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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part One, 1901-21.   Leave a comment

Individualism & Collectivism:

According to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), the term ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.


Yet, also in this period, movements describing themselves as ‘socialist’, for example, the English Fabians, powerfully revived what was really a variant sense in which ‘socialism’ was seen as necessary to complete liberalism, rather than as an alternative theory of society. To George Bernard Shaw and others in Britain and Ireland, socialism was the economic side of the democratic ideal (Fabian Essays, 33) and its achievement was an inevitable prolongation of the earlier tendencies which Liberalism had represented. Opposing this view, and emphasising the resistance of the capitalist economic system to such ‘inevitable’ development, William Morris used the word communism. Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.


Marx & Engels at work at the time of publishing The Communist Manifesto.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:


… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest.   

Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all.

The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.


Without such a programme, Engels had realised, there could not be a united Socialist Party permanently, and every attempt to found one would fail. Indeed, the political independence of the nascent Labour Party from the Liberal Party was always in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution.

Socialism as a Matter of ‘Faith’ – Methodist or Marxist?:

British Socialists possessed a ‘faith’ in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This faith owed as much to Methodism as to Marxism, being based both on Christian principles and the analysis of contemporary society first presented by Marx and Engels. Much of this analysis was modified, however, by Hyndman and the Fabians, by Morris and Blatchford, though it still had a comprehensive reality for those who accepted it. To its working-class adherents, like my own grandparents who founded and campaigned for it in Coventry, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in class consciousness; to middle-class philanthropists, it afforded the consolation that they were working in solidarity with a range of tendencies of social change and progress. As Pelling concluded in his seminal work, the history of the world had often shown the dynamic qualities of a faith devoutly held, like that of the early Christians, the Calvinist reformers and the millenarian sects of the seventeenth century. Faith may feed on illusions, but it is capable of conquering reality.

The fact was that the British working class as a whole had no use for the conception of violent revolution. Any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early years of the industrial revolution. But dislocations of this type were for the most part transitory: a permanent political organization of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively set in motion the movement to form a Labour Party. At the time Keir Hardie (right) retired from the chairmanship of the ILP in 1900, it had captured trade-union support, with the ultimate objective of tapping trade union funds for the attainment of political power.


But soon the ILP was deeply in debt and was only saved from bankruptcy by the generosity of wealthy supporters such as George Cadbury, who, as a Quaker, appreciated its stance against the Boer War. With Hardie’s re-election to Parliament, and the reaction against imperialism, the ILP’s position steadily improved, and it began to build itself up again and gained fresh recruits. By 1906 it was as strong as it had not yet the full force of the Socialist revival of that time. The Labour Representation Committee was a pressure group founded in 1900 as an alliance of socialist organisations and trade unions, aimed at increasing representation for labour interests in the Parliament. The Socialists were a minority force within it, and even after the formation of the Labour Party and its adoption of Socialism as its political creed in 1918, many within the party were hostile to it as an ideology.  There is little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party, which most of them had belonged to in the past if the Liberals had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working classes among their Parliamentary candidates.

All along, there was little doubt that most of the non-Socialist trade-union leaders would have been happy to stay in the Liberal Party if that party had made arrangements for a larger representation of the working class among their Parliamentary candidates. Again and again, it was the fault of the official Liberal Party constituency caucuses that this did not happen; and it was the behaviour of these that set many of the workers’ leaders thinking in terms of a separate party. Even Keir Hardie’s revolt at Mid-Lanark in 1888 had been directed, not against Gladstone’s policies, but against the system by which the local association chose its candidate. The subsequent success of the ILP was largely due to the failure of its rivals, the Labour Electoral Association, to make any satisfactory terms with the Liberal Party for the fuller representation of Labour. Its leader, Threlfall, had been forced to admit the complete failure of its policy in 1894:

It is a curious commentary upon this ‘ideal system’ that of the thirteen Labour members representing England and Wales in the present House, four ran in opposition to, or without recognising the existence of the caucus, five represent constituencies where the miners absolutely dominate the position … and only four either captured the caucus or out-generalled it. It is … a waste of time to advise the working classes to attend … they regard it as a middle-class machine; they have neither the time nor the inclination to compete with the wire-pullers who work it, and they have a decided objection to being made the puppets of anyone. It has served its purpose, and it has carried the people through one state of its development: but as it exists today it is too narrow and too much hampered with class prejudice to be a reflex of the expanding democratic and labour sentiment.

Herbert Gladstone, later to become the Liberal Chief Whip, also recognised that the constituencies, for social, financial and trade reasons are extremely slow to adopt Labour candidates. The Fabians also found that their attempts to ‘permeate’ the associations with potential candidates were met with the refusal of the moneyed men to finance the caucus. The principal reason why money was required was that there was no system for the payment of MPs. This was a reform that the Liberal leaders might have taken up much earlier than they did, thus removing a motivating factor in the support given by smaller unions to the idea of a separate Labour Party. As early as 1897, E. Cowey, a prominent Lib-Lab leader of the Yorkshire Miners moved a resolution at the 1897 TUC in favour of State payment of MPs, saying that:

… money was still the golden key that opened the door to a seat in the House of Commons. Only large and powerful societies could … afford to keep their representatives in such a responsible and expensive position. … The payment of members was absolutely necessary to the success of the Labour movement.

But it was not until 1911, after the Osborne Judgement, that the Liberal Party gave this priority and passed it into law; in the meantime, the smaller unions had already wedded themselves to the idea of a separate Labour Party. For these reasons, it is not difficult to see why the Liberal Party failed to retain the popularity that it had once enjoyed among the ‘responsible’ leaders of the trade unions. As Ramsay MacDonald observed to Herbert Samuel, We didn’t leave the Liberals: They kicked us out and slammed the door in our faces. As the LEA faded away after 1895-96, the ILP steadily asserted itself as the hope of the working-class for parliamentary representation. Thus, the early components of the Labour Party formed a curious mixture of political idealists and hard-headed trade unionists: of convinced Socialists and loyal, but disheartened Gladstonian Liberals.

The Establishment of the Parliamentary Labour Party:

The great difficulty the LRC had to face was the maintenance of an independent political line by all its members. Richard Bell, one of the only two MPs representing it in 1900 Parliament, saw no need to hold himself aloof from the Liberals, and in 1904-5, when he refused to sign the Labour Party constitution, he had to be expelled. There was similar trouble with the three Labour MPs elected at by-elections before 1906: two of them, Shackleton and Henderson were reprimanded in 1904 for appearing in support of a Liberal by-election candidate. It was only in 1906, with the election of a substantial group of thirty MPs who drew a regular salary from the LRC, that the Labour Party was established as a genuine parliamentary party. Part of the problem had been the financial weakness of the Socialist societies as compared with the trade unions. Even in 1901, before many of the big trade unions switched their allegiance, the societies made up less than one-sixteenth of the total affiliated party membership. They were further weakened by the secession of the SDF and by the Fabian Society losing respect over its support for jingoism; the ILP was also, once more, on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1906, it contributed to the LRC based on a nominal sixteen thousand members, and the Socialist societies’ proportion of the LRC’s contributing membership had sunk to one-fiftieth.


Above: A Liberal Party rally during the 1906 General Election. Though often rowdy, rallies were vital in mobilising voters. As the early twentieth century progressed, political parties made increasing use of the new forms of mass media: radio and newsreel, in addition to newspapers and journals.

Furthermore, many of the political difficulties of the Labour Party’s early years arose from the fact that the ILP, although committed to the line of independence, was nevertheless sympathetic to the Liberal Party in policy terms. It favoured Free Trade over Chamberlain’s policy of Protection and was fiercely opposed the Education Act of 1902, which established state-controlled elementary schools, as did most Nonconformist supporters of both Liberal and Labour causes. Sidney Webb had had a role in the design of this act, but the Manchester Guardian was able to say of the 1901 ILP Conference that: What must strike a Liberal … is … how much of the proceedings are devoted to the advocacy of traditional Liberal principles.


After Champion was finally discredited, the former Liberals had it all their own way in the ILP’s leadership. Ramsay MacDonald, whom Hardie described as the party’s greatest intellectual asset, sided with the Liberals against the Fabian Socialists on almost every immediate issue of the time; and Hardie, who had been much more friendly to the Radicals since the outbreak of the South African War, in October 1901, publicly advocated a frank, open and above-board agreement … for well-defined purposes with the anti-war Liberals. Eighteen months later Hardie was apparently prepared to connive at MacDonald’s secret electoral understanding with the Liberal whips. With both the leaders and the rank-and-file of the Socialist wing showing little enthusiasm for the pacifist stance of MacDonald and Hardie, the non-Socialist elements gravitated further towards an alliance with the anti-war Liberals. Between 1903 and 1906 the new party machine had been brought into existence, and whatever the political views of its officers, it soon began to build up among them a vested interest in its maintenance, which has continued through to the present day, despite immense strains at times.

The officials of the great trade unions had made up their minds in favour of having a distinct party of Labour, and so long as their industrial strength continued to grow, the strength of the political organisation would also increase. In the pre-war years which followed, however, there were doubts about the value of political action, and the new industrial unions absorbed ‘syndicalist’ ideas from across the continent and the USA. These were often born out of a traditional distrust of ‘leaders’ within the movement which was often stoked by personal feuds between them as well as disagreements on policy; there were also stresses and strains arising out of wars, rumours of war and revolutions in Europe. Some of the unions, especially the Miners’ Federation, ‘the Fed’, suffered from the peaks and troughs of the international trade cycle, resulting in further radicalisation. Others among the ‘new unions’ of 1889 became more moderate as they became more established. In the thirty years of its life, the new party increased its aggregate poll and share of the vote in every General Election it fought. Despite the persistence of its plurality of ideas and interests, or perhaps because of it, the essential unity of the party remained intact. As Pelling concluded:

The association of Socialist faith and trade-union interest, of hope for an ideal future and fear for an endangered present, seemed on the point of disruption at times: yet it survived, for a variety of reasons … because in the years before the party’s birth there had been men and women who believed that the unity of the working-class movement, both in industry and politics, was an object to be striven for, just as now most of their successors regard it as an achievement to be maintained.


In British politics as a whole, the electoral system underwent profound changes over the early twentieth century. In 1900, only seven out of ten adult men (and no women) were qualified to vote. Four million men were excluded from the franchise and there were nearly half a million plural voters, including around two thousand men with four or more votes. Despite the continued restrictions on the franchise,  the SDF continued to field independent socialist candidates. The picture above was taken during the Haggerston by-election of July 1908 and shows a suffragette, ‘Miss Maloney’ speaking from a Clarion Van in the cause of the SDF candidate, Herbert Burrows. During the five-day campaign in the safe Liberal seat, the van was parked outside the Liberal Party HQ. Burrows was a popular figure in East London, where he had helped Annie Besant organise the 1888 matchgirls’ strike at Bryant and May’s factory. The issue of female suffrage was a strong factor in the campaign, and the Liberal candidate, Warren, had the support of Mary MacArthur’s National Union of Women Workers. However, many notable suffragettes, including the Pankhursts, were opposed to his candidature, because he was a supporter of Asquith. The result brought a victory for the Tory, Rupert Guinness, the brewer, with Burrows finishing in third place with half the votes gained by Warren.

After the ‘Landslide’, Erosion & the Rise of Labour:


Above: The Bethnal Green by-election of 1914. Door-to-door canvassing was, at it still remains, an important aspect of electioneering. Though women did not get the vote until 1918, this candidate seeks support on the doorstep from a female shopkeeper. His attention is an early indication of the growing importance of women at election-time.

The Liberal governments of Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith had initiated, between 1906 and 1914, a series of social and political reforms of a far-reaching character. But the emphasis here is placed upon the period 1914-22 in identifying the role of the Labour Party concerning Liberal decline. Whether Dangerfield’s idea of the ‘strange death of Liberal England’ between 1910 and 1914 is a valid thesis is still strongly debated among historians. Its significance lies in its identification of the basic strains upon Liberalism caused by the political and industrial crises. Liberalism was, and still is (at least to some extent), an ideology of individual and social conscience. It was the 1914-18 War which tested that conscience rather than the earlier threats. The War also brought about an independent Labour representation in Parliament, a result of the breakdown of the Gladstone-MacDonald Pact of 1903. The nature of ‘total war’ brought many basic Liberal principles into question. It led to the leadership of Asquith being challenged first with the creation of a more broadly based coalition in May 1915 and then being superseded following the split with Lloyd George in December 1916. For the Liberal Party, this meant a rift, never to be healed, between Asquithian and Coalition Liberals.

Universal male suffrage was achieved in 1918, when, after a long struggle, women over the age of thirty were also permitted to vote. In 1928, the age limit was lowered to twenty-one, equal with men. The principle of single-member, equal-sized constituencies was accepted in 1885, though it was not completely achieved until 1948. Voting behaviour also changed significantly. Most obviously, Labour replaced the Liberals as one of the two major political parties after 1918. The beginnings of this change, which took effect on a largely local and regional basis, can be seen in the map of the 1918 General Election, shown below. In 1918, British politics was based upon the relationship between the Liberal and Conservative parties. They were, in many ways, sides of the same coin. They accepted both the logic of consensus politics and the benefits of a capitalist society.

John Buchan, the Conservative politician and writer, described the 1918 General Election as a ‘blunder’.  He claimed that Statesmen, who had criticised soldiers harshly for their blindness, were now in their own province to be no less myopic. The instinct which led to the election was right, but its conduct was disastrous. For the sitting members, the test of patriotism was a solitary division in the House of Commons in the preceding May on a criticism of the Government by a distinguished staff-officer, one which was neither factious or unfair. Those who had remained ‘docile’ were given ‘coupons’ to fight the election on behalf of the Coalition Government, but the ‘malcontents’ were outlawed. The coupon candidates swept the board, giving the Government a huge working majority with 484 members; Labour returned fifty-nine members, and the non-coalition Liberals were reduced to little more than a score of seats. But although this was a landslide for Lloyd George, that victory for ‘the man who won the war’ should not blind us to the poor performance of the Asquithian Liberals, the vulnerability of many of the Coalition Liberals with their seats in industrial working-class areas to Labour advance and the 22.2 per cent of the total vote received by the Labour Party. ‘Fusion’ between Coalition Liberals and Conservatives seemed possible in 1919-20, the creation of a ‘centre’ party to counter the reactionary right and the revolutionary left, but Lloyd George did not grasp this opportunity and by 1921 it was too late.

