Chris Mullin recalls one of his little-known predecessors who was among the first ever group of Labour MPs elected in 1906…
Thomas Summerbell was one of the more obscure of the 1906 intake. Unlike some of his more famous contemporaries -- Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Arthur Henderson, Philip Snowden, Will Thorne --- he made no more than the merest ripple on the national consciousness.
In Sunderland, however, he was a more substantial figure. So much so that when he died, special trains were laid on to bring mourners to his funeral and the cortege stretched for more than a mile.
A contemporary photograph shows a balding, solid, respectable citizen with a walrus moustache and the de riguer stiff collar. His origins, however, were humble. Summerbell was born in 1861 in Seaham Harbour, son of a coal trimmer. He left school at the age of 12 and after working first for a hairdresser and then as a grocer's errand boy, he was apprenticed to a printer on the Seaham Weekly News. After serving a seven year apprenticeship he found work as a journeyman printer in Felling and later in Jarrow, leaving because his employer did not keep trade union hours.
After working briefly in South Shields, Hartlepool and Newcastle he finally settled in Sunderland, working first for a local newspaper and eventually establishing his own printing business. In 1892 he was elected to the town council of which he remained a member until his death.
Summerbell's political awakening was gradual. In his youth he was briefly attracted by the smooth-talking Disraeli and later by Gladstone (on account of his commitment to Home Rule for Ireland). Eventually, however, Summerbell came under the spell of a Newcastle radical, Joseph Cowen and joined the Independent Labour Party which set the direction for the rest of his life. By 1888 he was secretary of Sunderland Trades Council and helping to unionise the unskilled.
As a councillor he was a keen advocate of municipalisation and instrumental in persuading the local authority to buy out the old tramways company and install a system of electric trams which remained in service until after the Second World War.
In 1906 Summerbell was elected to Parliament and thus became one of the 29 founding members of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Until that time Sunderland had been represented by a succession of wealthy local businessmen, standing either as Liberals or Conservatives, mainly from the big ship-building or coal-owning families. Summerbell was the first to break their grip and he paved the way for what would become, in due course, two safe Labour seats.
In Parliament his pre-occupation was almost entirely with the dreadful condition of the labouring classes, not merely in Sunderland, but throughout the country. A glance through Hansard shows him asking questions about the education of paupers, deaths by starvation in Whitechapel, the wages of labourers at Kew Gardens and the incidence of TB in the army.
At a public meeting in the east end of London in April 1906 he Summerbell was reported as saying that, "the Labour party in the House of commons recognised that they had been returned by the workers to do something for them and the government would have to do something, otherwise the labour men would want to know the reason why." He added, "He was afraid that matters would not go smoothly with the House in the future as they had in the past." There was talk of organising a demonstration of unemployed men and women to march through the West End on a week day "so they could cause a good deal of inconvenience."
A report in The Times has him taking part in a delegation, led by Arthur Henderson and Keir Hardie, to Prime Minister Asquith to ask for more powers to help local authorities relieve unemployment.
His maiden speech, however, was devoted not to unemployment, but to coastal erosion, an issue of some relevance to his constituency where the mining of sand and shingle from the foreshore was causing the disappearance of beaches, coastline and the destruction of sewers. He was later appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Coastal Erosion.
During the summer recess of 1907 Summerbell, along with other ILP MPs, embarked on a nation-wide schedule of public meetings, described in The Times as "a missionary tour" (a fore-runner, no doubt, of the Big Conversation). The Times report gives a flavour of the subject matter, "Their tours will extend from Cornwall to Scotland, and from Kent to Wales. The theory and practice of Socialism from the Independent Labour Party's point of view in politics will be dealt with at all the meetings and special prominence will be given to questions of old age pensions and unemployment."
All this activity took a toll on Summerbell's health. The Times of September 1908 reports him as having to withdraw from a meeting in Leicester, "owing to illness induced by over-exertion."
In September 1909 he is reported as drawing the attention of the Prime Minister to the fact that the nearly 1,000 of his constituents in Sunderland had been struck off the electoral register as a result of having to seek poor relief and being put to work breaking stones (it is forgotten now, but until well into the last century those on benefit were disenfranchised). What plans, asked Summerbell, did the Prime Minister have to end this penalisation of poverty? The reply he received was non-committal.
This disenfranchisement of the poor was of more than academic interest to Summerbell since the impoverished represented a significant section of his potential voters. Sure enough, five months later, in the general election of January 1910 Summerbell and his Liberal colleague were defeated by two Conservatives. A month later, aged just 48, he was dead.
Had he lived Summerbell might have gone on to become as well known as some of his contemporaries. He would certainly have been re-elected to Parliament in the December 1910 election and might eventually have served in the first Labour government, though probably only in some junior capacity. He was at heart a local man, firmly rooted in his community.
For a while his name lived on through his son, also called Thomas, who followed his father onto the council and in 1935 became the first Labour Mayor of Sunderland. His daughter, a teacher, was still around in the mid-1960s. Today, however, Summerbell is a virtually forgotten figure, even in his home town. His house, in Vincent Street, Hendon, (about 100 yards from my own) still stands although there is no clue that he ever lived there. His only memorial, a stone cross above his grave in Bishopwearmouth cemetery. If the day ever comes when trams are re-introduced to Sunderland, we could do worse than name the first one after Thomas Summerbell.