This talk was given at the annual Essex Labour History Conference on 22 October 2005.
John Gyford’s talk was about the 1945 General Election in Essex.
The original recording of this talk is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at email@example.com or 033301 32500.
Witham interviews etc. by Janet Gyford: transcripts
[???] shows words that are not clear enough to interpret and so have had to be omitted.
[?] after a word shows that its interpretation is not certain.
Later explanatory additions by JG or the transcriber are in square brackets (e.g. explaining locations etc.)
Tape 205, Mr John Gyford of Blanfred, Chalks Road, talk about 1945 General Election in Essex, to Essex Labour History Conference, 22 October 2005 at Harlow.
[Introduction by chair, John Kotz, apologising for absence of Michael Foot, and opening remarks, not noted]
John G: Good morning, everybody. I’m going to start with the whole of historic Essex, very briefly. That’s to say everything from the River Lea in the west, to the North Sea in the east. Just to give you a few basic facts about the ’45 election. In the area of that old historic county, in 1945, there were 26 constituencies. Of those 26, Labour contested 24. We didn’t fight the Woodford seat, which was Churchill’s, we didn’t fight Chelmsford, which had been won in a by-election by the small left-wing Common Wealth group, just before the General Election was called. But apart from those, we contested 24 out of the 26. And we won 21. So the key figures are 21 Labour MPs arising from 24 contests in 26 constituencies. That represented something like an average swing of 10 per cent or more to Labour. If you compare it with the previous General Election, which was ten years previously, because there was no General Election during the War, if you compare it with 1935, when there were 20 constituencies in Essex, Labour had held eight seats. So in ’35, Labour held forty per cent of the Essex constituencies. Ten years later in 1945, Labour held something like 85 per cent. So you can see the massive change that there was between those two dates in terms of the political geography of Essex.
By the time the 1945 election approached, it was clear that the old constituency boundaries from the 1930s no longer reflected the actual distribution of population on the ground. Because as I’m sure we all know, there was a great deal of population growth in Essex between the Wars. One result of that was that there were some elements of re-drawing of constituency boundaries in Essex, in late 1944, early 1945, in anticipation of a post-war election. And that actually meant, and you can clearly do the arithmetic, there were 20 seats in ’35 and there were 26 in ’45, that meant there were six extra seats created. And not surprisingly, they were all in south Essex, which was where most of the population growth had occurred. The Woodford area was taken out of the old Epping constituency and made a separate constituency in its own right, and the remainder stayed as the Epping constituency. In a similar pattern, Thurrock was taken out of the old South-east Essex constituency, and made a new seat on its own, and the rest of south-east Essex, which stretched all the way up to Shoeburyness, remained as a rather reduced South-east Essex. Ilford was split in two, north and south, and Romford effectively was split in four, a smaller Romford seat was retained, but there were three new seats, Barking, Dagenham and Hornchurch. Without those re-distributions, some of those constituencies would have had over 100,000 voters, which was clearly much beyond the normal range of constituency size. So, coming up to 1945, we had 26 constituencies, six of which were new, and the new pattern, to some extent at least, reflected the population changes over the previous decade.
Now, in the rest of my talk, I do intend to concentrate mainly on Essex outside what is now the Greater London area. Partly because that’s the area that’s covered by the Essex County Labour Party, who are the joint hosts, and if I dare say it, subsidisers, of this particular event.
