"Our Philip" : The Early Career of Philip Snowden

David James

(First published in 1987 in volume 3, pp. 39-47, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

1987 is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Philip Snowden, one of Yorkshire's most important Labour politicians. Hitherto he has been neglected by historians, although throughout much of his life he was deeply involved in many of the controversies which beset the British Labour movement up to the Second World War.1 By the time of his death he was an isolated and, in the eyes of most Labour voters, a despised figure. The reason for this was his decision to abandon the second Labour administration and join Ramsey MacDonald in the National Government which was formed in August 1931. Yet, in the 1890s Snowden and a small band of Independent Labour Party members helped to turn the textile districts of the north into a centre of working class politics. After 1898, when he was returned to the National Administrative Council of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), of which he was twice chairman, he was a figure of some national importance. Later he was MP for Blackburn from 1906 to 1918 and for Colne Valley from 1922 to 1931, before being raised to the House of Lords.

During the Great War Snowden braved widespread unpopularity because of his opposition to the conflict, and in the 1920s gained a reputation as an international statesman. He was also Chancellor of the Exchequer in the fIrst two Labour Governments.

Snowden's early political career was closely linked with the ILP, which was founded in Bradford in 1893, and in his Autobiography he described that first meeting as 'the most important political event in the nineteenth century'.2 The story of the formation and early history of the ILP, and the significant part played in it by the West Riding textile districts has been recounted on a number of occasions. It was in towns like Bradford, Halifax and Keighley, and the smaller mill villages of the Colne and Calder valleys, that the vision of a new society was formulated, and the West Riding became an important forcing ground for Labour politics.3

Snowden was connected with the Keighley branch of the ILP for several years at the turn of the century, and this period is important to any understanding of his subsequent political career. Many of his fundamental beliefs were formed and made known from platforms in Keighley; his passionate advocacy of temperance; his adherence to free trade, balanced budgets and financial orthodoxy; his opposition to war as being wasteful, and his acceptance of the Parliamentary road to socialism. These firmly held convictions remained almost unchanged throughout his life.

To say that the seeds of 1931, when Snowden defected from the Labour Party, can be found in Snowden's years at Keighley, would be superficial, yet the faint outline of the Snowden of 1931 can be seen in the passionate young radical of 1893. In addition to shaping his beliefs, it was in these years of political apprenticeship that Snowden discovered and sharpened those talents which were to make him a major political figure. His rhetorical power was first developed as a public speaker addressing local gatherings, and his ability as a journalist, which was to provide hiIn with much of his income throughout life, soon showed itself when he became editor of the Keighley Labour Journal. But the most important feature of these early years was Snowden's growing awareness that socialism was as much a moral as an economic system, and this belief made him the spokesman for many groups of Labour's most committed supporters.

It is the aim of this article to show how the ethical socialism favoured by Snowden was particularly suited to the circumstances in Keighley and the north. Ethical socialism as a doctrine asserted the equality of human beings, an equality based on a belief in the innate and unique worth of each member of society, but there could be no practical application of this doctrine until capitalism was replaced by socialism. The restructuring of the economic system was thus a prerequisite of the new moral order. This particular brand of socialism, combined with a brilliant oratorical style, provided the basis for much of Snowden's popularity and appeal. He delighted in goading local manufacturers and the political elite, and the fact that he was editor of a crusading local newspaper made him hugely popular in Keighley. Known locally as 'our Philip', he suited the town perfectly. The local ILP gave hiIn their unqualified support, acknowledging him as their champion and leading representative.

In order to show how Philip Snowden came to be so easily accepted by the socialists in Keighley it will be useful to glance at the history of the branch. During the years he lived in the town, Keighley had one of the twelve largest ILP groups in the country, and in many ways its socialists were typical of the Labour Movement in the Yorkshire textile region. Like many branches it came into being partly as a reaction to the hostility shown by local Liberal leaders to the demands of working men for a say in politics. Like nearby Colne Valley, Keighley was a centre of ethical socialism and socialist culture. Like its neighbour, Bradford, it forged an alliance with local trade unions, although they provided no firm basis for electoral power, because the worsted trade, the largest local industry, was virtually ununionized. Indeed Keighley was possibly the weakest area of textile trade unionism in the region. Ben Turner commented bitterly that,
"the organising work put into Keighley has been immense. I have seen us have meetings there of three or four folks after tremendous publicity has been given to them. We have had some of the best women in the world billed but the workers were in a blackleg area and would not come."4

