Albert Roberts was a Woodlesford boy and Water Haigh miner who went on to represent the area in parliament for over 30 years. From 1951 until 1983 he was the M.P. for the Normanton constituency which in those days also included all the communities in the Rothwell district.
He was born in 1908, the year work started on the sinking of the main shafts at Water Haigh. 14 years later he was sorting coal on the pit top screens. Through hard work studying at night school for mining qualifications he eventually was appointed to be a Mines Inspector for West Yorkshire.
After living through the deprivations of the 1920s and the General Strike of 1926 he became active in the Labour Party and was elected branch secretary of the Yorkshire Mine Workers Association at Water Haigh in 1935. He was also a councillor for the Woodlesford ward on the Labour dominated Rothwell Urban District Council and served as chairman for a year. Probably his most lasting local legacy was his committee work which led to the building of hundreds of council houses in the district, notably Albert Road on the Green Lea estate which is named after him.
In 1951 he became a Member of Parliament continuing a local tradition of electing former miners to Westminster. Throughout his parliamentary career he remained on the back benches speaking up on local issues and becoming involved in international affairs, notably with Spain and South Korea. His support for Labour leader Hugh Gaitskill, who represented neighbouring Leeds South, probably cost him any chance of a ministerial appointment in the governments of Gaitskill’s bitter opponent, Harold Wilson.
After he retired Albert Roberts wrote a memoir called “One of a Family” extracts from which are reproduced below with the kind permission of his son Bryon and daughter Marjorie. The text is illustrated with photographs and newspaper cuttings kept in scrapbooks throughout his career by Albert’s wife Alice.
ONE OF A FAMILY by Albert Roberts
THE EARLY DAYS
I was born in French Street in what was then called New Woodlesford. I was the fifth child in what was to be a family of twelve. When I was of adult age my mother told me she had had two miscarriages, so it can be readily appreciated that my parents had a few mouths to feed.
I saw daylight on the 14th of May 1908 in a house that was far from commodious, one up and one down, plus a small bedroom or box room.
The first four children were three girls in succession – Nellie, Lily and Mabel – followed by my older brother Willie. After myself there were George, Fred, Amy, Harold, Jenny and Jack. A sixth brother, Edwin, was born in 1926 and died in the Isolation Hospital, Haigh Road, Rothwell on 1 November 1927.
I was two years of age when we moved from French Street to 12 Airedale Terrace, Woodlesford. This was a more roomy house – two bedrooms and attic, living room and pariour.
To tell you a little about my grandparents. On my mother’s side they resided in Rothwell – in Wogan Yard, which has since been pulled down. The Yorkshire Electricity Board showroom now stands on the site. My mother was the third of four daughters – Ida, Lily, Annie and Sally.
My grandfather William Ward left Rothwell with a party of about sixty miners to work in pit sinking in Canada, round about 1870. I believe he sent money, once to my Grandmother, then no more. They were left destitute. My grandmother eked a living by washing clothes, and I suppose obtained some meagre help from Parish Relief which was very hard to come by.
They were very hard days indeed for them, and I well remember my Mother telling me of the times she did a little work as a child at Seanor’s Match factory in Commercial Street, Rothwell. Early one morning she found herself by the Church clock at the factory at two o’clock – by mistake of course, but they had no timepiece at home.
I remember my grandmother Ward (a very house proud person) when I was a boy. I used to call in to see her after visiting the Rothwell Empire (now Blackburn Hall) to see the films. I well recall paying a penny for admission, and when the show was over, the management gave each child a stick of “Spanish” or an orange. Living at Woodlesford in those days I had to walk to Rothwell and back a distance of three miles – but never felt it a hardship.
My grandparents on my father’s side had rather a difficult relationship. I don’t remember seeing my grandfather Roberts, although I remember him dying in the early twenties. He had been separated from my grandmother for many years. I never remembered them living together. Poor grandma lived in turn with her daughters – Lily, Florence and Amy.
Their sons, John, my father Albert, Ernest, and Willie used to contribute a small sum of money each week to assist in her keep.There was no social security in those days as it used to fall upon the family to maintain their own.
My grandfather Issac Roberts was a character. A mixture of good and irresponsibility, one moment “Isaac the Son of God”, the next a reprobate. He would have bouts of industry followed by a few weeks “hussing” – a period of drinking.
On one occasion when my grandfather was away, my grandmother gave birth to a child. It died after three or four weeks and was buried before he returned home.
There is one amusing story told by my aunts. It seems that my grandfather had been on a drinking bout, and had fallen asleep in Methley Churchyard, just near the wall which borders the road. However, he must have been aroused by a group of miners going to work – no doubt the rattle of the clogs they wore in those days. It would be dark, and most likely about 5.30 a.m.
As the miners were passing he peered over the wall with his flowing white beard and asked them the time. Seeing a man with a white beard looking over the churchyard wall frightened them out of their wits, and as you can well imagine they ran off too shocked to give him the time.
My grandfather moved between Woodlesford and Cutsyke, and one of his favourite haunts was the King Billy Inn at Cutsyke near Castleford, about five miles from Woodlesford.
Grandfather could earn good money when at work as a moulder in the pottery industry. In turn he worked at the potteries in Woodlesford and at Castleford. Unfortunately the pottery industry is now no more at either place. Woodlesford Potteries closed down at the turn of the 20th century, and in Castleford as late as the 1970s.
Turning back to our own family, now living as I said at 12 Airedale Terrace where I moved at two years of age. My brother George was about three months old, and brothers Harold, Fred, Jack and Edwin and sisters Amy and Jenny were all to be born at that address – a family of fourteen with mother and father.
I do recall the passing of my aunt Mary (my father’s sister) because of the tragic circumstances. At that time they lived in French Street, where I was born. Her sister Florrie talked to me about it a few years before she died at the age of 92. She said: “There was poor Mary with a new born baby, and the next youngest, about two years old, at the bottom of the bed.” Both aunt Mary and the baby died, leaving uncle Jack with seven children all of school age except Wilfred, the youngest at two.
So my eight cousins were left motherless. Alice, the eldest, had to assume the role of mother, although still attending school. For a short time one or two of the children were taken by aunt Mary’s sisters, but they soon drifted back home to be together.
I remember their names well – Alice, Florrie, Harry, Clara, Doris, Ethel, Edith and Wilfred Burton.
In view of Alice still being at school Wilfred could not be left at home, so he had to be accepted at school at the tender age of two years. The family grew up very well respected.
It is a remarkable thing that large families who have battled against adversity and to some degree poverty develop character and respectability.
I am pleased to say that Margaret, a daughter of Ethel helps my wife Alice (who is far from well) with her domestic chores. This is just another case of a friend in need – or should we say, a relation.
Child or family allowances were not introduced until 1949, so it was always a problem to feed and bring up a famiy.
THE WORLD AT WAR
I remember vividly World War One being declared in August 1914, with troops on foot and horseback marching through the village. Although the Air Force was very much in its infancy, external lights were prohibited and a blackout was enforced. Hundreds of workpeople used the trains from Woodlesford station to travel to Leeds, where most worked in engineering, with women and girls making army uniforms.
War propaganda was now prevalent. I remember the poster that became famous; General Kitchener pointing out of the picture with the caption: “Your Country needs You”.
Two war time songs come to mind. I remember being at the Empire Cinema at Rothwell, with pretty young girls dressed in military uniforms singing:
“Brave territorials what a happy crowd are we! Boys from the North, East, South or West,
Boys who have always done their best.”
The other one went something like this:
“If the Germans come to Barnbow never mind, If the Germans come to Barnbow never mind
We will give them shot and shell, We will blow the Huns to – well
If the Germans come to, Barnbow, never mind.”
My three sisters, Nellie, Lily and Mabel played their first part in the war effort making uniforms.
Food to feed a big family was a serious problem, for food rationing was not introduced until July 1918, and there was no guarantee that the ration would be honoured. The well-off, and those with small families did far better than folk like my mother.
On Saturdays the three older sisters went to Leeds early in the morning to queue at food shops such as Liptons and Mellias, with no guarantee their mission would be successful. Sometimes they succeeded in obtaining a packet of tea, butter or a jar of jam. It was a struggle to feed a family.
I was never fond of jam, and well remember being given a slice of bread and jam to eat. It was so horrid to me I went outside and threw it over the wall, down into Quarry Road.
My father had an idea of what I was going to do and watched me when I went outside the house, and he saw me throw the bread away. He called me in, and that meant a hiding.
Most people in those days baked their own bread. It was difficult because the flour was so adulterated that the bread was far from palatable. In 1917 the German submarine effort was so successful in sinking our food ships that we were very near the point of starvation.
The Armistice signed on 11 November 1918 brought peace after Europe had been bled white. People were now full of hope for a new world. It was said it was a war to end wars. Demobilisation brought the serving soldiers and sailors back to civilian life and employment, but problems were soon to arise.
Soon there was evidence of unemployment and industrial unrest. Emp1oyers sought wage reductions and as usual the first in the field were the coal owners. In 1919 there was a miners’ strike for a duration of six weeks, then a thirteen-week strike in 1921.
Miners and their families had suffered poverty and hardship for decades but worse was to come.
It was during the 1921 strike that I reached the age of thirteen and could leave school, provided I was at work where there was no machinery. Otherwise one had to continue at school until the age of fourteen.
To earn money during the 1921 strike a number of miners dug for coal on the spoil bank, or muck stack, at Water Haigh. Scores of merchants in horse-drawn coal carriers came from Leeds daily to buy the coal. It was amazing how much coal was dug and sold to the coal merchants, and during the whole of the strike the weather was glorious. Not a drop of rain for three months.
On the last day of the strike a tragedy occurred at the muck stack. A man called Jenkins from Midland Street in Woodlesford lost his life. He was buried under many tons of debris as a result of burrowing and taking too big a risk.
It was May 1921 when I left Wóodlesford Council School. My uncle Shearman at Rothwell signed my papers to say I would be employed in his furniture shop. At the time of writing the business was still being run by his three daughters, my cousins, Nellie, Louise and Annie, and they were all nearly eighty years of age.
In point of fact my uncle did not employ me. Sometimes I would go with him to collect money from customers in the Kippax district. However, I was soon in remunerative employment at the local quarry owned by the Armitage family. A neighbour called Percy Higgins worked at the quarry as a stone-mason, and he wanted me to rub stones to make the surface smooth. This was done with water and an emery stone and plenty of elbow grease. It was a messy job and cold and I did not like it. But still I knew I had to do it, to contribute to the family income.
When leaving school it was customary for the headmaster to shake hands and wish you well, and I can almost hear him saying: “Try and get on in the world.” I never forgot, but my mind was set on working at the local pit like all the other youths in the village. It was always interesting to listen to their experiences, which of course were a little bit glamourised! I knew I could not work at the pit until I was fourteen.
I well remember a severe epidemic of flu whilst I was working at the quarry. Many of the young women working in the Armitage brick-yard, which was adjacent to the quarry, were off sick and I was sent to work on the brick presses. This was illegal, as I was not permitted by law to work on machinery. What a soul-destroying job it was, standing at the press and taking bricks off a moving belt, and placing each brick in the press, probably at a rate of ten a minute.
They were long days for a boy of thirteen. Seven o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the evening, with a half-hour break for breakfast, and three quarters of an hour for lunch. The work needed concentration, to avoid getting your hand caught in the press.
When I reached the age of fourteen my mind was set on obtaining a job at the pit. I begged my father to ask the man in charge of the colliery screens, Sam Pugh, if there were any vacancies. This didn’t happen immediately, but the day did arrive when I was on my way to work on the screen belts. A tedious monotonous job; noisy, dusty and very cold in winter. Being in one position at the belt side did not inspire me. I wanted to be on the move. Eventually I did find some relief from the dreadful task by becoming kind of an errand boy between the pit hill screens and the workshops.
