One hundred years ago, on 14th November 1919, on the eve of election day in Plymouth, Dame Margaret Lloyd George, wife of the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, came down to the West Country to support the Tory candidate Nancy Astor. At the time the country was run by a Tory/Liberal Coalition Government, and the opposing Independent Liberal candidate Isaac Foot (father of Michael Foot) was not a Lloyd George/Coalition Liberal. But for Mrs Lloyd George (she preferred Mrs to Dame Margaret) this was not primarily about coalition politics but support for a woman running for Parliament – who would, as it turned out, become the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.
This was just the occasion for Mrs Lloyd George to address the crowds, to enthuse the women, to support her husband’s Coalition and furthermore support her fellow Temperance campaigner. [Read more about this momentous times at the University of Reading’s Astor100 website and the plans for a commemorative statute to Lady Astor in Plymouth]
The Rev. J.T. Rhys
This Rather Long Blog draws on an unpublished copy of the speech Mrs Lloyd George gave that afternoon at the Guildhall, as well as previously unpublished correspondence with the Astor family. The speech draft is written out in the hand of Mrs Lloyd George’s Private Secretary, the Rev. J.T. Rhys, my grandfather, a man very often mistaken for the Prime Minister.
It is a classic Margaret Lloyd George speech: the arguments simply put and well-structured, and would undoubtedly have been embellished as she would warm to her audience, in this case the women of Plymouth. Press reports tell us the meetings were packed to overflowing – “Thousands of people were unable to find accommodation”.
USE YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE
She begins with the reminder that that women have won the right to vote, the more passive word “obtain” being crossed out. In other speeches she would make the point that women had earned the right to vote, not just been granted the right. She emphasises that the next task is to exercise that right and then gain direct representation in parliament by electing a woman. In reality the women’s turnout was good, but it was important that the hard-won vote was not squandered. It would not have been forgotten that in the recent 1918 election, 16 of the 17 women candidates failed to be elected, the exception being Sinn Féin’s Countess Markiewicz, née Gore-Booth.
I am very delighted to see so large a gathering at this meeting. For very many years women worked hard to obtain win the right to vote at Parliamentary Elections. Your presence here this afternoon shows you appreciate the responsibility & mean to show yourselves worthy of the franchise. This is altogether satisfactory and very hopeful for the future of the country. We are here to support the candidature of my old & valued friend Lady Astor. I am going to ask you to do all that lies in your power to return her at the head of the poll on Saturday.
She goes on to stress why it was important for everyone that there were more women in the House of Commons, a theme she would pursue on many other occasions – as one might say, it was not just about equal representation but better representation. Or as Nancy Astor put it in her maiden speech in the Commons: “you must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely, not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole”.
Mrs Lloyd George continued:
I ask this for two reasons. I think Parliament will be far more serviceable to the country if there are a few women among the members. As you all know the trend of modern legislation deals very much with our the life of the home. We have now laws to deal with Housing, with Health, with the education & development of children. We shall probably have still more laws that will affect our home life still more closely. That being so it is of the utmost importance that women, who have most of the care of the home, should have a direct voice in shaping the laws. Men I know will do their best, but their best is not nearly so good as woman’s best.
What a great punch line there! Lady Astor’s opponents were conscious that they had to be seen as competent in these matters of bringing up children: Isaac Foot quipped at the first joint hustings with Lady Astor that he had an advantage over lady in that he had seven children and she only six, only to be rebuffed by her typically sharp riposte “I haven’t finished yet”, whereupon “the audience rocked with laughter”.
WIFE, MOTHER AND POLITICIAN
The home loving, Liberal Welshwoman then goes on to praise Lady Astor, American, rich, Tory, and to scorn her critics.
My second reason is this. Of all the women in the land I do not know anyone who can represent us so worthily and so usefully as Lady Astor. I think the ideal woman for Parliament must be a wife, a mother and a politician. Lady Astor has the three essential qualifications.
You remember how the first band of brave fellows who went to fight for us in France were described as a “contemptible little army”. I am rather surprised to find some papers that have professed to believe in woman’s suffrage, & woman’s representation are trying to pour contempt on Lady Astor’s candidature.
Though she may be a little unconventional in her electioneering methods, I assure you from my own intimate knowledge of her that she is a woman of strong conviction. In season and out of season she has toiled to help all sorts & conditions of men & women. She will be listened to with respect in Parliament because of her great reputation as a social worker.
AMERICAN, RICH AND TORY
I think there cannot be a greater compliment paid to her than the very trivial objections that are urged against her. She is charged with being an “American”. Well that is neither her blame nor her shame. Besides Americans and ourselves are one race.
Others charge her with being “rich”. Well, I don’t know many people who would object to being rich. Most people, I know, are making very big efforts to grow richer.
