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By Keith Sinclair
Auckland University PressCopyright © 1976 Keith Sinclair
All rights reserved.
The Old Country
Walter Nash was born in England on 12 February 1882, in a small two-storiedbrick cottage at 93 Mill Street, Kidderminster. Of his ancestors nothing much is known. One of his grandfather's aunts, Sarah Nash, married Francis Lycett, who made a fortune in gloves and was knighted for it. His grandfather died of sickness after returning from the Crimean War, leaving his widow, Margaret, with one baby son, Alfred Arthur. In 1879 she ran a small shop at 114 Mill Street. She was a 'general dealer in lamps, oil, hardware, toys, confectionery, &c; and agent for Assam tea company'. Her son married Amelia Randle who came from the nearby town of Bridgnorth. The young couple lived elsewhere in the town, where three or four of their five sons were born, Ernest, Will, Albert and perhaps Arch, moving to Mill Street in 1880 or 1881.
One of the town's most famous sons, Josiah Mason, who had died in 1881, had been born in the same street, probably on the other side of the road and further up the hill, though Nash always believed that they had been born in the same house. Mason's biographer began his book by saying that he was 'in all respects, a self-made man. He had no advantages of birth, or connexions, or education, or means. So far as regarded the probability of wealth or of personal eminence, no life could have begun in a manner less promising.' He made a considerable fortune in Birmingham from split key-rings, steel nibs, and then electroplating, and founded orphanages, almshouses, and a Science College in Birmingham. Its admission policy was to be as liberal as possible, to help poor students. In time Mason College became the building for the University of Birmingham.
There was similarly little in Nash's background to suggest that he would ever do anything, or be anyone of importance. Whether their lives illustrate the triumph of nature over nurture, of I.Q. over environment, or the power of Christian industry (for they were both religious men) may be debated fruitlessly. Nash was one of the innumerable people, from families of crofters or criminals, farm labourers or factory hands, who have prospered in the new worlds to which millions of English-speaking folk have migrated in recent centuries.
Walter Nash's mother was a weaver in the mills. Alfred Arthur was a clerk in 1879; in 1882 a rug weaver, like Josiah Mason's father. In 1906 he was a clerk again. A few doors away from their house and the grandmother's shop was the local inn, 'The Reindeer' (which still stood in 1973, full of Mill Street drinkers, rather after closing time). Mr Nash repaired there, or to other local hostelries, somewhat frequently. Many years later his son Will wrote to Walter, 'He could turn a hand to anything and make a success of it. Providing other hand hadn't been holding or holding out for Glass of Beer or Whisky. Well yes he drank near enough to fill a well. God Rest his Soul I forgive him. Dear old Dad. He married Dear old Mom. That old fashioned Mother of Ours. God Bless Her.'
Alfred Arthur Nash spent many of his adult years in a circle of poverty and alcohol, each proceeding from and leading to the other. In his harsh, industrial world, for many people alcohol and religion were alternatives, some would say alternative soothing draughts.
Mill Street descends steeply to a gentle slope that was periodically flooded by the little River Stour, which marked the boundary of the Nashes' back yard. Photographs still exist of the street under the water of the flood of 1886.
At the bottom of the street the town flattens out. Kidderminster had been a place of weavers and woollen cloths since medieval times. Carpets had been made there since the eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth the power loom, driven by steam from coal fires, had been introduced. Long, low, brick mills came to occupy much of the town, including a substantial part of Mill Street. Within was the labyrinth of the looms with their human attendants; above was the forest of tall chimneys, breathing soot. Not satanically polluted, perhaps, for when Walter was born the town had only 24,000 people; but smoky enough.
Looking down on the brick and chimneys, from high land to the north of Mill Street, was the impressive parish church of St Mary and All Saints, partly fourteenth and fifteenth century gothic, described as both decorated and perpendicular.
Walter Nash's earliest memory was of getting lost in the narrow streets. A man took him out of town to Habberley. Someone else took him home. But, because the town was small, for young people in particular it was not the whole world. It was only a short walk to the fields. He remembered walking through the woods to Habberley valley to pick primroses and bluebells. One winter he walked to Bewdley, a lovely little neighbouring town, to watch an ox being roasted whole on the Severn River, which was frozen. He rambled in the countryside on great days, the sky a pale, mineral blue, crisp late autumn air with the sun unexpectedly bright, thinning trees trailing wisps of leaves on traceries of twigs. But more likely he remembered that English haze, the Severn or Stour, almost hidden in mist, seeming great rivers. Though much inclined to factual recital, he never trusted himself to lyrical description, so we cannot quote him. What always remained was a feeling for England, for what he came to call 'the Old Country' — etched on his memory very early by sights, and sounds, smells of soot, and cold air blown over from the Clee Hills. Few people ever lose a nostalgia for those earliest scenes, the landscapes of the mind.