The result of the ‘coupon election’ was one of the least representative parliaments in British history. A batch of leaderless trade unionists constituted the official Opposition; the rest was, in Lloyd George’s words, ‘a chamber of commerce’. It was an assembly of well-to-do mediocrities. The election created impatience in many classes, in returning soldiers, in munitions workers and in Labour circles in general. It gravely weakened the prestige of Parliament, which had been largely in abeyance during the war, and which could not afford any decline in its status at a time when many minds were turning away from constitutionalism. Above all, it weakened the authority of Britain in the coming peace councils. Lloyd George went to these councils bound by extravagant election pledges. Overall, the first three decades of the century witnessed the development of class-based voting, with the Labour support concentrated in areas of heavy industry in Wales, the Midlands and North of England and Central Scotland, while the Conservatives held a near-monopoly of seats in the rural South of England, and the Liberals held on to the more sparsely-populated constituencies in the ‘Celtic fringes’ of Wales and Scotland and, to begin with, the more rural areas of East Anglia, Yorkshire and the North-East of England. This set the voting patterns for the rest of the century. In her diary for 1918, Beatrice Webb made a ‘prophetic’ statement:

The Liberal Party which had for years governed the Empire has been reduced to an insignificant fraction with all its leaders without exception at the bottom of the poll. … Lloyd George with his conservative phalanx is apparently in complete command of the situation; as the only alternative Government there stands the Labour Party with its completely Socialist programme and its utopia of the equalitarian state.


Syndicalists & Socialist ‘Heroes’ of the Unemployed.

Outside Parliament, the Socialists kept up their agitation for ‘Work, not charity’ relentlessly during the first decade of the century, the SDF leading the unemployed on regular sorties into the heart of Mayfair. The photograph below of Westminster unemployed, printed from an SDF lantern slide, gives a vivid picture of the strength of the demonstrators as they ‘invaded’ Berkeley Square in November 1905. The Central Workers’ Committee had organised a vast demonstration of the unemployed. Assembling on the morning of 20 November on the Embankment, contingents marched from all parts of the capital. From Islington, Shoreditch, Hackney and Bethnal Green, unemployed men were led by Dick Greenwood of the SDF and Parson Brooks, the ‘socialist chaplain’. Two thousand walked from Hammersmith and Fulham, stopping on the way in Eaton Square to eat sandwiches provided by the SDF. The Woolwich men, two-hundred-strong, tramped to Greenwich, crossing the river by steamboat. Fifteen hundred arrived from Poplar, organised by the Labour Representation Committee and led by George Lansbury and two of his aldermen. The trade unions supporting the demonstration unfurled their magnificent silk banner with colours of crimson and gold, green and silver, bearing the names of the organised working class; the Gasworkers, Riggers, Coal Porters, French Polishers, Machine Rulers and many more.


As the march moved away from the Embankment, they were led by the banner of the Westminster Unemployed, as seen in the photograph, with the slogan by heavens our rights are worth fighting for. Curse your charity, we want work was the theme as the SDF with trade union support swept towards the homes of the wealthy. Twenty thousand roared approval at a Hyde Park rally after the ‘incursion’; as Jack Williams told them, you have starved too long. … come out and parade the West End every day. He read a telegram from Keir Hardie urging them not to hide in the slums, but to come out and back us in fighting to win the right to work. Like Hardie, Williams was born into poverty and escaped from the workhouse at the age of ten, climbing the walls of the Hornsey Union to freedom. The other speakers at the rally included the trade union leaders Margaret Bondfield and Harry Gosling, but it was the fiery passion of Jack Williams that had the crowd roaring support. He led the workless to the doors of the rich, marching them on one occasion down Bond Street as policemen stood purposefully with their backs to the jewellers’ windows. On another ‘invasion day’, they marched to Belgrave Square, and caused consternation as a red carpet laid across the pavement for a society wedding was torn to shreds by the boots of the unemployed.


Earlier in the year, London had seen the arrival of two marches from the Midlands. The first was from Raunds of Northampton, members of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, going in a body to the War Office to protest against cheap labour policy of the department in purchasing service boots at prices below an agreed tariff. Once again, the organiser of the march was a prominent member of the SDF, James Gribble, who had worked in the boot and shoe trade since he was twelve years old. He organised the march on military lines, selecting only the fittest men from hundreds of volunteers and appointing three ‘officers’ to take command of his men who were divided into six companies. With bicycle outriders and a horse-drawn ambulance, General Gribble, as he was dubbed, took no risks of his army falling by the wayside.


Another procession to London to be commemorated by a series of postcards was the march of four hundred unemployed from Leicester, representing two thousand men and their families. Negatives of the original cards, including the one above, were sent to Leicester Museum by an old socialist, Robert Barnes, who produced the photographs, including that shown above, from those in the possession of the organising secretary of the march, George White. Their journey was arduous and miserable, the men trampling through driving continuous rain, shoes leaking, with topcoats made from sacks and living on bread, cheese and cocoa. The march was supposed to be welcomed in London by the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party at a mass meeting in Hyde Park in support of the Unemployed Bill, which was opposed by many trade unions because it provided that the unemployed under local authority assistance should work at less than the union rate for the public works they undertook. Along the way, the marchers learned that the King had refused their request for an audience and it was a tired, ragged and soddened army that was given shelter and a meat tea by the Salvation Army at Edgware and asked by Ramsay MacDonald to sign the pledge! On Whit Monday the weather brightened and so did the men, marching cheerfully to Parliament Hill Fields (shown above), where MacDonald addressed a crowd on more than six thousand on behalf of the ILP. Keir Hardie also sent a telegram describing their march as ‘heroic’.


An unusual postcard was that shown above, depicting the SDF agitator Ernest Marklew dressed in broad-arrowed prison clothes, picking oakum, published in 1906. The card is one of a small of socialist commemorative cards that belonged to a pioneer member of the ILP. It is a reminder of the long years of struggle by early socialists to establish the right of free speech in public places. The SDF had long been harassed by police while holding open-air meetings and heavy fines and imprisonment with hard labour had been imposed by middle-class magistrates on socialists accused of obstruction and refusal to pay fines. At Nelson in Lancashire, as well as in other towns and cities including the capital, socialists persisted in speaking at regular ‘pitches’ despite repeated harassment. As one speaker was arrested, another one would take his place, and thousands would turn out every Sunday, some from curiosity, others to lend support, as police fought their way through crowds to drag away speaker after speaker. The secretary of the Nelson branch of the SDF, Bryan Chapman, was also imprisoned during the free speech fight there. Marklew was sent to prison for fourteen days and Chapman got seven days. Arrests and battles followed each Sunday for months and the usual attendance of hundreds for an SDF open-air meeting swelled to thousands. The photograph of Marklew (above) was posted in a studio and sold by the SDF to raise money for the socialist cause.


In 1908, the Manchester unemployed tried a new tactic to draw public attention to their plight. On Sunday, 14 September, following a meeting of about five hundred workless men, they were urged to march on Manchester Cathedral and the photograph above shows them pouring into the cathedral during worship, watched by the mostly middle-class communicants. The Dean, Bishop Weldon, appeared and agreed to speak on unemployment if they could come back during the afternoon. That afternoon nearly three thousand men assembled in Stevenson Square. About fifteen hundred then marched to the cathedral where the bishop welcomed them but said it wasn’t the province of the church to organise work but, if it was necessary to raise a special fund, many of us will willingly deprive ourselves to aid what is being done. The vicar of Rochdale preached a sermon in which he offered sympathy on behalf of the Church. When the men interrupted, the Dean had to declare the service over. After the service, the leader of the unemployed, a man named Freewood, read the prayer that he had intended to read in the cathedral, ending with…

O Lord we beseech thee to move thy servant Bishop Knox (Archbishop of Canterbury) to see that something more than sympathy is needed and that his influence brought to bear on our Parliament might bear some fruit.




The rising militancy of the trade unions and the determination of the government to meet the militancy with armed force if necessary was shown first during the Cambrian Combine strike in 1910 in the Rhondda Valleys which led to serious rioting in Tonypandy and clashes with police leading to the death of one miner. Winston Churchill, then Liberal Home Secretary, deployed both cavalry and infantry units, the latter drawing bayonets on picketing miners. I have written about in detail elsewhere on this site. The picture above (top) shows miners waiting to go into a mass ‘Federation’ meeting at the Empire Theatre, Tonypandy in November 1910. Below it, Trehafod miners are pictured picking coal from the slag-heaps during the dispute, which continued into 1911.

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Above: A soup kitchen during the Cambrian Combine strike, 1910-11.



Tom Mann, one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889, founder of the militant Workers’ Union, first secretary of the ILP and first secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, arrived back in England in May 1910, after eight years of trade union activity in Australia. By that time, he was a labour leader of international renown with a capacity for appearing at the centre of a struggle, as a catalyst for action. He returned from his years abroad as an advocate for syndicalism, or ‘industrial unionism’, as a means of winning working-class power. Within eight weeks of arriving home, he had launched a small publication, The Industrial Syndicalist. He wrote,

… What is called for? What will have to be the essential conditions for the success of any such movement? That it should be avowedly and clearly revolutionary in aim and method. We therefore most certainly favour strikes and we will always do our best to help strikers.

He was not to have to wait long before leading one of the fiercest strikes of the decade. Following his ideas of industrial unionism, by November he had formed the thirty-six unions organising transport into the National Transport Federation. After winning the first stage of the battle against the International Shipping Federation for union recognition, the lesson of solidarity was clear in Liverpool on 28 June 1911, when four thousand dockers came out demanding recognition of the National Union of Dock Labourers. Churchill drafted troops into Liverpool and sent two gunboats up the Mersey with their guns trained on the port. Cavalry and infantry with fixed bayonets were deployed and hundreds of long, stout staves were ordered for the police. Mann answered this by telling the Liverpool strikers:

Let Churchill do his utmost, his best or his worst, let him order ten times more troops to Liverpool, not all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can take the vessels out of the docks to sea.



On 24 August, with all their demands conceded, the strike was called off. The success of the dockers and the railwaymen, during the first national railway stoppage, seemed to inspire a revolt of women workers in the area of London’s dockland during a heatwave in August. The photograph above showing the distribution of loaves of bread outside the Labour Institute in Bermondsey survives as a relic of an uprising of the unorganised. Women and girls walked out of jam, biscuit and pickle factories and marched around Bermondsey calling on other women in the food factories to join them in claiming an increase in their incredibly low wages. Out came the women and girls from the factories with household names; Spillers’, Pearce Duffs’, Hartley’s and Lipton’s, where they worked for as little as seven shillings a week. Laughing, singing, welcoming the escape from the stifling factories, they were joined by Labour leaders including Ben Tillett, the Dockers’ leader (pictured below), Mary MacArthur, Herbert Burrows and Dr Salter addressing fifteen thousand of their fellow strikers in Southwark Park. Within three weeks, increases had been won at eighteen of the twenty-one factories where the women had struck.

It is doubtful whether British society has ever been so beset with contradictions as it was in 1914. A Liberal Government was in power, though only just; it depended on the votes of Labour and Irish Nationalist MPs. A vast programme of social reform lay behind it, but a vast agenda of social unrest awaited it every day. There was widespread working-class unrest; beginning in 1910, there had been a wave of strikes, conducted with extreme bitterness on all sides, sweeping through the country, with every prospect of a final confrontation in the autumn of 1914. Ben Tillett, looking back on these years in 1931, called them:

A strange, hectic period of our economic history! It was a great upsurge of elemental forces. It seemed as if the dispossessed and disinherited class in various parts of the country were all simultaneously moved to assert their claims upon society.

‘Memories and Refections’, 1931.

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The Disunited Kingdom at the Outbreak of War:

It was to a disunited kingdom, with a militant Suffragette movement ‘alongside’ militant trade unionism in Britain, the Army in Ireland in a state of mutiny and Ulster on the verge of civil war over ‘Home Rule’, that war came in August. At once another contradiction was exposed. The ruling Liberal Party was strongly tinged with pacifism, yet it was also the Party which had carried through, under Lord Haldane, the most effective military reforms in British history. The people as a whole were largely unaware of them; indeed it was almost completely unaware of its Army, except when war was actually in progress, or when disagreeable occurrences like the Curragh Mutiny reached the headlines and was the cause of ‘wild delight’ on the opposition Conservative benches in the House of Commons. A powerful counter-note to this was struck by a Labour MP, Colonel Ward, which would nevertheless have been considered dangerous had it been uttered outside the protection of privilege that the House provided. In ringing tones, he warned the Tories that, if they wanted a Civil War, they could have it: If there was to be a mutiny in the Army, it would a mutiny of the working class. Britain was a naval power, much admired around the world as the shield of British democracy, but the Army, characterised in Rudyard Kipling’s poem Tommy, was viewed with far less respect, particularly by the lower middle class and the ‘respectable working class’ and especially in the ‘chapel-going’ areas of Wales and the rural Midlands and ‘West Country’ of England, where ‘red-coats’ were seen as ‘scum’.

For socialists, although not all pacifists, the war was a negation of internationalism, splitting the movement as workers from one country hastened to shoot down the workers of another. On 2 August 1914, just two days before the declaration of war, a huge anti-war meeting was held in Trafalgar Square. Called by the British section of the International Socialist Bureau, a manifesto, whose signatories included Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson, was read to the gathering, it ended with the words down with the class rule, down with the rule of brute force, down with war, up with the peaceful rule of the people. Speakers included Will Thorne, Mary MacArthur, Margaret Bondfield, Herbert Burrows and Keir Hardie. Three days later, the Labour Party supported the war. H. G. Wells proclaimed the sword had been drawn for peace. Labour and trade union leaders joined in recruiting campaigns and Will Thorne became a Lieutenant Colonel in the West Ham Volunteers. Workers enlisted in their hundreds of thousands and it was left to the pacifist section of the labour movement together with a handful of true internationalists to preserve the socialist conscience. The ILP published an anti-war manifesto that declared:

Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns we send sympathy and greetings to the German socialists. …



This was truly a cry out of the darkness.  The slogans on the posters in the recruiting photograph on the right attest to the prevailing jingoism of the times.  In his own constituency of Aberdare, Keir Hardie, the apostle of British socialism was booed as he declared he was going to oppose this war in the interests of civilisation and the class to which he belonged.

