirty years; and

(b) is not subject to any legal incapacity;

(c) is entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation in that constituency of land or premises (not being a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not less than five pounds or of a dwelling-house, or is the wife of a husband entitled to be so registered.

 (2) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a university constituency if she has attained the age of thirty years and… would be entitled to do so if she were a man…

(3) A woman shall be entitled to be registered as a local government elector

(a) where she would be entitled to vote if she were a man; and

(b) where she is the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered…

Thus, although women’s war work helped to change the minds of many men towards female suffrage, the women who did most of the work on the ‘Home Front’, working-class women, were not among those who gained the vote at its conclusion.

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Margaret Bondfield in 1919.

Leading Labour figure and ‘adult suffragist’ Margaret Bondfield (pictured above) described the Act as “mean and inadequate … creating fresh anomalies”. Bondfield was born in humble circumstances and received a limited formal education. After serving an apprenticeship to an embroideress, she worked as a shop assistant in Brighton and London. She was shocked by the working conditions of shop staff, particularly within the “living-in” system, and became an active member of the shopworkers’ union, working untiringly to improve the conditions of shop assistants. She began to move in socialist circles, and in 1898 was appointed the assistant secretary of the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks (NAUSAWC). She was later prominent in several women’s socialist movements: she helped to found the Women’s Labour League (WLL) in 1906 and was chair of the Adult Suffrage Society (ASS). Her standpoint on women’s suffrage—she favoured extending the vote to all adults regardless of gender or property, rather than the limited “on the same terms as men” agenda pursued by the militant suffragists—divided her from the militant leadership.

Nevertheless, in the general election of 1918, 8.5 million women joined 12.9 million men in voting. The 1918 general election was also the first in which women could stand as MPs, and seventeen out of the 1,623 candidates were women. Only four were Labour candidates, even though the party supported female suffrage. The suspicion of many suffrage leaders of party politics was evident in the fact that of the seventeen candidates, eight were independents. Only one, Constance Markievicz, won a seat, as the Sinn Féin candidate for a Dublin constituency. As an Irish nationalist, however, she refused to sit in the House of Commons and joined the parliament in Dublin. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the first woman, Nancy Astor, took a seat in the Commons, after a by-election, replacing her husband, who had entered the House of Lords. She was neither a suffragist nor a political activist but did devote herself to the rights of women and children.

In November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In the following month’s general election, more women were elected to Parliament in the General Election of 1923, including Margaret Bondfield (below) who had been elected President of the Trades Union Congress in May of the same year.


Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. In January 1924, she became Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Labour in the first Labour (minority) Government, at the same time turning down a chance to become the first woman Cabinet Minister. However, she lost her Northampton seat at the 1924 Election, being returned to Parliament in the Wallsend by-election of 1926.

It was not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women won the vote on the same terms as men. Even then, Winston Churchill, writing for The Sunday Pictorial in 1931, claimed that when a private member’s bill proposing this had come before Parliament in 1927:

The Conservative Party, especially its strongest elements, were much opposed to such a step. It would never have been carried through Mr Baldwin’s Cabinet if the ordinary processes of reasonable discussion and conclave had been followed. But here was a private member’s Bill, debated on a Friday. No-one took it very seriously. It fell to ‘Jix’ (Sir William Joynson Hicks, Home Secretary) to wind up the debate. Interrupted by Lady Astor, he quite unexpectedly, and without the slightest consultation with his colleagues, said that the Conservative Party would enfranchise men and women on the same terms ‘at the next election’. Two years later this formidable gesture had to be redeemed. Never was so great a change in our electorate achieved so incontinently.

Lord Birkenhead, writing on 13 April 1927 had expressed a similar opinion of the proposition:

The Cabinet went mad yesterday, and decided to give votes to women at the age of twenty-one. Every speaker was against the proposal on its merits. It was universally conceded that there was no demand for change in the country. We were nevertheless to be precluded from voting according to our convictions by a pledge which our light-hearted colleague, had given to a Private Member’s Bill on a Friday, with the Prime Minister sitting beside him. It was not even argued that any Cabinet decision had authorised a change so dangerous and so revolutionary. But against the strong protest of Winston, myself and others, it was decided that we were such honourable men that we could not possibly fall short of a pledge which was delivered without even the pretence of consulting the Cabinet.

The following summer, the private member’s Bill had been replaced by a government-sponsored Equal Franchise Bill. The Bill proposed to repeal and amend the 1919 Representation of the People Act by providing that the parliamentary franchise shall be the same for men and women. Therefore, subsections (1) and (2) of Section Four (see above) were to be repealed and replaced with the following clauses:

(1) A person shall be entitled to be registered as a Parliamentary elector for a constituency… if he or she is of full age and not subject to any legal incapacity; and

(a) has the requisite residential qualification; or

(b) has the requisite business qualification; or

(c) is the husband or wife of a person entitled to be so registered in respect of a business premises qualification…

A new clause was then to be added,

for the purpose of providing that the local government franchise shall be the same for men and women:

4. (1) Every person registered as a Parliamentary elector for any constituency shall, while so registered (and in the case of a woman notwithstanding sex or marriage) be entitled to vote at an election of a member to serve in Parliament for that constituency… 


Regardless of the Conservative male opposition faced in the Commons, the Bill was passed on 2 July 1928, becoming the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. The vote on the ‘equal vote’ came shortly after the death of Emmeline Pankhurst, at the age of sixty-eight in June (pictured above).  Ellen Wilkinson, by then one of a number of women Labour MPs elected under the franchise of 1918 was one of the feminine voices now raised in its favour alongside that of Nancy Astor. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this quieter ‘revolution’ in women’s rights became associated in the popular picture press with other changes in women’s lifestyles in the decade, including new fashions associated with the ‘jazz era’ and the ‘dance craze’:


The ‘flapper Vote’ helped the Labour Party to form its first majority government the following year, and Margaret Bondfield became the only female minister in MacDonald’s Cabinet, returning to the Ministry of Labour.



Margaret Bondfield (top left)

Margaret Bondfield’s term of cabinet office in 1929–31 serves as a fitting post-script to the fight for women’s suffrage, marked as it was by the economic crises that beset the second Labour government and also demonstrating the challenges facing women in power. The Baldwin Government’s response to the problem of the onset of long-term mass unemployment in the ‘distressed areas’ had been to establish the Industrial Transference Board in January 1928, under the Ministry of Labour. Neville Chamberlain had been insistent that nothing should be done to detract from the policy of transferring unemployed men, boys and girls, out of these areas to the more prosperous new industry towns of the Midlands and South-East Of England and Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland, Bondfield’s predecessor as Minister of Labour,  had echoed this view. Winston Churchill, however, had attempted to bring relief of a different kind to the depressed areas. He had been responsible for major sections of the Local Government Act of 1929 which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. He had seen this as a means of relieving industry in these areas and combating depression. In a speech on the Bill in the House of Commons, he had argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

This view had not been supported by Chamberlain, however, who saw in the Bill a means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than a means of equalising the effect of low rateable values of these areas. Despite Churchill’s more radical stance on the issue, there is no evidence in the cabinet and ministerial papers of the Labour Government of 1929-31, to suggest that Bondfield, as its Minister of Labour, wanted to abandon the transference policy as the main means of dealing with the problem of unemployment, though they did not consider that its continuance should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes which could, temporarily, absorb some of the unemployed. However, the widespread nature of unemployment in these years, together with the lack of imagination and ineptitude of J. M. Thomas as Minister for Employment, the bureaucratic resistance of the Civil Service and the innate conservatism of Philip Snowden at the Treasury, and the impact of the general economic crises which beleaguered this administration, precluded either the possibility of a radical response to the problem of unemployment or the effective operation of the transference scheme.

As the cost of unemployment benefits mounted, Bondfield’s attempts to control the fund’s deficit provoked further hostility from her former colleagues at the TUC and political attacks from the opposition parties. In February 1931 she proposed a scheme to cut benefit and restrict entitlement, but this was rejected by the cabinet as too harsh. Bondfield was prepared to cut general unemployment benefit, provided the neediest recipients—those on so-called “transitional benefit”—were protected.  Her willingness to contemplate cuts in unemployment benefits, including its abolition for married women, alienated her from much of the Labour movement, and the Labour government soon fell as a result.

When the National Government was formed in August 1931, although claiming to admire the PM for his courageous stance, Margaret Bondfield refused to follow him back into government and almost inevitably lost her seat again at the next election.  It was to be another fourteen long years before more women returned to government, Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle, joining Attlee’s post-war Labour Cabinet. Wilkinson, who as MP for Jarrow, led the famous Jarrow March of the unemployed men from the Tyneside shipyard town, became Minister of Education.

