This talk was given at the annual Essex Labour History Conference on 27 October 2007
John Gyford’s talk was about the history of the Witham Labour Party.
The original recording of this talk is held at the Essex Sound and Video Archive. To listen to the recording, please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
Typed by Janet Gyford.
Tape 208, Mr John Gyford of Blanfred, Chalks Road, talk about history of Witham Local Labour Party, at Essex Labour History Conference
27 October 2007
John Kotz (chairman) [Thanks to cooks etc. for lunch, not noted] Well, we’ve come to our afternoon session. We’ve only got one speaker this afternoon, and that’s John Gyford. As you can see that John has done a lot of work in relation to this, re the Labour Party in Essex, and I remember particularly, I don’t know whether it was last year or the year before, John, when you spoke about the role of the Labour Party on Essex County Council, and I’m sure that a good number of you remember that, and what a terrific session that was. Well we’re coming a little bit nearer to home on this occasion, and John is actually going to speak about, basically, Labour Party life, on here as ‘an Essex town’, and needless to say, that Essex town is Witham, so John [cheers and applause].
John Gyford: Right. You must forgive this local Witham xenophobia [laughter], but the reason that I’m talking about Witham is, firstly because, that’s where I live, and have lived for forty years, and been involved in the Labour Party during that time. Secondly, perhaps, in a sense, in practical terms, even more important, is that the history of Labour Party life in Witham is actually very well documented with original materials. And I’ll say something about that in a moment.
I’ll start just by saying why I’ve chosen this particular period. The dates that I’m operating within essentially are 1925 to 1975, and the reason for those two dates is not arbitrary. The earliest documentary evidence I’ve found, to show that there was a Witham Labour Party branch, is the Annual Constituency Party report of 1926, which reports that in 1925, there was a Witham Labour Party branch with 123 members. So we know it existed in 1925, and, now, I suspect it existed before that, but we’ve no documentary evidence to prove it. But since there were Labour candidates in local elections from time to time in the early ‘20s, one would guess there must have been some organisation to support a campaign. The reason that I’ve chosen a neat fifty-year period to 1975 is because in 1975, in an act of great vandalism, the Regional Party office decided that the Witham branch had to be abolished. The reason was that according to the Party constitution, branches had to be based upon ward structures, and Witham as a town contained four wards, and therefore according to the Party rules, ought to contain four branches. And therefore the Witham branch was instructed to dissolve itself, and to operate on a ward-based structure. And the Party, with great reluctance, I think there were four in favour and twenty-five abstentions [laughter] at the Branch meeting concerned, it was agreed that they would at least try this. And for four years they tried it, and it didn’t work, and in 1979 the town branch was reconstructed. But it seemed to me that that half-century, 25, 75, had a certain neatness and unity about it, so that’s why I’ve chosen that particular period.
Witham in 1925 had a population of about 4,000 people. It’s much smaller than it is now. The population is now approaching 25,000. So it’s grown six-fold since 1925. And the bulk of that growth has come in the last thirty to forty years. In many ways, Witham then, was still a small country town. A fair number of people worked on surrounding farms as agricultural workers, some of them permanently, some of them seasonally, some of them simply going pea-picking at the pea-picking season. So agriculture was an important part of the town’s economy. This very site that we’re sitting on was in fact the cattle market [i.e. Labour Hall, Collingwood Road].
It’s changed quite a lot since then. But this was where cattle were bought and sold. Apart from that, the other main sources of employment were the Crittall window factory, which came here as part of the operation that was based in Braintree. The Crittall factory in Witham opened in 1919, and was expanded in 1925. In addition there was a glove factory, just on the other side of the railway from here, which had a very, predominantly female labour force, and there’s a nice piece in the local paper from the pre-First World War period, which reports the girls who worked in the glove factory, and I quote, ‘dancing up the High Street to demand higher wages’. [laughter]. I don’t think dancing as a form of industrial action has been widely copied, and unfortunately the news reports don’t tell us whether the strike was a success. But clearly there was some industrial action happening from time to time. Another major source of employment was the railways. And one of the consequences of that, as we shall see, was that the National Union of Railwaymen was a key local Union. Other local Unions which were quite significant, particularly because of the Crittall connection, was the Amalgamated Engineering Union, and also, given the metal windows connection specifically, the National Society of Metal Mechanics. And then also the general Unions, the GMB, as it now is, and the T and G. But in those days Witham was still recognisably a rural town, but with some developing industrial employment.
