Monday, 2 July 2012

Michael Davitt, Labour and the Irish question - John Dunleavy


How Accrington may have had one of the first Socialist MP's in the House of Commons .. and how Michael Davitt, the first MP from the constituency (Baxenden/Haslingden) to be elected to the House of Commons (in a seat in the Republic of Ireland).

Among the numerous causes espoused by Michael Davitt (1846-1906) - leaving aside his lifelong commitment to Irish freedom - none claimed as much of his time and energies as the labour issue. He deserves to be remembered as a thinker, writer and activist promoting the welfare of labour not only in Britain and his native Ireland, but also in north America and Australasia. More than fifty years ago the late Professor TW Moody, then engaged on the task of writing the biography of the Land League’s founder, presented a paper to the Royal Historical Society dealing with Davitt’s contribution to the British labour movement. Since that time historians have focused increasingly on the development of labour as an industrial and political phenomenon, so the time seems ripe to explore further the role of Davitt as a labour advocate.[I]


A by-election in the Lancashire constituency of Accrington in 1893 throws valuable light on Davitt’s contribution to labour politics. In December of that year Joseph Francis Leese, (Liberal) Member of Parliament for Accrington, was appointed Recorder of Manchester, an office of profit under the crown. The Conservatives, still smarting from the loss of the seat in the previous year, promptly announced they would challenge Leese at a by-election, nominating Robert Trotter Hermon Hodge the former Conservative MP who had lost in 1892 as their candidate. What looked set to be a straight Conservative/Liberal contest was upset when a third candidate, Andrew Garey Wolfe, announced he would stand as an independent socialist candidate. Both sides, though primarily the Liberals, according to The Times, were agitated at this development, since labour had secured a thousand votes at the recent local council elections and appeared to hold the balance. Accrington voters braced themselves for a short but lively contest between the two major parties and the little-known man put forward by the embryo labour movement.[2]


Labour in the 1890s bears little resemblance to the present movement. This was still the time when many men did not have the franchise, while women were denied the vote in parliamentary elections. The electorate had grown steadily during the century, thanks to the reform acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, yet the number of working men gaining election to public bodies was still minimal. Apart from the lack of an adequate income (salaries for MPs were still in the future) there was clearly prejudice against wage-earners with little education seeking public office. Both the main parties paid lip service to ‘labour men’ in their ranks, though were reluctant to nominate them as parliamentary candidates. The miners’ MPs, representing some of the coal districts, were an exception. At local level labour had made some headway, and there were already a number of worker magistrates, but dissatisfaction with this state of affairs was manifested by the appearance of several avowedly labour societies in this period. The Democratic Federation (the future Social Democratic Federation) was formed in 1881, to be followed by the Fabian Society, and the Independent Labour Party early in 1893~ Parallel with this progress was-the growth of trade -unions, notably among the semi-skilled, and the appearance of trades councils. Yet labour had still not produced an agreed programme, had no spokesmen enjoying national status, and lacked the financial resources enjoyed by the two main parties.[3]

Michael Davitt had achieved national status during the period of the land war in Ireland. Between 1879 and his arrest and imprisonment two years later, he was rarely out of the news as the founder and moving spirit behind the Irish Land League. As a Land Leaguer he demonstrated the effectiveness of mobilising the masses in order to realise political and social change. British power, and that of the landlords in Ireland, were shaken as never before, and set that country on the path to freedom. Yet after his release from prison in 1882 his dismay at Parnell’s decision to make Home Rule the priority of the nationalist movement led Davitt to devote his energies to other causes. The land reformer would never again occupy a centre stage position in public life. Yet unlike many of the Irish nationalists given his experience of living and working in Britain Davitt was not only an acute observer of the aspirations of workers here but was able to articulate their grievances. What is more, as a former revolutionary committed to physical force, he appreciated earlier than many of his contemporaries that the power of the ballot box had displaced the old ways of the Fenians. If only the voting power of the Irish agricultural worker could be harnessed alongside that of the industrial workers of Britain - what he termed the democracy - then great reforms could be effected in these islands.[4]

