ohn Ward, a brigand-like figure with a bandit's moustache and sombrero, was born in 1866 at Oatlands Park, near Weybridge and the River Thames. His father, a plasterer, died when he was three and his mother took him home to her birthplace, Appleshaw, where Hampshire rises into Salisbury Plain. At one end of the long village road workmen were just finishing the Methodist chapel: at the other, the ancient squat/square-towered church had already being standing for centuries at the edge of Chute Forest. The village itself is in a dene, dry with underlying chalk. A flood relief ditch brimming with cow parsley runs like a dry brook from end to end. Otherwise it's all russet red tile and thatch. Where the lane forks to Ragged Appleshaw is a playing field which Ward, years later, gave to the village as a memorial to his family.
He ran away from the plough to the Navy, though too young to enlist, and then began navvy-work as a twelve-year old nipper on the Swmdon-Marlborough, fatting wagons and looking after the turn-outs. In winter it was often so cold his hands froze to the couplings, ripping his skin away to the flesh. He carried the scars to his grave.
Stories differ about when he learned to read. One says he was already a full-grown navvy in lodgings at Weyhill, near Appleshaw, where he joined his landlord's son in lessons given by a neighbour. Another says his grandfather taught him when he was ten, though he then helped himself by spelling out the names on farmers' carts and mouth-and-finger-moving through Robinson Crusoe, copies of which were given away with packets of tea.
He was born with a love of adventure, but adventure in the sense of wanting to do something original, rather than craving danger. He was discontented with his life and did something about it, enlisting to begin with in what he called the Corps of Railway Constructors, [189/190] building the Suakim-Berber Railway in the Sudan, where he won the Queen's Silver Medal and the Khedive's Bronze Star and Clasp. The Sudan made him anti-war but not anti-revolution, and back in England in 1885 he joined the Battersea Branch of the Social Democratic Federation, the main far-left party of his day.
Next year the Federation tried to tag a mini-cavalcade of the poor on to the tail of the Lord Mayor's Show, to protest at the flaunting of wealth and to ask the Government to help the unemployed. When the City police stopped them marching and the Metropolitan Police banned a meeting in Trafalgar Square, the Social Democratic Federation decided to test the legality of all by making sure somebody was arrested and tried. Ward was the chosen arrestee.
The day of the Show was drizzling, damp, yellow-murky. Rain and booted feet smeared the pavement with a thin paste-like slime of mud. At 2:55 the head of the Lord Mayor's Show reached Charing Cross and curled around one corner of Trafalgar Square (image) and down Northumberland Avenue, led by Mounted Police, the Royal Artillery, the Scots Guards, drums and fifes and banners and arms of the famous and, more importantly, the important. There was a model of a steam launch with her propeller turning and the band of the Royal Naval School, Greenwich. There was the Civil Service-donated Walmer lifeboat. There was the noise of shouts and cheers, faintly clashing bands, rumbling iron-tyred wheels, uneven chatter of hooves and the slight ring of horses' shoes. More banners, standards, more arms, bands. Beadles with staves rode in carriages. More banners. Floats representing Australasia (with gold diggers at work), the West Indies, Cape Colony, the Montreal Ice Palace. There were cars symbolic of India and the British Isles. Under-Sheriffs rode in state chariots. The Mounted Sappers Tower Hamlets Engineer Volunteers jogged past (noisy with brass, drums, fifes, fully laden FS wagons) followed by a jumble of aldermen, trumpeters, the Royal Fusiliers and the Lord Mayor (waving tricorn hat) with his chaplain, mace bearer, sword bearer and the loth Hussars. Police closed around the tail of the cavalcade as it was drawn down Northumberland Avenue and sealed it off from the hissing and groaning crowd in the Square.
The Social Democratic Federation told everybody they would speak from the balustrade at the St Martin's end of Trafalgar Square, thus duping the police into parading, double-ranked, in front of the National Gallery (image). The Lord Mayor's Show throbbed on down Northumberland Avenue but only Ward clambered on to the balustrade — to divert the police [190/191] who were already in the wrong place like revolution-ready dummies. The rest of the Social Democratic Federation bulldozed their way to Nelson's Column and held the meeting on the plinth.
Ward yo-yoed on and off the balustrade, policemen limpeting to him. 'I must speak,' the police said he said, 'I'm paid for it. I must speak or be shot.' The crowd egged him on, shaking umbrellas and walking canes. Some said he was kicked. Inspector Attwood and Sgt Tooth, of V Division, said he wasn't. In the end, smeared with pavement slime, he was taken to King Street Police Station. William Marcus Thompson, a radical Ulster journalist, barrister, and Ward's counsel, tried to turn the case into a trial of the police's right to ban meetings. Mr Vaughan, the Bow Street Magistrate, said it was about obstructing the police and fined Ward ten shillings.
