Credit: Macdonald, 1963
‘Bessie’ Braddock was the daughter of an important early Socialist and trade union organiser, Mary Bamber. Bessie attended the local Socialist Sunday School and joined the youth section of the Independent Labour Party (ILP). As an eleven year old Bessie observed the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Liverpool in August 1911 when workers were killed and injured at a rally addressed by Tom Mann during the railway workers’ dispute.
Shortly after leaving school Bessie was employed in a local Co-operative store, where she stayed until 1918. Her political education continued through courses at the National Council of Labour Colleges and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). The ILP supported the Russian Revolution in 1917 and she participated in a strong response in Liverpool as part of the ‘Hands off Russia’ campaign.
After the end of the First World War, Bessie began work with the Warehouse Workers’ Union and helped her mother win an election to Liverpool Council. In the course of her political work she met her future husband, Jack, who was also an activist in the ILP.
By 1920 there was a sense of disillusionment with the ILP and Bessie, Jack and Mary Bamber joined the newly formed Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). They worked closely with Will Hannington and the National Unemployed Workers Movement and provided help and support when the 1922 hunger marchers passed through Liverpool. However, Bessie and the others found being in the CPGB difficult as they thought funds were being used to employ too many paid officials; they also considered that there was too much central control. In 1924, along with twelve other members of the leadership in Liverpool, they resigned and subsequently joined the Labour Party.
Although both Bessie and Jack were suffering severe financial hardship they resisted an approach by the Daily Mail to be paid for telling about life in the CPGB. Both of them were elected to the City Council and in Bessie’s case she remained a Councillor until 1961. Bessie campaigned for slum clearance and better housing and in favour of improvements in health facilities. She continued her work in Liverpool at a time when the local party was divided on both political and religious lines.
Bessie was asked to stand as an MP for the Liverpool Exchange Division in 1936 but had to wait until 1945 before an election was held. During the War she was an ambulance driver but resigned to fight the 1945 General Election and become the first Labour MP for the Exchange Division. In 1947 she was elected to the Labour Party National Executive Committee and was renowned as an assertive speaker. She came to be identified with the ‘Right’ of the party and survived a number of attempts to be de-selected by ‘Bevanite’ elements in her constituency. When she was formally de-selected, the decision was overruled by the NEC and she denounced her opponents as ‘revolutionary Communists, Bevanites and incidentals’. She wrote two articles in the Daily Herald on Communist infiltration into the Labour Party.
In 1956 Bessie visited the Soviet Union, as her mother had done in 1920, but told her hosts that ‘you’ve had forty years of Socialism, but you haven’t achieved half what we have in Britain’.
Her interests in housing and health in Liverpool were accompanied by a long campaign about poor conditions and staff violence in Walton Prison. This led to an official Enquiry into Prison Conditions which reported in 1958. One other area of interest was that of boxing. She felt that the introduction of more boxing would help reduce the crime rate in Liverpool. Subsequently, she became the Honorary President of the Professional Boxers’ Association.
Bessie was involved in controversy when she strongly supported the Liverpool Corporation in pursuing a Private Bill in the Commons to flood the village of Capel Celyn in order to create the Tryweryn reservoir in North Wales. This method of obtaining approval avoided the need to seek Welsh planning permission and was seen to be high-handed on the part of Liverpool. To a great extent this incident gave a boost to the cause of Welsh Nationalism and Plaid Cymru. In 1965 the opening ceremony of the reservoir was severely disrupted and in 2005 Liverpool City Council made a formal apology.
Bessie left the House of Commons at the time of the 1970 General Election. During her 25 years as an MP she had achieved a reputation for being a militant anti-Tory and a doughty fighter who was the first woman to be suspended from the House after defying the Speaker. She died in November of that year and at her funeral Harold Wilson said that ‘she was born to fight for the people of the docks, of the slums, of the factories and in every part of the city where people needed help’.
There is a statue of Bessie Braddock on the concourse of Liverpool Lime Street station, not far from that of her mother on St. George’s Plateau.
The Working Class Movement Library has material on the life of Bessie Braddock to come in and read including The Braddocks by Jack & Bessie [Shelfmark B03] and Mrs Bessie Braddock MP by Millie Toole [B02].
Much of the background to the politics of Liverpool is covered in Liverpool Labour by Sam Davies [Q05] and Popular politics, riot and labour by John Belchem [J01]. The Library has a wealth of material on the ILP, Communist Party of Great Britain and the Labour Party. Search the catalogue here to find out more.