On this day … 8 February 1902

Election poster for Winston Churchill and James Mawdsley in the Oldham Parliamentary contest in 1899

The Preston Guardian carried a long obituary of James Mawdsley, the Preston-born man who it described as ‘the greatest labour leader the employees in the cotton trade have ever had’. He was also the union leader who stood as a Tory candidate, when he and Winston Churchill contested a two-seat by-election in Oldham in 1899. Both lost, and Mawdsley ‘later regarded his decision to stand as an error of judgement’.

Churchill mentions him several times in his memoirs. For example, in his autobiography My Early Years, Churchill reflects on the strange partnership between the ‘scion of the ancient British Aristocracy’ and the ‘Tory working-man candidate’.

When Churchill came back to Oldham in 1901 to contest the seat again he had another partner, a stockbroker. Mawdsley was unable to stand for election because of an unfortunate accident. According to Churchill, he was a very heavy man who ‘had taken a bath in a china vessel which had broken under his weight’, inflicting severe injuries. Perhaps the accident served as a cautionary tale for Churchill, who was himself no light weight and very much enjoyed his daily bath.

A historian recently commented, ‘Only one Tory working-class candidate with realistic prospects stood in the 19th century: James Mawdsley … still the only significant union leader to seek election as a Conservative.’

Mawdsley’s career is covered in a Wikipedia article, largely based on his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is both better written and more comprehensive. Anyone with a Lancashire Library card can access the DNB on line. The DNB article describes Mawdsley as dominating the TUC in the 1880s and 1890s, and characterises him as a ‘forceful public speaker as well as a ruthless backstage fixer’.

His modest beginnings in Preston gave no hint of his future career. He was born in 1848 and in 1851 was living at 7, Sleddon Street with his parents, sister, two other relatives and a lodger. His father was a cotton spinner. Ten years later the family was living at 27 Brookfield street and James, now aged 13, had joined his father at the cotton mill, possibly the nearby Brookfield Mill. He had started work in the mill as a half-timer at the age of nine.

In 1871 the family was living in St Walburge’s Street. His parents and brothers and sisters were living at No. 25 but James, now 23 and married to Ann, was living next door at No 26. By 1881 the couple had moved to Manchester, following Mawdsley’s appointment as full-time general secretary of the Manchester-based Amalgamated Association of Operative Cotton Spinners, a post which he held until his death in 1902.



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