Albert Victor Grayson, the seventh son of a carpenter, was born in Liverpool on 5th September, 1881. He was educated at St Mathew's Church of England School on Scotland Road. As a child he suffered from a stammer and was teased about it at school. At the age of fourteen he ran away from home and attempted to stow away on board a ship bound for Australia. After four days at sea he was discovered and returned to his parents.
In 1899 Grayson started work as an apprentice engineer in Bootle, Lancashire. He joined the union and over the next couple of years became very interested in the emerging socialist movement. Grayson learnt about politics by reading The Clarion, Justice and The Labour Leader. He also attended meetings of the Socialist Debating Society at the Liverpool Mission Hall and later joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP).
Grayson also became a member of the Unitarian Church in Liverpool. The local minister recognised Grayson's potential and helped him to get a place at Owen's College, Manchester as a divinity student. The long-term plan was for Grayson to become a Unitarian minister. His biographer, David Howell, has pointed out: "Unemployment was high in Manchester during 1905 and Grayson emerged as a popular and effective speaker at demonstrations. His passion for socialism replaced his religious commitment, and in July 1906 he withdrew from his course."
In Liverpool Grayson developed a reputation as a superb orator. Most days he could be found standing on his soap box giving lectures on socialism. The university authorities became concerned about Grayson neglecting his studies and asked one of the ILP leaders, Philip Snowden, to speak to him. Snowden was unable to persuade Grayson to continue his studies. Grayson told Snowden that the university was a "make-believe refuge" and he intended to work in the real world. Over the next couple of years Grayson toured the industrial districts giving lectures on socialism. His reputation grew and he was seen as a future leader of the newly formed Labour Party.
In January 1907, the Independent Labour Party in Colne Valley selected Victor Grayson as their parliamentary candidate. In the past, there had been an arrangement where the labour movement supported the Liberal Party candidate in Colne Valley in return for help in winning other seats for ILP candidates. The executive of the Labour Party therefore decided not to endorse Grayson as their candidate. Colne Valley ILP refused to back down and in the by-election held in July, 1907, Grayson stood as an Independent Socialist candidate. The leadership of the Labour movement were angry by the unwillingness of the ILP in Colne Valley to follow the orders of the National Executive. Convinced that the Liberal Party would win the seat, very few of the national figures in the ILP helped Grayson during his campaign.
Although the Independent Labour Party was committed to the parliamentary road to socialism, during the election, Grayson advocated revolution. In his election address Grayson wrote "I do not believe that we are divinely destined to be drudges. We must break the rules of the rich and take our destinies into our own hands." Grayson used his skills as an orator to create a wave of emotion in Colne Valley and this is reflected by the fact that 88% of the electorate voted. Sensationally, Grayson obtained 153 more votes than the Liberal Party candidate and won the election.
In his maiden speech in the House of Commons Grayson criticised the recent decision to grant the diplomat, Evelyn Baring, the 1st Earl of Cromer, £50,000 for his services in Egypt. He attacked the government for rewarding a man for "consolidating Imperialism". Grayson added that Cromer had already been well-paid "while outside the four walls of this House people are dying of starvation". Pointing to the government front-bench he said he was looking forward to the day when those seats "will be occupied by socialists, sent there by an indignant people".
His biographer, David Howell, has argued: "Often charming, and attractive to both men and women, his politics lacked depth. For his sympathizers he represented the hope of a better world that owed more to moral conversion than to legislation; for his detractors he represented the irrational, the destabilizing, and the potentially violent both as pre-war socialist and as wartime patriot. From one standpoint he is the flawed socialist hero; but his distinctive trajectory also illuminates specific and important themes within the Edwardian left. A character in a morality play, he was nevertheless very much a man of his time and place."
Edward Carpenter got to know him during this period: "Victor Grayson was a most humorous creature. His fund of anecdotes was inexhaustible, and rarely could a supper party of which he was a member got to bed before three in the morning. On the platform for detailed or constructive argument he was no good, but for criticism of the enemy he was inimitable - the shafts of his wit played like lightening round him, and with his big mouth and flexible upper lip he seemed to be simply browsing off his opponents and eating them up."
Theodore Rothstein was a Marxist but had good things to say about Victor Grayson: "Grayson is still quite a young man, about 27 years old, gifted, full of temperament, a born agitator, but without any sort of theoretical knowledge, no Marxist – more inclined to be an opponent of Marxism – in short, a sentimental Socialist at an age when the wine is not yet fermented. Like all Socialists of this type – and the type is a historical one, dating far back beyond our period – he represents more the tribune of the people than the modern party man, and without being an anarchist or syndicalist, he has a great horror of parliamentarism and of the planned political struggle, which he looks upon as dirty jobbery. This horror seems to be very wide-spread in England, in spite of the prevalent fetish-worship of Parliament, and is caused by the lying and deceitful tactics of the bourgeois parties."
Grayson was angry that the national leadership had been unwilling to support his campaign in Colne Valley and refused to join the Labour Party group in the House of Commons. In fact, Grayson rarely attended Parliament, preferring to tour the country making speeches in favour of revolutionary socialism. Of over 300 debates that took place in the Commons while he was the Colne Valley MP, Grayson only voted in 32. Grayson behaviour in Parliament was also becoming more erratic and it became clear that he had a serious drink problem.