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

These words were brave and sincere, but also soon lost in the vortex of hate which soon flowed from the outbreak of war, and a tired and saddened Hardie slowly died as the workers rushed in their hundreds of thousands to join the recruiting queues to enlist for the bloodiest slaughter in the history of mankind to date. The same British workers who had been hailing their German proletarian comrades just days before, now saw them as enemies and aggressors, crying out Down with Germany!

The dominant mood, in the early August days of 1914, was one of euphoria, as can be seen on the faces in the photograph above, taken outside the recruiting office.

The weather seemed to have a lot to do with it.  A mood of national unity was suddenly reborn, one which leading figures in the Labour movement found difficult to resist and remain in leadership. When Ramsay MacDonald (pictured below) resigned as Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party because of his own opposition to the war, Henderson was ready to take his place.


But resignation in these circumstances did not come cheaply either. One contemporary who had met him once before 1914 and had failed to be impressed,  except by his remarkable good looks. M. A. Hamilton had also heard him speak after this and had been considerably impressed. But what had ‘thrilled’ his observers in 1914 was his going out into the wilderness:

We accepted the legend of rejected office, and gloried in it, as in the courage of his assault on Edward Grey. Meeting him in those days at 44 Bedford Square, one could not but admire an aloof dignity in which there was no hint of self-conscious pomp. This admiration steadily mounted, as MacDonald was singled out for attack. He was assailed, incessantly, as a pro-German pacifist who cared nothing for his country. He got all the brick-bats; they were numerous and edgy, and he minded them, a lot.

Arthur Henderson was, according to E. A. Jenkins in his biography, From Foundry to Foreign Office (1944), a typical Northcountryman, who liked to talk about religious or political ‘topics of the hour’. Henderson became a Methodist in 1879 (having previously been a Congregationalist) and became a local lay-preacher. Henderson worked at Robert Stephenson and Sons’ General Foundry Works from the age of twelve. After finishing his apprenticeship there aged seventeen, he moved to Southampton for a year and then returned to work as an iron moulder (a type of foundryman) in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After he lost his job in 1884, he concentrated on preaching. In 1892, Henderson entered the complex world of trade union politics when he was elected as a paid organiser for the Friendly Society of Iron Founders and its representative on the North East Conciliation Board. Henderson believed that strikes caused more harm than they were worth and tried to avoid them whenever he could. For this reason, he opposed the formation of the General Federation of Trade Unions, as he was convinced that it would lead to more strikes.

In 1900, Henderson (shown on the left in the photo from 1906, with other leading figures in the party), was one of the 129 trade union and socialist delegates who passed Keir Hardie’s motion to create the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). In 1903, he was elected Treasurer of the LRC and was also elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Barnard Castle at a by-election.

1910 Arthur Henderson.jpgIn 1906, the LRC changed its name to the Labour Party and won 29 seats at the general election. In 1908, when Hardie resigned as Leader of the Labour Party, Henderson was elected to replace him. He remained Leader until his own resignation two years later, in 1910. In 1915, following Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s decision to create a coalition government, Henderson became the first member of the Labour Party to become a member of the Cabinet, as President of the Board of Education.

‘Total War’ – the Views of Working-class Men & Women:


Despite the vitriolic attacks on pacifist politicians like MacDonald at home, there was a more satirical tone expressed in the voice of the Army in its marching songs as it arrived in the fields of Flanders and northern France. This was the Regular Army, the sardonic, unemotional, matter-of-fact voice of the widely-despised ‘Tommy Atkins’ who, as usual, was being expected to do the dirty work, was quite prepared to do it and was not sentimental about it. It had few illusions and its attitudes, had they been aware of them, would have further shocked their fellow-countrymen. In contrast to the general public mood, it was not fuelled by hatred of Germany but, in true mercenary spirit, it would have been equally ready to fight the French. Its motto was, We’ll do it. What is it? Sixty per cent of the men in the ranks of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force were reservists, called back to the colours. For many of them, their return to Army life was a distressing uprooting from their homes and occupations. Yet theirs was also an odd satisfaction in obeying the call.

But the Regular Army, even with its reservists, was simply not large enough for the needs of continental war. There would need to be something else, and this need was quickly perceived by Lord Kitchener, the new Secretary of State for War. Out of this perception came the ‘Kitchener Armies’ or ‘New Army’, an extraordinary manifestation of patriotism which brought over 2.25 million volunteers into the colours in the first fourteen months of the war. As the Front-line war dragged on over the next three years, the endless casualty lists recorded the toll of human life; the physical destruction mounted day by day. It was not surprising that nerves frayed and revulsion mounted among those who had to endure all these sufferings. To make them endurable, the soldiers invented a class-conscious vocabulary and style of humour all of their own, closely modelled upon that of the ‘old Regulars’, as demonstrated in the following anonymous parody of the parable of the sower:

Some fell by the wayside, and the Sergeant-Majors sprang up and choked them. 

The demand of the generals for more and more young men for the muddy walk to mutilation and death on the Western Front inevitably resulted in the depletion of labour available for industry and the increase in opportunities for women to replace them at home. Of course, there were problems and a degree of resistance especially from male workers in skilled industries such as engineering. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers, an all-male union with a long tradition of craft skill, saw the introduction of lower-paid unskilled labour as a threat to post-war job security and wage-rates. The answer was the ‘Shells and Fuses Agreement’ whereby the unions would accept ‘dilution of labour’ for the duration of the war. In effect, the trade unions were asked to accept the introduction of a twelve-hour working day, the unlimited subdivision of jobs, the scrapping of apprenticeship agreements and the introduction of unskilled labour to produce the hardware of war. Safeguards and rights painstakingly fought for by trades unionists over half a century or more were set aside until the end of the war. No similar sacrifice was to be asked of the employers who were enabled to make rich profits by speeding up production and introducing unrestricted unskilled labour at cheap wage-rates.


Above: Oxide breaking at Beckton Gas Works.

The doubts of trade unionists about the large-scale introduction of female labour into industries were expressed in a composite resolution at the 1915 Trades Union Congress from two craft unions asking for committees to be set up to ensure the replacement of women at the close of the war by more suitable male labour. The real threat, however, was the inequality of pay between men and women and, to their credit, many trade union leaders insisted on equal pay for women doing equal work, achieving some limited success. The government sided firmly with employers against the unions and in June 1915 the new coalition government dropped all pretence at negotiation on the question of existing industrial practices and introduced a Munitions of War Bill to force dilution of labour by unskilled men and women on the unions. The war opened many industries to women and there is no shortage of propaganda-style photographs like the one above, showing women in ‘unladylike’ work, cleaning railway engines, filling shells, and humping coal sacks. Although of an official nature, they do represent women at the kind of heavy industrial work that would not have been readily open to them before the outbreak of the war.

It was the mass participation of women in the War effort – in industry, in the Civil Service, and in the Forces – which produced the result so deeply desired and defiantly demanded by the pre-war Suffragette Movement. In March 1917, the House of Commons passed the Women’s Suffrage Bill by 341 votes to 62, setting out a scheme for electoral reform to come into operation at the end of the War. The motion was moved by Asquith, who, according to The Times’ Michael McDonagh, gave 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. But, even in the latter stages of the war, women’s participation was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by their menfolk at the Front, nor did they admire how it was sometimes ‘forcibly’ obtained. One soldier’s letter to his wife which was censored from May 1918 was quite threatening on the subject, also perhaps revealing the social conservatism which existed in working-class homes:

Well, I am afraid there will be trouble if they try to take married women into the WAAC. 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 while 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.

Lloyd George’s Visit to Clydeside & Labour’s Socialist Programme:


While many trade union and Labour leaders who supported the war acquiesced in the increased exploitation of industrial workers, other sections began a wave of resistance, demanding payment of the proper rate for the job where new workers were introduced, controls on company profits and a guarantee that the men away at the front would have jobs waiting for them when they returned after the war. The strongest opposition was led by the Clyde Workers’ Committee, a group of shop stewards elected directly from the shop floor under the chairmanship of Willie Gallacher. The Clyde workers had already conducted a strike for higher pay in February 1915, and the newly formed committee was more than ready for Lloyd George (above) when he travelled to the Clyde at Christmas of that year as Minister of Munitions to plead the case for dilution as a patriotic duty. Against the advice of his officials, Lloyd George was obliged to meet with the shop stewards and hear out their case for workers’ control of the factories. At a meeting in St. Andrew’s Hall held on Christmas Day, he had the experience of having to stand on the platform while the entire audience got to their feet and sang The Red Flag.

The effect of the protests on the Clyde and the continuing agitation by women trade unionists did result in 1916 in an amendment to the Munitions Act which gave statutory force in ‘the rate for the job’ where women did the same skilled work as men. Unions recruited the new women workers and by 1918 the membership of those affiliated to the TUC had risen by well over two million since the outbreak of war, totalling two and a half million. Women and girls who had been unorganised domestic servants, and/ or working-class housewives had been introduced to a range of jobs never before open to them and most importantly, they had been brought into the organised trade union movement for the first time. Even before the end of the war, however, the growing divisions in British society, later to be signalled by the General Strike of 1926, were already widening. In January 1916, the government had arrested Gallacher, Johnny Muir and Walter Bell, the leaders of the Clyde Workers’ Committee, on charges of attempting to cause mutiny, sedition or disaffection among the civilian population. Ernest Bevin, speaking in the Leeds Coliseum on 3 June 1917, joined in the radical trade union war of words with the Coalition Government:

We all know that in the industrial world the capitalists would give us peace tomorrow if we would surrender. But I am not going to surrender. I am not going to be a pacifist in the industrial movement. I believe that even in our own country there will have to be the shedding of blood to attain the freedom we require …

In 1916, David Lloyd George forced Asquith to resign and replaced him as Prime Minister. Arthur Henderson became a member of the small War Cabinet with the post of Minister without Portfolio. (The other Labour representatives who joined Henderson in Lloyd George’s coalition government were John Hodge, who became Minister of Labour, and George Barnes, who became Minister of Pensions.) Henderson resigned in August 1917 after his proposal for an international conference on the war was rejected by the rest of the Cabinet. He then turned his attention to building a strong constituency-based support network for the Labour Party. Previously, it had little national organisation, based largely on branches of unions and socialist societies. Working with Ramsay MacDonald and Sidney Webb, Henderson in 1918 established a national network of constituency organisations. They operated separately from the trade unions and the National Executive Committee and were open to everyone sympathetic to the party’s policies. Henderson lost his seat in the ‘Coupon Election’ of 14 December 1918 but returned to Parliament in 1919 after winning a by-election in Widnes. He then secured the adoption of a comprehensive statement of party policies, as drafted by Sidney Webb. Entitled “Labour and the New Social Order,” it remained the basic Labour platform until 1950. It proclaimed a socialist party whose principles included a guaranteed minimum standard of living for everyone, nationalisation of industry, and heavy taxation of large incomes and of wealth.

Bevin’s ‘Docker’s Breakfast’, Poverty & ‘Poplarism’:

There were mutinies in the armed forces which continued during the period of demobilisation into 1919, reminding the upper classes rather uncomfortably of the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent revolutions on the continent. They were followed by a series of strikes which led The Times (27 September 1919) to proclaim that this war, like the war with Germany, must be a fight to the finish. The civil strife which had arisen towards the end of the war continued principally among the miners, shipbuilders, railwaymen and farm workers, that is, in the declining sections of the economy. Ernest Bevin, pictured below, the national organiser of the Dockers’ Union, used his own experience of poverty and his deep knowledge of and feeling for the dockworkers in presenting the case for higher wages to the Shaw inquiry of 1920. The potatoes are peeled into a chipped enamel bowl, while the little girl watching is wearing boots that must have come from her brother.


‘The Dockers’ KC’ was an appreciative title won by Ernest Bevin when he argued the case for a sixteen shillings a day minimum wage and de-casualisation of their labour at the Shaw Inquiry in 1920. Bevin, a thirty-nine-year-old national organiser of the Dockers’ Union was given the task of putting the case for the Transport Federation. His performance was brilliant. Though lacking in formal education, he spoke for eleven hours, vividly describing the history, work, poverty, danger of a docker’s life and scoring heavily in exchanges with the Chairman of the Port of London Authority, the wealthy Lord Devonport, an old enemy of dock workers. While the two sides were involved in academic arguments as to whether or not a docker and his family could live on the employers’ proposed wage of three pounds thirteen shillings and sixpence a week, Bevin went shopping in Camden Town. That evening he prepared a ‘docker’s breakfast’ (shown above) and took the plates into court.

When Professor Bowley, the employers’ expert witness, went into the witness box, calculating the precise number of calories on which a man could live and work, Bevin pushed scraps of bacon, bread and fish he had prepared before him and asked the Cambridge professor if that was sufficient for a man who had to carry heavy sacks of grain all day. The witness protested. You have never carried 2cwt bags on your back continuously for eight hours? Bevin fired. The professor answered that he hadn’t, and Bevin then produced a menu from the Savoy Hotel and asked him to calculate the calories in a shipowners’ lunch! The outcome of the Inquiry was a triumph for Bevin, and the court condemned the system of casual labour, awarding a national minimum wage of sixteen shillings a day for a forty-four hour week. Bevin went on, of course, to become a leading figure in the trade union and Labour movement over the next four decades.


Historians often date Britain’s ‘hungry years’ as beginning in 1929 with the ‘Great Depression’, but for many workers, they never had a beginning, since the depression, unemployment and hunger were a permanent condition of their lives and one from which they received only occasional relief. In March 1921, Poplar, a borough in London’s East End, blighted with mass unemployment, casual dock labour, rotten housing and slum landlords, reached a breaking point. It was hardly equitable that a rich borough such as a Westminster, where a penny rate raised more than thirty thousand pounds, maintained only eleven hundred on outdoor relief, while Poplar, where a penny rate raised only three thousand pounds had to maintain forty-four thousand. The East End of London as a whole, with only a quarter of the paying capacity of the West End, had seventeen times the liability. Faced with a massive increase in the rate, a burden the poor could not carry, the Council refused to cut the level of relief to the unemployed and decided not to pay the quarter of a million pounds due to the central authority, the London County Council, carrying a rate of four shillings and fourpence in the pound, to meet the needs of the Council and the Board of Guardians.