The Keighley Labour Union was formed in 1892. In January 1893 it sent a delegate, Herbert Horner, to the foundation conference in Bradford. In that same year the Trades Council, with ILP support, successfully nominated two candidates for the School Board. In 1894 Herbert Horner was elected to the Keighley Town Council, and by 1900 four of their members were on the Town Council and three on the School Board, including Snowden, who was elected to both. However, political work was only a part of the branch's activities. It also aimed at creating a socialist society in miniature, and to this end started various cultural and social institutions, forming a Labour Church, a Clarion Vocal Union, a Woman's Labour Group and a Labour Club. In addition a number of educational classes were opened, some offering tuition in Shorthand and Arithmetic, and there was a bookstall where socialist books, journals and newspapers could be obtained.

As in other branches most members were drawn, like Snowden hiInself, from among the skilled workers and lower middle classes. The talented but quarrelsome Herbert Horner, and his quieter brother, Edward, both founder members, were teachers, though their father was a mill worker. G.J. Wardle, the first editor of the Keighley Labour Journal. and later MP for Stockport, was a railwayman, active in the local trade union. W.S. Wilkinson, conductor of the Clarion Vocal Union, was a popular local musician, amateur actor, poet and music teacher. Other prominent members were Mary Jane Dixon, a Methodist lay preacher, the Mackley brothers, leading members of the local Co-operative Society, and W.F. Hardy, President of the local Trades Council. The distinguishing marks of the group were a belief in socialism, as both a moral and an economic system, a political programme largely derived from the radical sector of the Liberal Party, and a commitment to political independence. It was a combination which matched Snowden's own views and he found the branch very much to his liking when he arrived in the town in 1895.

Snowden was thirty-one when he settled in Keighley.5 He had been born in Ickornshaw in the parish of Cowling, a few miles from Keighley, in 1864, and grew up a bright but by no means unusual working-class child. His early years in this small West Riding textile community enabled hiIn to understand and sympathize with the attitudes and beliefs of the northern industrial workers. His horizons widened when he took up a post in the Excise service, and for seven years he travelled all over the country from the Orkneys to Plymouth. It was in Plymouth that he suffered the cycling accident which left him permanently crippled. In 1892 he returned to Cowling to live with his mother, who was now a 'widow. He was then a Liberal, and it was while living at Cowling that he became a socialist. This was the turning point in his life, a conversion he described at length in his Autobiography. Shortly afterwards he made contact with Herbert Horner and the Keighley socialists, joined them, and,
"within two or three months he was crowding the largest public hall in the town by the great powers of his eloquence - powers utterly unsuspected a few months before either by himself or his friends."6

He devoted much of his time to Keighley between 1895 and 1902, although he soon became more than just a local celebrity. From 1895 he undertook a punishing schedule of lecture tours throughout the United Kingdom, spreading the ILP gospel mainly in the north of England, but also in Scotland, Wales and the Midlands, usually speaking at two meetings on a Sunday and one on each of three or four week nights. Writing about this period of his life Stanley Pierson said that Philip Snowden performed 'a missionary work unsurpassed among his contemporaries. . in arousing the masses to self awareness'. He fought two Parliamentary campaigns, one in Blackburn in 1900 and the other in Wakefield in 1902. These ventures showed that a clever and inspiring figure had arrived on the national political stage.7

Blackburn was a Tory citadel, though with a well-established socialist group and a strong trade union movement. Snowden, confident of his speaking ability, set a stirring example, using his rhetorical powers to the full in order to propagate his socialist creed. A journalist covering the election commented:

He has touched politics with morality and morality with religion, and raised the whole subject to a plane above the noffi1al littleness and screeching of party warfare. . . I can compare it with nothing but those tides of spiritual revivalism that periodically sweep the land. . . it is as though the sleepers had awakened, as though a new heaven and a new earth have dawned upon them, as though a great light had burst upon them.8

Philip Snowden mesmerised the electors of Blackburn. In ten days he swept Socialism from obscurity into a position which made it a serious contender for power. His speeches had an extraordinary effect and his meetings were packed to overflowing. Although he lost the election he polled 7,095 votes, the largest total secured anywhere in the country by a Socialist candidate until then.