Witham had its own local authority, an Urban District Council, which, at the beginning of this period, just covered the built-up area of the small town as it then was. There were one or two little bits that went out into the surrounding countryside, but essentially Witham Urban District Council was the small town itself. It was crucially expanded in the 1930s, and I’ll refer to that later, because that had major political consequences.
The other thing I should say about Witham in those days, I think, is that, I put this as a question rather than as a statement of fact. Because Witham, like Braintree, was part of the Crittall industrial empire, for want of a better term, and because Braintree, and also Halstead, was part of the Courtauld industrial empire, and because both those firms seem to have had, and this is looking at it, you know, from the point of view of hindsight, seem to have had a slightly paternalistic view of their role in relation to their employers [probably meaning employees], a question I’ve often asked myself is whether or not that slightly paternal approach to their employers [probably meaning employees], had an effect on the local and political culture and style of the Labour movement in this part of Essex. Now, I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that in some studies that have been done of local Labour Parties in other parts of England, people have drawn conclusions about the nature of the local Labour Party from the nature of the local employer/employee relationship. But that’s still really uninvestigated.
Let me say something about the sources that I’ve been able to use. First and foremost are the local Party minute books. Now, it really is, I think, an incredible piece of good luck that most of the minute books for the Labour Party in Witham from 1928 onwards, survive. And I’ve been able to use those in preparing this talk. The one big gap, and it’s an interesting gap, in the case of Witham, is that there are no minutes for the years of the Second World War. And it’s quite a, the first time I read any of that volume it was quite a shock. You get to the minutes of the April 1939 meeting, and you turn over the page, and the next meeting is in June 1945. There are no, unless they’re in somebody’s loft somewhere, there are no minutes for the War years. And that initial post-War set of minutes makes some reference to the Party having been ‘kept going’ during the War years by a small number of individuals. That’s an interesting gap. Now, in addition to minutes, I’ve been fortunate in having access to one or two other sources.
The Constituency minutes are, on the whole, fairly well preserved. In those days, Witham was part of the old Maldon constituency, which stretched all the way from Burnham on Crouch in the south, up through Southminster, Maldon, Witham, Braintree, Finchingfield, to within five miles of the Cambridgeshire border. It was a very long constituency, and just by the nature of geography, given that Witham was in the middle of it, in some ways you could argue that Witham was the sort of focal point, or the centre of gravity, of the constituency. Certainly, most of the agents from that constituency, seem on the whole to have come from the Witham area, or come to the Witham area. In addition to those primary sets of sources, I’ve also been able to look at the minutes of the old Witham Urban District Council, various press cuttings and newspaper articles, and, if I can also mention it without embarrassing them too greatly, two individuals who’ve been very helpful, one is Janet Gyford, who knows more about the history of Witham than anybody else living or dead, and secondly, Ted Mawdsley, who, with his wife Ethel, were actually members of the Witham branch during part of the period I’m talking about, and who know more about that period than I do. Ted has promised me that if he has to correct me on points of detail, he’ll do it in private, [laughter] which is very kind of him. And they’ve also provided me with some material, including the items in the exhibition about the Witham Labour League of Youth after the War.
But the main source has been the minutes. And I just thought I’d actually say something about these minutes as documents. Cause the first thing we have to remember is that they weren’t written for our benefit. Nobody sitting there writing them in the 1930s, for example, was saying, ‘Now will this be entirely clear to the Essex Labour History Conference in the year 2007?’. They were being written for people for whom they were part of the ongoing day-to-day, month-to-month life of the Party. People who shared certain common assumptions and memories, and who could in fact probably remember from one meeting to another what had been said, or even more significantly, what had been implied. They were essentially working documents, recording important decisions, on which, about which something had to be done in a fairly short period. Now, that does produce some, some occasions of regret, cause there’s the odd minute which is so tantalising that you wish you knew more. And I’m just going to start by quoting some of the ones that I found particularly tantalising. One of them is from 1953, and they’re talking about various activities that the Party is going to undertake in the months ahead. And there’s one sentence which says ‘The members looked forward to the forthcoming Whist Drives with mixed feelings.’ [laughter] What did it mean? Tell us more! We may never know.