This was the essence of the conflict that was to lead to the imprisonment of the mayor and the majority of the socialist members of the Council and the introduction of a new word into the English language, ‘Poplarism’. Summoned to appear at the High Court on 29 July the Council marched in procession from Bow with the mace bearer at their head, the mayor wearing his chain of office and all beneath a banner saying ‘Poplar Borough Council marching to the High Court and possibly to prison’. Following the councillors, who included Edgar Lansbury and his father, the ‘uncrowned King of the East End’, the kindly George Lansbury, came the people of Poplar. The court ordered payment, the councillors refused and in September, nearly the whole of the Council was sent to prison for contempt. Fifteen thousand marched to Holloway, many of the women carrying babies (as shown in the photo above) where Minnie Lansbury and four other women were taken. While Herbert Morrison deplored their actions and J. H. Thomas called the councillors ‘wastrels’, the fight continued even inside the prison.

A council meeting was held in Brixton Prison, the women being brought from Holloway to attend. Outside, ten thousand enrolled in the Tenants’ Defence League and pledged to refuse to pay rent if the councillors asked. The High Court released the councillors in October so that they could attend a conference to discuss the whole matter. The result was a victory for Poplar. The Council had made their first charge the care of the sick, orphaned, aged, widowed, workless and homeless and forced the introduction of a Bill equalising rate burdens between the rich and poor. The two photographs of Poplar residents and councillors are taken from an album presented to one of the councillors at a Council meeting the following year. The caption to the picture of the Poplar women carrying the loaves given by the Guardians is entitled ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ while the photograph of the councillors features Alderman Hopwood with his pipe, ‘surrounded by his bodyguard’.


The photograph above shows the outing of Norland Ward Women’s Group of the North Kensington Labour Party. The woman on the left in the front row is carrying the Party’s red flag and most of the group are wearing red rosettes. The substantial-looking Labour Club proclaims ‘Socialism’ and ‘Recreation’ and the women in their prettiest dresses have no doubt earned their break from the shop, factory, housework and local canvassing for the party. Charabanc day trips were a popular working-class leisure activity during the 1920s and the elected representatives of the Labour and trade union movement enjoyed them as much as the membership. Charabanc pictures from the early twenties are common and include those of the annual outings of workers from scores of factories on jaunts to Dartmoor and Epping Forest. The charabancs chugged along at a maximum of twelve miles per hour.

(to be continued…)


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These Weeks in World War One: 25 September – 14 October 1915: The Battle of Loos and the Execution of Norfolk Nurse, Edith Cavell   1 comment

It will cost us dearly and we shall not get far

General Rawlinson, commander-in-chief, IV Corps, British Army.

This British offensive was to be in support of the French, who were keen to have a quick and successful offensive before winter, and to help the beleaguered Russians, bearing the brunt of the German attacks in the east.

British General, Douglas Haig was well aware of the difficulties facing his men: the battlefield was full of slag heaps and mine works, affording the Germans excellent defensive positions. Despite their reluctance French commander General Joffre was adamant that the British attack. Forced to act before his New Army was ready, Haig still optimistically thought a breakthrough possible. The Allies had a five to one advantage in troop numbers.

The attack of 75,000 troops made some progress; however, it slowed due to lack of artillery support, confusion over navigation and the heavy fire of the German defenders. Six thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle. On the second day some German machine-gunners stopped firing to allow their opponents to retreat to their lines. By the end of the offensive in October British casualties were over sixty thousand, three times as many as the German losses.

On 25 September, poison gas, referred to as ‘the accessory’ in order to maintain a level of secrecy, was used by the British for the first time. One of those watching its use was General Rawlinson:

I witnessed the sight from the top of a fosse some three miles distant from the front line and the view before me was one I shall never forget. Gradually a huge cloud of white and yellow gas rose from our trenches to a height of between two hundred and three hundred feet, and floated quietly away towards the German trenches. Amidst the cloud could be seen shrapnel bursting on the enemy’s front line trenches.  

However, the plan backfired when the wind changed direction and the gas blew back into the British trenches, causing havoc among the troops. By the end of the war, the British had used gas cylinders 150 times, compared with eleven attacks by the Germans. Despite the terror it induced, poison gas caused a relatively low number of British Army deaths during the war. Loos was part of the Artois-Champagne offensive, which became a dogged war of attrition in which Allied commanders were always hopeful of achieving a breakthrough. British and French losses totaled 310,000; the Germans lost 140,000. One of the British officers was John Kipling, the son of the poet Rudyard Kipling, killed in action on 27 September. His father wrote the following short poem about his death:


My son was killed while laughing at some jest. I would

I knew

What it was, and it might serve me in a time when jests

are few.

The story of father and son was recently dramatised by the BBC in ‘My Boy Jack’, a powerful  film starring David Suchet and Daniel Ratcliffe.

Meanwhile, a ‘mock’ trench section was dug in Blackpool, to help troops train for trench life and warfare. During the ‘illuminations’ and throughout the war, for a penny a time, visitors to the ‘Loos Trenches’ were shown around by recovering soldiers from a nearby hospital.

In a Munitions Tribunal held in Glasgow in September, twelve apprentices aged between fifteen and eighteen were admonished for demanding higher wages. Although they were working 103 hours a week, the sheriff told them, no boy could be allowed to put his private wage-earning capacity in front of the national need.

Born in December 1915, French singer Édith ‘Piaf’ Gassion was named after British nurse Edith Cavell, who had been executed two months earlier for helping Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. Over twenty places in France, Belgium, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal and Mauritius bear her name, including a pub in Norwich, her home city, where she was laid to rest outside the cathedral…


The Land of Might-Have-Been: Britain, 1936-37. Chapter One, part one: The Road to the Berlin Olympiad.   3 comments



Somewhere there’s another land,

Different from this world we know;

Far more mercifully planned,

Than the cruel place we know:

Innocence and Peace are there,

All is good that is desired;

Faces there are always fair,

Love grows never old nor tired.


We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been;

I can  never be your king, nor you can be my Queen;

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

We shall never find that lovely land of Might-have-been.


Sometimes on the rarest nights,

Comes the vision calm and clear,

Gleaming with unearthly lights,

On our path of doubt and fear:

Winds from that far land are blown,

Whispering with secret breath,

Hope that plays her tune alone,

Love that conquers pain and death.


Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

Will I ever be your king, or you at last my Queen?

Days may pass, and years may pass,

And seas may lie between;

Shall we ever find that lovely land of Might-have-been?

 Ivor Novello, 1924

These lyrics represent Novello’s Ruritarian dream, a dream long-since discarded, like its romantic Welsh author, in modern, rational, liberal Britain, but one which was shared by many in his glamorous inter-war world and, of course, one which was twice turned into a nightmare by autocratic emperors and leaders in Europe. When Novello’s most successful west-end musical, Glamorous Nights, hit the stage in 1936, it seemed to many that the dream, not the nightmare, was about to be turned into reality. Britain was no longer a land of Might-have-been, but a land of what might be. The problem was that, while it was a dream they may have been prepared to share, this was not yet a land, like Roosevelt’s USA, which was more mercifully planned. While Novello’s social set, wonderfully depicted in Robert Altman’s recent film Gosford Park, with Jeremy Northam playing the singer-song-writer so brilliantly by performing his songs live to camera, these were the years, 1936-37, in which the dream and the nightmare were at their most polarised in the experience of the British people. That is what makes them so fascinating to study, containing as they do a series of dramatic scenes, events which, as a recent book has shown, changed all our lives for ever. In a very real sense, these events marked the beginning of the modern Elizabethan era which we are now celebrating, 75 years on. They also represent for most in Britain, a brief respite and recovery from the Depression of 1929-33 before the descent into despair of 1938-40.As the jack-boots were goose-stepping into the Rhineland, the British were determined to have their fun and to live their dream. They ended the decade by sleep-walking into disaster on the continental stage.




Chronology: January – June 1936


 18 Rudyard Kipling died

20 King George V died; succeeded by Edward VIII

22  Accession proclaimed

28  Funeral of George V


 16  Victory for the Popular Front in the Spanish Elections


 7     Germany reoccupied the Rhineland


 1     Haile Selassie left Abyssinia

Narrative, January-June:

By the turn of the year, the worst of the Depression was over, and for those in work, life ahead seemed full of promise. As depicted in Noel Coward’s classic film about inter-war London working-class life between the wars This Happy Breed, families were able to move out of the slums of the East End to modern houses in new suburbs like Bexleyheath. Men found work as semi-skilled engineers in the new electronics and communications industries. Four years of growth under the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, had fuelled a housing boom, which in turn had led to an explosion of sales of the latest domestic equipment and consumer gadgets. Two-thirds of Britain’s homes were now powered by electricity. Credit, in the form of hire purchase, helped ordinary people to acquire fridges, cookers, vacuum cleaners and radios, while car ownership was no longer the preserve of the aristocracy, but also available to the richer business and professional classes.

For those in the upper classes that Ivor Novello and Noel Coward epitomised in their art and music, life was indeed easy. Everyone had servants, though harder to find, and women did not need to go out to work after marrying, which gave them time for entertaining and charity work. However, this made the contrast with the poverty of the distressed areas, soon to be re-named special areas even starker. Then there was the gathering gloom of the threat of future mass conflict, harnessing the new technologies, so that New Year revellers of all classes felt that they should enjoy themselves now, since they might be dead in another couple of years. They were not far wrong, and it was not only Churchill who was aware of the threat.

At Sandringham that Christmas and New Year, the King’s family celebrated the festivities as best they could under a gloomy mood presaged by the monarch’s declining health. His eldest son and heir, Edward Prince of Wales, known to the family as David, noticed how ‘thin and bent’ his father had become. However, David was preoccupied with his adoration for Wallis Simpson, a slender, dark-haired 39-year-old American who was married to a London businessman. She had been married before, in 1916, to an American Naval Officer Lieut. Earl W Spencer, but had divorced him eleven years later and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. Soon after the Simpsons had moved to London, taking a flat in Bryanston Square.

George V had rescued the monarchy from its darkest days of unpopularity due to its German descent and name at the beginning of the Great War, to celebrating his silver jubilee in 1935 as the Emperor of nearly half a billion subjects. He was clearly loved by his peoples, but not by his sons, and he barely spoke with the Prince. He had prophesied to Baldwin, his Prime Minister, that ‘Edward would pull the whole throne and the Empire down about his ears before the year was out’ following his death. The Prince, for his part, wrote to Wallis that it was ‘terrible here…so much the worst Xmas I’ve ever had to spend with the family’.  He left Sandringham as soon as he could to spend New Year’s Eve with Wallis, whose husband was, conveniently, away on business in Canada.

The Prince of Wales detested the moral codes of the Victorian/Edwardian generation, and the hypocrisy with which the upper classes sought to uphold them, while still having their fun. Everyone knew that the ‘High Society’ sisters, Diana and Unity Mitford, were having theirs with Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader, and Adolf Hitler, but to speak openly in public about these dangerous liaisons would have been considered a serious breach of etiquette at that time.

At a supper party at the Savoy Grill on 13th January, Harold Nicholson, the career diplomat who had first met the Prince in 1921, found HRH talkative and charming as before, but commented that he was not his ‘sort of pal’ since he was ‘in a mess’. Harold was so alarmed by his ‘really very right-wing’ views that he preferred to avoid all ‘social intimacy’ with him, an option he would find difficult to achieve over the coming months, due to his standing in London society and his presence at the most fashionable dinner-tables.

Neither did the King speak openly of his son’s passion for Wallis Simpson, though his anxiety about this, obsessed as he was by attention to public duty, was undoubtedly contributing to his depression and deteriorating physical condition, diagnosed as a narrowing of the arteries. His friend and exact contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, the bard of Empire, was also known to be close to death. Since the Great War, when Kipling had lost his son, for which he blamed himself, Kipling had become a reclusive reactionary at Bateman’s, his home in Sussex. His wife Carrie decided that he needed they needed to escape the English winter for the south of France. En route, in London, his stomach ulcer decided otherwise. It burst, and a week later he died in the Middlesex Hospital on the same day that the King’s illness was announced. ‘Chips’ Channon, the rich American-born socialite and Conservative MP wrote in his diary for that day: ‘The Year has, indeed, begun in gloom. The King ill – and Kipling dead.’ The passing of these two great establishment figures within two days of each other seemed to herald a new era.

On the 20th January, at 9.25 p.m., the following message was broadcast to the Empire: ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to its close’, and exactly two and a half hours later, just before midnight, the bulletin was posted at Sandringham announcing his death. Even this moment was carefully chosen to manipulate public reaction to the maximum effect, reflecting the birth of the modern mass media monarchy.

Stanley Baldwin, on the Sunday before the King’s death, had told ‘Tom’ Jones, his Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary, that he was ‘distinctively nervous’ about the Prince of Wales becoming King, not least because he had seen at first hand his drinking and womanizing on a tour of Canada nine years earlier. When the Prince had arrived that afternoon to brief the PM on his father’s condition, having first called at his lover’s flat, Baldwin was wearing a black armband out of respect for Kipling, who was his cousin. The Prince made no remark on this, so Baldwin had felt obliged to ask if he knew ‘that another great Englishman, a contemporary of your father’s, died yesterday.’ Excusing the Prince’s obvious ignorance of current affairs, and informing him of the Nobel Prize winner’s death, Baldwin remarked,  ‘But, of course, sir, you have a great deal on your mind. I should not have expected you to know.’ After their meeting, Baldwin had told Tom Jones that he had never thought, as a boy in Worcestershire reading history books, that he would have to put the knowledge gained to practice in interfering ‘between a King and his mistress.’

Nevertheless, Baldwin felt hat his previous friendship with Edward gave him a unique role in resolving the impending crisis that everyone in the court and cabinet, not yet the country, was fearing. However, Baldwin was tiring of, and in, office, and was not up to the twin challenges of a constitutional crisis and a resurgent, aggressive Germany. As the year progressed, the Chancellor, Neville Chamberlain, probably the hardest-working minister of the last century, took on much of the PM’s paper-work. Any historian who has gone through the boxes from the Ministry of Health and Local Government from the earlier Baldwin Government of 1924-8 will be aware of Chamberlain’s ability to see the devil in the detail of policy-making. Through his detailed knowledge of the country he managed both to keep it out of war until 1939, and to get it prepared for the global conflict to come. This is a fact often overlooked in the continuing arguments about his management of the international crises which followed his succession of Baldwin. The differences in policy between the two PM’s reflected their management styles. Baldwin was passive in his management of affairs and ministers, Chamberlain was far more pro-active.

