THE ANNEX BLOG‘BY OCTOBER 1907 ATTLEE WAS A SOCIALIST’ – An Extract From Our Attlee Biography – 15.6.15
A photo of Trafford General Hospital, considered the first NHS hospital

- Trafford General Hospital, considered the first NHS hospital

As the architect of the NHS and the Welfare State, Clem Attlee is one of only two post-war Prime Ministers who can claim to have changed the society in which we live (the other being Margaret Thatcher). In the years preceding World War II, polarisation within British society was acute. The radicalism of the 1918 generation had spent itself in futile gestures and bitter recriminations, resulting in a minimal change in conditions for the poorest Britons. In 1945, however, the Labour government, led by Attlee, took office with the skill and the political will to translate socialist aspirations into legislation – to change the way men and women lived, fundamentally, and in a sense irreversibly.
Below is an extract from Clem Attlee: Labour’s Great Reformer written by Francis Beckett, which History Today has called ‘an engrossing personal biography of Attlee’.


In 1906, the East End worked its magic on Clement Attlee’s soul. He and his younger brother Laurence, who was still an undergraduate, decided to pay a visit to a youth club in Durham Road, Stepney. In 1890 some Old Haileyburyians had decided to do something to help clergy active in the working-class areas of the big cities. They had chosen Stepney because both the rector and the curate were Old Haileyburyians. They built a club, with a gymnasium, drill-hall and club rooms on the first floor, for working-class boys between fourteen and eighteen, which was open five nights a week, from 8 to 10 pm. All members joined the Territorial Army and wore a uniform on club nights, which gave them a pride in their appearance which their everyday rags could not offer. The Attlees had the vague benevolence of the conscientious upper-middle-class Edwardian, a feeling that they ought to give some part of their leisure time to helping the poor. The elder brothers had helped out at boys’ clubs, and Tom was putting a lot of his spare time into a club in Hoxton; an aunt managed a club for factory girls in Wandsworth, and had gone to live in a poor Wandsworth street in a flat above the club.

On that night in 1906, Laurence collected Clem from the offices of Druces and Attlee and they walked together to Fenchurch Street station and took a train. Ten minutes later, alighting at Stepney, they found themselves in a world which neither of them knew or understood – Limehouse, the heart of the slums. Clem, still in his silk hat and tailcoat, walked gingerly through the disgusting, uncleaned streets for five minutes, and looked up at Haileybury House. The sight of the Haileybury school crest on the outside wall seemed incongruous in those streets, on a dingy hall from which echoed rough cockney voices.

Inside they were greeted by Cecil Nussey, an Old Haileyburyian aged thirty-three, with a heavy, dark moustache and a magnetic personality. Nussey worked as a solicitor during the day, and ran the club every evening, living in a small house attached to it. Attlee’s shyness was acute that night. He found it agonising to talk to the boys, who to him were like creatures from another planet, and even to Nussey, whose forceful dynamism he found overwhelming. It was an excruciating evening, made worse by the fact that the boys assumed that the young Attlees were persons of ‘substance’ and expected to be inspected. They were taken on a tour of the rooms. In one there was a squad receiving drill instruction; in another, boxing; in an upstairs room there were draughts and bagatelle. They had a long talk with Nussey about what he was trying to do and how he was trying to do it.

Despite his misery, Attlee learned enough that evening to want to come again, and he discovered more on subsequent visits. Those of the boys who were in work earned very little money, many of them as van-boys, and the little they did earn was needed to keep their families going. Some of them were working eighty or ninety hours a week, and earning barely enough to feed themselves. Their future prospects were worse than their present misery. The practice of East End employers was to employ boys between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, when they were young, fit, agile, and willing to work for next door to nothing; then throw them back onto the street before they needed sufficient wages to keep a family, and start again with fourteen-year-olds who could be sweated and exploited in their turn.
Working-class children went to the local elementary school, where they stayed until they were fourteen, then started work. At the age of twelve they could get exemption from school to work part time, and one in four London children under the age of thirteen had paid work outside school hours. Those without work could raise pennies doing odd jobs for slightly better-off people – running errands, washing steps and window-sills, catching vermin, delivering milk or meat, selling papers or matches in the street.