One day I remember well. An old carpenter in the workshops saw me playing about and took me on one side. “Don’t waste your youth,” he said, “seek something different”. I have often repeated those words to other young people. Still I was glad to be at the local pit and not like some who worked at Bower’s pit, a walk of a good three to four miles.
My brother Willie, three years my senior, started work at Bower’s. He clocked on at six o’clock in the morning. It was seven o’clock at Water Haigh. This necessitated him setting off to walk, as there was no means of transport, at five am, at thirteen years of age. It makes me shudder to think about it. Hail, snow or blow and no change of clothing if it rained. Pit head baths were unheard of. So in all he covered well over six miles walking to work and returning home each day.
My brother George, two years younger, also did a spell at Bower’s, but eventually Willie and George obtained employment at the local pit, Water Haigh.
Restless as I was at the age of sixteen, I opted to work underground. This was an experience I wanted as I had seen the cages come up and go down countless times and often asked myself: “What is it like at the bottom of the dark shaft?” I had listened to conversation at street corners about work underground, the haulage, and the behaviour of pit ponies.
I well remember going for my pit lamp for the first time. It was an electric lamp, weighing about eight pounds, which you had to carry or hook to your belt. For a teenager the lamp was heavy, and, if you used your hands, the lamp bounced between your knees, bruising them.
I was to become a haulage hand which meant I had to acquire the skill of attaching a number of tubs to an endless rope at intervals of about twenty yards. From there they travelled probably one mile or so to the pit bottom. There they were released to run downwards by gravity.
As time went on I was moved to various pits underground as I became more proficient, and in turn I did some pony driving.
At the end of the haulage the empty tubs were there for the pony driver to take to the coal miner hewing the coal. It was customary to take about three or four tubs at a time, which meant the pony had to pull three or four full tubs, each holding about half a ton of coal. If there were inclines it was very hard work for the pony.
There were times when the ponies had to work a double shift and there were occasions when they did this without food and water, which was a breach of the Coal Miners Act. There were times when a pony was ill-treated by his driver, often arising out of a frayed temper. I am pleased say to say that now pit ponies are completely outdated, thanks to the mechanical means of mining coal and conveying it to the pit shaft.
After 1921 unemployment started to rear its head. It was a common thing for men to sing in the streets hoping mothers or fathers would send a penny to the singer, usually by the children, as by law it was illegal to beg. In those days there was no such thing as Social Security. Poor Law Relief was difficult to obtain, so one started to see evidence of poverty.
At the end of the First World War, Lloyd George, the Prime Minister promised a land fit for heroes to live in.
The country was beginning to feel the effects of reparations. Germany having lost the war had by treaty to make payment to the allies in the form of coal and steel. This had a disastrous effect upon our coal and steel industry and meant short time for the miners. So it was hand-to-mouth living and no future in the mining industry, and not much future elsewhere.
I gave a lot of thought to the future, and began to realise I had to fend a bit for myself, so I enrolled at Woodlesford Council School evening classes to improve my limited education. After two years I won an exhibition which allowed me to attend evening classes at Normanton High School to take a commercial course. At that time my colleagues, using rather rough language, said why did I want to be going to evening classes, particularly during the summer.
I must confess it was rather a strain. Up at 6 o’clock in the morning for a hard day underground, coming home as hungry as a hunter and then dashing to catch the South Yorkshire bus at half past 6 in the evening at Oulton. Then a change at Four Lane Ends for a bus into Normanton. After class one evening it was very foggy and there were no buses. So I had to trek eight miles on foot. There were times when I found it extremely difficult to keep awake in class. It was always difficult being one of a large family to find a place at home to do homework, and it was so easy to be distracted in a busy household. Still I kept going, one might say hoping against hope.
There was a trade and business depression. One could sense there was to be an industrial struggle. In 1925 the coal owners wanted a reduction in wages and an increase in working hours. A respite was given by a £25 million government subsidy which did not deter the coal owners from seeking a showdown in 1926.
The first day of May the fight was on. The miners were not prepared to accept reduced wages and longer working hours. The Trade Union Congress called for a General Strike in support, something which had never happened before in Great Britain. This brought tremendous hope to the working class movement against the attack that was being made against living standards. But alas! The General Strike broke down after nine days. The railway workers, under the leadership of J.H. Thomas, succumbed to the wiles of the Prime Minister, Baldwin. I remember well his words over a loud speaker in a street in Castleford. “Call the General Strike off and I will have the miners back to work in a short time.” One must remember that radio was in its infancy, not many homes had them at that that time. We certainly did not have one. People used to gather at local points to listen to important announcements.
A long struggle was on. Union funds were exhausted after two or three weeks so the married man had to apply to the Board of Guardians for relief. Meagre as it was, the money was given in the form of a chit to be spent on essential foods. There was no allowance for the husband, only for the wife and children of school age, so my brothers and I who worked at the pit were without any income at all. The relief was granted and signed for in the knowledge that it was on loan, and to be paid back when the strike was over by being deducted from the wages at a given sum each week.
Breakfasts were provided for school children at the school they attended. The food was provided by shopkeepers and well-wishers. How different it was for the men and those like myself. We had to forage the best way we could. We set up field kitchens, begging vegetables and scrap meat from the butchers.
What a struggle for the poor miners’ wives. The family norm was four or five children and many had larger families. One could well understand them saying, and it was often said: “No more of mine will go into the pit to work”. Of course economic circumstances took care of that. No house rent was being paid, as we had not a round coin coming into the household.
Our sister Nellie, the eldest of the family, was not living at home. She was a widow having lost her husband Selwyn Hartley. He died in Leeds Infirmary alter an underground accident at Water Haigh.
Nellie would give my mother a few coppers for the gas meter and sometimes my father the price of a pint of beer.
It was tough going but in the main the miners held firm.. A.J. Cook was the miners’ leader and his famous slogan was: “Not a penny off the pay. Not a minute off the day”. He was a good platform orator, and thousands attended a meeting on Hunslet Moor addressed by him. Bear in mind there was no loudspeaker equipment in those days, so a public speaker needed to have good lungs and a loud voice.
By October there was a gradual drift back to work and by November 1926 the strike was officially called off. The miners lost! One could say the government of the day intended the miners to be beaten.
After full resumption of work, the privilege of collecting union dues in the pit yard was stopped and they had to be collected outside the pit premises. A small wooden hut was the collecting place. Little did I realise that one day I would be the one to bring back the right to collect in the pit yard, and to organise the recruitment of new members.
For a few weeks after the strike the industry worked full time, but it did not seem long before a general depression throughout Great Britain was evident, and in consequence the demand for coal fell. The basic industries, particularly steel and coal, were in recession. The world demand for ships was affected, which naturally hit the steel industry and in turn the coal industry. This had repercussions on secondary industries, and the army of the unemployed increased. Consumer demand fell. This was not just peculiar to Britain, but throughout the world.
During that period life was pretty drab and hopeless. One could say it was a life of subsistence.
The Wall Street financial crash brought distressing conditions to the United States, and this of course affected trade and business throughout the trading nations. This was to be the pattern of life until preparations were in hand for World War Two.
In 1929 I met the girl who eventually became my wife; Alice Ashton, 18 years of age who was born and continued to live in Ouzlewell Green, a hamlet between Carlton and Lofthouse, until we married.
From Woodlesford, where I lived to Ouzelwell Green is a distance of about two and a half miles, so to walk was no hardship. We had no money but a surfeit of affection, which has stood the test of time.
Our courtship was pleasant, never boring though we had no money. We attended the local chapel together and joined in the annual outing to the coast at Whitsuntide.
What we did like was to make one of a group and sing carols round about midnight, selecting certain houses that we thought give money for the chapel funds.
I well remember joining in with the chapel choir to render a “Service of Song.” My favourite was John Dales Fortune’s “What Shall The Harvest Be” which we gave at other local chapels. This was probably one of the last services to be given in the Oulton Wesleyan Chapel, now used for furniture making.
Saving money was almost impossible. In 1930 I suffered a severe accident to the foot, which kept me off work for about ten weeks. The accident happened at work in the No. 3 part of the pit, about two and a half miles underground.
I was attending a jigger engine which jigged long troughs called pans. The full range of pans was about eighty yards. Each measured ten feet, and as the coal face advanced, additional pans were bolted on.
Each pan was mounted on a rocker. The jigger engine attached to the range of pans caused a rocking movement which resulted in the coal sliding forward towards a loading point. At each thrust of the engine the coal would slide forward about six inches.
As I was attending to the engine my foot slipped towards the piston. The piston crushed my foot against the cylinder. Fortunately I was wearing clogs otherwise my foot would have been permanently damaged. The injury I sustained meant I had to be carried on a stretcher by workmates to the pit bottom, and then to the surface by cage. I was taken by ambulance to Leeds General Infirmary.
I shall never forget my experience in the casualty department. It was a cold September day. I was left for hours. It seemed endless, on a trolley wearing only my vest and trousers.
I had not been offered any refreshment. Not even a cup of tea, but I was soon to realise I was suffering from severe shock.
I was returned to my home at about four thirty in the afternoon. The accident happened at about eight thirty in the morning. For about five or six days I went through hell with pain which caused me almost to lose my reason.
If I remember rightly, the compensation pay whilst off work was about twenty five shillings a week, but what still sticks in my mind is the treatment or lack of it in the casualty department, which has left an indelible memory.
On to happier days we thought, as Alice and I married on 26 November 1932. We had but a few pounds, perhaps about twenty. We lived with my sister Nellie and her husband Harry. Of course our problem was to obtain the tenancy of a house I could afford. At that time I could not afford the rent of a council house which was about eleven shillings per week. My wage and unemployment pay did not average more than about thirty eight shillings per week net.
After a few weeks living with my sister I heard of a cottage likely to be vacated called ‘Pear Tree Cottage’, Quarry Road, Woodlesford, quite close to where I was living at a weekly rent of six shillings and sixpence. If only I could obtain the tenancy. Supported by my wife, sister Nellie, and Mother I decided I would write a personal letter to Mr. Dennis Hargreaves, the agent or manager at Water Haigh. He was also chairman of the local authority, Hunslet Rural District Council.
I decided in my letter to state the plain facts; that I could not afford a council house rent, had been bred and born in the village and worked at the local colliery, along with my father and brothers. Of course, Mr. Dennis Hargraves knew that.
My letter written and ready for posting I showed it to my mother’ and sister Nellie and they readily agreed to its contents. On that Sunday afternoon my father appeared on the scene, and I told him about the letter I was about to post. He put the damper on it by saying I would not get the tenancy as he had heard it had been let, and to send the letter would be a waste of time. Although disheartened and knowing a baby was due in February 1933 I sent the letter.
Some days later I saw Mr. Hargraves’ private secretary in the colliery yard so I approached him. “Mr. Stephenson, would you please tell me who has got the tenancy of Pear Tree Cottage?” “Yes I will. You have”. I was more than pleased and surprised, and so were my family.
I did hear later that my letter so impressed Mr. Hargreaves that he showed it to Mr. Dick Hall, the branch secretary of the miners’ union. Little did I realise it was to be the start of my public career.
Now I was the tenant of Pear Tree Cottage, 6 Quarry Road. Woodlesford. Sadly the cottage is now no more. The tree is still there, and bears a lovely jargonel pear.