A few days later the police let them have their meeting; in fact they held five simultaneously, one of which Ward chaired in his navvy rig and Sudan medals at the exact spot where he'd been arrested. Red flags and red handkerchiefs dotted the sombre crowd like clots of blood. John Burns was on the platform with him. Above them drooped a banner, 'We must have work or bread.' Ward was still a navvy: at one time he worked in the tunnel below Belsize Park in London, at another in the Salford basin on the Ship Canal. But he was also still a youth who saw the world brightly in red and black — lurid as blood, black as the grave, bleeding human flesh and black landscapes; children in their rags: gaunt, lame beggars. All kindliness killed by capitalism. His philosophy began by claiming for all human life the absolute right to live, and then the right to belong. If you belong you have, navvy-like, the right to the navvy's shilling. Capitalism, it seemed to him, denied that. It was pitiless. It lived by competition; and competition, at the lowest level, is about who kills to live and who dies. Capitalism in its own dying had no claim on our pity. Capitalists were unconvicted killers. They enslaved the poor, invoking the liberty of the individual as their right to do so. But where was the liberty for the slaves? Where was the liberty in endless labour?
Empires, he believed, fall when too few people own too much. Britain was so falling and to Ward, in his twenties, the late '80s were times of high revolutionary excitement. The world was in transit. Capitalism had killed Christianity, which had failed anyway. Now Capitalism was being killed by a new humanity. [191/192] What was to happen then, he saw more dimly. Everything would be nationalised. Art, literature and science would be freed. Equality would make people kinder to each other. Lesser minds would spend their time listening to greater ones talking about physics and philosophy.
'The long and dreary struggle between darkness and light is nigh ended — good is triumphing over evil — right over wrong — freedom over despotism. Soon will the light of the opening day breathe a new life into the soul of man, and shed the balm of true happiness over his life — and give back to him that 'contentment' and 'peace' for which myriads of the noblest have striven.
For his part, he was going to help bring it about by running for public office and he began by standing as an Social Democratic Federation candidate in West Lambeth in the 1888 London School Board elections. 'I have suffered from the mismanagement of our present system,' he told electors. 'Plump for the workmen's candidate, and ensure "National intelligence" in preference to "National ignorance".' He convinced nearly eight and a half thousand of them, but lost.
Next, in 1890, he put himself up for election to the Wandsworth Vestry, an elected council which ran a parish's public utilities — sweeping streets, keeping street lamps lit, looking after sewers and footpaths. One day in May he went straight from work, collarless, with a muck-streaked face, to register as a candidate at the Town Hall. He stood as 'Citizen' John Ward with two other socialists. The whole parish was placarded with posters, mostly the flaring red of the Tories and the buff of the Wandsworth Ratepayers' Association. Voting took place next day in the Town Hall — now replaced — in the hollow of the Wandle valley. It was a hot day and a hot evening. Crowds shoved and crowded outside the Town Hall. Van loads of electors drove straight from work: Sandwichboarded men — shouting 'vote early' and 'no plumpers' — pushed through the police-herded crowds. After the polls closed, the candidates slipped away for a tripe supper at the Spread Eagle, between the Town Hall and the brewery. The new yellow brickwork of the Brewery Tap was just blackening in the smokey air. The whole place smelled of poverty, sweat, horses, horse dung and the sharp clear tang of ale from the big brewery by the Wandle.
Thirty-one new Vestrymen were elected that day, making eighty-four all told. Sixty-four were Tories. Two were socialists: [192/193] Citizen Ward (485 votes, sixth from bottom) and a Mr Brown. Early in June the Vestry met for the first time to elect people to the Board of Works. Ward asked Mr Freeman, manager of the gas works, whether — if he were elected — he would discriminate against the Board's workmen whose politics were not his own. (A voice, 'Get down. Ward.' 'We don't deal in politics here.' Chairman, 'Order! Order!') Freeman said he didn't care if a man belonged to a union or not, so long as he did his work. At the end of the meeting Ward asked for a list of the Board's workmen, their hours, and their wages. The Vestry had no powers in these matters, said Mr Gilkes. But the Vestry elected the Board, objected Ward, fobbed off for the first time in a long, long history of political fobbings off that lasted well into the next century. Ward and Brown asked for the list again and again until the Board finally flatly voted not to tell them. Why should the parish know how much of its money the board spent?
