Socialism in King’s Lynn and Suffragism in Great-Yarmouth

Minutes of the King’s Lynn Socialist and Labour Societies, 1897-1916

Minutes of the Executive Committee of the Great Yarmouth Women’s Suffrage Society, 1909-1915

This year’s volume might well be titled ‘The Struggle for Democracy in Edwardian Norfolk’. It illustrates in fascinating detail the battle for social, political, and gender equality from two very contrasting groups, the working-men (with middle-class sympathizers) of King’s Lynn, forming a succession of socialist organizations, and the well-heeled, middle-class women (with male sympathizers) of Great Yarmouth, seeking by peaceful means the vote for women.

While West Norfolk is well-known for its rural radicalism, it is something of a surprise to find the burgeoning strength of socialism, normally associated with the industrial North or London, in King’s Lynn. But from the late 1890s, King’s Lynn’s position as a thriving port and important transport hub, produced hundreds of workers who now sought to improve their conditions through their commitment to socialist ideals. They included many railway and building workers but also teachers and small businessmen (and one ‘science student’, Burns Snodgrass, future manufacturer and popularizer of the slide rule). The minutes illustrate in rich detail the education in socialism sought through lectures and meetings as well as political activism in protest campaigns and participation (rarely successful) in local elections. They also show that King’s Lynn was no mere backwater but well-connected to the national socialist movement. Incidental details touch on sexual scandal in the party, the influence of the local Ruskinian sage, Harry Lowerison at Heacham, and Fletcher Dodd’s pioneering socialist holiday camp at Caister.

Early Socialist outing: Frederick White is in the
boat on the far right of the photograph and Walter Dexter is in the boat on the far left.
Source: Norfolk Record Office, (NRO, SO 297/22).

The minutes were found among the papers of Frederick White, newsagent, future mayor in 1930-31, and stalwart of local socialism, which are now deposited in the Norfolk Record Office. They are the only known example of such minutes in print and even others in manuscript form have yet to be located. They are therefore a truly exceptional document which will be of wide interest to historians of socialism and the Labour Party. Fittingly, in the year of the centenary of the first Labour Government, they reveal much about the planting of the seeds of socialism in Britain.

From the other end of the county, the minutes of the executive committee of the Great Yarmouth Women’s Suffrage Society throw fascinating local light on the battle for women’s suffrage which became such a defining characteristic of Edwardian Britain. Well-known elements emerge in the local story, the strength of the movement among educated middle-class women (teachers, vicars’ daughters), the division between the peaceful suffragists and the militant suffragettes, deliberate self-exclusion from the 1911 census, while we see also considerable support among many men, including local clergy and gentry.  But of particular interest is the relationship to Yarmouth as a seaside town, with boarding-houses and ’seaside landladies’ prominent, with many meetings-cum-tea parties decorously held in hotels, while the beach was a favourite Edwardian site for propaganda. Ethel Leach, a future post-War mayor, whose forceful role in Yarmouth politics was revealed in the late Lady Hollis’s Ladies Elect (Oxford, 1987), needless to say, emerges prominently in these minutes. They are also the first example of such minutes to be published and are now deposited in the Norfolk Record Office.    

The Society’s stall on Yarmouth Market Place.
The Society’s stall on
Yarmouth Market Place.
Image courtesy of Norfolk County Council at www.picture.norfolk.gov.uk

The editor of this year’s volume, Frank Meeres, former education officer at the Norfolk Record Office, has previously edited The First World War Letters of Frank and Ruth Hewetson (Norfolk Record Society, 2014). He is a prolific author on local and national history, whose works include Suffragettes: how Britain’s women fought & died for the right to vote (2013) and George Roberts MP: a life that did different (2019).   

Dustjacket of Socialism in King’s Lynn and Suffragism in Great Yarmouth

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The volume is due to be published on the 18th July.