Margaret Bondfield continued to work for the rights of women workers until she died in 1953; despite her years of service to party and union, and her successes in breaking through gender boundaries, she has not been greatly honoured by the Labour movement. According to Barbara Castle, Bondfield’s actions in office had brought her close to a betrayal of the movement. Whatever element of truth there may be in that judgement, it was certainly the case that with the downfall of the Labour Government and the bitter feud that followed, the forward march of reforming working-class women into government was effectively halted until after 1945.


These Tremendous Years, 1919-1938 (unknown author/ publisher), 1939/40.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem:  Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Theo Baker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960.  London: Hutchinson Educational.

Simon Schama (2003), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Joanna Bourke, et. al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Derek Wilson (1977), A Short History of Suffolk. London: Batsford.



Britain Sixty Years Ago (VI): Immigration and the Myths of Integration   Leave a comment

Recent debates about migration to Britain from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and elsewhere are somewhat reminiscent of those which began to be heard in the late fifties in British politics. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtually open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and their practices. This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.

In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When some five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country. Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt.

However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom. In places like Coventry, there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Welsh, Irish and Indian migrants who had arrived in large numbers from the mid-thirties onwards. This continued after the war, with coloured workers, in particular, being kept in low-paid factory jobs by foremen and union shop-stewards alike. Although the small wartime community in the city had expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954, this was still a relatively small number compared with white migrants from elsewhere in the Commonwealth, especially Ireland, as can be seen in the tables below:


The sub-continental ethnic minority communities were described by many contemporary Coventrians as quiet and peace-loving, ‘colonising’ some of the more rundown housing stock along the Foleshill Road to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry at the time, the Indian minorities were anxious to protect their own culture and identity. As early as 1952, the City Council had granted Pakistani Muslims land for separate burial facilities and for the building of a Mosque. Despite being relatively few in number, Coventry’s Indian and Pakistani communities were, however, not immune from the sort of racial prejudice which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:

The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room. 

These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute miners whom my grandfather helped to find accommodation and work in the Walsgrave and Binley areas on the outskirts of the city. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities.  The former was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the latter, amounting to only 1,200 even by 1961, and the idea of alcoholic or methylated Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus staggering along the Foleshill Road stemmed from a complete ignorance of other religious and ethnic cultures, even when compared with other prejudicial statements of the time.

Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966,  but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).

In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home. Neither were Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. As with the Welsh and Irish migrants before them, the prejudice against the wartime Polish immigrants ensured a high level of community participation, strengthening the need for ethnic identification and compensatory status, reinforcing minority group solidarity and building the Polish community into a social entity. These conditions defined the ethnic vitality of the community, giving shape to its social, religious, economic and political life, in addition to enabling it to meet every need of Polish immigrants in Britain. By the end of the next decade, it could be observed that:

The Pole can buy Polish food from Polish shops, eat in Polish restaurants, sleep in Polish hotels or digs, with a Polish landlady, entertain friends in Polish clubs, attend a Polish doctor (over 500 are practising in Britain or dentist (80 Polish dental services), have a Polish priest and be buried by a Polish undertaker.

Anti-Semitism also remained common in the popular literature of the 1950s, and the actual practices of the British upper middle classes towards ordinary Jewish communities remained, as they had done before the war, close to the colour bar practised by Americans. Before the war, Jewish working people had been barely tolerated as servants and shopkeepers. The centres of Yiddish-speaking in London until the early 1950s were the East End districts of Whitechapel, Aldgate, Spitalfields and Stepney (the latter subsequently formed part of the larger borough of Tower Hamlets, which was widely populated by the Bangladeshi community from the 1980s). The influential major Jewish school in the East End, the Jews’ Free School, which had up to five thousand pupils in the early 1900s, saw itself as a citadel of anglicisation through to the 1950s, since Yiddish was regarded, not as a language in its own right, but as a corrupt form of German, itself still labelled as the language of the corrupt and oppressive Nazi regime. Even before the Second World War, irrespective of their attitudes towards religion, many Zionist groups throughout Europe had promoted Hebrew and stressed their rejection of Yiddish as the product of the Diaspora. Popular Jewish youth clubs in Britain, in common cause with the schools, had also promoted anglicisation and had also been highly successful in producing a generation oriented towards sports, dancing and mainstream British leisure pursuits.

Nevertheless, there also remained substantial Yiddish-speaking immigrant communities in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The fundamentalist, or Orthodox communities, had already established themselves in the Stamford and Stoke Newington areas of Greater London before the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that these communities grew to significant sizes. For many of them, continuing to speak Yiddish, rather than using the modern Hebrew of Israel after 1948, was an act of defiance towards Zionism. It was therefore not surprising that, as early as the 1950s, it was a very common response of both first and second generation British Jews from the mainstream communities to deny all knowledge of Yiddish. Of those who did, only a tiny minority would be heard using it in public, even as late as the early 1980s, though that decade also, later, saw an enormous increase in Yiddish.

In the mid-1940s to mid-1950s, the numbers of Ashkenazi Jews were swollen by a significant proportion of the relatively few Holocaust survivors who were allowed to settle in Britain and still further boosted by some hundreds of Hungarian Jews who left Hungary after the 1956 Uprising, after which they suffered further persecution from the Kádár regime. I have written extensively, elsewhere on this site, about the Hungarian refugees who arrived in Britain in the winter and spring of 1956-57, and we know that of the 200,000 who fled Hungary during those months, some 56,000 were officially admitted to the UK. Of course, in addition to the Jews who had already settled in London and Manchester, these latest arrivals were from all religions and classes in Hungary, not just the élite army officers, landowners and capitalists who had fled the Fascism of the Horthy and Szalási regimes, but all those fearing repression and reprisals, or seizing the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living in western Europe.  Among them were many of Jewish origin who had converted to Protestantism or Catholicism, along with the original adherents of those religions. The fifty-six exiles comprised a wide range of landless peasants, unskilled workers, craftsmen, professionals and entrepreneurs.

Marika Sherwood emigrated first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Although returning to Hungary for regular visits to relatives, her Hungarian was English-accented and of the ‘kitchen’ variety. While her son maintained an interest in Hungary, he spoke only a few words of Hungarian, and his wife and friends were all English. Marika’s roundabout route to Britain was far from typical of the Hungarian exiles there who left their native land in the late forties and fifties, but her rapid assimilation into English life certainly was so. Unlike the Poles, the Hungarians did not establish separate support networks or religious and cultural institutions, though at the height of the exodus the Hungarian Embassy sponsored nine British-Hungarian associations. The oldest one, in London, was founded in 1951 and conducted its meetings in English. In the following twenty years, its membership dropped by half, from 150 to 75. In one area the membership included only ‘fifty-sixers’, as earlier immigrants either died or moved away, but in two others there were remnants of earlier migrations. Marika Sherwood’s concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:

The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions. We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why. When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism  which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants. 

The fact remains that almost as soon as the first post-war migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, was quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Perhaps, therefore, we should not act quite so surprised that such attitudes still continue to fall as readily from the lips of Labour as well as Tory politicians in the twenty-first century as they did sixty years ago.

Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas. There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent had begun almost immediately after its independence and partition, as a result of the displacement of both Hindus and Muslims, but it had been small in scale.

Sikhs, mainly from the Punjab, had also arrived in Britain, looking for work in the west London borough of Southall, which quickly became a hub of the subcontinent. Indian migrants created their own networks for buying and supplying the corner shops which required punishingly long hours, and the restaurants which had almost instantly become part of the ‘British’ way of life. By 1970 there were more than two thousand Indian (especially Punjabi) restaurants, and curry became the single most popular dish in the UK within the following generation. Other migrants went into textile production and the rag trade, growing relatively rich compared with most of their British ‘neighbours’, who were (perhaps naturally enough) somewhat jealous of the people they viewed as ‘newcomers’.

So immigration continued through the fifties without any great debate. Much of it was not black but European, mostly migrant workers from Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Italy, France and other countries who were positively welcomed during the years of skill and manpower shortages. There was a particularly hefty Italian migration producing a first-generation Italian-speaking community of around a hundred thousand by 1971, adding to earlier immigration going back to the 1870s, and even as far back as the 1400s. Migrants who moved to the UK before the Second World War settled in different parts of Britain, including the south Wales valleys, where they set up bracchi shops selling coffee, ice cream and soda among other goods. Their links within the catering trade and subsequent competition encouraged dispersion. Chain migration led to the settlement of groups coming from the same area in particular locations, similar to the patterns experienced by Welsh migrants to England in the inter-war period.

After 1945, the destination for the mass-recruited Italian migrants, coming almost exclusively from the rural areas in southern Italy, were towns where industrial settlements required unskilled labour, like the brick-making industries of Bedford and Peterborough, or rural areas needing labour for agriculture. In later decades, as Italian migration to Britain declined, the proportion of migrants from the centre and north of Italy increased at the expense of that from the impoverished south. Areas associated with the mass recruitment of the 1950s witnessed the formation of close-knit communities of people whose personal histories were similar, who came from the same region or neighbouring regions, often from the same village. The home dialects were often mutually intelligible and therefore played a great role in community interaction. It was often a crystallised form of dialect, that, outside its natural environment, did not follow the same evolution as the dialect back home. Instead, these dialects were heavily loaded with English borrowings. Even something as simple as a ‘cup of tea’ was usually offered in English, as it represented a habit acquired in the new environment.