He had welcomed the extension of the franchise in 1884 and the upsurge in the industrial and political organisation of labour. The Liberal Party’s so-called Newcastle programme of 1891 with its provision for workmen’s compensation earned his approbation. He had used his influence to persuade the Home Rule party to adopt labour parliamentary candidates in Ireland, two of whom were elected in 1892. He had an acquaintanceship with Keir Hardie dating back to the early I880s, and became a firm friend of John Burns, both of whom were elected as MPs in the Labour interest in 1892. When labour held its first May Day celebration in London in 1890, Davitt was among the main speakers. Finally, to demonstrate his commitment to the labour cause, Davitt became the founder-editor of a weekly journal, The Labour World, in 1890.[5]

Yet while Davitt had been proclaiming his commitment to the principle of a labour party, he was not convinced it was yet a practical proposition. This had brought him into conflict with Keir Hardie-the two men would be estranged for some years on the question of tactics - and they were still at loggerheads in 1893, as is indicated by the readiness of local socialists in Accrington to field a candidate against Leese and Hodge. It was at this point that Leese approached Davitt, urging him to come to Accrington, and help head off the threat posed by labour. In his journal for 12 December 1893, Davitt wrote:

Letter from Leese Lib[eral] Com[mitte] Accrington asking me to go over & help him. Promised start tomorrow.’ [6] For him this was familiar territory, Davitt having been brought to the neighbouring town of Haslingden as a boy of four. He was working in a cotton mill at Baxenden (part of the Accrington constituency) at age of eleven when he was involved in a machinery accident that led to the amputation of his right arm. The Davitt family resided for twenty years in Haslingden. Davitt not only gained Industrial experience there but also benefited greatly from being educated at the Wesleyan day school and the Mechanics’ Institute. He informed the local journal that he knew every foot of the district, and that while he remained a nationalist, he was interested more in what he termed ‘the great labour problem and Home Rule.’ The Irish Home Rule policy of the Liberals he considered to be ‘one of the greatest labour measures ever passed in the English Parliament.’ The same journal applauded what it termed Davitt’s ‘yeoman service’ to the Liberal party. [7]

Privately, Davitt confided to his journal that the contest would be a severe one, though he felt sure Leese would retain his seat. The issues, he felt, were labour first and foremost, followed by the House of Lords, with Home Rule coming third. The Irish claim to Home Rule he maintained needed to be explained to English voters as a measure that would benefit them. This was a theme he had been developing for some years. Five years previously he had told an Accrington audience that misrule in Ireland had been to the detriment of the rest of the United Kingdom. Famine, eviction and emigration had caused millions of Irish people to take refuge elsewhere, often in England, Wales and Scotland. Once there they competed in the labour market with the indigenous population, bringing down wages, frequently adding to the ranks of the destitute who in turn became a burden on the poor rate. Obliged to live in the poorer quarters of towns, the newcomers accounted for continuing high mortality rates.

During the by-election in answer to critics he defended his right to take an active part in the campaign, pointing out that it was there he had lost his arm in what he termed ‘the battle for industry’, and he had therefore a better claim to be there not only in the interests of the Irish cause, but in the far wider cause of labour. Home Rule, he continued, was, after all had been said and done, but ‘the Irish phase of the universal labour problem of the day.’[8]

‘The eyes of all England are now turned towards the Accrington Division’, readers of one local journal were informed. The contest attracted nationwide attention, since the Liberals having been returned to power in 1892 with a small majority could ill-afford to lose the seat. Their first major measure, what was often called the second Irish Home Rule bill, had been passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords. Two other bills dealing with employers’ liability and parish councils, were meeting stiff opposition in parliament. Some assumed the Liberals would reintroduce a home rule bill in the coming session, though how this could be realised given the overwhelming hostility of the Lords was not explained. Not Surprisingly Hodge complained the full nature of the Home Rule bill had never been explained to the voters, while Leese countered that the bill had been thoroughly exercised at the general elections of 1886 and 1892, and that the principle had been accepted by the majority of voters. Parliamentary obstruction, Leese declared, could only be overcome by curtailing the powers of the House of Lords. [9]