But there’s more. There’s another one the following year. It’s an item looking back on the recent local elections. It simply says ‘The agent gave an illuminating report on the recent local elections.’ Yes? [laughter] No indication as to what it was that was actually illuminated. And of course, the people there would know, in a sense, what it was about the election that had been significant, or needed to be drawn out, or have attention drawn to it, and for their purposes that was sufficient, to jog their memories. Of course, most of us, with the exception of Ted and Ethel, don’t necessarily have that memory, so it’s tantalising and elliptical. But without that we wouldn’t even have known there was a discussion about that set of local elections. I won’t labour this too long, but it’s quite amusing. There’s one, which I’ll perhaps leave to a bit later, but there’s another one, again, this was in 1962, about another set of elections. And there was a discussion about what had gone on in this election, in which apparently we’d lost a seat. And that discussion is described ‘The meeting was in a very harmonious mood, and several pieces of dirty washing were bleached white’. [laughter] There again, that gives you some idea of, you know, there must have been some burning issues which eventually people resolved amicably. But, seen in retrospect, it’s splendidly elliptical. But for the most part, you know, it is pretty clear. I mean, the odd thing is, as with all organisations, subjects come and go, they sort of shift in and out of the minutes, and it’s not always clear how they’ve been followed up or pursued, or resolved.
But without them, I mean, the picture would be completely blank. We’d have no canvas at all.
Let me say something about the constituency Party within which Witham found itself. One of the remarkable features is that the old Maldon constituency and its successor, the Braintree constituency, and, thus far, its subsequent successors, the new Braintree and Witham constituency, have always had a paid full-time agent. Now, there’s been the odd gap, two years here, two years there. But there’s always been a full-time agent. And in that sense, there’s been a very clear political centre of gravity, in that there was an agent, that agent was full-time, and in that sense the constituency was a key political unit. It wasn’t a case of everything being left to the branches. And I’m sure that’s had a significant influence on the way the Party saw itself and the way it worked.
The second thing I ought to say, is that apart from the agent, the thing that has struck me, reading those branch minutes, is the crucial role of the Membership Secretary and the membership collectors. Now, I don’t know what it’s like in other branches, but increasingly, we’ve become a Party in which people pay their subscriptions by Direct Debit or Standing Orders. The period that we’re talking of, was the period where people paid their subs to Collectors. The Membership Secretary had to maintain a network of collectors, and, I can recall from my period as local Party treasurer, the annual ordeal for the Membership Secretary, of going through the collectors’ books and making sure that all that tallied with the amount of money that she had paid into the Party account in the Bank, and sitting there through a long evening whilst all this was checked and cross-checked and referenced up, and bags of money were added up, and cause the money hadn’t yet gone into the Bank. That was an enormous undertaking. And I didn’t think of it at the time, but a historic milestone occurred in this branch last December, with the death of the last member of the Party who paid her subscription in cash on the doorstep. And in a sense that was the passing of an era. And I think the Membership Secretary, along with the constituency agent, were perhaps two of the most important figures in the local operating structure of the Party.
I think the third thing I ought to say by way of background is the significance of this building for the local politics of the Labour Party in Witham. As I said earlier, given the geography of the constituency, the centre of gravity was almost inevitably going to be in or around Witham, and so a constituency headquarters found its way here. It didn’t find its way here, it had to be built and financed. But it was logical that it should be here. But that had implications for the Witham branch, because although it was a constituency office, and although constituency events were held here, clearly, given that it was built as a social club as well as a political organisation, inevitably, it was Witham members who were most in contact with the Hall, and who were likely to be, physically, perhaps, most often on its premises. And therefore, I think that meant that Witham itself had a very significant role in the constituency. And certainly, given that people joined the Witham branch to get access to the social facilities of what was then a very big lounge bar at the back, the membership of the Witham Labour Party branch far exceeded the membership of any other branch in the constituency, and that clearly had implications for things like the size of delegations to the General Management Committee, as it then was. So there was a particular importance there.
And then perhaps the fourth thing I ought to say by way of background, reverts to this business of the railway, which I mentioned in the context of the railwaymen who operated through the NUR. The railway has been important, not just because of the NUR connection, it was also, I guess, one of the reasons why the Crittall factory and its extension were built, just next to the railway station, 120, 100 or 200 yards up the road, and so it was important in that sense in terms of being a key industrial site. It was also a key factor in the ability of the town to sign an agreement with the old London County Council, inherited by the Greater London Council, because it was a good place, to which firms could contemplate re-locating to a newly expanded town, cause there was a very good rail connection.