Ward also insisted that Vestry workmen get sixpence an hour minimum. But the Vestry, the Vestry objected, was swamped with applications as it was. Elderly men were glad to take any wages offered. 'Are we to trade on their circumstances?' asked Ward. If we paid trade union rates, objected the Vestry, we would have to take on young men, and see they worked hard. That would be cruel to the elderly.
More bizarrely he busied himself with the crimes of landowners who stole commons, ponds, and ancient public charities. He and another Vestryman signing himself EGROEG REHSIF (George Fisher when he wasn't hiding from his foes), even wrote a pamphlet about it, most of it a reprint of a report written in 1848 and suppressed at the time by the Vestry, particularly by Vestryman Thomas Phillips, one of the thieves it named. The problem was not just historical, either. Ward was particularly outraged by a man who had recently stolen a publicly owned pond called The Black Sea (long since drained and jerry-built over) on Wandsworth Common. One day Ward and his friends went to walk around it and were ordered off by a Mr Wilson who had fenced it in and called it his own. Wilson even asked the magistrates to protect his property from the Wandsworth Rabble. Ward was re-elected to the Vestry in 1891 but seems not to have stood again.
The first ever London County Council elections had been held in 1889 when it had been agreed (tacitly) that candidates would not [193/194] stand under Parliamentary party names. There were, therefore, two new parties — the Progressives (Liberal-backed) and the Moderates (disguised> Tories). The Progressives won and immediately politicised the Council on national party lines. They wanted to control the police, reform the City, abolish coal dues, and to tax ground rents. The next Council elections, in March 1892, were more overtly political. Ward stood as a Labour-Progressive in Wandsworth.
The night before election day, bill posters were up and about all over town posting bright and bilious placards. Polling day itself was bright and sharp with a frost that stopped racing at out of town tracks. The Progressives increased their majority. Wandsworth, against the trend, turned out its sitting Progressive and returned a Moderate: an Oxford man who devoted half his life to science, half to philanthropy. Ward came fourth. 1892, as well, was the year he married Luian Elizabeth Gibbs.
By now Ward had been a union official for nearly three years — Secretary of the Gas and Navvies' Association the Wandsworth Observer incorrectly called him. (In 1889 he was chairman of the Battersea branch of the Gasworkers' Union for a time. That year, too, he found the National Federation of Labour Union which, though it seemed to start hopefully, quickly faded in the early '90s.) At the same time, he spoke regularly at the Trades Union Congresses.
He was against the> Boer War and told the 1900 Congress 'that practically £100 million of the taxpayers' money had been spent trying to secure the goldfields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country.' At the 1902 Congress he spoke against 'wars of foreign aggression, which only tend to enrich the sinister figure of cosmopolitan finance.' At the 1904 Congress, in Leeds, he spoke against conscription.
Many of the resolutions you have dealt with at this congress are useless, because you and your fellow workmen have been under the influence of Jingoism and spread-eagle Imperialism, and have squandered your resources in war. For years we had a succession of revenue surpluses, which made old age pensions within the range of practical politics without increasing the taxation of the community. Wild reckless Imperialism has swallowed all and left nothing to the old and helpless. War destroys trade, and the proposal to take the manhood of our nation from the pursuits of industry for two of the [194/195] best years of their lives is the maddest proposal that ever emanated from Bedlam.
Once or twice since the repeal of the Combination Acts, trade unions had come up against the common law which assumed you were responsible for what you did, if what you did harmed others. Gladstone gave trade unions the right to strike without having their funds sequestered to pay for damages. Disraeli legalised picketing. But in July 1901, everything seemed to back-somersault. A court granted injunctions against the railwaymen's union whose members were on strike on the Taff Vale line in South Wales. Unions could — again — be sued as corporate entities for the harm they did by striking. Their money could be sequestered to pay damages. To the unions it seemed the judiciary made up the rules as they went along. To fix things their way once and for all they made up their minds to get enough of their own people elected to Parliament to ensure that future laws would be made to their liking. How to go about it was no problem: a mechanism was already there — the Trades Union Congress's Labour Representation Committee, recently set up to choose Parliamentary candidates and plot their campaigns.