By a strange irony, interest in elections appears to have been more intense in the days when the country had a restricted franchise than is the case today. At least that is the impression given by a perusal of the columns of the contemporary press. Long, closely printed accounts are given of political meetings supplemented by ‘clips’ from the national press. And the devotees of politics appeared to be determined to enjoy themselves, most meetings being preceded by the singing of election songs for thirty minutes or so. While this ‘warm-up’ may have been welcomed by audiences on winter evenings, Davitt for one complained that the room temperatures were already high enough for him. Many of the meetings were held in local schools, with low ceilings and long benches designed for the seating of small children rather than adults. And that was not his only grumble: on his arrival in Accrington Davitt was informed all the hotel rooms bad been booked in advance by the Tories, so he was obliged to take a room at the less convenient Commercial Hotel at Church. Generally the meetings were conducted in a lively though orderly atmosphere, though a Liberal meeting at Church bad to be abandoned because a group of Tory rowdies determined to deny the speaker a hearing. [10]

There is no doubt the appearance of a socialist in the contest caused a quickening of the political pulse. The decision of local labourites to run Wolfe appeared to be a greater threat to the prospects of Leese rather than Hodge. In fact one Liberal complained that labour represented what he termed ‘an illegitimate opposition’, and that Labour men were nothing more than Liberals impatient of change who had gone astray. In the event the labour challenge failed to materialise. Dissensions among local labour members - not surprising when there were several groups claiming to speak for them - caused Wolfe to withdraw at an early stage. While he may have enjoyed some support among local Social Democrats and ILP members, a body calling itself the Accrington Labour Club/Accrington Divisional Labour Association declined to endorse Wolfe but came out in favour of Leese. Before leaving the scene, however, Wolfe made it clear tbat neither of the two main parties were likely to benefit labour. The landlords and capitalists, he declared, would not vote for their own destruction.

There was a need, he maintained, to educate workers as voters. Keir Hardie sent a printed appeal to Accrington voters, declaring: neither party is worthy of your confidence. Both are your bitter enemies. The Liberal hates you just as much as the Tory does ... show your contempt of them by following the fourth clause; i.e., by refusing to vote for either.

The practical reasons for Labour’s withdrawal were set out by Shaw Maxwell, secretary of the ILP. He pointed out the contest was likely to cost the party between £200 and £300, while the degree of local organisation was still in its infancy. The resources he felt could be better spent elsewhere.[II] The Leese camp was to receive a further boost before polling day from two valuable labour stalwarts. A welcome message of support came from Joseph Arch, MP, champion of the farm labourers, urging voters to back Leese; and John Burns, MP for Bermondsey, currently chairman of the parliamentary committee of the Trades Union Congress, was unreserved in endorsing Leese, deploring any suggestion that wage earners should abstain from voting. Such a negative attitude, he complained, made nonsense of the long struggle for the right to vote. [12]

If Davitt appealed to the labour vote it was assumed he was equally influential among the Irish community in del ivering the vote to Leese. This assumed that all Irish voted as one. Yet divisions among the Irish nationalist forces (estimated at 700 to 800 in the division) were still to be found, the effects of the ‘Parnell split’ had not entirely healed. No divisions among the local community surfaced during the campaign, though Hodge and his friends attempted to capitalise on anti-Irish sentiment by publishing extracts from some of Davitt’s earlier, more intemperate utterances. Davitt, it was suggested by his critics, was a sort of political chameleon, speaking with the voice of reason on English platforms, yet unrestrained when he was before an Irish audience. Among the (unattributed) ‘sayings’ appearing in a local Conservative journal, for instance, readers were informed: ‘He has two taps - mild in England, bitter in Ireland.’ And two violently anti-Davitt speakers were introduced into Accrington in the persons of Messrs Traill and W Copeland Trimble. The former tended to dwell on the unrest in Ireland during the period of the land war, suggesting that this is what could be expected should home rule ever become a reality.[13]

Privately Davitt speculated on the likely outcome. Aware that not all Englishmen were prepared to give a former Fenian a sympathetic hearing, be expressed concern at the tactics of the Conservatives, who relied heavily on canvassing and what he termed their dishonesty. ‘Their literature [which he conceded was well produced] ... is all of the suggestive fake character.’ Needless to state Davitt was depicted in this literature as a separatist, or one who would never be satisfied with Home Rule; and as a man still committed to the use of violence. In support of the latter his speech at Bodyke when he seemed to regret ever urging his fellow countrymen to forswear a resort to arms was trotted out yet again as evidence that he was really nothing more than a committed Fenian. Despite all this, Davitt on the eve of poll confidently predicted a victory for Leese, and with an increased majority. Yet he feared socialists and English Catholics were likely to give their votes to Hodge, and because of this a ‘narrow squeak ... may be the result.’ On polling day, Davitt was encouraged by a big turnout which he felt was likely to benefit Leese. When the result was announced some three hours after the booths had closed, the Liberal margin was just 258, fewer than half that of the previous year. Davitt was sure he knew whom to blame for this reduced majority: ‘Damn Socialists and English Catholics.’ [14]