Throughout the 1950s, there was constant and heavy migration from Ireland, mainly into the construction industry, three-quarters of a million in the early fifties and two million by the early seventies, producing little political response except in the immediate aftermath of IRA bombings. There was substantial Maltese immigration which caught the public attention for a time due to the violent gang wars in London between rival Maltese families in the extortion and prostitution business (many of them were originally Sicilian). In addition, there were many ‘refugees’ from both sides of the Greek-Turkish Cypriot conflict, including one of my best friends in Birmingham, a second-generation Greek Cypriot whose family owned a restaurant in their adopted city and continued to attend Orthodox services. Again, apart from the enthusiastic adoption of plate-smashing and moussaka-throwing in such restaurants, there was little discernible public concern.

The first sizeable Greek Cypriot group arrived in the inter-war years and was composed of young men in search of education and work. On the outbreak of the Second World War, most of them were conscripted as ‘overseas nationals’ and served as British soldiers in various parts of the world. After the war, more significant numbers of Greek Cypriot men arrived, followed by their families as soon as they had found a permanent job and suitable housing. The 1955-60 Independence struggle gave rise to further immigration to Britain, as did the subsequent struggles and invasions. By the 1980s, the Greek Cypriot population in Britain had reached two hundred thousand. Although there were small Greek communities in Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester, by far the largest proportion of the Greek speech community was concentrated in London. In the national context, the numbers of Greeks was relatively small. Within the capital, however, Greeks formed a significant minority, and the number of recorded Greek-speakers there only began to decrease in the 1980s, though still constituting one of the largest bilingual groups in Inner London schools.

Greek Cypriots, although leaving behind a sometimes bloody conflict, left their island homes mainly as economic migrants. The majority of them came from lower socio-economic groups, setting out with high aspirations, confident about their hard-working nature and grounded in the strong sense of solidarity binding them to their compatriots. Once in Britain, they worked mainly in the service sector, in catering, hairdressing and grocery-retailing, as well as in the clothing and shoe manufacturing industries. In the villages of Cyprus, most women’s work had been confined to the household and the fields. In Britain, though still undervalued and underpaid, a substantial number of women went to work in the clothing industry, either as machinists in small family run factories or as out-workers sewing clothes at home at piece-work rates.

Mother-tongue teaching was provided by the Greek Orthodox Church in the early 1950s. Increasingly, however, this role was taken over by various parents’ groups. The longest-standing of these is the Greek Parents’ Association in Haringey, which dates back to 1955. Other parts of London and the country slowly took their lead from this, and classes were established in Coventry in 1963, and much later, in 1979, in Bradford. Children spent between one and four hours per week in these community-run classes, with the average attendance in the region of three hours. A pressing issue in these classes has been the place of the Cypriot dialect. While parents wanted their children to learn standard modern Greek (SMG), many British-trained teachers felt that the Cypriot dialect should also have a place as a medium of instruction.

Migration from Turkey and Cyprus followed very different patterns. Cypriot settlement preceded emigration from Turkey, dating back to the 1950s when the British government was actively seeking labour. In the 1960s, the birth of the Republic of Cyprus and the subsequent fighting between Greek and Turkish communities further encouraged migration to Britain, often in a bid to gain entry before the enactment of increasingly stringent immigration legislation. With the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey in 1974, a further nine thousand Greek and Turkish Cypriot refugees fled to Britain. It is impossible to tell how many of these came from each ethnic group since only place of birth information was recorded on settlement in the UK, not ethnic identity. Migration from Turkey itself only began in the 1970s. Cypriot Turkish has traditionally been accorded low status, often dismissed as ‘incorrect’ or as ‘pidgin Turkish’, although Turkish Cypriots have defended the legitimacy of their own variety and, since 1974, have resisted linguistic assimilation from mainland Turkey. 

Chinese migration, mainly from the impoverished agricultural hinterland of Hong Kong, can be measured by the vast rise in Chinese fish-and-chip shops, takeaways and restaurants since the mid-fifties, when there were a few hundred, to more than four thousand by the beginning of the seventies. Their owners were speakers of the Cantonese dialect.


A Jamaican immigrant seeking lodgings in Birmingham in 1955

Thus, if there were clear rules about how to migrate quietly to Britain, they would have stated first, ‘be white’, and second, ‘if you can’t be white, be small in number’, and third, ‘if all else fails, feed the brutes’. The West Indian migration, at least until the mid-eighties, failed each rule. It was mainly male, young and coming not to open restaurants but to work for wages which could, in part, be sent back home. Some official organisations, including the National Health Service and London Transport, went on specific recruiting drives for drivers, conductors, nurses and cleaners, with advertisements in Jamaica. Most of the population shift, however, was driven by the migrants themselves, desperate for a better life, particularly once the popular alternative migration to the USA was closed down in 1952. The Caribbean islands, dependent on sugar or tobacco for most employment, were going through hard times. As word was passed back about job opportunities, albeit in difficult surroundings, immigration grew fast to about 36,000 people a year by the late fifties. The scale of the change was equivalent to the total non-white population of 1951 arriving in Britain every two years. The black and Asian population rose to 117,000 by 1961. Although these were still comparatively small numbers, from the first they were concentrated in particular localities, rather than being dispersed. Different West Indian island groups clustered in different parts of London and the English provincial cities – Jamaicans in the south London areas of Brixton and Clapham,  Trinidadians in west London’s Notting Hill, islanders from Nevis in Leicester, people from St Vincent in High Wycombe, and so on.


405,000 people from the Caribbean migrated to Britain between 1948 and 1958, mostly single men.

The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserves special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results. Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so that it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.


In the 1960s, women and children joined their men: 328,000 more West Indians settled in Britain.

More important in the longer-term, a rebelliousness was sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties, and the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white but Welsh-immigrant-led nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.


Landlords and landladies were often reluctant to rent to blacks. Once a few houses had immigrants in them, a domino effect would clear streets as white residents sold up and shipped out. The 1957 Rent Act, initiated by Enoch Powell, in his free-market crusade, perversely made the situation worse by allowing rents to rise sharply, but only when tenants of unfurnished rooms were removed to allow for furnished lettings. Powell had intended to instigate a period during which rent rises could be cushioned, but its unintended consequence was that unscrupulous landlords such as the notorious Peter Rachman, himself an immigrant, bought up low-value properties for letting, ejecting the existing tenants and replacing them with new tenants, packed in at far higher rents. Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties.



Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British, or rather the white English. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country. Numerous testimonies by immigrants and in surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones, until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.

Only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell would, at this stage, only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. For the Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks.

White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted below, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. Their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory-marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants.  As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall, has written, in the ‘society of affluence’,  which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following respondent to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:

It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.               

‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motor-cycle lad who said, of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge, talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, near my birthplace, and spread to the capital the following day.


In my next post, I want to deal with these events in more detail. For now, I will pause with the paradox of the year in which I was born, 1957, just forty days before Harold Macmillan told the good burghers of Bedford, no doubt some of them Italian immigrants, that most of our people have never had it so good. Today, it feels as if the British, myself included, have spent the last sixty years trapped inside that paradox, that illusionary ‘bubble’. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s commentary, combining it with the well-known ‘East End’ song, we have been blowing bubbles, but they always seem to burst, just like our dreams. When the mists and myths clear, we are still the same country we were born into sixty years ago. The Sixties’ ‘Social Revolution’ never really happened. The poor are not only still with us, but they are there in greater numbers. The ‘economic miracle’ has dissipated, and the one percent of the adult population who owned four-fifths of all the wealth still do. The ‘Macmillenium’ is long since over, as this millennial generation is the first since the Industrial Revolution not to have as good as its predecessors, let alone better.


Main sources:

Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed., n.d.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press.



































































































































































































































What a year that was: Britain & the World in 1947: Part I.   Leave a comment

The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.

London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully.  During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.


As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.

The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.

The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply  unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.

Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.

Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.

In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.

During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.

It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government.  in the five years before the war, sixty thousand  Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.


Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.

The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.

These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.

Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.

At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.


Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946

Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty,  had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.

One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party. 

Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.

In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.

Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.


The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?

At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented  a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.

With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.


For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell  had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early.  Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.

The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs  administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.

The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:

It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.

Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:

The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.

A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:

What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.

Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.

Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle.   Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.

There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.

