Conviction politician

057 a Three children in front of house

Blogging gives me the opportunity to introduce my friends, family, and followers, to interesting personalities from Bradford’s history who could never form the basis of a full publication. Such vignettes may shed light on aspects of society today. I must start by explaining that there was a time, somewhat remote now, when the qualifications for a Labour member of the House of Commons was not an Oxford degree in PPE followed by two years as a parliamentary intern. Once working men debated politics in pubs and on street corners, served in Trades Unions, and believed they could change the world. Now I would be totally hopeless at that sort of thing but I should like to tell you about a Bradford socialist and Independent Labour Party (ILP) member who was very much of that stamp. My daughter Jess and I studied him several years ago and he is now almost forgotten; almost perhaps but, as you shall see, not quite.

Alfred Pickles was at various times a magistrate, a Bradford councillor, the secretary of the Bradford Branch of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers, Lord Mayor of Bradford (1930-31), the landlord of a Nobel prize winner, and a prospective parliamentary candidate. If this wasn’t enough he also edited an ILP local newspaper, the Bradford Pioneer, at the time that JB Priestley was submitting his first articles for publication. I know something about Alfred’s family life. He had been born in Pudsey on 2 April 1875, his parents being William and Agnes Pickles, and he had brothers called Isaac and John. Alfred married Miss Isabella Whitehall in 1902. Isabella, who was confusingly also called Sarah Isabella, Isabel, and Bel, had lived at 87 Wooton Street, Bowling as a child. She was the daughter of Thomas Whitehall, a cotton warp dresser. By the time of the 1901 census Isabella was living in Victor Street, Manningham and gave her occupation as silk warp dresser. This trade almost certainly meant employment with Lister & Co. at Manningham Mills who operated the only Bradford silk mill. We know a little more about Isabella’s family from an inscription in Heaton Baptist Cemetery, Bradford. A woman named Mary Elizabeth Whitehall was buried there at the age of 23 years in August, 1895. Her address at the time of her death was 11 Victor Street and she must have been the younger sister of Isobella Whitehall. Early death was commonplace in late Victorian England, and in due time the parents of Isobella and Mary came to rest in the same plot.

039 Alfred Pickles 040 Bel Pickles

Alfred and Isabella lived at 43 Leamington Street, Manningham, in fact Alfred Pickles lived in this house until he died 25 years later. They had a daughter, Alice, and a son baptized Willie, but later called William, who became a distinguished academic. The couple did not live at Leamington Street throughout their whole married life. Alice had been born at 26 East Parade, Ilkley in July 1902. Her brother, a year younger, arrived in Bradford apparently; could this have been a hospital birth perhaps? Both children were baptised at St Luke’s Church Manningham but I cannot find records of any other siblings. We know from post card evidence that in 1905-07 Alfred and Isabella lived at 16 Halliday Street, Pudsey.

The ILP had been formed in Bradford in 1893 and Alfred could have been a founder member at the age of eighteen, or at any event an early member. He was ten years younger than the doyen of Bradford socialists, Fred Jowett, who was later a Labour MP and cabinet minister. The Manningham Mills strike (1890-91) was a significant factor in the formation of the ILP which was always strong in West Yorkshire and Bradford in particular. The ILP was affiliated to the ‘Labour Party’ in the period 1906-1932 but it was finally dissolved in 1975. The initial leader of the ILP was Keir Hardie who can be seen as representing the ‘religious parliamentary right’ of the Labour movement. He was supported by George Lansbury and Ben Tillett. The growth of the Labour Party and the refusal of the ILP to involve itself in the Great War were significant turning points for the organisation.

The evidence I have about Alfred Pickles’s life is far from complete but I have been able to create a partial time-line for him. In 1902 at the time of his marriage, and at his daughter’s baptism, Alfred gave his occupation as ‘insurance agent’. In the 1911 census his job is recorded as an ‘advertisement agent’. He must have stood for election to Bradford Council around this time since by 1919 he was definitely recorded as a council member and in due course was made an alderman. I know that for several years in the period 1915-25 Alfred Pickles was editor of the Bradford Pioneer. The Pioneer was a Bradford ILP newspaper which was in existence from 1913 to 1936: other editors were William Leach and Frank Betts,the father of Dame Barbara Castle.  Alfred may have succeeded Joseph Burgess as editor a man who was strongly opposed to the Great War, an issue that was very divisive in Labour and Socialist groups. In 1929 Alfred was proposed as an ILP candidate for the seat of Bradford North, although he had to withdraw through illness. In 1931-32 he was Lord Mayor of Bradford.

As Lord Mayor among his activities was opening an Imperial Wool Fair. Also in July 1931 Alfred Pickles was instrumental in holding The Historical Pageant of Bradford which took place over a week in Peel Park. The weather was terrible but the crowds did have the opportunity of hearing David Lloyd-George, The Lord Mayor of London (Sir Phene Neal), and Prince George (later Duke of Kent) speak. The Archbishop of York preached at Bradford cathedral and Bradford College of Art was heavily involved in design and costume making. The possibility that the pageant might herald an economic revival in Bradford’s fortunes was seriously entertained although in the event this did not happen. Naturally the wool cloth industry featured prominently in the entertainments but since the first two episodes were ‘The Coming of the Romans’ and ‘Paulinus in Bradford Dale’ we can assume that the pageant did not aim for local historical accuracy. Anyway you can judge this for yourselves since comments by Ayako Yoshino, some still images, and a short piece of video are available on line at:

After the pageant the last occasion on which I know that Alfred Pickles was involved in national politics was in 1932 when he opposed ILP disaffiliation from the Labour Party. This did go ahead however. Internationally the 43 Leamington Street address was being used for correspondence by the secretary of the League of the Rights of Man in 1934 although I’m not certain which resident occupied this post.

