MICHAEL WADSWORTH looks at the birth of Great Yarmouth ILP and the small role it played in opposing the First World War in a town renowned for seafaring and the Royal Navy.
The intention to form a branch of the ILP in Great Yarmouth was announced at an open air meeting held on Brewers Plain during the August bank holiday weekend of 1906.
Prior to the First World War, Great Yarmouth ILP was often criticised for not taking part in local elections and for standing on the sidelines. However, for the branch, it was far more important to ‘make socialists’ rather than to become an electoral machine. While it did campaign locally for free school meals for needy school children, and supported local trade unions for better pay and working conditions, equally important was the creation of a membership who had an understanding of socialism.
In both parliamentary and local council elections, Great Yarmouth was, and still is, according to its former Labour MP Tony Wright (left), “a natural Conservative seat”. Certainly during the latter half of the 19th century and up until the First World War there was a network of active Working Men’s Conservative Associations which played a part in maintaining the Conservative Party’s majority on the borough council and in electing a Conservative as MP for the Yarmouth parliamentary seat. These Working Men’s Associations mixed a populist ‘king and country’ type of politics with social events.
However, while the Conservatives were town’s the dominant party, the Liberals did manage to form a small majority on the council from the mid-1900s up to the start of the First World War, although the Conservatives retained the parliamentary seat in 1906 (amid accusations of bribery and corruption) and in both elections of 1910. The Liberals eventually won the parliamentary seat in the early 1920s.
Great Yarmouth has also had a long association with seafaring in general and the Royal Navy in particular. Although he was not born in Great Yarmouth, Nelson has always been seen as a local hero. Even today there is a museum in Great Yarmouth dedicated to Nelson and there was a public outcry when it was suggested that it should close.
In this light, a wave of ‘patriotic’ fervour in support of the war effort might have been expected when the First World War started in August 1914. This was not completely true. It was reported in the Yarmouth Independent of 8 August 1914 that Great Yarmouth ILP had held a large anti-war protest meeting in the Market Place, chaired by the secretary of the Great Yarmouth & District Trades & Labour Council.
The main speaker – a Mr Alymer Richardson – stated that the war was against the interests of workers throughout the world and referred to the murder of the French socialist leader M. Jaures. The following resolution was passed by the meeting with only two votes against:
“That this meeting of workers and citizens of Yarmouth views with serious alarm the prospect of a European War, into which every European Power will be dragged in owing to secret alliances and undertakings which, in their origin, were never sanctioned by the nations, nor even now communicated to them. We stand by the efforts of the International Working Class Movement to unite the workers of the nations concerned in their efforts to prevent their Governments from entering upon war, as expressed in the resolutions passed by the International Socialist Bureau. We protest against any step being taken by the Government of this country to support Russia, either directly or in consequence of any undertakings with France, as being not only offensive to the political tradition of this country but disastrous to Europe, and declare that we have no interest, directly or indirectly, in the threatened quarrels which may result from the actions of Austria in Serbia, the Government of Great Britain should rigidly decline to engage in war, but should confine itself to efforts to bring about peace as speedily as possible.”
This protest may have been short lived, however, as the Yarmouth Independent also reported, on 26 September 1914, that there had been a “patriotic demonstration” in Yarmouth preceded by a torch lit parade which included members of the Norwich Co-operative Society and the local branch of the Sailors & Fireman’s Union (which later merged with other maritime unions later to form the National Union of Seamen).