Others say she is a Tory. Well if she is, then all I can say is that I wish all were such Tories as she is.
Great knockabout stump speech material, rounded off by skilfully avoiding comment on the other candidates whilst reminding women that this was a critical fight for their own future.
Tomorrow you will be asked to give your vote. There are three candidates. I am not going to say a word against or about the others. One may be good, the other may be better. I know Lady Astor is the best of all.
I therefore appeal to you very earnestly to vote for her return & to work for her return. Give her such a majority that will encourage other women of her position and experience to champion our cause & to fight our battles.
In other words, this is not only a vote for Lady Astor today, but a vote for more women in Parliament in the future, to ensure that Nancy Astor would not be always a “pelican in the wilderness” as Mrs Lloyd George phrased it in a speech a year or so later.
PUT YOUR COUNTRY ABOVE PARTY
The leaflets distributed around Plymouth of course made no secret of the Coalition between the Tory Lady Astor and the Liberal Lloyd George, as this flier from the collection at the University of Reading Astor archive shows.
Lady Astor discovered the convention that Cabinet ministers did not canvass at bye-elections, when ministers politely declined her invitations to come down and help. It was one reason of course why Mrs Lloyd George was so active at the hustings around the country, especially at bye-elections, at this time so critical in testing the mood for or against the shaky Coalition. Her comments would also have, undoubtedly, been supplemented by a robust defence of the record of her husband’s Coalition government. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 15th November 1919 reported: “Mrs. Lloyd George said her husband and herself had been taunted because they supported Lady Astor against a member of their own Party. But this was not time for Party strife, it was time for unity. She based her appeal for support to the Coalition candidate one simple fact, and that was the record of the present Government. There was not a single measure by this Government which was not in keeping with Liberal principles. She invited critics to point to any other Government that had passed so many reforms in short a time”.
LLOYD GEORGE’S LETTER OF SUPPORT
Lloyd George, in his letter of support to Lady Astor, published in the press, also stressed the importance of having a woman’s view in the House of Commons on a number of issues:
“Now that women have been enfranchised I think it important that there should be a certain number of women in Parliament in order to represent the woman’s point of view. There are a good many questions in regard to housing, child welfare, food, drink, and prices in which it would be an immense advantage both to the nation and to the House of Commons to have a woman’ s view presented by a woman“.
This Long Blog would get too long if we addressed the question here of whether women’s views on other issues might be equally important, but Tory Leader Bonar Law’s letter to Lord Astor (the outgoing MP) also makes a good read:
11 Downing Street, 6th November 1919
My Dear Astor,
The butler told me you were here and I hurried over lunch and expected to find you.
I am sorry that it is not possible for me to go to Plymouth for there is a rule, which I think has only once been broken, that Cabinet Ministers should not take part in by-elections. If we were once to begin there would be no end to it. Judging from the papers I should have thought that Lady Astor was having almost a walk over and the reports I hear leave no doubt as to the result. I am sure she will get the votes of all the men – the women are more doubtful. A. Bonar Law
Bonar Law’s doubt over which way the women’s vote may well reflect a mix of uncertainty – women had only been recently enfranchised and thus there was less experience of their voting preferences – as well as the recognition that the women of Plymouth were not necessarily bound to vote for the Lady of the manor. Here again Mrs Lloyd George was a powerful weapon, popular with the working people, and as we have seen in Plymouth confronting head on and amusingly the issue that Lady Astor was American, Tory and rich.
THE THANK YOU LETTER
Shortly after the election, and before the result was known, Lady Astor wrote a letter of thanks to Mrs Lloyd George, thanking her for coming with her to Plymouth with the homely phrase “The West Country folk were so glad to have you”.
The letter was written on mourning notepaper in deference to the recent death of Lord Astor, which triggered his son’s elevation to the House of Lords and in consequence forced the bye-election.
Nancy Astor also reflected on the pleasure of being at home at Cliveden, “riding with the children and having a real 2 days holiday before I begin again”, and saying “I still feel that I would rather have another baby than go to the HofC!!”. A typical Nancy Astor quip, or perhaps reflecting on the size of the task ahead of her.
A LADY IN DEMAND
Once elected, the first woman MP was of course in strong demand, not just to champion every woman’s cause but to bring in their vote for the Coalition. On 8th December 1919, a week after the result was announced, Lord Astor wrote to Mrs Lloyd George:
“My wife would really like to go to Spen Valley or anywhere else to help you but I hope you won’t press her. The election was a tremendous strain upon her. She has been inundated with hundreds of letters of congratulation but every woman with a grievance looks upon her as her M.P. and every Woman’s association has bombarded her.”