The pageant video showed Alfred Pickles in his mayoral chain of office but we do have other pictures of him. Bradford Industrial Museum curates an album of personal and political postcards which were once the property of the late Mr Kurt Graupner of Heaton, who had lived in Bradford since the 1930s and whom I remember well from meeting him twenty years ago or more. Kurt knew Alfred Pickles well, and had in fact lived with him on his arrival in the city as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Some details of this friendship were published in the Bradford T & A on 17 July 2013. Kurt was not the only lodger in the Pickles family home. Norman Angell, Bradford North MP in 1929-31 and Nobel peace prize winner, was his predecessor. This arrangement is described in the Bradford Peace Trail pamphlet although Alfred is mentioned only in his position as the Deputy Mayor:

Since we do not know the original arrangement of the Pickles postcards they have to be crudely divided into ‘political figures & events’ or ‘family & friends’. Some postcards have actually gone through the post, others seem to have been kept as portraits of people known to the Pickles family. At this period photographers seem to have produced ‘postcards’ of their clients for ordinary postal purposes. The so called ‘divided back’ postcard was introduced in Britain in 1902. The ‘golden age’ of postcards is said to be 1902-1914. Most of this collection fall between these dates. I am quite certain that the house illustrated above is 43 Leamington Street since the dwelling is still present to be compared; it would be reasonable if the children were Alice and Willie plus a friend. The male and female portraits are identical in style and that of the male does resemble the rather older and slight figure of Alfred in the pageant video. I imagine that they are Alfred and Isobel about 20 years earlier, but I am not absolutely certain.

Many socialist figures are represented: Philip Snowden, Victor Grayson and J Keir Hardy for example. The cards do enable us to identify other aspects of Alfred’s life. He received a message from Edward Robertshaw Hartley with whom he was on first name terms. Alfred Pickles was evidently a Labour ‘name’ who spoke in support of Hartley at the Newcastle by-election in September 1908. Hartley was the SDF candidate but his intervention lost the Liberal seat to the Conservatives. There is an undated postcard portraying the Colne Valley Labour League. It is undated but must be from 1907. A central figure in grey is Victor Grayson who won a famous by-election victory there in that year. Another figure is Robert Blatchford. Robert was a socialist journalist, and prolific writer. He was born in Maidstone but lived much of his early childhood in Halifax. For five years he was a soldier. He founded a branch of the Fabian Society in Manchester and also started, and edited, a newspaper, The Clarion. He wrote the very influential socialist book Merrie England. In 1891-92 he was a parliamentary candidate in East Bradford. The Clarion eventually ceased publication and Blatchford himself lost influence by supporting the Boer & Great War and being hostile in the 1916 Irish Easter rising, but after all he was an ex-soldier. It has been said that he was strong on ideals, but weaker on the practical politics that would give shape to those ideals. He died in Horsham, Sussex in 1943. His best epitaph was that: ‘for every convert made by Das Kapital, there were a hundred made by Merrie England‘.

Alfred Pickles himself died at his home in 1936 after a stroke. Following a civic ceremony at Horton Lane Congregational Church he was cremated at Scholemoor cemetery. Horton Lane Congregational had been linked with Bradford socialism since the late nineteenth century. An address was given by George Muff MP (Hull East), who later became the 1st Baron Calverley and whose father had been a Bradford miner. Alfred Pickles had been the Chairman of Governors at Bolling High School and many pupils attended the ceremony. An obituary was published in the Yorkshire Observer Budget 4 July 1936.

Willie Pickles, the son of Alfred & Isobel, was educated at Belle Vue School where he edited the school magazine and was regarded as a formidable personality. He became professor of political science at the LSE. I know that he was opposed to Britain’s entry into the EU but was retired and living in Surrey by 1977. Alfred Pickles was also survived by his wife and daughter Alice. Alice Pickles seems to have been unmarried and remained living in the family home at least until the 1940s. In 1977 a Miss A Pickles presented copies of the Bradford Pioneer to the special collections of the University of Bradford library. I assume that this was Alice. Eric Pickles MP Conservative Secretary of State for Local Government in the 2014 coalition government became a Bradford councillor himself in 1979 and has claimed that his great grandfather was an ILP founder. Sadly Pickles is a common name and Fred Pickles, unrelated to Alfred, was also a significant contemporary Bradford socialist. If any reader has a voice in the counsels of the mighty and could ask Eric Pickles which of these distinguished Bradford Labour pioneers is his ancestor I should be most grateful.


One thought on “Conviction politician

  1. Alfred Pickles was my great-grandfather. My grandfather was Willie Pickles. We still have quite a lot of ceremonial memorabilia which were passed down via my grandfather and my Auntie Alice. My mother (born Anne Judith Pickles) is still alive and living in Surrey. She has two daughters.


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