The strategy at Wakefield was quite different. Here again the opposition vias Tory, but the Socialists, who saw the undertaking mainly as missionary work, were not very active. Snowden fought a low-key campaign, rarely mentioning socialism. In consequence he received considerable support from the Liberals, who did not put up a candidate. Twenty Liberal MPs signed a letter urging Wakefield electors to vote for him. Once again he captivated his audiences with his oratory, but once again he lost. Nevertheless his national reputation was enhanced by these campaigns, and by 1902 he had become an outstanding figure in the ILP heartlands of Yorkshire and Lancashire. In local contests he fared much better being elected to both the Keighley School Board and the Borough Council in 1899. He quickly realised, however, that scope for major reforms was limited. This outlook was well illustrated in an article he wrote in 1902, shortly before he left Keighley, explaining why he was not seeking re-election to the Town Council.

"The fact is that Keighley Corporation has municipalised everything that can be done in the present state of the law, and. . . (this) forced upon me very strongly the conviction that the most useful work I could do . . . was to educate and arouse public opinion in the country to the great and pressing need of liberating the slavery of public bodies from laws made by the property owners and professional classes for the enrichment of these classes".9

There can be no doubt that Snowden was an extremely able politician who enjoyed showing off his skills on the small stage of Keighley politics. To the majority of people, however, the heart of his appeal lay in the skill with which he expressed the moral aspirations of socialism - a vital element in those early years, and Keighley is a good example of a place where its appeal was strongest.

The reasons why the working-class socialists of Keighley, and of Yorkshire generally, were attracted to a party which emphasized the moral appeal of its policies are complex. Indeed this often puzzled contemporary observers. S.G. Hobson, on the subject of ILP speakers in Yorkshire, commented:
"They always spoke of the appeal to the heart; their speeches were a blend of religIon and sentiment - sentiment which generally lapsed into sentimentalism. There must be something in Yorkshire thought and habit to account for it. I soon realised that the ILP had appeared at a moment when Yorkshire Nonconformity was in the process of disruption."10

Here Hobson identified a key point. In the early part of the 19th century a number of Nonconformist churches had been in close touch with working-class radicals. The Chartists, for instance, received considerable sympathy from certain Methodist societies, especially those recently separated from the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion. These churches, which were democratically organized, tended to be radical in politics, but by the l890s many Nonconformist churches steered away from any kind of political radicalism. In this respect they resembled the local Liberal Associations with which they were often closely connected, for although their organization was outwardly democratic, they were in effect dominated by a few wealthy manufacturers. In Keighley the Nonconformist churches were very susceptible to the influence of a few wealthy patrons, a point made by Herbert Homer in 1898:
"In too many cases a Nonconformist minister must preach what suits a wealthy manufacturer or those golden pillars of the church will find means to get someone who will. They are so used to subservient acquiescence in their employees in the shop and factory that they expect the same from their spiritual employees on Sunday."11

In addition allied organizations such as the Temperance Movement were strongly influenced by local employers and political leaders. The Keighley and District Band of Hope Union had William Clough as its President and J.J. Brigg, Swire Smith and J.W. Laycock amongst its Vice-presidents. All four were major employers and members of the 'Keighley Liberal 300'. Thus the chapels in Keighley were unable to make a favourable response to the growing social and political demands of the working class in the 1890s. Indeed their antagonism to the Labour Movement was noted at the inaugural meeting of the Keighley Labour Union, where James Holmes, a local radical, remarked upon the pains which the churches were taking to show their dislike of it.12

At the same time there was little evidence of a religious revival among the working class. Various reasons have been given for the fact that Christianity had lost its earlier hold on their lives, one being that urban populations when engaged in routine factory work become hostile to the additional discipline of devoutness. Besides, such organizations as co-operative and trade union movements were providing activities which drew people away from the churches. There were also an increasing number of political attractions to absorb the energies of workers. Thus a shift from religion to politics took place, but while this was happening many activists felt the lack of a moral element - a need which was filled by ethical socialism.

