Clement Attlee’s Chancellor in the early days of the Cambridge Labour Party


Before he became famous, Hugh Dalton was a familiar face in Cambridge.

Out of all of the candidates who have stood for Parliament in Cambridge, Hugh Dalton is probably the one who went onto the highest peaks in politics. Baroness Shirley Williams stood in Cambridge for the Social Democrats/Alliance in 1987 but that was after her time in ministerial office rather than before it.

Hugh Dalton’s wiki page is here. Not much has been written about his days in Cambridge, so here goes.

Dalton arrived in our town in 1906 having finished his education at Eton and securing a place at King’s College, Cambridge.

“Certainly, when I went up to King’s in the autumn of 1906, it was as though the heavens had opened” (p36)

The above from his memoirs “Call Back Yesterday” [Frederick Muller Ltd, 1953, London] covering 1887-1931. Dalton was at Cambridge at a time when some incredibly wonderful people were really coming of age. While Cambridge heroes Eglantyne Jebb, Florence Ada Keynes, Maud Darwin and company were beginning their transformation of the town – Eglantyne’s ground-breaking book Cambridge: a brief study of social questions being published a few months after Dalton arrived, Florence’s son Geoffrey had also commenced his studies at Pembroke – returning to his home town after time away at Rugby public school. In those days Cambridge was only just beginning to build a network of state secondary schools – what we now call Hills Road Sixth Form College (the County High School for Boys) having only opened around that time.

031026 Drawing of opening of HRSFC County school for boys

Interestingly, Florence Ada Keynes attended the opening ceremony of the school in 1903.

Without that network of secondary schools, affluent parents would send their children to be educated privately – for example at The Perse. The local council for many years would provide a limited number of scholarships to children with potential but whose families had otherwise limited means to pay the fees.

1906 was also the year that Cambridge got its first modern day Liberal MP, the barrister Stanley Buckmaster KC. As a peer, Buckmaster would temporarily become Lord Chancellor in Asquith’s wartime cabinet. This was also the time we first hear of the activities of two young women called Clara Tabor and Leah Perrett – later Cllr Clara Rackham and Dame Leah Manning.

Rupert Brooke

Both Geoffrey Keynes and Hugh Dalton were in the famous poet’s close circle of friends. Brooke was a radical liberal and like Eglantyne Jebb in 1910 campaigned for the Liberals in the general elections of that year. Which makes it all the more strange that 100 years later The Archer Family would invite Margaret Thatcher to unveil a statue of Rupert Brooke at their house where Brooke wrote some of his most famous poems in Grantchester. I dare say that had Brooke survived the war he’d have followed Dalton into the Labour Party – and Dalton states this himself when talking about the Liberal MP Charles Masterman:

“We [Dalton and Brooke] thought of [Masterman] as the young leader of the Radical Socialist wing of the Liberal Party, which we hoped would soon split off and join the Labour Party to make a real Socialist Party in Britain.”

Many would leave the Liberals to join Labour – both Clara Rackham and Leah Manning being high profile examples in Cambridge of people who did just this shortly after the First World War. Leah Manning – then Leah Perrett was a student at what we now call Homerton College. Then an all-woman’s teaching college, it was Hugh Dalton who recruited Leah to the Cambridge Fabian Society. In the days of chaperones and formal introductions, a number of women in the early days of Newnham, Girton and Homerton have written about the schemes they concocted to enable male friends to visit – Manning giving the example of Dalton pretending that he was a cousin and that to ask how another relative was doing at the start of the conversation!

Around the same time, someone else was moving away from the Liberals – Eglantyne Jebb had this article published shortly after the outbreak of war – where she saw a co-operative economy as the future. The Co-operative Party, then a completely separate political party, would in 1927 go into a political alliance with the Labour Party – one that still exists to this day (see their MPs here).

“No Cambridge friendship of mine meant more to me than his, and the radiance of his memory still lights my path” (p38)

Dalton writes of Brooke, again in his memoirs.


Hugh Dalton three years after his arrival here – from “Call Back Yesterday”

Poetry frequently mentioned

Given one of his best friends at the time was Rupert Brooke, it should come as hardly surprising that poetry is prominent in his memoirs at this time. But it got me thinking as to why poetry is not nearly so prominent in popular culture today. It’s not like you switch on your local radio station to hear poetry/spoken word being played outside of its incorporation into popular music. I’ve always struggled with poetry due to the way it was so badly taught at secondary school – one of my personal lifetime chips on my shoulder is to blame the Conservative governments for this. Basically I quite liked the idea of poetry rhyming, and the stuff we were taught at secondary school didn’t rhyme. That combined with dull lessons in crumbling buildings or skanky mobile classrooms are hardly the sort of thing to inspire teenage boys with! Yet I keep on reminding myself that the likes of Dalton and Brooke didn’t have the distraction of recorded replayable music, the radio, television or the internet.

