The antiquity of new politics…

We all know that there’s rarely anything new under the sun, so it was intriguing to find press cuttings from the General Election of 1918 containing party propaganda, leaflets and articles surrounding the vote which returned a Coalition Liberal and Conservative government to power. Sir Howard Kingsley Wood became the Coalition Conservative candidate for West Woolwich, and remained so until his death in 1943. His scrapbooks, held in the library as the Kingsley Wood Collection, give a fascinating insight into popular culture at the time.

Honesty and Fair Play

The cuttings include a complaint, printed by ‘The Pioneer Press’, by Sir Kingsley Wood’s rival for West Woolwich, Alec Cameron, over alleged leaflets which amounted to slander. Alec Cameron’s defence reads

“The leaflet has disgusted all decent-minded and clean-spirited men and women who value Honesty and Fair play. The leaflet is a weapon which would be used only by a person who has degenerated to the lowest depths of political animosity.”

In conclusion, Mr. Cameron maintained that he

“…is conducting, and will continue to conduct, his Campaign on clean and manly lines…”

The issue of animosity and the ideal of a sense of ‘fair play’ among politicians is clearly far from new. The sign of the times, however, is that the slander against Mr. Cameron includes his ‘pacifist‘ and ‘socialist‘ tendencies, describing his oratory as ‘the fashion of the Bolshevist Leaders of Russia’. At this time, Russia was embroiled in a civil war which fuelled the fears of many in the British establishment, and it the country at large, of the rise of ‘Bolshevism’. Mr. Cameron’s response underlines the work which he carried out for the war effort: this suggests that, to win the Election,  politicians immediately after the First World War had to show that they supported the conflict and the nation.  These accusations were not petty; Alec Cameron’s reaction to fight the election  ‘cleanly’ did not win him the seat in Parliament.

Though fought along ‘manly‘ lines, the election of 1918 was significant as the first British election which allowed universal male and restricted female voting (to those over 30). Sir Kingsley Wood’s scrapbooks also contain flyers calling for ‘Women Voters‘ to attend meetings, presumably tailored to their concerns.

Houses, hats and orange women

Sir Kingsley Wood became an important politician, his background in industrial insurance and the law making him influential in the discussions around the National Insurance Act of 1911, and he later served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Winston Churchill’s government, from 1940-1943. Among other debates, Kingsley Wood was involved in the discussions about adequate housing for all;

“the best comment he had heard on the suggestion of a parlour with the ludicrous measurement of 10ft. by 8 ft. was made by a young friend of his, who had written an ode dedicated to the Minister of Health…

‘”Will you come into my parlour?”
Said the Spider to the Fly.
“Do you think I’m a blooming acrobat,”
Was her indignant reply.'”

Other concerns of represented in the cuttings were the six-fold increase in imported hats in less than a decade, and the increasing age of the population, due to advances in public sanitation.

There are lots of adverts for Kingsley Wood’s services as a ‘poor man’s’ lawyer in the earlier scrapbooks; this sense of helping those less fortunate than himself was perhaps partly due to his being a committed Methodist. Among the cuttings of legal cases is a claim from an unmarried maid suing the father of her son, on the advice of her employer, using love letters which she claimed the father had sent to her and which he later refuted. Kingsley Wood later took interest in the 1914 attempt to ‘move on’ ‘orange women‘, who sold sweets and fruits to audiences in the theatre districts, including outside Drury Lane and the Lyceum. The backlash against this legislation, which was implemented to assist the London police in crowd control duties led to a debate which Sir Kingsley Wood chaired. In introducing the delegates, the Evening News for January 13th reports, Sir Kingsley Wood commented:

“I am sorry that we have not a Nell Gwynne among us to-day. The women who are here may not be quite so attractive, but I believe they are as honest, if not more so.”

Despite their apparent lack of beauty, the orange women won their right to continue selling to theatregoers in London.

The scrapbooks

The Kingsley Wood scrapbooks offer a varied and intriguing insight into public culture and reporting during the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s striking that some of the concerns were the same as the issues today: some were very far removed, or viewed from a very different angle. Documenting the beginning of the modern era, these scrapbooks are a fascinating reminder that the everyday events of today can be the curiosities of next century, and that the past isn’t as dead as we might think.

All that we need to do now is catalogue the collection!

If you’re interested in  political history, the Weatherill Collection may be of interest to you. For theatre history, have a look at our various collections.

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