Walter was sent unhappily to school at what now seems the very early age of three. The 'governess', as the infant teacher was called there, Emily Bradburn, took him from his mother and, he said nearly eighty years later, 'won me within half an hour or so'. He always thought very affectionately of her. She had a considerable influence on him particularly, if we may fairly judge from her much later letters, in reinforcing his mother's Christian teaching. In a letter in 1932, for instance, she prayed that he would be given grace, wisdom and understanding, so that he could achieve righteousness. Twelve years later she was pleased that he had kept God always before him. She hoped God would give him the strength and knowledge 'to carry out His great work he has given you to do on Earth. I am very proud of you!'
The school was an Anglican church school, the St John's School in Chapel Street, which had been built in 1835 for 300 infants. Miss Bradburn taught him for three years. Then he went to the more advanced branch of the school which had been built in 1850 in St John's Street. It was a very small brick building, with about four tiny classrooms for its 310 boys, and a little playground. There was a brick arch over the front door within which the bell hung. It was a few yards up Mill Lane from Mill Street.
Walter sang in the school choir. He went to church with the school every Wednesday. He proved to have a considerable facility at arithmetic and an unusually retentive memory. He could give the average scores of the famous cricketers for a couple of years back. At the age of eleven he won a scholarship to the King Charles I school, the local grammar school, but could not go because his mother could not afford the three suits of clothes which were required. Indeed it was very difficult for her to find the 'school pence', ninepence per child per week, to keep several children at school at once. The school had given her a concession of 2/6 a week for the family.
He had already had odd jobs, for instance as a paper boy. Now he left school and got a job as office boy, in fact a messenger at five shillings a week, for a local solicitor, Spencer Thursfield. Thursfield acted as agent for conservative candidates in local council and parliamentary elections. He employed Walter's father as a part-time agent, canvassing, checking the registers and the like. Since many voters still expected to be 'treated', conviviality was an almost indispensable qualification for the job. Stanley Baldwin, who stood for Kidderminster in 1906, later said that he was 'expected to spend three evenings a week during the time of his probation in one or another of the public houses which jostled each other through the constituency, listening to and vociferously applauding what, for want of a better name, was called, on the lucus a non lucendo principle, comic or humorous song'. He called these sessions 'orgies'.
Walter used to help his father on election days by standing outside a polling place and checking on the register the names of people voting: at that time, he later confessed, in his eyes as well as in his father's, blue was right and red was wrong. He gained a good training, however, in election work. Like many other boys, he vaguely conceived the ambition of standing for parliament.
Of this period of his life Walter Nash always recalled how worried he was when the change from the purchase of stamps was incorrect. All his life he was anxious to account for every penny. In a testimonial Thursfield said he had found Walter 'truthful, honest and attentive to your duties'. Walter's own account was different: he wrote that
he there developed an abnormal strain of laziness such as for instance the usual boys method of standing to gaze on all hoardings and he remembered one instance of his master telling him that he could have walked to Birmingham in the time it had taken him to walk to his house from the office a distance of 1 mile. Time 21/2 hours.
Well he eventually succeeded in getting himself dismissed, and then went into one of the carpet factories in the borough, and was renowned for his daring feat of crawling underneath the back gates after the doors were closed.
Whether caused by poverty or not, excessive drinking probably brought more misery to poor families than poverty. The man's wages went into the till. He was likely to be confused, morose, or violent at home, creating terrible family tensions. This was as true in England as in the settlement colonies like those in Australia or New Zealand, where the quantity of alcohol consumed last century was incredible by modern standards. In such circumstances the mother had to bring up the children single-handed, if she could. So it was in the Nash family. The mother, Amelia, slaved to keep the family together. A photograph shows her as careworn, anxious. The father looks a pleasant enough man, if a little worn too. In this first surviving photograph Walter, aged about ten, had a gumboil.
When Alfred Arthur died in 1913, his wife said he had been very good to her when she was ill in Kidderminster. 'His only fault was that he couldn't see his fault.' the youngest member of the family, Emily, reported to Walter. The family came to think of him as clever, shrewd, but weak and easily led. Certainly he often treated his wife badly. On one occasion when he said that he 'had the best little wife in the world', Walter answered back, 'Why don't you treat her as such?'
Walter Nash said once that his mother overcame greater difficulties in life than he did: she 'believed in a power beyond the universe'. Her religion helped her to bear her lot. They were Anglicans, but not 'churchy' people — it does not seem that Walter was christened, at least as a baby. But she inculcated a strong sense of religious duty in her children. When there was a dispute about religious teaching in the schools in 1885, she composed some lines (with overtones of a famous hymn by George Herbert), 'on takeing Religious Education out of the Day Schools', opposing the removal of 'true wisdom' out of schools:
'Our children need it every day,
Not one day out of seven.
If we live six days without help
Why not live the seven?'
