WHEN ELECTION FEVER GRIPPED APPLEBY

Date: Saturday 12th March 2005

A CENTURY ago the Appleby parliamentary constituency saw a succession of dramas that filled the Penrith papers and hit the national political headlines.

Plenty of wind, rain, sleet and snow hit North Westmorland in January and February, 1905; but, lacking central heating, double-glazing, electric light, television and computers, our ancestors were far more ready than we are to turn out on the foulest of nights, writes ANDY CONNELL.

They would cram into market halls, village institutes and reading rooms occupying every available chair, window ledge and doorway to listen to political speeches. Penrith’s newspapers of the time, deadly rivals though they were, concurred that meetings were “splendid” and crowds “enthusiastic”, giving speakers a “hearty welcome”, “resounding cheers” and choruses of “For he’s a jolly good fellow”.

By-election fever had gripped the Appleby constituency. In November, 1904, Liberal MP Richard Rigg, who had sensationally captured the seat from the Conservatives four years before, shocked his local party by offering his resignation, because he found himself in agreement with the Conservative government on so many key issues.

This was an extraordinary act of political suicide at a time when by-elections nationwide were running strongly in the Liberals’ favour; but gleeful local Tories, convinced their loss of the seat in 1900 had been a fluke, were confident they could turn the tide.

They already had a prospective candidate: 45-year-old Major George Noble, whose father was a director of Armstrong Whitworth, the Newcastle engineering firm, had gone from Harrow School to Sandhurst and a career as a cavalry officer, seeing service in India, Afghanistan and South Africa, before marrying and becoming a Lloyd’s underwriter.

An upright figure with a waxed moustache, he had moved into Calgarth Park, Windermere. Not surprisingly, the Observer considered him a “splendid” candidate, “admirably supported” by the “clever speeches” of his “charming wife”. In November, 1904, they had delighted the annual dinner of the Appleby Conservatives by singing duets.

Once the Liberals had recovered from the shock of Rigg’s defection, they had sought the candidacy of Rowland Whitehead, son of Sir James, who had narrowly failed to win Appleby for the Liberals in 1886 before moving south to become Lord Mayor of London.

When he politely declined, they accepted the advice of Lady Carlisle, and adopted 42-year-old bachelor Leifchild Stratten Jones, son of a Welsh Baptist preacher and poet who had moved to London.

“SPLENDID ORATOR”

Unfashionably clean-shaven, and a total abstainer like Richard Rigg, but without the military background, Leif Jones had been educated in Australia and Trinity College, Oxford, before devoting himself to the cause of temperance. In his first meeting with local supporters at Tebay in December, 1904, he made an hour long speech, and the predictable verdict of the Herald was that he was a “splendid orator” whose “cultured diction was permeated with the rare gift of humour and gentle satire”. The Observer conceded that “the Liberals could have had a much worse candidate”, but reminded readers that he was “not a North Countryman”.

By Christmas the contest to become Appleby’s next MP had effectively started. The Herald and the Observer, focusing respectively on the Liberal and Conservative campaigns, reported in exhaustive detail the speeches delivered at a succession of meetings, often on “terrible nights”. Scarcely a village escaped the candidates, who on some nights were two or three miles apart. Long Marton Institute was “packed to the doors” to hear Jones. In Great Asby he held his meeting in the Baptist Chapel, “packed to the uttermost capacity”, while Noble spoke in the same village to a “grand reception” in Asby Hall, hosted by the Park family.

Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of a speech. Jones was in Appleby Market Hall on Boxing Night, insisting that nobody should be turned away, and getting a “storm of applause”. And on a stormy Twelfth Night, with the roads outside “ankle deep in mud”, Major Noble urged the crowd in Shap Market Hall to “march to victory under the Old Yellow Banner”. Ten days later, accompanied by his wife, he set off to Clifton, muffled, goggled and gloved, in a newfangled motorcar, taking the steep road out of Windermere to the Kirkstone Pass. But, as a blizzard swept in, the engine failed. Nothing daunted, the major freewheeled all the way back to Windermere, and headed for the station. Finding that there was no convenient scheduled train, and with money not a problem, he simply chartered a special.

The adventure took its toll, however, and at the end of January the Nobles broke their campaign for a fortnight’s recovery in France while Jones kept up a punishing schedule of nightly speeches: on 3rd February he was in Bolton, where he was greeted with “much enthusiasm”, the night after in Milburn, where he received “a hearty welcome”.

“RUFFIANISM”

But this was all strenuous shadowboxing until Richard Rigg vacated his parliamentary seat by the arcane process of applying for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, and in the first month of 1905 the Appleby MP’s whereabouts remained a closely guarded secret. Claiming a breakdown in health caused by the “ruffianism” of Liberal supporters angered by his defection of the party, he had gone to a continental health resort, the name of which was not to be revealed on doctor’s orders.

But by February he was back in England, guest of honour at Carlisle Conservative Club’s annual dinner. “I am proud to be one of you now,” he declared. “I have the satisfaction of feeling that what I have done was conscientious and right.” A week later the writs for the North Westmorland by-election were issued, with Thursday, 2nd March, named as polling day. “The political battle,” the Herald reported, “proceeds with unabated energy.”

TO BE CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK