James Keir Hardie, the illegitimate son of Mary Keir, a servant from Legbrannock, Lanarkshire, Scotland, was born on 15th August, 1856. Mary later married David Hardie, a ship's carpenter, and the family moved to the Partick district of Glasgow.
The Hardie family was extremely poor and James was expected to find work at the earliest opportunity. At the age of eight Hardie became a baker's delivery boy. He had to work for twelve and a half hours a day and for his labours received 3s. 6d. a week. With his step-father unemployed, and his mother pregnant, Hardie was the only wage-earner in the family.
In January, 1866, Hardie's younger brother was dying and after spending most of the night looking after him, he arrived late for work. His employer sacked him and also fined him a week's wages as a punishment for his unpunctuality. Unable to find work in Glasgow, the family moved back to Lanarkshire, and at the age of eleven, Hardie became a coal miner.
Hardie, who never attended school, was completely illiterate until his mother began to teach him to read. His friend, Philip Snowden, explained why this happened: "Keir Hardie had no schooling as a boy. He told me once what drove him to learn to write. When a youth, he went to join the Good Templers. He was unable to sign his name on the membership pledge, and he was so ashamed that he set to work to learn to write."
Although Hardie worked 12 hours a day down the mine, he still found time for his studies and by the age of seventeen had learnt to write. Hardie began to read newspapers and discovered how some workers were attempting to improve their wages and working conditions by forming trade unions. Hardie helped establish a union at his colliery and in 1880 led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners. This led to his dismissal, and after moving to Old Cumnock in 1881 worked as a journalist for a local newspaper.
Hardie met and married Lillie Wilson, a fellow temperance campaigner. As Fran Abrams has pointed out: "The day after his wedding he attended a political rally and set the pattern for the rest of his married life. While he travelled the globe in pursuit of his causes, Lillie was left at home, struggling to bring up a growing family."
In 1886 Hardie was appointed secretary for the recently formed Ayrshire Miners' Union. Soon afterwards he became secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation. The following year, Hardie began publishing a newspaper called The Miner (it was later renamed the Labour Leader). Hardie attempted to use the newspaper to give the miners a political education.
At a International Workers Congress in 1888 Hardie met Richard Pankhurst and his wife, Emmeline Pankhurst. He was introduced to their three daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst. Sylvia, who was only seven years old at the time, later recalled: "Kneeling on the stairs to watch him, I felt that I could have rushed into his arms; indeed it was not long before the children in the houses where he stayed had climbed to his knees. He had at once the appearance of great age and vigorous youth."
The Pankhursts converted Hardie to the cause of women's suffrage. Not all of his fellow socialists shared this commitment, as they believed members of the National Union of Suffrage Societies were primarily concerned with winning the vote for middle-class women, whereas they believed that it should be granted to all adults. Hardie's friend, John Bruce Glasier, recorded in his diary after a meeting with Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst, that they were guilty of "miserable individualist sexism".
Although raised as an atheist, Hardie was converted to Christianity in 1897. A lay preacher for the Evangelical Union Church, Hardie was also active in the Temperance Society. Hardie considered himself to be a Christian Socialist: "I have said, both in writing and from the platform many times, that the impetus which drove me first into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than from all other sources combined." Hardie remained friends with atheists such as Eleanor Marx and Frederich Engels, the dominant influence on his political ideas were his religious beliefs.
When he first became editor of The Miner, Hardie supported the Liberal Party but he became disillusioned after the government of William Gladstone. Hardie came to the conclusion that the working-class needed its own political party. With the support of Robert Smillie, the leader of the Lanarkshire miners, Hardie began advocating socialism and in 1888 stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the constituency of Mid-Lanark. Hardie first attempt to enter the House of Commons ended in failure as he finished at the bottom of the poll.
James Mavor knew him during this period. "The young Hardie had reddish hair, ruddy complexion, honest but ecstatic eyes, average stature, very fastidious about his dress. Hardie looked like an artist, and indeed in general his point of view was that of an artist. Although his early education had been somewhat neglected. He was the only really cultivated man in the ranks of any of the Labour parties."
Over the next few years Hardie travelled to meet other socialist trade unionists in Europe. In 1889 Hardie attended the Second Workers' International in Paris and two years later took part in the Miners' International in Belgium. During this period Keir Hardie also visited the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland.
In the 1892 General Election Hardie stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the West Ham South constituency in London's industrial East End. Hardie won the election and became the country's first socialist M.P. The tradition at that time was for MPs to wear top hats and long black coats. Hardie created a sensation by entering Parliament wearing a cloth cap and tweed suit.
