The Result

November ’38

With only a week of campaigning left, the Conservative agent L.H. Hayter hit out at both the Bridgwater Co-op movement and the ‘Council of Action’. The two groups had sent out questionnaires to Bartlett and his Tory opponent, and, based on the candidates’ responses, advised their supporters who to vote for. Much to the Conservatives’ irritation, both endorsed the Independent Progressive.

Co-op secretary Maurice Woodbury responded quickly with the facts: “28th October – questionnaires delivered by hand to both candidates who were asked to reply by November 1st. On November 2nd, the Co-op executive considered the Bartlet reply, and having heard no reply from Heathcoat Amory, decided to suppor Mr Bartlett. On November 8th, the Mercury published Co-op support for Bartlet, and only on the 11th did the Conservative agent claim to have sent a reply”. On November 14th, the Co-op exec sent a second copy of their questions to the Tory candidate.

Letters to the Mercury came in thick and fast

‘A Grateful Mother’: “mine is a working class family. When Mr Boltz put up for MP I voted for him and same Mr Loveys – but now i will vote for the Chamberlain candidate. I plead with other mothers to do the same and in doing so they will be performing a Christian service.”

‘A Socialist’: “with no Labour candidate it is immaterial which candidate will benefit the working class but I will vote for Bartlett because Chamberlain has brought about the humiliation and destruction of a small Nation.”

E. Evett of Bridgwater: “let us not forget Mr Chamberlain at the 11th hour and 59th minute saved this country from the horrors of a European war!”

Heathcoat Amory got high-profile backing from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. In the PM’s letter he said “wouldn’t those who criticise us today have plunged the world into a war to keep the Sudeten Germans under Czech rule!”. Chamberlain’s National Liberal Chancellor Viscount Simon also wrote in: “The Munich Agreement is the start of a new era in world politics where negotiation takes the place of force”.

(Unfortunately Simon was massively unpopular, and his intervention clearly didn’t help. One anecdote from the period tells how the socialist intellectual GDH Cole got into a third-class compartment on a train back from Oxford to London, just to break off conversation with him; to his dismay Simon followed suit, only for both men to produce first class tickets when the inspector did his rounds.)

Vernon Bartlett also received many messages of support, including sci-fi pioneer H.G Wells (at 68, a staunch supporter of the League of Nations, but also, sadly, a staunch supporter of eugenics), the aristocrat Lord Cecil (son of far-right ex-Tory PM Lord Salisbury), Sir Arthur Salter MP (former League of Nations worker turned politics professor and Tory MP for Oxford University) and physician, feminist, and Fulham MP Dr Edith Summerskill.

Bartlett was keen to try and offset Heathcoat Amory’s apparent lead among female voters, but immediately blew his chances by declaring “women do not think when it comes to politics.” Heathcoat Amory jumped on this mistake, and, speaking at St. Mary’s Hall, responded, ‘...women in Bridgwater certainly think a great deal of Mr Chamberlains policy. Not only do women think a great deal about politics but they come to sensible conclusions!”

At a town hall meeting ‘a united platform front’ was organised in support of Heathcoat Amory for the final week. But immediately F. O. Symons the choice for chairing the meeting was attacked from the audience as a ‘Liberal supporting Chamberlain‘ and despite defended himself robustly, his position was compounded by a rambling speech from 70-year-old Viscount Lambert, Liberal MP for South Molton, who announced himself too ‘as a Liberal who supported Chamberlain’.

Even the redoubtable Mrs Lilian Cooke Hurle, veteran peace campaigner, kept her speech short and merely added, “I am surprised if any woman felt anything other than extremely grateful to the Prime Minister.”

Meanwhile, though, even in this most passionate and polarised of political campaigns, there were still some locally who were still apathetic about foreign affairs. At the final Wednesday market before the election, local farmer Mr Venner commented: “I have 5 sons on 5 farms and they were more interested in agricultural policy than foreign policy!”

Election week

As Election week arrived, big names queued up to contribute to Bridgwater’s by-election, and influence the crucial national debate which had come to a head in this little Somerset town.

On the Monday of election week Tory high-flier Rab Butler came to speak:“The Prime Minister had saved Czechoslovakia by his actions. Had there been a war – which was the only alternative to Munich – Czechoslovakia wouldn’t have been saved!”

A letter from World War I Liberal PM David Lloyd George supported Bartlett and “…blamed the National Government for the deterioration of the international political situation”. Sending Bartlett to Westminser, he added, would have “an important and arresting affect upon the whole position.”

A crucial intervention came at the Blake Hall on the Wednesday. Labour & Co-op councillor Harry Goodman took the chair and explained that “because we have not put up a Labour candidate i feel I should take a stand and encourage Labour voters to support Vernon Bartlett. I say without hesitation that I have not departed one iota from my Labour principles. When the campaign is over I shall go back again to the party to which I belong. Until then I feel there is much work to be done in making a protest against this Government. The key thing is liberty. The present Government has been flirting too much with the ideas of dictatorships and Fascism to please me.” His speech brought wild applause and the meeting went on till well after 1030.

Others took the stage. Ramsey Muir LLD: “we all realise the hideousness of modern war, but some of us wish that sacrifice was made at our own expense than at that of other peoples.”

