Keir Hardie MP faces down hordes of offensive Cambridge undergraduates. February 1907. (Part 1)

Cambridge University undergraduates did themselves and the reputation of their institutions no favours with their behaviour at a public meeting at the Cambridge Guildhall, organised so that ordinary working men in Cambridge could hear the leader of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie MP, speak in public. This post transcribes the article in the Cambridge Independent Press of 22 Jan 1907 and scanned into the goldmine that is the British Newspaper Archive.

070222 Keir Hardie Cambridge Guildhall headline

Three organisations/federations co-operated in organising the event – spanning town and gown:

  • Cambridge University Fabian Society
  • Cambridge Independent Labour Party
  • Cambridge Labour Committee – representing nine local trade union branches

This was in the very early days of what was to become the Cambridge Labour Party as constituted today. When it came to smashing up things, Cambridge undergraduates had form, irrespective of what the event was. The Cambridge Independent did not pull its printed punches when Conservative-supporting undergraduates tried to smash up their offices following a general election victory in the constituency in 1885. Five years earlier, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was prevented from speaking at The Guildhall by that toxic mix of entitled and badly behaved undergraduates combined with local drunkards and hoodlums tanked up on alcohol. Even in the interwar period, peace marches were not out of bounds for rioting undergraduates as the 1933 Cambridge Anti-War marchers found to their cost. These repeated episodes over the decades reflected just how out of control those young men were – and how incompetent and impotent the Cambridge University authorities were at controlling them. Rowland Parker’s book 700 Years of war in Cambridge catalogues the fights over the centuries – fights that in the grand scheme of things have long since gone. Certainly in my lifetime here I can’t recall a major town vs gown punch up.

Interesting to read these things in today’s context?

If I wanted to do fake outrage I’d be going after every government back bencher demanding they apologies for their party’s predecessors ignominious record of smashing up my home town before I was born. Yet, as with the Suffragettes, I don’t think we’ve quite worked out how to deal with remembering political and social events that involved violence and discrimination on the part of some of the institutions that are still here today. For example:


The Cambridge that Keir Hardie rocked up to speak at was one where the women of Cambridge were a rising collective power. The Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society were now regularly organising large events with prominent speakers being cross-examined by large numbers of incredibly bright, intelligent and talented women, dealing with social issues that we still struggle with today. This wasn’t Mr Hardie’s first visit to Cambridge, but it seems to have been the one that had the most violent reaction from a group of undergraduates trying to smash up a meeting aimed at working class men.





“I suppose it is our born legislators making the noise”

“…cynically observed Mr J Keir Hardie, MP, to a group of working men sympathisers as he retired from the platform at the Cambridge Guildhall on Saturday evening and turned his back on the noisy pack of undergraduates, who had been doing their best to prevent the founder and Leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons from being heard.

“Such a scene of rowdyism as was witnessed at the meeting has not been seen in Cambridge since the late Cardinal Manning and the late Sir Wilfrid Lawson were prevented from advocating local option [i.e. prohibition on alcohol sales] in the same building some thirty years ago.

“Mr Keir Hardie visited Cambridge at the invitation of the Cambridge University Fabian Society, with whom representatives of the local branch of the Independent Labour Party and nine local Trades Unions co-operated as the Cambridge Labour Committee in organising the meeting. There had been rumours during the week that it was likely an attempt would be made by a section of undergraduate members of the University to break up the meeting, and the organisers took precautions to prepare for any onslaught which might be made by issuing a circular to their supporters urging them to assemble early, so as to fill the front part of the hall and help to keep order.

“Nearly an hour before the time at which the doors were opened to the public, the Committee and their supporters began to arrive by the Wheeler Street entrance and no time was lost in making preparations which rendered the successful storming of the platform almost an impossibility. The front twelve rows of seats were given over to the possession of sympathisers and on the last line of these rows a line of sturdy working men were posted with instructions to pull the long forms across the gangways and to defend the barriers in the event of a rush being attempted.


“Meanwhile the opposition had not been idle. An attempt made to prevent Mr Keir Hardie reaching the hall was not attended with success, but before the meeting commenced those already inside the building were given an indication of what they might expect during the evening. Something like half an hour before the main doors opened, the Committee and their friends were startled, in the midst of their preparations, by the crashing of glass, followed by the sound of an explosion.

“Immediately afterwards a peculiarly offensive odour pervaded the building, and it was then seen that one of the windows on the right hand side of the hall had been smashed and that some chemical solution was trickling down the side of the wall behind a valuable life-size painting of two Cambridge worthies of a former generation – Mr Spring Rice, at one time Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his then colleague in the representation of the borough in the House of Commons.