Brooke would pepper his letters to his friends with excerpts of poetry – firing off letters left, right and centre.


081007 Rupert Brooke to Hugh Dalton.jpg

If the address that he wrote this from is not an indication of his politics, I don’t know what is.  I get the sense that this era is going to be a golden age for historians because the people active wrote letters, and the recipients in general kept them and had them properly archived. Will a future technology allow future historians to access the long-deleted emails that contain records of important decisions made?

So thus we get an insight from Dalton of the political journey that Rupert Brooke was making. There’s a little bit of me that wants to lampoon the myths and stereotypes that seem to have grown up around Brooke and Cambridge. [Imagine a Hyacinth-from-Keeping-Up-Appearances-voice]

“Oh Rupert Brooke! Such a romantic! He reminds me of our wonderful public schools – of King’s College, Cambridge, and punting on the Cam on a lazy summer’s day all the way up to Grantchester after a May Ball!”

…with me thinking:

“Yeah – and had he survived World War I he’d have joined Labour and nationalised the lot in Attlee’s Government – punts and all!”

Actually, given the problems Cambridge has with punt touts, nationalising the punting operations doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all!

“But what about Hugh after his studies?”

He stuck around for four years at Kings, before heading to Temple, London to train to become a barrister. At the same time he attended lectures at the London School of Economics, but stayed in touch with his friends in the Cambridge Fabians – indicating that they were strongly in favour of Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’.

“I went to Whitefields Tabernacle to hear Lloyd George speak on his Insurance Bill, I was deeply moved. The climax came when he declared, in a ringing voice: “I will fight this through or I will fall.” And men sprang to their feet, with tears streaming down their cheeks, crying: “Thank God for Lloyd George!” And I confess that I wept too, my Welsh blood stirring within me”

In early 1914 he passed is bar exams and then married Ruth Fox – a graduate at the L.S.E. who was offered a place at Newnham but turned it down for the L.S.E. Dalton mentions that Ruth’s grandfather, Capt David Stuart Ogilvy, an army officer was such a Francophile that he volunteered to fight for Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian war, and was subsequently killed in action in the defence of Paris in 1870.

War breaks out

“I do not believe that I was alone in feeling passionately in August 1914, that the young generation in all the belligerent lands had been collectively betrayed”

“But why, I demanded had not the rest of us somehow stopped [The Germans]? Surely a warning that we should come in against them would have done that?” (p80)

It was the war that put an end to Dalton’s legal career.


Lt Hugh Dalton served on the Italian Front as an artillery officer, and wrote up his account of the war in With The British Guns in Italy, a book that has fortunately been digitised – click on the link above to read it.

After the war

Dalton didn’t go back to law after the war. He was demobilised in early 1919 and was back in Cambridge addressing the Cambridge Universities Labour Club – one of the oldest student societies in our city. There he tore into the elder statesmen that he saw were responsible for the outbreak of war. He then joined the London School of Economics as a lecturer in the economics department while completing his book The inequality of incomes – again, kindly digitised by the Internet Archive so that you can read it yourself – click on the link above.

Clara Rackham and Susan Lawrence come calling

A year after demobilisation, two former Newnham College students and also elected councillors in Cambridge and London respectively, got in touch with Dalton to see if he wanted to become Labour’s candidate for the next general election. Susan Lawrence would go onto become the first woman MP for the Labour Party, elected for East Ham North in December 1923. Dalton was selected for Labour on 18th February 1922, and moved into 77 Panton Street, Cambridge, close to the railway station. Thus Dalton started a commute to London that many a resident in Cambridge – myself included, would later undertake.

Campaigning in Cambridge – working with many civic legends

For someone from such a privileged background, I get the sense from his memoirs that class did not matter, but loyalty did in the early days of the Cambridge Labour Party. Dare I say it, the same is still true today – despite the inevitable divisions between the pro-Corbyn vs anti-Corbyn factions. Of the four men he mentions, one was a train driver (Bill Few), another a station clerk (Bill Briggs – the first Labour Mayor of Cambridge), the third a watchmaker (Jim Overton) and the fourth a builder (Arthur Cross). 361107 First Labour Mayor Ronald Searle

The first Labour Mayor of Cambridge, illustrated by Ronald Searle in the Cambridge News, 1936 from the Cambridgeshire Collection.

The great women behind the men

Dalton mentions specifically Clara Rackham, Agnes Ramsey and Petica Robertson as being being close friends and activists for Labour in Cambridge during those years. One of the reasons perhaps we don’t hear much about the latter two was because of their untimely deaths. Agnes Ramsey died in a motor accident, while Petica Robertson was one of the ARP wardens killed in action during a nazi air raid on Cambridge in 1941.