In November 1908 Grayson attended a debate on a proposed new Licensing Bill. Grayson interrupted the debate by standing up and shouting "I wish to move the adjournment of the House so that it can deal with the unemployment question. People are starving in the streets." When Grayson refused to sit down the Speaker ordered the Serjeant-at-Arms to remove him from the House of Commons. Grayson turned to the leaders of the Labour Party and shouted: "I will gladly leave! You are traitors to your class."
After this incident Grayson rarely visited the House of Commons. At first the people of Colne Valley were pleased that they had an MP that spoke up for the unemployed. However, they were less impressed by stories his luxurious life-style and his heavy drinking. In the 1910 General Election Grayson was easily defeated by the Liberal Party candidate.
Fred Jowett, one of the leaders of the Independent Labour Party, commented: "We must recognise that the man who can make a crowd shout is not necessarily an organizer of men. The gift of platform oratory, skill in making striking phrases, is a dangerous one. It is the man behind that matters. If his skill is employed in setting, not class against class, but men of the same class against their kith and kin, sewing seeds of distrust and hatred where the love of a common cause should produce the fellowship of kindred spirits, it were better if he had no such skill."
Without a seat in the House of Commons, Victor Grayson attempted to make a living from lecture tours. Still drinking heavily, his health began to deteriorate and in 1913 had a mental breakdown. Grayson gave up alcohol and went on a sea-cruise and for a while his health began to recover. He was now strong enough to start a lecture tour in America. This went well until he started drinking again. Grayson returned to Britain but he was now an alcoholic and at public meetings in Bradford and Glasgow he was to drunk to speak and had to be carried off the stage.
Grayson shocked his radical friends by supporting the First World War. He gave recruiting speeches and wrote articles urging young men to join the armed forces. In 1915 Grayson travelled to New Zealand where he had been offered work as an actor. However, this was not a success and he joined the New Zealand Army. He was sent to the Western Front and on 12th October 1917 was badly wounded.
After the war Victor Grayson returned to England where he hoped to revive his political career. Without the backing of any of the major political parties, Grayson found it impossible to become a parliamentary candidate. Grayson took a keen interest in Irish politics and made several secret trips to Ireland where he had talks with Michael Collins.
In early 1918 Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch, asked one of his agents, Arthur Maundy Gregory to spy on Grayson, who he described as a "dangerous communist revolutionary". Gregory was told: "We believe this man may have friends among the Irish rebels. Whatever it is, Grayson always spells trouble. He can't keep out of it... he will either link up with the Sinn Feiners or the Reds." Gregory became friendly with Grayson. David Howell writes that "Grayson subsequently lived in apparent affluence - a contrast with his recent poverty - in a West End flat. His associates included Maundy Gregory... The significance of this relationship and the source of Grayson's income remain unknown."
During the summer of 1919 Grayson became aware that Gregory was spying on him. He told a friend: "Just as he spied on me, so now I'm spying on him. One day I shall have enough evidence to nail him, but it's not going to be easy." It is not known how he obtained the information but at a public meeting in Liverpool he accused David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, of corruption. Grayson claimed that Lloyd George was selling political honours for between £10,000 and £40,000. Grayson declared: "This sale of honours is a national scandal. It can be traced right down to 10 Downing Street, and to a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall. I know this man, and one day I will name him." The monocled dandy was Arthur Maundy Gregory, who had indeed been selling honours on behalf of Lloyd George.
At the beginning of September 1920, Victor Grayson was beaten up in the Strand. This was probably an attempt to frighten Grayson but he continued to make speeches about the selling of honours and threatening to name the man behind this corrupt system. On the 28th September Grayson was drinking with friends when he received a telephone message. Grayson told his friends that the had to go to Queen's Hotel in Leicester Square and would be back shortly.
Later that night, George Jackson Flemwell was painting a picture of the Thames, when he saw Grayson entering a house on the river bank. Flemwell knew Grayson as he had painted his portrait before the war. Flemwell did not realize the significance of this as the time because Grayson was not reported missing until several months later. An investigation carried out in the 1960s revealed that the house that Grayson entered was owned by Arthur Maundy Gregory.
Grayson was never seen alive again. It is believed he was murdered but his body was never found. After Grayson's death Arthur Maundy Gregory continued to sell honours for the next twelve years. Gregory was involved in arranging for the forged Zinoviev Letter to be published that helped to defeat the Labour Party in the 1924 General Election.
In 1932 Gregory attempted to sell a knighthood to Lieutenant Commander Edward Billyard-Leake. He pretended he was interested and then reported the matter of Scotland Yard. Gregory was arrested but he turned it to his advantage as he was now able to blackmail famous people into paying him money in return for not naming them in court. Gregory pleased guilty and therefore did not give evidence of his activities in court. Arthur Maundy Gregory was sentenced to two months' imprisonment and a fine of £50. On leaving prison Gregory was persuaded to live in Paris where he was paid a pension of £2,000 a year by the Conservative Party.