Miss Grant Luff, a young lady who had lived in Czechoslovakia, explained “I have been back there since Munich and was ashamed. I don’t think people would like to feel ashamed of their country . Let the people of Bridgwater take this opportunity to show that the people of this country still stand for honour and justice.”

On November 16th, the Council of Action printed an advert in the Mercury endorsing the Independent Progressive, and listing an impressive array of cross-party Barlett supporters, Liberals and Labourites included, as well as most of the town’s religious leaders and prominent Co-operative Society figures among others.

Mainstream Labour figures like Jim Boltz and Walt Farthing (by now both Justices of the Peace) were in the paper for a different reason. Boltz had played no part in the election, and in November was nominated as the first Labour Mayor of Bridgwater by Tory Alderman Sam Berry, seconded by Walt Farthing. But Boltz mysteriously never took up his Mayoral duties, something passed off as ‘ill health’ at the time, and meaning tha his deputy Cllr Chard became ‘acting mayor’ for a whole year. Afterwards, it was Walt Farthing himself who became Bridgwater’s first real Labour Mayor.

Election Day

On the morning of Thursday the 17th of November 1938, polls opened at 8am and stayed that way until 9pm.

Heathcoat Amory started his day in his lodgings at the Royal Clarence Hotel, and then went by a convoy of cars, bedecked in red white and blue, first to Cannington then to Porlock, back to North Petherton and Westonzoyland and finally returned to Bridgwater by 9pm.

Bartlett chose to first walk from the Bristol Hotel to his Eastover offices, where the windows were covered with telegrams from well-wishers, crucially including notes from 39 Labour MPs among them. Liberal Cllr Wills escorted Bartlett to the town hospital where the candidate visited the sick, before joining his own motorcade (this one fetchingly bedecked in purple and yellow) to Nether Stowey and then on to Westonzoyland.

The Bridgwater polling stations – Westover School, Albert St School and Eastover School – were busy, as were both candidates’ campaign headquarters, dispatching hundreds of cars to bring constituency residents to vote (whoever they voted for).

Vans topped with loud-speakers – the loudest and most prominent being the one from the Council of Action – criss-crossed the constituency, and most eye-catchingly of all, two campaigners dressed entirely in yellow and purple could be seen walking round town ringing bells and exhorting passers by to “Vote for Bartlett!”

When polls closed at 9pm, the streets were still full. People were in no mood to go home, and enthusiastic crowds of supporters gathered around the hotel of their respective candidate, watching for when the men themselves would occasionally make an appearance to acknowledge their well-wishers.

The Somerset weather had been kind, the day starting with early morning frost and some fog, but quickly giving way to a generally fine day with the odd light shower in some parts of the constituency. Presumably, these stable conditions contributed to the massive turnout, which reached the unheard-of levels of 83% in Minehead, and 87% in Watchett.

Heathcoat Amory remained confident – and apparently only become more so when he found a black cat sat on his car, and decided fate was on his side, adorning the vehicle with it for the rest of the day.

Friday 18th November

Because of the sheer size of the constituency, votes were only collated the following day. Counting began at 9.30am, and there were already 6,000 people in the streets. Shops had been barricaded as a precaution, and Anderson and Walls (the present day ‘Engine Room’) provided dance music from their speakers.

Finally, the crowd got what they were waiting for at about 2.30pm, when Sir Archibald Langman, the returning officer, appeared on the Town Hall balcony with Bartlett to his right. The High Sherriff annoucned the result, but the such was the din from the crowd below that confusion reigned until the actual voting figures were posted in the window of the Mercury’s offices. Vernon Bartlett, Independent Progressive, had beaten the National government pro-appeaser by 2,332 votes.

The result

Vernon Bartlett (Independent Progressive) 19,540
Patrick Heathcoat Amory (National Conservative) 17,208

Vernon Bartlett MP spoke through a microphone from the council chamber window: “I consider that the citizens of Bridgwater have achieved something like a political miracle. The fact that 82% of the electorate turned out, shows the people are alert to the dangers of the present government’s foreign policy. A most significant feature of this election has been the way the progressive parties have co-operated together in this great fight. That movement must surely spread.”

Heathcoat Amory declined to speak, simply saying he was looking forward to winning back the seat in a few months and that  “..this time we’ve been beaten by Hitler and the BBC”.

Meanwhile, about 700 miles away, the Nazi press bitterly announced that “Mr Bartlett – friend of the Bolsheviks and opponent of the policies of Mr Chamberlan –  has been elected.”

Bartlett’s purple-and-yellow-clad cheer-leaders chaired him to the Bristol Hotel, where Cresswell Webb, the maverick vicar behind Bridgwater’s Popular Front, spoke of seeing “the hills purple and yellow this morning. It was an omen and will be the start of something big.”

Vernon Bartlett took his seat in Parliament on the following Tuesday, sitting between Richard Acland (Lib- Barnstaple) and George Staus (Socialist – Lamberth North), to Tory shouts of “What has happened to the socialist party!”

Willie Gallacher (Communist – West. Fife) shouted back: “THIS is the reply to Hitler!”