Her son, Will, used to quote some other lines which he called his mother's verse about sin:
'when first I commenced my warfare against sin
many said he'll run away!
But they all have been decieved:
in the fight I am today.'
When any of her children's conduct fell short of what she thought right she was not angry, but hurt. On one occasion, probably in about 1900, Walter went out with some men from work and won some money at cards. He told her and she said, 'Oh Walter! you shouldn't do that.' He returned the money, and would never again gamble, though he liked cards.
Kidderminster had been experiencing economic difficulties since the mid-eighteen-eighties. In 1893 the carpet market collapsed after massive dumping of cut-price American goods. Ernest presently moved to Birmingham. The rest of the family followed in 1896 or 1897. At about this time, or not long after, once they earned enough to support their mother, the boys, it is believed, encouraged the father to get out, to protect her from further hurt. For some years the family continued a unit close-knit by poverty, domestic misery, mother-love and mother's love.
Selly Oak, and the nearby villages and suburbs just to the south-west of Birmingham, were enjoying a boom fed by chocolate and riding on rear-chain-driven safety bicycles.
The 'Black Country', where coal and iron ore were found close together, was a very old centre of the metal trades. Now nails and guns were giving way to newer products. The 'safety' bicycle was first made in 1885; the pneumatic tyre was added three years later. In 1897 came the 'free wheel' and in 1903 three-speed gears. Coventry and Birmingham took the lead in this new and profitable manufacture, which acquired an important export market. Some of the factories were set up to the south of Birmingham.
Another development which had altered the character of the area was that the enlightened Quakers, the Cadburys, moved their works from the city to a site in Bournville, in open fields, from 1879 onwards. In the 1890s they created one of the first 'garden suburbs'— originally a 'village', but the city was expanding towards and engulfing that district. The houses, of simple design, were built in pleasant groups. Bournville was world-famous, as a notable attempt to improve the labouring and living conditions of urban workers. There were no pubs, but there was a village institute, Ruskin Hall, playing fields, and a factory dining room.
The old village of Selly Oak, nearby, also benefited from these very rich and enlightened employers. George Cadbury founded a social club there, and built the Selly Oak Institute. It provided reading and billiard rooms. The social club and the Society of Friends met there. The Adult School (and later the Workers' Educational Association) held their classes there, where reading and writing were taught to the illiterate and barely literate, while lectures and discussions laid a basis for a liberal education. The Cadburys sought to introduce an element of civilization into a world technologically progressive but socially barbarous. To some extent they succeeded.
For twelve years Walter's life centred on Selly Oak and the new suburb of Bournbrook, which grew up alongside. Selly Oak was expanding and becoming an industrial area. A bicycle firm, Components Limited, and its associated Ariel Cycle works were the principal employers. It was not a particularly attractive area, though more so than later, when it was quite surrounded by the city. It spread along the Bristol Road, a red brick sea of two-storied cottages, joined on in endless lines fronting the streets, such as Heeley Road, and others nearby, where the Nashes lived.
Walter now had several other jobs, first of all in a metal works, where, having been a solicitor's messenger, he was known as 'lawyer'. In an amusing essay written in about 1904, already quoted on his career, and entitled 'From Mill-boy to Office Manager "How to Succeed"', he described his progress from metal worker to head of the cost analysis department at the Ariel works. He was a sort of unqualified accountant, possibly what might now be called a 'costing clerk':
Excerpted from Walter Nash by Keith Sinclair. Copyright © 1976 Keith Sinclair. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Table of Contents
Abbreviations used in References,
I The Old Country, 1882–1909,
II The New Chum, 1909–12,
III The Travelling Man, 1912–16,
IV Profit-Sharing and Politics in New Plymouth, 1916–20,
V The Second Socialist International: Travels and Troubles, 1920–2,
VI Secretary of the Labour Party, 1922–32,
VII International Relations, Electoral Affairs, and Private Life, 1922–32,
VIII 'The Way Out of the Labyrinth', 1930–1,
IX The Politics of Depression, 1932–4,
X 'This is the Year', 1935–6,
XI Minister of Finance, 1936,
XII London and Other Capitals, 1936–7,
XIII Triumphs and Troubles, 1937–8,
XIV The Exchange Crisis, 1938–9,
XV Party Strife, 1939–40,
XVI World War, 1939–41,
XVII Minister to Washington, 1942–3,
XVIII Wellington, Canberra, Washington, London,1943–4,
XIX Planning for World Peace and Justice, 1943–8,
XX The Minister at Work, 1936–49,
XXI The Collapse of Labour, 1946–9,
XXII The Wharf Strike, 1951,
XXIII Leader of the Opposition, 1951–7,
XXIV Into Power Again, 1957–8,
XXV 'Summitry', 1958–60,
XXVI Prime Minister, 1958–60,
XXVII The Grand Old Man, 1960–8,
ALSO BY KEITH SINCLAIR,