And fourthly, and more recently, because Witham now has 8,000 commuters leaving the town every morning during the week – not all of them of course live in Witham – and therefore they have to drive into Witham, we now have this splendid commuter car park out the back there, and a key element in the funding, not of the local Party, but of the Constituency Party, is the existence of the railway, who provide the commuters, who provide the car parking fees, who provide the funding for the Constituency. So I think one needs to bear those things in mind, in talking about what Labour Party life has been like in Witham.
Before, what I want to do for the main part of my talk, is to investigate two main topics or themes. One is the political life of the Witham Labour Party, and the other is the social life of the Witham Labour Party. You can’t entirely divorce them, but it’s, I think, simpler to look at them separately. But before I do that, I’m just going to, if you like, give you a couple of cameos of events, of one event and one individual, which say something about the Party. The event is the very first item on the display boards, the grand demonstration that took place in 1926, at which Ramsay Macdonald and Ellen Wilkinson spoke. I guess that is the largest single political gathering, or indeed possibly the biggest single political event, that has ever taken place in Witham itself. There were 4,000 people there, which was equivalent to the population of the town. Now clearly this doesn’t mean that every, every house in Witham was deserted, whilst everybody flocked to the Crittall’s site to listen to Ramsay Macdonald and Ellen Wilkinson. We know it doesn’t, because there was a very big newspaper report of that event. Now what that showed – cause it enumerated the local Labour Parties that were represented on the platform – what that showed was that there were representatives from Wanstead, Epping, Romford, Saffron Walden, Chelmsford, South-east Essex, Colchester and Harwich, in Essex. There were representatives from Ipswich, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds constituencies in Suffolk, and there was even one or more representatives from Dartford in Kent, and there’s no indication as to how he got there. But it is indicated that all the representatives, not all, but most of the representatives from all the other parts of Essex came here on special excursion trains organised by the London North Eastern Railway. And again, that was only possible because of the railways.
The meeting itself is reported as being a demonstration for the emancipation of the farmworker, and again there’s the agricultural significance at that time. The meeting was chaired by Valentine Crittall, of the Crittall company. He had been the constituency’s first Labour MP, and in fact, as I understand it, he was one of the two first Labour MPs in Essex outside the East Ham and West Ham areas. He was MP during the first Macdonald government, 1923-1924. And he chaired the meeting, and he spoke about the problems that were still plaguing industrial workers. He pointed out that the first Labour government had introduced an Agricultural Wages Board, and that this had enabled agricultural wages to reach the level of thirty shillings a week. But he also cited the instance of the new sugar beet factory that had just been set up outside Felsted – a few miles from here on the A120, off the A120 – where there were notices on the gates saying that no employment applications would be accepted from farmworkers, and that anybody who gained employment, and was then found to have been a farmworker, would be immediately dismissed. And of course the reason for that was that the farmworkers [probably meaning farmers] did not want competition for their labour by a factory paying higher wages. And so they simply declined to recruit farmworkers, in order to keep the farmworker, to keep the farmers, happy and content. So this was I say, an area in which, at that date, farming issues were very crucial. Now, over the decades that have succeeded, that’s become less and less significant, although I think no MP here, Labour or Conservative, has ever felt able entirely to ignore agricultural issues. And certainly our most recent Labour MP, Alan Hurst, was assiduous in maintaining good relationships with both sides of the farming industry, both farmers and farmworkers. So that’s one cameo, one little set piece.