So out of respect for our sponsors, I shall concentrate on the area that they now cover, non-Metropolitan Essex, including of course, Southend and Thurrock. And in doing that, in one sense I’m going to be giving a series of snapshots, because it’s simply not possible to deal in detail with each of the constituencies one by one. So I shall be giving a series of snapshots, the odd anecdote, but trying to give some impression as to what the campaign was like. I’m not going to be dealing in any real sense with the major issues of the national campaign, because I’m sure that Norman [Howard] will want to talk about those. I’m going to really, divide my talk into three parts. Firstly, and this will be something of an over-, I want to look at the jockeying for position which took place in some of the Essex constituencies in the run-up to the election. Because it wasn’t simply a case of automatically a Labour candidate popping up and contesting the election. There were one or two constituencies where there were arguments on the broader left of politics, about who should be the anti-Conservative candidate. So I want to look at that issue first. Secondly, I then do want to look at the, some of the details of the campaign on the ground, to give some sort of flavour or feeling for what it was like on the ground at constituency level. Now, I know there are some people here this morning who do actually remember the 1945 campaign in Essex, and they know more about it from experience than I do. And I hope that during the course of the day, they will be able to contribute their own recollections of what it was like on the ground. But I hope also to be able to illuminate the grass-roots level of the campaign, by looking at a number of aspects of the contest. And then finally, I want to say something about the reaction to the result. How did people in Essex respond to the result when it became clear. And there’s a slight peculiarity about that presence of response, because one way in which the 1945 election was unique, was that there was a three-week gap between voting day and the declaration of results. The election was on the 5th of July, the results were declared on the 26th, the gap was to allow the Services vote to be flown back to the country from troops overseas. Which of course meant that instead of the candidates chewing their nails for a few hours, they had three weeks to chew their nails and to reflect on what they thought had happened, and of course it gave the press three weeks to speculate about how it had all gone.
So I start by looking at the first issue, which was the business of what I described as jockeying for position. Now, this was often described in terms of a desire for left unity. Now anybody with experience of the Labour movement knows that calling for left unity is a very divisive thing to do. [laugh]. Because it raises at least two crucial questions. Firstly, well, who actually counts as being on the left, who qualifies. And secondly, it raises the question, well, if there is going to be unity, once you’ve decided who’s qualified, on whose terms in unity going to operate. Now, this question of left unity, was I think significant for two reasons. One of these, and again I imagine Norman will touch on this, was that there was clearly a sea-change in public opinion, and a major debate, particularly after the publication of the Beveridge report, there was a major shift in public opinion, and a major debate about post-war reconstruction, and the future of British society. And that in a sense was a left-wing debate, but it had many strands. So there was some argument about how that should be carried forward politically in electoral terms. And the implication was in some cases that there should be a unified single left-wing candidate opposing the Conservatives. The other problem, which was more specific, was that in two constituencies in Essex, there had been war-time by-elections, which had been won by left-wing candidates not affiliated to the Labour party. And you can see the implications of that, once the General Election began to loom on the horizon.
Now, the question of who qualified to be on the left, was a question which in a sense had fairly self-evident answers, because the candidates for this were clearly the Labour Party, the Communist Party, which was still benefiting from [break in tape: probably ‘admiration for the achievements of the Red Army’], and also of course the Trade Union movement, and also a small group that had formed during the War, Common Wealth, about which I’ll say something later on. [break in tape: probably ‘In Colchester, the Labour candidate, Charlie Smith, condemned a small “clique of individuals” in the Colchester Liberal Party, who were more concerned with flying the Liberal banner than fighting the Conservative government. And I think there was a feeling[?] amongst Labour activists that the Liberals were an irrelevance who might somehow get in the way of what ought to be a straight fight. But that didn’t influence the Liberals in Colchester, who put up their own candidate in the election. Interestingly enough, he anticipated Paddy Ashdown, because he’d been a commando during the War, and was constantly referred to in the Essex County Standard as ‘the Commando Liberal candidate’. As I say that’s vaguely reminiscent of the way Paddy Ashdown used to be, I think, described as an SAS, or Special Boat Squadron [???].
At Southend, the question of the Liberals was much more difficult for the Labour movement, because in April of 1945, the Southend Trades Council passed a resolution calling on the Labour Party to hold a public meeting to demand that the Liberals stood down. Now, that was only passed by a handful of votes at the Trades Council meeting in Southend, and was extremely controversial. So controversial that another meeting of the Trades Council was immediately summoned to reverse the decision. And one of the leading Labour figures in Southend at the time, Tom Tyler, who was an Alderman on Southend Borough Council, led the opposition to this idea of having anything whatsoever to do with the Liberals, and actually said that he would rather see a Conservative government returned, with a strong Labour opposition, than ever do a deal with the Liberals. And the Trades Council meeting was re-convened, and it overturned the decision, and the question of whether or not the Liberals were part of the left vanished in Southend. Interestingly enough, the Labour, the prospective Labour candidate in Southend, when asked what his view was on Left unity, gave an accomplished politician’s answer by saying he was in favour of Left unity nationally, but not in Southend. [laughter] There were attempts to get Liberals to stand down in other constituencies, but for the most part, the Liberals, occasionally politely discussed it with representatives of Labour, but where they had a candidate, or organisation, they pressed ahead.