Our baby, to be named Bryon Edward, was born on the 17 February 1933 in Hyde Terrace Maternity Home, Leeds. My wife Alice had a tough pregnancy but she gave birth to a handsome healthy son.
By March Pear Tree Cottage was home. The big bedroom and dining room needed to be redecorated. The rest of the cottage was very damp. A few cockroaches had to be got rid of and we succeeded.
1933 brought glorious weather after a pretty severe winter, so our baby spent a good deal of his time in his pram under the pear tree.
Depression in industry was severe. Working days at the colliery averaged about fourteen days a month so one could say we were living almost below the subsistence level. For those out of work a “Means Test” introduced by a then Conservative Government did much to break up homes. It worked like this. If the father was out of work and other members of the family were at work, the amount of money coming into the household was added up, and the father’s unemployment pay was reduced partially or completely according to the household income. This encouraged members of the family who were in work to leave home. Parents quite understandably accepted or were in agreement with their actions.
It was in June 1933 when I met with a serious accident at work, being hit by a fall of roof rock on the West Bord Distict. I well remember in the early part of the shift the deputy tapping the roof where I was working with his stick. It gave a rather hollow sound, which indicates it is loose and likely to break away. The deputy should have ceased coal production and had the soggy roof pulled down. But no, work had to continue, and I was the unfortunate victim of negligence.
I was knocked unconscious and bled at the left ear which is usually sign of a fractured base of the skull. My life was despaired of. I was carried on a stretcher to the colliery surface, a distance of nearly three miles, then by ambulance to Leeds General Infirmary calling on Dr. Seville in Oulton on the way. My brother Willie called to tell my wife of the accident and its seriousness. Alice was in a state of great distress. She had a problem too as Bryon, now about four months old, was being breast fed, so it was difficult for her to be both at the Infirmary and at home to feed him. But somehow she managed both. However, X-rays showed that the base of the skull was not fractured, though some damage had been sustained. I was a patient in the Infirmary for quite some while, then returned home to be looked after.
In all I was off work for sixteen weeks. During that time I was sent to a convalescent home at Lytham, which belonged to the Miners’ Welfare Organisation. That was the first time I had been away from home, except for the period in the Infirmary.
About six weeks after my injury there was an underground explosion at Water Haigh colliery in the Flockton seam. William Maundrill, George Shepherd, and Joe Illingworth died from severe burns. Others recovered, but were badly scarred.
Making ends meet during my period of incapacity as difficult as our weekly income was about twenty shillings. Foodwise we were helped a little by our relatives.
I resumed work about the middle of November. The pit was only working about three days a week so it was still a meagre existence. Luckily my wife and child kept well.
Life went on at a pretty slow pace. Of course such things as holidays were completely out of the question and we just never had any.
We were determined to avoid debt, which we did. My health was fairly good but at times I suffered from severe headaches and the accident had completely destroyed the hearing in my left ear with no hope of its returning. So for the rest of my life I knew I had to depend on my right ear, hoping it would keep good.
FIRST ELECTION VICTORY
So on to 1935, the Jubilee Year for King George the Fifth and Queen Mary. By then I had become a member of the Labour Party through the efforts of an insurance agent called Bill Varley who invited me me to join.
It was an interest for me to attend the local Labour Party meetings and also the local miners’ branch meetings. Having no money in my pocket for other social activities, my interest in trade union and and political matters kept me involved.
During the summer of 1935 the Silver Jubilee of King George the Fifth was celebrated by street parties and free teas for pensioners. More important to me my fortune started to change. One could say “my luck was in.”
Dick Hall, the branch secretary of the miners’ union had been advised to retire on health grounds when the election for branch official became due in June 1935. I was more than surprised to hear he had nominated me for the position. There were three other nominees – Robert Free, William Whitehead and Robert Hatfield. All of them were many years my senior. I was just twenty seven years, very young to become a trade union secretary.
The election took place and I did not in the least expect to win. So much so that I did not go to the count. When the result was declared, the news reached me that I had been successful. What a surprise and what a challenge! I had a feeling working with committee members much older than myself was not going to be easy. Especially those that had aspired to the position of Secretary.
I soon realised that being a leader was not easy. Remember that this was a time of depression and low wages and everything was against trade union bargaining. A side issue was unemployment problems which meant I had to see the managers of the Employment Exchanges, particularly if there had been some dispute over payment. I became well informed on the regulations concerning unemployment benefit, and I must say the managers invariably did assist me so that I could pass onto my members the do’s and don’ts.
It must be borne in mind that unemployment pay was just as important as wages. It constituted more than half the weekly income, as we rarely worked more than three days a week.
The union membership was about one quarter of the work force, some 280 people. The workforce totalled about 1200, apart from those on the staff. The workforce in 1928 had been almost 3000. Then a move for mechanisation took place and a large number of miners were just cast on the scrap heap.
Getting new members was very difficult. The contribution in those days was one shilling per week, three pence if a member was off work sick or unemployed. Contributions were collected every Friday, at a wood hut just at the end of the pit lane. It must be remembered we received no help or assistance from the colliery management, so the bargaining power of the union at branch level and in the coalfield was very weak.
Our local colliery, Water Haigh, was part of the Briggs Group. It was decided by the union officials of the group, along with Herbert Smith (“The man with the cap”), President of the Yorkshire Mine Workers Association, to meet the Directors of the Briggs Company to obtain permission to organise for membership in the colliery yard. After a struggle we persuaded the directors to give us permission. I well remember Herbert Smith putting his hand on my shoulder as we walked down to Briggs’ main offices from the “Robin Hood” public house and saying it was always easier to recruit members on dark nights in winter than summer, because they did not like to be seen paying their contributions.
After periodical campaigns to build up the membership of our branch I succeeded in achieving about 80 per cent membership. But I must emphasise money was very tight and a shilling contribution was a sacrifice.
It was a fight all the way for justice and members’ rights, and I can truthfully say that I gave hours on behalf of my members. To extract from management the monies due to the men was not easy, but it was a good grounding for me. I soon felt sufficiently experienced to offer leadership. This was appreciated by most; as my position as secretary received wonderful support.
A NEW ARRIVAL
Our second child Marjorie was born on 12th December, 1935. She was probably the last baby to be born in Pear Tree Cottage.
The pendulum started to swing our way after Marjorie appeared but making ends meet was difficult. The miners on strike in 1984-5 did not look as underfed as we did in the thirties. Our grocery bill in those days had to be kept low, around about 6 shillings a week.
Now, with my union salary Alice and I thought we ought to seek better accommodation. The cottage was very primitive. There was no hot water system and the lavatory, which was a dry privy, was about twenty yards from the house.
In 1936 we succeeded in obtaining the tenancy of a council house in East View, Oulton. This had hot water and a bath, so we found it a big improvement on what we had endured for the first three years of our married life.
The greater part of the Hunslet Rural District Council had been absorbed into Leeds leaving just Oulton and Woodlesford. Places like Halton,Whitkirk, Middleton, and Belle Isle had gone. So in 1937 there was a reconstitution of local authority boundaries. The change meant that Oulton and Woodlesford and Methley were taken over by the Rothwell Urban District Council. This made it a very sizeable area with a population of about twenty nine thousand.
In the changeover of local authority control, Oulton and Woodlesford were each made a ward, and this brought about my baptism into local authority work.
The Oulton and Woodlesford Labour Party nominated me as a candidate for the Woodlesford Ward, along with Thomas Killingbeck and Fred Jones. Tom had been a councillor on the old Hunslet Rural District Council, so he was an old campaigner. Both Fred and Tom had sons and daughters as old as me, so I was still a youngster in the eyes of the local inhabitants.
The one receiving the highest number of votes would be elected to serve for three years, the second for two years and the third for one year. This system created a retiring member in each ward and an election throughout the area each year.
As far as Oulton and Woodlesförd Wards were concerned, the result was as expected. Tom Killingbeck was elected for three years, I for two years and Fred Jones for one. All the Labour candidates succeeded. There were two candidates labelled Independents – Dennis Hargreaves and William Peters. Both had served on the Hunslet Rural District Council. The first was the colliery agent for Water Haigh, the second a local architect.
Oulton Ward returned two Independents and one for Labour. The two Independents were Bernard Armitage, quarry owner and brick manufacturer and Henry Newsome, property owner. The Labour member was Charles Buckle, who incidentally polled the fewest votes. For all the years I served on Rothwell Council Woodlesford always returned Labour candidates.
I was very anxious to make a mark on the council. At the first health committee meeting I attended I asked for the Medical Officer Dr. Hugh Stevenson and the Health Department – they were called Sanitary Inspectors in those days – to do a survey of Oulton and Woodlesford. The survey resulted in about 50 houses on Alma Street, Church Street, including the notorious Beecroft Yard, and Midland Yard in Oulton, all being declared slums. The previous Medical Officer for Health Dr Buck had stated there were no slums in Oulton and Woodlesford in his annual report around 1937.
New Green Lea was developed, to rehouse those that lived in the property now due to be demolished. I had the pleasure of naming part of the new development “Bryngate” after my son Bryon and “Margate” after my daughter Marjorie, and “Albert Road” of course after myself.
We did not realise we were on the brink of World War Two. The pits were working more or less full time, and this was stimulated by the making of steel for weapons of war. Hitler had built up a tremendous war machine. With the invasion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the future indeed looked ominous.
“Bring miners back to the pits”, was now the cry. The demand for coal was increasing. So now those miners that had not worked for ten years or more were asked to return and one of my responsibilities was to interview them to find out if they were able, fit and willing to return.
When Hitler invaded Poland we were in a state of war. The declaration was made on a beautiful September day. This meant, of course, full co-operation between management and trade unions. This gave me my opportunity to collect union dues on the premises in the pit yard, readily conceded by the colliery owners.
Germany invaded the countries of Belgium, Holland and France and only the English Channel separated us from the enemy.
Ernest Bevin, a member of the War Cabinet, said a ton of coal was almost as important as a battalion of soldiers, so there was not too much conscription of soldiers from the mines. Those that worked in what were called non-essential jobs were conscripted into the army, which meant in effect that those conscripted worked on the surface. The management were requested to send in the names of those they thought were non-essential. This caused some ill-feeling, as favouritism was shown, and I had a few cases to deal with that were clear evidence of this.
Particularly after the collapse of France the miners became all important. Injured miners were given priority for hospital treatment to enable them to return to work as soon as possible. The question of safety in the mines was not overlooked. The colliery owners and the Yorkshire Mine Workers’ Association decided to set up a Safety Board, to be financed by the owners and the mineworkers and employing their own Mines Inspectors. The number appointed was four to cover the whole of the Yorkshire Coalfield with two from West Yorkshire and two from South Yorkshire.
I was pleased about this, as I was one of the two for West Yorkshire. In all I was allocated 35 pits, including small fireclay mines near Halifax. This gave me a great experience in varying conditions of mining and the opportunity to meet some wonderful colleagues.
I well remember my first visit was to the West Riding Colliery at Altofts in January 1941 when the local inspector to accompany me was Sam Armstrong. He was a fervent Methodist, who a few years later gave me wonderful support in my political life. In spite of differences with some of the colliery management I feel sure that I commanded a good deal of respect from management and men. The mining industry was privately owned, and remained so until the 1946 Act of Nationalisation.
As interesting and absorbing as my duties were I still remained active in the Labour Party and Rothwell Urban District Council.
In 1941, when William Lunn, MP for Rothwell passed away, I was a member of the constituency executive. The constituency consisted of Whitkirk, Middleton and Belle Isle in Leeds; Stanley, Sharlston, Crofton, Lupset, Horbury, Rothwell, Oulton, Woodlesford and Flockton, making it a very large constituency.