The other one is about an individual, and he’s also on the display boards, and that’s a man called Ebenezer Smith, who is now commemorated by a small cul-de-sac of Council houses called Ebenezer Close. Ebenezer Smith was born in Sible Hedingham in 1900, and went on the railways at the age of about thirteen. He worked down in Thorpe le Soken, he worked on the Ipswich to Felixstowe line. He wasn’t born in 1900, that’s when he came to Witham, he was born in 1871. In 1900 he came to Witham, and eventually became a signalman. In those days there were twelve signalmen in Witham, which, given that nowadays the whole thing seems to be run automatically from Liverpool Street – which probably isn’t, strictly speaking, accurate, but you know what I mean – given that there were twelve signalmen, that indicates the size of the railway labour force in Witham. He became Treasurer of the local branch of the NUR in 1913, so he’d obviously got himself involved in Labour politics, from the Union side at least. In 1920 he became the first Labour councillor on Witham Urban District Council, and he recorded in later years that when he first joined the Council, he felt quite isolated, he felt himself an outsider. And there’s this lovely description that he gave, which is that when he first arrived on the Council, he felt that his first name should have been Ishmael rather than Ebenezer, ‘for everybody’s hand was against me’. Now, as time went on, that clearly changed. He became the first Labour chairman of Housing in 1924. He became Chairman of the Council in 1933, and he became the first Labour County Councillor in 1937. But even becoming a councillor on the District and then becoming a councillor on the County Council, was not entirely trouble-free. Because of the pattern of shift-work required by the railways, for operating the signalling systems, it sometimes meant that it was difficult to combine his shift work duties with attending Council meetings and other obligations. And there were occasions, it seems, when he had to go 48 hours without sleep, in order to fit everything in, and be in the right place at the right time. When he first stood for the County Council, it was at a by-election in the Coggeshall Division, next door to Witham, in 1936, and he lost by only twenty-one votes, and the Constituency Annual Report makes this sad comment, which is clearly symptomatic of the sort of problems that a candidate like Ebenezer Smith and Labour colleagues would have had. ‘Mr Smith was defeated by only twenty-one votes. As more than enough persons to turn the scale were booked to be fetched in the evening, one more car for the last two hours would have turned defeat into victory.’ And it then goes on to say ‘Mr Smith had the galling experience after the declaration of the poll, of calling upon persons to apologise for his inability to fulfil his promise to arrange their conveyance to the poll’. And then, getting slightly sterner, ‘In the opinion of the Divisional Executive, the response to the appeal for the use of cars on polling day was unsatisfactory. The Committee would urge members able to assist with cars to attach more importance to local elections.’ Now obviously that stern warning had its effect, because the following year, when the whole County Council came up for election, Ebenezer Smith won the Witham Division by seventeen votes. Clearly Witham Labour Party motorists had heeded the call. [laughter] He stayed on the County Council and the District Council until his death in 1946, and he lived just long enough to see the emergence of the first Labour majority on the Witham Urban District Council, and had he lived a few months longer, he would have seen the first Labour majority on the County Council. But he seems to me one of the key pioneers in Local Authority politics in Witham. And so I just start with that unique event and that perhaps unique individual, as key elements of the jig-saw of Labour politics in Witham.
Let me turn now to the two themes, the political life and the social life of the Party. For the political life, I want to treat it in terms of local and national politics. And certainly in terms of the minute books, I suppose it’s not surprising that it’s the local politics that loom largest, because national politics tends to be reflected in decisions about resolutions or decisions about donations or affiliations to particular organisations and campaigns, and there’s very rarely any indication of what the arguments were either way, on any of the issues involved. It’s simply a question of recording the resolution that was adopted or not adopted, or recording the name of the organisation and the amount of money involved in an affiliation or a donation. On the other hand, the coverage of local politics clearly does involve coming to a view on particular local issues, selecting local candidates, discussing campaign strategies. So the coverage is much clearer and fuller, for local issues. Let me say something then about local issues. The Urban District Council was controlled by the Labour Party from 1946 to 1950, from 1953 to 1967, and then again from 1971 to 1974, when Witham became part of the new larger Braintree District Council. So it’s that post-war period which was a period effectively of Labour dominance of local government. One key element in that transition from the days when Ebenezer Smith stood alone, to the days when there was a Labour majority, was the fact that in 1933, as I mentioned earlier, the Urban District was enlarged to include the neighbouring parish of Rivenhall, which, as well as the old village of Rivenhall, included the new model industrial village of Silver End, built around the Silver End factory, and that was a Labour stronghold. And that in effect meant that the way was then open for Labour to become increasingly represented on the Council, and eventually to dominate it for significant periods. From the point of view of the old Witham establishment, of course, what it meant was that the fate of the town, as they saw it, was now in the hands of outsiders, these people from Silver End, with their distressingly Labour-inclined habits. And that in a sense was replicated thirty to forty years onwards with the implementation of the Town Expansion agreement with the LCC and the GLC, where the then formally and outwardly Conservative local establishment in the town itself, saw the prospect of them being dominated by another crowd of Labour outsiders, but this time not from Silver End, but from London. And so there was quite a dogged rearguard action against that Town Expansion programme by those who could see that it had political implications. I think it might be fair to say that the local Labour Party could see exactly the same picture, but interpreted it in a slightly more benign fashion.
