Today’s blog is the first in the series about our activities in Staffordshire as part of our HLF funded project, Commemorating Josiah C. Wedgwood. We’d also like to to give special thanks to the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group for their time, support and enthusiasm for the project. We are delighted to have been awarded funding to tour an exhibition in and around Wedgwood’s former constituency, Newcastle-under-Lyme, which will be accompanied by a short programme of events (make sure you follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay updated!). We’re also producing a pack of education resources for KS3 history teachers and students, focusing on Wedgwood’s campaigning in the interwar years – they will be available on our website at the end of the project. Today’s blog from Public Engagement Officer, Sammy Sturgess gives an overview of the campaigns with which Wedgwood concerned himself in the prelude to the Second World War…
The collapse of Ramsay MacDonald’s first Labour government in October 1924 marked the end of the short-lived governmental career of its charismatic chancellor for the duchy of Lancaster, Josiah C. Wedgwood. ‘Jos’, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, had aspired to positions of political authority and had achieved prominence as a radical in several campaigns since his election victory in the constituency in 1906, most notably land tax reform and policy relating to Indian governance. It should be noted, however, that Wedgwood’s outspoken nature, radical views and individualism often left him at odds with his colleagues first in the Liberal party, and post-1919 following his defection, in the Labour party. In 1924 he returned to the backbenches, where (to paraphrase Paul Mulvey, Wedgwood’s latest biographer) he laboured on with his campaigns.
Wedgwood was a fierce advocate for democracy and as such took a hard-line stance against Nazism and in turn the rise of fascism in general in the 1930s. He quickly established himself as ‘the most frequent and outspoken critic of Hitler’ (C.V. Wedgwood, The Last of the Radicals, p. 212). As early as 1933 Wedgwood regularly warned the House of Commons that the appeasement of Hitler would lead to disaster and suggested that alliances with France and the United States were vital to prevent Nazi expansion. Unfortunately Wedgwood did not win many supporters by comparing the fight against fascism in Europe to the seventeenth century battle to defend Protestantism – unsurprisingly he had never been reluctant in sharing his anti-Catholic opinions!
Until 1938 Wedgwood remained in the minority with his anti-appeasement viewpoint. The British government continued moderately along when it came to dealing with the European dictators, and in 1938 Neville Chamberlain – or ‘that miserable wobbler’ as Wedgwood called him in a letter to his daughter, Helen in March 1938 – declared ‘peace for our time’ upon the signing of the Munich Agreement. Wedgwood was disgusted and appalled by the agreement that allowed Hitler to occupy portions of Czechoslovakia. He was convinced that if Britain wanted to avoid Nazi influence it was imperative to appoint a Prime Minister capable of fighting for British democracy; his vote was for the truculent Winston Churchill. In May 1940, Wedgwood got his wish. Chamberlain resigned after mounting pressure following the disastrous Norway campaign and was replaced by Wedgwood’s good friend, Churchill.
Assisting and protecting the rights of Jews that were discriminated against by the Nazi regime was another cause in which Wedgwood was deeply embroiled. He had been sympathetic of the plight of European Jews since travelling in Palestine in the mid-1920s (after which he wrote The Seventh Dominion). In response to appeasement, Hitler’s expansion across Europe and growing anti-Jewish hostility and violence, in 1938 Eleanor Rathbone MP established the voluntary all-party Parliamentary Committee on Refugees, of which Wedgwood was an active member. They campaigned for the Kindertransport initiative (amongst many other things), which the government approved and supported in November 1938. This international effort rescued Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Europe and housed them with foster families. He also joined Rathbone’s National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror in 1942 which was formed in response to growing concerns about increased domestic anti-Semitism.
The defence and preservation of (his version) of British democracy drove many of Wedgwood’s political fights, not least his History of Parliament project. An enthusiastic, life-long amateur historian Wedgwood began lobbying for support and funding to establish the project in 1927/8, which would be based on his Staffordshire Parliamentary History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Wedgwood won over key allies such as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who nominated him as chairman of a select committee to begin research to determine the project’s scope and cost. By 1934 the History of Parliament committee had raised £30,000 to start work. As part of the project, in the mid-1930s Wedgwood sent questionnaires to his fellow MPs, in an effort to capture and memorialise the experiences and opinions of MPs active during the First World War.
Wedgwood’s approach, however, did not chime with contemporary historians. A. F. Pollard and Lewis Namier did not consider Wedgwood an able historian and thought his view of history overly romantic and unrealistic – they left the project. He published the first volumes with the help of Anne Holt. In his chapter on the History of Parliament in his Memoirs of a Fighting Life he concluded:
I have done it in the teeth of perpetual bitter opposition and obloquy – without one single ally outside of my loyal staff. Now two printed volumes stand as a monument for all time; and if they stand alone, I have shown what can be done and I have other things to do.
Despite the initial teething problems with the project, in the 1950s after Wedgwood’s death, Lewis Namier revived the project. The legacy of their work persists today – we are currently working on five sets of volumes and an oral history project. It’s in the 75th year since of the death of our (as I have come to feel he was) forceful, difficult, but dedicated Jos, and the 80th year since the Munich Agreement that we are marking his extraordinarily active campaigning life in aid of the preservation of democracy and liberty in the face of totalitarian regimes.
For further information relating to our activities in Staffordshire between September and December 2018, or the KS3 history education pack from our HLF funded project, please contact Sammy Sturgess at email@example.com
- Paul Mulvey, The Political Life of Josiah C. Wedgwood: Land, Liberty and Empire, 1872-1943 (Suffolk, 2010)
- Josiah C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a Fighting Life (London, 1940)
- C. V. Wedgwood, The Last of the Radicals (London, 1951)
- David Cannadine, ‘The History of Parliament: Past, Present – and Future’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 26. No. 3 (2007), 366-386