Bill Lunn, as he was called, was a miners’ sponsored MP. He had worked at Middleton Colliery before becoming a Member of Parliament in 1919 There were many who thought I should succeed him, and there were those, particularly in the older section of the miners’ union who thought at 33 years old I was too young. I did not press my claim as I had just been appointed a Safety Board Mines Inspector, although I was on the panel of Miners’ Parliamentary Candidates.
Thomas Judson Brookes, the branch secretary at Glasshoughton colliery and a man of 61, was finally selected.
All parliamentary elections were stopped for the duration of the war. If a constituency had been represented in Parliament by a Labour Party member, then the Labour Party made a selection to fill the vacancy created for example by the death of William Lunn. So Tom Brookes had no election to fight. This applied to all other political parties.
Tom was a good living man and very much respected, particularly in local government. During his membership he introduced a bill successfully dealing with Christian Science, of which he was a keen supporter. Mr. Brookes was not a particularly fluent platform speaker but he commanded respect.
During the war years, 1939-1945, it was a question of keeping local authority work ticking over. No council houses were built and no construction work was carried out. The whole country was behind the war effort, with the hope of bringing about a successful conclusion. Every night we could hear the Lancaster bombers flying from bases in North Yorkshire, groaning with the weight of the bombs they carried. Then when the German bombers were returning from their bombing expeditions to Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield they came under heavy aircraft gunfire. These periods kept us all in our air raid shelters. The Leeds area was not strategic so bombing attacks from the air were very slight.
London, Liverpool and the Midlands suffered severely from air raids, loss of life and damaged property which brought about a disruption of services. It was total war but, fortunately, although food rationing was meagre, it was honoured. What a difference to what happened in World War One.
In 1944 I was recommended to the Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding of Yorkshire to be appointed Justice of the Peace. Consent was given by the Lord Chancellor. At that time I was one of the
youngest Justices in the Country. I sat about once a week at the West Riding Court in Leeds. This kind of work really did keep me in touch with all the various kinds of problems that confront society and family life.
Being a local councillor and a Justice of the Peace did mean that the public took advantage of seeking my help or advice but I was always ready to assist if at all possible.
One could see, after the German General Rommel was defeated in North Africa and our troops invaded Italy, that the war was slowly approaching the end. The Germans were now in retreat in Eastern Europe after terrific loss of life on both sides, not to mention the destruction of towns and villages.
I would mention the Government began to realise some thought must be given to reconstruction at home, such as the building of homes, roads and services after five or six years of neglect. Factories would have to change from war production to consumer goods, so local authorities were alerted.
The end of the war came in 1945 and the need for an elected government was paramount, and so a general election was held in the early summer. However the problem of thousands of troops abroad had to be considered, which meant that the full result was delayed as the votes from overseas had to be collected and counted.
It is generally accepted Winston Churchill was a great war leader and many thought he would lead a successful Conservative government after the election. The opposite was the case, and the Conservatives were routed with Labour securing a tremendous majority. This meant Clem Attlee would be Prime Minister. He had acted as Deputy to Winston Churchill during the war.
My brother Fred had served in the Eighth Army, which saw action in North Africa. Brother Harold did his military service in Burma, so they were really in the thick of the military action. However, thank God, they came through it all unscathed.
My brother Jack was not physically fit for military service. My brother Willie and myself were exempt owing to being employed in the coal industry but, apart from that, I doubt very much whether I would have been accepted, owing to complete deafness in the left ear. Those that were physically fit gave some kind of war service simply because it was total war.
Rationing of some commodities continued for many years after the cessation of hostilities. Reconstruction in the whole of Europe was in itself a gigantic operation, so the government of this country knew the task that lay ahead. It was determined, however, to carry out a major socialist programme of nationalisation, the first target in line being the coal industry.
In January 1947 the coal industry was nationalised, followed by gas, electricity and the hospitals. In 1948 when the hospitals came under government control, I was nominated a member of the Wakefield A Committee in control of the General Hospital Clayton and Manygates Maternity Hospital, also the Mental Hospital at Oulton. We in our turn were answerable to the Leeds Regional Hospital Board.
Local elections were held immediately after the war. A Labour controlled council was elected for the Rothwell Urban District.
By 1948 I was very much involved. I was a mines inspector, local councillor, and a member of the Hospital Committees; I had my magisterial work and the Labour Party. Everything I did was voluntary, except for the work in the mines.
In 1948 I was elected Chairman of the Rothwell Urban District Council which pleased my family. A photograph of me is still displayed in the old council chamber, along with other past Chairmen.
One of the social highlights of the Chairman’s year was the Annual Chairman’s dance. My wife Alice had never been to a dance, owing to her inability to skip around to the beat of a good dance band. However, in preparation for my dance she had private tuition at Emily Demon’s Academy, which was just off Boar Lane in Leeds. So when my event was due to take place in Autumn 1948 she was quite good, particularly at a Modern Waltz and a Quick Step.
Alice’s first dance dress had to be good. Flowered brocade with a black velvet band to grace her neck. She looked stunning.
Another person who was delighted about the social evening was my mother, so I engaged a Rolls Royce car and before going along to the old Empire Cinema – now a Ball Room – we went along to see my mother a Eshald Place, Wooodlesford, to let her see Alice in her full regalia. She was overjoyed.
At the dance there were many of the local professional and business people, along with my supporters. Demand for tickets always exceeded supply. Alice and I started the evening’s event by dancing alone on the dance floor to the delightful Waltz music “The Anniversary Waltz”. This pleased the guests tremendously. Our first dance together in public. It really was a tremendous and memorable occasion.
My chairman’s year of office was interesting, attending conferences and local events, It was during my year of office that legislation was passed allowing a small authority to allocate monies for a chairman’s expenses. It did enable a chairman to make small donations to charities and to travel to functions with decorum. I had my own car so it was no problem, but for a chairman who had not the means to own a car the expense allowance was very useful.
In April 1949 my year of office came to an end, and I was succeeded by Councillor Charles Buckle. At the occasion of the chain of office being handed over to my successor, I was presented with a bound collection of the minutes of every committee and council meeting held during my year of office.
The last months of 1949 were a sad time for myself and my family. My mother developed what turned out to be a terminal illness – a cancer in her abdomen. She was a patient in the Leeds General Infirmary and when she was sent home her expectancy of life was about eight weeks.
It was a distressing period, particularly for me because I loved her. My sister Nellie proved to be a wonderful daughter and nurse my mother providing clean bedding and meticulous care every day, so much so that the district nurse attending my mohter daily made comments to that effect.
It was about one o’clock in the afternoon when my mother passed on. Most of my brothers and sisters were at her bedside. This was Boxing Day, 26th December, 1949.
It left a vacuum in my life. All of us in the family knew the only thing she was able to give was motherly love. What a hard life she had had. A large family and difficult times, including the periods of World War One and Two.
Mother was in her sixty-eighth year. My father was 74 and physically in good shape. Our loved one was interred in Oulton churchyard.
Life proceeded quite normally for the family, although the focal point had moved from mother to our elder sister Nellie and my father along with brother Jack (not yet married) at 8 Eshald Place. However, I was pleased my Mother lived to see me made Chairman of the Local Authority and to see Alice, my wife, attending the Chairman’s Ball.
The Labour Government was coming towards the end of its term of office in 1950 under the prime ministership of Clem Attlee. Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps, and Edith Summerskill were some of those who played a prominent part in government.
The nationalisation of coal, gas, the hospitals and steel placed a very heavy burden on those in parliament. Many all-night sittings took place as the Conservative opposition fought very hard to prevent or hinder the legislation from going through. They were equally adamant about their endeavours.
In 1950 came the election. Some commodities were still rationed. 1945 to 1950 had been a very difficult time for the Labour government. A terrific housing problem existed. It must be borne in mind that no houses had been built during the war, so there as a terrific backlog. Many young men returning from war service soon married, and were obliged to live with their parents. In some cases there were four families in one household. Council house building developed at a fair pace. Private building was allowed under licence, but was very much restricted. One had to bear in mind the demand for materials was extremely heavy, owing to the rebuilding of the areas damaged by enemy bombing.
Factories that had been on war production went back to producing goods to meet civilian demand. One example was the production of cars instead of fighter aeroplanes and tanks.
In the winter of 1947 the weather was so severe it placed a great strain on production, as the demand for heat and light was very heavy. Passenger trains were running unheated to save fuel. Power cuts were taking place daily. Electricity power stations could not meet the demand. Frost and snow hampered the movement of coal to power stations during the first few years after the war, which was a period of total commitment to rehabilitation. This made it possible to absorb into civilian employment the soldiers returning from the war.
We must remember that countries like France, Belgium, Holland and Germany also had gigantic problems facing them. As Germany was the defeated country, this meant that experts and others had to help rebuild its industrial capacity. In 1950 civil war was raging in Korea.
The communists, supported by China and the U.S.S.R., were active from the North. In the South, American and British troops were fighting with the South Koreans. From the North it was convenient for Russia and China to provide troops and weaponry. Ultimately, an agreement was made to divide the country, known as the 38th Parallel, with a Communist puppet (North Korea) to the North and Southern Korea to the South of the line. The Korean Civil War caused world prices of raw commodities to rise. A Labour Government elected by a small majority found it very difficult to govern with world prices rising, and Clem Attlee called an election.
Autumn 1951 was a turning point in my life. I must now go back to the 1950 election when Tom Judson Brookes was elected for the new Normanton constituency, including a large part of the now defunct constituency of Rothwell. Tom was now 70 years of age and he thought Labour would remain in power for at least three years, never expecting it to be one year as was the case. He notified Mr. Ernest Jones of the National Union of Mineworkers (Yorkshire Area) that he did not intend to fight another election. At that time to be a Member of Parliament for ten years earned a parliamentary pension subject to a means test. In point of fact when the 1951 election came Tom was just short of ten years. However, I believe the Parliamentary Pension Committee did allow him a slightly reduced pension.
I was on the Yorkshire Miners’ Parliamentary Panel and had been since 1940, so when Mr. Brookes announced in 1950 that he did not propose to fight another election, the Yorkshire Miners of the N.U.M. convened a meeting of Branches to which those whose names were on the Parliamentary Panel were invited. This was for a candidate to be chosen to fight the next election as a Miners’ Sponsored Candidate. Normanton was a safe miners’ seat so the candidate would have no difficulty in being elected.
The meeting for selection was held in Normanton Town Hall in 1951, and I was confident I would be selected. Tom Dawson of Rothwell Colliery and Sidney Schofield of Glasshoughton Colliery received one vote each.
About fifteen branches voted for me. Only branches in the constituency or affiliated branches could vote. So my mind was now on parliament and I thought I would have ample time to prepare. That was not to be. The Prime Minister, Clem Attlee asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call an election. So, after being selected but two or three weeks I was plunged into an election after going through the formalities such as being adopted by the constituency party. Along with the Agent I appointed Mr. Alf Clarke the task of preparing an Election Address and arranging meetings and the booking of meeting places. In all we agreed on 35 meetings throughout the constituency. This meant I had to do about three meetings a night, outdoor meetings and canvassing during the day.
During elections there are always some amusing incidents. On this occasion my Conservative opponent was Tony Heseldine, a chemist of Normanton. Both of us were thwarted by fog. It was so foggy my colleague Tom Dawson had to take on the job of walking in front of my car. This meant long delays and by the time we arrived at the meeting place we found it empty of people. But, happily, I was to hear that my opponent had had the same experience.