A number of ministers in Keighley were aware that the churches were failing to make contact with ordinary working people. Among those who held this opinion were Canon F.D. Cremer, Rector of Keighley, whose Christian Socialism is said to have 'permeated his sermons'; Rev. F.E. Chester and Rev. J. Stansfield, who called themselves Socialists and worked with the ILP on elected bodies, and Rev. S.J.C. Goldsack, whose sympathies led him to form a Union of Socialists among his congregation, a move which eventually led to his resignation. Another Nonconformist who came to adopt Socialist principles was W.E. Wallbank, a former town councillor and prominent Methodist Sunday School teacher. It was said that 'he had come to the conclusion that socialism was the right thing, was a thing that all Christians should support and was bound to come in the future'. Nevertheless few people in similar positions spoke out like that, because in a Yorkshire mill town in those days for a minister or layman to espouse socialism openly, even in its mildest form, demanded a great deal of courage and conviction.13

There is evidence that working-class leaders felt that a moral approach was needed to solve the ills of society. In 1890 Alfred Burrows of the Trades Council and later of the ILP called trade unionism 'a practical Christian Gospel', and in the same year the Annual Review of the Keighley Trades Council pointed to the 'moral objectives' of the local trade societies. Given this tendency it is hardly surprising that the socialist movement in Keighley found that its success lay mainly in stressing ethical values, for while organized religion had lost its attraction, the appeal of morality was still very strong. It was said of G.J. Wardle, for example, that 'he had been led to socialism from its religious standpoint'. William Bramham, too, an early member of the Labour Union, discovered in socialism the inspiration he could not find in places of worship, for 'the only attraction the chapel or the church service had for him was the music, but being impelled to visit the Labour Union meetings he had found there speakers with whom he could in the main agree and with whose objects he was in thorough sympathy'. W.S. Wilkinson, for whom the moral arguments in favour of socialism were compelling, referred to 'the effect on his mind of reading the Clarion, Merrie England and Ruskin's Unto this Last, and Seasame and the Lilies … (and) … felt it his duty to choose sides … and take his place under the banner of Labour' . Other members of the ILP retained their connections with religious bodies while still responding to the moral institutions of the early Labour movement. Mary Jane Dixon, Labour member of the School Board, was well known as a Primitive Methodist local preacher, as well as a regular speaker at the Keighley Labour Church. Margaret Pickles, an ILP candidate for the Board of Guardians was also prominently connected with the Primitive Methodists. Harrison Wallbank, a leading Haworth Labour leader was an experienced Sunday School teacher.14

The Labour Church became the chief propagator of ethical socialism in the town. As early as January 1893, within three months of the establishment of the Labour Union the Party purchased 180 Labour Hymn Books. Later in the year a permanent home was found for the Labour Church, significantly in an old Primitive Methodist Chapel. In 1895 the branch agreed to join the Labour Church Union.

The meetings of the Labour Church were immediately successful, and the ILP recognized that they were one of its best means of publicity, commenting in 1894 that 'our most successful work has … been the Sunday services and the crowded audiences who have listened to the new gospel and drunk with avidity the teaching put forth by the various speakers will no doubt furnish many recruits and staunch adherents.' By the end of 1896 it was claimed that 400 to 500 people attended these meetings 'the great majority of whom are strong believers in our principles'.15

The Labour Church was not a religious organization in the accepted sense, but its meetings generally followed existing ecclesiastical forms. Hymns were sung and there would usually be a sermon, often by a visiting speaker, after which there would be a recital. However, these forms were retained only for as long as people wanted them. For example, the recitals rapidly became distinctly secular. Poems and songs such as 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse' or 'Home Sweet Home' were introduced and the tendency was for such contributions to become sentimental rather than religious. At the same time the speakers, who were drawn from a wide background, represented many schools of thought. Although the most popular talks were those with titles such as 'Did Christ Teach Socialism?', 'Religion and Social Duty', and, in particular, Philip Snowden's 'Religion of Socialism', other speakers concentrated on the political and economic aspects of the ILP programme. The moral impact of the Labour Church, therefore, weakened as time went on. Snowden used the Labour Church as a major platform. His abilities were quickly recognized and the Keighley Labour Journal commented on one of his earliest speeches that:
"not only was it remarkable for its impassioned eloquence, but it was full of that nameless power which seizes the hearts and consciences of men and carries conviction along with it. We believe the effect of such a speech cannot be merely transitory, but must result in a larger determination in the minds of those who heard it, not to tamely sit down content with things as they are but to work earnestly for the realisation of the brotherhood of man."16

