Union Work

In the autumn of 1890, Vaughan Nash introduced Hugh to Tom Mann of the Dockers Union and through him Hugh teamed up with another Unionist, Harry Nicholls, and together they worked in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and the Home Counties, drumming up membership for an Agricultural Labourers Union.  They did their best work around Burford and Milton-under-Wychwood.  This is Hugh’s account largely in his own words:

In January 1891 I went to Oxfordshire and joined one of the Agricultural Labourers Union activists named Harry Nicholls at Burford.  I worked round the villages on the boarders of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire for the greater part of this winter, speaking at meetings there and also going into Oxford.  When with Nicholls I used to stay a good deal at a coffee house at Milton-under-Wychwood and walk from there to the village where we were to speak at night canvassing the countryside during the day and distributing leaflets…

They carried a lantern and bell and used to “cry” their own meetings early in the afternoon, as well as posting bills and delivering handbills.  Sometimes Nicholls took the chair and sometime Hugh. In this way, Hugh became a vehement and fluent speaker.

Once or twice Nicholls stopped and took hold of the plough and ran down a furrow while he talked to men and I had a shot with the plough myself one day.] I used to carry the jacket of my pyjamas with me to slip on under my coat during the meeting, as it was very cold when our meetings were out of doors.  The meetings were at night and often we had to speak from a stone heap: sometimes we found shelter in some “club room” at an Inn.

Nichols 1982
Harry Nicholls of the Dockers Union

During the day Hugh would read articles from the Daily Chronicle and the Dockers paper to Nicholls.  He had discovered, after quite some time,  that Nicholls, though he had a formidable memory, could not read.

At our coffee house was the patriarch of the village living with his married son and daughter.  He was a very fine looking old man, possessed of nine acres either by tenancy or ownership, I forget which.  He was a nonconformist saint and he told us of his conversion when a young man.  It was quite a genuine story and very interesting.  He was converted after a revivalist meeting and then later became a follower of Joseph Arch in the Labourer’s Union.  He was most amusing to talk to and had great influence among the labourers.  He got us to go down to the Village Green on Sunday to a revival service and Nicholls preached.  I would not speak, as I felt my phraseology would betray the outsider and I could not descend to the orthodox methods.  I did, however, give out the two hymns I knew on the first occasion when “I took the chair”.  After that I did not go again.

At Milton-under-Wychwood the old patriarch told a most amusing story of a tramp one evening us.  The tramp slept in a haystack in his shirt and his snoring must have attracted the policeman for he woke with the light of the bullseye on his face.  Startled he rose up standing at full height from his perch in the stack and raising his hands above his head, whereat the bobby dropped the lantern and fled to the small town terrified by what he reported was a ghost.  The tramp arrived at the pub a few hours later with the lantern which he exchanged for a drink and heard the wonderful story of the policeman’s ghost which had already been spread.

In Oxford we found friends in Professor Frederick York Powell, Arthur Sidgwick and Leanard Hobhouse.  House was then a fellow of Merton:  Sedgwick, of course, is well known as a fellow of Corpus.  York-Powell was not at this time as yet History Professor.  We met a number of enthusiastic Liberal and Socialist undergraduates who wanted to come out and speak for us and also a great character named Hines who was the college chimneysweep.  He wore a wig, was a herbalist as well as a sweep and had strong radical and Bradlaughite views. He also was an earnest Malthusian and had thirteen daughters.  York Powell was greatly interested him and admired him.

My orders from the Dockers Union in London, however, were to steer clear of politics and we had some difficulty in manoeuvring so as to maintain our independent position without giving offence or losing the support we needed.  My instructions from Nash and Tom Mann were to keep absolutely clear of Liberal Party politics, and this made the position very difficult, especially as we had to utilise the services and endeavour to get subscriptions from Sidgewick, Hobhouse and their friends.  We addressed some meetings with Hines on the Thame side of Oxford;  but politics made a difficulty and my Roman Catholic ties made it still more difficult for me to find much common ground with the strong free thinking propagandists whom Hobhouse was supporting through Hines.”

On one occasion Herbert Samuel who has since become Postmaster General in Asquith’s government asked us to address a meeting in his rooms in Balliol.  This meeting was for the purpose of obtaining financial support from well wishers and we had a lively and entertaining evening.  Among the company were Leonard Hobhouse and old Theodore Dodd, a well known Liberal and Hubert Llewellyn Smith had come down from London.   Some of the young sparks got wind of the meeting and while I was speaking screwed up “the oak”. In doing so they made some noise which betrayed them and Dodd, on hearing what was up, expressed great anxiety to get home.  He pleaded that his hostess would be inconvenienced by his being late and rushed to the door, all too late.  Finding it fast he rattled the handle saying in a very squeaky voice “let me out, I must get out”.  But as his venerable form was hidden from the men outside, this only seemed the more absurd and they jeered loudly, taking him for some feeble undergrad. 

