A guest post by volunteer Laura Earnshaw
As a volunteer at the People’s History Museum Labour History Archive & Study Centre, I have noticed some unusual imagery while cataloguing the collection of Keir Hardie’s speech notes. James Keir Hardie was born on 15 August 1856 in Lanarkshire, Scotland. Illegitimate, he was the family’s sole wage-earner at age 8, and by age 11 was working in the coal mines. Having taught himself to read and write by age 17 he established a union at his colliery and in 1881 went on strike. In 1892 he stood for election in West Ham, London, as an independent labour candidate and won: on entering Parliament it became clear that he was a radical in dress as well as speech, wearing tweed instead of the usual black frock coat. In 1893, with others, Hardie formed the Independent Labour Party, becoming its Chairman and leader, and going on to form the Labour Representation Committee in 1899. In 1900 Keir Hardie became MP of Merthyr Tydfil, and when the LRC became the Labour Party in 1906 he was elected its leader in the House of Commons, a position which he resigned in 1908. A Women ’s Suffrage supporter and a Pacifist during World War I, Hardie died on 26 September 1915, in Glasgow. He gave many speeches throughout Britain during his political career, and while many of the notes held at the Archive & Study Centre deal with usual political themes; unemployment, finance, and foreign policy, for example; some unusual themes did catch my eye. Allusions to Rabbits, Vampires and Demons seemed unusual, and I am still confused as to their inclusion at points!
There are various mentions of “Vampire” or “Vampires” in Hardie’s speech notes. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, and had taken hold of the collective Gothic imagination – yet what had vampires to do with politics? A reference appears in Item KHSN/4 between a mention of elections and the note “no control” – is this a connection? Perhaps a lack of control at elections was likened by Hardie to a vampire after blood? But who is out of control? Unfortunately a detailed answer doesn’t seem to be found in the speech notes available in the collection, though there are a metaphor alluding to labour’s blood being sucked by political parties!
Another peculiar theme that caught my eye was the repeated mention of the demon “Moloch”. Often just a prompt, “Moloch” appears in several Series with very little explanation. In Item KHSN/21/1 however the reference is expanded to describe “Human sacrifice [offered? Opened?] to the Moloch of trade”. Some preliminary research revealed that Moloch was a child-eating demon, and this seemed to fit with the metaphor Hardie wished to employ. Though child labour laws were in force by the late nineteenth century, perhaps Hardie was thinking of his own working childhood? This (rather unsavoury) metaphor was further expanded upon in Item KHSN/54/3, when Hardie included a description of Moloch as “a cruel heartless fabled monster who demanded sacrifice of little children to appease his wrath” – this was followed by the damning pronouncement that compared “to modern industrialisation [?] he was a white robed angel of mercy.” This is perhaps explanation for inclusion alone, though I was curious as to where Hardie had heard of such a foul demon. A potential answer came in the form of additional research – the novel Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert. Published in 1862 it was a novel about Carthage, where the god Moloch was offered children as sacrifice, and from which “Moloch” entered a sort of public consciousness.
A far more confusing reference, and one which remains so, is Hardie’s mention of “Rabbits”, particularly in Series KHSN/5. It is unclear whether this was a recognisable contemporary political metaphor, or if it was an original metaphor of Hardie’s. The notes that have been left to the Archive & Study Centre do not shed much light on their context or origin. Hardie does mention an essay in KHSN/5, though it is unclear whether it is his own work referenced, or something he has read that has inspired him. Indeed, the prompt “Essay on Rabbit” appears on another fragment, frustratingly with no additional information! Another note mentions “Rosebury” (most probably Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister 1894-95, and Liberal) and describes him as “nibling [sic] at the question like a rabbit”, and though the “question” is unknown, this perhaps suggests that “Rabbits” were intended to be an insulting allusion. Lists are also included of the physiology, appearance, diet and habitat of rabbits, though I am uncertain to what end!
I have noted some of the unusual references found in the Keir Hardie speech notes held at the Labour Archive & Study Centre. Who expects to find Rabbits and Demons and Vampires in amongst unemployment rates, foreign policy comparisons and taxes?! The mystery is only deepened by the lack of answers in the speech notes we have. Yet as odd as they are, I also find them endearingly earnest, though odd in the combination of melodramatic Gothic horror, religious fervour and political discussion. However: one note on the ordinary in an article on the unusual. Seven separate Items in this collection include the prompt “Stand Erect”, which one can assume to have been a personal note-to-self by Hardie. It is difficult sometimes to see the person behind the historical political leader and their words. Notes reminding himself to stand up straight when addressing a crowd make Keir Hardie seem real, though perhaps less confusing than his notes on Rabbits and Vampires and Demons do.