At the election the Conservatives were returned to power, but I did well eith a bumper majority of just short of twenty thousand. This gave me a great thrill. I knew I could look forward to many years in Parliament providing my health kept good which, as it turned out, it did. It also meant I was going to be away from home a major part of the time, leaving Alice my wife with Bryon and Marjorie. Bryon was studying hard for a career in medicine and Marjorie just commencing work in Leeds.
At that time I was tenanting a council house at 24 North Lane, Oulton. The housing situation throughout the country was very difficult indeed. The building of houses, private and council houses, had hardly got moving. Private houses could only be built if a licence was obtained from the Council.
It was the policy of the Council that a person living in a council house could exchange for a private house, meaning that if the exchange was agreed to, the person living in the private house would become the tenant of the council house. Such a policy was not in any way depriving an applicant for a council house. It meant the people doing the exchange were bound to live in the same local authority area, and an investigation was conducted by the Local Authority Housing Manager to make sure the family taking over the tenancy of the Council house were desirable.
Being now a Member of Parliament, I realised I should need some privacy, particularly when constituents wanted to see me at home. There was also the fact that local people thought I should not be a council house tenant.
Mr. Frank Arrowsmith, a colliery clerk whom I knew well was residing in Park Lane, Rothwell, in the house he owned, along with his wife who had an impediment in her walk. The number of the house was thirteen and it had a private name, Delamere, it bordered onto the Park.
Poor Frank suffered from cardiac asthma and, as the house he lived in was on a hill, he had extreme difficulty in walking to the main road at the top to get a bus to work. He did not have his own transport. Mrs. Arrowsmith had difficulty too in negotiating the hill, owing to her lameness.
As I have mentioned it was very difficult to obtain a licence to build, so he approached me to do an exchange. This of course would mean purchasing his house, and he would become a tenant of a council house. Having no spare cash I would have to take out a mortgage. Alice and I discussed whether we should take the plunge. Parliamentary salary at that time was £1,000 per year and we had to pay for all our own postage, so we certainly had no money to spare. Bryon, our son, was still studying hard and what Marjorie earned she needed, or so she said. However, we decided to accept. which of course meant I had to write to the Housing Manager, Mr. Jim Davies, informing him I wished to take advantage of the rule and do an exchange with Mr. and Mrs. Arrowsmith. It must be borne in mind that I was still a member of the Housing Committee, and Councillor Phillips was the Chairman.
The Housing Manager, after receiving my application, mentioned it to the Chairman in view of my being a member of the Committee. He in turn thought it should be discussed by the Committee.
Everything was in order but the vultures were waiting. A certain person who I knew badly wanted Arrowsmith’s house, but, of course, Arrowsmith’s could not sell it to this person because he had no other house to go to. Doing an exchange with me was the answer.
I must make it clear the question of exchange was quite open and above board, something that was happening all the time, providing it was suitable.
But this was no ordinary exchange, this was Albert! A certain wave of jealousy was evident, and it soon became a matter of public interest, with the Yorkshire Morning and Evening Post involved. Their reporters were scouring the area for any gossip they could pick up, so much so that the Leeds papers had it on their placards: “Normanton M.P. in Housing Controversy.”
What a wonderful start to a Parliamentary career!
Being in London I did not attend the Housing Committee when the question of the house exchange was discussed, and I was given to understand quite a few members expressed opinions, but not in my favour. However, it was agreed the exchange could go through. On principle I knew they could not stop it. The newspapers would not let the matter drop, and tried to interview Alice, my wife. She merely said to one reporter “It’s only sour grapes”. The Yorkshire Evening Post made a meal of that saying “Mrs. Roberts, speaking from her villa” with the emphasis on villa.
The Council Meeting was on a Wednesday, and it was taken for granted I would be at Westminster. I was determined to be at the Council Meeting, knowing that the part set apart for the public would be full, along with the press.
Permission to be away from Westminster to attend the Council Meeting was obtained, and still being a Member of the Council I could play my part.
When I walked into the Council Chamber just as the meeting was about to start, the look on some of the Councillors’ faces told its own story. They just had not the courage to say what they intended to say, had I not been there.
When the Housing Committee Minutes came up for approval there wasn’t a murmur. I just kept quiet. So it was a complete anti climax to the press and to the vultures. I knew in general the public were with me, and future events have proved it so. Without being conceited, my popularity and status grew. How did I know? Well, by the general reaction from the public whenever I came in contact with them. It was my determination to become a good constituency member, and I can claim my home was always Liberty Hall for any constituent seeking advice or help.
In parliamentary life it takes time to settle down, with the need to leave home for London on Monday mornings and return home on Friday. During my absence Alice would take phone messages and others to give me on my return. So at the weekend I would deal with them, as well as attending to public duties.
It was soon Monday morning again and off to London, with correspondence to deal with and quite often entertaining constituents who were anxious to be shown around the Houses of Parliament by their MP. It really was amazing how those in London on holiday or on business wanted to see Parliament or go into the gallery to listen to a debate.
The Speaker’s procession is always a spectacle for those making their first visit to Parliament, and I always used to strive to put them in a place where they would have a good view.
The first signal that a Parliamentary sitting is about to begin is a cry from a police officer resounding down the Lobbies just before 2.30 p.m. “Hats off, strangers!” The policemens’ helmets come off as well as the hats of male visitors present, for even the police who work there are “strangers”. it is one of the few occasions on which a policeman can be seen doing his duty without his headgear. This is a token of respect for a dignified procession which makes its way from the Speaker’s House to the Commons Chamber.
The Speaker’s Messenger comes first, then the Sergeant-at-Arms, wearing Court dress and sword, and with the mace over his shoulder, then the bewigged Speaker. The train of his long black gown is held by his train-bearer, who is also in court dress. Together in the rear come the Speaker’s black robed chaplain, and his secretary in morning dress. All this does impress the visitors, and many of them are from various parts of the world. It is as well to mention now that I was in Parliament amost 43 years, and as things turned out Labour was to be in Opposition until 1964.
So to be in the wilderness for 13 years on did give much hope of any progress Ministerial wise. Mid-forties is really the latest age at which one is offered Junior Ministerial Office.
In 1951 it did not enter my mind that my party would be in opposition for so long. One lived in hopes.
Now Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, and Clem Attlee Leader of the Opposition. A Tory government was in power so one could expect a different type of legislation.
The new prime minister was now 75 years of age, but still vigorous physically and mentally, having recovered from his disappointment at the 1945 Election. The electorial success of 1951 was indeed a tonic to him, and with his natural pugnacity and determination, he carried on as Prime Minister until 1955.
The Korean Civil War came to an end and this proved to be a blessing for the Conservative government. The price of imported raw materials began to fall, whereas during 1950-51 world prices were rising, which no doubt played a part in prompting Clem Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, to seek a general election.
Newcomer to Parliament as I was, I soon found that parliamentary life was not easy. The salary at that time was £1,000 a year. No office accommodation was provided, and a Member of Parliament had to pay for telephone calls outside London. We also had to pay for our own postage. What a difference today – a salary of about £25,000, and a very adequate living allowance when in London. All postage and telephone calls free, along with allowances for a secretary and research secretary of £20,000.
During my Parliamentary life up to 1964 it was very difficult for a Member of Parliament to run two homes, one in the Constituency and one in London, plus the other costs I have mentioned.
I soon discovered the bitterness that existed between various sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party. On one hand you had the broad stream of the party and on the other, the so-called left, the Tribune Group, with Michael Foot, Sidney Silverman, Aneurin Bevan, his wife Jennie Lee and Harold Wilson, who always seemed to have its support.
I would say the Tribune Group was about fifty members strong, but they were very vociferous. The struggle appeared to be about who would succeed Clem Attlee when he decided to retire. Without doubt the two front runners were Hugh Gaitskell, supported by the moderates, and Aneurin Bevan, supported by the left and the Tribune Group, with Harold Wilson or George Brown coming about third or fourth.
Parliamentary Labour Party Meetings were the scene of personal attacks, in the main by the left. The abuse that was blurted out really saddened me, particularly when we were dealing with the vexed question of German rearmament.
Hugh Gaitskell was the one that took my eye in and out of Parliament. He was a very modest man and to a degree he was shy. His speeches in the Chamber were always well thought out, and read well in Hansard. Harold Wilson was quite clever with his quips, but his speeches, in my opinion, did not read as well as those of Gaitskell.
Aneurin Bevan was considered by many to be the orator of the century. I found him good on the attack but mediocre in defence.
Clem Attlee’s speeches rarely lasted more than twenty minutes. He had a very clipped voice and he would give the facts with no padding at all to draw a speech out. A front bench speaker speaking from the despatch box was expected to speak for half an hour. Far too many back bench speakers dragged speeches out to last longer than they should. In my opinion, and the point has often been put, back bench speeches should be confined to ten to fifteen minutes. This would allow more members to be called. In a normal debate you have the opening speeches from the government front bench speaker and from the opposition front bench, each speech lasting about half an hour, so the first hour is taken up by front bench speakers. Then at nine o’clock front bench speakers again from the Government and the opposition. So, between approximately 5.00 p.m. until 9.00 p.m. back benchers are called to speak.
In 1952, George VI died and I remember walking through the House of Lords’ Chamber and noticing that one of the two chairs had been removed from the Throne, leaving just the one chair. That is still the position today. Just one chair for the Sovereign, the Queen.
I have a vivid recollection of the scene in Westminster Hall on the day of the funeral of the deceased King, with the members of the House of Lords on one side and members of the House of Commons on the other. The Royal Family, led by the Queen Dowager Mary, the widowed Queen, the Queen Mother and all the Royal Family processed from New Palace Yard into Westminster Hall for the Funeral Service.
The self control of the Royal Family during a very moving service impressed me tremendously. Not one handkerchief or tear from the chief mourners. It must have been a tremendous strain on them.
Elizabeth was heir to the Throne so arrangements were soon on the way for the Coronation in Westminster Abbey.
From the House of Lords’ Gallery I was very fortunate to be able to witness the Queen Apparent taking the Oath. Almost next to me was Richard Dimbleby describing the proceedings over the radio.
The actual Coronation of Elizabeth the Second took place in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Elaborate arrangements were made to accommodate the thousands of people that swarmed into London from all over the World. Kings and Queens, Heads of State and Countries, and other V.l.P.’s were invited for the service.
Weeks before the Coronation it was well nigh impossible to obtain reservations at London hotels, in spite of the rocketing prices.
Stands were erected all round Parliament Square and in New Palace Yard. I obtained seats for myself, Alice, our daughter Marjorie and Bryon’s girlfriend, Audrey Knee.
The day of the Coronation provided a memorable scene, in spite of the appalling weather. It poured with rain for hours, but that did not deter the public. It was a great spectacle.
Many events were to follow the Coronation. The one that gave my wife and I the greatest thrill was the Naval Review, June 1953, at Southampton. Fighting ships from all over the World gathered at Southampton. stretching miles ut to sea forming lanes for the Queen and entourage to sail.
Members of Parliament were invited to apply for tickets to be accommodated on an ocean-going liner forming part of the entourage.
I was lucky. I obtained two tickets for Alice and me on the Arcades, which was to be the third ship in the procession. Many other Members of Parliament were not so lucky, and were taken out to sea on a small ship just for the day.
It gave us a thrill to be part of the procession. In our cabin there was a list of the names of passengers on our ship, the Arcades.
To mention just a few, there was Clem Attlee, the Russian Ambassador, The Rt. Hon. John Strachey M.P. and many others I knew. In the evening sailing down the lanes between the ships of war was a very moving occasion. They were all floodlit as we sailed out to sea, and there we anchored.
In the evening there was a spectacular firework display. The ship’s decks were all set out with an abundance of exotic foods and drinks. It was a great event. In the morning we sailed back to Southampton. It had been a memorable occasion, which we still remember vividly.
