26th September 1915

Labour Party founder Keir Hardie dies

Trade unionist James Keir Hardie – known as Keir – was born in Lanarkshire and started work as a miner aged 10. By 24, he had been elected spokesperson for the National Conference of Miners and in subsequent years was a strike leader.

He tried to stand for election to the seat for Mid-Lanarkshire in an 1888 by-election, which came about when the Liberal Party incumbent resigned. Hardie approached the Liberal Party, hoping to become its next candidate, but it instead chose John Wynford Philipps.

Scottish Labour Party

Hardie therefore formed the Scottish Labour Party with Robert Cuninghame Graham, effectively standing as an independent. Gladstone, who was then Prime Minister as head of the Liberal Party, was worried about the impact this would have, and was keen for Hardie to stand down.

The Cornish Telegraph of 26 April 1888 reported that “[Liberal MP] Mr Conybeare’s most recent political action will not tend to make him a non grata with official Liberals. In company with his friend and free lance, Mr Cuninghame Graham, he has been actively advocating the candidature of Mr Keir Hardie who is contesting Mid Lanark in the labour interest in defiance of the wishes of the leaders of the Gladstonian party. The result will very probably be a loss of the seat to the Opposition, as the retiring member’s majority in 1886 did not reach four figures.”

They needn’t have worried. Hardie polled just 8.4%, with 617 votes cast in his favour. The Liberal Party held the seat, with 3,847 votes (52.1%) and the Conservatives mopped up the remainder. In the General Election held three months later, the Liberal Party again held the seat against a challenge from the Liberal Unionist Party.

Keir Hardie elected

Although unsuccessful in the 1888 by-election, he wasn’t ready to step back from politics: this was just the start, and in 1892 he won the seat of West Ham South, in London, and the following year formed the Independent Labour Party. Three years later, the Scottish Labour Party merged into the Independent Labour Party.

His 1892 election would have been unsurprising to those in his constituency. The Stratford Express of 6 July 1892 wrote that a “large number of men must have forfeited at least half a day’s pay in order to work for Keir Hardie… at the station the electorate literally came up in droves. On more than one occasion hands of voters, each over 40 strong, marched into the polling booth, every man being apparently an ardent supporter of Keir Hardy. Straight from their work these men came – dockers from the quays and coalies from everywhere. There was no stopping to spruce up or wash faces or anything else – the first business in the minds of these men was evidently to poll for Keir Hardie.”

“Most noteworthy” win

Upon his election, he had a lot to live up to. The Liverpool Mercury, published the same day, noted that “Mr Keir Hardie’s success at West Ham is one of the most noteworthy of the Liberal gains, but he is likely to be a thorn in the Liberal side. He is a follower of Mr Gladstone in his Irish policy, but his chief interest is in labour, and there he is not orthodox… His ‘programme’ now embraces everything that the most advanced of labour men can demand. Told that with land restoration, pensions for workers, adult suffrage, triennial Parliaments, the second ballot, the referendum, municipal control of docks, trams, water, gas, police, &c., open-air concerts, ‘healthy homes’, disestablishment, payments to jurymen – these among other items – he has rather a large order, Mr Keir Hardie resorts that time will soon creep up with him.”

Keir Hardie’s death

Hardie resigned the Labour Party leadership in 1908 but remained active in many areas, including the campaign for female suffrage. However, he died young – at 59 – of pneumonia in Glasgow on 26 September 1915.

Speaking at his funeral, Fred Jowett, who succeeded Hardie as chairman of the Independent Labour Party was quoted by the Western Mail of 30 September 1915, saying that “without hope of reward, with storms of criticism continually falling upon him, he never wavered, but went steadily on with his work. They owed a deep debt of gratitude to their departed comrade for the way in which he had laid the foundation of the independent spirit and independence of working classes. He was the member for the unemployed, and no better and no more honourable a title could be given to a man.”



Other events that occured in September

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.