AS John Bercow, newly elected Speaker of House of Commons, sets about trying to restore the House's tarnished reputation, how many Halifax people remember that one of the town's most illustrious sons was also Speaker of the Commons?
He was John Henry Whitley, councillor, magistrate, patron of young people, MP and Speaker – not to mention founder of the Whitley councils and chairman of the BBC.
At his death in 1935 he was describ- ed as "one of the best liked Speakers of the House of Commons". And when he stepped down, after seven years as Speaker, in 1928, he declined the offer of a peerage, breaking a tradition that had lasted since 1789.
This remarkable man was virtually born into public service, in 1866, as the son of Nathan Whitley, twice Mayor of Halifax. He was educated at Clifton College, Bristol, and London University and when he returned to Halifax joined the family cotton spinning business of S Whitley and Co at Hanson Lane Mills.
But hardly had he got his feet under the desk than he started looking for ways in which to serve and, in particular, improving the lot of the boys and young men of the town.
For years he taught the young men's Sunday school class at Park Congregational Church. He started a gym for boys, first at a local drill hall and Heath School, then at premises in Great Albion Street.
This venture led to the start of a popular summer camp for boys in Filey which Whitley personally super- vised. He was first president of Halifax YMCA at Clare Hall, a JP for 16 years and a governor of both Heath and the Crossley and Porter schools.
Whitley became a Liberal member of Halifax Town Council in 1893 when the council was developing the town's tram and electricity systems.
Seven years later he became one of Halifax's then two MPs. Within seven more years he had been appointed Junior Lord of the Treasury and a party whip and, a year later, deputy chairman of Ways and Means, a committee with the onerous job of proposing tax changes.
He was then promoted to chairman of Ways and Means, a job which also carried – and still does – the responsibility of deputy Speaker of the House.
Thus it was natural that, when the time came, he would be the man to take on the "top job" as Speaker. That day came on April 28, 1921, an occasion, reported the Courier, after his death, "which awoke sentiments of pride in the hearts of Halifax men".
For seven years Whitley carried out his duties with "quiet tact, confident yet tolerant firmness and utter impartiality". But it was hard work. In addition to the long hours and constituency work he had never given up his interest in things like the boys' gym in Halifax, where he could still be found during parliamentary recesses.
J H Whitley resigned as Speaker in June, 1928, after 28 years in Parlia-ment. He was offered the traditional reward of his office, a peerage, but declined “for personal reasons”.
Barely had he resigned when he was appointed chairman of a Royal Commission into the conditions of labour in India. In 1930 he became chairman of the BBC and in 1932 he gave the introductory message to the first Empire broadcast, forerunner of the World Service.
Whitley’s other great achievement was in setting up the Whitley councils where firms and employees’ representatives could discuss wages and conditions of service.
They were intended to promote peaceful industrial relations over a wide range of industry and the professions, though they were most successful in the Civil Service, electricity, gas and water industries, local govern- ment and the National Health Service.
During his life Whitley was showered with awards, from honorary deg- rees from Oxford and Cambridge uni- versities to the freedom of his home town, Halifax. In 1952 the new J. H. Whitley School was opened at Illing-worth; it has since been demolished.
John Henry Whitley died of pleurisy in February 1935, just five days short of his 69th birthday.
Announcing his death on the radio, the director general of the BBC, Sir John Reith said: “To an immense enthusiasm for the work were joined the decision and strength, the calm and impartial judgment of a statesman and man of affairs.
“For all this, for the Christian and absolute integrity of his character and his kindliness, we bear him high, very high, in honour and in love.”