“Sometime before the main door opened a large crowd were lined up in a queue round the sides of the building. Townspeople were completely outnumbered by undergraduates, of whom there were several hundreds – many gathered about in the Market Place. During the period of waiting they were as orderly as could be, but directly the doors opened, at about a quarter to eight, all was changed.

“The students immediately stormed up the stairs and rushed the helter skelter into the hall. Fully two-thirds of the floor space at the rear was available for the general public, and this was largely monopolised by the undergraduates. In a very few minutes the hall was filled to its utmost capacity, and yet there were many hundreds who could not get in. [Note – the same thing happened in 2015 when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn visited Cambridge to speak at Great St Mary’s – many outside could not get in.]

“Once inside, the undergraduates leapt on the chairs and forms, and very soon turned the place into a “bear garden.” There was a continuous uproar, varied by yells, war whoops, cat calls, the blowing of referees whistles and horns, and snatches of songs. Occasionally forms broke down beneath the weight imposed upon them, and as the occupants disappeared in a struggling mass upon the floor there were loud cries, followed by triumphal cheering and roars of laughter.

“The appearance of the Mayor and Mr H.G. Whibley in the gallery was the occasion for a demonstration, and ladies who found seats in the gallery also had a very warm reception. But though this behaviour sufficiently alarmed a number of young ladies who were in the front seats so as to induce them to scramble up to the orchestra by means of the press table, it was as child’s play to what followed.

“The storm broke when the platform party appeared. The Chairman, Mr Reuben Slingsby, a local builder, was closely followed by Mr Keir Hardie, who took up his position on the right, with two ladies from Newnham, Miss Reeve and Miss Ferguson. On the left sat Mr WT Wilson, MP, with Mr HG Wood (Fellow of Jesus College), Mr FH Keeling (Trinity College), and the Secretary of the Fabian Society (Mr Coit of King’s).

“As they took their seats, the cheers of the sympathisers mingled with the hisses and hootings of opponents, and, as if by a preconcerted signal, there was a fusillade of missiles from the back of the hall. It included lump sugar – the undergraduates’ favourite form of ammunition – decayed oranges, and tomatoes, and test tubes containing chemical compounds which filled the hall with an overpowering smell. Several of the missiles reached Mr Keir Hardie but he sat quite unmoved.

The Chairman howled down

“As the disorder showed no signs of diminishing, the Chairman rose and endeavoured to make himself heard. Once he resumed his seat amid cheers of the opposition, but stood up again and uttered a few sentences which, so incessant were the interruptions, could not be heard, even by the Press. He was understood to be appealing for a fair hearing for Mr Keir Hardie, and one remark was that it was very much to be regretted that men of culture should allow themselves to be led away to try to disturb an orderly meeting of the working classes of  Cambridge.

Mr Keir Hardie’s Reception.

The hubbub increased, and tho odour of the noxious chemical became more pronounced when Mr Keir Hardie rose. In his buttonhole wore a bunch of violets, and his customary red tie had given place to a loosely knotted plaid tie. Facing the opposition he endeavoured to raise his voice above the uproar, but he could be heard by very few of the audience.

“Having announced his intention of speaking of the Labour party in the House of Commons and in the country, he said was quite certain that no gentleman with the slightest pretence to being a scholar would desire to prevent the Labour party having an opportunity of stating its case in classical Cambridge.

An unequal battle

Twice during this sentence, the speaker was subjected to considerable interruptions, and he was compelled stop. Then, advancing to the edge of the platform, he raised his voice, an shouted

“Now. gentlemen. I want to come an honourable understanding with the opposition. It is perfectly obvious that if there are twenty men trying to howl down one man (cheers)—the twenty are bound to succeed, but there not much honour attached to the job. (Uproar.) The intimation I desire to make my opponents is that at the close of address you shall have full opportunity of putting any question you desire — (cheers and counter cheers) — and I promise you straight forward answer to your questions. (Cheers.) That is more than you always get from political platform. (Cheers.) The Labour party in this country now force and a power to be reckoned with. (Interruptions.) “

“The working men of England are determined that, with all their disabilities, they shall claim terms of equality for themselves with the educated and  cultured classes. The composition of the party is double; it a combination of the Trades Union movement and the Socialist movement — (interruptions) — and I hope the young men here to night — (uproar) — are not going have it said that they are afraid to listen to Socialist speeches. (Cheers.) Remember gentlemen, that your education (cheers) — and your social position gives you a responsibility of which you cannot divest (Cheers.) We who belong the lower orders —(cheers) —have to look you for guidance, have to look you for example— (cheers) and in our rough and uncultured ways of life we expect to find the Universities showing us the better way.”

