Which was the most important general election of the 20th century? I suspect many would plump for the Labour landslide of 1945, or for the arrival of the blessed Margaret in 1979. There was a time when we might have said 1997.
However, there’s a lot to be said for opting for 1919. This was the first election to be held on a single day, the first in which women could vote, as well as all men over the age of 21. It was a “khaki election” too, one that, it was hoped, would draw a line under the five bloody years which preceded it.
The man who triumphantly carried the nation in that 1919 election was also the man who called it. David Lloyd George, Prime Minister since 1916, stood at the zenith of his powers, newly showered with honours from a grateful nation as “the leader who won the war”.
In the space of a couple of years, the freedom of the city was bestowed on him at Southampton, London, Salford, Blackpool, Manchester and Portsmouth. Almost as many freedoms, in fact, as were offered to Earl Haig. One of his political colleagues commented that Lloyd George could have chosen to be “dictator for life”.
Yet democracy beckoned, albeit with the PM at the head of a coalition of Tories and Liberals, or at least, those Liberals who signed the “coupon”, signifying that they were willing to continue the alliance.
The starting-gun for the 1919 election was fired, much to everyone’s surprise, in the Black Country. Since the Prime Minister was on a national tour, collecting accolades, and one of the places offering him a gong was
Wolverhampton, then it was as good to announce it here as anywhere else.
David Lloyd George’s speech, delivered in the town’s Grand Theatre on November 24, 1918, is one of the most celebrated in British political history, and one particular sentence is in almost every anthology of great quotations.
“What is our task?” the Prime Minister asked his audience. “To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.”
It was probably the first time that a political leader had invited the nation to walk with him to the sun-lit uplands of a better future. And upon that sunny plateau would be built, first and foremost, better houses. “The housing of the people, declared Lloyd George, “must be a national concern.”
Not everyone, however, was quite so bowled over by the Welshman’s vision of a brighter future. One young woman in the front row later wrote to her brother: “I was not thrilled by the great speech at the theatre, though expected to be. General Hickman got the applause with his Alien policy…”
The woman in question was Daisy St Claire Mander, the 31-year-old daughter of Charles Tertius Mander, alderman, baronet, industrialist and four times mayor of Wolverhampton. He was also (somewhat ironically) a Conservative in a hall full of Liberals. Doubtless, given her comments, Daisy was cut from the same political cloth. It was not the Prime Minister’s programme of social reform that appealed, so much as the new policies on immigration, outlined by the then Tory MP for Wolverhampton South, Thomas Hickman.
Yet Charles Tertius’s daughter could hardly have ducked out of this date with destiny, for the Manders were Lloyd George’s hosts on this whistle-stop visit to the Black Country. Their house – the Mount in Tettenhall – had recently been considerably extended, and was now palatial enough to accommodate any prestigious visitor. Charles already had a home fit for a hero.
If Wightwick Manor is the more famous Mander house in Wolverhampton, then the Mount – only a stone’s throw away from it – was the more sumptuous. Or certainly it was after Mr Mander had made his improvements in 1908.
Among the recent enhancements to the Mount had been the addition of a huge wood-panelled library – in reality a new living-room – and it was here, on the evening before the speech, that the Manders had entertained their unexpected guest. As Daisy told her brother: “We had a very jolly evening all snugly by the library fire, as we had it specially heated for him, and it really seemed quite pre-war. The dinner too was perfect: so hot, thick soup, fried sole, turkey, cream mould (you know the kind of thing) and excellent bonnes bouches of cheese. But what the PM really enjoyed were muscats.”
So that was the sum of the PM’s official engagements in Wolverhampton. An amicable evening with the Manders, a speech at the Grand, a ceremony in the town hall (at which freedom of the town was bestowed), tea in mayor’s parlour and then the train back to London.
“Personally I think they would have stayed the two nights,” added Daisy, “had C.T.M not pointed out Sunday trains were not so good as the others. Stupid of him.”
We may also add that, while Lloyd George was “resting” in the mayor’s parlour, a local artist – George Phoenix - took the opportunity to make a sketch of him. That drawing, I presume, must have formed the basis for the celebrated portrait of the man, now held at the Amgueddfa Lloyd George Museum in Criccieth.
As for the house that welcomed him, it has dined out on the event ever since. The Mount is now Wolverhampton’s most prestigious hotel, with 52 bedrooms and extensive grounds. Don’t expect quite the same hospitality, but I’m sure they can rustle up the fried sole and the muscat.
Sir Nicholas Mander of Owlpen Manor, by the way, provides an intimate and engaging portrait of his family in his book Varnished Leaves, and on the Owlpen website. I am most grateful to him.