‘Socialist Attacks’ and free speech in Oldham

‘Socialist Attacks’

Alexandra Park, Oldham, n.d. (GB124.DPA/858/78).

Throughout the summer of 1914 the Oldham branch of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) held a series of public meetings at the Gates of Alexandra Park.  All of these meetings passed off without much notice except for that of Sunday 6 September as reported in the Oldham Standard of 7 September under the heading ‘Socialist Attacks’:

It is not often one sees such a large number of people in the vicinity of Alexandra Park as was the case last night. The crowd was simply tremendous and at times it looked as if there would be unpleasant scenes…Remarks were made in regard to the war. Solders were described as cowards and murderers, King George was said to be a German and scores of other things…Mr Keir Hardie hastens to explain why the Socialists have held aloof from the patriotic attitude of the Labour Party, and he suggests that as there is no need to fear invasion there is no need for the ILP to bestir itself.

The Oldham Chronicle referred to the ‘foolish and inciting utterances’ that  ‘almost provoked a serious disturbance’, accusing the speaker of rousing ‘the anger of the crowd by describing soldiers and anybody who enlisted as cowards…he ran a very serious risk of being ‘ducked’ in the Park Lake’.

The event was discussed at a meeting of the Oldham Watch Committee on Wednesday 9 September where the Chief Constable stated that ‘it had not been brought to his notice that there had been anything said that ought to be stopped. If it was merely an expression of opinion the police did not interfere’.

Councillor Hirst asked: ‘Who are these people?’

‘Some of these Socialists I suppose’ replied the Chief Constable.

There then followed a short conversation between Councillor Cheetham and the Chief Constable:

Councillor Cheetham: ‘If the police had not interfered last Sunday night the man would have been thrown into the Park Lake’.

Chief Constable: ‘I believe that is so’.

Councillor Cheetham: ‘Then ought they not to be stopped?’

Chief Constable: ‘No, if  merely expressing political opinions’

Councillor Cheetham: ‘It is more than that. It is full of personal references which are very offensive.’

The Chief Constable said he would send and have a shorthand note taken and if there was anything of the kind he would take steps.

At a meeting of the Town Council later that same evening Councillor Stanbury asked whether the Park Committee could see there way to withdraw the permission which had been given for some time for all parties to hold meetings at the Park Gates. Alderman Ashworth replied that he ‘thought that nothing of such a controversial character should take place on that ground at the present time. He did not know whether it should be the wish of the committee if he said that no further meetings of that character should be held, but the committee would meet next Wednesday, and they would consider it.’

The Oldham Standard took as firmer line:

As these enemies of the country have openly declared that they do not care a rap for what they are pleased to call ‘a tin-pot Park Committee’ there will doubtless be interesting developments. Meanwhile, the police will be well-advised if they follow the course taken in other places and prefer charges against those who indulge in such violent and unpatriotic abuse as we heard last Sunday.

A letter appeared in the Oldham Chronicle on 12 September from J S Whitehead of Greenhill who was present at the Sunday meeting:

‘So far as I know there was nothing said from the platform to warrant the allegation which you make, namely, that there were ‘foolish and inciting utterances’…However, our main business, as lovers of freedom of utterance on all political matters, is to ensure that, even in Oldham, there shall be no arbitrary interference with that dearly bought liberty…I would advise the Town Council to ensure the utmost freedom from molestation of any subsequent speakers at the Park Gates by persons – ill-informed, unwilling to be informed, or incapable of hard reasoning on such a matters now so wildly agitating the public mind.

This was followed by a letter dated 12 September to the Oldham Chronicle from Herbert Parker, General Secretary, on behalf of the of the Independent Labour Party

Dear Sir –

I am directed to express their regret that you have allowed yourself to be influenced by the entirely erroneous information of misinformed persons regarding the public meeting held on the 6th…The statement that had the police not interfered at the meeting the speaker would have been thrown into the Park Lake is which has not the slightest foundation in fact and appears to have been made specifically for he purpose of damaging our reputation and prestige. Our open air propaganda meetings are now over for this summer so that we shall not hold another one at the Park Gates for some months to come

At the subsequent meeting of the Parks Committee Alderman Ashworth, chairman of the Committee, stated that he was in the neighbourhood on the Sunday evening and went to see what was going on. He said that looking around ‘he did not see anything unseemly’. A man was holding forth, but the meeting was being held quietly. He did not think it would be wise to interfere with the right of the people to hold public meetings. The only thing to be regretted was that at such a time as the present anybody should give out utterances that might be offensive and aggravating to other people.

Councillor Houghton ‘thought the Committee ought to be very careful before they passed a resolution prohibiting free speech at that place. He thought things were not so bad as was reported, or they [the police] would have interfered. Councillor Frith said that he hadn’t ‘heard a single complaint except the one at the Council meeting’.

The committee decided to take no action and allowed the matter to drop.

Keir Hardie (with beard), 1910
This report mentions Keir Hardie. He later became the first leader of the Labour party.
This photo shows him in 1910, on his way to address a public meeting on women’s suffrage in Manchester.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s