Elected MP for Colne Valley against the odds, Victor Grayson was a flamboyant MP. But his performances in the Commons were erratic and later he vanished as a cash for honours scandal was emerging
By Paul Salveson
A young socialist firebrand called Victor Grayson shot to international fame in 1907 by winning a by-election in the Yorkshire textile constituency of Colne Valley, on an uncompromising left wing programme. Thirteen years later he vanished, almost without trace. His story is ably explored by the work of David Clark and more recently Harry Taylor, whose biography Victor Grayson: In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary, was published recently.
“I want emancipation from the wage-slavery of Capitalism. I do not believe we are destined to be drudges.”
Grayson was born in the Scotland Road district of Liverpool, of working class parents, in 1881 – though even this fact has been questioned. He was an intelligent and resourceful lad with a strong social conscience. He experienced poverty at first hand in the Liverpool slums and wanted to do something about it. In 1904, he enrolled as a student at the Unitarian College in Manchester to train as a minister; however he became increasingly involved in the socialist movement that was sweeping the North of England, inspired by the Clarion newspaper, edited by Robert Blatchford, who was to become a close friend.
By the following year, Grayson had become a popular figure on the socialist lecturing circuit across the North. He was a frequent speaker in Huddersfield and the smaller mill villages such as Slaithwaite, Holmfirth, Delph and Marsden, which made up the Colne Valley parliamentary constituency. There was a flourishing socialist culture in these small communities, organised through the Colne Valley Labour League (CVLL), which had several elected councillors and a network of socialist clubs, two of which survive to this day.
In spring 1907 the sitting Liberal MP, Sir James Kitson, resigned his seat following his elevation to the House of Lords. A by-election was set for 18 July, with the Liberals expecting an easy win. How wrong they were.
Grayson – a young man of 26 – was invited by the CVLL to apply to be their candidate. Despite pressure from the party leadership, the local socialists stuck by their choice of candidate. There was a rancorous exchange of letters between Grayson and Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, in which Grayson said that “in the event of my success at the poll, I shall be a freelance socialist member, independent of the Labour Group…”
The people of the Colne Valley were unaware of these arguments. What they saw was a handsome, flamboyant and charismatic figure who could captivate huge audiences, often numbering thousands. He was strongly supported by the women’s suffrage movement, scores of whose activists descended on the constituency. Even in Golcar, Honley and Delph Grayson was able to attract audiences in the hundreds and sometimes even more. Grayson’s eve of poll message “to the electors of the Colne Valley” pulled no punches. “I am appealing to you as one of your own class. I want emancipation from the wage-slavery of Capitalism. I do not believe that we are divinely destined to be drudges. Through the centuries we have been the serfs of an arrogant aristocracy…. the time for our emancipation has come.”
The election result was announced on 19 July and it astonished the country. Grayson won 3,648 votes, beating the Liberal by 153, with the Tories coming a close third. When the vote was announced at Slaithwaite Town Hall, in the words of a local journalist, “pandemonium prevailed… the wild scene of enthusiasm which followed the announcement of the figures was indescribable”.
The result shook the political establishment to its foundations, with many fearing – and some hoping – that a socialist revolution was imminent. Yet it wasn’t to be and Grayson’s parliamentary performance was erratic. He preferred touring the country speaking at socialist meetings to the dreary work of being a backbench MP, though on one occasion he was expelled from the House of Commons for disrupting proceedings in support of the unemployed.
There was a darker side to his behaviour. He developed a strong taste for whisky and reached the point where he was consuming a full bottle every day. He enjoyed the social life of the London clubs and was always something of a hedonist. He was hugely attractive to women but also had several affairs with men, which seem to go back to his early twenties.
Grayson was an MP for just three years. After losing his seat he continued campaigning. On 23 October 1909 he was speaking to a packed meeting in Bolton’s Temperance Hotel, perhaps amused by the irony of the location.
In November 1912 he married Ruth Nightingale, an actor. She was the daughter of an affluent Bolton family – her father, John Webster Nightingale, was a banker and the family had a substantial house in Smithills with a maidservant.
Grayson and Ruth had a daughter, Elaine, in 1914. By then his health had deteriorated and he found himself in the Bankruptcy Court. Friends and supporters, helped by his father in law, assisted.
Everything changed when war broke out later that year. Most left-wing socialists were bitterly opposed to it. Grayson took a very different stance, not only publicly supporting the Allies but advocating conscription and demonising the German people as a warmongering race. Grayson spent some time in Australia speaking on pro-war platforms, then returned to Britain and continued to support the war effort, possibly with some financial help from the Lloyd George government.
In 1917, he and Ruth went to New Zealand where she had some theatrical engagements. Whilst there, he was involved in socialist activity but continued to support the war effort, joining the New Zealand armed forces in 1917. He took part in some of the heaviest fighting of the war and was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest encounters in the whole conflict.
He returned to England in 1918 and was devastated by the death of his wife in childbirth, in February that year. The baby was stillborn. Grayson agreed with the Nightingales for them to look after the young daughter Elaine, who lived at the family home. Grayson, living in London, became a regular visitor to Bolton, with his own room and even pet dog which he named Nunquam, the pen name of Blatchford.
Grayson had little involvement in post-war politics. By 1918, his estrangement from the Labour Party was virtually complete. Harry Taylor quotes a letter from Sidney Campion suggesting that Grayson “was a disillusioned socialist turned Tory”.
The strangest part of the Grayson story is what happened next. In September 1920 he left his apartment in London accompanied by two men, saying that he would be away for some time. In fact, he was never seen again, at least definitively. Some accounts suggest he was murdered, others that he left the country to start a new life. At the time, there was a cash for honours scandal brewing that Grayson may have threatened to expose and there are suggestions that he was “removed” by a shadowy character called Maundy Gregory, who had links to the intelligence services.
His daughter Elaine was devastated by his disappearance, being told by the maid that her father would be away “for some time” but that he still loved her.
There are several accounts of him being seen, in places as varied as Melbourne, Madrid and on the London tube. However, there seems to be strong evidence that he was living in Maidstone, Kent, in the 1930s.
During the Second World War there was a government-sponsored investigation into Grayson’s disappearance, led by the respected Chief Inspector Arthur Askew of Scotland Yard. The report was never published but subsequently, after his retirement, Askew sent a short note to his biographer Reg Groves saying “Grayson married – settled in Kent”.
There seems to be a possibility that Grayson died in an air raid in 1941. There are so many known unknowns in the Grayson story, above all what happened to him after 1920, and the riddle of his parentage. As Jeremy Corbyn says in his foreword to Harry Taylor’s book, “the ever-secretive British state knows the answer. Somewhere in Scotland Yard or the Home Office, the truth is known.”
I am indebted to Lord David Clark, Harry Taylor, Sheila Davidson and Julia Lamara (Bolton History Centre) for their assistance. Harry Taylor’s book Victor Grayson: In Search of Britain’s Lost Revolutionary, is published by Pluto, David Clark’s Victor Grayson – The Man and the Mystery is published by Quartet
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