(to be continued)

What is Christian Socialism? Part Two.   1 comment


Working Class Politics in Britain Between the Wars:             

My grandmother (above) was a ribbon-weaver, a fifth generation Baptist, who was a deacon in her village chapel. She was a founding and active life-long member of the Labour Party in Coventry from the early 1920s. My grandfather was a staunch member of the Miners’ Federation (later the NUM), from 1918, a self-taught man who died of pneumoconiosis, aged eighty-two. He had once lost his job underground for defending a fellow collier from a bullying foreman. The fight of my grandparents against injustice left a strong impression on me. In the 1980s, while reading and researching for my doctorate on the migration of south Wales miners to the Midlands of England between the wars, I also became aware of the contribution of Welsh nonconformists to the development of Christian Socialist values and the Labour Party in cities like Birmingham, Coventry and even Oxford. They took on and finally defeated the ‘establishment’ patriarchs (like the fellow nonconformist Chamberlains) in these cities. This was due largely to the influx of workers from those areas which had already become Labour strongholds, during the ‘Depression’ years. I interviewed many of these workers, ex-miners who became car-workers. They told me of the important roles played by chapels, choirs and sporting teams, as well as trade unions and social clubs, in this transformation of working class culture and politics in the ‘new industry areas’.


19 November 1940; the remains of Coventry Cathedral following the Blitz on the city

Some of these newcomers to Coventry were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions which Rev Howard Ingli James’ ministry at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre produced in the late 1930s and 1940s. For them, as for Rev. James himself, their experience of the ‘two Britains’ of the inter-war period resonated in their post-war visions of a more just and equal society. James articulated this impetus to social reform in his 1950 book, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it, he acknowledged his indebtedness to his congregation, who helped to give him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian Socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people.

However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no actual part in the struggles of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

Though recognising that, empirically, both Marxism and Christian Socialism derived their inspiration from the same root he found them incompatible:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.


In his writing, Ingli James was not only giving expression to a vision which he shared with many of his congregation at Queen’s Road. He was also distilling the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars.

The migrating millions from the depressed areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales showed that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of the economic and political system which had displaced them. Instead, they made significant and diverse contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the ‘new industry towns’. They were present in churches, chapels, football matches and in the city councils, indeed in all walks of life. Their collective memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain long before 1945, but it finally found its fullest expression in the landslide election victory of the Labour Party in that year, and in the subsequent achievements of the governments of 1945-51.

011Aneurin Bevan inspecting the National Health Service, 1948.

The Land of Might-Have-Been: Chapter One, part seven.   1 comment


9-31 December 1936 – Abdication, Accession & Aftermath:

While the King was making and announcing his decision to his brothers and the prime minister, Wallis had remained in the relative safety of Cannes, from where she issued a statement that she would be willing, if such action would resolve the problem, to withdraw forthwith from a situation that has been rendered unhappy and untenable. Wallis knew that Edward would never give her up, however, and was adamant in his intention to marry her. Everybody who knew the couple knew that Edward was so besotted with her that he would follow her, not just to Cannes, but to the ends of the earth. She may have tried to persuade him during the several hours each day they spent in telephone conversations while the King remained besieged at Fort Belvedere.  Clearly she did not succeed, despite the Daily Mail trumpeting her announcement as marking the End of the Crisis.

Although Baldwin sent Theodore Goddard to Cannes and he returned with a signed statement confirming that she was indeed willing to renounce her hold on Edward, few believed her to be sincere. Baldwin sent a telegram to the governments of the Dominions dismissing it as no more than an attempt to swing public opinion in her favour and thereby give her less reason to be uneasy as to her personal safety.  While the King had received many letters of support, she had received just as many hate messages, some containing threats, and a brick had been thrown through her window. In any event, when Wallis telephoned Edward on Wednesday 9th December to tell him of her decision herself, he replied:

‘it’s too late…the Abdication documents are being drawn up – You can go where you want – to China, Labrador, or the South Seas. But wherever you go, I will follow you.’

The King sat up late at Fort Belvedere, thinking over his decision. He could keep the throne – and give up Mrs Simpson; he could ignore Baldwin’s advice, ask for the Premier’s resignation, and rule with a new Cabinet, or he could abdicate.


The following morning, 10th December, at ten o’clock, King Edward VIII signed the Instrument of Abdication, renouncing for ever all claim to the throne for himself and for his descendants. His three brothers were witnesses, the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Kent, the eldest of which, Albert, then succeeded him as George VI. The established fact, however, that he lied about his personal wealth to exact a huge pay-off, making him one of the richest men in Europe, led to a bitter family split which was never healed in his lifetime, as well as a damaging quarrel with his great ally, Winston Churchill. Queen Mary, although sympathetic to her son’s emotional state, was horrified by his action. She told him later that she could not understand how, when more than a million men of the British Empire had done their duty and given their lives in the Great War, he could not have made a lesser sacrifice and given up a woman so unsuited to be the King’s wife. She felt even greater sympathy for ‘poor Bertie’, the nervous, shy, retiring brother who burst into tears when his fate was confirmed. The Queen told Baldwin that her eldest son had brought disgrace on the family in not carrying out the duties and responsibilities of the Sovereign of our great Empire.


That afternoon, Baldwin stood up in the Commons, nervously holding some papers, a message from His Majesty the King, signed by His Majesty’s own hand he told the packed House. He then handed the papers to Capt. Fitzroy, Speaker of the House, who read out the Instrument of Abdication in a quavering voice. When he had finished, Baldwin again rose, this time to be greeted by cheers, and now told his fellow MPs the whole story, speaking for a whole hour, referring only briefly to his notes. He was heard in dead silence, the silence of Gettysburg as Harold Nicolson described it. Baldwin told him afterwards that Edward…

could see nothing but that woman… He lacks religion… I told his mother so… I love that man. But he must go.

The ‘King’s Abdication Bill’ was passed the next morning because the King wishes it and so, Nicholson recorded in his diary, thus ends the reign of King Edward VIII, after just 327 days, and without a coronation.  His reign was the shortest in the history of England and Wales since the disputed reign of Lady Jane Grey four centuries earlier, and the shortest in the history of the United Kingdom. After a goodbye lunch with Winston Churchill at the Fort and a farewell dinner with his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward went to the Castle. Here, introduced by Sir John Reith as His Royal Highness the Prince Edward, he finally got to deliver his broadcast to the nation in the voice of an angry man at the end of his tether, declaring:

I have found it impossible to carry on the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge the duties of king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.

His last words were ‘God save the King!’  In Merthyr Tydfil, the effect of his abdication speech was shattering. The people had lost someone who they thought was going to do something for them at last, so the mood was slightly different from the national response, as John Meredith commented.


After the broadcast and a final, warm farewell to his family at the Royal Lodge, Edward left Windsor just after midnight and was driven to Portsmouth, from where he left Britain as the Duke of Windsor in the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Fury. From France he was to make his way to Austria, where he would stay with Baron Eugene de Rothschild until Wallis’ divorce was made absolute at the end of April. After Fury slipped its moorings and headed out to sea in the early hours of 12 December, he spent the rest of the night drinking heavily, pacing up and down the officers’ mess in a state of high agitation as the enormity of what he had done began to dawn on him.


It was now the reign of ‘Albert the Good’, George VI, earnest, dignified, embodying sound family values. Later that same morning, George was proclaimed King by the Heralds, and at his Accession Council, the new King declared his adherence to the strict principles of constitutional government and… resolve to work before all else for the welfare of the British Commonwealth of Nations. His voice was low and clear, though punctuated with hesitations. His accession showed that cherished family values had been placed once more on their pedestal.  Together with his charming wife, Elizabeth, and their two daughters, the little Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, they became the first happy family to have its home in Buckingham Palace since it was built. The Victorian sage of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, had written:

We have come to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign.


Edward’s belief that the public role of the monarch should be separated from his private life had been rejected. The monarch and the man were once more fused together, if not identical. This has remained the case for the last eighty years of the Windsor dynasty, beginning with the fifteen-year reign of George VI under the steady guidance of Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, and continuing with the reign of HM Elizabeth II. Edward’s experiments with modernity were at an end and, in future, the monarchy would be more concerned to provide continuity of tradition, with only incremental, evolutionary change.

This wholesale return to Victorian virtues, if not values, was part of a deliberate attempt of Baldwin and Chamberlain to reverse what they saw as a decline in moral standards that was afflicting the nation as a whole. It was part of a cultural counter-revolution in which a ‘very British coup’ had become an absolute necessity. How else could their steely determination to see Edward depart be explained? Baldwin had twice sacrificed veracity to what he saw as ‘the greater good’. He had deliberately misled the King both about the need for an act of Parliament to achieve a morganatic marriage, and about the position of the governments of the Dominions over the matter. Looked at with the perspective of the time, however, Baldwin’s handling of the whole transition between monarchs appeared, and still appears, masterful, and it certainly preserved him in office for a time of his own choosing, after the coronation, now to be that of George VI. Other key ‘establishment’ figures did not reveal the same statesmanlike abilities.

On Sunday 13th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, broadcast a sanctimonious homily in which he compared Edward to James II, fleeing into exile in darkness, and attacking him for putting his craving for personal happiness before duty and condemning his morals. He went on to state that it was…

…even more strange that he should have sought his happiness in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage, and within a social circle whose standards and ways of life are alien to all the best instincts and traditions of his people. Let those who belong to this circle know that today they stand rebuked by the judgement of the nation which had loved King Edward. 


The directness of the Archbishop’s comments distressed the Duke of Windsor, listening to it from the Rothschild’s castle in Austria, and produced an angry response from several people who wrote to the newspapers. Letters were published in the Daily Telegraph condemning Lang’s words as unnecessary and needlessly unkind. The broadcast was criticised by the Bishop of Durham and caused a perfect storm of protest. Lang had offended the British sense of fair play by kicking a man when he was down.  H. G. Wells called the sermon a libellous outburst and the primate was lampooned in a memorable verse:

My Lord Archbishop, what a scold you are!

And when your man is down, how bold you are!

Of Christian duty how scant you are!

And, auld Lang swine, how full of cant you are!

Lang had revealed his hatred for Edward and the modernity he stood for. He had done nothing to reassure doubters that he had not abused his high office to force his Supreme Governor to abandon his role on the grounds of  his outdated morality. He had also tactlessly referred to King George VI’s long battle to overcome his speech defect. For years Prince Albert had indeed struggled to overcome his speech defect, with the help of his therapist Lionel Logue, as recently depicted in the film The King’s Speech. Logue was among the first to send his congratulations to ‘Albert’ on 14 December:

May I be permitted to offer my very humble but most heartfelt good wishes on your accession to the throne. It is another of my dreams come true and a very pleasant one. May I be permitted to write to your Majesty in the New Year and offer my services.


As Logue complained, to draw attention to the King’s speech impediment at this stage could only make matters worse. Rather than leaving his comment on the new King by referring to the obvious fact that in manner and speech he is more quiet and reserved than his brother, Lang chose a parenthesis which he hoped would not be unhelpful. He reminded the nation, unnecessarily, of the Duke’s stammering which had been so much worse in the previous decade, and which he and Logue had succeeded in controlling, where many others had failed:

When his people listen to him they will note an occasional and momentary hesitation in his speech. But he has brought it into full control and to those who hear, it need cause no embarrassment, for it causes none to him who speaks.

Lang’s comments were picked up by the American press and Time magazine asked all three hundred Privy Councillors if the king still stuttered. On 21 December it reported that none could be found willing to be quoted as saying that His Majesty does not still stutter. Moreover, as one prominent ‘courtier’, Henson observed about Lang’s broadcast ‘homily’, there was an assumption of patronising familiarity with the new King and his family which was also offensive. On Christmas Eve, Lang sent out an urgent clerical circular imposing a period of silence. I think enough has been said on this painful matter and the time has come for reticence, he told his colleagues, fearing that they might use their Christmas sermons for further attacks. He had received a telephone call from the Palace the previous night in which Lord Wigram had told him that the King was ‘put out’ and urged ‘reticence’ on the ‘leaders of religion’.

For their part, the British newspapers certainly played their role in ensuring a smooth transition, and did not comment on the matter of the king’s speech. Instead, they greeted the resolution of the crisis with enthusiasm. Bertie may not have had the charm or charisma of his elder brother, but he was solid and reliable. He also had the benefit of a popular and beautiful wife and two young daughters, whose every move had been followed by the press since their birth. The Daily Mirror, which the week before had been doggedly supporting Edward VIII, now doted on the great little sisters whom, it said, the whole world worships. However, as Lloyd George commented from his isolated rest in Jamaica, this second king was…

…just the sort of King which suits them, (one who) will not pry into any inconvenient questions: he will always sign on the dotted line and he will always do exactly what he is told’.

Completely foreign observers were even more cynical. In the same edition in which it drew attention to the king’s continuing impediment, Time magazine commented, rather unkindly:

Neither King George nor Queen Elizabeth has lived a life in which any event could be called of public interest in the United Kingdom press and this last week was exactly as most of their subjects wished. In effect a Calvin Coolidge entered Buckingham Palace with Shirley Temple for his daughter.

Inadvertently, Lang’s comments helped fuel a whispering campaign of gossip against the new king and his fitness to rule. Several among the Duke of Windsor’s dwindling band of allies suggested ‘Bertie’ might be to weak and frail to survive the ordeal of the coronation, let alone the strains of being king. They also made sure that the idea took hold that there had been an establishment plot to remove King Edward. Certainly, all the evidence we now have, suggests that, just because Edward himself may have believed it to the point of paranoia, that did not mean that there were not those in the establishment who were ‘out to get him’, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Lang among them. Vera Brittain expressed the view of many liberal intellectuals that the whole Simpson affair had been…

…a convenient excuse for removing a monarch whose informality, dislike of ancient tradition, and determination to see things for himself had affronted the “old gang” from the beginning.

Certainly, whatever tributes Baldwin may have paid the retiring monarch from the floor of the Commons, he showed in private how relieved he was that Edward had been persuaded to depart. There was little, if any, sign of regret. Both Nicolson and Bernays recorded similar gleeful reactions from him in their exchanges with him on the corridors of the House. No quiet reflection, certainly no remorse or guilt. Most tellingly, Baldwin told Bernays that a crisis was bound to come and that it might have come on a more difficult issue. In this remark, at the time it was made, he can only be referring to one issue – that of unemployment and the distressed areas. The timing of ‘the crisis’ and the nervousness of ministers and civil servants before, during and after his visit to south Wales, is a clear sign that his intervention in social policy was what precipitated his downfall.

Though there was undoubtedly a sizeable body of opinion supporting Edward when they eventually heard of the crisis, which was unable to find its own voice, free from the machinations of politicians, there was also a strong feeling of disappointment in Edward, even a sense that he himself had betrayed them, or at least let them down at a time of great need. Nevertheless, the sense of exclusion from the process leading to the Abdication, of ‘democratic deficit’, led  one young man in Lancashire to set up an organisation to gauge public opinion. Tom Harrison set up Mass Observation in December 1936, to find out and publish the views of ordinary people on the issues of social and foreign policy.


George V had started Christmas Day broadcasts from Sandringham four years earlier, and as the festive season approached, there was some speculation as to whether George VI would keep up the tradition. In the event, Alec Hardinge, acting on the advice of Lionel Logue, decided against it. The King was in a nervous state about it, due partly to the Archbishop’s recent tactless remarks, which had made him even more self-conscious and the public even more aware of his impediment.  There was also a feeling at court that a period of silence from a monarchy still in disgrace would be appropriate. The royal family continued to enjoy a quiet family holiday together.


Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010), The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy. London: Quercus

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance. London: Murray

Andrew J Chandler (1989), ‘The Re-Making of a Working Class’ (PhD thesis, UCW Cardiff).

Andrew J Chandler (1982), ‘The Black Death on Wheels’ in Papers in Modern Welsh History. Cardiff: Modern Wales Unit.

Tony Curtis (ed.) (1986), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Cardiff: Poetry of Wales Press.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbott: David & Charles

The Land of Might-Have-Been, chapter one, part six.   Leave a comment


30 November – 9 December 1936:

End of the Exhibition, but the Royal Show goes public:

London’s one-and-a-half million pound amusement centre and landmark, the Crystal Palace, was destroyed by fire on November 30th. Within half an hour of the first alarm, the building, covering twenty-five acres, was wholly ablaze, and the blood-orange glow from the fifty foot flames could be seen from another great landmark of pleasure, the Grand Pier in Brighton, eighty miles away. The Investigation failed to find the cause of the fire, which started around 6.30 p.m., during an orchestral rehearsal in the lobby. At first it was dismissed as a minor fire, and the band played on, but the flames were fanned by a strong wind so that the musicians had to be evacuated. The central transept collapsed only minutes after they got outside. The whole structure was now ablaze and melting, made as it was of wood, iron and glass. The noise of the crashing glass roof could be heard five miles away. Thousands of Londoners came out to see the spectacle of streams of molten iron and glass, looking like a volcano, so many that they had to be held back by a cordon of police to allow the ninety fire-tenders to tackle the blaze through the intense heat, which could be felt on faces half a mile away. The Duke of Kent arrived on the scene, boosting the morale of the firefighters by donning a helmet and staying until 2.30 a.m. The next morning all that was left of the structure were the two 300 ft, stone-built water towers.

The destruction of the immense glass palace, built to Joseph Paxton’s design to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, symbolised a breach in continuity with the Victorian Age and the commencement of a new, frightening age in which fires, whether started accidentally or by bombing, were becoming commonplace. The only relics of this bygone era were plaster of Paris effigies of the kings of England on their tombs and the concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, which can still be seen in the gardens to this day. The glass exhibition hall had first stood in Hyde Park, before being moved, at great cost, to Sydenham in 1854, where it was reconstructed, enlarged and made the centre of a large pleasure park. By the thirties it had gone into decline as an exhibition centre, being used mainly for choral singing and orchestral competitions. It still housed waxworks, which had, of course, all melted away. John Logie Baird’s new television laboratory was also destroyed, but this did not affect the BBC’s new TV broadcasts.

Some saw the fire almost as a divine judgement on the King’s rejection of traditional values. Queen Mary was deeply affected by the sudden fall of the People’s Palace she had re-opened with George V as the first home of the Imperial War Museum in 1924, before it moved to Lambeth. She watched the smoke rising in the distance from the windows of Marlborough House, visiting the burnt-out site three days later, still dressed in black, surveying the mass of bent and twisted metal. The sense of melancholy which the scene conveyed must have matched her mood at the end of an annus horribilis, with the monarchy on the verge of collapse, just as her late husband had predicted at its beginning. Abroad the warlike turn of events had destroyed Chamberlain’s hopes of economic recovery and social reform on the home front. Resources were needed for Rearmament, the fire-fighting appliances needed priming, and the prospects for peace had been shattered. The public mood, like that of Queen Mary herself, was deeply pessimistic, symbolised in the tangle of steel and glass she stood before. It looked like a bomb site and reminded some journalists of the bombing of Madrid. In recent weeks, the newspapers and newsreels had been full of images from Spain of huddled men and terrified women and children taking shelter from the German bombers.

On 2nd December Baldwin went again to the Palace and informed the King that he thought that the lady he married should automatically become the Queen, and that, although inquiries in the Commonwealth were not yet complete, neither Britain nor its Dominions would tolerate a morganatic marriage. In fact, this was not true. We now know that only the Australian Prime Minister’s response was entirely against the morganatic marriage. Both the New Zealand and Canadian responses were far more sympathetic to the idea, but they were either changed or not put formally to the Cabinet, and were withheld from the King.

However unbelievable it may seem from the perspective of the multi-media society of the twenty-first century, most of the country had still not heard of Wallis Simpson until December 2nd, when the Yorkshire Post  reported a fairly innocent comment made by the Bishop of Bradford, the aptly named Dr Blunt, who also had never heard of Mrs Simpson, at a Diocesan Conference the previous day:

The King’s personal views are his own but it is still an essential part of the idea of kingship…that the King needs the grace of God for his office.


Above: Alfred Blunt, Bishop of Bradford.

The Bishop said that he wished, therefore, that the King would show more positive evidence of the need for Divine Guidance.  All he meant was that the King ought to go to Church more often, but a local journalist in the audience wrongly took the Bishop’s remark as a none-too veiled reference to the King’s affair. When his report was carried by the Press Association, the national news agency, the newspapers interpreted Blunt’s words as the signal they had all been waiting for: an official breaking of the silence by the Church, and therefore the Establishment, over the Simpson affair. The national press soon circulated the story, breaking their self-imposed silence about the monarch’s love-life. The whole story of the King’s affair was now filling the pages of the newspapers. Over the previous few months, only a relatively small number of Britons had known what was going on. Now the newspapers quickly made up for lost time, filling their pages with stories of crisis meetings at the Palace, pictures of Mrs Simpson and interviews with men and women in the street, asking their opinions. Feature articles included biographies of Wallis Simpson, photographs of her previous husbands, reports of the Nahlin cruise, pictures of the couple together and columns of comment. While Dawson of The Times attacked the King, with Baldwin’s collusion, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Daily Mirror backed him, reflecting their owners’ views. They have much in common, began a profile of the royal couple in the Daily Mirror on 4 December. They both love the sea. They both love swimming. They both love golf and gardening. And soon they discovered that each loved the other. The Liberal-nonconformist Daily Chronicle also came out in favour of a morganatic marriage. While only eighty thousand read the broadsheets, the combined circulation of those supporting the marriage was nine million.

The same day, 3rd December, Baldwin addressed the House, simply reporting that no constitutional crisis had yet arisen. Harold Nicolson MP went to Islington, where he gave a public lecture, a long-standing engagement. Out of an audience of four hundred only ten joined in the singing of ‘God Save the King’ at the beginning of the meeting. He wrote that evening that he didn’t find people to be angry with Mrs Simpson, but that there was a deep and enraged fury at the King himself. In eight months, Edward had destroyed the great structure of popularity which he himself had raised. Apparently, for Nicolson, not even his popularity with the armed forces, the ex-servicemen and the unemployed miners, so recently demonstrated, would be enough to break this fall from grace.

The King retreated to Fort Belvedere, clinging to his morganatic dream, which Baldwin demolished it in a public statement:

There is no such thing as what is called a morganatic marriage known to our law…the lady whom he marries, by the fact of her marriage to the King, necessarily becomes Queen…The only way in which this result could be avoided would be by legislation dealing with a particular case. His Majesty’s Government are not prepared to introduce such legislation.


The Duke of York, Albert, and his family, had been in Scotland during the previous days. Alighting from the night train at Euston on the morning of 3 December, they were confronted with newspaper placards with the words, The King’s Marriage. Albert and Elizabeth were both deeply shocked by what it might mean for them. When the Duke spoke to his younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, he found him in a great state of excitement. The King himself had not yet decided what to do, saying he would ask the people what they wanted him to do and then go abroad for a while. In the meantime, he sent Wallis away to Cannes for her own protection. She was already receiving poison pen letters and bricks had been thrown through the window of the house she was renting in Regent’s Park. The couple feared that worse was to come. The same day the Duke of York telephoned the King, who was at his retreat at Windsor Great Park, Fort Belvedere. ‘Bertie’ wanted to make an appointment to see his brother ‘David’ in person, but this was declined. He kept trying over the next few days, without success, the King refusing to see him on the grounds that he had still not made up his mind as to his course of action. Despite the huge impact that his decision would have on his brother’s life, Edward refused to confide in him. He must have known that Bertie had no desire to become King. The Duke’s sense of foreboding was growing and, according to Princess Olga (sister of the Duchess of Kent), he became mute and broken… in an awful state of worry as David won’t see him or telephone. 

Wallis Simpson had not been not entirely as disinterested as she later made out, even if she was more capable than Edward of being dispassionate in public. She had encouraged him to take up Churchill’s morganatic marriage idea and now urged him to appeal to his people over the heads of the politicians by means of a radio broadcast. Her plan for him was that he should then fly to Switzerland and wait to see what the impact of public opinion on the government would be. Edward went along with this and again summoned Baldwin to the Palace on the evening of 3rd December. The PM told the Cabinet that he had driven to the Palace and had been taken in by a back entrance to avoid the photographers camped out at the front. The King had read a proposed draft of his radio broadcast to Baldwin, who had responded by saying that, although he was willing to put the idea to the Cabinet, he thought they would regard it as thoroughly unconstitutional. At this, the King had lost his temper with Baldwin, demanding to know what more the PM would have him do. Baldwin had replied, so he said, that what he wanted was what the King had told him he had wanted: to go with dignity, not dividing the country, and making things as smooth as possible for your successor. Trying to calm the situation and step back from the abyss that he must have sensed opening between them as they sat together on the sofa, Baldwin is then said to have raised his whisky-and-soda and said: Well, Sir, whatever happens, my Mrs and I wish you happiness from the depths of our souls, at which the King burst into tears, and Baldwin followed suit. What a strange conversation piece, observed Harold Nicolson when he heard of this from Liberal MP Robert Bernays, those two blubbering together on a sofa!


As Baldwin predicted, the entire Cabinet was once more united behind him the next morning and against the whole idea of a royal broadcast. Chamberlain again urged the PM to bring the King sharply up to the point and get him to abdicate the same day. The politicians now began to panic because they feared that if he were to broadcast, public opinion would move irrevocably in his favour, especially as Chamberlain confirmed, from the whips, that Churchill and Beaverbrook were working on the King’s speech together. The terrible consequences of Churchill being asked to form a government, then demanding a General Election were too dreadful to contemplate, apparently. Baldwin calmed the situation, agreeing to make a statement in the House ruling out any possibility of the King making his broadcast.

Wallis told Edward, ‘You must speak!’, perhaps confusing his powers with those of an American President. As she was now nearing a nervous breakdown herself, she had agreed to go to France, to stay at the villa of friends in Cannes. When Churchill went to meet the King the next morning, 4 December, he found him ill and isolated. He persuaded Baldwin to delay the Cabinet’s ultimatum, and the following day accused the King’s ministers of acting unconstitutionally in demanding his abdication and in reaching secret deals with His Majesty’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ to confront him with the ultimatum. In his press release, he also made an implicit appeal to the Dominions, perhaps sensing that Baldwin had not been entirely truthful in his representation of their views. Forty Conservative MPs were ready back Churchill, who had already selected much of his Cabinet, and was planning his first actions on replacing Baldwin as PM. Crowds formed outside Buckingham Palace and Downing Street cheering for the King, holding placards which read Cheer Your King at the Palace: After South Wales, You Can’t Let Him Down.


Liberal opinion was also behind the King: John Maynard Keynes wanted to know, on simple utilitarian grounds, why the King could not have his morganatic marriage. However, many liberals were nervous about joining forces with the reactionary Beaverbrook and Rothermere press to support the monarchy. There were demonstrations against Baldwin and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the MPs toured their constituencies that weekend, they also found a widespread sense of betrayal felt by many who, like the Jarrow marchers, had seen the royal family as a model of family life, symbolising the most important values of their subjects. Perhaps this helps to explain why there was no great spontaneous uprising in support of a previously immensely popular member of that family. Apart from the welcome support from Churchill and Duff Cooper in parliament and government, most of the vocal and visible support was unwelcome, coming from the pro-fascist Right and, more sinisterly, Mosley’s blackshirts who, not yet proscribed from wearing their uniforms, marched up and down Whitehall with a picture of the King, shouting: One, two, three, four, five, we want Baldwin dead or alive! But, in any case, it was largely uncoordinated, useless and simply too late.


By the end of the following weekend of 5th-6th December, if not at its beginning, Edward had decided to give up his fight and hand the Crown to his brother. Yet Albert had none of his brother’s charisma and was ill-prepared for the role he was being handed by him. He also had come close to a nervous breakdown during the four days since his return from Scotland, during which his brother had declined to see him. On Sunday 6th, the Duke again rang the Fort to be told that the King was in a conference and would call him back later. The call never came. Edward had summoned his lawyer, Sir Walter Monckton, to his room at Fort Belvedere and told him of his decision. The next day, Churchill, unaware that the decision had been made, was shouted down when he tried to argue that no pistol should be held at the King’s head. Edward finally made contact with his brother, inviting him to the Fort after dinner. The Duke wrote his own account of this meeting:

The awful and ghastly suspense of waiting was over… I found him pacing up and down the room, and he told me his decision that he would go. 

When he got home that evening, he found his wife had been struck down with flu. She took to her bed, where she remained for the next few days as the dramatic events unfolded around her.  She wrote to her sister:

Bertie & I are feeling very despairing, and the strain is terrific. Every day last a week & the only hope we have is in the affection & support of our family & friends.

Meanwhile, events moved swiftly. At a dinner at Fort Belvedere on Tuesday 8th, attended by several men, including the Duke and the prime minister, Edward made it clear he had already made up his mind. Baldwin had arrived with a suitcase, ready for lengthy negotiations. For a moment, the King was horrified at the prospect of his PM staying the night. The King’s brothers, Princes Albert and George were also at the dinner. According to Baldwin’s account, before they sat down the King merely walked up and down the room saying, “This is the most wonderful woman in the world.”   The Duke of York’s account reported his astonishment as his brother, the life and soul of the party, told Baldwin things I am sure he had never heard before about unemployment in south Wales. Edward may have felt that this was, at least, some small way in which he could honour his Dowlais declaration before departing. Apparently, the Duke turned to Walter Monckton and whispered, and this is the man we are going to lose. Monckton later wrote that it was his lawyer’s acumen that probably prevented  him from retorting, and this is exactly why we are going to lose him, because he makes the politicians feel uncomfortable.  The Duke was in sombre mood and wrote that it was a dinner that I am never likely to forget. On each of the following days, crowds gathered in Whitehall, waiting for news (see below).


The contemporary journalist and commentator René Cutforth, wrote forty years later that his remark, Something must be done (as it was wrongly reported) to an unemployed miner in Dowlais had indeed been made to the umbrage of the politicians, who wanted none of that sort of talk. To that one sentence he owed most of his reputation among them as ‘irresponsible’. But while the remark may have sealed his fate as far as Chamberlain and others in the cabinet were concerned, the King had left Baldwin in no doubt about his determination to marry Wallis Simpson. Cutforth made an interesting comment on this:

Millions of words have been written in explanation of this world shaking affair, and American friends of mine cling to this day to the theory that only some shared sexual deviation could explain Edward’s insistence on a world well lost for love. In the Thirties we thought Freud could explain everything… It was, in fact, a simple case of delayed adolescent romantic love… Ernest Simpson… knew this well enough: he used to refer to the Prince of Wales as ‘Peter Pan’. Years later Wallis wrote of Edward: “Over and above the charm of his personality and the warmth of his manner, he was the open sesame to a new and glittering world that excited me as nothing in my life had done before… All I can say that it was like being Wallis in Wonderland.”


The Land of Might-Have-Been, 1936: Chapter One, part five.   Leave a comment


16-27 November, 1936: The Crown in Crisis;

Something will be done

Although Wallis Simpson had been granted her decree nisi at Ipswich Assizes following a twenty-minute appearance in court on the 27 October, she and the King were not yet free to marry. Under the divorce law of the time, the decree could not be made absolute for six months, which meant that Wallis would be under the ‘surveillance’ of an official known as the King’s Proctor until 27 April 1937. If, during that period, she was found in compromising circumstances with any man she could be hauled back into court and, the decision went against her, she would be forever unable to divorce her husband in an English court. Although there had seemed little doubt that it was Wallis’ adultery with Edward that precipitated the breakup of her second marriage, her husband Ernest had agreed to save her ‘blushes’ by being caught in flagrante by staff at the Hotel de Paris near Maidenhead in July, with a Miss ‘Buttercup’ Kennedy. In reality, obtaining the decree absolute was a mere formality, and the couple showed no reserve in the conduct of their relationship over the next six months.

On 16 November Edward invited Baldwin to Buckingham Palace and told him he intended to marry Mrs Simpson. If he could do so and remain King, then ‘well and good’ he said, but if the governments of Britain and the Dominions were opposed, then he was ‘prepared to go’. He did have some prominent supporters in taking this stance, among them Winston Churchill, who was shouted down by the House of Commons when he spoke out in favour of Edward. What crime has the King committed? Churchill later demanded, Have we not sworn allegiance to him? Are we not bound by that oath? At the time of the King’s meeting with Baldwin, however, Churchill may have thought, with some justification, that Edward’s relationship with Mrs Simpson would fizzle out, just as his earlier liaisons had done, and before either the coronation or the wedding could take place in the spring.

Travelling overnight, the King’s train pulled into Llantwit Major before dawn on 18th November. After breakfast, the King set off by car on his tour of the Vale of Glamorgan and the valleys. On the first day, he visited training centres in the Vale where young men and women from the valleys were being trained before being transferred into domestic service and other trades in England. Then he toured some of the valleys and pit villages where the collieries stood idle and so did their miners, in front of him. Almost every conversation ended with the polite request for him to tell Whitehall to do something to bring jobs back to the valleys. His black bowler hat made him look like a mines’ inspector, a point picked up by The South Wales Echo in one of its cartoons lampooning the inaction of Baldwin, Chamberlain and Brown, the Minister for Labour, hated for his role in the introduction of the Means Test and Transitional Benefits.


It was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks, shut down six years earlier, that he made his remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this! This was also how the newsreels reported it at the time,  showing the marvellous reception of his long-suffering subjects in the depressed area. The King had brought hope to replace despair. Nine thousand men had worked making steel; now there was nothing but the wreckage of the old works, and no other industry to take them on. In 1936, 75% of the Dowlais men were unemployed. The demonstration that met him was largely spontaneous and supportive and, as he looked over the derelict site, some of the men began singing Crugybar, the Welsh Hymn. It was then that he made his impromptu speech, often misquoted, as ‘something must be done’. As in the Jarrow Crusade, these four words were frequently on the lips of advocates of the distressed areas, and had been used elsewhere on this visit by the King, responding to pleas from the people. However, this time what he said was different markedly different in tense and tone, context and subtext.


It may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism that Ellis had suggested might accompany his visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the government. His use of will rather than must, the manner in which he directed the remarks to the politicians alongside him, and his insistence that the steelworkers must stay here, working reflected his determination to see to it that his government would change its policy from one of sole reliance on transferring the unemployed to other areas to that of attracting new industries, as advocated by Malcolm Stewart and many others. This was a direct challenge not only to Brown, but also, through him, to Chamberlain and Baldwin.It was fighting talk, not the resigned remark of a monarch who was about to give up the throne. Whatever the case, the King’s visit did indeed acquire a political significance, though opposite in nature to that which Ellis was expecting. It certainly did not endear him to a Cabinet that was now beginning to discuss the constitutional crisis and the distinct possibility that he would be forced to abdicate. The coalfield communities turned the whole event into another mass demonstration. The publicity given to it and to Edward VIII’s remarks also, certainly, had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. Something was, eventually, done, but not at the dicta of the King and only after his abdication. For the time being, though, his visit re-energised him, and he began to think that he might put up a fight for the throne, the woman he loved, and his people, against the politicians who seemed to wish that all of them would simply go away, rather than trying to find unorthodox solutions for unusual circumstances. Even those who knew that he didn’t have the power to change the hard hearts of politicians were nonetheless grateful that he had taken the trouble to survey the depressed valleys with his own eyes.

