Keir Hardie MP takes on allcomers in a Q&A session at Cambridge Guildhall in 1907 (Part 2)

This post follows on from the speech that Mr Keir Hardie MP gave at Cambridge Guildhall. The newspaper article in the Cambridge Independent Press, scanned and made available by the wonderful British Newspaper Archive, goes into around 7,000 words – hence breaking it up into two posts. 

The length of the article is not unique – local newspapers at the time would often report political meetings at length, often quoting verbatim exchanges between those speaking. Hence their importance as historical documents – and for public histories, important sources in dramatisations.

Question Time

“When Mr Keir Hardie resumed his seat there was a renewal of the uproar which became deafening as it had been before the intervention of the Senior Proctor.

“The entrance to the gallery a large party of Newnham students was the signal for fresh demonstration on the part of the undergraduates, who mounted the seats, and frantically waved their caps to the new arrivals, cheering and making demands of “Speech.” While the uproar was at its height, more of the obnoxious chemical was thrown in the direction of the platform, and the odour became almost overpowering.

“Mr. Keir Hardie imperturbably stuck to his task, however. Though he was obviously feeling the effect of the tremendous exertion he had been put to in order to make himself heard, he rose once more to carry out the undertaking he had given, viz, to answer the questions handed up to him.

“The first question he dealt with was “How do you conform the practice of Trades Unionism to the principles of Free Trade?”

“Free Trade means,

…he began, and, to the delight of the undergraduates, some would-be wag interpolated Protection.” After the interruption had subsided little, the speaker continued :

“Free Trade is the free exchange of commodities between different countries. By jove,” and ironical cheers.) Trades Unionism combination of workmen to protect their own interests against the employing class. (Cries of dissent.) Oh, yes it is. You may not like the answer, but it is true all the same, and there nothing whatever contrary to the principles of Free Trade in Trade Unionism. The two things are totally different and separate. (Interruptions.)”

The Labour Leader and the Zulu.

“Loud cheering followed the reading of the next question, which Mr. Keir Hardie said was on the whole more exciting and more interesting. It was :

“What are your views on Chinese Labour, Suffragettes, and Zulus?”

“The reference to the Suffragettes led the undergraduates to once again mount the chairs and wave their caps and cheer the Newnham students in the gallery. As the ladies did not respond to the cries of “Speech,” attention was once more directed to the platform, Mr. Keir was expressing his views on Chinese labour, when he was interrupted by vehement shouts of Zulus.’

“Now, gentlemen, let’s be fair, he said. I’ll take the topics as they come in the question, and I won’t shirk the Zulus (Cheers.) The Chinese were taken to South Africa to prevent the white man being employed—(cheers, “No, no,” and uproar)—and the sooner they are cleared out the better for them and for us.”

“The second topic is the Suffragettes. (Loud cheers.) I should have thought my opinions that subject were too well known by now to require any exposition. I believe the fighting militant section of the Suffragettes are doing the right and proper thing—(uproar)—a thing that you men would be doing if you were in their place. If you would not, you would not worth your room anywhere.

“The third topic is about the Zulu. (Loud cheers.) The Zulu is human being, a man, other (“Oh, oh,”and booing)—and while I protest against injustice to my own class in this country, I shall protest with equal vigour against injustice to black men in any part of the world —(cheers and booing)—and when you lads (more booing)—get to know much about the Zulu question as I do, you will be the same opinion.” (Uproar).

070222 Keir Hardie Cambridge Guildhall racist undergrads2

“Has Socialism in its complete, or nearly complete, form ever been successfully tried in any country at any time ?”

“…was the third question referred to by Mr Keir Hardie. “ No, no,” Never,” shouted the undergraduates.

“Now, please, let me answer the question,” retorted Mr. Keir Hardie, it’s your question. If someone fifty years hence would put that question, there will someone of my friends here to reply to it.”

“But the undergraduates did not intend that Mr. Keir Hardie should give a complete answer. Beating time with their feet, they commenced to sing the well-known refrain, “ John Brown’s body lies a mouldering in the grave, while his soul goes marching along.” The National Anthem, Rule Britannia,” and the Eton Boating Song followed, and were repeated time after time.

“As soon one chorus was finished, the speaker made effort to resume, but his voice was at once lost in cheering, and another refrain was taken up. This went on for several minutes, and when the undergraduates appeared to have exhausted their repertoire, Mr. Hardie observed

“Now, having sung to John Brown the Rebel and King Edward the Seventh, let us settle down to business again. My reply to the question is…”

“Still the noisy crowd would not, have it. They broke into won’t home till morning.” But the speaker was not to denied, and before he left the question he succeeded in making heard the reply that Socialism was only inaugurated some fifty years ago, and therefore it has never had opportunity of being practised.

Mr Keir Hardie Scores

“The next question gave Mr. Keir Hardie the opportunity to score off his opponents. Are you loyal to the King?” read the question, and is reply was :

“Much more so than those who try to prevent free speech.”

A great deal of cheering and hissing followed. A number of other questions had been handed up to the platform, but the strain to which he had been subjected was telling upon the speaker, who made a last appeal to the opposition.

“If I you don’t want to hear the questions, I shan’t persist in reading them,” he said, amid cries of “ Yes ” and No.” Just then two or three pieces of lump sugar were hurled at the platform, and, pointing to that part of the room from which ; they had been thrown, Mr. Keir Hardie remarked he sat down, There is a coward over in this corner here.”