By this time Ward was a rapidly moderating, centre-moving man, a member of the National Democratic League, set up in 1900 as an alliance of the not-too-left. Clearing the plutocrats out of Parliament by paying MPs a salary was one of its aims: the armed overthrow of Parliament was not. In 1903 the Labour Representation Committee met in Newcastle. Ward, now chairman of the National Democratic League, moved that the committee's rules be altered to allow his League to affiliate. He was voted down and a counter-proposal — the Newcastle Resolution — forbidding Labour Representation Committee members to have anything to do with either the Tories or the Liberals was carried. Ward would not sign — he was already negotiating with the Liberals in Stoke-on-Trent — and his name was taken off the Labour Representation Committee's lists. At the next General Election he would stand for Stoke-on-Trent as an independent Liberal-Labour candidate.
The next General Election came in 1906. After it those LRC men who were sent to Parliament became the Labour Party. Ward, excluded at first by the Newcastle Resolution, never did belong to it. Why, he was asked during the election, couldn't he support the about Representation Committee? Because, he said, of its cast-iron rules. He could not relinquish his right to be his own man in whatever cause he thought proper. (But, 'I have absolutely declared, times without number, [195/196] that I'm going to Parliament, if Stoke returns me, to make one of the Labour group in the British House of Commons.')
The election campaign began early in Januaryuary. Ward was now forty, still un-grey but with receding springy hair with a natural wave in the forelock. Now he sported not so much a brigand's moustachio as the long-pointed handlebars of the kind later favoured by the RAF. He had fierce blue eyes and slightly flaring nostrils. He began his campaign still weak from scarlet fever picked up on a visit to Hanley sewage works. His wife Luian (Lilian, according to some accounts) stood on the platform at all his meetings. Douglas Coghill, Tory, defended a small majority. Chinese labour in South Africa and Tariff Reform were the big questions.
Before leaving office the Tory administration had issued licenses allowing yet more indentured Chinese into the Rand. They were needed in the goldfields, said the Tories. Lies, said Ward: they were to keep down wages. Mine owners were afraid white labour would take their trade unions with them and ask for proper wages and the vote. That apart, the Potteries had expected crockery-buying white families would settle the Rand. More importantly, the Chinese were slaves. Mine managers could flog them.
Is moral and decent for a democracy of Britishers to vote for slavery conditions terrible to relate? It was supposed the old flag floated over absolute freedom. And don't forget I myself have fought under the old flag.' Here, he ripped open his coat to show his Sudan medals. 'Whenever I risked my life under it I always understood it to be the emblem of human liberty. So long as I'm a Britisher I'll protest against slavery being introduced as part of British national policy.
The Attorney-General in South Africa said it was too late to stop the latest batch of Chinese. 'I'll be hanged if I wouldn't stop them,' Ward told his meetings,
'I'd give orders to our admiral under our Anti-Slavery Act law to collar them as prizes if they shipped them there. The idea of these gold-bugs thinking, after they'd bamboozled the officials in South Africa, they can bullnose us. I'll be hanged if I'd allow them to do anything of the kind. I'd put Jack on their track.'
Coghill on the other hand (said Ward) favoured slavery. And he favoured employers being allowed to rifle union benevolent funds. Did the electors agree with that? 'No,' they shouted. [196/197] Ward was for Free Trade, against Tariff Reform. In the Potteries, the Tories spoke only of tariff barriers protecting the potting industry. In the countryside they spoke only of tariff reform protecting farming. But Tariff Reform meant general import controls with the world putting up trade barriers against us. It meant a two shilling tax on every quarter of imported wheat. Did the electors want that? He supported women's suffrage. ('Give women the vote,' shouted one woman, 'then John Ward would be carried in.') He made no great thing of being a navvy, mentioning it only once. 'It's been hurled against me by the Delilahs of the Primrose League that I've been a navvy. I'd say that's more creditable to me than otherwise.' He spoke to packed meetings, usually in chalky school classrooms, his audience overspilling on to window-sills and the edge of his platform. Most were on his side, handling the hecklers for him. 'Tha goo and sell mussels.' 'Go and mind the baby.'
The night before polling day his supporters marched through the rain-slicked streets, by the bloated black bottle kilns, carrying two loaves of bread: a big one tied with a blue ribbon (representing Ward) and a little 'Protection' cob wrapped in Coghill's colours. They marched by the regimented houses, by the trams clanking in their grooves, hissing under their electric wires, by the naphtha lamps flaring outside the open greengrocers. As they marched they sang their election song:
Rouse then, workers; rally round, the voters,
Ready, steady, everyone must vote:
Liberals and Labour, we are both united,
We have confidence in Ward for Stoke.
