Socialism in Edwardian Cornwall

It’s not generally well-known that Truro and Camborne were relatively early centres of socialist activism. In May 1904 W.A.Phillips, standing ‘boldly as a representative of the workers and a Social Democrat’ was elected to Truro Town Council in a by-election in Truro East. This was the first council seat won by a socialist west of Bristol.

Phillips was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF). This had been founded in 1881 as an avowedly Marxist party. In 1900 it joined with the Independent Labour Party and others to form the Labour Representation Committee, the forerunner of the Labour Party. The SDF remained part of the Labour alliance until 1907 and it was during this period that a branch emerged at Truro.

Victoria Square. Now all consumerism and park
and ride buses. In 1904 echoing to demands to
build a better world

By September 1904 the SDF was holding open air meetings in Victoria Square, Truro and in the same month a public meeting in the Town Hall on the housing of the working class. A speaker from the Workmens’ National Housing Council was reported as saying

‘There was just one difficulty about most of the towns in Cornwall that he had seen and that was while houses were being built for the middle and better class people and the better paid artisan class, comparatively little was being done for the poorer workers, who were most in need of accommodation’

Interesting to note how things have changed.

By late 1904 an SDF branch had also been formed at Camborne and there were optimistic plans for similar branches at Redruth and St Agnes. In the general election of 1906, the Camborne branch was confident enough to put up a candidate. Perhaps unwisely, they chose an outsider, Jack Jones, a builders’ labourer from West Ham. Later, in 1918, he went on to become an MP in his home borough. But in 1906 in the Mining Division he won just 109 votes, or 1.5%, as the Liberal candidate cruised to a landslide victory in a year when all the Cornish seats went to Liberals.

Socialism in Cornwall had to wait. For a century and counting.

When Camborne-Redruth was the most radical place in the UK

The general election of 1885 has one major similarity with the one we’re now enduring. Polling day was in December. But in most other respects it was quite different. And although the newly created Mining Division in 1885 had very similar boundaries to the present Camborne-Redruth constituency, nowhere was this difference starker than in the central mining district.

The election saw the Radical Liberal, the splendidly named Charles Augustus Vansittart Conybeare, challenge the former Liberal MP for West Cornwall and local landlord Pendarves Vivian for the new seat. Conybeare was put forward by many of the working men who had been given the vote in 1884, some of them return migrants from the States imbued with notions of democracy. Conybeare stood on the most radical platform in the UK, pledged to abolish the House of Lords, disestablish the Church of England, bring in a graduated income tax, return the land to the people and end the ‘gigantic system of confiscation and robbery of the poor by the rich’.

Redruth’s Radical Club: built after the election

In a closely fought election between Vivian and Conybeare (the Tories stayed out of it) Conybeare emerged victorious with 2,926 votes to Vivian’s 2,577. For a decade Camborne-Redruth was then represented by Britain’s most radical MP. How times have changed!

Conybeare’s supporters wrote a ditty called ‘The Man for the People’. Here’s an extract.

Maaster Vivian, now so thick,

Longs weth his great friends to stick;

We’ll trate’n weth all due respect,

But we ‘one and all’ object

To have a ‘limping’ reer-rank man,

When we c’n have one in the Van

The seventeen year ‘pon Committee

Have earnt a rest, I think, quite fitty;

For some reforms he edn ripe,

So we’ll lev’n touch-a-pipe.

He’ll git the voters by the thousan’;

Because we’ll go for Working Men,

And not the Lords and Upper Ten.

The men of Buller’s Row he’ll meet,

And likewise Tallywarren Street,

And though Dolcoath is very deep,

He’ll git the men all in a heap.