“A working man seated in one of the front rows once rose to his feet, and, facing the undergraduates, adopted a threatening attitude, but he was restrained by his friends, and the incident was soon forgotten in the pandemonium which followed.

No More Speakers Heard

“The organisers of the meeting had arranged for other speakers, but the opposition made it very evident that they were determined not to pro them hearing. A call for “Three cheers for Joe Chamberlain ” met with mixed response, and then the gownsmen struck up Auld Lang Syne.”

“At this juncture Mr. H. G. Wood, a Fellow of Jesus College, and of the Union Society, came to front of the platform and endeavoured restore order. He was not successful, however, and after patiently facing the audience with raised hand for two or three minutes, he resumed his seat It was out of the question to attempt to continue the meeting, and the Chairman wisely declared it at an end, and, to the accompaniment of the undergraduates’ wild cheering, the platform party made their exit to the retiring room beneath the orchestra.

Mr. Keir Hardie Interviewed.

Some opinions & experiences

“Here the Leader of the Labour Party was the centre of a large group of sympathisers, to whom he chatted freely. A representative of the Cambridge Independent Press who sought him out, inquired his opinion of the affair and of the conduct of the undergraduates.


said Mr Keir Hardie with smile, he puffed at his pipe,

“It does not mean anything it is not serious. We have got to educate them, that is all.”

Mr. Keir Hardie remarked that this was his third visit to Cambridge. The first was about twelve years ago. when he addressed political meeting at the Y.M.C.A. and the second was about three years ago, when, with Mr. Pethick Lawrence, the then proprietor the London Echo, addressed University gathering of social settlement workers in the Victoria Assembly Rooms.

“Was the meeting twelve years ago at all disorderly. Mr. Hardie,”

asked our representative.

“No.” replied the Labour Leader. “not in the slightest. We did not have so much attention paid us at that time; weren’t worth it, perhaps. This evening’s demonstration is a compliment. It shows how strong the movement is getting. It is getting so strong to be dangerous, and our opponents have to do something.”

“You have experienced worse meetings than this?”

“Oh, this is nothing; only for the last two days I have been at work from nine o’clock in the morning till late at night in the House of Commons, so that my voice little bit out of tune. This was a bit of recreation.”

“You probably had a better opinion of Cambridge prior to this visit than now?”

“Not a bit. I don’t allow an exuberant expression of feeling to change my opinions about place.”

“What has been your roughest meeting?”

“In Edinburgh during the Boer war, the night the news came home of the release of Ladysmith. The students led the disturbance there that night. After the meeting was over the police wanted to give me protection, but I declined it. I had never had it and I did not want it.

“On the way back to my hotel the crowd got very serious and very dangerous, and they managed to knock me about bit. There were thousands there throwing missiles and shoving me about. The police came to the rescue, and simply cleared a way with their truncheons, and had a train car ready I got in, and the driver, who had his instructions, drove away, with a large crowd following, shouting and yelling. But I got out, and, by taking a circuitous route, got back to the hotel. By that time the news of Ladysmith had come in, and I was too insignificant then. That was the most awkward corner I have been in—in connection with a crowd.”

“Of course I have seen some very rough election scenes, hut I never felt any sense of danger except upon that night. It takes a lot to kill an old collier.” 

Asked for a parting message to Cambridge, Mr Hardie said,

“Say that next year probably will able to rejoice in the return of some Socialists to your Town Council as the result of to-night’s meeting.”

Chat with Mr WT Wilson MP

“Mr. W. T. Wilson, who had to return London without having addressed Saturday’s meeting, is one of the new Labour M.P.’s. He is connected with the Carpenters’ and Joiners’ Union, and although he was working at the carpenter’s bench six weeks before the last election, he defeated the ex-Postmaster-General, Lord Stanley, in the West Houghton Division of Lancashire, a Conservative majority of 3.060 in 1900 being changed into a Labour majority of 3,128.

“He told a Cambridge Independent Press representative that had never before attended such a meeting in connection with the work of the Labour party. This was his first visit to Cambridge, and a friend of his told him they were going to have a rough time, but could scarcely believe it.

“Asked whether his experience gave him a very favourable impression of Cambridge, he replied;

“Well, I don’t know; it does not make very much difference. I should most likely have had some of them on the platform fighting me if I had got in a word or two. But it’s extremely poor argument—shouting. I suppose a good many of them would be what Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman describes as born supporters of the House of Lords.”

The Escape from the Guildhall

“Before Mr Keir Hardie and Mr Wilson left the Guildhall, they were introduced to the Mayor, who expressed regret that the meeting had not been more successful, and the Labour Leader received from a lady sympathiser an unexploded test tube containing the obnoxious chemical which was thrown on to the platform, and picked up from near Mr Keir Hardie’s feet. Mr. Hardie signified his intention of keeping it as memento of his visit to the centre of learning.

“Thanks to the ingenious device of the Chief Constable, the two M.P.’s, accompanied by Mr. Coit, of King’s, left the building practically unobserved. They passed out of the main entrance after the lights had been extinguished, and quietly walked to King’s College by way of Peas Hill and St. Edward’s Passage. There was a large crowd in the Market Place, but the small party was almost unnoticed, and by the time the crowd got wind of the move, Mr. Keir Hardie and his comrades were inside the college gate, which was promptly shut and barred. For time the undergraduates appeared likely to create a scene outside the college, but the appearance of one of the Proctors quickly drove them off. Mr. Keir Hardie spent the night at King’s and, after breakfasting at Trinity, returned to London by early train on Sunday morning.”





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