Dodd when he recovered his equanimity and had sufficiently resigned himself to his fate got quite chirpy.  He made a witty speech upon allotments and small holdings in which, alluding to them as a means of raising labourers wages etc., opposed by landowners, he said “There is a door, but it is shut”. I had been so often among similar parties of attackers, when an undergraduate, the I knew myself pretty well how to play the game;  but my audience was too much disturbed to remain calm and they got so fidgety that we were not able to wait till the enemy retired from the staircase altogether.  We therefore had to break open the door in the face of a hostile mob, who kept us fast till Nicholls used a leaf of the table as a battering ram and smashed the “oak” to pieces. 

The enemy kept on jeering at Dodd and Hobhouse all this time, among them being Hubert Howard who asked Hobhouse, in somewhat bad taste seeing that he had been a guest at Castle Howard, if he would like a drink.  We silenced him quickly by expressing surprise audibly that a son of lady Carlisle would be there.  It was quite amusing for me and we marched out with the honours of war without anything worse than jeers.  I had great difficulty in restraining Hines from getting into trouble with Lord Mountmorris who was chaffing Hines about his wig.  Samuel seemed to be much perturbed as to what his lot might be at the hands of “the Master” next day, and I heard afterwards that he was gated;  I don’t know why as he didn’t seem to be the aggressor.”

“I note all this because it was my first experience of being “on the other side” to that which I had been accustomed when at Christ Church in many a similar disturbance.

By our agitation we succeeded in forming a number of branches of the union and had about a thousand members by the middle of March 1891. Then I got another threatened attack of jaundice and had to take refuge with York Powell for a couple of nights and then returned to London.  I just missed a terrific blizzard in which Nicholls nearly caught his death and our poor old non-conformist patriarch at Milton did actually catch his – a martyr for the cause.

I had become very much interested in this labourer’s movement, but ill health prevented my doing more before the summer, when I had to return to Brandsby on business, and subsequent events prevented my ever returning to East London for any considerable period.”

Frederick York Powell was an English historian and scholar.

Arthur Sidgwick was an Oxford classics scholar,he believed strongly in the value of the an intellectually rigorous single sex environment, but he believed in the education of women and worked on behalf of the Oxford Association for the education of women.

Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse was a British liberal political theorist and sociologist, who has been considered one of the leading and earliest proponents of social liberalism. His most famous book Liberalism (1911), occupied a seminal position within the canon of New Liberalism. He worked both as an academic and a journalist, and played a key role in the establishment of sociology as an academic discipline; in 1907 he shared, with Edward Westermarck, the distinction of being the first professor of sociology to be appointed in the United Kingdom, at the University of London. He was also the founder and first editor of The Sociological Review.


During 1891 Hugh also took some part in the Combmakers strike in York, at the suggestion of Arthur Gavin Stevenson, though he does not enlarge on the nature of his involvement. However, during this year he also joined with Nash in supporting the publication of a Dockers’ Union paper called the “Trade unionist”.  Nash was the editor. Hugh gave £200 in funding, all of which was lost, he says, when the paper failed after a run of about a year.  But despite its short life, Hugh thought that it was a lively paper which “…acted as a goad to the Liberal wire pullers in some important matters.”

Word of Hugh’s activities clearly travelled about and somewhere during these years, 1899-91, Hugh also received a request, conveyed through some friends, from Cardinal Manning to call and see him at Westminster. Hugh hesitated, because he had been warned off getting caught in ‘ecclesiastical meshes’ by his mentor, Barry, but in the end he went.  Hugh clearly had his face set against getting involved in church matters and did not listen to the Cardinal’s proposal.  Hugh says that ‘He wanted me to work for him in some scheme he alluded to vaguely, but I was unwilling to be caught in ecclesiastical meshes, thanks to Barry’s tuition.’ Cardinal Manning had for many years worked hard to secure education for poor Catholic children in London with a fair degree of success. In later years he widened his interests to the poor and the outcast and was invited to join the commission for the provision of better housing for the working classes.  He founded his League of the Cross for the promotion of temperance,  and his effort at mediation between the strikers and their employers at the time of the 1889 London Dock Strike, resulted in what was known as ‘the Cardinal’s peace’. So Manning was concerned with many of the same issues which which Hugh was concerned and they had an interesting talk.  Despite his resolution not to get involved with church schemes, Hugh was impressed by the Cardinal’s charm and personality and the Cardinal asked him about his work.  He was struck by two things which Manning said, namely that “we must teach people to believe in God before we talked of the Council of Trent.” And he expressed some anxiety that the proposal for an Arbitration Board would prove to a snare for the Unions. He wished Hugh God’s blessing and said “Go on with what you are doing”. He asked Hugh to call again and he did go a second time, but kept his distance ‘fearing his fascination’.

Hugh remained in touch with his friends from Beaumont Square and Toynbee, all his life and relied on them for moral, political and practical support in his later work in Yorkshire.  He also relied on them during his political work on the development of British agricultural policy.  The Beaumont Square household continued until 3rd February 1898 when the house was abandoned for lack of money, and Rogers and Llewellyn-Smith moved to the Temple.  The square where the house stood is now filled with flats as part of the Ocean Housing Estate.  This huge estate was built in the 1950s but its building did not solve East End deprivation.  In 2001 Tony Blair used it as an example of the worst of urban decay in Britain to launch his campaign for urban regeneration.  In 2015 the resulting redevelopment was winning accolades for the developers.


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