Attlee learned something of their lives on the street, where boys generally had to fight their way to some sort of respect among their peers. He learned about their home lives. Paul Thompson recounts an interview with a man who had been brought up in the East End at that time. His father was forced to stop working after an accident and his mother faced the humiliation of a visit from the Relieving Officer:

“This chap come down and she took the clothes off us and washed them and put them on the line see, to air … And this fellow come down, he’d a stick and he said, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you’re not destitute,’ he said, ‘you’ve got clothes on the line,’ he said ‘and you’ve got a plate of fish and meat.’ She said, ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you know how much that cost,’ she said, ‘that cost me fourpence’ … ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you’re not destitute’ … You daren’t have a mat on the floor. Cos we only had orange boxes for tables and chairs you see, with covers on them.”[20]

Another of Paul Thompson’s interviewees in London, Will Thorn, came from a family living in two rooms, a single floor of an old house divided up. The eight children slept in one bed, their parents in another bed in the kitchen:

“We had so many addresses, we couldn’t pay the rent, we had to keep moving. And we come home from school and find your bits and pieces slung out on the road, or passed over the wall to the next bloke to look after while the landlord come in, and he found nothing there. And you was in the next garden see. He looked after ’em until we found a place. Local barrow firms even advertised: ‘Keep moving, Humphreys will move you by moonlight.’”[21]

Most people of the Attlees’ class were content to exploit the poor. Will Thorn recalled being sent to church to meet wealthy ladies:

“You meet these old girls that stand in the porch at the church. ‘Good morning Mr so-and-so, good morning Charlie so-and-so. Glad to see you at church this morning. How’s your mother? Is your father at work?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well tell your mother to come round to me Wednesday or Thursday and I’ll find her a day’s work.’ Clean the bloody house out for two bob …”[22]

Attlee learned that for boys like Will Thorn there were none of the pleasures of childhood, except what might be provided by a place like the Haileybury Club. So there was always a waiting list for membership. And he learned the real meaning of poverty. Many of the boys did not get enough food. If they were out of work, they were seriously undernourished because in a poor family, as one of the boys told him in a phrase which was to stay with him all his life, ‘You can’t take the food when you haven’t brought anything in.’

Life expectancy in middle-class Hampstead was fifty, in working-class Southwark thirty-six. In a healthy middle-class suburb ninety-six of every one hundred infants would survive their first year of life. In a bad slum district one in three would die. All the evils of slum-dwelling identified more than two decades earlier by the Revd Andrew Mearns were still there, only more so. The rich were richer than they had been in 1883, the poor were poorer and there were more of them. Seebohm Rowntree studied poverty in York, finding 28 per cent of the population, and 40 per cent of schoolchildren, living below the minimum nutritional standard necessary to maintain physical health. Of 1,000 children 163 died before their first birthday. The number was twice as high for working-class children. Of those who survived, one in four did not live beyond the age of four.

Attlee learned that in the East End, 300,000 people were crowded into 1,700 acres, and no doubt remembered that there were 200 acres round the holiday home in Essex which Henry Attlee had purchased when Attlee was a child. He learned that two or three families were often crammed into one tiny back-to-back house; and that there was no open space nearby because almost every available square yard had been developed to extract the last penny of profit. He learned that the ethnic mix of indigenous cockneys, Irish Catholics, and Jews fleeing Eastern European persecution, was powerful and potentially explosive. He learned what each generation has to experience over again: that the latest group of immigrants is always liable to persecution, especially where space, food and work are in short supply. In the East End in 1906 it was the Jews, and one of the last acts of the Conservative government was to bow to agitation against Jewish immigration by passing the Aliens Act, which allowed for the exclusion of immigrants who had no financial support.

Attlee started coming in one evening a week, then two evenings, to help Nussey. He was amazed and delighted to find that with the unforced friendliness of the boys he was overcoming his shyness. What began as a duty started to become a pleasure. Five months after that first visit he took a commission as an officer in the Territorial Army, because otherwise he would not have been able to take a share of the responsibility for running the club. He enjoyed drilling the boys on spring evenings in the rector of Stepney’s garden, marching over Wimbledon Common singing, sleeping over Saturday night in big bell-tents which the club had borrowed. The boys liked and respected him, and he felt for the first time in his life that he was doing something with a purpose. Later, after the First World War, he described part of what was happening to him:

“Take the case of a boy from public school knowing little or nothing of social and industrial matters who decides, perhaps at the invitation of a friend or from loyalty to his old school that runs a mission, or to the instinct for service that exists in everyone, to assist in running a boys club. At first he will be shy, then on getting to know the club boys he will find himself with a new outlook and shedding old prejudices. The rather noisy crowd of boys on bicycles with long quiffs of hair turned over the peaks of their caps, whom he always regarded as bounders, become human beings to him, and he appreciates their high spirits, and overlooks what he would formerly have called vulgarity. He goes out to referee them at football and finds that the only available ground is four miles away and he remembers that somewhere he has heard of an agitation for open spaces, while the question of getting there makes him consider transport problems, trains, rail and buses, and he may begin to enquire who is responsible for these services. He finds the boys get there so late that the moon is already getting up, and perhaps his centre-forward, on whom he had been relying, cannot get there at all; he finds it is a case of overtime, and the demand for shorter hours of labour becomes a reality … he realises now the value of the forty-eight hour week.
A little later he will perhaps visit one of his boys who is sick and begin to see the housing problem from the inside – perhaps the family cannot afford proper treatment for the boy, and he is forced to consider the provision now made for the sick; and further, the wages question begins to interest him after he has had a talk with the boy’s father, who is in the building trade and gets only occasional work …”[23]