While the appearance of labour, and the advice to abstain tendered by its leaders, may have affected the Liberal majority, the allusion to ‘English Catholics’ is harder to understand. Accrington, like so many of its neighbours was a town of mushroom growth, and among the newcomers were a great number of the Roman persuasion. Some of these were drawn from the western part of Lancashire, and were English, though the bulk of the congregation at the Sacred Heart bore Irish names. There had been an attempt during the election by the Conservatives posing as the champions of church schools to raise the education issue, and to depict their Liberal opponents as being in favour of secular schools under a local elected school board. Yet the Liberals had only been in power for a short time, and had as yet produced no proposals that would jeopardise the church schools. [15]

Davitt’s main source of income came from journalism, and over the next few years while never abandoning politics, he continued to demonstrate a commitment to the labour cause. On the organisational side for instance he was instrumental in the establishment of the Irish Trade Union Congress in 1894, and the Irish Land and Labour Association. Public speaking tours he found imposed a heavy strain, though in a bid to pay off his debts he agreed to undertake a lecture tour of Australasia, a long-cherished dream. Hence most of 1895 found him the Antipodes, visiting not only the Irish communities there but observing colonial institutions and customs. He was impressed by their successful management of their own affairs and the progress of democracy, in particular the success of the labour movement there in gaining access to representative bodies. If this could be achieved by Australians, why not by Britons and Irishmen who chose to stay at home? The necessity for wage-earners to seek election to public bodies was perhaps the major lesson Davitt imbibed and it was this that would inform his actions for the last decade of his life. In his absence he had been elected Member of Parliament for South Mayo and would serve in this role for four years. Another message he brought from Australia was to his fellow countrymen urging them to compose their internal differences. Support from the exiles would not be forthcoming so long as Irishmen at home continued their bickering, while the opponents of Home Rule at Westminster would continue to exploit these divisions. Davitt worked hard to heal these divisions and in 1900 had the satisfaction of seeing the formation of the United Irish League that superseded most of the other extra parliamentary organisations, and the acceptance by the Irish Parliamentary Party of John Redmond as leader.[16]

The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in Britain in 1900 heralded the arrival of a new force in politics. Davitt was acquainted with many of the leading figures in the movement and although he often had his differences with them he was drawn to this new body since to him it held out the best prospects for a constitutional solution to the Irish Question. Most Liberals (or at least those of the party’s Radical wing) he was satisfied, were committed to granting Home Rule while Labour, still untried and unlikely to displace either of the other parties for some time, could be relied on to support any measure for Irish self-government and - like Davitt - perceived Tory landlords as the common enemy. The 1906 general election found Davitt speaking on behalf of many of the Labour candidates, among them Keir Hardie, Ramsay Macdonald, George Bames and James O’Grady. It says much for the regard with which Davitt was held in nationalist and labour circles that he was able to ignore pre-election agreements made by the Liberals, Labour and the Irish Party. This accounts for his appearance on one platform supporting John Bums, elected originally in 1892 as a Labour MP, but now a cabinet minister in the Liberal government; while Henry Mayers Hyndman of the Social Democratic Federation, who had helped form the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, seceded in the following year on the grounds that Labour ought to be a class-based party. To Davitt all these candidates merited his active support since in his opinion they had all proved to be unswerving in their devotion to the Irish cause. As a result of this election Labour representation in the Commons rose to forty-nine (twenty-four Lib-Labs, the rest Labour Representation Committee men), indicating that it was now a force to he reckoned with. Davitt exulted in the outcome - the Liberals had been returned with an overwhelming majority - predicting there would be many more Labour representatives in years to come. Davitt would not live long enough to see this, or Ireland gain its freedom, for he died only a few months after the election. His contribution to the Labour cause had already been acknowledged at Labour’s election victory conference, when he was given a place of honour on the platform. A fitting tribute to a man who had done much to further the emancipation of labour and a tireless worker for Irish freedom. [17]