The Royals had truly done a great job. I am sure that never again will there be such a collection of war ships from all over the World gathered at Southampton to pay homage to our Queen.
The Royal Air Force gave a Review which we attended to witness displays of many and various kinds of planes. It was interesting, but not so appealing as the Naval Review.
I was now settling down to Parliamentary life and we were set for 13 years of Conservative government.
One piece of legislation in which I was to play a part was the Mines and Quarries Bill 1954. This was about safety, health and welfare in these industries. Apart from making regulations and orders there had been no major legislation for forty years. But now circumstances had changed. New techniques and mechanisation had taken place over twenty years, and this was a sphere where a fresh look was needed and for which the National Union of Mineworkers had been pressing. It was a coincidence that the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, when President of the Board of Trade in the Liberal Government of 1911, had introduced the Coal Mines’ Bill in the House of Commons.
The Mines and Quarries Bill was a lengthy one, and as I was fresh from my duties as a Mines Safety Board Inspector I was expected to play a major part on the committee. I had after all experienced many changes in mining methods.
I found the committee work on the Mines and Quarries Bill very interesting. It necessitated regular meetings with the officials of the National Union of Mineworkers. Arthur Horner, General Secretary, Will Lawther and Ernest Jones were all anxious that we fight in committee for the views held by the N.U.M. so that the bill would give the greatest measure of safety and protection for those that work in such a hazardous industry.
The minister in charge of the bill was Geoffrey Lloyd, and to be fair he was most anxious that our delberaions anddisagreements should in the end produce a worthwhile bill.
The third reading in the chamber (almost the final stage before becoming an Act of Parliament) gave many mining MPs an opportunity to express opinions on the committee’s work. We all felt reasonably happy about the bill which was a vast improvement on the 1911 act. In view of mechanisation in the mining industry, it needed to be.
In 1955 there was a general election and I was again adopted as the Labour candidate. My Conservative opponent was the son of the coal owner, Major Currer Briggs. Briggs Company owned the Water Haigh Colliery I had worked at before the pits wecre nationalised.
A general election always brings about many changes in the Commons. Some Members are defeated, others retire. Many new faces appear in Parliament. I was elected with a resounding majority of 18,000, so it seemed the electorate were quite happy with my stewardship.
The Tories won the election and again formed the government with Mr. Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.
In the early fifties, the Parliamentary Labour Party sustained many losses. Good old stalwarts they were – Sir Stafford Cripps, Arthur Greenwood, and Ernest Bevin, who played such a major roll in the Cabinet. Clem Attlee had given up the leadership of the Labour Party and Leader of the House of Commons. These men, whose names were universally known, were all men of stature and had left their mark on British political life. In the contest for leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party, a ding-dong battle had been going on for a long time between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell, the latter emerging successful.
The Rt. Hon. Herbert Morrison had hopes of being leader, but like Bevan, he accepted defeat and quietly moved on to the House of Lords, accepting a life peerage.
After the 1955 Election Mr. Churchill did not stay long as Prime Minister. He was feeling the weight of his years, for by this time he was eighty years of age. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by Sir Anthony Eden, debonair and able, a man who had great experience in foreign affairs. He had been Churchill’s right-hand man for many years, so his succession to the Prime Ministership was expected. Other prominent politicians of the Tory Party were Rab Butler, Harold MacMillan and Selwyn Lloyd.
1956 was a momentous period when we had the Suez Crisis which had world-wide repercussions and resulted in ignominious defeat for the British Government and the French. The scenes in the House were unprecedented. There was uproar – the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, had a very rough time. There were occasions when the Speaker suspended the sittings.
The British and French Governments had been at variance with General Nasser, the Egyptian Leader, concerning ownership of the Suez Canal. There sas no doubt Nasser was a slippery customer to deal with.
It would have been different, I am sure, if the French and British had informed the United States Government what we intended to do.
In the Spring of 1956 I had been selected by the International Parliamentary Union to attend a Spring Conference in Duhrovnik, a Yugoslav town on the Mediterranean coast. It was at this Conference that I was elected representative for the Autumn Conference to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, on the subject of disarmament.
I had attended as a delegate under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union two years before. This time the Conference was held at Nice in France, and here it was that I became interested in the work of the I.P.U. Its membership consists of 80 parliaments or more, and it holds Spring Conferences to prepare the business for the Autumn Conferences. The subjects selected are usually topical. For instance it could be whale hunting, the problem of refugees, self-determination, or government control. Quite often, particularly if there are problems which affect people in a part of the world which has suddenly come to the forefront this will be debated.
The Interparliamentary Union was formed by a British and a French politician. The idea caught on and nearly every government in the world participates. The Union Headquarters are in Geneva. I shall return to my interest in the Interparliamentary Union at a later stage. Why I mention it now is because I attended the Conference in Bangkok at the time of the Suez Crisis.
I well remember the eve of departure for the Bangkok Conference. I can see Anthony Eden coming into the Chamber where, to my surprise, he declared to the House that we already had forces joining with the French on their way to invade Egypt. I was due to leave next morning for Beirut, where I was staying with Sir William Hamilton-Kerr for 2 or 3 days. We were then due to fly to New Delhi, and from New Delhi to Bangkok. Sir Malcolm Stoddard-Scott and Lady Scott were also on their way to the Conference. At the time Sir Malcolm was Chairman of the British Group, which was staying at the St. George’s Hotel in Beirut. I stayed that night with Sir William Hamilton-Kerr at his residence, and next morning we flew out to Beirut as planned.
Beirut was at that time capital of the Lebanon and a very prosperous country, known as the Paris of the Middle East. We were wined and dined by the oil people and by the ambassador. There was great commotion inside the Lebanon, a neutral country but located right in the heart of the Middle East. in view of the fact that we were now invading Egypt, the Syrians blew up a British oil pipe and severed diplomatic relations with the British. This caused chaos and pandemonium. All the oil people had flocked into Beirut. The British Ambassador to Syria and his wife had left Syria and were now in Beirut. I well remember the
Ambassador saying to us how sorry he was all this had happened because he had tried for years and years to improve relations between Syria and the British Government. Now, he said, all this was in ruins, and he was in tears. William Hamilton-Kerr prsed to write back to Harold MacMillan and I wrote back to Hugh Gaitskell.
The blowing up of the oil pipe, of course, altered our plans becasue we were due to leave Beirut for New Delhi. Our flight was due to pass over Syria but now no British planes were allowed to fly over that country. What were we to do? We decided to fly back to Rome and, my word, what a flight. I remember well the Piston-engined Hermes aeroplane full of oil employees, wives and children returning to England, and we were going back too. It was complete chaos. The flight took 7 hours, a tremendously long time to fly from Beirut to Rome. The weather was bad and that led to a detour. Owing to air turbulence, there were times when the plane would plunge probably 60 to 90 feet. This set all the children screaming and inside the plane it was pandemonium.
We duly arrived at Rome and I was pretty well shattered. The BOAC people had found us accommodation and we wanted a plane fly over Greece to Bangkok. I said to Hamilton-Kerr “If I can’t get a flight tomorrow morning, I am going back to London.” However, we were alerted and accommodation was found on a plane leaving Rome at about 5 or 6 in the morning to fly out to New Delhi over Greece.
This was quite a long flight. We came down in Karachi and from there I flew to New Delhi to stay with Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, the son of the late Lord Ramsey MacDonald. It was quite interesting to stay with the High Commissioner, and this was my first visit to India. He held a reception in our honour and an Austrian lady, wife of one of the clerks in the High Commissioner’s Office, suggested that I should see Agra. I said: “All right, I don’t mind.” She said: “If you wish you can have a car and I will come with you.” I said: “Very well,” and we duly departed next morning. Of course, you know of the old saying about seeing how the Taj Mahal at Agra looks in the moonlight. She said that I ought to stay overnight in Agra to see the Taj Mahal in the moonlight. I said: “No, I am afraid not because I am due back it the Commissioner’s Residence, and it would not be fair and would not look right for me to stay.” I could see from all this that she certainly had someone on the side, and was quite willing to stay in Agra overnight, but I would not have an of it and I returiw that night to New Delhi.
New Delhi in November is quite beautiful and the temperature ideal for the Western European, round about 75°F. This I thoroughly enjoyed and it was a nice rest too. We flew on from there to Rangoon in Burma, where we stayed overnight and I met Tufton Beamish and his wife Janet, and David Lidderdale, Clerk of the House of Commons and his wife Lola.
It was quite interesting to see Rangoon next morning. When we left we flew on to Bangkok. There were rumours about the Conference being called off owing to the British and French invading Suez. However, common-sense prevailed and the Conference took place.
Now at the Conference, as I have mentioned previously, I was a rapporteur and spoke on disarmament. My report was very well received and, of course, I was able to refer to the Suez Crisis and to the invasion of Hungary, and I made reference to the double standards of Nehru, the Leader of the Indian Government. After the Conference I visited Singapore, Hong Kong and Ceylon.
A CHANGE AT THE TOP
The Suez episode left its mark on the Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden. He became ill and resigned not only the Premiership but also his seat in Parliament. He accepted a peerage and became Lord Avon. Who was to be his successor? Who was to restore the fortunes of the Tory Party not only at home, where they had declined, but abroad, particularly in the United States of America which strongly disapproved of Britain’s part in the Suez affair? There was a lot of speculation that the choice would be Mr. R.A. Butler, someone who had always played a leading part on the Tory benches. The choice, Mr. Harold Macmillan, was a surprise to many. He formed a new Government and set about reviving the Tory fortunes.
1957 was a happy year for my wife Alice and me. Bryon, our son, obtained his medical degree after years of study and perseverance, and this meant he would set out on a medical career at the Leeds General Infirmary. He went on to practice in pathology, and then in haematology. Today he is Head of the Department at the Infirmary and at Cookridge Hospital. We are pleased he chose the right profession. In his particular medical field he is well known nationally. He obtained an M.D. Degree at Leeds University, the very first one to be presented by the newly appointed Vice Chancellor, Sir Edward Boyle, whom I knew well when he was a Member of Parliament.
The next two years saw the marriage of our son Bryon to Audrey Knee of Oulton, at the village church of St. John’s, and of Marjorie, our daughter to Malcolm Kelly of Wakefield, at St. Mary’s R.C. Church at Rothwell.
Harold Macmillan dissolved Parliament in 1959, seeking to lead a Tory Government to power. His election slogan to the electorate was “You never had it so good.” It is true to say there was very little unemployment, bearing in mind that the country was still reconstructing after the devastation of World War Two.
The Labour Party was lead by Hugh Galiskell in the general election, with every hope of victory. It was not to be, and Labour were defeated. My standing in the constituency was still very good, and I vas elected by a substantial majority.
A few months after the 1959 election, Aneurin Bevan, a stalwart of the Labour Party, was taken ill. It was a terminal illness and in the middle of the following year he died. Soon afterwards Hugh Gaitskell also died.
The loss of the Leader and Deputy Leader was a tragic loss to the Labour Party, and in my opinion this had some effect upon its fortunes. The loss of Hugh Gaitskell, without doubt, was a loss to me. His constituency of South Leeds bordered onto mine, so we were neighbours. Had Hugh succeeded in leading a Labour Government as Harold Wilson did in 1964, my political career would have been different.
Aneurin Bevan came from the mining valleys of Wales. Hugh Gaitskell was a brilliant academic. They had different temperaments and approaches to problems, which often led to clashes, but more about means than ends.