His majority was 3372. He was sent to one of the greatest of the reforming Parliaments. It, or the next, voted for old age pensions, unemployment and health insurance, free medical inspection for school children, Labour Exchanges, workmen's compensation. It taxed the rich, it denied power to the House of Lords. It gave the trade unions the Trades Dispute Act.
Ward spoke a few days after taking his seat. Was the Board of Trade aware of the trouble caused by paying local education authorities yearly instead of quarterly? Well, yes, said the Board, but it was all terribly technical. For Ward it was the beginning of another two decades of being fobbed off.
He spoke for the Labour Group in the debate on the King's [197/198] Speech. An Opposition amendment regretted that a Government minister had brought the country into contempt by calling Chinese labour in South Africa 'slavery' when it was obvious the Government was doing nothing about it. It was slavery, said Ward. The companies wanted the Chinese not because blacks or whites couldn't do the work but to cut their pay-rolls. More labour, less pay, was how it worked. 'Do you imagine for one moment that the mothers of England, when they saw their sons off to the war in those dark years of 1899 and 1900, thought they were sending them to leave their bones in that country in order to support and maintain and introduce a policy such as they were defending today?'
Over the years he asked about
the flogging of Africans in Natal
the shooting of strikers in British Guiana;
the cost of human food in London Zoo;
the pay of charwomen in the Public Record Office;
how many places had Distress Committees;
why there was no school for navvy children at Ladybower;
what percentage of workmen on Aird's Asswan dam were British? (Five — mainly gangers and tradesmen. What European labour there was, was mainly Italian.)
Did the House know a penny a day for tools and
medicine was stopped from navvies' wages at the Ambergate dam?
Had the Labour Exchanges recruited scabs to break a navvy strike on the new docks in Liverpool?
So he sat below the gangway on the Government side, a cross between a brigand and a navvy in a large sombrero. He voted the right way, but he never dazzled, and because he never belonged to one of the big parties he never climbed. He was, curiously navvy-like, like a by-stander.
Before the Great War he spoke more often about Rosyth Naval Base (the union had a branch there), than about anything else. After 1909 all Government contracts had a Fair Wages Clause written into them, an idea copied from the London County Council where John Burns had introduced them in 1892. (The fairness of Fair Wages impressed workmen less than it did politicians. At the Blackwall tunnel, in 1892, the men asked the London County Council to change 'fair wages' to 'trade union rates' in its contracts. 'Fair Wages,' said William Crooks, Poplar's LCC representative, 'meant anything a contractor could obtain men for.') The contracts for Rosyth were signed in March 1909, and next year men and employers were arguing about what a 'fair wage' was. They asked the Admiralty. Two years later the Admiralty replied. What the contractors were paying was a fair wage. 'You know very well that we submitted the case to the [198/199] Admiralty,' contractors told Ward ever after, 'and that they declared fivepence an hour was the proper rate. Why should we pay more?'
Too few men would go there for so little and the Labour Exchanges had to advertise all over the country. Just before a strike in the autumn of 1912, Mr Gemmell, manager of the Rosyth Labour Exchange, went to Dublin to recruit more men. When he heard about it Ward forced an Adjournment Debate in the House. Had the contractors sent Gemmell to recruit scabs?
Any Labour Exchange manager who behaved like that, said the Board of Trade, would be fired on the spot. Gemmell had gone to Dublin at least a week before the strike was heard of. The strike itself, said the Board, was caused by the Rosyth navvies mistakenly thinking the Irish were to be paid more than them. Shortly afterwards, Ward opposed a routine little Bill authorising the Navy to build a wooden fuelling jetty at North Killinghoime, near Grimsby. He moved an amendment. He was sorry to keep the House out of bed, it was almost midnight, but something had to be done for navvies on Government contracts. He didn't trust the Admiralty. (They told him the House of Commons was the over-seer of their contracts. If that were true, the House was housing people at Rosyth like pigs.) All he asked the House to do was kill the North Killinghoime Bill unless clauses in it insisted on decent housing, medical care, and a minimum wage for navvies working there.
Dr McNamarra, for the Admiralty, conceded the housing side of the argument immediately. He made the Public Bill into a Private one — men at North Killinghoime would be treated according to the House's own rules on housing navvies. A statutory minimum wage was different. He couldn't concede the principle that Parliamentary policy — in this case the Fair Wages Clause, but it could be something more important — could be over-turned surreptitiously under cover of insignificant little Bills. The trouble with the honourable member for Stoke, he said, was he couldn't accept reality. [199/200]
Last modified 25 April 2006