But the real problems as far as Left unity was concerned, were in the two constituencies that I referred to earlier, of Chelmsford and Maldon, where essentially the difficulty was the legacy of by-election victories. Now the situation as far as war-time by-elections was concerned, was that at the outbreak of War, the chief whips of the three main parties, agreed an electoral truce, whereby if a seat fell vacant, it would automatically be inherited by the Party that had held it before the vacancy, and the other two parties wouldn’t contest the by-election. That was fine as far as it went, but of course it didn’t bind any other group or Party[?]. And therefore it was perfectly possible for candidates from outside the three parties to contest War-time by-elections. And that happened, I think on something like fifty or sixty occasions, during the War. And in a small number of cases, those Independent candidates actually defeated the candidate standing on behalf of the incumbent party. And this was the case in Maldon in 1942, and in Chelmsford just before the General Election was called in 1945.
And this was where the question of left-wing unity became very difficult, because in both those cases, the Independents who won the seats were identified as being on the left. And the question was, well, what did the Labour Party do in those constituencies, where there was a sitting candidate who had left-wing credentials of some sort.
Let me take the two constituencies one by one. In the case of Maldon, the candidate who won the by-election in June 1942 was Tom Driberg, who stood as an Independent candidate, who was elected, who then set up his own constituency organisation, known simply as the Maldon Constituency Association, which had branches in all the main towns and some of the villages in the constituency, which was a very active organisation at grass-roots level, most of whose members, according to his former secretary, who I interviewed, thirty years I suppose it must be, most of whose members were not hitherto Labour supporters, but were in a sense swept in by the charisma of Tom Driberg. He was the sitting MP by 1945. This was clearly a problem for the Labour Party locally, particularly because the Labour Party locally had adopted a prospective candidate in 1938, a young man by the name of Maurice Janis, who had gone off to war. He’d set out for the Far East, and on the troop ship going out to the Far East in 1942, he’d written back to the secretary of the Maldon Labour Party saying he hoped to keep in touch if the War allowed, and that he looked forward to returning to fight the seat at the next General Election. Well, like so many people who were sent out to Singapore in 1942, he was taken prisoner, and for a long time nothing more was heard of him. So, in Maldon you had the situation where there was an adopted Labour candidate, keen to fight the next election, now enduring a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and you had a sitting left-wing Independent MP. One response to this situation, in late 1944, was the calling of a Left Unity conference in Braintree, which although clearly was partly generated by the Maldon problem, was interested in securing unity amongst all the left-wing forces in north Essex. And if I just indicate some of the people who were present at that meeting, you’ll see the broad range of left-wing opinion which was interested in this particular issue. There were delegates of the Trades Councils of Braintree, Chelmsford, Colchester and Maldon. There were representatives from the constituency Labour Parties of Chelmsford, Harwich, Saffron Walden and Maldon. There were representatives of the Communist Parties of Chelmsford, Halstead and Colchester. There was a representative of the Colchester Common Wealth Group. There were Union representatives, from the AEU, ASLEF and the ASW. And there were the convenors of shop stewards from Marconi’s factories in Chelmsford and the Lake and Elliot’s foundry in Braintree. And they convened for the purpose of establishing unity on the left in the run-up to the General Election. They met in October ’44. A week later the chairman of the Maldon Constituency Labour Party resigned his office, because he saw this as an attempt, as he saw it, to smuggle Tom Driberg into the candidacy for the next General Election, at the expense of the existing Labour candidate. And he went so far as to say that Tom Driberg had stolen the seat at the by-election, and he was not prepared to campaign for him. The secretary of the Maldon Constituency Labour Party had already resigned some months previously on similar grounds, because he felt, he personally, I know, felt a great personal loyalty to Maurice Janis as the adopted candidate.