The Accession: Long live the King!

Following his father’s death, Edward immediately broke with royal tradition, by having the clocks at Sandringham reset. His father and grandfather had always kept them half an hour slow, in order to allow more daylight time for shooting. King Edward seemed determined to break with these traditions from the very beginning of his reign, a determination which set him against many in the British establishment, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the morning after his father’s death, Edward flew to Hendon in his own aeroplane to attend his Accession Council and make preparations for the lying-in-state and funeral. He arrived hatless at the aerodrome, yet another departure from his father’s ‘standards’.  Popular poet John Betjeman saw this moment as marking ‘the final putting to sleep of the Victorian age’, evoking the mood of the people:

 Old men who have never cheated, never doubted,

Communicated monthly, sit and stare

At the new suburb stretched beyond the run-way

Where a young man lands hatless from the air.


Whereas King George had represented a sense of continuity with Victorian and Edwardian Britain, King Edward seemed intent to represent change and modernity. To traditionalists like ‘Chips’ Channon, he seemed ‘casual and a little common’. However, while the upper classes in London and the Home Counties were fully aware of the King’s great affair, very few outside these social and political circles knew anything of it. To the general public, Edward was very popular, perhaps even the first global celebrity, admired both for his looks and style and his concern for the unemployed and ex-servicemen. At the Accession Council, more than a hundred privy councillors were assembled to swear an oath of allegiance to the new King. He made a brief speech in which he said:

 When my father stood here twenty-six years ago he declared that one of the objects of his life would be to uphold constitutional government. In this I am determined to follow in my father’s footsteps.

He also promised ‘to work, as he did, …for the happiness and welfare of all classes of my subjects’. Both Neville and Austen Chamberlain, half-brothers and ministers, powerful members of a powerful political dynasty, watched the 41-year-old monarch carefully. Neville remarked,

His speech was not remarkable in any way, and I thought he looked as uncomfortable as ever, though Austen says he did not fidget as much as usual. I do hope he ‘pulls up his socks’ and behaves himself now he has such heavy responsibilities for unless he does he will soon pull down the throne.

The heralds proclaimed the accession to the throne of King Edward VIII. The Norroy King of Arms, Major A. H. Howard, read the Proclamation at the Temple Bar on 22nd January.  The new king was caught on newsreel camera, sat with a shadowy Mrs Simpson and her friends, in a room overlooking the courtyard below. The monarch was not usually present at this ceremony, and this latest breach of tradition was viewed by some as a bad omen for his reign. What was worse was that the group could be seen laughing while the solemn event was taking place. However, the footage was censured and never shown in the cinemas. Writing to her friends about the event, Wallis Simpson made fun of it, enjoying the situation like ‘a huge game’. However, she was soon to realise just how serious Edward was about making her his wife.

Two funerals

Back in Sandringham the same day, Tuesday 22nd, thousands filed past the coffin of the old King, which was guarded by four foresters in Sandringham Church. The following day, Wednesday 23rd,  it was taken on a gun-carriage to the station at Wolverton, where it was lifted onto the royal train for transit to King’s Cross. Behind the cortége walked Bertie, the Duke of York, who was to become George VI later that year, Edward, the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Harewood. In London, another gun-carriage was used to take the coffin to the Abbey. The Royal Standard was draped over it and the Imperial Crown, brought from the Tower, was perched on top. During the slow but jolting march the Maltese cross, encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, fell from the top of the crown, rolling towards the gutter, where it was rescued and pocketed in one movement by a Grenadier Guard Major. Edward was heard to mutter, ‘Christ, what will happen next?!’ One MP remarked that ‘it was a fitting motto for the coming reign!’ As news of the disastrous incident spread, Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary that it was indeed seen as ‘a most terrible omen’.

Between 800,000 and one million people passed the bier during the following four days of lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, the queue sometimes stretching for more than three miles, six abreast, down the Embankment and over Vauxhall Bridge. Three-quarters of those paying their respects were working-class. So profound was the nation’s grief that the Bishop of Durham feared the growth of a ‘George-culture’ rather like the ‘Lenin-culture’ which had followed the Russian revolutionary icon’s death twelve years earlier, or, in our own lifetime, the ‘Diana-culture’ which followed the death of the Princess of Wales more than sixty years later. There were dangers, he felt, in an over-popular monarchy, at odds with unpopular politicians. Like Diana, Edward had charisma, sex-appeal, an outward charm enhanced by a sense of inner melancholy, and he looked far younger than he was.

On the Thursday, the funeral of Rudyard Kipling took place at Westminster Abbey. Kipling’s body had also had a lying-in-state, but the preferred private ceremony and cremation which Queen Mary had also wanted for George V, was of course what the poet was given. His ashes were then carried into the Abbey by eight pall-bearers, including Stanley Baldwin. The obituaries reflected a feeling that Kipling represented a world, if not yet an empire, which was lost. His reputation as a unifying national bard had suffered from his increasingly isolated conservatism in later life. Some, however, saw in him the enduring qualities and values which still make him the most popular British poet, and ‘If’ the nation’s most popular poem. Somewhat appropriately, if somewhat controversially at the time, he was placed between the graves of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. Months after the funeral, Baldwin’s son alleged that Kipling had suffered from an ‘inferiority complex’, so that he forced his son to enlist, and that Jack’s death at the Battle of Loos in 1915 had robbed the author of ‘The Jungle Book’ of his love for people in general and children in particular.  Oliver Baldwin’s view of Kipling may have been affected by the way the author had once regarded him as a ‘surrogate son’ after Jack’s death, only to reject him completely when he discovered about his homosexuality, which he referred to as ’beastliness’.

Four days later, on January 28th the unprecedented crowds, a million-strong, which had begun to gather before midnight the previous night, watched in silence as the Royal Funeral cortége made its way from Westminster to Paddington. At Marble Arch the crowds were so deeply massed that the police found it difficult to keep the route clear. At Windsor, the procession to the final resting place in St George’s Chapel included five remaining kings of Europe, all descended from Queen Victoria, the President of the French Republic and representatives from every other country in the world. It was a truly global event, marking the passing of one age and the advent of another, with a global celebrity as a thoroughly modern monarch.

Gathering Gloom

By the Spring of 1936 the future of the demilitarised Rhineland was under discussion at the Foreign Office, the suggestion being that it could be used as a means of ‘appeasing’ Hitler in the year of the Berlin Olympics. Harold Nicholson,  now National Labour MP for Leicester East, who had been part of Lloyd George’s diplomatic delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, was vehemently opposed to this strategy, addressing the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons on Anglo-German relations. He predicted that ‘trouble would come’ by 1939 or ’40. To deter Germany, it would be necessary to rearm, ‘so as to speak with authority’. Then, Germany would either have to accept ‘encirclement’ or the League of Nation’s Covenant.  ‘Chips’ Channon was moved by Nicholson’s ‘brilliant address’ to the extent that he ‘almost heard the tramp-tramp of the troops.’

However, Britain was far from being ready to challenge Germany ‘with authority’ and Hitler was, in any case, was ready to take back what he believed was about to be offered by diplomacy, by force. He moved into the Rhineland on 7th March, in a flagrant breach of both the Versailles and Locarno treaties. Two days later Harold reported the general mood in the Commons as being one of fear, ‘anything to keep out of war…on all sides one hears sympathy for Germany.’ He continued to warn against such sympathy, arguing that ‘in the German temperament of today there is a strong strain of insanity’ and that the Nazi regime was ‘a blot and scourge to humanity.’ He viewed Hitler as ‘a factor of appalling instability and of the very greatest danger’ and concluded that ‘Germany is Hitler at this moment, and Hitler is Germany’. Nevertheless, the prevailing view, voiced by Lord Arnold among others, was that Germany had only asserted ‘German sovereignty over German territory’. Nicholson could only counter that ‘Germany was right in principle, wrong in practice.’ He also admitted that public opinion in Britain would not support being ‘drawn into a conflict over Poland or Czechoslovakia, or the Eastern States’. However, he thought Germany should be subjected to diplomatic sanctions through the withdrawal of ambassadors from Berlin, and that the Olympics, due to be held there in August, should be boycotted. He also argued that Britain should make its position crystal clear to Germany, and to any other aggressor:

 We must act in such a way that the countries of Europe – Germany above all – must say, ‘This time they really mean it.’ We must say, if the frontiers of Holland, Belgium or France are crossed by any country, especially by Germany, we will within such and such a time bring so many forces, ships and aeroplanes in their defence. We must also say to France, ‘This is an absolute assurance backed by the whole public opinion of this country’.

In The Gathering Storm, his first volume of his Nobel-prize winning history of the Second World War, written twelve years later, Winston Churchill pointed to Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland as the decisive moment on the road to war. Germany, he argued, should have been stopped by Great Britain and France acting together. He blamed Baldwin and Chamberlain for their failure to stand up to the dictator and their development of the policy of appeasement. His view was widely shared in the aftermath of the war, but, in reality, Hitler could not have been stopped, and intervention was never on anyone’s agenda, including Nicholson’s. In Britain, all strands of public opinion opposed an armed reaction. Only three days before the action, Labour’s Clement Attlee had opposed the government’s plans for Rearmament as ‘too bellicose’. In response to the events, Hugh Dalton, Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, said that there could be no question of any resistance to Germany’s move into what right-wing MP’s viewed as his own ‘back garden’.

On the day of the occupation, Bishop Hensley Henson wrote in his diary that ‘the clouds are gathering over Europe in gathering gloom’. Churchill, for his part, was silent, and when he did break his silence in the Commons defence debate, Neville Chamberlain described his contribution as ‘constructive and helpful’. However, both Chamberlain and Baldwin continued to keep Churchill in the ‘wilderness’, denying him a return to government at the new ministry of defence. They did not trust him to keep his anti-German rhetoric in check at a time of sensitive diplomatic negotiations based on their appeasement policy. Churchill, for his part, continued to praise Chamberlain in public, especially in a speech in the latter’s stronghold of Birmingham, clearly hoping for a return to government when the Chancellor would succeed Baldwin as PM. Meanwhile, the government continued to follow a two-pronged policy of diplomacy and deterrence. In March 1936 it announced its plans to double spending on the RAF and to massively increase the overall military budget, despite Chamberlain’s hopes of diverting funds to the pressing needs of the ‘Special Areas’ and social reform. Even in the days just before the Rhineland incident, this spending was bearing fruit, as the very first Spitfires took to the skies above Southampton.

The Constitutional Time Bomb

Towards the end of March, Edward bought his beloved Wallis a ruby and diamond bracelet from Paris for sixteen thousand pounds, worth six hundred thousand pounds at today’s prices, engraved ‘Hold tight, 27. iii. 36’.  He showered her with jewellery an also gave her cash, spending millions in today’s money. At the same time, he cut back on spending on the royal household, which his father had allowed to run out of control. This was, he said, out of step with the austerity that many of his subjects were still facing in the depressed areas of the country following the slump of the early thirties. However, it was his household staff who had to face reduced salaries, discontinued allowances and penny-pinching economies. Under these conditions, his staff became alienated and disaffected with his opulent treatment of his mistress.

In his eyes, Wallis could do no wrong. Those who urged caution were banished from court, those who flattered her were advanced.It was obvious to many that the King’s great love was purely, or impurely, sexual. There was gossip about the sexual practices she had learned while living in a brothel in Shanghai, which had made the King her slave, and that he was willing to become so because his childhood deprived of affection had made him crave female domination. She had a masculine look that made her attractive to lesbians, and her power over Edward was sometimes acted out in public displays of humiliation.

Harold Nicholson’s invitations to various social gatherings later in the Spring, gave him the opportunity to observe the unfolding drama of the King and Mrs Simpson at close quarters. It was already an open secret in these circles that the new king held the strongest hopes of marrying his beloved Wallis and making her his Queen. Her estranged second husband, Ernest Simpson, had filed for divorce, the hearing for which was to be held in Ipswich in October. This set a timetable like a ticking bomb for the late autumn. Harold was invited to meet the King at Mrs Simpson’s apartment at Bryanston Court and, over port, the bisexual diplomat again found Edward charming. However, he was also saddened by the King’s infatuation. Although ‘a perfectly harmless type of American’, he found ‘the whole setting…slightly second-rate.’  Ramsay MacDonald, although from very ‘humble’ beginnings, also enjoyed the attention of society hostesses, and told Harold that ‘the people do not mind fornication, but they loathe adultery.’ Harold became exasperated by the conduct of the King, becoming convinced that ‘this silly little man’ would ‘destroy a great monarchy by giggling into a flirtation with a third-rate American.’

It was already apparent to many in court circles that not only was this liaison dangerous for the monarchy, but that the new King had little patience for more tedious duties, was shallow in his thinking, erratic in his judgement and casual in his attitude to state papers. Traditionalists, including Nicholson, found this conduct, or lack of it, scandalous. Conversely, he developed considerable sympathy for the now ‘miserable’ Wallis, believing her when she told Lady Sibyl Colefax that neither she nor the King had ever suggested marriage to each other. Years later, she admitted lying about this.

The Peace Pledge

Canon Hugh Richard Laurie Sheppard, aka Dick, was a well-known dynamic peace campaigner in 1936, who had made a call two years earlier for young men to pledge themselves for peace: ‘We renounce war and never again, directly or indirectly, will we support or sanction another’. Over a hundred thousand took the pledge and, in May 1936, his ‘Peace Pledge Union’ was formally founded, representing the voice of absolute pacifism in the midst of the gathering gloom on the continent and in East Africa. In concert with this voice, there were also millions who placed their faith in the League of Nations to stop individual nations becoming aggressors. Anti-war sentiment crossed all class, gender and party lines. In the previous year, a ‘peace ballot’ organised by the League of Nations Union, attracted the participation of twelve million voters, nearly a quarter of the adult population, the overwhelming majority of whom expressed their support for the League. Of these, just over five million favoured an absolute pacifist stance. In the General Election of that year, Baldwin was forced to promise that there would be no great rearmament.

On 3rd April, The Times reported that the Red Cross had confirmed that it had treated numerous victims of gas attacks in Abyssinia. The newspaper quoted from the Emperor, Haile Selassie, who said that ‘he could not sleep at night for misery at the screaming and groaning of his fighting men and country people who have been burned inside and out by gas.’ They were victims of the indiscriminate bombing of the Italian airforce, attacking hospitals and Red Cross centres. The three types of gas used had been banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol, of which Italy was a signatory. Water-holes and villages were also targeted, so that many peasants died in agony from their burns.