In the House of Commons Hardie began advocating policies that had first been put forward by Tom Paine in his book Rights of Man in 1791. Hardie argued that people earning more than a £1,000 a year should pay a higher rate of income-tax. Hardie believed this extra revenue should be used to provide old age pensions and free schooling for the working class. Hardie also campaigned for the reform of Parliament. He was a supporter of the women's suffrage movement, the payment of MPs and the abolition of the House of Lords.
In the early 1890s socialist groups such as the Social Democratic Federation and the Fabian Society became more influential. In 1893 Hardie helped form a new socialist group, the Independent Labour Party (ILP). At the opening conference, Hardie was elected chairman and leader of the ILP.
In June 1894, Hardie suggested to the House of Commons that a message of condolence to the relatives of the 251 coal miners killed by an explosion in a colliery near Pontypridd, Wales, should be added to an address of congratulations on the birth of a royal heir (the future Edward VIII). When the request was refused, Hardie made a speech attacking the privileges of the monarchy. J. R. Clynes later commented: " The House rose at him like a pack of wild dogs. His voice was drowned in a din of insults and the drumming of feet on the floor. But he stood there, white-faced, blazing-eyed, his lips moving, though the words were swept away." Hardie was savagely attacked in the national newspapers as a result of this incident.
Hardie was defeated in the 1895 General Election and over the next five years devoted most of his energy to improving the organisation of the Independent Labour Party. He used the Labour Leader to develop policy, to give advice on how to conduct meetings, and how to organize groups such as Socialist church groups and Sunday School classes.
In 1896 Emmeline Pankhurst, a member of the Independent Labour Party in Manchester, began organizing Sunday open-air meetings in the local park. The local authority declared that these meetings were illegal and speakers began to be arrested and imprisoned. Pankhurst invited Hardie to speak at one of these meetings. On 12th July, 1896, over 50,000 turned up to hear Hardie, but soon after he started speaking, he was arrested. The Home Secretary, worried by the publicity Hardie was getting, intervened, and used his power to have the leader of the ILP released.
Keir Hardie had for a long time believed that the various trade unions and the different socialist groups should join forces and form one large political party. Negotiations began in 1899 and the following year a meeting took place in London that resulted in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee. An organisation that eventually developed into the Labour Party.
In the 1900 General Election, Hardie was elected as MP for Merthyr Tydfil, an industrial town in South Wales. With only one other MP, the Labour Party was weak in the House of Commons and Hardie negotiated a deal with the leaders of the Liberal Party, that the two parties would not stand against each other in thirty constituencies in the next election.
In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst joined forces with her three daughters, Christabel Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst and Adela Pankhurst to establish the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Hardie gave his support to the WSPU but this brought him into conflict with other members of the Labour Party. As they pointed out, the WSPU wanted votes for women on the same terms as men, and specifically not votes for all women. They considered this unfair as in 1903 only a third of men had the vote in parliamentary elections.
Sylvia Pankhurst was a student at the Royal College of Art and she began spending a lot of time with Keir Hardie. According to the author of Freedom's Cause: Lives of the Suffragettes (2003): "The young student, now aged twenty-four, had fallen for the fifty-year-old politician in a manner which went far beyond mere admiration or friendship. As the relationship developed, the complexity of these feelings became clearer. Sylvia saw Hardie as part political hero, part father-figure and part potential lover. Gradually he began to return her feelings... Hardie helped her move into cheaper lodgings, soothed her furrowed brow and took her out for a cheering meal. From then on Sylvia often visited him at the House of Commons and the two walked together in St James's Park or spent the evening at Nevill's Court. Quite how they dealt with the fact that he was already married is not entirely clear."
This pact benefited both parties and whereas the Labour Party won 29 seats in the 1906 General Election, the Liberals formed the new government. Hardie was elected chairman of the party in the House of Commons, but in 1907 he threatened to resign over the issue of women's suffrage. He told the 1907 party conference: "I thought the days of my pioneering were over but of late I have felt, with increasing intensity, the injustice inflicted on women by our present laws. The Party is largely my own child and I cannot part from it lightly, or without pain; but at the same time I cannot sever myself from the principles I hold. If it is necessary for me to separate myself from what has been my life's work, I do so in order to remove the stigma resting upon our wives, mothers and sisters of being accounted unfit for citizenship."