The leadership of the Labour Party was wide open, and the three likely candidates were Harold Wilson, George Brown and Jim Callaghan. In those days the leadership of the Party was decided by the Parliamentary Labour Party. This is not the rule today, when the Party Leader is decided by the Party Conference. As you can well imagine a great deal of canvassing between Labour Members of Parliament took place. As George Brown was a trade union sponsored member like myself, I was supporting him. There was no doubt that Wilson was busy soliciting support and a whispering campaign was prevalent about George Brown and his drinking. All this to me was very detestable, and after two ballots Harold Wilson was successful. After the first ballot Wilson looked the likely winner, and it was said that one or two members seeking favours spoke to Harold on the phone stating they would support him in the second ballot.
They hoped that if he became Prime Minister, they would be offered a ministerial post. I was actually approached to support Harold Wilson, and I said I would not give my support. I feel sure that my refusal was passed on to him, and I have realised since that he did not forget or forgive. I have never looked upon Harold Wilson as a statesman. He rewarded his friends well, but carried enmity towards those that did not support him for the Leadership. As time went on it was quite evident that was his policy and I could give instances of favours being given by him to those who really did not merit reward. Others that did were deliberately overlooked. Harold Wilson was not a good socialiser, nor could he be accused of being a leftist politician. He more or less sat on the fence, coming down on the side that suited him. The strange thing about it all was that Harold drew most of his support from the left of the Party, including the Tribune Group.
In 1963 Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, decided to leave Parliament. There was no immediate election. Parliament could go for another year before the statutory limit of flve years had arrived. The Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Home, was chosen by the Tory Party to succeed Harold Macmillan. The Earl of Home took advantage of the provisions of the Peerage Act (1963) to renounce his title and make himself available for a seat in the House of Commons. Mr. R.A. Butler, in the shadows as in 1956, was again passed over. Had it not been for the Life Peerage Act, enabling the Earl of Home to renounce his seat in the Lords, the choice would have been Mr. Butler? Who knows?
There was a by-election in the Scottish constituency of Perth and Kinross. Sir Alec Douglas Home, as he now was, won the election and became Prime Minister, but only for a few months, until the election of 1964.
I was again elected with a handsome majority. The national result however was close with Labour gaining an overall majority of three. Her Majesty the Queen sent for Harold Wilson to form a Government. On each occasion when a division took place, Members would wait anxiously for the result on which survival depended. On many occasions sick Members had to be brought by ambulance to be in the precincts of the House of Commons, when a Whip could vote on his or her behalf. This was always a breathtaking business, particularly when we were debating a serious subject, and very arduous for Members as it meant long hours without let-up. Naturally the Opposition makes it as difficult as possible, in the hope of bringing the Government down.
WORLD REFUGEE PROBLEM
There was also a world problem of refugees which seemed almost insoluble. These unfortunate people were crying almost in a wilderness depending upon help from any source.
I was so saddened by the appalling stories of hunger and poverty, particularly where the Palestinians were concerned that I raised the question in Parliament on 26th April, 1960. Seeing the problem is still with us I feel it worth while to record what happened.
The resolution was as follows:
Mr. Speaker: “That this House, recgnising the extensive needs which still exist among refugees in many parts of the world, and noting the generous response already made by all sections of the British people to the World Refugee Year appeal, calls upon Her Majesty’s Government to increase its contribution towards alleviating the plight of the thousands of Algerian Refugees in Tunisia and Morocco; and while welcoming the recent relaxationin health regulations which has allowed hardship cases to enter this country under sponsorship during World Refugee Year, is of the opinion that these facilities should be continued for so long as there is need, and urges Her Majesty’s Government, when considering applications from refugees wishing to come to the United Kingdom, to give special consideration to those who are the victims of Nazi concentration and slave labour camps.”
Mr. Roberts is entitled to discuss the subject matter on the main Question.
Mr. Roberts: “Thank you, Mr. Speaker. It will no doubt have been noted that the world refugee problem is receiving universal consideration. The response in the United Kingdom at present is most gratifying, but we are dealing with a problem which has touched so many people’s hearts that I feel that Her Majesty’s Government should at least make some additional contribution towards alleviating the plight of these people before the World Refugee Year comes to an end, on, I believe, 31st May this year.
A lot could be said about this subject. Many of my Honourable friends have seen the appalling misery of these poor people. We can all tell rather moving stories about them, and people have been roused by what they have heard, which is why the response to this appeal has been more than one would have expected. This House, in particular, owes some kind of debt to the young men who first discussed the formation of a World Refugee Year.
On 5th December, 1958, the United General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Governments to promote a World Refugee Year starting on 1st June, 1959, as a practical means of focussing interest on world refugee problems and to attract contributions and encourage national action. The idea originated with a group of young people in Britain, and it is wonderful to know that the idea started in this country. I am sure that those young people will have been amazed at the support that has been given to the idea throughout the United Kingdom.
What is a refugee? I am sure the more that one reads about this subject the more one wants to know about it. I do not look upon this as a political matter, although it is rather ironical that it is political issues which make refugees. Curiously enough it was Lenin, when in exile, who said: “A refugee is a man who votes with his feet. There is a bigger pedestrian poll today than ever before. They vote for freedom. We ignore their votes at our peril.”
It is strange to realise that the revolution in Russia was responsible for thousands of refugees. Why have these people been persecuted for so long? People are refugees owing to a political connection or belief, or because of membership of a political society, and therefore, being outside their own country, they do not receive the protection of their country. We have them in the Middle East, in the Far East, and on the Continent. They are all over the world. This has been going on not for one generation but for quite a few generations.
Refugee problems have arisen throughout history as a result of war and revolution, and racial and religious persecution. The Huguenots came over in the seventeenth century bringing their crafts, ingenuity and skill. That was not all one-sided, for we gave them comfort and asylum and they gave us something which is of advantage to industry.
This problem should receive attention at an increasing momentum until it is completely resolved. As a result of the Russian Revolution in 1917, 2 million people left Russia. Between 1890 and 1920, the Armenians were persecuted by the Turks, resulting in a million of these people being scattered all over Europe. Most of us remember the Spanish Civil War quite well. This resulted in about a quarter of a million people leaving Spain and seeking refuge on the Continent. Some came to this country. So far, they have not been able to return to their own country.
Then, 400,000 German, Austrian and Sudeten Jews had to leave their country in 1939. In 1947, another half million left that part of the world, some settling in this country and some in the Middle East. This has been one Continuous process, particularly since the First World War. It is astonishing to realise that quite a number of Europeans are living in China, and many of these have now been forgotten.
In the name of humanity, I am surprised that the conscience of the world has not been roused much earlier than it has been. I am astonished, when we talk about civilisation and social advancement, to learn that we allow people to live in degredation and misery. I am sure that our feelings on this side of the House are equalled by the feelings of any political movement in the world, and I know that Right Hon. and Hon. Members opposite feel the same sympathy. Her Majesty’s Government have devoted a good deal of attention to the matter. Our appeal tonight, however, is that more should be done.
Three years ago, I was in Hong Kong. Anyone visiting Hong Kong, and seeing the squatters’ camps there and the huts perched on top of buildings where people crowd together to live, cannot but feel moved by the appalling spectacle there. The poor Chinese people, of course, still burn joss sticks to keep away evil spirits and from time to time huge conflagrations break out, fire rages through the camps and lives are lost, but in a few days, the camps spring up again and the same conditions are repeated.
My Hon. friend the Member for Gateshead (Mr. Randall) has been living as a refugee during the past week and he has recounted his experiences to me. He tells me that it is a considerable hardship to exist for two days in such conditions. How terrible it must be for the millions of people to continue their lives, year in and year out, in such conditions.
In Hong Kong, the Government have done tremendous work, but, in spite of what they have done and what has been done from this country, the intractable refugee problem there is as severe now as it was two or three years ago. Before the war, the population of Hong Kong was about 1½ million. Today it is 3 million. The only hope lies in more money and more visas. In that way, some amelioration of conditions in Hong Kong could be brought about. It is a massive problem, and we shall continue to speak about it until it is completely solved.
In the Middle East the ten months’ campaign between the Arabs and the Israelis, from April 1948 until February 1949, resulted in the flight from Palestine into neighbouring territories of nearly I million destitute Arab refugees. Those Arab refugees have endured appalling conditions for nine years now, in exile. The situation has become so stagnant there that the refugee has become an institution; the ration card is his only security. When thinking about this perpetual Arab refugee problem, it is well to remember that more than 400,000 Jews have been forced to leave their homes in Iraq, the Yemen and North Africa. They were not counted, as many of them found homes in Israel. What a complex problem it all is. It impinges upon some of our political difficulties, and, because the political issues are still unresolved and there is as yet no satisfactory settlement there, the future for the refugees seems hopeless.
The whole world faces a serious moral challenge. When one sees the conditions in which refugees live in Hong Kong or elsewhere, it is easy to be greatly moved, but, when one returns to a decent standard of life in one’s own country, one tends to forget. No Hon. Member on either side of the House will deny that, when confronted with the spectacle of how these unfortunate people have to live, he has said to himself, “Cannot we do something to help?”
In Europe, there is a great problem. Many of the refugees are chronically sick. Sonic of the children we see running about there were born in the refugee camps and have never known a home. Some local authorities in Britain are assisting in a small way. In my own constituency, we are giving a home to one family and helping to find work for them. A wonderful response is being made there and elsewhere in Britain, as I know very well. Much good work has been done by the United Nations. But much more could be done. When Russia reasserted her authority in Hungary, the obstacles were overcome. In 1956, when the trouble began 250,000 people left Hungary. One hundred and eighty thousand went to Austria and 20,000 went to Yugoslavia. Special efforts were made to find new homes for them. Trade union leaders went to the Continent and arranged for people to be brought to this country, and they are now being assimilated with our own people. Some went to Canada, some went to Australia, and some went to the United States of America. By the end of 1958, there were only 15,000 left. We had dealt with 250,000 people out of Hungary.
Why can we not do something about the others? We can do it if we are determined. Admittedly, this country cannot do it alone, but our purpose in this debate tonight is to focus attention on the problem once again and to remind the Government that the people of Britain are still interested, as has been clearly shown by their reaction to the World Refugee Year.
Britain has always been a haven for the refugee. I mentioned the Huguenots, and I could cite many more examples. I appeal to the Minister. If we make even a small gesture here this evening, it will echo throughout the world. There are 78 countries associating together now on the refugee problem, but the World Refugee Year cannot go on indefinitely. It will succeed to some extent this year, and a tremendous effort has been made.
This is not a political matter. The Government must realise that, if they are prepared to go a little further, they will have the full support of the whole country. Let us give that moral leadership about which so many Hon. Members speak when discussing other political issues. How can we go to bed each night to sleep believing that everything is all right with the world? We know very well that it is not. By a determined effort, we can do a great deal towards solving this terrible problem.
Can we make a definite offer here this evening? I am sure that every Hon. Member who will speak in this debate will support the World Refugee Year, but it is our job to do more than that. We must lead these unfortunate people out of the unreal into the real. It is our job to lead these people out of the darkness into the light. Only by talking about the problem and by galvanising people into action can we do this.
I hope that the Minister will at least give us some hope that more will be done before 31st May. I should like the Government to increase our contribution from £200,000 to £500,000. This would set an example. I know that this country has done much in the past. Whatever Government have been in power, there has always been a spirit of generosity.
I am not criticising the Government. My own party, when it was in power from 1945 to 1951, also did a tremendous job for the refugees. From 1951 to 1960 much has been done for them. When I cast my mind back to 1939 I remember that millions of pounds were set aside to help Czech refugees. A kind of trust was formed to help them. I remember what was done for the Poles who fought with our countrymen, and who have now become part of our life and of our character. They have been completely assimilated into our communities.
