The Government side
For most of the 1930s, Britain was in the grip of the Great Depression – and ruled by a centre-right coalition of all parties. By 1938, despite the continued presence of marginalised minorities calling themselves National Liberal and National Labour, the National government had largely dropped the cross-party facade and given way to clear Conservative dominance. The majority of Labour and Liberal party members were now regrouping outside.
It was this now Tory-controlled National coalition, pursuing appeasement in Europe, that went into policy to justify this most controversial of policies at the Bridgwater by-election.
Patrick Heathcoat Amory
Patrick Gerald Heathcoat-Amory was born on the 27th of April 1912. He was the son of Major Ludovic Heathcoat-Amory, who died on 25 August 1918 at age 37, from wounds received in action in the First World War, and Mary Stuart Bannatyne.
In 1938, aged just 25, Patrick was chosen to fight the National Conservative corner in the Bridgwater by-election. He had not long finished his studies at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he had attained a second-class honours, and been active in the University Air Squadron (1932-1934) – he continued his military connection closer to home, joining the Devon Yeomanry in 1934.
Despite his youth, the Tories were relying on his well-established family name and the presence of his redoubtable mother to pull them through. By supporting the politics of appeasement, Heathcoat-Amory seemed to simply be toeing the party line – it was not a decision based on any personal, political or class opposition to war, or made through lack of patriotic fervour. In fact, when war finally broke out, Patrick continued the Heathcoat-Amorys martial tradition, fighting with the Royal Indian Field Artillery in North Africa. In May 1942, as a 30-year old Captain, he would pay the ultimate sacrifice during the defence of Al Halfa, Libya.His name appears on the El Alamein memorial. The same fate befell his younger brother, Major Edward Heathcoat Amory, during the battle for Normandy two years later.
The Bridgwater Conservative Party
The Bridgwater Conservative and Unionist Association was based at 16 Castle Street (opposite where the British Legion is today), sharing a premises with the Junior Imperial League.
The party’s local election agent, L. Hayter, was very much on board for the Heathcoat Amory campaign, with funding coming from key local farmers, landowners and industrialists, as well as the constituency party president, Colonel Daniels of the The Manor, Stockland, Bristol.
The Tories and Liberals of 1930s Bridgwater often hid their party allegiances behind labels like ‘Independent’, and consistently formed the majority of the town council. However, by looking at the nominations for Parliamentary candidates, the following Conservatives were clearly active in Bridgwater in 1938: Bryer, Akerman, Board, Ballinger, Walter Deacon, Allen, Rev Pryce Mitchel, Alderman and, influentially, former Mayor Samuel Berry – known for carrying threepenny bits around with him to dole out to kids whilst on the election trail.
British Union of Fascists
Of significantly less help to the electoral prospects of the National government was support from Oswald Mosley’s Britain Union of Fascists, who were enthusiastic appeasers for another, obvious reason.
As the Second World War approached, public contempt for fascism continued to outstrip the relatively minor numbers won over by it.
When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the BUF held celebrations in the West End. In 1938 – 39, the BUF campaigned energetically for peace with Hitler under the slogans “Britons fight for Britain only” and “Mosley and Peace”.
In July 1939, Mosley addressed a “peace” rally of some 20,000 at London’s Exhibition Hall in Earl’s Court. This campaign brought new recruits (older and more middle-class than previous recruits), with membership reaching 16,500 in December 1938 and 22,500 in September 1939.
In fact, the BUF’s intervention in the appeasement debate merely led people to believe even more strongly that fascism was an ‘alien, menacing creed’. Despite majority opposition, however, the fascist presence on the far right of British politics remained a disturbing reality throughout the 1930s, and didn’t go away after the Second World War. It reappeared in the 1950s despite widespread awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust, and even in the 21st Century its lineage endures in the ideas of the British National Party.
The Peace Movement
Bridgwater’s Peace Pledge Union were dedicated supporters of Chamberlain ‘the peace maker’, and proved a persistent thorn in the side of the Bartlett campaign. Often his appearances in and around the constituency were punctuated with cries of “warmonger!” from his pacifist critics
The Peace Pledge Union had come into being in the anxious climate of the early 1930s, born from fears about the growing likelihood of another major European war. Following a huge response to a letter from pacifist priest Dick Sheppard published in the Manchester Guardian in 1934, a mass meeting held at the Albert Hall resolved to form the Peace Pledge Union. Its membership grew quickly – tens of thousands, then, before long, hundreds of thousands joined
The Peace Movement in the Somerset of the 1930s was strong, largely based on a network of committed church groups. A Bridgwater Peace Group was formed, and regularly met at the residence of the formidable Gwen Pollard (Oaktrees, Wembdon) or the 109 Durleigh Road home of it’s secretary Vincent Burston.
In the run-up to the by-election, they held many meetings, drawing large, socially-mixed audiences, combining heated political debates with genteel picnic outings on the Quantock Hills. Fundamentally, however, they remained rather middle-class in ethos, noting at one meeting that “the concern that fascism or commnism should come to this country if we engaged in another war. 115,000 had supported the Dick Shepperd pledge renouncing war. We must get more!”