The general election of 1906 has gone down in history as one of the decisive moments in British politics. It was a landslide victory for the Liberal Party, akin to the later victories of the Labour Party in 1945 and 1997. After years of Conservative domination the people of Britain voted for change, in the early years of a new century.
The result saw a resurgent Liberal Party take office, albeit for the last time. Since 1885 the Liberals had been split on the issue of home rule for Ireland - those loyal to Gladstone and supporting home rule remained, while those opposed, led by Lord Harcourt and Joseph Chamberlain, split to form the Liberal Unionists. They eventually joined government with the Conservatives and later merged to form the Conservative and Unionist Party. This split saw the Liberals largely out of office during the closing years of the 19th century, apart from two brief spells in 1886 and 1892-1895.
By 1905 the Conservatives and Unionists had been in power for ten years, firstly with the Marquis of Salisbury as Prime Minister and, since 1902, his nephew Arthur Balfour as leader. However, it was the Tories who were now split and again it was Joseph Chamberlain that was leading one of the factions. The question this time was free trade. Chamberlain wanted to bring in a system of tariffs and taxes on imports of goods from outside the British Empire. This was opposed by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, C. T. Ritchie, and Balfours policy of sitting on the fence while the two sides argued it out only emphasised the divisions within the Conservative and Unionist ranks. This, combined with the disillusionment caused by the Boer War, led to a series of by-election defeats, which made it clear that it was likely Balfour would lose the upcoming general election and so he embarked on a bold stratagem. In December 1905 Balfour and his government resigned, which meant that the Liberals, under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, would have to take office and try and see out the remaining days of the Parliament as a minority government. Balfour hoped that the Liberal government would be doomed to failure and would be discredited in the eyes of the electorate, enabling him to win the general election that was due in early 1906. However, things did not work out as Balfour had planned. Campbell-Bannerman was a capable party leader and Prime Minister and at the dispatch box C.B., as he was affectionately known, was able to see off any challenges from Balfour. The Liberals also enjoyed the talents of three future Prime Ministers, Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George and the recent convert to the Liberals, Winston Churchill. Balfours plan did nothing to change the mood of the nation and when the general election came the Tories faced massive losses.
How was this election played out in the Black Country? Fairly typical of the region was the parliamentary borough of Dudley. It had first gained an MP after the 1831 Reform Bill and the first election was held there the following year. Up to 1906 there had been 16 general elections and by-elections in the borough and the voters of Dudley had returned a Liberal candidate just once, in that first election of 1832 Sir John Campbell who lost the seat in a by-election just two years later. Since then the seat had been dominated by the Conservatives. Sir Stafford Northcote, who won the 1855 by-election, stood as a Liberal-Conservative while Henry Brinsley Sheriden was an independent. For the last twenty years the seat had been held by the Conservatives and was thought to be a safe Tory seat.
This is how the constituency was described in the 1907 edition of Blocksidges Dudley Almanack:
Dudley is one of the largest, if not the largest, single-member Borough constituency in Great Britain, and is composed of five distinct Parishes or Townships, namely, Dudley, Brierley Hill, Kingswinford (Brockmoor and Pensnett), Quarry Bank, Rowley Regis (Old Hill and Cradley Heath). The total number of Parliamentary Voters for 1907 is 17,623.
Even before the election was called preparations for it were underway in Dudley. The sitting Member for the borough was the Conservative Brooke Robinson. He had first stood for election in 1885 when he had lost to the independent Henry Brinsley Sheriden. Robinson got a second chance at the seat less than 12 months later and this time he defeated Sheriden in the general election of 1886, going on to successfully defend his seat in the general elections of 1892, 1895 and 1900 but now, after twenty years as a Member of Parliament Brooke Robinson decided to retire from the House and announced that he would not be seeking re-election at the forthcoming polls.
This meant that the local Conservatives in Dudley would have to find themselves a new candidate. A meeting was held on New Years Day, 1906, at the Conservative Club in Dudley. The Dudley Conservative Club was inaugurated on 24th May, 1884. Patron of the club was the Right Hon. Earl of Dudley and the President was the Right Hon. Earl of Coventry. The club house was on the Birmingham Road and had a spacious dining room, smoking room, reading room and a card room as well as billiard room equipped with two tables, bowling green and skittles alley. At the time the club had around 250 members.
At the meeting were the two branches of the Dudley Joint Unionist Association the Dudley Conservative Association and the Dudley Liberal Unionist Association. They chose as their Unionist candidate to replace Brooke Robinson the former Mayor of Dudley Gilbert Henry Claughton, who had been a leading figure in Dudley politics for many years. Born in 1856, the son of the Bishop of St Albans, he was the first cousin of the Earl of Dudley and he first came to the Black Country to work as the Earls agent of business. Claughton became involved in several businesses in the area and was a local councillor and alderman, serving four terms as Mayor between 1891 and 1895.