What were the key issues of local Labour politics. Well, in the 1928 election, Ebenezer Smith identifies four key issues which he thinks are important, water, sewerage, street-lighting and housing. Now, you might perhaps think that well, surely water and sewerage were solved sometime in the 19th century, to which I suppose the answer is, ‘Well, not in Witham.’ That’s probably putting it slightly too crudely, but there was a constant struggle to get adequate and reliable and pleasantly-tasting water supplies available to everybody in Witham, and there was a constant battle to get adequate sewerage and drainage.
I mean, Janet in her book quotes one nice comment by a local big-wig who was opposed to all this spending money on sewerage – he said that if people were falling ill, it was nothing to do with the drains, it was a visitation of God’. [laughter] Which is a bit like the famous Times editorial complaining about the Public Health Act in 1848, that ‘We refuse to be bullied into good health’. [laughter] However, the business about street lighting is interesting, because the Council, in 1921 [chat about cough], the Town Council did consider the question of street lighting. They came to the conclusion that street lighting was actually only needed at dangerous junctions and dangerous corners, and that therefore a total of sixteen would suffice for the entire town. That became a constant struggle, and I think it is significant that in one of the election addresses that’s up on the display board, it actually says, recounting Labour’s post-war achievements, that ‘By the end of this year’, whichever it was, ‘by the end of this year, all streets in the town will at last be fully lighted, and moreover, it has been said in the national press that Witham’s main street is the most brightly lit one mile in the country’. Victory at last.
Housing has been a perennial theme, in particular the need for affordable housing for working class families. Increasingly, though, it would seem that housing itself, although crucial, was not the only issue. The other issue was employment. And from the mid to late 1930s onwards, there’s a constant emphasis on the need for bringing employment into Witham to provide new jobs. And that desire for housing, and that desire for new housing and new jobs was clearly one of the concerns that fed into the development of the Town Expansion scheme, whereby people could come from London with houses and jobs, and where the jobs, in due course of course, would generate more growth, and the local labour market would be stimulated. And so if you look at the election addresses from the ‘30s through to the ‘60s and the ‘70s, they’re basically all about planned growth of the town, more housing, more jobs, then increasingly, more social amenities, and right in the very last election for the old Urban District Council in 1972, there’s an interesting pointer to the future, about the emergence of ‘green’ issues as we would now call them, because there begins to be a concern about land-fill, about the need to pulverise refuse to reduce its volume, about the need wherever possible to use materials that can be recycled, and about the difficulties of disposing of bulk refuse. And that’s the first glimmering of the sort of issues which now increasingly dominate local government. But for most of this period, it’s housing and jobs, facilities and amenities, planned expansion of the town. And as I said, that planned expansion of the town was quite ferociously controversial, because it went against the interests of quite a lot, not necessarily the material interests, but the social, cultural, and psychological interests of much of the local elite. It has to be said there were some intelligent Tories who were ready to go along with town expansion, because they knew that it would have implications for retail trade and associated commercial enterprises. So eventually you got a split within the local establishment, between those who were willing to accept change because they could see that there was a profit in it, putting it crudely, and those who resisted it because, I guess in a sense, it contradicted their image, not only of their town, but of themselves as inhabitants of the town.
But it was a losing battle, and in the end a Town Development agreement was signed in 1963, and interestingly enough, the Labour councillor who signed that was a councillor called Ted Smith, and I’ve often thought that if I was to give talk a subtitle, it would ‘from Ebenezer Smith to Ted Smith’, from the man who started it off, to the man who saw it finished. That’s a bit of an oversimplification.
What about other local political issues? The ones that came up at Party meetings, that were brought in, as it were, by members of the Party with particular concerns, were almost all about housing. They were about housing allocations, they were about Council house rents, particularly for elderly people’s bungalows, they were about the need to modernise particular generations of housing. Initially it was about the need to modernise pre-war Council housing, because some had been started in the 1930s. Then, subsequent to that, once that had begun to be addressed, it was next a question of the need to modernise Council housing built before 1960. So you can see a sort of wave of concern at the need to modernise successive stages of Local Authority housing.
