About George Lansbury
George Lansbury (1859 - 1940) was a British politician, socialist, Christian pacifist and newspaper editor. He was a Member of Parliament (MP) from 1910 to 1912 and from 1922 to 1940, and leader of the Labour Party from 1932 to 1935.
He was a campaigner for social justice and improved living and employment conditions for the working class, especially in London's East End.
George Lansbury was born 21 February 1859 in a tollhouse located between the towns of Lowestoft and Halesworth in Suffolk, England. His father, George Lansbury, Sr., was a migrant laborer employed at the time for a contractor engaged in the construction of railroads throughout the eastern part of England. The family lived in a series of hastily-constructed temporary dwellings abandoned as soon as construction in an area was completed. His mother, Anne Lansbury, was of Welsh heritage, married at an early age. Both of his parents drank fairly heavily, a fact which Lansbury's son-in-law and biographer indicates may have influenced George Junior's lifelong abstinence from alcohol.
Lansbury's maternal grandmother and mother were both religiously nonconformist — being strict Sabbatarians — and politically radical. George was brought into politics at a young age, being taught to read with the pages of a newspaper. Lansbury was formally educated in the rural one-room schoolhouses of the day, with the family never staying in one place for long — Sydenham and Greenwich were among the towns which the family called home.
Late in 1868 the Lansbury family moved again, this time to Bethnal Green and later Whitechapel in London's East End.
Entry into politics
His earliest political involvement was with the Liberal Party, which he joined in 1886. He acted as electoral agent for Samuel Montagu in Whitechapel at the General Election of 1886, and for Jane Cobden, who stood for election to the London County Council as a Liberal candidate in 1889. That year Lansbury took up the issue of pressing for a legal eight-hour day, but after failing to secure the support of the National Liberal Federation at their 1889 conference he became increasingly disillusioned by the Liberals. He came into contact with the Social Democratic Federation and, in support of the famous 1889 Dock Strike, joined the recently formed Gas Workers' and General Labourers' Union.
Lansbury left the Liberal Party in 1892 and, with friends, formed the Bow and Bromley branch of the Social Democratic Front (SDF). He became a prominent member of that organisation, standing twice as a parliamentary candidate for the SDF in the 1890s, before leaving to join the Independent Labour Party around 1903. In 1910, he became MP for Bow and Bromley, when the sitting Conservative MP retired and the Liberals supported his candidature. Two years later he clashed with Asquith in the House of Commons over the issue of women's suffrage and resigned his seat in order to stand in a by-election in support of the Suffragette movement. However he was unsuccessful, and did not return to the House of Commons for ten years. Continuing to support the campaign for women's suffrage, Lansbury was charged with sedition in 1913 and jailed in Pentonville, during which time he hunger-struck and was temporarily released under the Cat and Mouse Act. In Parliament, he defended authors of a "Don't Shoot" leaflet addressed to soldiers called to deal with militant strikers.
Lansbury helped found, in 1912, the Daily Herald, a socialist newspaper. He became editor just prior to World War I and used the paper to oppose the war, publishing a headline "War Is Hell" at the outbreak of fighting. In 1922 the Herald was desperately short of funds and Lansbury reluctantly handed over the paper to the Trades Union Congress and the Labour Party.
He was instrumental in opening the first training school for destitute Poplar children in 1905, called Hutton Poplars and situated near Hutton in the Essex countryside, the model for subsequent children's homes.
As Labour Mayor of Poplar, one of London's poorest boroughs, Lansbury led the Poplar Rates Rebellion in 1921, opposing not only the Government and the London County Council, but leaders of his own party. The borough council, instead of forwarding the precept of collected tax monies to LCC, dispersed the money as aid to the needy. Thirty councillors, including six women, were jailed by the High Court for six weeks. Council meetings during this time were held in Brixton Prison, until the government grew uneasy about the imprisonment and LCC asked the High Court to release the prisoners. A rates revision was achieved and Lansbury returned to Parliament at the 1922 general election, when he regained his old seat of Bromley and Bow.
Between 1925 and 1927 he edited Lansbury's Labour Weekly, which included columns by Ellen Wilkinson and Raymond Postgate and artwork by Reginald Brill.