So there was a clear division emerging over what was to happen in Maldon. In the event, it was relatively smoothly settled. The Maldon Constituency Labour Party recognised that it should talk to Driberg, but they made it clear to him that nothing could be done unless he was prepared to join the Labour Party. Driberg’s own organisation indicated that they would support Driberg’s candidacy whether or not he remained as in Independent. They’d prefer it if he did, but if he joined the Labour Party, they’d support him. The Liberals went so far as to say that if Driberg stood again as an Independent, they would support him as an Independent. But if he stood as Labour, they wouldn’t. In the end the Executive of the Maldon Labour Party held a meeting, recommended that Driberg be adopted as candidate provided he joined the Labour Party. In his autobiography, Driberg says he wasn’t all that keen on joining the Labour Party. He regarded them as too stuffy and bourgeois and middle-of-the-road, not radical enough for someone like him. But it was made fairly clear to him that if he wanted to become the Labour Party candidate, actually joining the Party was a reasonable quid pro quo. [laughter] So he spoke to his Maldon Constituency Association, and they agreed it was an inevitable requirement. Eventually he was adopted formally as the Labour Party candidate. It was his proud boast that he was the only candidate ever to have joined the Party after he’d been adopted [laughter]. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not quite sure. There were two meetings involved in the adoption process, but certainly a Party official was waiting in the wings with membership forms to make sure he didn’t escape from the room before he’d signed on the dotted line. [laughter] So that eventually that was solved, but it was difficult.
In Chelmsford, a Labour candidate had been adopted in the Autumn of 1944, a man called George Baker Smith, who came from Kettering, and was a fairly big wheel in the Co-op Party. When the sitting MP for Chelmsford, Jack Macnamara, was killed on active service at Christmas 1944, clearly a by-election was in the wind. Normally under the truce, that would have been inherited by the Conservative Party. George Baker Smith accepted this, and said he wouldn’t contest the by-election, but expected to contest the General Election when it came. But, all of a sudden, a guy called Ernest Millington appeared, and said he was going to stand, on behalf of this group called Common Wealth. Now, Common Wealth had been set up in the middle of the War. Oddly enough, it was officially, publicly announced, the day after Tom Driberg’s election result in Maldon. But I think that was purely co-incidental. But it was a very idealistic Socialist group, oddly enough founded by a left-wing Liberal, Sir Richard Acland, which was very much concerned with post-war reconstruction, which was described by one historian, who made a detailed study of it after the War, as composed largely of people who had never been active in politics before, and would never be active in politics again. It was very much a middle-class professional, managerial, public service type of Socialism. Certainly if you look at the people who were active in Common Wealth in Chelmsford at the time, they were indeed teachers, scientific workers, managers, the occasional shopkeeper. They were not people, as this historian Angus Calder says, they were not people that would have been attracted by what he called ‘the rough and tumble’ of Labour Party politics. They would have found it all a bit vulgar. But they were extremely enthusiastic. They had a very moralistic, yet managerial view of the world. And Millington was a member, and announced himself to be a candidate. Now he had Essex connections, he’d been educated at Chigwell School, his mother lived in Ilford, he was an accountant, and you, John, would be glad to know that before the War he was an active member of the Labour League of Youth [laughter]. He was also an RAF Wing Commander, and had just completed thirty operations in charge of a heavy bomber squadron. So, in many ways he was an almost ideal candidate, idealistic, left-wing, in some ways war-hero.
He fought the campaign and beat the Conservative. The election was held in April ’45, and of course the General Election followed immediately afterwards. What was to happen there? George Baker Smith, the Labour candidate, was expected to fight the General Election. Ernest Millington was[?] the man in the seat. He called a meeting of all the left-wing parties to get this resolved. The meeting took place in London, and I assume from that that it must have involved some of the national officials of the Labour Party, and also of the Co-op Party, bearing in mind Baker Smith’s very strong bond with the Co-op Party. The Communist Party, interestingly enough, took the view that the seat should revert to Labour, and to Baker Smith. They weren’t having any of this nonsense with the Common Wealth. They had a very clear line all through the War, that the only legitimate working class Parties were the Labour Party and and the Communist Party, and that all these Independents and Common Wealth were just, dross. They put it rather less politely. However, Baker Smith’s selection as a Labour candidate in Chelmsford had been contentious, because there had been a strong local Chelmsford-based candidate, who still had a great deal of support in the Chelmsford Party. And the discussions were obviously fairly difficult, but at the end of the day, a compromise was reached, in the sense that George Baker Smith agreed to stand down as Labour candidate, not to be replaced by the Chelmsford-favourite that he beat at the selection conference, but in favour of Ernest Millington, the sitting Common Wealth member. And that was then formally announced in a joint statement to the National Executives of the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party, that they were not going to contest that seat, and would leave Millington to fight the campaign for the left. And Labour members joined in that campaign enthusiastically, and I’ve been told that in fact they’d done the same thing in the by-election, but that’s another[?] story[?]. So they’d been difficult discussions, but at the end of the day, both in Maldon and Chelmsford, the left had been able to identify a single candidate, one required to join the Labour Party, the other allowed to continue as a member of Common Wealth, although after he was elected, the following year, he did in fact join the Labour Party. Those had been difficult discussions, and for some people, I think, very hard to handle.