The other recurring theme, and this starts in the ‘30s and runs right through the minute books, and I suppose you can argue that it runs through the entire history of the Labour party, is about the relationship between the local Party members and their branches, and the elected representatives on the Council, or in Parliament. And essentially, it’s a series of complaints that Party councillors are getting out of touch with Party members, because they’re not attending branch meetings. And this comes up again and again and again. There’s one occasion when a particular councillor is called to account to the extent where he agrees to attend a prescribed 75 per cent of Labour Group meetings, and a prescribed 50 per cent of Labour Party branch meetings. And presumably this must have cleared his account, as it were, because a couple of meetings later he’s being invited to chair a public meeting addressed by Bessie Braddock. So presumably he is back in good favour, having been invited to conduct this affair, which presumably was an affair of some prestige. But even then, the matter never goes away, and in 1964 there is a very stern resolution passed by the Witham branch. ‘To all councillors. By unanimous decision of this Party, it has been considered necessary this memorandum be sent, to call attention to the considerable lack of attendance at both Executive and General Party meetings. It is felt that the business of the Party is being neglected, and that the duty which councillors owe to it is being overlooked.’ I won’t go on, but you get the general flavour. And this is sent to all the Labour councillors on the Council. One councillor objected to this, and I won’t identify him by name, but the councillor, at the next branch meeting, ‘raised the question of a letter he had received from the Party’, and felt rather annoyed at receiving this letter, because not only was he doing Council work, he was also the Club Treasurer, and he had very little free time at all, and if the Party was getting at a certain councillor, they should come out and say so in the open, and not get at all the councillors, who are doing the best for, doing their job to the best of their ability’. Now having said that, and having got it recorded in the minutes, everything seems to have been sweetness and light, because the minutes then go on to say, that ‘a constructive and useful discussion followed’. And there’s no indication there, or in subsequent minutes, whether the problem was ever resolved. And I do seem to recollect that the problem did tend to continue into the new Braintree District Council in subsequent years. And I suspect there’s always going to be an endemic tension between the demands of being an elected representative, and the demands of being a local Party activist.
What about national politics? Nationally, the Party locally, certainly in Witham, tended to follow what I suppose you could call a Tribune line.
It was against nuclear weapons, it was against German rearmament, it was in favour of Nye Bevan rather than Hugh Gaitskell. There’s a poignant period element there, that in 1960 and then in 1962, both Bevan and then Gaitskell fell seriously ill, as we now know fatally ill. And in each case the local Party decided to send a message wishing both of them a full and speedy recovery, and to do it by sending a telegram. I just though to myself, ‘that takes you back’. But of course, unfortunately in both cases that was of no avail. There were resolutions, obviously opposing apartheid, opposing the Common Market. There were affiliations to, or donations to, various organisations including donations to a couple of strike funds, one in Liverpool and one a national strike. There was a strange event, whereby although they’d consistently supported opposition to nuclear weapons, they declined to make a donation to CND. There’s no indication as to why that was. There was another curious event where, although they constantly supported opposition to apartheid, they weren’t willing to give a donation to the South African Aid and Development, Aid and Defence fund, because the Constituency had already donated £100 and they thought that was ‘quite enough’. Now, true, they didn’t have much money themselves, and they might reasonably have supposed that if the Constituency could afford £100, then they shouldn’t feel obliged to chip in themselves.
I think I’ve said enough about national events and local events politically. Let me just move on to the question of social events. There was a quite remarkable of social activity taking place. Not only in the branch itself through its Social Committee, but also through the Women’s Section, and also through the Youth Section, and then subsequently of course, once the Hall was built, the Constituency Party had its own Club Committee, whose basis was here, and which in effect, as far as Witham was concerned, replaced the old local branch Social Committee. I’ll just run through one or two things. The period immediately after the War saw a great flourishing of young Labour activity. A Labour Youth Club was set up in 1948, and ran very successfully through to the mid-1950s. They had an enormous great mixture of social, educational and political activities. One year they had a Sports Day on the Recreation field, with 100-yard races, 200-yard races, 100-yard walk, skipping races, high jump, low jump, tug-of-war, relay, throwing the cricket ball. They had a competitive element, because the Club was divided into two houses, Attlee and Morrison [laughter], so there was a real bit of competition. (John Kotz: That was competition anyway, wasn’t it.) Yes, it was indeed, yes. And there’s a lovely aside in one set of minutes of an AGM, where it says ‘At this point, four points were deducted from Attlee for misbehaviour’. [laughter] Two things strike me there: the notion of Attlee ever misbehaving is one [laughter], and of course that, deducting four points is not a sanction that the Speaker of the House of Commons exercises. Maybe the House of Commons would be better behaved if the Speaker could deduct points from time to time.
