Rowdy heckling was hallmark of 1923 General Election in Kirkcaldy

Packed public meetings, open air rallies, and rowdy heckling were the hallmarks of the 1923 General Election - the last time the country went to the polls in December.

Thursday, 5th December 2019, 2:49 pm
1923 General Election - Kirkcaldy Burghs - from the Fife Free Press

The old Kirkcaldy Burgh constituency was a two-way fight between the Liberals and Labour, and it grabbed the attention of voters.

Socialism versus capitalism was the subject of many lively debates held in community halls across the area on an almost daily basis.

The columns of the Fife Free Press vividly capture the noise, the froth and the drama as the incumbent MP, Sir Robert Hutchison went head to head with Labour’s Thomas Kennedy - and lost.

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1923 General Election - Kirkcaldy Burghs - from the Fife Free Press

It was a shock result on a night full of surprises across the UK as a Labour-Liberal deal installed Ramsay MacDonald in power, albeit for a short period of time – ten months to be precise.

Elections were almost annual affairs back then, and while this one caught many on the hop, both local parties were ready for it.

Before the war, Kirkcaldy was known as a “radical constituency” and its industrial character was even more pronounced after a boundary review included the mining districts of Buckhaven and Methil within the burgh.

Socialists captured the seat in the 1921 by election and imagined themselves as “the rightful heirs for all time of a radical Inheritance.”

1923 General Election, Kirkcaldy Burgh - from the Fife Free Press archives

One year later they were shocked as Sir Robert took the seat for the Liberals, so the 1923 poll saw extraordinary efforts to regain Kirkcaldy.

While boundary changes favoured Labour, the Liberals, were confident of success.

Changes to polling arrangements in the eastern part of the burgh suited their voters.

Noted a correspondent for the Glasgow Herald: “Elderly voters in Methil, for instance, refused last November to face a hostile crowd at Denbeath and refrained from voting. This year the polling place will be in the Bowling Club Hall and that change means a 50 per cent better poll for Liberals.”

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Prominent unionists also backed Sir Robert, while the breaches within the party had also been healed to create a new unified front and he was expected to prevail in Burntisland.

Sinclairtown and Gallatown were tipped to back the Labour candidate, but it was clear Sir Robert had the backing of people of influence.

“Liberals will be disappointed if, with the help of the unionists, they do not materially increase the majority,” noted one correspondent, while the Fife Free Press nailed its colours firmly to the mast with a ringing endorsement of the sitting MP.

One feature of the campaign was the sheer size of the public meetings.

There were barely halls big enough to cope with the crowds as upwards of 1500 people packed in to hear – and to heckle.

Sir Robert was mobbed by supporters as he left his first address at Adam Smith Halls.

The venue was full – even the corridors and dressing-rooms were packed – and it was clear that many Labour supporters were at the front of the queue as they bagged the best seats!

Noted the Press: “Sir Robert received prolonged and loud applause which completely killed at any attempt at the moment for a counter demonstration.”

Kennedy used the same venue for his campaign launch and it was necessary to use the Beveridge Hall to accommodate the numbers who turned up.

It was a similar picture in Burntisland where the Library Hall overflowed, while in Gallatown the seats could have been filled three times over – people crowded in the porch and the schoolyard in an endeavour to follow proceedings.,

At each, Sir Robert was subjected to lengthy heckling from which, the Press noted approvingly, “he emerged with great credit.”

He endured a rough ride in Dysart as pandemonium broke out at the back of the hall and it was several minutes before Sir Michael Nairn could call the meeting to order.

One reader wrote to complain: “Conduct of this sort is at once disourteous, disreputable and disgraceful, and , therefor, will not lower the good old Liberal flag, but rather help to hoist it still higher.”

Rowdyism at public meetings was an on-going issue.

At Pathhead Hall, the “babble of interruption” became so great that W. C. O’Neill, a well known Labour worker, stood up and appealed for fair play. The “turbulent spirits” replied with angry shouts of “sit down!”

That perhaps explains why there were meetings and rallies specifically for women.

They too drew huge crowds – at Pathhead, there was “tremendous enthusiasm” towards Sir Robert. Noted the Press: “The whole audience rose, cheering and waving their handkerchiefs before singing ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow…”

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At the Music Hall in Burntisland, a black cat was observed making its way on to the platform which many took as an omen of good.

The key issues of the day centred on free trade, but Labour also repeatedly attacked Sir Robert’s attendance record at Westminster.

At an open air debate at Methil Docks, Sir Robert could scarcely get out a full sentence without interruption. As the meeting progressed, it degenerated still further and the candidate could be seen arguing with one group, while others were having their own little debates

Kennedy’s meetings were very different; they were solmen gatherings in which the voice of the heckler was stilled, and people took their seats as if they were pews in a church. Humour, noted one reporter, was wholly lacking.

Coming polling day, there were large queues at the 14 polling stations. The most ardent political enthusiasts were school children who had the day off.

They were gaily bedecked in the colours of their parents’ choice and proferred advice to all and sundry, free of charge!

Sandwich men paraded the streets with their campaign slogans, and shops and vehicles displayed support for their candidates.

The votes took around seven hours to count

Word passed around the decision would be announced at 3:00pm, but two hours before then, the High Street front of the Town House – better known now as the former M&S store – became so crowded that individual movement was impossible.

By 3:00pm the street was impassable, and when Mr Kennedy was seen emerging from behind a Sheriff, a tremendous cheer came from the throats of thousands of supporters who seemed to have sprung from the uttermost bounds of the constituency

Cllr Nairn took seconds to make himself heard, and when the figures were made known another deep throated roar of acclimation greeted them.

The result was a huge win for Labour – Kennedy polling 14,221 to Sir Robert’s 11,937. A healthy majority of 2284

The new MP was duly hoisted on to a chair and carried off to the Port Brae where he addressed a large gathering of delighted supporters. Sir Robert was waited upon by a large crowd outside the Liberal Club.

“It is a poor man who cannot take a beating”” he told them.