Cambridge Heroes: Petica Robertson and Lucy Gent – ARP wardens killed in action during a nazi air raid on Cambridge that hit the top of Hills Road by Parker’s Piece. Courtesy the Cambridgeshire County Archive. 

Dalton gets to know Cambridge the town

The local media in Cambridge were naming him as the probable candidate a week before his formal selection in 1920. The Cambridge Independent describe him as ‘a frequent and acceptable speaker at The Union Society’ (13 Feb 1920), reminding readers that as President of the Cambridge University Fabian Society, he was also on the Cambridge Labour Representation Committee that would go onto form today’s Cambridge Labour Party. Leah Manning, then a senior officer (if not president) of the Cambridge Labour Party stated at the adoption meeting that the meeting was one of the most significant in the party’s history to date.  Note too what Dalton says about the women of the Labour Party.

200301 Hugh Dalton Cambridge Women Labour Party.jpeg

From the British Newspaper Archive – corroborating what Dalton wrote about the influence of women – in particular Leah Manning and Clara Rackham. The list of organisations that spoke in favour of Dalton also shines a light on the make up of Cambridge at the time.

200301 Hugh Dalton adopted

From the British Newspaper Archive – the article in full is here, but requires £subscription. (I think it’s worth it though!)

At the adoption meeting, Dalton absolutely tore into Winston Churchill over the latter’s military record in the First World War. Which makes me wonder what their working relationship was like given that Churchill appointed Dalton firstly Minister of Economic Warfare in May 1940, and then President of the Board of Trade in 1942 in the wartime Coalition. Dalton didn’t waste time following his candidature – as the advert below indicates.

200501 Hugh Dalton Marion Philips May Day.jpeg

What’s interesting about the above advert – again via the British Newspaper Archive, is the presence of another Labour pioneer – Marion Phillips. That meeting took place at what became Parkside School – now part of the Parkside Federation. The newspaper archives show that at the May Day demonstration, Labour called for the end of hostilities with the new Soviet Union (which the national government had gone to war with), while stating they did not defend the atrocities of the Bolsheviks. They also said both Germany and the Soviet Union should be invited to join the League of Nations.

200504 Hugh Dalton Marion Philips Parkside meeting.jpeg

The theme was continued by Dalton & Dr Phillips at Parkside. One thing that the history books have written out of the interwar era was the huge interest women had in rebuilding Europe after the First World War. The newspaper articles of the day are full of reports of gatherings of how women wanted to be involved in post-war politics. Perhaps none more so than Eglantyne Jebb with Save the Children. Yet we hardly ever hear about the impact women wanted to make and did make.

200528 Hugh Dalton Morley

Morley Memorial School is an interesting one because at the time the neighbourhood was a very newly built one. Parallels today would be Orchard Park or Great Kneighton – which will be the first party to sink their roots into the new communities?

Between 1920-22, Hugh Dalton appears in well over 100 newspaper articles. For a prospective parliamentary candidate that’s quite an impressive record – especially bearing in mind he was commuting into London for work at the same time.

The Campaign

The Conservatives dominated the political scene in Cambridge, and had the support of the highly partisan Cambridge Chronicle, as this blogpost illustrates. In the election itself, Dalton focused on trying to push the Liberals into third place, something he ultimately succeeded in doing despite the best efforts of Neville and Maynard Keynes, who both signed up to the Cambridge Liberal campaign of Cope Morgan.

It became a war of words between the Liberals and Labour – Cope Morgan saying that Dalton was in effect too posh to represent Labour and thus picked the only constituency in the country where he could possibly stand as a Labour candidate – Cambridge. Dalton responded that the Liberals were two-faced, sending one publication to the people of Romsey Town – where many of the railway workers lived, and a different one to Trinity College, while he was proud to have sent the same one to both communities.

230315 Hugh Dalton voters Romsey230315 Hugh Dalton Committee Room Polling Day

From the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive – Hugh Dalton on the campaign trail.

On polling day, Dalton describes the scene below:

From Dalton’s memoirs. Click on each image to read.

Dalton leaves Cambridge

Dalton would fight five election campaigns in quick succession, finally winning his fifth to become MP for Peckham. Yet this from ‘The Graphic’ in 1929 shows Dalton listed as being of the Cambridge Labour Party with George Lansbury – future leader of the Labour Party and grandfather to Dame Angela Lansbury the actress. This is despite him being the MP for Peckham!

291005 Hugh Dalton George Lansbury The Graphic

Hugh Dalton would return to Cambridge on a number of occasions. In the photographs below he is seen at the formal opening of the Romsey Labour Club – a building I am still researching as to why it was sold off by the local party, because it never should have been.

It is a wonderful building that could really do with some tender loving care instead of being in the hands of a developer who recently had an application for more student flats on the site turned down by the city council.

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