Snowden's speeches were usually highly emotional and full of biblical phraseology. They combined a vision of the future socialist society with sympathy for the present plight of the workers and made bitter attacks on the capitalist class. It was his powerful command of language, together with an ability to appeal to his listeners' emotions as much as to their reason, which made him such a popular and effective speaker. When necessary he could discuss the economic and political problems of the day in a rational and unemotional manner, which forced his opponents to take his socialist ideas seriously. A typical lecture in Steeton in 1897 on 'Labour and Politics' drew a large audience, including many well known Liberals, who:
"listened with great interest and keen attention to the admirable and lucid statement of the Socialist position and programme and it was quite evident that the people of Steeton fully appreciate the point of the lecture … Mr William Clough (a local manufacturer) said before he came to the meeting he had been told that if he asked any questions he would get nothing but impudence, but he wanted to say that just the opposite was the case, and he desired to express his thanks to the Chairman and the speaker for the courtesy shown to him. There is no doubt that Mr Snowden has by his earnestness, ability and sincerity made an impression on Steeton and will, at another future visit be sure of a welcome here."17

Nevertheless, it was Snowden's so-called 'Come to Jesus' style which remained the most popular of his presentations.

His departure from Keighley in 1902 was partly due to the need to devote more attention to Blackburn which had adopted him as their Parliamentary candidate after 1900 and for whom he was elected MP in 1906. Another factor was his increasing commitment to the national ILP. After 1900 Keir Hardie and Ramsey MacDonald were busy organizing the Labour Representation Committee and it was left to Bruce Glasier and Snowden to manage the ILP. Snowden's departure left a gap in the Keighley ILP which was hard to fill. In 1908 Herbert Horner, commenting on the early years of the Keighley Party, said 'Our success came too soon. We were not really entitled to the representation we won in the early days of the movement'.18 Much of this early success was due to the personality and abilities of Philip Snowden, but the Branch did not collapse as soon as he had gone. In 1905 Keighley formed a Labour Representation Committee and in the 1906 election the ILP put up a candidate who recorded over 3,000 votes. Nevertheless, Snowden was greatly missed.

He always seems to have regarded his early life in Keighley with affection, and as years which belonged to a simpler, less complicated age. In 1924 he wrote to Tom Mackley, a comrade of his Keighley years. 'It is good to hear in these days from an old friend of the early days. We never expected in the "Battle of Cowling" days that we should come to this'. And in 1929 he wrote again to the same friend 'I was down in Keighley a few weeks ago, but it is not like the old times. The fine enthusiasm of those days seems to have departed.'

Looking back Philip Snowden may have reflected that the great days of the movement he had done so much to create were the 1890s, when he and his Keighley colleagues set out, in the words of G.J. Wardle, to create 'the kingdom of heaven on earth'.19


1. The only modern biography of Snowden is C. Cross Philip Snowden, 1966. Forthcoming is a collection of essays by K. Laybourn and D. James (Eds) Philip Snowden, Bradford, 1987. (back)

2. Philip Snowden An Autobiography, 1934, p.53. (back)

3. For the dcvelopment and early history of the ILP see J. Reynolds and K. Laybourn, 'The Emergence of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford', International Review of Social History, vol.XX, pt.3, 1975; K. Laybourn, 'The Manningham Mills Strike: Its Importance in Bradford History', Bradford Antiquary, pt.46, 1976; C. Pearce, 'The Manningham Mills Strike, December 1890 - April 1891', University of Hull Occasional Papers in Economic and Social History, 1975; D. Howell, British Workcrs and the Independent Labour Party 1888-1906, Manchester, 1983. (back)

4. B. Turner, Short History of the General Union of Textile Workers, Heckmondwike, 1920, p.156. (back)

5. Snowden's early life is described in Cross, op. cit. pp.1-18. (back)

6. Labour Leader, 12 September 1903. (back)

7. Snowden, op.cit. p.79. S. Pierson, British Socialists: The Journey from Fantasy to Politics, Harvard University Press, 1979, p.47. (back)

8. Quoted in Cross, op. cit. p.52. (back)

9. K(eighley) L(abour) J(ournal). 26 September 1902. (back)

10. Quoted in D. Clark, Colne Valley: Radicalism to Socialism, Longman, 1981, p.146. (back)

11. KLJ, 14 May 1895. (back)

12. Bradford Labour Union Journal, 28 October 1892. (back)

13. KLJ,19 September 1895 and 29 December 1895. (back)

14. Y(orkshire) F(actory) T(imes) , 15 August 1890 and 2 January 1890. KLJ, 1 April 1898, 13 February 1895 and 14 January 1894. (back)

15. KLJ, 30 December 1894 and 19 December 1896. (back)

16. Ibid. 10 November 1895. (back)

17. Ibid. 31 July 1897. (back)

18. YFT, 27 March 1908. (back)

19. KLJ 16 December 1894. (back)

© 1987, David James and The Bradford Antiquary