A new home for Speaker Whitley’s precious archive

Speaker: John Henry Whitley
Speaker: John Henry Whitley
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The archive of one of Halifax’s greatest 20th-century sons has found a new home – in nearby Huddersfield.

The papers and memorabilia of John Henry Whitley – Halifax MP and Speaker of the House of Commons – have been donated to Huddersfield University by Whitley’s family.

The archive includes books and articles, newspaper cuttings and photographs, personal papers and letters and scrapbooks created by his family.

It also contains Whitley’s Speaker’s House visitors’ book, which contains the signatures of distinguished visitors such as Benito Mussolini, Crown Prince (later Emperor) Hirohito, of Japan, Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, and his brother, Albert, later King George VI. The archive also has a letter handwritten by George V on the occasion of Whitley’s resignation as Speaker in 1928.

“Harry” Whitley was born in 1866 into a prosperous Halifax family and on the death of his uncle took charge of the family cotton spinning business S Whitley and Co at Hanson Lane Mills.

As a young man he became closely involved in the social problems and the politics of the town and was a town councillor from 1893 to 1900.

He was elected Liberal MP for Halifax in 1900 and soon made his mark. He served as Junior Lord of the Treasury from 1907 to 1910 , was appointed a Privy Counsellor in 1911 and was Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons from 1911–1921.

‌In 1916 he chaired a committee set up to investigate the country’s appalling industrial relations and suggested that employers and their employees should form joint councils.

They were dubbed Whitley Councils and by the 1930s there were nearly 100 of them, covering a wide range of industries and especially, later, in the NHS and Civil Service. Some still exist today and Whitley’s name passed into the English language.

He became Speaker in 1921 and served during a turbulent decade that included the General Strike of 1926 and the first Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald in 1924.

On his retirementin 1928 J H Whitley famous declined the customary peerage, breaking a tradition that had lasted since 1789. He was chairman of the BBC between 1930-35 and gave the inaugural broadcast of what later became the World Service.

Much of the material in the Whitley archive was collected by his family, especially his younger brother, Alfred, who ran the family business so that Harry could pursue his political career, and his first wife, Margaret, who began the scrapbook collection.

After Whitley’s death in 1935 the family maintained the archive until, in 2005, his grandson, John Paton Whitley, a retired teacher who lives in Oxford, took over custodianship of the collection and decided to seek a repository for it where researchers would have ready access. He settled on the University of Huddersfield because of its closeness to Halifax.

“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,” he said.

The deposit of the collection was marked by the first of an annual lecture series – the J H Whitley Lecture – which was given by Professor Richard Toye, of Exeter University, an expert on 20th-century politics.

His talk, Punch and Judy Politics 1920s style: the House of Commons in the era of Speaker Whitley, looked at the controversial behaviour of MPs in the the House of Commons in the 1920s after the large influx of Labour MPs at the general election of 1922. Their outspoken and disruptive political style was condemned as “rowdyism” by their Tory opponents. University of Huddersfield.

“It’s the local university for Halifax,“ he explained. ”It has an excellent archive and special collections and also a strong record of research on many themes relevant to different aspects of my grandfather’s life. 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.”

The deposit of the papers was marked by the first of an annual lecture series - the J H Whitley Lecture - which was given by Professor Richard Toye, of Exeter University, an expert on twentieth-century politics. His talk, Punch and Judy Politics 1920s style: the House of Commons in the era of Speaker Whitley, looked at the behaviour of MPs in the the House of Commons in the 1920s. The large influx of Labour MPs at the general election of 1922 led to much controversy over their parliamentary behaviour as many of them chose to use strident, passionate speech and disruptive tactics to dra attention to the plight of the unemployed. This was condemned as “rowdyism” by their Tory opponents.