Spartacus Blog

Victor Grayson and the most surprising by-election result in British history

John Simkin

The most surprising by-election result in British history took place on 18th July, 1907. The winner was a 27-year-old Victor Grayson, who failed to get the support of any of the three major parties in the contest.

Grayson, the seventh son of William Grayson, a carpenter, was born in Liverpool on 5th September, 1881. According to his biographer, David Clark, some people have claimed that these were not his natural parents, and that his father was an aristocrat. (1)

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. (2)

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. However, his mother was deeply religious and wanted him to become a church minister and in 1904 he entered Owen's College in Manchester to train for the Unitarian ministry. (3)

Grayson later told William Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette that he decided to concentrate on his political activities: "It was useless to expect true religion in a social system such as the present - better conditions could only come by political action.... I was determined that my university career was to be a really useful one. I must agitate among my fellow students." (4)

Grayson learnt about politics by reading The Clarion, Justice and The Labour Leader. Grayson also attended meetings of the Socialist Debating Society at the Liverpool Mission Hall and made speeches in the college. One of his fellow students pointed out: "If the word went round that Grayson was talking in the Common Room we would flock down in crowds... it was all socialism, it was a kind of religion with him." (5)

Victor Grayson and the Independent Labour Party

Grayson joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Formed in 1893 the main objective of the ILP was "to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". Leading figures in this organisation included Keir Hardie, Robert Smillie, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Mann, George Barnes, John Glasier, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Edward Carpenter and Ramsay Macdonald. (6)

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 with his education. 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 recently formed Labour Party. (7)

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. Grayson's subsequent political rise was meteoric. In significant respects his experience of the labour movement was narrow. He preferred the emotions of the platform to the humdrum tasks of political organization." (8)

Colne Valley By-Election

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. In choosing their candidate the people of Colne Valley "selected someone with little experience whom they trusted." (9)

Only one of the leading figures in the ILP, Katherine Glasier, was willing to speak at his meetings during the campaign. As Reg Groves, the author of The Strange Case of Victor Grayson (1975), has pointed out: "The socialists had no money, save the pennies collected amongst their fellow workers in the mills and factories and at meetings. As the campaign grew, money was raised by more desperate measures; watches, household goods, even wedding rings were pawned to keep the supply of money flowing. They had no efficient, smooth working electoral machinery; it had to be improvised on the spot. The trade union machinery which might well have added much in the way of organisation and wide-flung influence was not likely to give its unstinted support, since the Labour Party refused its endorsement; the ILP, too, was antagonistic, and many of the local union officials favoured a policy of working with the Liberals, not against them." (10)

Postcard distributed during the by-election (July, 1907)
Postcard distributed during the by-election (July, 1907)

Although the ILP was committed to the parliamentary road to socialism, during the election, Grayson advocated revolution. In his election address Grayson wrote: I am appealing to you as one of your own class. I want emancipation from the wage-slavery of Capitalism. I do not believe that we are divinely destined to be drudges. Through the centuries we have been the serfs of an arrogant aristocracy. We have toiled in the factories and workshops to grind profits with which to glut the greedy maw of the Capitalist class. Their children have been fed upon the fat of the land. Our children have been neglected and handicapped in the struggle for existence. We have served the classes and we have remained a mob. The time for our emancipation has come. We must break the rule of the rich and take our destinies into our own hands. Let charity begin with our children. Workers, who respect their wives, who love their children, and who long for a fuller life for all. A vote for the landowner or the capitalist is treachery to your class. To give your child a better chance than you have had, think carefully ere you make your cross. The other classes have had their day. It is our turn now." (11)

Grayson also campaigned for votes for women. Hannah Mitchell joined his campaign and later recalled: "I must have worked the Colne Valley from end to end, often under the auspices of the Colne Valley Labour League. Sometimes we just went... from door to door to ask the women to come and listen (to Victor Grayson), which the Colne Valley women were usually willing to do." (12) Emmeline Pankhurst also visited the town in support of Grayson. (13) The Daily Mirror pointed out that "Colne Valley mill girls... many of them who cared nothing about votes before are now eager in their desire to enjoy the privileges of the franchise." (14)

The Daily Mirror: "Colne Valley Mill Girls Wait for the Election Result" (20th July, 1907)
The Daily Mirror: "Colne Valley Mill Girls Wait for the Election Result" (19th July, 1907)

