One hundred years ago this November Reuben George was standing as a candidate in a local election, having completed his six years as an Alderman. George was one of a group of councillors supported by Swindon Trades Union Council (the body which had been founded in 1891 and drew together for mutual support the local Trades Unions). Although the Labour Representation Committee had been founded in 1900, becoming the Labour Party in 1906, there was to be no local branch in Swindon until 1916. So Swindon TUC coordinated the effort to have a group of working class representatives elected to the local Council, which united the Old and New towns only in 1900.
By 1909 George was a well known local figure. He had been a Liberal, but he broke with the party as well as the established church, over their support for the Boer War. He had held a well attended meeting in the Mechanics Institute to explain his decision. He declared himself a socialist and the Liberal Party to be of no use to the working class.
In his election address (available in the Central Library) he declares himself to be a member of the Social Democratic Party,
“…and holding the ideals I do, I realise that only as a municipality is prepared to work with the state for the control of all the means of Production, Distribution and Exchange, can a reform be brought about.”
He was faced in the contest by a member of the Ratepayers’ Association which had been putting out a lot of material prior to the election. He said that if elected he would work in opposition to them (they had a group on the Council). “I think the welfare of one child to be worth more than all the rate saving they promise to effect.”
“Justice, Fair Play, Happiness, and Hope, to the great mass of workers, is far and away superior to those who look at life entirely from the financial standpoint. The poverty that has, and is still dogging your homes, is brought about by the system which is upheld by the members of this Association. Your short time, low wages, and dismissals are due to the fact that our great monopolies are worked for the benefit of the few, while the great mass come into the scramble when and where they can.”
Unlike most politicians he was not afraid to take issue with the electorate whose votes he was appealing to.
“I deeply regret that you, the workers, should be so indifferent to your welfare that you have allowed the question of Rates to dominate you. One would have thought that the Medical Officer’s report showing the cruelty imposed on Motherhood during the last two years, would have raised your feelings to the highest, but sad to say not one word has been said on this matter. To my mind such conditions are unbearable, and that electors in a working class town should be apathetic is, I think, deplorable.”
This is a reference to the report which dealt with the high mortality rate at birth or in the first year of life. It said:
“I have on previous occasions referred to the high mortality from prematurity. That anaemia is a constant factor in the causation of premature birth I think there is little doubt, and I have before alluded to its persistence in the town among the young adult female population. The altered conditions of life that at present prevail in Swindon owing to lack of employment and shorter working hours with respect to our staple industry, must have its effect upon the well-being of the community. The lack of many of the luxuries and not a few of the necessaries of life, must conduce to depreciation of bodily power and to the promotion of physical degeneration to the detriment of those responsible for the initiation of healthy offspring. I cannot but think therefore that this is a factor to be considered in the high death rate from prematurity.”
Anaemia can be associated with malnourishment and poor diet. The other causes of death in the first year were bronchitis and pneumonia which was most likely associated with the condition of local houses.
George raises the question of housing in his address. He and other Councillors had suggested buying land which could be used for allotments and ‘Municipal Dwellings’.
“We were met by those who are now members of the Ratepayers Association with the cry that we were stultifying private enterprise. I am anxious to place all the land and all the monopolies into the hands of the people.”
The housing situation would be taken up again by Swindon TUC during the war and would lead to the first ‘Municipal Dwellings’ being built in the town; a story we will take up later.
Just as Reuben George’s address was going to press his opponents raised the question of his religious convictions, or lack of them. He replied:
“May I say that neither for their vote, nor for a seat on the Council shall I play a double in this matter. I tell them plainly at once where my convictions are, and that in the language of Tom Paine, the most abused man of modern times;
The world is my parish,
Every man is my brother;
To do good is my religion.”