Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
“But you must, Mr Parrott. All headmasters in Westmorland subscribe to the Consevative Association.” It was 1925, and two well-dressed ladies had made an unannounced call on the new headmaster in Kirkby Stephen. Westmorland was always like that, a place where people were assumed to be Conservative.
Politically Westmorland, like Cumberland, was dominated by the Lowthers. The county returned a Conservative MP and so powerful was the Lowther interest that, locally, the party adopted the colour of the Yellow Earl, rather than their traditional blue.
Westmorland was largely an agricultural county. There were small pockets of industrial activity, in Kendal and on the railway at Kirkby Stephen and Tebay and at mines such as Greenside, but there was little interest in radical politics.
One exception in the late nineteenth century was the Rev H.V.Mills, who became vicar of Kendal in the 1880s. He saw the workhouse as degrading and humiliating and created his own experimental self-sufficient community at Starnthwaite Mill. He became the first Labour member of the county council in 1892 for the Sandes Ward in Kendal.
Elsewhere, through the influence of Ruskin, the Arts and Crafts Movement had its disciples in furniture makers such as The Simpsons of Kendal and Stanley Webb Davies in Ambleside. These were men who practised socialist principles in their workplaces, at the same time as they were helping to furnish the aristocratic villas of wealthy industrialists who came to live in the Lakes.
The movement for Women’s Suffrage was strong in the county. Margaret Llewelyn Davies and Lillian Harris ran the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Kirby Lonsdale and other middle and upper class women, such as the author, Mrs Humphrey Ward in Ambleside, ensured that the county participated strongly in the national debate.
In 1924 Reginald Burnett stood as a Labour Candidate for the Westmorland Divisional Parliamentary election. He held small, but lively meetings throughout the county in the brief campaign fought against an experienced and “well-oiled” Conservative machine. The newspapers were mocking. Running headlines like “Socialism now means dear food,” and “We can’t afford money for the Bolshies”.
In the face of such opposition, Burnett polled a reaspectable 7000 votes against the Conservative, Oliver Stanley, who became the MP with the backing of 18,000 voters.
Further battles were to follow. In the thirties, Labour supporters led the fight against Oswald Mosley’s Fascist Black Shirts in Grasmere.
After the Second World War, Labour were leading a progressive campaign on education. Dr Elizabeth Kent, a county councillor, expressed a view that was common among her generation: “Many of the ills I was called on to treat were due to poverty or social conditions and could not be cured by drugs or the knife.” Windermere Grammar School became the country’s first comprehensive.
The progressive Director of Education, John Trevelyan “persuaded the theatre director, Joan Littlewood, to establish her famous Theatre Workshop in Kendal”. It was run from rooms above the Conservative Club. Avant-garde radicals such as the folk-singer Ewan MacColl took left-wing productions into the heart of Westmorland communities. “The mind boggles at what the artistic group did for the advance of Socialism in Westmorland.”
The Labour Party became a secure part, if never a dominant one, of the political scene in the county. In 1999, with the reform of the House of Lords, the Lowthers found themselves without representation in Parliament.
David Clark is a Westmorland lad, from Windermere. He was MP for Colne Valley and later South Shields and a member of the Labour Cabinet. In 2001 he became Lord Clark of Windermere. His life has been spent within radical politics and this committed history of local politics is an affectionate investigation of his own political roots.