The Proctor’s Appeal.

“Then came an unexpected turn of events. When the uproar was at its height, the Senior Proctor [See here for what Cambridge University Proctors do re discipline & order in Cambridge University and its colleges], the Rev. G. A. Weekes, of Sidney College, stepped on to the platform, and, in obedience to his uplifted hand, silence restored. In a quiet, confident tone of voice. Mr. Weekes said:

“Gentlemen, you know me. (Cheers.) Then can appeal you the honour of the University give Mr Keir Hardie a fair hearing. (Cheers.) In Cambridge, if anywhere, we respect freedom of speech, and in my usual phrase I request you to give him fair hearing. (Cheers.) I am authorised to say that Mr. Keir Hardie is perfectly willing to answer any question that may be put to him after he has made his speech.”

Labour Leader Resumes

“Amid tumultuous cheering, the Senior Proctor quietly left the platform, and Mr. Keir Hardie got on much better for time, at least. Interruptions were frequent, but, by raising his voice, the speaker was able to make himself, heard for something like a quarter of-an hour.

“Your Proctor has said that you know him,”

…he began.

“You don’t know me—(cheers)—but you are going know me better before you leave the hall, and I think I can promise you that we shall part better friends at the close of the meeting than we have been up to the present.” (No. no,” Yes,” and cheers )

“I will endorse what your Proctor has said — (interruptions) – that any questions you have to put to me upon any subject connected with politics, or my personal connection with politics, or anything in relation thereto, I shall be delighted to answer to the best of my ability. (Cheers.)

Composition of the Labour Party

“First he discussed the composition of the Labour party, which, he said, was a combination of Socialists and the Trades’ Union movement in England. The Trades’ Union movement existed to protect the interests of the working classes. It was exclusively a working class movement; the Trades’ Unions could be nothing else than exclusively working class. Socialism, on the other hand—(cries of ** Down with it”) — was not a class movement, but a principle which could be accepted by the propertied class and acted upon just as well, and with as much advantage as it could be the under-paid and over-worked working man. ‘(Interruptions.)

“I want you, therefore,

continued Mr. Keir Hardie,

“…to understand the beginning that my remarks will not be confined exclusively to working men. In the main the Labour party must rely on the working classes for its support, but it is gratifying to me to be able to say that many of our most vigorous and enthusiastic workers and advocates are University men—(“Shame” and groans)— drawn from the middle and upper classes—men and women who realise that there is something more sacred than property —(cries of Rot ‘ and interruptions)— and that when the private possession of property leads to the hurt of human life, property ought to take second place. (Interruptions.)

“There are a great and growing number of the educated class who are taking that view. The Trades’ Union movement exists to protect workers against a system which makes it impossible for the large proportion of them to live a decent human life, and the Socialist movement aims at the over-throw of the system, which makes the Trades’ Union movement necessary” (“Oh. oh,” and interruptions.)

“There one aspect of our movement which is frequently assailed—


“We are assured that if only we would agree to work with one party or the other in politics, our task would be greatly simplified. But for the last years the Labour movement has existed as separate and independent force, and in its independence lies its strength and the secret of its success.”

“Let illustrate my point by two illustrations drawn from the proceedings in the House Commons during this week. For twenty years past Old Age Pensions has been a subject talked about politicians on both sides. You remember how, in 1895, the Unionist party won the election largely on the cry Old Age Pensions. (Cheers.) It is now 1907—(“ Really,” and ironical cheers) — and we have not got Old Age Pensions yet. We are going to have them from this Government (“Oh,” and interruptions.) We intend to insist upon having


” (loud cheers and groans)— and if I may I should like to point out a possible danger to the party now in office if this scheme of ours be refused. We are told the difficulty is find the money. If that difficulty is allowed to continue to prevent the Government giving effect to the desire of the House for Old Age Pensions, the next election will witness the Unionist party once more appealing to the country on this cry ; —(cheers) — and promising to find the money out of some system of preferential tariffs. (Opposition cheers.) The danger I see is no light one.”

“We of the Labour Party are


“…but—l want to utter this warning seriously — I not believe that all our influence —(ironical cheers) — could prevent a large section of working men being lured over to the Unionist side if, the promise of Old Age Pensions was made to them after the Liberals had failed to grant them. (A Voice : “Quite right, too.”)

Mr. Keir Hardie then went on deal with the unemployed.