In the event both Mrs Lloyd George and Nancy Astor went to Yorkshire’s Spen Valley ahead of the bye-election of 20th December, caused by the death of the Coalition Liberal MP. The widening split in Liberal ranks over Lloyd George’s Coalition government meant two Liberal candidates standing, which saw the seat going to Labour – perhaps the point where Labour started to be taken seriously as a major threat to the major parties.
KEEPING THE SEAT, AFTER THE COALITION
For Nancy Astor, after the Coalition had collapsed in 1922, when the “1922 Committee” of Tory backbenchers pulled the rug, the Liberals still did not contest her seat until 1929. In 1927, when the Liberals decided to oppose her at the next election, she received strong support from my grandfather, albeit no longer Mrs Lloyd George’s Private Secretary, but a major Temperance campaigner (and also would be the Agent of the Liberal Candidate for South Hackney in 1929) , in a long letter to The Times. He argued that the Liberals had no chance of winning the seat anyway and that opposing such a champion of temperance reform would postpone the Liberal Party’s return to power “to the Greek Kalends” (i.e. for ever). Nancy Astor wrote back to her fellow Temperance supporter.
Cliveden April 27th 1927
Dear Mr Rhys:
“It was very nice of you to write as you did to “The Times”. You can’t think what an encouragement it is to feel that we have the support of people such as you. To me to fight the Drink Traffic has never been a sacrifice, but it has cost my husband anything in the way of a political career he might have had in his party. I don’t want a political career, but he, having been in politics all his life, and loving administrative posts, has naturally felt that he would have liked some responsible work, but I do rejoice that he is unselfish enough to go for the bigger things.
I am really distressed about the Liberals at Plymouth. Never in my life have I wanted to fight the Liberals on any question (except perhaps the Navy before the war). It will very awkward at Plymouth if they do come out, and I can’t help hoping that they won’t”.
A CLOSE RUN THING
In 1929 the Liberals did contest her seat, and her majority dropped from over 5000 to a very close 211 votes over Labour, with the Liberals a very distant third. She held the seat until 1945 when she stepped down, the seat then going to Labour with over 50% of the vote in a three way contest. Plymouth Sutton returned to the Astor family, and the Conservatives, in 1951 when Jackie Astor won at his second attempt, in a straight fight with Labour, the Liberals not running, unlike in 1950 when he had come close to unseating Lucy Middleton, Nancy Astor’s successor as MP.
TEMPERANCE AND OTHER CAUSES: CROSSING PARTY LINES
One cause brought Lady Astor, Mrs Lloyd George and Rev. J.T. Rhys together across party lines: Temperance. Thus in the published version of Lady Astor’s maiden speech in the House of Commons, it was Margaret Lloyd George who led the forewords, where she concluded:
“It was fitting that the first speech ever delivered in the British Parliament by a woman, should be on the subject of Temperance, and it was fortunate that that speech should have been delivered by Lady Astor. It was in the first instance an appeal to Parliament, but indirectly an appeal to the Nation. It is being published for that purpose. I commend Lady Astor’s appeal and arguments very earnestly to all those who love their country, and especially to Women, on whose hearts the burdens of intemperance lies so heavily”. Margaret Lloyd George
Margaret Lloyd George was a wise woman who repeatedly turned down calls for her to run for Parliament herself. In March of the year that Lady Astor entered the national stage Mrs Lloyd George was elected onto the Criccieth Urban District Council where she served until her death in 1941. She was the first female Justice of the Peace in Caernarvonshire, and was president of the Women’s Liberal Federation of North and South Wales. She always said she could support her husband as well outside parliament as inside.
Margaret Lloyd George and Nancy Astor continued to support their common causes together, and if you had been at Mrs Lloyd George’s Brynawelon home high on the hill above Criccieth in August of the next year, 1920, as she presided over a fête raising money for the local Heroes’ Memorial, you would not have been surprised by, and would undoubtedly have enjoyed, the sight of Lady Astor auctioneering sheep and pigs for charity.
Richard Rhys O’Brien, grandson of the Rev. J.T. Rhys
I am currently engaged in writing an appreciation of the speeches of Mrs Lloyd George, based upon my grandfather’s archive, as well as a project focused on the business, feminist, and publishing network of Margaret, Lady Rhondda www.thedinnerpuzzle.com.
I am very grateful for the support of the team at the Astor100 project at the University of Reading, notably Dr Jacqui Turner and Melanie Khuddro for their help in researching their wonderful Astor archive.
I am also most grateful to the Astor family for allowing me to use and share copies of the correspondence between the Astors, Mrs Lloyd George and the Rev. J.T. Rhys.
And I owe many thanks to the Lloyd George family for allowing me to make available to the public the J.T.Rhys Collection of speeches and correspondence of Mrs Lloyd George. Copies of thirty speeches of Mrs Lloyd George are now available in the archives at the National Library of Wales, in the new Rev. J.T. Rhys (Margaret Lloyd George) Papers collection.