History: A year of two, three week elections

Will Thorne

Will Thorne - Credit: Newham Heritage & Archives

As the UK heads to the polls, local historian and author Andrew Summers reflects on the general election of 1910.

December 3, 1910 was the first day of voting for the second general election held that year.

In metropolitan Essex balloting took place in West Ham North and West Ham South on December 3, in Walthamstow on December 10 and in Romford, which included East Ham, on December 17.

The majority of people were still ineligible to vote. Only three out of five men were registered and women were excluded.

Intriguingly, a candidate could stand in more than one place during the same election. If defeated in a constituency where polling finished first, he could campaign in another which voted later.

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This second election was called because of the failure of the two main parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, to agree on reform of the House of Lords and home rule in Ireland.

But the December result was also inconclusive and produced no change from the ones held over three weeks in January and February 1910.

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Although the Conservatives won slightly more of the popular vote, they ended up with one less seat than the Liberals’ total of 272 and far short of the number needed to form a majority in Parliament.

The fledgling Labour party returned 42 members, an amazing result considering that they had only contested 56 constituencies. Nationally, just over five million votes were cast, 28 per cent of the adult population.

One of the few things the parties agreed on was that the electoral register was out of date.

In Essex it was estimated that 50,000 eligible electors were disenfranchised, although of those entitled to vote, the turnout was recorded as 80 per cent.

After the December 1910 election all UK elections were completed on the same day.

In West Ham South, Will Thorne was returned for the Labour Party.

Originally from Birmingham, Thorne was sent to work aged six as his family was on poor relief.

By the age of nine he was working in a brick works, which required a four-mile walk to the site.

Aged 25, in 1882, he moved to London and found work at the Beckton Gas Works, where he was instrumental in founding the Gas Workers and General Union, which had 20,000 members. He later became its general secretary.

He also served on West Ham Town Council and became its mayor. First elected to Parliament in 1906, he remained a serving member for the area until 1945.

The West Ham North constituency was won by Charles Masterman for the Liberals.

Masterman’s background could hardly have been more different.

He came from a privileged background and graduated from Christ’s College, Cambridge.

Sensationally, the Masterman result was declared void in January 1911 “because of corrupt practices and bribery on the part of the successful candidate”.

The voiding of the result didn’t thwart Masterman’s ambitions.

He made a comeback in July 1911 when he won a by-election in Bethnal Green. During the First World War he served as head of the British War Propaganda Unit.

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