In one of his speeches Grayson outlined his view on women's suffrage: "The placing of women in the same category, constitutionally, as infants, idiots and Peers, does not impress me as either manly or just. While thousands of women are compelled to slave in factories, etc., in order to earn a living; and others are ruined in body and soul by unjust economic laws created and sustained by men, I deem it the meanest tyranny to withhold from women the right to share in making the laws they have to obey. Should I be honoured with your support, I am prepared to give the most immediate and enthusiastic support to a measure giving women the vote on the same terms as men. This is as a step to the larger measure of complete Adult Suffrage." (15)

The election took place on 18th July, 1907. Grayson received 3,648 votes and this gave him a majority over his two opponents: Philip Bright - Liberal (3,495) and Grenville Wheeler - Conservative (3,227). The Daily Express reported: "The Red Flag waves over the Colne Valley... the fever of socialism has infected thousands of workers, who, judging from their merriment this evening, seem to think Mr Grayson's return means the millennium for them." (16)

Victor Grayson speaking outside the Dartmouth Arms (19th July, 1907)
Victor Grayson speaking outside the Dartmouth Arms (19th July, 1907)

In his victory speech Grayson pointed out: "The very first joy that comes to my mind is this, that this epoch-making victory has been won for pure revolutionary socialism... You have voted, you have worked for socialism: you have voted, you have worked for the means of life to be the property of the whole class instead of a few small classes. We stand for equality, human equality, sexual equality... It is a splendid victory comrades." (17)

House of Commons

The Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation welcomed Grayson's victory as it showed that a revolutionary socialist could be elected to Parliament. The Labour Party was unhappy with Grayson's victory as it posed a threat to their relationship with the Liberal Party. In the House of Commons he attacked the gradualism of the Labour Party: "We are advised to advance imperceptibly - to go at a snail's pace - to take one step at a time. Surely there are some young enough to take two steps or more at a time." (18)

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".

On Tuesday, 31st October, 1908, Grayson stood up in the House of Commons and shouted out: "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 he refused to sit down he was escorted from the Commons. As he left he turned to Labour members and shouted: "You are traitors! Traitors to your class." (19)

Grayson was now suspended from the House of Commons. Grayson's actions gained the approval of people like George Bernard Shaw, but provoked predictable hostility from Labour members. (20) "Grayson's activities were profoundly embarrassing to his colleagues, both because these activities were deemed to compromise the Labour Group's respectability, and also because they offered to the activists a striking contrast with the Group's own lack of impact." (21)

Keir Hardie, the leader of the ILP, was quick to make it clear that he completely rejected the tactics of Victor Grayson: "Grayson came to the House of Commons, consulted no one and did not even intimate that he meant to make a scene. This may be his idea of comradeship; it is not mine." J. R. Clynes added: "I do not believe causes are served by violent language and violent action." (22)

Fred Jowett also attacked Grayson for his behaviour. "Men are now described as traitors by Victor Grayson who undertook the task of founding a Socialist Movement at a time when the chilling frost of almost universal indifference was far harder to bear than are the violent alternations between the excitement of hostility and the enthusiasm of fellowship in which Victor Grayson now lives and moves. 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." (23)

Victor Grayson
Victor Grayson

Theodore Rothstein was more sympathetic to Victor Grayson but attacked him for not accepting Marxism: "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." (24)

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." (25)

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." (26)

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. (27)

After this incident Grayson rarely visited the House of Commons and spent most of his time writing for The Clarion or being paid for making speeches. David Clark has argued: “He was young, dynamic and good-looking. His oratory was brilliant. In a political scene and age which abounded with brilliant orators, Grayson excelled. Some have suggested he was the greatest mob orator of his time. He could easily carry a crowd with him. He seldom used notes and had that rare gift of being able to marshal his thoughts logically while on his feet. Grayson’s style caught the mood of dissent and dissatisfaction of Edwardian England, not only among working people but also among the middle classes. His approach to politics and socialism was that of an evangelical preacher. He offered hope to thousands of men and women who toiled incessantly in hard labour for meagre rewards.” (28)