Notes
  1. TW Moody, ‘Micbael Davitt and the British labour Movement, 1882-1906,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Ser., Vo!. Ill, 1953, pp. 53-76.
  2. Michael Stenton & Stephen Lees (eds), Who’s who of British Members of Parliament, Vo/. 11, 1886-1918, pp. 213-14 and 169. The Clarion, 16 Dec. 1893.
  3. WT Rodgers and Bernard Donoughue, The people into parliament: a concise history 0 fthe labour movement in Britain, New York, 1966,passim.
  4. TW Moody, Davit! and Irish revolution, Oxford, 1981, passim. Carla King, Michael Davitt, Dublin, 1999.
  5. 5 B O’Hara, Davitt, Castlebar, Mayo, 1906, pp. 98-100. The Times, 5 May 1890.
  6. TCD Davitt Ms 9554. Journal, 12 Dec. 1893.
  7. J Dunleavy, Davitt’s Haslingden, Haslingden, 2006, passim. Accrington Observer & Times (hereafter AOT), 16 Dec. 1893. The Liberal government’s Home Rule Bill passed the Commons in 1893, but it had been rejected by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords.
  8. Journal, 13 Dec. 1893. Accrington Times, 29 Sept. 1888. AOT, 13 Dec. 1893. Davitt’s arguments for Home Rule had been set out in a pamphlet, Reasons why home rule should be granted to Ireland: an appeal to the common sense of the British democracy, London, 1886.
  9. Haslingden Guardian, 16 Dec. 1893. AOT, 13 Dec. 1893. Accrington Gazette, 9, 13 Dec. 1893.
  10. Journal, 13, 18 Dec. 1893.
  11. AOT, 13,16 Dec. 1983. The Times, 16 Dec. 1893. Manchester Guardian, 18 Dec. 1893.
  12. The Times, 19,20 Dec. 1893.
  13. Accrington Gazette, 19,23 Dec. 1893. Before leaving Accrington after the result was known Trimble complained that Leese owed his victory not to Englishmen but, ‘the always hostile Irish Roman Catholic vote; and the Dissenters of Ireland have received another stab in the back from the Dissenters of Accrington. How brotherly! The Irish Party dominate this constituency as well as the House of Commons.’
  14. Journal, 21 Dec. 1893.
  15. C Bolton, Salford Diocese and its Catholic past, Manchester, 1950, 159. J Denvir, The Irish in Britain, London, 1892, p. 430. Manchester Guardian, 13 Dec. 1893. Accrington Gazette, 16 Dec. 1893.
  16. Carla King, op.cit., pp. 68-77.
  17. AJ Reid and H Pelling, A short history of the Labour Party, 2005, pp. 13-15. J Dunleavy, ‘When the Social Democrats almost won BumJey’, Retrospect [Burnley], Vol. 8, 1988, pp. 5-9; and ‘Fred Maddison, Burnley’s first workingman MP’, ibid., Vol. 9, 1989, pp. 4-8. Labour Leader, 23 Feb. 1906. Offprint. North West Labour History, No. 32 (2007-8), pp. 60-63. [ISSN 1362-6302].

I expect as a newly elected MP you will have more than enough reading matter to digest at this time. However, as one of a number of historians of East Lancashire and various other places, I thought you might find the enclosed of interest.

It is based on a paper I gave to the Accrington local history society on a cold January night in 2007.

The elements did not deter the hardy members from filling the lecture theatre and at the end the chairman pointed out studies of individual constituencies rarely ever got into print. This prompted me to draw on my notes in the hope that I could make a modest contribution to the political history of Accrington. The editor of the North West Labour History proved to be extremely helpful in this matter. Although 1no longer live in your area, I have family at Haslingden I visit the area several times each year, giving me an opportunity to delve deeper into the largely unexplored history of the locality. The first Accrington MP I recall was Harry Hynd, and in Rossendale Anthony Greenwood. Both served the area well and for a lengthy period. The papers of the latter are kept here in Oxford (as are those of his father Arthur Greenwood), and also the papers of earlier MP, Lulu Harcourt.

Enough of this history: I’m sure you have more pressing problems to address. I close now with best wishes to you in your new-found role as an MP.

Sincerely,