At the end of seven months’ fighting, with nearly half a million soldiers in Abyssinia, Italy annexed the country after troops had marched into Addis Ababa on May 5th. Abyssinians had rioted and looted the town before the Italians could march in. On 9th May Mussolini announced the fall of Addis Ababa to cheering crowds in Rome. Haile Selassie arrived in Britain, via Palestine, as a refugee less than a month later and was reluctantly granted asylum. “I do not intend to settle in England,” he said, “I still dream and hope of returning to Abyssinia. At present I have not the means.” It had cost Mussolini more than thirty-three million pounds to prepare for the war, and another 126 million to fight it. However, it was worth it, he said, since “Italy has at last her Empire – a Fascist Empire.”

The King, for his part, refused to meet ‘The Negus’ (who claimed his descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) personally, sending the Duke of Gloucester instead. When Edward was advised that meeting with the deposed Emperor would be a popular move, he countered, ‘popular with whom? Certainly not the Italians.’ Nothing should be done, he suggested, to drive Mussolini into Hitler’s arms. By contrast, Dick Sheppard appealed on the radio for aid to the Abyssinian refugees, criticising his fellow Christians for lacking a sense of mission, and questioning whether they really believed in their religion. The BBC insisted that he should not preach pacifism on the airwaves.

‘Two Britains’

In the New Year of 1936 the government’s policy towards the ‘Special Areas’ had again came under fire when the Report of the Commission on Merthyr Tydfil was published. The Commission’s recommendations were severely criticised in the increasingly influential journal, Planning, as providing nothing that would help solve Merthyr’s problems. The author of the review saw two alternative solutions, neither of which was being pursued with any vigour by the government:

It is manifestly impossible for a town in Merthyr’s plight to attract new industries on any useful scale without substantial state aid. There may be a case for declining such aid and for arranging the systematic evacuation, wholly or in part, of such a derelict area as Merthyr. There may, on the other hand, be a case for a larger scale effort to maintain the existing population and put it once more on a permanent self-supporting basis by a programme of re-equipment and of bringing in new industries, if necessary by special inducement. Or there may be a case for combining a planned reduction in population and equipment with the bringing in of new industries in order to provide decent opportunities for those who remain. There is, however, one course of which action for which no case can be made out. That is the course of raising huge sums of money, locally and nationally, in order to keep Merthyr on the dole…It is this last course of action which the Government has so far chosen to pursue.

The Journal of this ‘Middle Opinion Group’, as they called themselves, Political and Economic Planning, published statistics showing that immigration to the South East was now in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole. Later in the year, they came to the conclusion that ‘one of the salient facts of the social and economic landscape at present, which we may regret but cannot ignore, is that there are two Britains – a prosperous Britain and a depressed Britain’.  The Ministry of Labour’s ‘Index of Relative Unemployment’ also revealed this, showing that the ‘red’ areas which were at least 50% below the national average in unemployment levels in 1931-36 were almost all in the Midlands and South of England, whereas the ‘black’ areas where unemployment was at least 50% above that average were located exclusively in the North of England, Scotland and Wales. Most, though not all, of these areas were mainly industrial areas with previously high population densities. The diversion between these two Britains had grown considerably wider since the earlier period of depression in the older industries, 1927-31.

As the economy had recovered from the general recession, the structural depression in the older industrial areas became starkly apparent. Looked at on a regional basis, the South East (including London) had entered the trade depression of 1929-33 with levels of under 6% unemployment, increasing to nearly 14% at the trough, and recovering to 6% by 1937. By contrast, Wales began the recession with levels of  more than 19% in 1929, rising to nearly twice that by 1932, and remaining above 30% throughout the first half of the decade. Even these figures mask the impact of long-term structural unemployment on particular coalfield communities like Merthyr Tydfil, where the overall unemployment level had been at, or close to an annual average of 60% for the previous four years, and still remained close to 55% throughout 1936. The overwhelming majority of these were coal-miners who had been unemployed for more than a year, whereas in Britain as a whole only one in five of the unemployed fell into this category.

By the middle of 1936, there were signs that the agitation for new industries to be brought to the Special Areas was beginning to have an effect on P. M. Stewart, their Commissioner, who had been in post for a year. In his first report, he had offered a stern rebuff to the growing feeling of regional and national patriotism in Wales and the North-East of England by suggesting in his first report that ‘love of home, pride of nationality and local associations, however desirable in themselves, furnish no adequate justification for leading a maimed life.’ He had made it clear that he would do all that he would do all that he could to increase the number of transferees among young people in the depressed areas and that relief work in those areas would be limited to social service work for the older unemployed. He had openly declared that he would not sponsor enterprises which were ‘undertaken solely with the object of giving employment.’ In his second report, published in February 1936, he accepted that efforts in this respect needed to be intensified. At the same time, however, he continued to argue that ‘no opportunity should be lost of enabling the younger person in the Areas to take advantage of the increasing prosperity of the country as a whole by accepting suitable employment in areas where the demand for labour is steadily improving.’ He continued to attack the opponents of the transference scheme whom he characterised as being ‘carried away by excess of sentiment’ having ‘shut their eyes to the hard facts of the situation’.

However, the opponents of the transference policy and supporters of alternative measures were growing in number and influence. In March 1936 the Lord Mayor of Cardiff called a Conference which comprised representatives of local authorities, churches, employers and trade unions, as well as members of the newly formed Industrial Development Council of South Wales and Monmouthshire. The Lord Mayor told the Conference that it seemed to him ‘a misguided principle to move men to other areas for work’. The Conference decided to petition the government ‘to take immediate steps to alleviate the lot of the unemployed in the area’ by amending the Special Areas Act of 1934 to provide the Commissioner with sufficient powers to encourage industrial development.

Two months later, the South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service held a special ‘Conference on Transference’ at the YMCA in Barry. The Council had played a major role in the administration of the transference scheme to this point, as well as directing government-sponsored voluntary work in the valleys. Most of the prominent members of the social service movement in South Wales attended, and on the second day, clear divisions emerged over the continuance of the scheme, with some Church leaders going so far as to suggest that Gandhi-an resistance methods should be used to counter its operation. His argument was that the ‘national conscience was being roused’ against the break-up of coalfield communities which ‘represented the history and traditions of Wales’. Unless the social service movement in Wales came out clearly against the scheme, its albeit ameliorating involvement could be seen as collaboration. Aneurin Bevan, then a young coalfield Labour MP, also called for an end to the policy, attacking the complacency of those who had set themselves up as the leadership of the Welsh Nation:

 …if this problem was still viewed as it had been, this would involve the breakdown of a social, institutional and communal life peculiar to Wales. The Welsh Nation had adopted a defeatist attitude towards the policy of transference as the main measure for relief of the Distressed Areas in South Wales, but objection should be taken as there was no economic case for continuing to establish industries in the London area rather than the Rhondda.

The reason for this complacency was given away by the speaker who replied to Bevan’s remarks by suggesting that his constituency in East Monmouth had ‘no Welsh institutions or traditions likely to be damaged by large-scale transference, as most of the people were originally immigrants who had absorbed into local life’. However, the general feeling at the conference was that transference was expatriation, not repatriation. At another social service conference in August at Llandrindod Wells, Elfan Rees, the Secretary of the SWMCSS, took up Bevan’s theme in opposition to the comments of Cardiff’s Professor Marquand, author of South Wales Needs a Plan, that ‘a people largely composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants (had) no very deep roots in the soil’ and that ‘a people without roots may be ready to move away as rapidly as it moved in’. Whilst Rees agreed that much of the population of the coalfield had come ‘from countries and counties that could well spare them,’ he felt that it was not these who were leaving:

It is not only the young – it is not only the best – it is also the Welsh who are going…if transference was repatriation it might be a different story – but it is expatriation. It is the people with the roots who are going – the unwillingness to remain idle at home – the essential qualification of the transferee again, are the qualities which mark our own indigenous population. And, if this process of social despoliation goes on, South Wales of tomorrow will be peopled with a race of poverty-stricken aliens saddled with public services they haven’t the money to maintain and social institutions they don’t have the wit to run. Our soul is being destroyed and the key to our history, literature, culture thrown to the four winds.’

 The Liberal ‘Cambrian Establishment’ in the official and quasi-official corridors of the Principality had finally woken up to the reality that they had lost their hegemony over the Welsh people and by the middle of 1936 they were clearly embarrassed by the large number of people of Welsh and Welsh-speaking origin who were leaving, at least in proportion to their presence in the population of the valleys. Whilst Rees and others began to exaggerate this for propaganda purposes, it is clear that their growing awareness of both the indiscriminating nature and the extent of  migration led them to abandon complicity and complacency in favour of a nationalistic opposition to the transference scheme. Professor Marquand was critical of these ‘nationalistic passions of those who held safe jobs themselves’.  He himself put forward seven practical policies in his book, of which Planning said that, had it been published three years earlier, it would have stood no chance of being taken seriously. Now, it suggested wryly, Marquand was still young enough to see most of these ‘forced upon a reluctant Whitehall and Downing Street by pressure of public opinion.’

The Budget Speech of the Spring of 1936 had already announced a significant change of policy in this direction – the attraction of new industries to the Special Areas was to be given priority through the setting up of the Special Areas Reconstruction Association (SARA), providing financial assistance for small businesses. Whilst the Government was partly influenced in making this decision by the divisions which were emerging in the social service movement over transference, it was also undoubtedly under more unified pressure for South Wales, aided by the personal interest of Edward VIII. He had visited the Welsh Valleys at the beginning of the Coalfield Depression in 1929. At that time, when James Evans, General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health, had heard of the Prince of Wales’ proposed visit at the end of the previous year, he had urged caution to an already nervous H.W.S. Francis, the Assistant Secretary to Neville Chamberlain at the Ministry of Health. Sir Arthur Lowry had been despatched to South Wales to report, but a slight recovery in the Coal industry meant that conditions had been improving at the time of the Prince’s visit. Not so in the summer of 1936.

Chronology: July – August 1936:


16  The McMahon Incident

17-18    Army rebellion led by Franco began the Spanish Civil War


1    The Berlin Olympics opened by Adolf  Hitler

10  The Nahlin Cruise began

 24     Germany introduced conscription

Narrative, July-August:

The Blast that Never Came

The official six months of court mourning was coming to an end in July, and the King and Mrs Simpson began to be seen together at society parties. On 16th July, she attended the Presentation of the Colours to three regiments of the Brigade of Guards. Two viewing stands had been erected, one for the Royal family and another for the King’s friends. One of those whom Edward invited was Chips Channon, one of his most loyal supporters. On arrival, he sat with what he called ‘the new Court’, typified by Emerald Cunard, the pro-Nazi American hostess, who was sitting beside Wallis Simpson. In the next stand he could see the Royal party, including Elizabeth, Duchess of York, sitting with formidable poise, the epitome of Royal decorum. The Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were, as usual, dresses identically in hats, short coats and skirts, with sensible shoes. The Yorks were the ideal, modern, nuclear family, as Marguerite Patten remembered: ‘They were a picture book family, with the two enchanting little girls, they were the lovely sort of family that everyone would like’.  The two girls were taking a keen interest in events, under the watchful eye of their nanny, Marion Crawford, unaware of the tension among the adults around them. The Duchess had recently written a pointed letter to the court doctor, Lord Dawson, thanking him and bemoaning the change in atmosphere at court: ‘Though outwardly one’s life goes on the same, yet everything is different – especially spiritually, and mentally. I don’t know if it’s the result of being ill but I mind things that I don’t like more than before.’

As the battalions of Guards marched into the park, Channon’s eyes turned to the ceremonial, a more unifying spectacle for all. ‘It was London at its very best, London well-dressed, London in high summer, the grey sky, the green of the trees, and then the sun coming out at the right royal moment, the bayonets glistening, and the horses…the Waterloo-ness of it all.’ The royal brothers, the King and the Duke of York took the salute on horseback before dismounting to present the new Colours and make short speeches. The Duke’s speech was, as usual, an agony for all concerned. Silently, everyone prayed that he would get through it without too much stammering. Edward’s speech, written by Winston Churchill, acknowledged the horror of war. ‘Humanity cries out for peace’, he declared.

As King Edward was returning along Constitution Hill to Buckingham Palace on July 16, at the head of six battalions  of the Guards to whom he had presented new colours in Hyde Park, George McMahon, a deranged Irish journalist, broke through the police cordon and pointed a loaded revolver at the King, throwing it on the road as a special constable grabbed his arm. It fell under the King’s horse as he passed.  Edward remained outwardly calm and rode straight on with only a glance at the scene, though he later admitted to feeling a slit-second of terror when he had seen the pointed pistol; ‘for one moment I braced myself for the blast that never came’. He turned to the General on his right and said, ‘I don’t know what that thing was; but if it had gone off, it would have made a nasty mess of us’.  McMahon was set upon by the crowd and had to be rescued by police, who seized him and manhandled him above their shoulders to the park railings on the other side of the road, where he continued to struggle with them.  A police officer dismounted and picked up the revolver. The incident only served to further enhance the King’s popularity, as even his sternest critics at court had to admit that he had shown strength of character, such that they could no longer suggest that he might be a coward.

McMahon appeared in court before Justice Greaves-Lord at the Old Bailey in September and the jury, after retiring for ten minutes, returned a verdict that McMahon was guilty of a charge of  producing a revolver with intent to alarm the King. He was sentenced to twelve months’ hard labour.

Whatever good the incident had done for Edward’s standing at court was, however, undone five days later, when six hundred débutantes were due to be presented to him at two garden receptions at the Palace. The large number involved was due to the backlog created by the period of mourning for King George. This was, again, a departure from the splendid evening court balls during which these presentations normally took place. As the endless line of young women went through the seemingly endless ritual of carefully practised curtseys in front of the royal dias, Edward appeared increasingly fidgety with boredom. Half-way through the proceedings it began to rain and Edward called a halt to the ceremony, returning hastily to the shelter of the palace, leaving his guests to run for cover under the trees. The contingency plan of continuing the ceremony in the State Ball Room was also abandoned. Though it was a court tradition which Edward could clearly do without, the way in which it was cancelled, as with so many of his changes, made him more enemies just at a time when he needed as many friends as he could muster among the Established classes. Channon wrote in his diary towards the end of July:

The Simpson scandal is growing and she, poor Wallis, looks unhappy. The world is closing in around her, the flatterers, the sycophants, and the malicious. It is a curious social juxtaposition that casts me in the role of Defender of the King. But I do, and very strongly in society.