Playing the Good King

On his return from South Wales on November 20th, the King felt buoyed up by his popularity and his ability to demonstrate empathy with the sufferings of his people. Ramsay MacDonald, Lord President, who knew South Wales well as Labour MP for Aberavon from 1922 to 1929, commented that these escapades should be limited… They are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson called his comments at Dowlais monstrous…a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics.


The Beaverbrook press, by contrast, allying itself with Churchill, was keen to make political capital out of the visit, contrasting his care for the plight of the unemployed with the indifference of the government under the headline, “The King Edward Touch”. It continued to trumpet its praise:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south WalesAs few ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from them the tale of their trouble.

He himself later called his words the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen, though he also added that the monarch should be able to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects, and speak what is in his mind.

On the evening of his return from South Wales, Edward telephoned his brother, the Duke of Kent, and told him of his intention to marry Wallis, and make her Queen, Empress of India, “the whole bag of tricks!” This renewed self-confidence also sprang from his finding a new ally behind the scenes in the ample shape of Winston Churchill, whose motives for supporting the King were a mixture of personal ambition and political acumen. Churchill felt that Baldwin was slow to rearm because he was putting the interests of his party before those of the country. This was also why the PM would rather have the King abdicate than risk losing his popular mandate in an early election. On the other hand, Churchill realised that he needed a more popular cause than rearmament to revive his flagging fortunes. Backing the King would add to Baldwin’s discomfort and might lead to a new Conservative administration with Churchill at the heart of it. He was also a romantic, half-American himself, and held the monarchy in great reverence. In addition, he respected the King for his twenty-five years of service as Prince of Wales, before becoming monarch, almost as long as the time since Winston himself had first become a minister. The civil law allowed re-marriage. Why should the King, never married himself, not be able to marry the woman he loved, even if she had been married twice before? The answer to this, of course, lay in the attitude of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was not keen on anointing an adulterer in any case. He would far rather crown his far more virtuous brother. Churchill had little time for such stuffiness.


Above: Archbishop Lange

While Edward was in South Wales, Churchill put the case for a morganatic marriage. This would deny Wallis the title of Queen and preclude Edward’s heirs from taking the throne, the crown eventually passing to the Princess Elizabeth.  Rather than putting the proposal directly to the King, he used Lord Rothermere’s son, Esmond Harmsworth. Lord Harmsworth took Wallis to lunch at Claridge’s and told her that if, on marriage, she became the King’s consort, but not his Queen, she might become ‘the Duchess of Cornwall’. She liked the idea, and telephoned the King on his special train in South Wales. On the following day, November 20th, Edward briefly discussed by telephone with Baldwin the possibility of Parliament passing a special Bill that would allow him to marry Mrs. Simpson without her becoming Queen. He told the PM that this was Wallis’ own idea, following Winston Churchill’s advice not to credit him with it. He also told Baldwin to submit the proposal, as his Prime Minister, to the British Cabinet as well as to all the Cabinets in the Dominions. Up until this point, the matter of the King’s relationship with Mrs Simpson had not been discussed even in the British Cabinet, though the politicians in the Dominions were already far more aware of the details of the ‘affair’ through their press, which was not fettered in its reporting. Baldwin had kept everything he could from most of his Cabinet colleagues, but had already used the freedom of North American press to his advantage in the Hardinge letter, which the King had received just a week beforehand, and which contained the confected reference to the negative reaction of Canadians. In fact, North American reaction was, by all the accounts of the time, quite positive towards the marriage, with many people looking forward to an American becoming Queen. Wallis must have been aware of this, even if she accepted that there was also some adverse reaction among a minority of fellow (North) Americans. The Hardinge letter should at least have alerted the King to the danger of trusting Baldwin to consider the morganatic proposal fairly and honestly, but apparently it did not. For his part, Edward had discussed the plan over the course of his weekend with Wallis at the Fort. On the Monday, he sent Harmsworth to Downing Street to discuss the details of the plan with Baldwin. This was a major tactical error.

Baldwin was ready for the proposal, having had the weekend to find a legitimate reason to oppose it and force the abdication. Baldwin had discussed it with Chamberlain over the weekend and both men knew of (and were suspicious of) Churchill’s motives in proposing the scheme. Perhaps most significantly, both men were from strong, middle-class Victorian church-going traditions in a country where church attendance had declined dramatically since the Great War. Baldwin rejected the plan at once and told Harmsworth that MPs would never pass the required act of Parliament. The young Lord, the epitome of aristocratic decadence to Baldwin, impetuously retorted that he thought they would, apparently failing to challenge Baldwin’s  basic assumption that a special Bill was necessary.

Seventy years on, no such act of Parliament was deemed necessary for the current heir to the throne to marry the divorced Mrs Parker-Bowles with the proviso that she would become and remain the Duchess of Cornwall. In his brief discussion with Harmsworth, Baldwin also added what he believed to be ‘the truth’, for good measure; that the British  people would never accept Wallis Simpson as the King’s wife, whatever her constitutional position. Drawing another lesson from more recent royal relationships, we now know that despite the strength of public feeling at the time of the Prince of Wales’ separation from Princess Diana, the outpouring of sympathy at her death, and the suffering of her two children as a result of these two events, the public seem to have accepted Charles’ marriage to his former mistress on the basis that she will not be made ‘Queen Camilla’. A morganatic marriage is now deemed both permissible and acceptable to the establishment, including the monarchy itself, as well as to the people: could it have been in 1936, especially given Edward’s popularity? Of course, the so-called sixties sexual revolution and  the change in moral values over those seventy years needs to be accounted for, but the constitutional position of the monarch as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith has remained unchanged. So has that of the Church itself in respect of Divorce in general, although re-married couples can now receive a blessing in church, as Charles and Camilla did in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, following the registration of the marriage.


Above: Fort Belvedere, Edward VIII’s private quarters at Windsor Castle.

The truth was, as Edward himself said in his final broadcast, there was never any constitutional difference between himself and Parliament. Perhaps referring to his exchange with Baldwin on the 13th, he added that he should never have allowed any such issue to arise by accepting that he might have to confront the Hobson’s choice which Baldwin was offering him. Churchill himself never proposed that either Parliament or the Cabinet needed to be involved in agreeing to the morganatic marriage. On the contrary, he repeatedly argued that the King should be accorded the same basic human right to marry as any of his subjects.

It was the prospect of Churchill forming a ‘King’s Party’ to push for ‘the Cornwall Plan’ which forced Baldwin’s arm. He himself would rather be forced to resign in favour of Chamberlain than allow Churchill to become PM with an entirely new cabinet. He therefore decided to confront ‘the big beast’ in person, at the same time securing broader support in Parliament with which to scotch the morganatic plan. On 24 November, he summoned Churchill, together with Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, and Sinclair, the Liberal leader, telling them the government would resign if Edward pressed on with his plans to marry.  He demanded a pledge that they would not try to form an alternative government. Both Attlee and Sinclair agreed, but Churchill reserved his position. In reality, Baldwin and Chamberlain had already decided upon the smooth transition from one monarch to another which the King had reluctantly, and conditionally, agreed upon, in his audience with Baldwin on 16 November. The King’s ‘remarks’ in south Wales, coupled with Churchill’s intervention, had made Baldwin and Chamberlain even more determined that Edward should abdicate in favour of his brother, Prince Albert, Duke of York. There was, for them, no going back. ‘Chips’ Channon, however, wrote of the Conservative Party divided, the country divided and schism in the Royal Family. If Churchill had been trumped by Baldwin, he still had cards to play.


On 25 November, Baldwin was commanded by the King to attend an audience at Buckingham Palace. Edward put the proposal of a morganatic marriage to him directly and in person. Baldwin told him that he didn’t think Parliament would support this, but that he would consult the Cabinet and the Prime Ministers of the Dominions. The King’s only other options were to invite Churchill to form a new government or to rule alone by royal prerogative (in effect, as a dictator). Both were unrealistic: the only realistic option was to abdicate in favour of the Duke of York. Baldwin at last called a Cabinet meeting to discuss the issue, and dispatched telegrams to the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Ireland. On 27th, the King’s proposed marriage was discussed in full, open Cabinet for the first time. There was no support for the morganatic proposal, with Duff Cooper the only minister suggesting a delay in a decision about the marriage until after the coronation, a view which Churchill also put forward in Parliament.

When Lord Beaverbrook’s ship Bremen docked in Southampton the next day, the King’s biggest supporter drove straight to the Fort. On hearing first-hand the account of his second, fateful meeting with Baldwin, the newspaper magnate realised that the game was already up because the King had already placed his head on the block. All that remained was for the PM to swing the axe. He concluded that while Edward had friends among the miners, he did not have them where it now mattered, in the Cabinet. The King was well out of his depth as far as politics were concerned and in danger of drowning.

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