“Ah, my friends”

he commenced—and this provoked an uproar which prevented him being heard for some minutes

“—it is so easy for you in the exuberance of youth, in the heyday of spirits—(“ Oh ”)—to come here enjoying yourselves; but whilst we are here assembled, on the Embankment in London from a thousand to twelve hundred men — every man as good any man in this hall — (loud cheers and uproar)— will be waiting till one o’clock on Sunday morning to have basin of soup and bit of bread doled out to them the Salvation Army. Are these the conditions of society you desire to see perpetuated?”

“You don’t want that human beings should starve through no fault of their own? (Hear, hear, and interruptions.) You don’t want that the aged poor should be compelled to go to the workhouse? —(“ No”) j after they have kept themselves and kept many of you by their labour? You don’t want these things, and of the Labour Party, putting party politics aside, concentrate upon the social condition of the people, and give that precedence over every other question.” (Cheers and interruptions.)

The thorny subject of socialism

“Ironical cheers greeted Mr. Keir Hardie’a announcement that he would leave politics, and these gave place to cries of “ Oh ” and prolonged interruption when he added that he would enter upon the even more thorny subject of Socialism.

“I would hope that you will listen to for ten minutes”

“he said, and the undergraduates vehemently responded with cries of “No.”

“Oh, yes, you will!”

“persisted the Labour Leader,

“You will listen for ten minutes to hear what I have to say in the way of expounding my conception of Socialism.”

“The undergraduates seemed determined not to allow Socialism to be preached from the platform, but Mr Keir Hardie’s tact and persistence won them round.

“Do you know what people will say if I you refuse to listen?” he asked. “They will say you are afraid!”

“The speaker’s sympathisers cheered lustily, and he was allowed to proceed, although the interruptions became even more frequent than hitherto. Shouting at the top of his voice, he said:

“Socialism starts from the assumption that since no man made land, no man should own land —(cheers, and cries of . “ Oh,” and some booing)— and Socialists intend to work steadily forward till the time comes when the people of the nation shall own the land of the nation — (cheers) — and when the landlord and the rent receiver shall have ceased.

“So—(a Voice :“ As to give it to other people!” and laughter) — in regard to capital – our great railways, our mines, our great factories — these things to-day are not used for the good of the working people; they are used to make profits for those who have money invested in them. And if the profits can made by inflicting hardship upon the common people, hardship is inflicted as readily as can I be. (Cries of Chuck it,” and interruptions.)

“The Socialists not only advocate that land shall I cease to be private property, but that capital shall become collective property also. (Cheers, and Voice : “ Have a drink.”) The working man to-day has


“…in his labour. (Interruptions.) There is not man employed for wages, from the most skilled position down to tho most humble, who has any right to claim to be allowed to work. If suits certain people, he is employed; if it does not suit them, he is cast adrift. (Interruptions.)

“The Socialist proclaims that to be an inhuman system of society when one man, or one section of men, are able to use their fellows for their own personal gain or advantage. That, then, is the basis upon which the Socialist movement is built up. But not only in economics, but also in politics, the Socialist movement has definite standing of its own.

“We claim that every human being, man and woman alike, are entitled fully enfranchised as citizens of the State — (cheers) — that there should be neither disability of poverty nor disability of sex, and I rejoice to think that this year there is excellent prospect of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill becoming law. (Cheers and booing.) If that is true of the people within our own shores, it applies also to the people of other lands. (Interruptions.)

“The Socialist movement


“…either of nationality, of creed, of colour, or of religion.” (Uproar.)

“Socialism stands for the divinity of the human race — (uproar) — and, as such, detests war and all preparations leading to war. (Cheers and interruptions.) The one party in the world that can be relied upon to be a peace party at all times is the Socialist and Labour party. (Cheers.) We are labouring to put down competition in the workshop, and competition between peoples, and shall succeed —(cheers, and “ No, no ’’) — whether the opposition comes from the slum or the University” (Interruptions.)

“Take my word for this – the Socialist movement is going forward, and many of you who are here to-night enjoying yourselves, will in the near future be amongst the most active spirits in our ranks. (Cheers and booing). I don’t object to you having outburst. I like men of spirit and fighting capacity. (Interruptions.) I recognise in you, kindred spirits, and the same zeal you have shown to-night in trying to cause disorder here — (No, and ironical laughter}- will one day be employed carrying forward the principles of Socialism.” (* No,” and booing.)

“I ask you, in conclusion, not to take your opinions of Socialism from the party Press on either side. I don’t trust what you read in the Liberal or Tory Press about the Labour party and its work, and the men and women who compose it.  The question is serious for England. (Interruptions.) Its people are being done to death, and unless you come to the rescue, on your garments will be the blood of the people who are slain. (Loud cheering, mingled with booing).”


That was only halfway through the event! In the next blogpost I’ll transcribe the Q&A session – where the undergraduates really showed themselves for what they were…


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