Defeat in 1910 General Election

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 and he had fewer volunteers to help him in the 1910 General Election. One man who did campaign for him was John McNair. He later wrote that he was shocked by the sight of Grayson attending meetings drunk. "It was a terrible blow to me, a young enthusiastic socialist from a working-class family." (29)

The Liberal Party fought the election on the subject of reforming the House of Lords who had tried to block the radical People's Budget. Socialists tended to agree with the Liberals on this issue. Charles Leach, the Liberal candidate, won the election with 4,741. The Tory was second and Grayson finished at the bottom of the poll with 3,149 votes. He was not alone, in the election Labour candidates only won seats not contested by Liberals. Whenever socialist candidates fought both parties, they finished at the bottom of the poll. (30)

Victor Grayson made a speech where he claimed he would win the next election in Colne Valley: "The day is coming when socialism, the hope of the world, the future religion of humanity, will have wiped Liberalism and Toryism from the face of the earth... Sick to your flag... Don't let our colours be stained... Stick to the gospel that first inspired your heart and you will live to rejoice in a victory that none can gainsay." (31)

The defeat marked the beginning of the decline of Victor Grayson. He left the Independent Labour Party and joined H. M. Hyndman in forming the British Socialist Party (BSP). In fought several parliamentary elections but never came close to winning a seat.

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. Many socialists felt that he had let them down: "We all trusted him... he was the darling of the socialist movement: none of our champions was ever made so much of... He possessed so many of the qualities of leadership... genial, hearty, with a homely wit and eloquence... Grayson rallied round him a following of which any man might be proud." (38)

First World War

Grayson began making speeches concerning the dangers of the "German menace" and urging preparations to meet the growing naval and military power of Germany. He argued: "Rightly or wrongly, some of us suspect that a war with one, or a combination of European powers, is possible, if not inevitable. Rightly or wrongly some of us suspect that a war would find us unready and inadequately equipped. We believe that the maintenance of the British Empire offers the best conditions for the world's march towards socialism." (40)

At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, Charles Trevelyan, David Lloyd George, John Burns and John Morley, were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind. Trevelyan went on to establish the anti-war organisation, the Union of Democratic Control. (41)

All of the socialist leaders in Britain opposed the war. Keir Hardie made a speech on 2nd August, 1914, where he called on "the governing class... to respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy... Down with class rule! Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!" (42)

Ramsay MacDonald also stated that he would not encourage his members to take part in the war. "Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greeting to the German Socialists. They have laboured increasingly to promote good relations with Britain, as we with Germany. They are no enemies of ours but faithful friends." (43)

Almost alone amongst left-wing political figures, Grayson gave recruiting speeches and wrote articles urging young men to join the armed forces. Some socialists accused him of being paid by the government to make these speeches. He attempted to explain why he changed his views on war: "This war has made havoc of many ready-made theories and doctrines, and some of my most cherished antipathies have succumbed to its effects. I am facing the fact that some 178 Peers of the Realm are now in khaki fighting an enemy country." (44)

In 1915 Grayson travelled to Australia and New Zealand where he gave speeches in favour of conscription. "Not only did his pro-conscription views prove unpopular, but his speeches could be marred by alcohol, and there were allegations of financial deception." (45) He was denounced by the anti-war movement as being well-paid by government sources for making these speeches." (46)

In November 1916 he enlisted in the New Zealand Army. He explained his decision in a speech: "The pay is good and the chances of getting into a good fight are excellent. I am a socialist and will wear the uniform of a warrior with a good logic and a bright spirit. I hate war and hate killing, yet if I account for one of the vassals of the world's mad dog, I shall have done my bit towards the world's restoration." (47)

Grayson arrived in France in September, 1917. He was sent to the Western Front and on 12th October 1917 at Passchendaele, was badly wounded and was invalided out of the army. In 1918 his wife died tragically giving birth to their second daughter. (48)

Disappearance of Victor Grayson

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. He told Robert Blatchford that he wanted to become a full-time journalist and was investigating the Roger Casement case. (49)

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." 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." There were rumours that Grayson was in the pay of MI5. (50)

Reg Groves claims that the two men were enemies. However, another biographer, David Howell, believes it is possible that Gregory was paying Grayson money. "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." (51)

In September, 1920, Grayson made a speech where 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. (52)

A few days later 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. (53)

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. (54)

Victor 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. 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. 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. (55)



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