How come Sam Woods, a former hewer (miner) from Wigan and a complete outsider managed to win the Tory seat of Walthamstow at a by-election in 1897, for the small group of working class MPs known as Lib-Labs who represented working class and labour interests, but were politically Liberals? I found the answer in an article written by John Shepherd, a principal Lecturer at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology in the 1987 edition of the Essex Journal.
In 1897 the Essex county constituencies of Romford and Walthamstow had the two largest electorates in the country. Voting rights were very limited and the South Western Division had 19,846 male voters out of a population of some 150,000. It was a vast constituency taking in Walthamstow, Leyton, Leytonstone, Harrow Green and Woodford. The area had grown rapidly. Before 1850 there were fewer than 5,000 people in the rural parish of Walthamstow. During 1873-1891 the population leapt from 11,092 to 95,131 mainly due to the coming of the railway which turned the area into a new mainly working class suburb which included skilled artisans and clerks many of whom worked in the City.
The socialist William Morris who was born in Walthamstow, described it as ‘a pleasant place enough, but now terribly cocknified and choked up by the jerrybuilder’. His description seems to exclude my home (for the last 31 years) in Walthamstow ‘village’ which was built in 1862!
During the time the Liberal party found it difficult to getting wealthy Liberals to fight elections in the constituency. Elections were after all an expensive business. A prominent local Liberal bigwig wrote to Herbert Gladstone that: ‘I am afraid this division is a forlorn hope. I shall do what I can for the candidate they choose though I should not stand myself.’
According to Shepherd, the vacancy in 1897 was brought about by the appointment of the sitting Tory MP, E.W. Byrne QC, to the Chancery Division of the High Court. The local Tories quickly selected Thomas Dewar a wealthy director of Dewar’s Whisky as their man. After a lot of delay a certain Sam Woods secretary of the parliamentary committee of the TUC was persuaded to stand and funds (nearly £1,400) were made available.
Obvious Woods was not from the middle-class elite which dominated many Liberal associations, but recognising the changing nature of the constituency, he was endorsed by the party and one Herbert Samuel (later Viscount) organised the local campaign. According to election material distributed at the time, Sam Woods had entered the mines when seven and had worked at every mining occupation for twenty years. From humble beginnings he became a labour leader with strong Baptist and temperance beliefs – a contrast to his rival the whisky (later) baron Dewar.
Sam was a radical who favoured a broad Lib-Lab alliance. His programme reflected his radicalism. ‘I strongly favour such democratic proposals as the abolition of the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, the payment of MPs, One man one vote, a thorough Registration reform and the control by the Irish people of their own domestic affairs. I also heartily support the taxation of Ground values, a radical reform of the Land Laws as affecting both urban and rural land, the establishment of a complete system of secondary education open to all classes and any measures which would improve the housing of the people.’
The campaign was vigorous and according to Shepherd three days before the poll, Woods spoke at thirteen meetings that day. Election day Wednesday 3 February had been preceded by heavy snow the night before. The Liberal camp were not optimistic about a victory., but a sixty four percent turn out resulted in a Lib-Lab majority of 279 (the previous general election result gave the Tories a majority of 2,353).
Although uniting progressives in Walthamstow, Sam was defeated in the 1900 general election known as the ‘Khaki Election’ and retired a few years later. Although in effect Labour’s first MP for Walthamstow, the party did not contest a parliamentary election in Walthamstow until after the First World War. In 1922 Valetine la Touche McEntree was elected MP for Labour and in 1950 the constituency elected one Clement Attlee as its MP and the rest is as they say ‘history’.