Privately he wrote years later: ‘Few had boots and their clothes were just rags. Many a time I’ve washed their cold sore feet in winter …’ He had come a long way from the laconic remark he made to Laurence as they travelled back to Putney after their first visit: ‘Good show, that. Might look in from time to time.’[24]

In the summer of 1906 he attended his first summer camp with the boys, at Rottingdean near Brighton, sleeping in tents. In 1907 Nussey resigned as club manager, and asked Attlee to take the job in his place. Attlee hesitated – not, I suspect, because he did not want the job, but because his self-confidence was still so low that he doubted whether he could do it properly. But Nussey pressed him, and at last he agreed. It paid £50 a year – about a quarter of the allowance his father paid him when he was an undergraduate – and it entailed leaving his parents’ home and going to live in the small residence beside the club. It was not a full-time job. He was expected to be there in the evenings. Each morning he put on his lawyer’s top hat and tailcoat, and walked through the streets of the East End to Stepney Green station. There he took a train to the Temple, to spend a boring and dispiriting day waiting for work that did not come, and looking forward to the evening, when he was going to enjoy himself and feel useful. His father continued to pay him an allowance. A young gentleman could hardly be expected to live on £50 a year.
That year the new Liberal government set up Care Committees for schools. Its volunteer members had the task of visiting the homes of children who were obviously in need, and arranging help for them. Clem and Tom both added Care Committee work to their other duties.
Attlee might have remained the Edwardian do-gooder, doing his bit for the less fortunate as a sort of upper-middle-class civic duty. Even now that he was a full-time social worker, Haileybury House might have been simply a temporary phase of his life which he gave to good works before returning to the real business of life, which was making money at the bar. But as months turned into years, he and his family slowly began to realise that this was not just a phase in his life. He had at last taken control of his destiny, and made a positive decision about what to do with it.

And there was another choice to be made. He spent 1906 slowly and methodically making it. ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist,’ wrote the South American priest Dom Helder Camara eighty years later.[25] That was the choice Clem Attlee had to make. Was he a saint or a communist – or socialist, at any rate? The saintly path was in the family tradition, of which his father would have heartily approved. All his brothers did some sort of social work; one of his sisters became a missionary, and the whole family, except for Clem, was partly inspired to good works by religion. At the start he, like his father, had sympathy with the methods of the Charity Organisation Society, a ghastly organisation which offered loans to tradesmen in difficulties, emigration grants or pensions to the ‘respectable poor’ and, for the rest, resident relief at the workhouse or nothing. The idea was to use charitable gifts as moral bribes, making it as unpleasant as possible to receive charity. Poverty was considered a sign of moral depravity. He heard one typical COS member, an Anglican parson, advocating giving poor children only burnt porridge.

This sympathy with the COS lasted only a few weeks. The irrelevance and offensiveness of the COS philosophy of moral bribes became clear to him when he realised ‘the fine characters of many of the boys, the heroism of the struggle with poverty, the unselfishness and neighbourly kindness which existed in a poor district’. In the next street there was a gang of small barefoot boys who had nowhere to go. He arranged for the club to be open from 7 to 8 pm – an hour before its normal opening time – for them. His senior boys volunteered to come in and teach and supervise the younger ones, even though it meant snatching a very hasty meal after a long day at work. What right had well-heeled, self-righteous clergymen to treat such people as though they were training puppies not to mess the carpet? Perhaps this was the most important revelation of all – that the boys’ minds did not reflect the poverty of their homes. To the end of his life he remembered with wonder the conversations he had with them. He remembered the boy who told him that women ought to have the vote because ‘only a working woman knows what a working woman has to go through’. He remembers them struggling with definitions of a gentleman, from ‘a bloke what does no work’ through ‘a rich bloke’ to ‘a bloke what’s the same to everybody’. Attlee was impressed by the last.

