A Century Apart: Happy New Year

PUBLISHED: 13:58 07 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:32 25 May 2010

Grand Pier pavilion: Scene of the riotous political meeting January 1910…

Grand Pier pavilion: Scene of the riotous political meeting January 1910…

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John Crockford-Hawley highlights similarities between the opening days of two General Election years - 1910 & 2010

John Crockford-Hawley highlights similarities between the opening days of two

General Election years - 1910 & 2010

2010 will be an election year as was 1910. Local newspaper coverage of electioneering a century ago was highly partisan with editors making no bones about whom they supported. In Weston-super-Mare the Mercury ploughed the Conservative furrow leaving the Gazette to follow the Liberal cause. Objective analysis and unbiased reporting were unrecognised journalistic traits in those far off days.

The Wells Constituency - with Weston as its largest town - had upset the apple-cart by sending Bath architect Thomas Silcock to Parliament as its Liberal MP. Conservatives were hopping mad, having regarded the constituency as their fiefdom and with an increasingly unpopular Liberal Government fully intended reclaiming 'their' seat. They adopted Capt George Sandys of Hatherleigh House, Beach Road as their candidate, playing the local card for all it was worth. Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George had done much to alleviate poverty with the introduction of Old Age Pensions, but costs were spiralling out of control and the middle classes were unforgiving.

Weston's shopkeepers were worried. The town's premier department store, Messrs Lance & Lance, held a massive New Year Sale in an attempt to clear £40,000 worth of stock. Other shops followed suit. Food prices were rising, investments had lost value, cheap foreign imports were harming home-grown industries, unemployment was rising, hoteliers were concerned about competition from other resorts, the Anglo-Russian treaty drawn up to solve problems in Afghanistan was falling apart, Iran was a threat to Middle Eastern stability and oil supplies, and military spending had failed to match the Kaiser's increasingly belligerent naval threat. Extra taxation was deemed by the Mercury 'far too grave to be acceptable'. With ministers no longer seen to be in charge of events the editor felt justified reporting 'a general consensus of opinion that a change of government is at hand'.

In early January 1910 Conservatives called an open-air meeting in the newly created Alexandra Gardens at which Capt Sandys, standing atop a horse-drawn cart attempted to expound the cause of trade protectionism (Liberals favoured unrestricted Free Trade). It turned into farce when a 'turbulent section of Radicals' with the 'usual beating-up of rowdy forces, hordes of non-voters, women and even juveniles' jeered and shouted support for the 'discredited anti-English pro-Socialists' (ie Liberals). The raucous behaviour did nothing for poor Mrs Wallace's Alexandra Parade shop where she traded in abdominal belts and spine supporters along with 'novel and effective appliances for stooping'.

It was generally assumed that Conservatives would form the next government though the Mercury warned against complacency which it said had caused the party to forfeit Col Llewellyn's return in the neighbouring North Somerset constituency.

Weston's Liberal organisation faltered as Conservatives sensed victory. Capt Sandys called a meeting in the recently opened Grand Pier Pavilion. A crowd of 3,000 turned up and mayhem ensued. Local magistrate Mr Graves-Knyfton of Uphill Castle did his best to chair the meeting but following constant interruptions had to eject certain ruffians. The crowd became ecstatic when Capt Sandys declared "Voters don't mind paying for battleships but they do mind paying for parliamentary expenses" as he lambasted Mr Silcock for voting in favour of granting a salary of £300 pa to MPs. Cries of "corruption!" echoed throughout the pavilion. Chaos reigned supreme and the meeting was abandoned. Some in the audience attempted to sing "God Save the King" amidst 'a torrent of Radical booing and hisses'.

Meanwhile the stretch of Beach Lawns in front of the Grand Pier between Oxford Street and Regent Street was being controversially redesigned to enable public access and ease traffic flow, the adjacent sands 'and wastes' having been conveyed by John Hugh Smyth-Pigott, Lord of the Manor to the Council for a perpetual yearly rent-charge of £5.

When the High Sheriff of Somerset announced that January's election result Capt Sandys had polled 6,167 against Mr Silcock's 4,871 (in those days only a tiny minority had the vote). Capt Sandys MP returned to Weston in triumph and the Mercury dutifully trumpeted 'so the inevitable has happened and Reason has scored a crushing victory over rowdy Radicalism!'. But trend-setting has never been part of Weston's character. What Weston did the country didn't do, and Liberals continued to run a hung Parliament until a second General Election was called in December 1910, by which time the increasingly corpulent King Edward VII had died, along with a great chunk of Imperial self-confidence. Beyond our shores the skies of Europe were darkening for war.

But 1910 was such a long time ago and things are so very different nowadays - aren't they?

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