Labour’s Reuben Slingsby’s 1893 election address to voters in St Matthew’s Ward

Following my previous blogpost on the discovery of the political activities of Cambridge builder Reuben Slingsby, inevitable questions follow on the details. What things did he campaign on? When did he start campaigning, and for how long was he campaigning for? It turns out that he was active in local democracy and community action for at least a quarter of a century in Cambridge. His building firm kept on going until the 1980s and is today the premises of another well-known Cambridge firm, Cambridge Econometrics (who were most recently commissioned by the Mayor of London to model the possible economic impact of Brexit on London’s economy). So this is Blue Plaque territory for any Labour Party members watching.

200427 Reuben Slingsby Mill Rd Cemetery Photo

Cllr Reuben Slingsby (Lab – St Matthew’s, 1893-99, Cambridge Borough Council) Photo via Mill Road Cemetery Friends

Sharing out the seats on the borough council

Today we’d probably find the practice horrifying – local political parties sharing out the seats on a local council so that there are as few contested seats as possible. But it’s also a reflection of the difficulty and costs associated with standing candidates and running election campaigns. This meant that contests for ward candidacy’s were where the real exchanges happened if they were contested. Even though there was no competition, Reuben Slingsby did have to face an audience of voters in St Matthew’s Ward at St Matthew’s School on Norfolk Street – mindful that the franchise was only extended to ratepayers, and was definitely not a universal franchise.

The article below is transcribed from the Cambridge Independent Press in the British Newspaper Archive.

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 10.53.40

THE MUNICIPAL ELECTION. Adoption of Labour Candidate.

“A meeting of the electors of St. Matthew’s Ward was convened in the Norfolk-street Schoolroom on Wednesday evening, for the purpose of adopting a labour candidate for the ward at the forthcoming municipal election.

“The chair was occupied by Mr. W. J. Beales, and amongst those present were Messrs. K. Slingsby, F. Ward, J. Black, M. Wilkinson, and B. Rowell. The Chairman said it was quite apparent that the interest taken, or likely to be taken, in the municipal election was not what should be. He did not know whether he was rash in making the statement, but he thought workmen seemed to get more apathetic than ever. It seemed peculiar that the men would not come out to such meetings in greater numbers. The Labour Council had done all they could, and it was rather disheartening to see the result, but if they had not called the meeting they would have been wrong. That meeting had been called by the Labour Council to bring the electors of St. Matthew’s into contact with Mr. Slingsby, their nominee.

“The labour question was the burning question of the day, and they knew from their own personal observations that there was no one who could sympathise with labour and the labourer, except the labourer. Politicians had sometimes done well for them, but they did not impart sympathy to the labourer like the labourer could, and they had come to the conclusion that there was no one who would benefit the labourer but the labourer. As four-fifths of the population were labourers, and they supported the other fifth, and they had the most to pay in local rates, he thought they should be represented by one of themselves, who could then speak out on behalf of labour.

Mr. Slingsby, in the course of an address which was attentively listened to, traced the history of the democratic movement at some length, particularly advocating that the Government should take over some of the most important trades, such as that of bread and milk delivery, and dealing with his position there as the nominee of the Labour Council, remarked that labour for the first time in Cambridge, was, they hoped, about to be represented on the Town Council. Their representative would speak for the labouring part of the town alone. He would have nothing to lose and nothing to gain except the goodwill of his fellows. They would see by the election address which he had been requested to issue, that there were some points which needed to be understood.

“As a Trade Unionist he was in favour of contracts entered into, and work done by the Council, being arranged that not only should the recognised Union rate of wages be paid, but that also the hours labour where practicable should be those recognised by the Trade Unions of the borough, and that the various workmen employed by the Council should also have their hours of labour and wages modelled upon the same lines as far possible. He should be very glad to see them try the system adopted by the London County Council, by which, in all contracts, the contractors were bound to pay the recognised Union rate of wages.

“The next thing was that he was favour of all the general and committee meetings of the Council being held in the evening. (Applause). As a labour candidate, if he was not supported by the Labour Council, he would have to lose time going to the meetings to try and make things better from the labour point of view. He would have to lose money, whereas those who were there now did not have to lose, because they could place others in their businesses during their absence. With regard to his statement in favour of admitting the Press to all general and Committee meetings, he asked why should not everything be made public. They were not afraid to make their things public. [This would not be achieved until the passing of the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960]. The Labour Council had desire to hide anything. There was nothing done that was not fair and above board, and if there was anything done without publicity, they looked upon it unfair.

“The next point to which he wished to refer was that of the sewage scheme. He had his doubts about it, but he did not wish to enlarge upon them then. He would only express hope that the scheme would be attended with the best of results, and that the people of Cambridge would reap a reward from it. It had taken some fifteen years for the Council to come to the point; he hoped that it would not take fifteen years to go through with it. It would be a serious thing for Cambridge if they had not got perfect sanitation. In fact, it would destroy the town should they have a plague in Cambridge. They depended upon the people who came there for education, and if the town was not properly sanitary, they would have to go elsewhere, and the town would be destroyed.

“Then, too, it was his earnest desire that…


…should be conveniently placed in several parts of the town. (Applause.) He thought that in every part the town they ought to have public swimming baths, especially in the poorer districts. Further, he was in favour of all public conveniences, such as light and water being placed under municipal control. (Applause) They would then have the revenue from that monopoly to go towards the benefit of the town and the relief of rates. It was not a new thing. He believed many as 150 towns England alone had the gas and water under their control, and therefore enlightened Cambridge should do the same.

“He was also in favour of the street and footpaths in the poorer districts of the Borough receiving the same attention bestowed upon the so-called fashionable parts of the town, as he believed that the humbler ratepayers were often neglected in the interest of their more wealthy neighbours. They must look after themselves, and if they could only get more representatives in the Council to say that all parts of the town should be equally clean they would have an even brighter town than they had got at present.

“Then, too, with regard to the playgrounds seeing that a large sum of money was expended sometime ago in the purchase of a piece of land for the purpose of a playground for the children of that ward [St Matthew’s Piece], he thought it was high time that steps were taken to make the land available for the purposes for which it was purchased instead of remaining as now. a depot for accumulations of the refuse of the streets, and thus endangering the health of those living in close proximity to it. Why could it not be gardened until they were ready to use it? He thought it was only fair that such matters should be brought before the Council, and if he was sent there he promised them that he would do his duty, and he hoped that he should not be called to book for not looking after the playground for the children of St. Matthew’s. (Applause.)

“Mr. M. Wilkinson supported the selection of Mr. Slingsby, and remarked that he had the support of over 700 working-men. [By 1899 the Cambridge Independent estimated the borough had over 1,000 trade union members in a population of around 40,000 people].

“Most of them knew him to be a conscientious workman, and although it was the first time it had happened in Cambridge, he thought it was high time that Cambridge workmen were represented by one of themselves. He had got just as much tact, just much intelligence, and just much right to go there as anyone else had, (Applause.) He only wanted the opportunity, and it was for the electors to give him the one chance, and he had no doubt he would come out with a clean bill. If they did not make a start, they would always be as they were then, but if they could only return him now he believed that he would be honour to the men who sent him and credit to the Board.

“He was particularly in favour of Mr. Slingsby going to the Council because he thought he would be of very much use. Many of the present Councillors did not understand the making of paths and roads, and they wanted to send a man who could help them to spend the money. This Mr. Slingsby could do well; he would be able to advise them how to spend the money, and he would always have that cunning—not vulgar—eye do know whether work was properly done or not. He was therefore the right sort of man to send, and he trusted they would bind themselves together as one man, and without hesitation send him there, support him there, and see what he would do.

“He might do much good; he could not do much harm; there was too much harm done there already. Moreover, if they got one man in it might act as’a stimulus for other parts of the town to adopt a similar plan. The Chairman said as a ratepayer he would propose, That in the opinion of this meeting it is desirable to have direct labour representation on the municipal and local bodies, and further gives its hearty support: to Mr. Slingsby as the labour candidate, believing him to be a fit and proper person to represent the interests of St. Matthew’s Ward. Mr. B. Powell seconded, remarking that he thought Mr. Slingsby would be the right man in the right place. It was time they had some labour representatives on the Town Council, and he was glad to see the present move. The motion was carried unanimously, amidst applause.

“Mr. Slingsby returned thanks, and assured them that he would first look after the interests of St. Matthew’s Ward. The Chairman thanked them on behalf of the Labour Council for receiving their nominee. They were glad to see that the labour movement was beginning to bear fruit, and he hoped that there would be more interest taken in it in that and other districts in the future.

“Mr. J. Black referred some length to the recent decision of not to alter she time of meeting, and spoke in favour of payment of members of municipal bodies. Councillor Frank Ward, who was received with enthusiasm, said he quite agreed that it was right for labour to be directly represented. He (Mr. Ward) was not in future going to Liberal or Conservative, but if the working men were willing to accept Frank Ward’s services they should have them—(applause)—and so he hoped Mr. Slingsby would have him to back up his proposals, and sometimes he should perhaps ask him support him. He quite endorsed Mr. Slingsby’s programme. The meeting then came to a conclusion with vote of thanks to the Chairman.”

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