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Bill Ling was the first Labour candidate to stand for election in Dartford

By Messenger Reporter

The First World War finally over, a general election was held 100 years ago. We were contacted by John Drew, whose maternal grandfather, Bill Ling, was the first-ever Labour candidate to fight the Dartford seat. Here John tells of his remarkable relative and his battle for his beliefs.

When Prime Minister David Lloyd George called a general election immediately after the 1918 Armistice brought the First World War to an end, Labour picked as their first ever candidate for Dartford a man who had strongly opposed the war in every way he could.

Bill Ling was an Erith carpenter, a life-long pacifist who, as a JP sitting on war tribunals, had strenuously upheld the right of conscientious objectors to be exempt from conscription.

1918 Labour candidate for Dartford, Bill Ling
1918 Labour candidate for Dartford, Bill Ling

The war itself he saw as a clash of empires being prosecuted in the interests of Big Money and believed working people should have no part in it.

Lloyd George proposed the Liberals and Conservatives run a single coalition candidate in the nearly 400 constituencies the Labour Party was contesting in 1918, eight times as many as in the previous, pre-war, election.

In Dartford, a constituency that then included Bexley, Erith, Crayford, Swanscombe and Southfleet, it was Jimmy Rowlands, a Liberal who’d Bill had actually defied party discipline to support in 1910 since he favoured a proposed Right-to-Work Bill.

Bill’s candidacy led to some tumultuous campaign meetings.

“His outspoken defence of the men who had conscientious objection to enlistment was hurled at him at every meeting” reported John Mills, the man would one day become Dartford’s first Labour MP.

“I was with him at most meetings during a campaign conducted without any funds, and relying on the tramway service to get to various parts of the country division”.

Labour’s distinctly radical manifesto called for nationalisation and full democratic rights for women at home, freedom for countries of the Empire abroad, notably India and Ireland, and, as for the war, a peaceful reconciliation in Europe with support for the new democracies.

It would take another world war before Labour could win an election on a similar manifesto in 1945.

British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench in the Western Front before an advance. Picture: PA First World War collection
British infantrymen occupy a shallow trench in the Western Front before an advance. Picture: PA First World War collection

Bill polled 6,256 votes to Rowlands’, on the coalition Liberal ticket, 15,626.

Other Labour candidates in Kent fared little better: at best polling one vote in three.

Nationally, Labour won fewer seats than Sinn Fein, but their share of the popular vote rose to be second only to the Tories.

Who is Mr Ling?

Bill Ling’s political life coincided with new experiments in local democracy.

Returning penniless from prospecting for gold in Australia, he was co-opted on to the Erith School Board on a casting vote in 1892 and immediately requested a clause guaranteeing trade union wages be inserted in all contracts signed by the local board.

“Who is Mr Ling, by what authority does he speak?” thundered the West Kent Advertiser, “Trade Unions in Erith (have) proved a signal failure…”

The years were to show by what authority Mr Ling spoke. When the Erith Urban District Council was first formed in 1894, he was the only Labour man elected.

Ten years later, when six of the eight Labour candidates who stood were elected, Bill topped the poll.

In 1907, Bill was elected as the first and only Labour member on the Kent County Council, dominated as that was by their landed lordships, Harris, Cornwallis, Darnley.

Bill invariably suffered overwhelming defeats proposing shorter hours and better pay, first on a county-wide basis and then, having found no seconder for that, on a district basis.

Overwhelmingly opposed at first, these proposals slowly began to gain acceptance.

In 1910, during Bill’s final attendances, when the council considered the request of a majority of hairdressers in certain districts to have all barbers’ shops closed on Sundays, Lord Darnley backed Bill’s motion in support.

Bill Ling’s receipt for the General Election
Bill Ling’s receipt for the General Election

Darnley faced down the objection this would be an interference with the liberty of the subject by remarking that it was high time to interfere with the liberty of the subject when assistants who had worked until 11pm on a Saturday were compelled to work on Sunday.

Political changes were also being reflected in the composition of the magistracy and Bill was appointed a magistrate in 1911, the first Labour magistrate in the Kent County Division.

One paper remarked that in him the poor would have a judge not only sympathetic but fair who could be relied on to do what he considered right even though the heavens might fall.

First World War

The heavens were about to fall in the shape of the First World War.

Bill had joined the Peace League as far back as 1877, the same year his illiterate father had signed his articles as a carpenter’s apprentice.

He subscribed to the manifesto of the 1912 International Socialist Peace Congress at Basel calling on working people of all nations to pledge not to fight in a coming war that could only be in the interests of capitalists.

Only after the war would it come out that the armaments manufacturers, including Vickers, which had a factory in Crayford, had been selling munitions to both sides during the war. As one verse put it: The British troops at Dardanelles were blown to bits by British shells.

True to his pacifist principles, Bill, as a JP sitting on War Tribunals, was in favour of granting exemption to all who asked for it.

David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister in 1918
David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister in 1918

It was not exactly a popular line at the time. He was also a republican and an atheist who, when he did not stand for the National Anthem, got his hat knocked off.

As a JP, Bill also considered the cases of putative enemy aliens.

Mr Robert Pettifer, former Clerk to the Dartford Court, used to tell how as a new, young clerk, he had the temerity to advise Mr Ling that he should either hear cases or step down from the chair to testify on behalf of the many people he spoke up for as being well known to him and by no means alien.

The aftermath

After his 1918 general election defeat, Bill was de-selected by the Red Flag faction of the Party for refusing to sign up to the Third (Moscow) International.

By then Bill had had enough experience of local government to believe that social democracy, for all its short-comings, could be used as an agent for social change.

He was a kindly man, popular in Erith in spite of his unpopular views, always ready with help and advice on the street no less than in the chambers of the council, where he had in his time sat on every committee.

He could also laugh at himself. Offered the role of Henry VIII in a town pageant, he protested that he didn’t see himself as the Defender of the Faith, much less having many wives.

On another occasion in council, a long-winded chairman had gone on so long Bill interjected to say it was a case of “reductio ad absurdum”.

"His [Bill Ling] outspoken defence of the men who had conscientious objection to enlistment was hurled at him at every meeting" - John Mills

The chairman was astounded by Bill’s erudition, unaware that it was the only Latin phrase Bill knew.

At home Bill always surreptitiously ate mouthfuls of the hated spinach his wife put under the egg on their daughter Mollie’s plate.

In 1922, when Bill was returned at the top of the poll in the Erith Urban District Council elections with almost as many votes as he had polled in the whole constituency at the general election, his opponents did him the courtesy of electing him to the chair, a position he had spent his life objecting to.

Ironically, his opponents included his own wife, Minnie. A committed feminist, Bill had encouraged her to go into public life.

This she did, first on the Erith District Council and then, after Bill’s death in 1928, as a JP who went on to become the first woman chair of the Dartford Bench, eventually giving more years of public service than even he had done.

Minnie was everything Bill was not, conservative, royalist, churchwoman, and it was said of their marriage that they lived happily ever arguing.

What they had in common was independence of mind, an adherence to principle and a willingness to give a lifetime’s service to the community without ever taking a penny for their services.

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