Wednesday, 7 December 2016

70th Anniverary of the Birkdale West by election

Our special history blogger writes:

This week seventy years ago voters went to the polls in the Birkdale West By-election.  The Ward had remained a Tory “Rotten Borough” for years. It had gone unopposed since 1912 .Indeed  Sir Herbert Barber, the one- time  Council leader, once  told me that the Liberals actually signed a nomination paper on behalf the Conservative candidate. It was felt that this Ward was simply not worth contesting. It was claimed at the time that the St James’ parish church,   which covered the Ward, had more millionaires than any other in England.

Earlier in 1946 the Liberal party’s Reconstruction Committee , which had been set up after the 1945 General Election, had made a number of proposals including the celebration of Foundation Day on 31st May each year and the setting up of a Liberal Party newspaper known as the Liberal Newscard, later re-named Liberal News. Councillor Ted Tomlinson, the Constituency Chairman visualised 1,000 people locally ordering the new publication.    Whilst the  Agent, Harry Edwards saw Liberal News as the counterpart of the Labour Party levy. It is doubtful whether the paper every had a substantial  readership. Although when I was Liberal News Officer between 1971 and 1973 I managed to build up a round of 30 copies for delivery each week.

John Sharp Higham
Back in 1946 the Liberal Party were undergoing their first post-war revival. It was short-lived but in Southport ex England International footballer Billy Watson gained Sussex Ward  and  Bank Manager Roly Wood  gained Ainsdale Ward in the November Municipal Elections The meant that the Liberals had sixteen members on a Council of 60. It was felt that if the Party could continue to attract high calibre candidates they could make further gains.

John Higham was the son of  John Sharp Higham, a former MP for Sowerby  who had repudiated the Coupon in 1918 when he was defeated. The Highams were related to the Hartleys  of Jam of Christianna fame {Southport's first female Mayor and a staunch Liberal) . Higham Snr. had  been President of the Southport Liberal Association until his death in 1932.  Young John and his wife Pat were  well known charity workers  in Southport . They lived at 50 Oxford Road  where they had an outdoor swimming pool in the garden( probably the first in Southport). Their home was” open house” to all manner of charitable events in Birkdale. When I was preparing the constituency  Centenary Exhibition in 1977 Pat Higham lent me her husband’s scrapbook of the campaign. It was apparent that the Tories were furious when Higham announced his candidature at a meeting of the Ward Association  held in the Birkdale Liberal Club. The Ward Chairman, John Sanders explained that for too long the Liberals had been prepared to compromise their principles  but there was a need to fight and get younger  people elected to the Council. Higham was forty-two and considerably younger than Jean Brookes, his Conservative opponent.  The Tories accused the Liberals of deliberately trying to prevent more women from gaining election to the Council. The Southport Guardian in one of its last political Editorials refuted the Tory claims pointing out that  he Liberals had always supported women’s rights and  Mrs Margaret  Wintringham was one of the first women to be elected to Parliament in 1921 as a Liberal.

Such was the interest shown that more than 63% voted on a cold December day. The Southport Guardian referred to the “whispering campaign” as few voters were prepared to admit that they intended to vote Liberal. John Higham was obviously a hard-working candidate and it was reported to he had canvassed a few houses in each road in the Ward. All the Liberal team wore red roses on election day instead of rosettes. Despite the fact that at the time Birkdale West was solidly  Conservative the Tories scraped home by just 69 votes. The Birkdale West returning officer  Alderman Ernest Charlton, though a Tory,  commented after the count that he was sure that John Higham would soon be elected to the Council. Although Higham vowed to fight  the seat  again he never did citing pressure of work in his Manchester textile business. By 1949 the Higham family  had moved to Styal in Cheshire and it was  not until 1961 that Jack Smith-Hughes finally won Birkdale West for the Liberals but that is an altogether different story.

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