A Speaker who spoke sense returns from Parliament’s past

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John Henry Whitley has long been the forgotten Yorkshireman of British politics. Not for much longer. Sarah Freeman reports.

He was in many ways the victim of his own success. For seven turbulent years during the 1920s, John Henry Whitley, the son of a Halifax textile manufacturer, sat as Speaker of the House of Commons.

Back then, before the Speaker’s wife was happy to pose for photographs in bed sheets, those who took on the role were there to guide proceedings in Parliament while blending into the background.

Whitley more than proved up to the job, so much so that when he left politics in 1928, the master of discretion soon became forgotten. However, now Whitley’s life and work is to be reappraised as a new archive of documents chronicling his career are handed over to the University of Huddersfield.

The collection includes his visitor’s book which contains autographs of everyone from Mussolini to Crown Prince Hirohito and Gandhi, a handwritten letter from George as well as a collection of books, journals and newspaper articles.

“In 1900, John Whitley became a Liberal MP for Halifax and he soon made his mark on the House of Commons,” says Professor Paul Ward, head of history, English, languages and media at the university. “Six years later, the Prime Minister Lloyd George asked him to chair a committee to investigate the country’s appalling industrial relations and recommend new approaches.

“He suggested that employers and employers should form joint councils so that views from both sides of the industrial divide would be aired. These bodies were dubbed Whitley Councils and Whitleyism even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary as a word to describe a conciliatory approach to industrial relations, yet despite his influence in the House when he came out of politics he faded into obscurity.

“The main reason was that he spent the last years of his political career as Speaker. It was always a post which required people to be as uncontroversial as possible and so in many ways Whitley became invisible.”

While Whitley may have become a quiet man of politics, the university now hopes the archive will put his various achievements back on the map.

“Whitley presided over the chamber during one of its most unsettled periods, which included many changes of government and the General Strike. At one point he said that even if the electricity was cut off he would ensure the debates continued by candlelight and he managed to keep order during some particularly ferocious exchanges.

“When he retired in 1920, he won much praise, but he refused to accept a peerage because he said he didn’t believe in the honours system. That may well have been to do with the fact that when he was Prime Minister in the early 1920s, Lloyd George was guilty of directly selling peerages and knighthoods which was something that sat very uncomfortably with Whitley.

“However, he did receive a letter from George V thanking him for his good service, which has been passed down through his family as something of an heirloom.”

While he may never have become a Sir, Whitley, who went on to give the inaugural broadcast on what would become the World Service, did receive numerous civic awards, details of which are contained within the archive.

“The papers are an incredibly valuable collection which will allow historians access to a non-partisan perspective of the life of the political nation in the early 21st-century,” says Prof Ward. “They show the international links enjoyed by Britain at the time and in particular show how national politics was influenced by the regions and MPs like Whitley.”

The archive has been donated to the university by Whitley’s grandson, John Paton Whitley.

“Huddersfield is the nearest university to Halifax. It has an excellent special collections archive and also a strong record of research on many themes relevant to different aspects of my grandfather’s life,” says the retired school teacher. “Halifax meant so much to him that the family thought it right for his archive to come home to a place close to his roots where it would be of special interest to local and regional historians as well as being accessible to historians of modern British politics.

“My grandfather’s archive is not large, but I hope it will provide a stimulus and a springboard for research on many different aspects of his life from local politics, industry, youth and education to his 28 years in Parliament and his later role as chairman of the Royal Commission on Labour in India and his work with the BBC when the service was just in its infancy.”