I appreciate all that and I thank the Governments in both parties for what the have done, but the object of this debate is to appeal that, as a gesture, our contribution of £200,000 should be increased to £500,000. People in Great Britain have responded far more than the organisers of the World Refugee Year anticipated. This House owes a debt to all those organisations that have worked tremendously hard during the last eleven months of this year in helping to alleviate the suffering that exists, these festering sores, in different parts of the world. I trust that the Minister will say something which will give us a little confidence and I hope that something more will be done before 31st May.” I am pleased to say the Government responded to my plea.
During the early sixties unemployment started to rear its head. Unemployment is always a political issue. Promises are made but to a large extent a lot depends on world problems and reciprocal trade. With a very slender majority it was realised a Government Election was ever present on the horizon and on March 31st 1966 an election was held. Labour were again returned with a slightly improved majority. Still it was hard going. I did well, my majority was 23,332. So you can imagine I felt good, knowing that I had wonderful support in the constituency.
In the early fifties I became a Member of the Anglo-Parliamentary Group, eventually to become its Chairman. It was my lot to lead Parliamentary delegations to Spain which did not please the hard Left of the Labour Party. Spain at that time was ruled, one might say, by a benevolent Dictator, General Franco, who emerged succesful from the Civil War, a bloody struggle in the late thirties and early forties against the Popular Front and the International Brigade. I collected monies in support of the International Brigade. General Franco received support from two dictators, Hitler of Germany and Mussolini of Italy. I don’t propose to go in detail into the causes of the Civil War, but to deal with the future of the Spanish people. As I realised, the gravedigger was on the side of the Spanish people, meaning that when Franco passed on, Spain would become a true democracy and eventually a Member of the European Common Market. This is what we were working for, and when I visited Spain with a delegation our speeches were in that vein. One could not visit Russia and have the same freedom.
The Spanish people are fun-loving and proud of family life. I made many Spanish friends, particularly the Spanish Ambassador, His Excellency Santa Cruz. He always referred to me by my Christian name and insisted I called him Pepe. He and his wife were of the Spanish aristocracy, and I am informed his antecedents actually sailed with the Spanish Armada.
My father, who lived in sheltered accommodation at Midland House in Woodlesford was very comfortable on his feet and physically as quite well. His hearing was fading a little, but he was otherwise in good shape. He kept up his appearance well, and still liked to dress up in a dark suit and white shirt. My eldest sister, Nellie, in spite of her arthritis, looked after him well, and always made sure he had a good supply of clean shirts and handkerchiefs. Nellie was rather obsessed with cleanliness; but this is nevertheless a very good fault. She kept this up in spite of having to nurse her sick husband, Harry.
On the first Sunday in August 1965, I said to Alice: “Shall we take my father and his lady friend for a run in the car?” This we did, so we went on the newly opened M1 motorway from Stourton to the other side of Wakefield, leaving the motorway and running round my father’s old haunts before returning to my home for a drink. I never realised then it was to be his last run in the car with me.
He had been in the house about ten minutes when my father started to have difficulty in breathing. It gradually got worse so I decided to send for my sister Nellie and my son Bryon. We knew we had to send for father’s doctor also, which we did. As he was off duty we had to wait some 40 minutes before an emergency doctor arrived, along with a nurse. Their opinion was at first glance that my father was on his way out; as one could detect there appeared to be a gradual deterioration. After about half an hour the old boy rallied and appeared to be slightly better. In view of this the doctor said it would be safe to have him removed to Pinderfields Hospital. The ambulance was sent for and he was soon on his way.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I rang the hospital next morning to find out how Dad was. Low and behold the reply was: ”He’s a little better and had a breakfast of poached egg and toast.” Naturally the family made their daily pilgrimage to hospital and we were beginning to think about him being discharged. Then on 14th August 1968, I received a phone message from the hospital, asking me to go there at once.
Father had died. He just rolled over smoking his pipe. He had worked hard in the pits all his life, had never been in hospital before, and had led a hard and active life. He liked a pint of bitter beer, and was a great meat eater. His only recreation was walking. He died at almost 93 years of age and the end coming suddenly and peacefully. I should mention he did like to have a bet on a horse. His sister, Lily, died at the age of 97, his sister Florence at the age of 92 and today his last remaining sister died also at the age of 92. So that is a pretty good record.
INTER PARIAMENTARY UNION
Having now served on the Inter-Parliamentary Union Executive continuously since 1954, my aspiration was to become Chairman of the United Kingdom Branch, which means being elected by Members of Parliament. In 1967 I was elected to an office that can only be held for a maximum of three years.
During the sixties I introduced the Sporting Events Bill.
It was becoming a common practice for gambling to take place at sporting events without the permission of promoters, and I promised to introduce a Bill to rectify the anomalous situation. I was in for a very late sitting. It was at 4.37 am. that I was called by Mr. Speaker to bring in the Bill and move accordingly. My opening passage was: “I appreciate that this is not a propitious moment in the life of this Parliament to bring in this Bill, but having given notice some weeks ago of my intentions to do so…”
I continued: “Since the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Act 1963 was introduced, there has been a change in forms of betting, and I think this is high time we looked at the whole situation. At the moment it is possible for a bookmaker to have a book on any kind of sport – without paying any contribution to it. All kinds of sports are affected, and I can state categorically that this measure has the support of the M.C.C., of the Rugby Union, of the Rugby League, of the Lawn Tennis Association and other sports. Most of these sports have very heavy overheads, and financially they have a struggle to keep going. I therefore feel that if bookmakers are making money out of these sports they should make some financial contribution to them.
Betting seems to be entering the way of life of a majority of people. The situation is becoming very loose indeed. I am pretty broadminded on this issue and I am not against people being allowed to bet, but if bookmakers want to run books, or pool promoters want to run pools, they should make a contribution towards the sports on which they are taking bets.”
I went on to say more concerning the Bill, particularly as in the North betting took place on Crown Green Bowling results, and also the National Greyhound Association was keen to have restrictions placed on bookmakers. I am pleased to say the Bill went through all the stages successfully to become law. So I feel sure I made a useful contribution.
Another general election was on my wife’s birthday – June 18th 1970. My Conservative opponent, a Mr. Cargill, worked very hard to make a mark, which he did to some extent, but I emerged successful with a majority of well over 15,000. However it was a Conservative government that was elected with Ted Heath as Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister soon experienced a confrontation with the National Union of Mineworkers, which was most difficult indeed and, in fact, resulted in the Prime Minister asking the nation to work a rate of three days per week to conserve energy. There was no doubt that this brought about the downfall of Heath, but nevertheless it turned out to be a victory for the N.U.M. This brought about an election rather earlier than the Prime Minister intended, i.e. 10th October.
The 1974 election resulted in a victory for Labour with Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. It was during his tenure that Wilson, to the surprise of everyone, resigned from the premiership. Why he suddenly decided to resign I do not know. Perhaps he may have been advised medically to do so. However, we had the usual ballot for leadership and James Callaghan emerged successful. That was in 1976 and the Labour Government under Callaghan went on until 1979, when the country thought in Autumn 1978 that Jim Callaghan would have to go to the country. I know that a lot of constituencies made preparations and certainly the T.U.C. were ready. However, he allowed the date to go by, much to the regret of many of us because this brought about what is now known as “The Winter of Discontent”.
The employees, particularly of Local Authorities, went on strike led by their union, the N.U.P.E., which was not happy about their wage award. It certainly caused problems. It was a good job it was a hard winter in one sense, because in most areas throughout the country corpses were left unburied, grave diggers were on strike, and there is no doubt that the action of the Local Authority employees had a profound effect upon the populace. They were no doubt disgusted by the action of these workers.
We in the Labour Government realised that the electorate would take note of this, and they did, because in the 1979 election the Conservatives were successful. Margaret Thatcher, being the Leader of the Conservative Party was the one that the Queen sent for to form a Government, and up to the time of writing, 1987, Margaret Thatcher is still in office. After the 1979 election, having again been elected by a large majority, I knew that, being turned 70, I should be thinking about retiring and this I did in 1983.
I just want to say that during my Parliamentary life, that was from 1951-1983, I had been in Parliament under the Prime Ministerships of Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Douglas Home, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher and, of course, during the period I was in Parliament I saw five different Speakers, so I consider I have had a fair run. It gave me great opportunities to see the world, and during that period to meet many notable people, and I can look back with good measure of satisfaction. I can also truthfully say that I have never once missed Parliament through illness, and I consider that to be a good record by any standard.
I would like to say a word about Prime Minister Churchill. He was there from 1951 to 1955. I would say that he was a regular sort of man, but one must remember that Members of Parliament did not stand on ceremony. I remember on one occasion, he was replying to questions when someone shouted boo. Another Member shouted:“What else can you say, but boo to a goose.” This is the kind of repartee that goes on in the House of Commons, and is always accepted in the spirit in which it is given.
At that time there was a Labour member called Emrys Hughes, and there had recently been quite a lot of poisoning scares in the USSR. There is no doubt that Emrys was very much to the left but at the same time it was known that he had his own brand of humour. I remember on one occasion when he asked Churchill why he didn’t contemplate a visit to the USSR, and Churchill, in his gruff way, replied: “Ah, my honourable old friend, surely you would not like me to go to Russia where there is so much scare about individuals in the hierarchy being poisoned.” Emrys Hughes replied: “Mr. Speaker. If the Right Honourable Gentleman does visit Russia and the worst should happen, he could rest assured the House would bear it with its usual fortitude.” Well, of course, that caused quite a deal of laughter in the Chamber, and Churchill took it in a very light-hearted way.
Well, as we know, when Anthony Eden succeeded Churchill. Churchill stepped down and was prepared to be a back bencher. Anthony Eden, with great experience as Foreign Secretary always looked the likely candidate to succeed Churchill and it was during his Prime Ministership that we had the Suez Crisis. No doubt history will record it, if it has not already done so. The poor man was dogged with pretty poor health and he stepped down to be replaced in 1957 by Harold MacMillan. You all know the two phrases attached to MacMillan. When he visited South Africa, he made reference to the “Wind of Change”, and in the 1959 election when Labour thought they were going to win, MacMillan came out with the phrase “You never had it so good”. The Conservatives were successful in that election.
Harold MacMillan then succumbed to ill health and was replaced in 1963 by Douglas Home, who was there for a short period until the 1964 election. This brought Labour to power, the first time since 1950. Harold Wilson was at that time Leader of the Labour Party and he became Prime Minister. In 1970 Labour were defeated and Edward Heath was Prime Minister until 1974. From 1974-1976 Wilson was again Prime Minister.
I never really got on with Harold Wilson. He always remembered that in the earlier days I had supported Hugh Gaitskell. Harold Wilson was a man that was good to his friends, but who never proved himself a statesman because he carried malice against those who were not in his circle. It is well worth recalling that the Labour Party and the Labour Government do not support the dishing out of knighthoods. Practically all Conservative Members, if they have done about 10-12 years in Parliament, receive a knighthood. The ironic thing, of course, is that both Wilson and Callaghan have taken all the honours they could get. At the time of writing it is true to say that Callaghan will go to the House of Lords, he has already received the Companion of Honour from the Queen, and this was given to Harold Wilson also. However, there it is, I have enjoyed my political life, and as I have said previously, I have no regrets.
END OF AN ERA
As one of a family of twelve I am pleased to say a good number of relatives live round about. So that is a compensation. To conclude I am pleased to say I was never absent from Parliament through sickness during the 32 years of membership for which I am most grateful, and I am also particularly grateful for the wonderful support and loyalty I received from my electorate.
3 February, 1988.