NEXT WEDNESDAY is the 50th anniversary of the 1964 election which saw Harold Wilson become Prime Minister for the first time. There was a good deal of respect, perhaps even affection, for him in the Yorkshire Evening Post newsroom in the 1960s and 70s. His predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, had been a Leeds MP, but Harold Wilson capped that.
His Yorkshireness was copper-bottomed, as a future news editor, Geoff Hemingway, would have said. Born in Huddersfield on March 11, 1916, he was brought up there, and endowed with a twangy Heavy Woollen version of the Yorkshire accent.
This he would deploy in addressing press conferences while electioneering in the West Riding, often in pubs, where he would see off a pint of Tetley’s and relish such native treats as pork pie and mushy peas with HP sauce.
His boyhood achievements included winning a Yorkshire Evening Post competition with an essay on “My Hero”. For his subject he chose Lord Baden Powell, the founder of Scouting, as befitted a member of the Millnsbridge Troop, where Harold eventually qualified as a King’s Scout.
After becoming Prime Minister, he would occasionally recall this literary feat on encountering one of the paper’s reporters, grinning broadly as he emitted clouds of tobacco smoke drawn from his pipe, and remarking that he had been rewarded with five bob (25p) by the Evening Post’s then proprietors, the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company. He was tickled by the idea that his first prize was from the Tories.
We also had one of his old school-mates among our colleagues. Raymond Gledhill, by then a skilled news-gatherer, was a relative newcomer to the paper. Either when Wilson became leader of the Labour Party on Hugh Gaitskell’s death in 1963, or when he first became Prime Minister in October 1964, Raymond vouchsafed to his colleagues that they had been fellow-pupils at Royds Hall Grammar School at Huddersfield (now Royds Hall Community College).
We reeled some copy-paper into his old LC Smith typewriter and the news editor, Ken Lemmon, suggested that memories of Harold’s schooldays would make a useful piece for the paper. Raymond obliged, and he had a remarkable story to tell. The young Wilson, he recalled, was in the habit of counting the numbers painted on wagons hauled along a railway close to the school. As the guard’s van trundled past, he would declare the grand total.
Not only was this an amazing feat of mental arithmetic, it was also a tribute to Harold’s reputation for probity, for none of his pals seems to have challenged his total (or, come to think of it, a tribute to his cunning, for nobody could prove him wrong).
He was born in a terrace house at Cowlersley. When he was seven, and recuperating after an operation for appendicitis, his father Herbert, a works chemist with LB Holliday and Co, took him to London, where Harold, a chubby-faced boy in a flat cap, stood on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, then occupied by the first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald.
His days at Royds Hall ended in 1932 when his father left Holliday’s and moved to the Wirral. Young Harold left with his School Certificate, matriculating with three distinctions, and became the first head boy at the new Wirral Grammar School before moving on to Oxford University.
Harold Wilson’s ancestry became a matter of public interest in 1963. After Sir Alec Douglas-Home (formerly the Earl of Home) led the Conservatives into a General Election, Wilson remarked that “the whole democratic process has ground to a halt with a Fourteenth Earl”. Sir Alec’s response was: “I suppose, come to think of it, he is the fourteenth Mr Wilson.”
The outcome of the polling was a tiny Labour majority of four, sufficient to put Wilson into 10 Downing Street. His father, by then retired and living in Cornwall, contributed some details to the Ryedale Historian relating to his grandfather (Harold’s great-grandfather) John Wilson, a smallholder and cobbler, who became Workhouse Master at Helmsley, North Riding, in 1850 with his wife Esther as Matron. Two years later they moved to York, occupying similar positions at the city’s Poor Law Union workhouse.
In 1966 another General Election gave the Wilson Government a 98-seat majority, but they lost to the Conservatives under Edward Heath in 1970. Wilson won his third term in 1974, but with no overall majority. His appetite for the fray had diminished and he did not feel he could do the job in the way he wanted. A revealing photograph taken at the time shows a bent and weary man with bags under his eyes, hair awry and mouth agape.
Unknown to the public or his colleagues, he and his wife Mary had already agreed that he would not serve throughout the full term of Parliament. Symbolically (as it turned out) they did not return to 10 Downing Street, which Mrs Wilson hated, but stayed in their flat in Lord North Street.
The end came abruptly on March 16, 1976. Just five days after he had turned 60, Wilson resigned, handing over to Jim Callaghan. It was a sorry end for a politician who first entered Parliament in 1945, and quite soon became the youngest man to join the Cabinet since William Pitt the Younger in the 17th century.
He led the country through the latter part of the Swinging Sixties and into the Sad Seventies, when the nation sometimes seemed ungovernable, with three-day weeks during a pit strike, atrocious murders by the IRA, inflation, devaluation and the Cold War.
In retirement he caused a buzz by taking the title of Baron Wilson of Rievaulx. Down south, nobody knew where it was or how to pronounce it. Herbert Wilson, Harold’s Dad, gave a clue on his front gate in Cornwall. His house was called Rievaulx after the village surrounding the Abbey ruins in deepest North Riding. That was where the workhouse-master came from, and all the rest of the 14 Mr Wilsons featuring in Lord Home’s wonderful riposte.
Lady Wilson, who survives aged 98, reckoned that her husband had four good years of retirement before Alzheimer’s Disease closed in on the brain that had once dazzled his contemporaries. He died in peace on May 24, 1995.
• Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.