Let me turn now from that vexed question of Left unity, to the campaign on the ground. I want to start by saying something about the fact that it’s not easy to run an election in the immediate aftermath of a war, for obvious reasons. It was also difficult in some constituencies, because as I’ve indicated, they were quite new. And this meant that the actual timetable for getting up and running was extremely compressed. For example, the new Thurrock Constituency Labour Party was formally set up on the 7th of April 1945, which didn’t give a great deal of time to do much. They adopted their PPC on the 26th of May, Leslie Solley. He went on to win the seat. But there wasn’t a great deal of lee-way there in terms of getting up and running, adopting a candidate, organising a campaign. In the rest of the old South East Essex constituency, which was now a new smaller South East Essex, the time scale was even more compressed, because their new Constituency Party was formed on the 29th of April, and they succeeded in selecting their candidate barely a month later, on the 26th of May. And the guy they selected was a man called Ray Gunter, who went on to become a minister under Harold Wilson. And he have some sort of record as the man who travelled the longest distance to a Labour selection conference, because he flew in from Iraq. Now, he may have had some advantage there, because he was a staff officer in movement control in the army, organising troop flights[?]. [laughter] And whether that was fortuitous or not, he turned up and was selected.
A curious quirk of that selection process in South East Essex was that Ray Gunter was Welsh. His Conservative opponent, Aubrey Jones, was also Welsh, and this led the Southend Standard to say ‘What is wrong with the people of Essex, if both parties in South East Essex have to go to Wales to find a candidate.’ And the other curious co-incidence, of course, is that not only did Gunter end up working for Harold Wilson, but Aubrey Jones ended up doing the same as chairman of the Prices and Incomes Board. But life is full of these strange co-incidences.
Even where there were new constituencies selecting in a hurry, there were problems. But even in other constituencies, which were already in existence, there were difficulties. And I just cite that in the case of my own branch in Witham. If you look at the minute book of the Witham Labour Party, the last meeting that was held before the War took place in April 1939. You turn over the page, and the next meeting of Witham Labour Party takes place on Wednesday the 13th of June 1945. And it’s an interesting account, which I’ll read an extract from. It’s written by the secretary, a guy called Fred Wood. ‘Brother Royce explained that owing to the fact that a General Election had been sprung upon the country, he had taken upon himself to convene a meeting of existing members of the Party, and those people who he knew as old members, with a view to forming an organisation to assist in running the election, and explained that the Party had maintained its existence through the good will of Brother Ebenezer Smith, who unfortunately had arrived at the stage when it was impossible for him to carry on. Brother Smith was present’, ‘and had brought with him the cash book, and the balance of cash in hand, which amounted to £5, and a balance at the Bank of £13 13s.4d.’ [laughter]. After some discussion it was agreed to form an Election Committee, and members of that were identified. And it was then, the minutes then go on, A discussion then arose as to the part the Maldon Constituency Association ‘would want to take in assisting to get Mr Tom Driberg back to Parliament.’ And they go on in effect to elect a delegation from the Witham Labour Party to meet with a delegation from the Witham Branch of Driberg’s own organisation to discuss how this should be done. To some extent, those difficulties were smoothed by the fact that Tom Driberg’s Labour Party election agent was in fact the former secretary of the Maldon Constituency Association run by Driberg. So the thing was knitted together. But clearly, again, even where there had been a Party formerly in existence over the War, people did actually have to get up and start organising all this from scratch.