He met their parents, visited their homes, and saw how the poor lived. As manager he started to meet not just the boys who came to the club, but those for whom there was no room. He saw that places like Haileybury House hardly even scratched the surface of the problem. He realised, as Andrew Mearns had written the year Attlee was born, that only large-scale action by the state could have any serious effect. It was not a conclusion he sought, nor one he was glad to arrive at. Clem Attlee was, and remained all his life, a profoundly conventional man, happiest swimming with the current. There was not a trace about him of the instinctive rebel which made so many charismatic socialists of his generation. If he could stay within the bounds of conventional thinking, he would be more than happy to do so. He tried hard to avoid leaving what he later called his ‘snug niche’ in society. But he also had a logical, methodical mind and could see that unless society was organised so as to eliminate it, the wretchedness he saw all around him would continue forever. He came to socialism slowly and reluctantly, by painstakingly eliminating all possible alternatives, through his heart first and his head afterwards, mentioning (but only privately, never publicly) the ‘burning anger which I felt at the wrongs which I could see around me’. There was nothing for it but to make a total break from his upbringing: ‘I had been ready to do anything for the poor except get off their backs.’[26]

Between 1905 and 1907 Attlee did his work during the week and his thinking at weekends, which he spent at his parents’ home in Putney, and where he and Tom thought their way to socialism together over long walks by the Thames. They talked theory and books, but also about the practical matters of running a club. Tom was now an architect, and when Attlee decided that Haileybury House needed more fresh air, Tom designed a new ventilation system and superintended its installation. For Tom, too, working in a boys’ club in a poor area of London – in his case Hoxton – had been a revelation. The two brothers, alike in many ways yet utterly different, used each other as sounding boards. Attlee had a terribly practical mind; Tom had a tendency to wander off onto metaphysical clouds. For Tom, the easiest part of his parents’ beliefs to accept was their Christianity; in fact he added to it a fervour all his own, and it was at the centre of everything he did all his life. The club where Tom was working had been founded by Christian socialists, who had influenced him at Oxford.

Clem, on the other hand, had already quietly dropped Christianity. He did so carefully and tactfully, and gave no offence in the family home, but he did so decisively. You cannot prove that God exists by logical argument. It is a matter of faith, and Clem never had it. And that, to Clem, was that. So Tom’s Christian socialist tracts fell on stony ground. But Tom, as an architect, was also influenced by aesthetes and art critics like Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and William Morris, to whom he introduced his brother and whom Clem found much more helpful. Clem responded at once to Carlyle’s anger and disgust, and to his appeal to the middle classes to see, and put right, the misery and ugliness in their midst. Ruskin advocated not socialism but what we now call a welfare state. The unemployed should be retrained, and if they proved unemployable, should be looked after at the state’s expense. He wanted pensions for everyone. From Ruskin, Attlee learned that only the state could provide these things. From William Morris he learned that the industrial revolution had released forces of greed, cruelty and selfishness; and the task was so to organise post-industrial society that it ceased to be ugly and materialistic. Human beings should not be asked to live and work in the soulless ugliness which was the East End.

Attlee turned to the poets he had loved as a boy, and found to his surprise that many of them, Shelley and Blake in particular, re-read in a new light, were on the side of revolt against capitalism and greed. He and Tom looked at co-operatives as a solution. This faith lasted just long enough for both of them to get a few suits very badly made at a tailor’s shop run on co-operative lines. All this agonising might seem excessive, but the step the two brothers were about to take was one which would horrify their friends, their family’s friends and the men they had been to school with. To some middle-class young men, the idea of shocking their families and friends would have been attractive. To Clem Attlee it had not the slightest appeal.

By October 1907 Attlee was a socialist. The transition from being a cynical young Tory had taken just two years from that first visit to Haileybury House. The next step was to join a socialist organisation. That was not as easy as it sounds. Left-wing organisations, then as now, were suspicious, dogmatic and faction-ridden. Tom, who had been a step or two ahead of his brother all the way down the road, took Attlee to the Fabian Society at Clements Inn, perhaps because it was the most middle-class of all societies, the one where they might meet men from their own background. There they met the sort of forbidding, unwelcoming socialists who, Attlee was to learn, were the curse of the movement. Attlee writes in his autobiography: ‘Edward Pease, the Secretary, regarded us as if we were two beetles who had crept in under the door, and when we said we wanted to join the Society he asked coldly: “Why?” We said, humbly, that we were socialists and persuaded him that we were genuine.’[27]

[20] Thompson, Paul, The Edwardians.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Attlee, Clement, The Social Worker (George Bell and Sons, London, 1920).
[24] Harris, Kenneth, Attlee (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1995).
[25] Dear, John, Peace Behind Bars: A Peacemaking Priest’s Journal from Jail (Rowman & Littlefield, Washington DC, 1995).
[26] Unpublished autobiographical notes housed in The Churchill Archive Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge.
[27] Attlee, Clement, As It Happened.

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