The Labour Party has a rich history in what is now the Kingston and Surbiton constituency. H G Reynolds was Mayor of Surbiton, and his son, Doug Reynolds, was Mayor of Kingston. Ed Naylor is also an ex-Mayor.
The following text, from a pamphlet written by H G Reynolds in 1948, highlights some of the Labour Party’s history in the area. The date ‘Saturday 3 July’, for an event advertised on the back page of the pamphlet, shows that this must have been published in the first half of 1948. The Labour Government was in power from 1945-51.
My Confession of Faith: Why I support the Labour Party
by Alderman H. G. Reynolds JP, 1948
Many times during my life I have been asked why I give support and allegiance to the principles and policy of the Labour Party. I am reaching three score years and feel impelled to write of those things which influenced me in my early days and have strengthened my faith in the Socialist Movement during my forty years service, in the hope that others may appreciate the deep fundamental reasons which cause many of us to accept the principles of the economic system it advocates. Some who read my story may think I place too much emphasis on the severe poverty which was so prevalent until a few years ago. To this I reply that it is impossible to raise a nation of healthy men and women, with a keen intellect and spiritual outlook if they are reared in slums, and all their energy has to be spent in procuring barely sufficient food and shelter to keep body and soul together.
I commenced my studies of the subject when I came into contact with two office colleagues who were convinced Socialists. They persuaded me to read such books as Blatchford’s Britain for the British and Merrie England, Morris’s News From Nowhere and Bellamy’s Looking Backward. There followed attendance at classes at the London School Of Economics and Morley College, where I studied Economics, Industrial History and kindred subjects.
During the course of these studies I learned not of Kings and Queens, but of the conditions of the common people who were exploited by those who held the reins of absolute power, particularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
My first recollections are of learning of the Commons Enclosure Acts, which I have always considered the most unjust of all Acts of Parliament, for they legalised the stealing of the common lands from the people. Between 1760 and 1880 no less than 10 million acres were transferred to private owners for their own use and profit. The Acts were passed by a landlord House of Commons and they robbed the rural population of free grazing rights, firewood, turf for fuel, and food in the form of rabbit and wild fruits. Hardly a voice was raised in Parliament against the proposals to deprive people of birthrights they had held for nearly l,000 years. Many of these acres were eventually used for the further exploitation of the workers, and I often wonder how much the people have had to pay through the local authorities and Parliament for purchase of the land when required for public purposes.
It was argued at the time that the land would be used to better advantage and more skilfully cultivated. That may have been true to some extent, but it did not give those who took the land the moral right of ownership without payment or obligations of any kind.
These enclosures reduced the standard of living of agricultural workers, and were some of the chief causes of the revolt which swept through the countryside about 1830. It was also about this time that efforts were made to reduce the wage of farm workers. In the Tolpuddle district of Dorset the reductions were from 10/- to 8/- per week. This was deeply resented, and the men decided to form an Agricultural Labourers’ Friendly Society to protect their interests. One, named George Loveless, was their leader, but he and five others were arrested, tried, and deported to Australia for seven years for organising themselves in such a manner. They became known as the “Tolpuddle Martyrs”, but they were the pioneers of the Trade Union Movement, which now has over eight million members. It is a force to be reckoned with and one with which I am proud to be actively associated.
I learned, too, of conditions in the factories, which, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were changing from hand power to steam-driven mechanical power.
In those days there was no protective legislation and consequently the workers were exploited in a way that very few people realise today. Children as young as five years of age were employed up to fourteen hours a day in cotton mills, and if they dared to fall asleep were wakened by a bucket of cold water. Their wages were in the region of 4/- per week, less deductions, whilst adult factory workers received from 10/- to 18/- per week. To read the life of Robert Owen is to get an insight into conditions of life and work that seem almost incredible in these more enlightened days, though it must not be overlooked that the improvements have only been obtained as a result of the organised efforts of the workers themselves.