Let me move on from that to some other aspects of the campaign on the ground. The Essex County Standard thought it worth-while reporting in the case of Colchester that the Labour candidate, Charlie Smith, quote, ‘had with some difficulty secured the use of car’. [laughter] This was news. The Labour candidate had a car. Now, this of course is before the age of mass motoring. As we shall see, it was also before the age of mass television. But running a campaign was a difficult business, and the acquisition of a car was a major benefit. It could be a bit of a disadvantage, because in Driberg’s [actually the Conservative’s] case, whilst his car was parked outside one meeting, some Labour supporters put sugar [actually salt] and sand in the petrol tank, which meant his car was disabled, and whilst it was seized up, he had to rely on other people giving him lifts. So in that instance, a car was a disadvantage. Driberg also had other problems. It wasn’t only his car was seized up, his nose was as well, because he suffered very badly from hay fever, and there was a high pollen count that summer, and he records sneezing his way from meeting to meeting, as the campaign went on.
I said that as well as being before the age of mass motoring, it was before the age of mass television, and that meant of course that public meetings were far more significant than they are nowadays. I imagine most constituencies still do have a small number of public meetings, but not on the scale of 1945. Let me just say something about the public meetings. The record, if he is to be believed, seems to be held by Stanley Wilson, who was the Labour candidate in Saffron Walden.
And in his memoirs, he says that he held twelve meetings a night for nearly three weeks. But if you say two and a half weeks, and give him Sundays off, that’s still getting on for something like 150 public meetings, in the course of a single campaign. Now, granted that Saffron Walden is a very large constituency, with a very large number of small villages and hamlets, even so, one is lost either in wonder or doubt, as to whether that’s absolutely true. But even if he only held half of them, you know, sixty public meetings in the course of a campaign, it’s still pretty impressive stuff. In Colchester, in the last ten days of the campaign, the Tory candidate, Oscar Lewis, held thirty-four public meetings; the Labour candidate Charlie Smith held nineteen in the last ten days. Both candidates had big meetings in the Colchester Corn Exchange in the final week of the campaign. Charlie Smith’s meeting attracted 1,500 people. You imagine getting 1,500 people at a General Election nowadays. 1,500 people attended Charlie Smith’s meeting. The Conservative, Oscar Lewis, held another big meeting, at the same place, the following night, on the eve of poll. I’ve not seen an account of numbers, but it was described in the Essex County Standard as a meeting at which there were boos alternating with cheers. ‘Many interruptions, mostly good natured and humorous’.
In South East Essex, Ray Gunter, in the final week, held twenty meetings, between Wickford and Shoeburyness. It was a difficult constituency to work in some ways, because it was long and thin, but Gunter covered the entire area in the final week with a series of twenty meetings. In this part of Essex, in the Epping constituency, the Labour candidate Leah Manning wrote in her memoirs about ‘crowded and enthusiastic meetings’ in Harlow, and noticed in particular the many evacuees from London who were in the audience. In Harwich, where there wasn’t a Tory candidate – there was a Liberal National candidate, who supported the Conservative government – in Harwich there were reports of a ‘rowdy meeting’ in Brightlingsea, addressed by the Liberal National candidate, who was forced to cut his speech short, because of the hubbub. In Maldon, there was a tradition of having big eve-of-poll meetings in the Market Square in Braintree, and certainly on the Labour side, there was actually a sort of rolling eve-of-poll meeting, that started down in Burnham on Crouch, and moved up from Burnham, through Southminster to Maldon, to Witham, and then Braintree. The Conservative candidate, Melford Stephenson – who was accurately described by one of Driberg’s biographers, as a reactionary young barrister, who became better known as a very reactionary old judge – Melford Stephenson held his eve-of-poll meeting early, on the Wednesday before polling day, and according to the newspaper, which was quoting, ‘subjected to much uproar’. Of course a large number of people there were actually waiting for Driberg. And Driberg then came along later in the evening, and apparently started his remarks by saying ‘I do hope you didn’t give the poor lad too rough a time.’ [laughter] It does sound as if they had.