In 1906 he seemed a strong choice as Unionist candidate and in normal circumstances could have expected to win. A well-known figure in local politics and business and although not a Dudley man by birth he was well connected with the local gentry to ensure that voters loyal to the Castles cause would vote for him. Even as late as 1906 the lord of the manor still held a great deal of influence at the polls and his support for a candidate could be all important.
Opposing him would be the Dudley solicitor Arthur George Hooper. He was a partner in the firm of Hooper and Fairbairn, which had its offices at No.1 Priory Street. Hooper was chosen at a meeting of the Dudley and District Liberal Club that took place on 5th January 1906. This club had been established in May 1880 at premises on the corner of Hall Street and King Street but following the general election was moved to new premises in New Street. The President of the club was A. M. Fairbairn, Hoopers business partner, and the chairman was Councillor Thomas Willetts Adshead, who would go on to become Mayor of Dudley from 1918-1920.
On 8th January 1906 Henry Campbell-Bannerman brought an end to his minority Liberal government and parliament was dissolved. Today we are used to general elections being held on a single day, with the whole nation voting at the same time and the results coming in during the early hours. Within 24 hours of a general election we can expect to know most of the results and the overall outcome these days, but things were very different 100 years ago; back in 1906 elections were still spread over several weeks. The different boroughs and constituencies across the country made their own arrangements for the polls, meaning that voting would be spread from 12th January to 8th February. Dudley would hold its election relatively early on 15th January, while the neighbouring constituency of North Worcestershire, which covered Stourbridge, Halesowen and the surrounding area, did not hold its election until 25th January. Thus it was several weeks before the full outcome of the general election was known.
Campaigning in Dudley was vigorous but polite. On the 11th there was a large meeting of Unionists at the Public Hall, this was part of the Dudley Institute which was used for many large public meetings. Among those speaking in support of G. H. Claughtons candidature was the previous Member of Parliament, Brooke Robinson, giving his endorsement to his would-be successor. At the end of the meeting the Conservative and Unionist supporters of G. H. Claughton paraded through the streets of Dudley carrying torches.
The following day it was the turn of the Liberals to gather. That day had seen the two candidates officially nominated for the parliamentary election and that evening the Liberals held a massed meeting in the Public Hall, rallying support for A. G. Hooper, and they too concluded their evening with a torchlit procession through the streets of Dudley, making their way to the Liberal Club. Not to be outdone G. H. Claughtons supporters held another big meeting. As the Liberals were using the Public Hall this time the Conservatives met at the Empire Theatre in Hall Street.
13th January was a Saturday and numerous meetings of the supporters of both candidates were held throughout the constituency. Again both parties held parades in the afternoon. The next day, being Sunday, there was no campaigning but activities started afresh on Monday morning, election day itself.
Apparently, both sides were confident of victory. In the end, the result was close. The Mayor, George Frederick Thompson, announced the result at the town hall at 11.40pm before a massed throng of supporters and general public anxious to hear the outcome. The Conservative G. H. Claughton had gained 7,542 votes while the Liberal A. G. Hooper had amassed 8,296. Hooper had won the seat, with a majority of 754, and Dudley had fallen to the Liberals after 20 years.
The swing to the Liberals was repeated across the country. On 13th January the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour lost his North Manchester seat and quickly had to be found another, more secure seat at the City of London. Only three members of the old Conservative cabinet retained their seats and in all the Conservatives lost 246 seats, with the Liberals gaining 216. The voting was as follows: Liberals 2,751,057 votes (49.4%), 399 seats; Conservatives 2,442,071 votes (43.4%), 156 seats; Labour Representation Committee 321,633 votes (4.8%), 29 seats; Irish Nationalists 35,031 votes (0.7%), 82 seats. The Irish Nationalists had been unopposed in many of their seats while the LRC had made big gains, and just a few days after the election the Labour Party was formed with Keir Hardie as its first leader. The Liberals had a massive majority, even greater when combined with Labour and the Irish Nationalists and a new era of Liberal politics and radical reform was born that endured until the First World War brought the Liberal administration to an end. Henry Campbell-Bannerman stood down as Prime Minister in 1908 due to ill health, but he was allowed to remain living at 10 Downing Street, and died there just a few weeks later.
A. G. Hooper retained his Dudley seat at the next general election in January-February 1910. However, the election had resulted in a hung parliament as the Liberals battled the Conservatives over House of Lords reform and in the second general election of 1910, held in December, Hooper lost the seat to the Conservatives Arthur Griffith-Boscawen.
G. H. Claughton remained an alderman of the Borough of Dudley and continued his various business interests in the area. He became chairman of the London and North Western Railway in 1911 and in 1912 was made a baronet.