Conditions in the mines, too, were intolerable, for there were no safety regulations and inspections, and as late as 1842 a Royal Commission disclosed the fact that children of both sexes, from five years of age, worked underground for 16 hours at a stretch. My own wife’s father worked in a Derbyshire mine at eight years of age, pushing a truck in a low gallery with his head. Most of the men received about 12/-, although it is on record that some had as much as 15/- per week! Here again it was not until the men became organised that their conditions improved, though considerable benefit came from the protective legislation which Parliament was compelled to pass in 1850 through the growth of public sympathy for the miners.
In case it may be said that the cost of living was very much lower in those days, let me quote the price of certain foodstuffs from the Sixth Report of the Medical Officer of Health of the Privy Council, 1863:
|Flour||2d. per lb.|
|Sugar||4d. to 5d. per lb.|
|Butter (Salt)||10d. to l/- per lb.|
|Cheese||8d. to l0d. per lb.|
|Milk||1d. to 1½d. per pint|
|Tea||14/- per lb.|
Moreover, Dr. E. Smith, commenting in the same Report on the results of his enquiry into “The Food of the Poorer Labouring Classes in England”, writes:
l. No class under enquiry exhibited a high degree of health.
2. The average quantity of food supplied was too little for health and strength.
Of weavers in particular he reported: “He is always a poor man, ill fed, ill clad, and without provision for the future.”
I could go on writing of the conditions which workers in other industries were compelled to accept in the nineteenth century. For example, a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which investigated the conditions of railwaymen, revealed numerous cases of excessive hours, the average being 18 per day, and many engine drivers worked anything from 26 to 48 hours with only 22 minutes’ rest. As proof of the effect these bad conditions had on the workers, or “labourers” as they are referred to in Official Reports, it is recorded that in Leeds “gentlemen” lived for an average of 44 years and “labourers” 19; in Liverpool, 35 and 15 ; whilst in York during the years 1839-41, the average age for “gentry and professional persons and their families” was 48.6, for “tradesmen and their families” 30.8 and for “labourers and their families” 23.8. (These figures were taken from a Report of the Commissioners for Inquiry into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts and obviously include mortality rates at all ages.)
Coincident with the struggle for better wages and conditions in factory, mine and workshop was the struggle for political freedom and the right to take part in the election of those who governed the country through the House of Commons. In this connection my mind immediately goes back to the Peterloo Massacre, and the vivid impression it made on me when it first came to my notice. It happened at St. Peter’s Fields in Lancashire in 1819, where thousands of peaceful citizens with their wives and families staged a demonstration to demand Universal Suffrage and voting by secret ballot. The meeting had barely started when a body of Manchester Yeomanry came into the field and charged upon the multitude, sword in hand, without warning of any kind. Men, women and children were cut down and trampled underfoot, and all this because they dared to ask for a voice in the government of their country.
The foregoing are the historical factors which caused me to join the Independent Labour Party, my first political association, but I became conversant with the poverty which existed in the Tooting area in 1930, where I resided as a young man. At that time children who were in need could receive a free breakfast on school days, but nothing was provided on Sundays, so a number of us started a fund in order to remedy this deficiency. Every Sunday morning at eight o’clock in the winter months we gave every child who came along a free breakfast of cocoa, bread and dripping or jam. Not a very attractive meal, but we used to feed about 400. Many of them had no footwear, and all were badly clad, yet they would line up on a cold winter’s morning to secure this plain but plentiful meal.
In my own industry, my fellow clerks and I were beginning to organise for the purpose of securing something more than the Rai1way Companies in those days were prepared to pay. Progress was slow and my experiences and outlook resulted in my work for the Railway Clerks’ Association.