With the Berlin Olympics approaching in early August, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s diplomatic envoy, had come to London with  invitations to the Games, which he distributed among the aristocrats, newspaper magnates and that he considered would be helpful to the Nazi cause. Channon took him to a night-club and at the end of the evening, Channon was given the Führer’s personal invitation, which he accepted ‘gleefully’. Not all among the upper-class circles in which Channon moved took up these invitations, however, Harold Nicholson and Lady Colefax making their disapproval of his acceptance very clear.   

Civil War in Spain

On 17th July, a revolt by a group of army officers against the Popular Front government, which had come to power in elections six months earlier, was the starting point for a brutal Civil War that was to last three years and cost thousands of lives. Middle-class intellectuals had formed the Republican government of Spain after the flight of King Alfonso in 1931. They had believed they could change things in Spain without a revolution, but had faced serious opposition from the Church, army and landowners. Forty thousand priests and other clergy dominated Spanish life, all paid for by the state. They controlled education, though 45% of people remained illiterate. Church interests were bound up with those of the big landowners, the 1% of the population who owned 51% of the land. Church property was valued at the equivalent of a hundred million ponds. A quarter of the national budget was spent on the army, controlled by an officer class of over seven hundred generals and 21,000 lesser officers, making one officer to every six men. To curb these powers, the new government had passed many laws but did little to enforce them, and when it had been forced out of office in 1933, a coalition of right-wing parties had come to power. A wave of strikes, riots and workers’ revolts broke out and the severity with which these were suppressed is revealed in the figure of thirty thousand republican prisoners by the end of 1935.

The Republican parties had joined together to fight the General Election in February 1936, beating the Nationalist parties by a clear margin, but six months later the rightists provoked the army revolt in Madrid, and when garrisons all over the country followed the following day, as planned, the Republican president announced the mobilisation of all men under thirty. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga and Bilbao, the revolts were crushed, so that the planned coup d’etat  expected to be over in a day, looked to have failed. However, the Governor of the Canary Islands, General Franco, flew overnight to take the leadership of rebel Spanish Moroccan troops, rapidly moving the mainly Muslim brigades, with Italian help, across the Straits of Gibraltar to fight for the Nationalist cause in southern Spain.

The British Royal Naval officers were sympathetic to the Spanish Naval officers, many of whom were aristocratic and reactionary by background, just as in the army. So Franco’s invasion from  Morocco by the rebel troops with German air force support went unimpeded by the British Mediterranean fleet. In Britain itself, public opinion was divided, as news of atrocities on both sides were reported in the press. The Nationalists, clearly following the example and advice of the Italian Fascists, bombed civilians and murdered hostages. Madrid was first bombed on August 6th, and within a few weeks planes were regularly dropping bombs on a daily basis to wreck buildings. The loyalists, for their part, burnt down churches and shot priests. For most British people, it was seen as a war between communism and fascism, between Franco in the ‘Right’ corner, and President Azana in the Left. Left to it, the extremists on both sides might just wipe each other out. The more politically committed were divided between the right-wing Tories who supported Franco, while the broad spectrum of liberal and left-wing opinion backed the loyalists. For many young writers, artists and idealists, especially those who had joined the Communist Party, the Civil War was the titanic struggle of ideologies. Idealists of the Right and Left in Britain both hailed it as a the great Crusade of their time.

In reality it was a war about the future fate of Spain, fought out by Spaniards to a very bitter end. In spite of the clear legitimacy of the Spanish Government, the British Government fell into the pious posturing of ‘non-intervention’ as it had done earlier in the year over Abyssinia and the Rhineland. Most of the British popular press was on the Republican side, but the ‘ultra-conservative’ organs labelled them as ‘Reds’ or ‘Communists’, though they ranged from anarchists to social democrats.

At first, the failure of the army revolts in most of the mainland garrisons meant that the troops on both sides were evenly matched.  However, Hitler’s intervention in ordering the airlift of the Moorish troops of Franco’s African columns, enabled the rebels to advance north towards the capital by mid-August. The Republican Government began to call for outside help itself, and this call was met immediately by young British intellectuals and artists spurred on partly by their own Government’s strict neutrality.

The Nahlin Cruise

Climbing into his private air plane, piloted by Flight Lieut. ‘Mouse’ Fielden, not long appointed  Captain of the King’s Flight, Edward VIII left Heathrow aerodrome, Middlesex, at the beginning of August, to begin a four-week holiday. In fifty minutes the plane was across the Channel and the King then boarded a train bound for the Dalmatian coast where millionaire Lady Yule’s luxury yacht the Nahlin was waiting, with its crew of forty-eight who had boarded it in Portsmouth. King Edward had chartered the yacht to take him and fifteen guests, including Wallis Simpson, on an Adriatic cruise.

The yacht was specially fitted out for the King, with the library converted into a state-room, so that he and Wallis would have a place in which to  attend to official business and relax in private. A dance floor had been laid in the lounge, where a powerful wireless doubled as a communications hub for the King’s daily despatches and, in the evening, a means of tuning into the BBC’s dance orchestra broadcasts. On the 10th, Edward boarded the Nahlin at the small Yugoslav village of Sibenek. The yacht was escorted by two Royal Navy destroyers from the Mediterranean fleet.

Apart from the obvious security matters, the ships were responsible for collecting and delivering the red dispatch boxes containing the business to which he was meant to attend in his private state-room. They needn’t have bothered, since the King had little interest in interrupting his merry-making with friends to spend time on the affairs of state. He had more contact with the ships during his exercise hours, which he spent in rowing skiffs around them, joking with the sailors that he was ‘reviewing the fleet!’

The presence of the two ships meant that there was little prospect of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ remaining anonymous. Whenever the royal party disembarked, crowds gathered. At Dubrovnik the mayor issued a proclamation forbidding the townsfolk to stare. It only encouraged them more, but Edward was used to crowds. However, among them were numerous American journalists and photographers, providing lurid stories of his relationship with Wallis for the US press, while the British press was keeping to its self-denying agreement, or just about. Cavalcade, in its August editions, carried numerous photographs of ‘the Duke of Lancaster’ with his friend, ‘Mrs Ernest Simpson’. On the cover of the magazine she could be seen placing a steadying hand on the King’s forearm, as he climbed out of a motor-boat. The caption read, ‘The motor-boat arrived at Paradise Island’. As the yacht moored in Corfu, the British Ambassador to Greece wondered, in his dispatch to London, ‘whether this union, however queer and generally unsuitable to he state, may not in the long run turn out to be more in harmony with the spirit of the new age than anything that wisdom could have contrived’.

The luxurious Nahlin, which would be worth eleven million pounds in today’s money, docked in Istanbul at the end of the cruise. The King and Mrs Simpson travelled back overland together, staying at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna, which had a large steam-room. Here, the King stripped down and walked around naked, with his fully clothed chauffeur and six detectives in attendance. In doing so, he was only following local customs, but even this action was the subject of further criticism back at court.

The royal love story, amazingly, had so far remained largely unnoticed by the general British public. Though, as during the next few months, pictures of the cruise were published in the American press, causing public comment, they were not published in the popular press in Britain.  However, on his return from holiday, Edward saw to it that Wallis Simpson’s name was twice printed on the Court Circular, once at a dinner party attended by the Baldwins, and the other on the her arrival with other guests at Balmoral, during the royal family’s annual retreat.

The Berlin Olympics

On Saturday 1st August, at exactly four o’ clock in the afternoon, Adolf Hitler entered the Berlin Olympic Stadium through the Marathon Gate. The crowd of 125,000 rose as one, gave the fascist salute and drowned out the Olympic fanfare with their cries of ‘Heil Hitler’. The Olympic orchestra, conducted by Richard Strauss, was accompanied by a ten thousand-strong chorus, in the performance of Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, followed by the Nazi party anthem.  The crowd then fell silent for the rendition of the Olympic hymn and the great bell, dominating the tower at the main entrance, started to toll. The flags of fifty-one competing nations were raised and the giant airship, the Hindenburg, the largest Zeppelin ever built, hovered round in circles above the stadium.

Joachim von Ribbentrop’s British guests, including three Lords – Monsell, Rothermere, Beaverbrook – were among the Nazi leadership’s  ‘personal friends’ nearly all of whom had accepted their invitations. Ribbentrop had by now become Germany’s Ambassador to Britain, a sign of the importance Hitler placed on securing an alliance with the Government in London which would enable him to expand eastwards in Europe.

The opening ceremony continued with the parade of athletes. Each team was ordered to salute the German Chancellor according to the custom in its own country. The French followed the Greeks in giving the Olympic salute, raising the right arm to its full length at ninety degrees. The crowd, and Hitler, responded to this with the Nazi salute. The British, however, chose to make a modest ‘eyes-right’ when they passed the platform, and were greeted by only lukewarm applause. This was not an auspicious start for Ribbentrop’s prospective Anglo-German alliance. However, official relations were still cool following the Rhineland episode of the spring, and Hitler had chosen to ignore the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden’s list of questions designed to elicit a series of assurances about future intentions.

Ribbentrop had hoped to use the Games as a means of organising a summit between Baldwin and Hitler, and Baldwin’s close Welsh friend and former Cabinet Secretary became the conduit for these overtures. Jones had met the Führer at his Munich flat im May, but Baldwin, by this time very tired and depressed, was not convinced that a summit would serve any useful purpose and, though there were vague suggestions that the two leaders might meet during the summer in the Alps, it would be another two years, and another Prime Minister later, before the summit in the Eagle’s nest. Besides, Anthony Eden was becoming increasingly resentful of unofficial diplomacy and the development of the Appeasement policy had recently cost Baldwin one foreign secretary; he did not want to lose a second one within six months. In any case, Baldwin’s annual holiday in the French Alps was cancelled due to the Civil War in Spain.  On the day the Olympic Games began, Baldwin was ordered to take complete rest for three months by his doctors, and did not re-emerge onto the political stage until October.

Although Hitler had, disingenuously, compared himself to Baldwin as a reluctant leader of his country, he was not shy about his role in opening the Games as their self-professed ‘Patron’. Somewhat incongruously, three thousand doves were released and flew off after completing a circuit of the stadium. The Olympic torch had been carried the 3,075 kilometres from Olympia by the same number of bearers, where it had been lit by the rays of the sun in a specially designed helio-furnace. The torch-bearing and the lighting of the flame were new features of the ceremonial in 1936, another masterpiece of presentation by the Nazi propagandists who were determined to weld the ideas of ancient Greece to their own vision of a master-race, symbolised by the lone figure of the blonde athlete in white shorts and singlet who stood on high, ready to light the cauldron at the opposite end of the stadium, by descending to the track and then bounding up the steps to the brazier. A German weightlifter had been chosen to swear the athlete’s oath, for which he was meant to hold the Olympic flag, but he grasped the swastika instead, as all the athletes raised their right arms in affirmation.

The Games were a triumph for Nazi Germany from beginning to end. Like the recent London Olympics, it was an unrivalled spectacle, and the home nation dominated in almost every sport, except in track and field, where the USA kept its long-standing supremacy. The legend of James Cleveland, or ‘Jesse’ Owens is, of course, well-known. That he won four gold medals and broke two world records is indisputable, but Hitler did not refuse to present his medals. He was never expected to do so, because he was specifically asked by the International Olympic Committee not to greet individual winners in order to avoid causing offence when he was absent from the Games. Certainly, this request enabled him to diplomatically avoid shaking the hands of Negro and Jewish athletes in front of the cameras. Also, there is little basis for the claim that the Führer rolled on the floor in fury at the Negro runner’s success over his Nordic competitors. Certainly, there was frustration, which Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary for 5th August, the day that Owens won his second medal in the two hundred metres sprint:

We Germans win a gold medal, the Americans get three, two of which are won by niggers. This is a scandal. White humanity should be ashamed of itself.

However, the ordinary white Germans in the stadium cheered Owens’ victories in much the same way as the victories of Usain Bolt were cheered in London recently. They chanted ‘O-vens, O-vens’ just as if they were cheering German athletes. If the latter had failed to win any medals, it might have been a different story, but sporting spectators were far more interested in the Olympic ideal of the elite individual athlete in competition rather than their country’s position in the medal table. To those with any sporting knowledge, the victories of Owens and other American athletes can hardly have come as a shock. Whatever they wrote or however they behaved in private, the Nazi leadership was careful not to show its distaste for any athletic achievement in public. The Spectator’s correspondent reported that the host nation had ‘fallen completely under the spell of the American Negro, who is already the hero of these Games’.  It was his fellow athletes, not the Nazi leaders, who were made to look ‘ridiculous, not only by the speed but by the sheer beauty of his running.’ Nevertheless, the USA’s continued dominance on the athletics track was the only factor that detracted from Germany’s total possession of the 1936 Olympics. The final German gold-medal tally was forty-six, which made them top of the medal table.

The threat of boycotts by the British and American teams following the Rhineland reoccupation had forced the Nazis to tone down their racist propaganda during the Games. Jewish competitors were included in the German team, one of whom, a fencer, gave the Hitler salute in receiving her silver medal on the podium. Official prohibition signs were taken down and anti-Jewish propaganda was removed from view.  Acts of discrimination and brutality still continued, out of sight of the guests, but the Nazis cleaned up their public face so much that the year has become known as ‘the Olympic pause’ in the history of the Third Reich. As a result, distinguished British visitors like Chips Channon were gulled into admiration for the way the Germans organised both the Games and their society with such efficient attention to detail. However, not all were ‘taken in’. Lord Vansittart, a more prominent figure in British policy-making circles, remained as sceptical at the end of the two weeks as he was at the beginning.

