Peter Barnsley looks into Cradley's Liberal tradition, and old-time election meetings.
This essay first appeared in The Blackcountryman, Spring 1969, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp.58-60
Cradley has always been an area with a persistent Liberal tradition and, although Liberal dominance is now strongly disputed by the Socialists, the photograph reproduced here should stir the fighting blood of that dwindling band of Liberals who still go misty-eyed at the names of Asquith and Wilson (the latter for many years holding the local Parliamentary seat almost by prescriptive right).
Indeed, like all old photographs, this one is likely to arouse nostalgia on several counts. Whatever you think of Liberal policies of the period, you could be forgiven a passing sigh for the sartorial elegance of the party faithfuls: the button holes, wing collars, waistcoats and watch chains. The moustaches and beards have almost vanished too - except among student revolutionaries - but perhaps it is the central figure of "Mogy" Clewes which is the most symbolic of the passing of time. Frock-coated and patriarchal, he is a 19th Century man, and though he seems to be gazing wisely into the future, it is to be hoped that for his own peace of mind, he could not foresee it with any accuracy.
The occupations of these men provide a clue to the reason for Cradley's Liberal tradition. Almost without exception, the men in the photograph are small tradespeople or craftsmen who would obviously support Liberal Free Trade policies which meant cheap imports of raw materials and foodstuffs. Most people support a political party for reasons of self-interest, and there is little reason to believe that our grandparents were any exception.
But there was the further connection in Cradley between Liberals and Non-conformism. The chainmaker was a man of independent outlook; he preferred the dissenting voice of the chapel to the established hierarchy of the church. The Tories were churchgoers and the church had a definite aura of aristocracy about it. It was only during the lifetimes of the men on this photograph that the practice of curtseying to the Vicar was gradually abandoned.
Perhaps it was a combination of these two things - self interest on the one hand and a real radical and independent outlook on the other - which made Cradley Liberal. Not that the Liberals had it all their own way. There was an active Conservative minority and feelings at election times ran high. Processions and fights were part of accepted election ritual.
School children were devoted adherents of one side or the other - not well informed but very vociferous. Liberal children had a well known jibe against the Conservative leader, Joseph Chamberlain, which they chanted to the tune of "John Brown's Body". This rhyme stated, in three successive lines, that Old Joey Chamberlain had only got one eye, and concluded with the hint that he'd "soon have ne'er 'un at all". Mr. Chamberlain had two eyes; the rhyme being an allusion to the fact that he wore a monocle.
They also implored everyone to the tune of 'Tramp, tramp, tramp" to 'Vote, vote, vote', for Mr. Wilson, for Mr. Wilson was sure to win the day. The verse concluded with the promise that the soldiers they would come, with a double-barrelled gun, and blow all the Tories away. The tune still survives in Cradley as a children's skipping rhyme. Only the first three words - 'Vote, vote, vote,' remain unaltered to prove that it once did service in more partisan pursuits.
It is a pity that the old-time election meetings are now only a fading memory. Much of the heckling was more notable for vigour and persistence than aptness and wit, but at least one candidate was put out of his stride by an astute remark from the floor. The occasion was an election shortly after the 1914-18 war. The growing Labour Party sent a pacifist to support the Labour candidate. He had been a conscientious objector during the war and had seen neither the mud in Flanders nor the flies in Gallipoli. He spoke forcefully, and the climax of his speech was a fierce and mounting tirade against Lloyd George, couched in a series of rhetorical questions and enumerating in considerable detail the follies and vices of the Liberal leader, each new disclosure being more dreadful than the last.
Finally, he came to the most damning indictment of all. "And why," he beseeched his audience, "why didn't Lloyd George hang the Kaiser?"
There was a moment's deep silence broken by a dry, sardonic voice from the back. "Ar!" said the voice, "and why day thee goo an 'elp ter catch 'im?" It was a classic reply from an old soldier to a civilian; it was unanswerable.
Feelings rarely run high nowadays. A man can even have divided loyalties like the Liberal voter who, in the evening of a 1960 election, had to rush his wife into the maternity home for the imminent arrival of their first-born. His mother-in-law was a Conservative and had retired to the Conservative Club to await the result of the election. He went to tell her of matrimonial developments and stayed for a drink. After a convivial hour, he passed on to the Liberal Club to join his fellow Liberals in their election vigil. Leaning on the bar, he lifted his first pint and paused meditatively as the froth reached collar stud height.
"Well, I'm a fine bloke," he said to the drinker at his right elbow. "I've just bin in the Tory Club, 'ere I bin now in the Liberal Club, an' I'm damned if I ay gone an' left me wife in labour!"
The men in the photograph are, of course, long dead. They would probably have adapted to the modern election technique of broadcasting by loudspeaker from a closed car and would have accepted the disappearance of the street parades and shouted rhymes. But it seems to me that there is just a trace of wistfulness spreading over the faces of these Liberals as they yearn hopelessly for that more virile and colourful age when the insignia of manhood were a flowing moustache, a wing collar, and unswerving devotion to whichever political party supported your own interests.
This essay is © Copyright Peter Barnsley, who has generously granted permission to Cradley Links to reproduce it on this web site.