But there was a whole range of activities carried out by the Witham Labour Youth Club, some of which, as I said, are shown on the boards of there. The Women’s Section had a quite crucial role in social activities. A key element in the Witham social programme was the annual fish and chip supper, which certainly dominated the ‘60s and ‘70s as the social event of the year. And it was largely organised by the women. But every year there was a debate, or possibly a series of debates, over the actual organisation of this event. There were key issues that inevitably, people – I don’t know about inevitably, but invariably – people got bound up with. How many people should we expect, what was the minimum number of tickets to make it worth-while, what was the maximum number we could accommodate? What was the price, should there be reduced tickets, if so at what price and for whom?
Clearly the menu was going to be fish and chips, because it was a fish and chip supper. But which fish and chip shop did we get them from? Did we get them from the man who had a van and could come down here and, as it were, heat them up on the premises? But some people though they didn’t really like his fish and chips, they preferred the other bloke who didn’t have a van, but that meant we had to send someone to collect them. There was the question of what to have in addition to the fish and chips. Roll and butter, dessert? What about drinks? Beer for the men, glass of wine for the women, soft drinks for the kids? Was there to be floral decoration? Was there to be a top table, if so who would be on it, who was the speaker going to be? What did we do about people who wanted to come to the dance afterwards, but didn’t want to come to the meal? And, often very contentious, what did we do about the press? Did we send them a report, or did we invite reporters from the two local newspapers, and if we did invite the reporters from the two local newspapers, did we actually have to give them a free meal? [laughter] And, participating in some of these debates, I know I wasn’t alone in this, because I know other members of Witham branch at the time, who found this fascinating, each time it was if we’d never had a fish and chip supper before. [laughter] And we were having to start the whole thing from scratch.
There’s another, sorry, I’m running out of time … (Audience member: Should we have a raffle?) [laughter] Ah, raffles, raffles. You’ve reminded me of something. There’s a lovely passage in the minutes of the Labour Youth Club, about an event, a social event. As most of them did, it ended with a raffle, and it says ‘This evening the raffle prize was presented by Mrs E Mawdsley, and there was nearly a riot when it was won by Mr E Mawdsley. [laughter] [Later, during the questions, Ted Mawdsley, from the audience, assured us he had given the prize back] The other event I was going to talk about was that they had dances and dances galore. And there’s a lovely set of instructions about how to organise the dance down at the Public Hall. You needed eight women for the cloakroom, you needed six women for the refreshments, you needed one woman for the soft drinks. Mr and Mrs Bentley’s new piano would be provided by them for free, it was agreed that the Branch would re-tune it after it had been used, it would be transported both ways by pantechnicon. It was agreed that, rather than providing the band with a drink during the interval, the Chairman of the branch would take the band to the Spread Eagle and buy them one round at the Party’s expense. [laughter] You see there was this very vibrant social life alongside a very active political life.
And I’ll draw to a close now, because I just want to say something very briefly about, was all this usual, was it normal? Well, it’s only recent, in the last decade or two that there’ve been a lot of studies of local Party branches, but in the middle of the period we’re looking at, in the 1950s, there were two major studies done of Labour Party branches in Greater Manchester and South Wales. And both of them came to very similar conclusions, and I’ll just read you one or two extracts from their conclusions and you can see, I think, the way in which what was going on in Witham was not all that different from what was going on elsewhere. One of them said ‘Between elections, people attend Party meetings rather as they would go to a club, to meet their friends and discuss the business of running the club. Their interest turns to politics only when this is forced upon them by local conditions, or by a group of more enthusiastic members. Local Labour parties are social rather than political organisations, particularly in districts where the Party seems assured of a majority’. And they go on to say ‘Many of the Ward Party’s activities are social rather than political, and monthly meetings often have a similar character. There’s often little space on the agenda for anything but business, and business items are frequently non-political’. And I think that does ring a bell in many ways. But I think that there’s one, perhaps one thing we need always to remember when looking back this, as I said at the beginning, the minutes weren’t written for our benefit, and the things they did weren’t, in a sense, being done for our benefit, and it’s always possible, as I’ve done, to identify extracts from the minutes which provoke a wry nod of recognition, or a bit of a chuckle here or there.
But of course, what we have to remember is that, just as they didn’t write the minutes for our benefit, we’re reading their minutes with the benefit of hindsight. And a great historian once said what we should always guard against, is what he called ‘the condescension of posterity’. We should always remember that we are now in the same position that they were, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty years ago. They’re dealing with their problems in the best way they know how, at that time, and we’re doing the same. And if at some point in fifty years time somebody comes to look at what the Essex County Labour Party got up to, I’m sure they will find it equally interesting, sometimes a bit puzzling, but I hope, always enjoyable.