Apart from public meetings, of course, the conventional electioneering, posters and window bills, was all part of the game. There’s a splendid story about Stanley Wilson in Saffron Walden. One of his posters was described by his opponent’s biographer – his opponent of course was Rab Butler – and Rab Butler’s biographer, Anthony Howard, describes Stanley Wilson’s shrewdest stroke as being the production of a poster that showed Wilson wearing his mayoral robes and chain, because he’d been mayor of Saffron Walden during the War, and the poster simply said ‘Support the Mayor’. And after the election, Butler said that that picture was the one he dreaded most in the election, because he knew Wilson was enormously popular and well-known locally, and the picture of Wilson in his mayoral outfit crystallised that image of Stanley Wilson. But there is a delightful story, that it was noticed that one of Wilson’s most devoted supporters, and elderly lady, hadn’t got this poster in her front window. So his wife Kitty called on this lady, and asked delicately why she hadn’t put a poster up. She said ‘Oh yes, yes, Mrs Wilson, I’ve got his poster, I’ll show you where it is’.
And she led her through the cottage to the outside toilet, and it was on the inside door of the lavatory. And Kitty looked a bit puzzled, and the lady said ‘Oh, I put it there, because it means that at least once a day I can see his dear old face.’ [laughter]
How did people think it was going ? Well, when the Thurrock constituency was set up anew, in April, one of its leading officers said the prospects weren’t thought particularly bright in Thurrock. And that does seem to have been a common view. It was reckoned that the new Thurrock would be a Labour seat, but that the rest of South East Essex would be Conservative. Labour had once held the larger, old South East Essex from 1929 to ’31, and the assumption was that the new reduced one, without Thurrock, would be reasonably safe for the Tories. In Epping, Leah Manning was confident that she’d saved her deposit, and she thought she’d probably done rather well. She wasn’t confident though, that she’d win, and the Essex Chronicle commented that Epping was likely to go Tory, but it did say that Labour was ‘not without hope of winning it’. So maybe [???]. In Harwich, Labour was thought to be strong in places like Harwich itself, and in Brightlingsea, and also, for the first time, in Wivenhoe, which was presumably the first point at which Wivenhoe became the Hampstead of Essex. But the Tories were thought to be sufficiently strong in Frinton, Walton and Clacton, to vote for the Liberal National and give Churchill the advantage. In Saffron Walden itself, Butler wrote to one of his friends a few days after the election, but obviously before the results were known, ‘the omens are favourable’, he said. On the other hand, Stanley Wilson said afterwards ‘I thought I had won’. As far as Maldon and Chelmsford were concerned, the press’s view at least was that both the sitting MPs, Driberg and Millington, would probably retain their seats, but with reduced majorities. Well, I won’t give you the results, because you should have a copy of them on your chair. I’ll just explain briefly, that you’ll see that the Hornchurch result is stuck on at the bottom, and because of the fate of the photocopying you’ll have to do the arithmetic yourself to identify the Labour majority. The reason for that is that, as I say, the votes were counted three weeks after polling day, which meant that they weren’t counted overnight, they were counted during the day, and in virtually all constituencies they started counting after breakfast and announced the results during the afternoon. But the returning officer in Hornchurch wasn’t having this. ‘I’m not going to announce the results to two boys and a dog during the working day’, he said, ‘I’m going to wait till people have got back from work. So I will announce the result at eight o’clock’, and he planned the count accordingly. What he hadn’t reckoned with, was that once the ballots had been …
[small overlap with side 1]
dog during the working day’, he said, ‘I’m going to wait till people have got back from work. So I will announce the result at eight o’clock’, and he planned the count accordingly. What he hadn’t reckoned with, was that once the ballots had been counted, the Liberal candidate demanded a recount, in order to save his deposit. So he couldn’t get the result out by eight o’clock, it was nearer half past nine before he got the result out. That was too late to go to press for the Essex Chronicle. So the Essex results sheet didn’t include Hornchurch, which I’ve had to introduce from somewhere else.Reactions. Well, clearly on the Conservative side, there was disappointment. In one case, there was outright anger. In Southend, the sitting Tory MP was Sir Henry Channon, otherwise known as Chips Channon, and by all accounts, not the most lovable of men. When the Conservatives had lost the Chelmsford by-election, he wrote in his diary ‘I’m in despair about England after this result.’ When he saw his own result, three months later – he just scraped back by 3,000 votes – he wrote ‘I am stunned and shocked by the country’s treachery, and I am extremely surprised at my own survival’. So he was clearly, putting it crudely, pretty pissed off. On the other hand, in Colchester, Oscar Lewis, who had held his seat for something like fifteen years, was graciousness itself, He congratulated the Labour candidate, Charlie Smith, on winning the seat, he said that perhaps he now ought to take a holiday, but he did also, I think, recognise that one of the reasons why he’d lost that seat, was not just because of the general swing, he’d been identified by a Labour activist in a letter to the press as ‘the invisible MP’, on the grounds that although he answered his correspondence, he never actually appeared on the ground. And the press took this issue up, and I think that tag, the invisible MP, stuck, because after the election he did say ‘I visited the constituency much more than many people suppose, but perhaps not as much as I would have wished’. So I think he at least recognised that maybe there was a personal vote, and that he’d lost there. In South East Essex, Ray Gunter’s victory surprised most people, that really wasn’t expected. In Epping, Leah Manning, on seeing the results come in through the constituency ballot boxes, figured that she was well down. But then, once the soldiers’, sailors’ and airmens’ votes began to be opened up, she could see the piles on her side beginning to mount up. And by the time the total was in, she said ‘I was well in by a majority of 1,000.’ And there’s a famous story that Chris Smith [Morris, see below], who was a sub-agent for Epping, and who was a leading bell-ringer at St John’s church, when he heard the result, got a party of bell-ringers together, they went into the tower of St John’s church, and they pealed the bells, to herald the Labour victory. (Audience member: Morris.) Chris Morris, Chris Morris, sorry. And they pealed the bells, and this did not go down at all well with some of the other churchgoers. [laughter] The west Essex newspapers thought that on the whole Leah Manning had been assisted by the presence of a Liberal candidate, which had siphoned votes off from the Tories. Stanley Wilson took exactly the reverse view. He thought he’d been harmed by the presence of the Liberal candidate, who had siphoned votes off from him. But there’s no way of knowing, I think, which was correct.
One thing which was common in a lot of the responses to the result, was to refer to the impact of evacuees in some constituencies. In the post-election analysis of the by-election in Chelmsford in April, the Essex Chronicle said the result was due to ‘the big migration of war workers to Chelmsford during the war years, which had changed its political character. Channon himself, when he’d calmed down, thought that one of the reasons why his vote had slumped in Southend was because of population change, evacuees, and war workers.
And I think if you put together the notion of the soldiers’ vote, the impact of evacuees, the movement of war workers into new constituencies, the enormous population movement that there was during the war-time years – I forget what the figure is, but the number of changes of addresses in Britain between 1939 and ’45 was quite phenomenal. And in a sense, what one was seeing in Essex, apart from other questions about Government policies and issues in the campaign, was the impact locally of the experience of the war years, in terms of how people’s lives had been altered, the experience of being a soldier, an evacuee, a war worker, somebody who had moved from one end of the country to the other, that was part of the process if you like, of churning up people’s political habits, and voting patterns[?], and that had contributed to the way in which the political geography of Essex, in particular, was changed on July the 5th 1945. But that of course is not peculiar to Essex. That must have been a phenomenon that was common across the country, but that is something which Norman is far more qualified to talk about than I, so I’ll sit down.
John Kotz: Thanks ever so much, John, that was really fascinating, and the amazing thing is, the kind of memories one’s got at the back of their minds and never actually remember, which you’ve sparked off, you certainly have with me, there’s a number of things that you said, that actually brings back the memory. I mean, quite clearly I was a member of the Labour Party myself, and as you quite rightly said, a member of the Labour Party League of Youth, and boy, it’s one of the things you’ll never forget, that Labour victory, if you were lucky enough to have been alive at the time, to have seen that victory, it was absolutely incredible. And you’ve certainly sparked off in my mind, and I’m sure you have with others, that were around either at that time or shortly afterwards, a lot of memories.
[no questions because there was to be a later combined session for all the speakers to discuss things.]