Then came the 1914-1918 war, followed by a brief period of prosperity the prelude to the industrial depression which millions, of workers remember today with bitterness. The crisis came in May, 1926, when the miners were locked out because they would not accept yet another reduction in wages. Coal face workers in Durham were expected to suffer a reduction from 9/8 to 6/10 per shift; in Northumberland from 10/4 to 7/7; and South Wales 9/9 to 7/2. It is estimated that 1½ million workers came out on strike in sympathy, including many members of my own Association, and I, personally, took an active and prominent part in Kingston and district, as a member of the Local Trades Council. Unfortunately we had to return to work without securing the object for which we had struck. The miners stayed out for another seven months, but in the end were compelled by starvation to accept the employers’ terms.
After this tragedy the conditions of the workers gradually became worse, unemployment grew to enormous proportions, and wages and salaries were reduced irrespective of the cost of living. Between 1929 and 1932, unemployment increased from 1,281,000 to 2 ,757,000 and it was thus an easy task for employers to reduce wages.
It is true that Unemployment pay somewhat eased the situation, but long periods of unemployment demoralised the men and women for they could not live a decent life on the amounts they received. They felt that they were not wanted, and had no place in the scheme of things. To have no useful work to perform demoralises men whether they are classed as the “upper ten” or the “submerged tenth”. These conditions particularly affected the young men of those days who found themselves out of work at the most impressionable period of their 1ives, and the bitterness and ill feeling which was engendered during those years is the main reason, in my opinion, why the workers are now driving hard bargains with employers now that labour is in short supply. Who can blame them when their life has consisted of a long period of unemployment, a few years in unskilled work, then another five or six in the Army? One cannot build a contented, balanced population on such a basis, and when the first election took place after the war the workers returned a Labour Government to power because they wanted something better than they had hitherto had.
I share their views, for it is to this end that I have been actively associated with the Trade Union and Labour Movement all my adult life.
This article my be sketchy and lacking in detail, but it gives my reasons for upholding the principles and policy of the Labour Party against all others. I am aware that the outlook of the younger generation of Conservatives, as exemplified in their “Industrial Charter”, is in advance of that of their older colleagues, but whilst they are prepared to “ease the harness a little”, they do not intend to “get off the workers’ backs”, and whilst I have seen many improvements in the social conditions of the workers, using the word in its widest sense, they have only been secured by the growth of public opinion and the strong pressure brought to bear on employers by the Trade Unions, and the increase of Labour Representation in the House of Commons and on Local Authorities.
Today we have a Labour Government in power for the first time. They have taken over at a very difficult period, and it may be they have made mistakes, but the fundamental motive behind their policy is that they are legislating for the good of the people as a whole and not for that small section who benefit as a result of industry and commerce being run for profit and not for service. One has only to read the history of the mining industry to appreciate this point most clearly. Too many small mines with great barriers of coal left to divide the property of each owner, inefficient and out-of-date machinery because manpower was cheaper, the best seams sweated without regard for future development in order to get the bigger return at once on invested capital. These are only some of the charges that can be levelled at private ownership of the mines.
My time is running out, but it is a source of joy to me to know that the children of today have far better opportunity of growing into healthy and decent men and women than they have had in the past, and if this improvement continues we shall yet see that “New Jerusalem” for which we have worked for so many years.
Finally, may I hope that some who read this will appreciate that the motives behind many supporters of the Labour Party are spiritual and that our desire is to build a nation of happy men and women. I want no economic or political system, however perfect, that does not give to me, and to all men and women, the right to say what I think, the right to associate with my fellows for any purpose other than to overthrow the State by force of arms, and, above all, a free and democratic form of government in which each and every one of us has the right to support any man we think fit for any office in the service of the State. I would rather have a lower standard of living and go hungry to bed than lose those freedoms which we have fought for and secured over the ages, and which give a spiritual background to our lives. All of these rights are denied to those who are so unfortunate as to live in a totalitarian state. May this country for ever be free from such a dictatorship.
Alderman H. G. Reynolds, J.P., Member Railway Clerks’ Association, Surbiton Borough Council and Kingston County Bench.