In the House of Commons Hardie complained about the way members of the Women's Social and Political Union were treated in prison. "That there is difference of opinion concerning the tactics of the militant Suffragettes goes without saying, but surely there call be no two opinions concerning the horrible brutality of these proceedings? Women, worn and weak by hunger, are seized upon, held down by brute force, gagged, a tube inserted down their throats and food poured or pumped into the stomach."
Hardie was not very good with dealing with internal rivalries within the party, and in 1908 resigned as leader. Hardie spent the next few years trying to build up the Labour Party. He was also committed to international socialism and toured the world arguing for equality. Speeches he made in favour of self-rule in India and equal rights for non-whites in South Africa resulted in riots and he was attacked in newspapers as a troublemaker.
In 1909 Hardie and Sylvia Pankhurst rented a cottage in Penshurst, Kent. They met there as often as his busy schedule permitted. According to Fran Abrams: "During one of these interludes he begged her not to go back to prison. The thought of the feeding tubes and the violence with which they were used was already making him ill - how much worse would it be if it were her?"
The 1910 General Election saw 40 Labour MPs elected to the House of Commons. Hardie agreed to become leader again. Hardie's views were not always shared by other Labour MPs. Many disagreed with Hardie's support of women's suffrage. Although opposed to the use of violence, Hardie understood the reasons why some had adopted militant tactics and worked very closely with socialists in the WSPU. In 1910 George Barnes replaced Hardie as leader of the Labour Party in the House of Commons.
In January 1913, May Billinghurst, a woman who was severely disabled, was found guilty of taking part in a WSPU demonstration and sentenced to eight months in Holloway Prison. Billinghurst immediately went on hunger-strike: "My head was forced back and a tube jammed down my nose. It was the most awful torture. I groaned with pain and I coughed and gulped the tube up and would not let it pass down my throat. Then they tried the other nostril and they found that was smaller still and slightly deformed, l suppose from constant hay-fever. The new doctor said it was impossible to get the tube down that one so they jammed it down again through the other and I wondered if the pain was as bad as child-birth. I just had strength and will enough to vomit it up again and I could see tears in the wardresses' eyes."
After protests about Billinghurst's treatment by Hardie and George Lansbury in the House of Commons, and comments from the prison doctor, who feared she would die of a heart-attack, she was released from prison. Votes for Women carried an article by Christabel Pankhurst that argued: "Keir Hardie's magnificent protest in the House of Commons against force feeding will be remembered when much that had occurred in the late Parliament has been forgotten."
Isabella Ford, a member of the NUWSS, commented: "His extraordinary sympathy with the women's movement, his complete understanding of what it stands for, were what first made me understand the finest side of his character. In the days when Labour men neglected and slighted the women's cause or ridiculed it, Hardie never once failed us, never once faltered in his work for us. We women can never forget what we owe him."
Hardie also disagreed with many members of the Labour Party over the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Hardie was a pacifist and tried to organize a national strike against Britain's participation in the war. He issued a statement that argued: "The long-threatened European war is now upon us. You have never been consulted about this war. The workers of all countries must strain every nerve to prevent their Governments from committing them to war. Hold vast demonstrations against war, in London and in every industrial centre. There is no time to lose. Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!"
Despite being seriously ill, Hardie took part in several anti-war demonstrations and as a result some of his former supporters denounced him as a traitor. One supporter of the war asked Hardie: "Where are your two boys?" Hardie replied that he would rather see them put against a wall and shot than see them go to war."
J. R. Clynes was one of his many friends who refused to support Hardie's anti-war stance: "Hardie became a broken man. For the next twelve months the old dominant figure we had known was seen no more in the corridors of the House of Commons; he shrank into a travesty of his former self, never spoke in debates and said little to anyone. The great leader of Labour was dying on his feet. We all loved and respected him; it was a great grief to us that our attitude to war was driving the sword into his heart; but between our conscience and our friend there was only one choice."
In December, 1914, Hardie had a stroke. He returned to the House of Commons in February, 1915, but he had not made a full-recovery and his friend, John Bruce Glasier, reported that he kept falling asleep during meetings. Another friend said that Hardie began suffering from delusions. Sylvia Pankhurst later recalled: "I knew that Keir Hardie had been failing in health since the early days of the war. The great slaughter, the rending of the bonds of international fraternity, on which he had built his hopes, had broken him. Quite early he had a stroke in the House of Commons after some conflict with the jingoes. When he left London for the last time he had told me quietly that his active life was ended, and that this was forever farewell, for he would never return. In his careful way he arranged for the disposal of his books and furniture and gave up his rooms, foreseeing his end, and fronting it without flinching or regret."