Channon found the Games themselves dull. Athletics in Britain had not moved on since the Paris Olympics in 1924, the subject of Hugh Hudson’s 1981 Film, Chariots of Fire. It was still dominated by the strict amateur code of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and was starved of funds. It failed to attract broad public support, resulting in poor performances in Berlin. The focus for many of the British visitors was not sports but socializing and diplomacy. For his part, Ribbentrop’s lavish hospitality was the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the British Establishment and its control over foreign policy in 1936. Quite simply, the Nazi leadership exaggerated the power of the King and the Lords over the Cabinet and the Commons. Although he was a member of Edward VIII’s inner social circle, Channon was not even a junior minister in the Government. However, he was only one of a number of fascist-sympathisers from Britain, including the Anglo-German Fellowship, a group of aristocrats, businessmen, , politicians and ex-servicemen who had come together to try to change British policy. Hitler himself entertained them in the Chancellery and had also invited the Mitford sisters, Diana and Unity, torch-bearers of British Fascism. Diana, mistress of Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, was on a secret mission to Germany to raise funds from the Nazis. The sisters were staying with Goebbels in his large villa overlooking the Wannsee lake.  They were not simply aristocratic women infatuated with powerful men in uniforms. They genuinely believed that National Socialism, if applied to Britain, could bring an end to mass unemployment and poverty. Diana later claimed that Hitler’s ideas, ‘if they had prevailed at the time, would have saved a great deal of suffering.’ Nevertheless, she was unsuccessful in acquiring further funds from Hitler for the BUF (she had already been given ten thousand pounds by him), but he did agree to help her with her planned marriage in Berlin to Mosley on 6th  October.

Elsewhere and everywhere in the packed city of Berlin, houses and streets were bedecked with double banners, the Olympic flag and the red Nazi flag with the black swastika on a white circle. For the British athletes, many of whom were enjoying their first trip to the continent, it was an exciting time, but the Games were not the focus of attention at home that they have been in more recent decades. Dorothy Tyler found that ‘people were more interested in the fact that we were visiting Germany and seeing Hitler than they were in our taking part in the Games’. She was one of the few British success stories, winning silver in the high-jump. The most famous British victory came in the 4×400 metre relay, in which the British men beat the American and German teams to claim gold. Harold Abrahams, the hundred metre champion from Paris, described Godfrey Rampling’s leg, in which he received the baton with  the US ahead and finished five yards ahead, as ‘the most glorious heaven-sent quarter-mile I have ever seen’. However, unlike the Jewish Olympian, most of the British visitors to Berlin showed only a fleeting interest in their team’s success. They showed more interest in the power, glamour and modernity of the capital city of the new German Reich, seduced by von Ribbentrop, like Lord Londonderry had been earlier in the year (see photo above).

The Olympic propaganda was made even more effective by the  documentary film-maker Lani Riefenstahl, who had already made Triumph of the Will, acclaimed internationally as a work of genius. Her two-part epic, Olympia, was a massive hit in Germany, and, though it was not shown in Britain until after the war, those who did see it realised that Germany was well in the lead in making propaganda films, as in so much else. At the end of the Games, Germany finished with eighty-nine medals, thirty-three of them gold. Britain was tenth with fourteen medals, only four of them gold. There was a debate about the reasons for failure even before the Games had finished. Some argued that Britain’s weak performance reflected a national decline in fitness, something which had been troubling the authorities since the Boer War.

However, the main reason was the lack of funding and resources. The XIth Olympiad came to an end on 16th August, with the closing ceremonies. There was no march past of the athletes, only a parade of representative flag-bearers. They marched the length of the arena, halting beneath the Olympic flame. The President of the IOC stepped forward to call on the youth of the world to assemble in four year’s time in Tokyo. The flag was lowered and the Olympic flame was slowly extinguished and Hitler rose for yet another chorus of Deutschland, Deutschland.. The great Games, as Channon wrote, ‘the great German display of power, and bid for recognition, were over.’ Whilst David Lloyd George called Hitler ‘the greatest German of the age’, very few in Britain admired Fascism at home or abroad. Lord Decius, on his return from the Games, wrote to the Times, full of foreboding:

 I left Berlin with the impression that a new race of energetic, virile young people had sprung up in Germany. They appeared to be ready to go anywhere under the orders of the Führer – a nation fully armed, equipped with the best of war material, and an air force second to none.

Sierra de Los Angeles

Towards the end of August, an amateur ‘International Brigades’ were being formed in Spain, comprising the assortment of radical intellectuals and international communists who had made their way to the conflict to support the Republican cause. It is estimated that 2,762 British volunteers fought in Spain, of whom 543 died there. Most of these soldiers were workers, many of them unemployed miners from South Wales and elsewhere, and their convictions had been built over generations of deprivation and resistance. Some were young graduates, like David Marshall, They were becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of action, passing their days in Barcelona, feeling ashamed to be idle. At the end of August, they were sent to Albacete, 150 miles south-east of Madrid, where they were given some rudimentary training as part of the newly forming International Brigades, before taking part in the defence of Madrid. David’s first taste of battle was also his last, and it was ‘a bit of a shambles’. Although he had never used a rifle before, he was ordered to advance on a Fascist-held building at the top of a hill, the Sierra de Los Angeles, with a strategic view over to Madrid in the distance. Firing at the windows, his group felt exposed, so they sheltered in a narrow furrow as the enemy returned fire. He was hit in the leg: ‘My foot leapt up and hit me in the backside.’

Without any proper training, his short experience of actual combat was a disaster, and it demoralised him. What had started as a glorious adventure had ended in violence and shock. After his wound had healed, he asked for permission to return home, which was granted. He was fortunate. Although a casualty , he survived, whereas most of those fighting with him went on to die in the bloody battles of the autumn and winter. He went back to Middlesbrough as a young man who had learnt some hard lessons about ‘the actualities of war’ in a very short time.

Franco had had a promise of support from Mussolini before the war began and ideological allies had supplied him with arms from the beginning, in spite of the League’s Non-Intervention Committee. But when Italian troops were moved in on Franco’s side, the Left redoubled its efforts to rally support for the Republicans. Writers and painters all over Europe set to work as propagandists. Michael Foot wrote that ‘Spain cut the knot of emotional and intellectual contradictions in which the left had been entangled ever since Hitler came to power. Suddenly the claims of international law, class solidarity and the desire to win the Soviet Union as an ally fitted into the same strategy.’ The passionate cry from Madrid in response to the fascist revolt ‘it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ reverberated throughout the Left as the very real prospect of a fascist Europe loomed large. Most on the liberal-conservative Right continued to favour Non-Intervention, hating Communism at least as much as they hated Fascism, if not more so. Then there were those, increasing in number, who had considerable sympathy and admiration for Hitler’s modern Germany, even if not so keen on Franco’s reactionary Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.




Denys Blakeway, The Last Dance: 1936, The Year Our Lives Changed.  London: John Murray, 2010

Norman Rose, Harold Nicholson. London: Pimlico, 2005

René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1976

Andrew  J Chandler, The Re-Making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands, 1920-40. Cardiff: unpublished thesis in University of Wales College Library.

These Tremendous Years, 1919-38: A History in photographs of life and events, big and little, in Britain and the world since the war. London: publisher unknown, 1939 (?).

John Gorman, To Build Jerusalem: A photographic remembrance of British working class life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications, 1980.


If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same..   Leave a comment




Watching the quarter-finals of the men’s singles tennis tournament from London yesterday, at the same time as preparing for my Bible Study on ‘Independence’, following on from 4th July, I was reminded that there are some famous lines on this theme which are painted above the players’ entrance to Wimbledon centre court:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same…

They come from a poem by Kipling, two full verses of which are given below. What I like about these lines, written for his son, is that they emphasise that we should not be afraid to fail in life, and imply also that the line between success and failure is very fine indeed. In our daily lives, we are always crossing this line, or having it crossed for us, so that triumphs are turned into disasters and disasters into triumphs. It is all a matter of perception. What I may perceive as a success, someone else may see as a disaster, and what I regard as a catastrophic failure someone else can view as having the seeds of success. It depends upon

perspective, I suppose, on whether you’re face down in the gutter or looking up at the stars! One thing is sure, that God gives us permission to fail, even if others don’t, because he knows that only by conquering our fears can we gain true freedom in Christ, gaining our independence in the world, as well as from it.

NSRW Rudyard Kipling

NSRW Rudyard Kipling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

RUDYARD KIPLING, ‘IF’ (1910) (First and last verses)

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

English: Jack Kipling Suomi: Jack Kipling

English: Jack Kipling Suomi: Jack Kipling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And- which is more- you’ll be a Man, my son!

Kipling – best-known as the author of ‘The Jungle Book’ – helped his poorly-sighted son gain a ‘commission’ as an officer in the British Army at the beginning of the Great War. He was killed in action and Kipling never forgave himself, turning against war. This is the subject of a recent BBC film starring David Suchet and Daniel Ratcliffe. It’s this theme of the relationship between generations, and the balance between independence and inter-dependence, which constantly recurred in Kipling’s life and work, and it’s a theme explored in these prayers, reflections and meditations..












The routines of our former life are passing away now. We have outgrown the formal relationships that protected and disciplined us. We leave behind the shelter of our schools and colleges and enter the arena of free society.


Leader (Prayer):



We welcome the freedom to embark on a new career;

Freedom to earn our own money, or train to earn it;

Freedom to spend our money or to save it;

Freedom to set new routines for ourselves;

Freedom to plan our leisure time;

Freedom to shoulder new responsibilities;

Freedom to make new meanings out of life.


We welcome new freedoms

To grow into the world you have given us;

To travel to the destinations you have prepared for us;

To meet and serve the people you have waiting for us.


In the challenges of freedom – Equip us;

In the decisions of freedom – Direct us;

In the arts of freedom – Discipline us;

In the dangers of freedom – Protect us;

In the joys of freedom – Steady us;

In the uses of freedom – Guide us.




Let’s now praise those who have given us our immediate heritage: those from whom we have learned to think and understand, to know beauty and see goodness, to learn from the world and to recognise God.


There are those who have taught us, forgiven us, believed in us, and enjoyed our company and friendship.


There are those who have laughed with us and not at us, who protected us with their understanding when we were under fire from others.


There are those whom we have taken for granted.


And there are those who have loved us without conditions.


There is no need for jealousy and conflict between the generations. Let us know comradeship with those who are older and comradeship with those who come after us, as we share the same world and head for the same destination.

John 16. 25-33:


Victory over the World


“I have used figures of speech to tell you these things. But the time will come when I will not use figures of speech, but will speak to you plainly about the Father. When that day comes, you will ask him in my name; and I do not say that I will ask him on your behalf, for the Father himself loves you. He loves you because you love me and have believed that I came from God. I did come from the Father, and I came into the world; and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”


Then his disciples said to him, “Now you are speaking plainly, without using figures of speech. We know now that you know everything; you do not need to have someone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.”


Jesus answered them, “Do you believe now? The time is coming, and is already here, when all of you will be scattered, each one to his own home, and I will be left alone. But I am not really alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you this so that you will have peace by being united to me. The world will make you suffer. But be brave! I have defeated the world!”


Readers (Meditation):


What, free to suffer? Yes, but to bear it and make meaning of it.


What, free to stand the relentless monotony of manual labour? Yes, but not to be dehumanised by it.


What, free to take never-ending exams? Yes, but not to become victims of the exam system, not to allow it to label us as ‘failures’.


What, free to be involved in the sins of mankind? Yes, but to be forgiven by the One upon whom the judgement fell.


What, free to believe in a true God of love in a world of ruin? Yes, but not without proving him true.


What, free to die? Yes, but only to find that you are sons and daughters of God and destined for eternity.


We are in the world, and we shall have trouble with it, for we are not of the world;


‘We are all in this recession together,’ say the politicians;


We are in the same boat, and the boat is being rocked by a storm;


We are of the same population, which is exploding;


We are on the same road, and the road is blocked;


What a world!


Millions still enslaved by warfare;

Two-thirds of the world still enslaved in poverty and hunger.


John 8. 31-36:


Free Men and Slaves:


You’re probably familiar with the following chorus, sung every year at ’The Last Night of the Proms’ accompanied by various gently self-mocking, patriotic theatricals from the stage and the auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall. You may be less familiar with the translation of the Hungarian national song written by the national soldier-poet and hero of the 1848 Revolution, Sándor Petöfi. It has become popular again recently, recited and chanted by the crowds in Budapest on the anniversary of the Uprising on March 15th. Both contain Declarations of Freedom from Slavery, and this theme was an important one in the interaction between Jesus and the religious authorities of his time, who did not understand why this man from Nazareth was telling them that they were not really free. The idea that they were sinners and that they needed to be set free from their enslavement to sin did not go down very well among those who were proud of having Moses and Abraham as their ancestors.


Rule, Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,

Britons never, never, never,

Shall be slaves!


(Thomas Arne)


On your feet now, Hungary calls you!

Now is the moment, nothing stalls you,

Shall we be slaves or men set free?

That is the question, answer me!

By all the Gods of Hungary

We hereby swear,

That we the yoke of slavery,

No more shall wear!


Slaves we have been to this hour,

Our forefathers who fell from power

Fell free and lived as free men will,

On land that was their own to till,

By all….


(Petöfi Sándor, translated by Szirtes György)






John 8. 31-36:


So Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

“We are descendants of Abraham,” they answered, “and we have never been anyone’s slaves. What do you mean then, by saying, ’You will be free’?” Jesus said to them, “I am telling  you the truth; everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave does not belong to a family permanently, but a son belongs there forever. If the son sets you free, then you will be really free.”



Against all the victimisation of the world, God has set us free, and we are free indeed.


So, in the freedom of the Son, the perfect Man,

We shall make money honestly,

We shall make love honourably,

We shall make time for those who need us,

We shall make friends of our enemies,

We shall make peace with them, and with God,

We shall make Him supreme governor in our lives,

For in his service is perfect freedom.

The Lord is my employer. I shall never be redundant.



Leader (prayer):




Now it is our turn to join in; to share the responsibility;


To bear this responsibility we need your protection, Lord – the armour-plating of your spirit. Protect us…


From big businessmen and bankers who see us as little people with no power to stand on our own feet;


From corporations who treat us as an easy market for their junk;


From advertisers who promise success for the price of a tube of toothpaste or a bottle of sun-tan oil;


From status symbols and celebrity culture, and the lust for money;


From those who would pollute our minds, soil our bodies and ignore our spirits;


From a world still full of bombs and drugs;


From ourselves, for we are too often our own worst enemies.


Lord, as we go out into the world…


Help us to remember…


In our colleges and offices,

In hospital or prison, in the city or on the land,

In the coffee bar or on the motorway,

In whatever place, in whatever condition:




We are always free to love and serve our neighbour,

We are always free to love and serve God.





(Adapted from Paul Kimber’s prayers and meditations for the St Alban’s District Council of Churches)



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