Lansbury's standing within the Labour party grew and in 1927 he was elected Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party for 1927-28. In 1929 Lansbury became First Commissioner of Works in the second Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. In this capacity, he was associated with the construction, amongst numerous other public works, of a large open air swimming pool on the Serpentine in Hyde Park, popularly known as 'Lansbury's Lido'. This led to him gaining the popular title "First Commissioner for Good Works".
He was sworn into the Privy Council of the United Kingdom in 1929, allowing him the use of the title The Right Honourable for Life.
Leader of the Labour Party
Two years later the government fell, MacDonald deserted the Labour Party to form the National Government and the party went to a massive defeat in the 1931 General Election. The party's new leader Arthur Henderson and nearly every other leading Labour figure were defeated. Lansbury was the one exception and became Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1931. The following year Henderson stood down from the leadership of the overall party and Lansbury succeeded him.
The Fulham East by-election in June 1933 was dominated by the issue of re-armament against Nazi Germany, following Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations. Lansbury, a lifelong Christian pacifist, sent a message to the constituency in his position as Labour Leader:
I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world: "Do your worst."
As a pacifist Lansbury found himself increasingly at odds with the official foreign policy of the party he led. On several occasions he offered to resign the leadership but his parliamentary colleagues dissuaded him, not least because there was no clear alternative leader. However in late 1935 the disagreements became more severe and public. Many in the Labour Party, particularly the Trade Union wing led by Ernest Bevin, were pushing for the party to support sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury fundamentally disagreed with this. In the weeks leading up to the Labour Party Conference Lansbury's position was weakened when both Lord Ponsonby, the Labour leader in the House of Lords, and the Labour frontbencher and National Executive member Sir Stafford Cripps, widely seen as Lansbury's political heir, resigned from their positions because they too opposed sanctions and felt it would be impossible to lead a party when they were in disagreement with it on the major political issue of the day.
Many wondered how Lansbury's leadership could survive, even though he retained an immense personal popularity. At the Conference this was publicly displayed by delegates, but then during a debate on foreign policy Ernest Bevin launched a withering attack on Lansbury. Heavily defeated in the vote, Lansbury determined to resign as leader. At a meeting of Labour MPs called shortly afterwards there was a great reluctance to accept his resignation, partially out of continued support but also because many Labour MPs feared that the next leader would be Arthur Greenwood, widely seen as heavily aligned to trade unionists like Bevin. In a vote the MPs voted by 38 to 7 with five abstentions to not accept Lansbury's resignation, but he insisted on stepping down. When it came to selecting a successor (initially envisaged as a temporary position), Greenwood's name was not considered and the party instead unanimously elected Lansbury's deputy, Clement Attlee.
Lansbury was chair of the No More War Movement, chair of the War Resisters' International, 1936–1940, and President of the Peace Pledge Union, 1937-1940. He was a critic of British policy towards the Spanish Civil War and worked with Spanish pacifist José Brocca.
His efforts to prevent World War II led him, under the banner Embassies of Reconciliation, to visit most of the heads of government in Europe, including Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He also visited U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
He died of cancer on 7 May 1940, aged 81, in Manor House Hospital in North London.
George Lansbury married his schoolfriend Elisabeth (Bessie) Jane Brine in 1880. They had twelve children, including Edgar and Daisy Lansbury; and he was the father-in-law of suffragette Minnie Lansbury, Belfast-born actress Moyna MacGill, and historian and novelist Raymond Postgate. George Lansbury was grandfather of actress Angela Lansbury, producers Bruce and Edgar Lansbury, and animator and puppeteer Oliver Postgate.
George Lansbury lived at 39 Bow Road, Tower Hamlets, which was destroyed by German bombing a few months after his death in 1940. The site is now occupied by a block of flats that bears Lansbury's name and carries a memorial plaque. Outside the flats, at the corner of Bow Road and Harley Grove, there is a stone memorial to George Lansbury with an inscription that includes the words "A great servant of the people."
George Lansbury's name and memory live on in the Lansbury Estate and Lansbury Gardens, East London, numerous street names both in London and Halesworth, Suffolk where he was born, and the aforementioned Lansbury's Lido that he founded on the Serpentine in London's Hyde Park.