The night 'turncoat' Churchill helped create North Shropshire election shock

Bulletproof in the Labour landslide of 1945. Armour plated in Blair's May Day massacre in 1997.

The old Powis Hall in Oswestry – later rebuilt – where Churchill was denounced as a "turncoat" by a heckler at an eve-of-poll meeting.
The old Powis Hall in Oswestry – later rebuilt – where Churchill was denounced as a "turncoat" by a heckler at an eve-of-poll meeting.

But for opposition parties looking to snatch the North Shropshire seat in the wake of Owen Paterson's departure, 1904 is their beacon of hope.

That was the last time the seat was taken by anybody other than the Conservative or Unionist candidate – a sensational electoral shock which has, at least to date, proven a one-off.

The campaign was marred by disorder, with rowdy meetings, plentiful insults and booing, fighting in the street, and throwing of missiles. On polling day there was a large police presence, with reinforcements drafted in to Oswestry, and a massive turnout of 90 per cent.

The result in the Oswestry seat, as it was back then, was a political earthquake. Liberal Allan Bright unexpectedly beat Unionist candidate Mr W. Clive Bridgeman by 385 votes. It was the first time the Liberals had won the seat in over 70 years.

Bright has largely been forgotten in time. There are no images of him from that election campaign. But he had a high profile supporter back in 1904. In an eve-of-poll meeting on July 25, 1904, a young Winston Churchill came to speak at the old Powis Hall in Oswestry, having earlier spoken at a meeting organised by the Free Trade Union at Ellesmere Market Hall.

Churchill had just crossed the floor of the House of Commons to desert the Conservatives and sit with the Liberals, as a result of which he and another MP who had crossed the House, his cousin Ivor Guest, had been attacked as "renegades and traitors."

Churchill was interrupted several times at Ellesmere, with one heckler shouting: "You are a turncoat."

A young Winston Churchill campaigned in Shropshire for the successful Liberal candidate.

The big issues of the day were free trade and tariff reform.

With tensions in Oswestry at fever pitch the Free Food meeting addressed by Churchill was a ticket one, with every ticket holder keenly scrutinised. Written on the walls was “Every Vote for Protection is a Vote for Starvation”.

The old Powis Hall in Oswestry – later rebuilt – where Churchill spoke at an eve-of-poll meeting.

The by-election, with voting on Tuesday, July 26, was caused by the elevation of MP the Hon. G Ormsby-Gore to the peerage following the death of his father Lord Harlech on June 26.

Result – Allan Bright (Lib) 4,542; W. Clive Bridgeman (Con) 4,157. Lib majority 385. Lib gain.

"The result was received with the greatest surprise by both parties, for not even the most sanguine members of the Liberal party had anticipated such a change in the electorate," reported the Shrewsbury Chronicle.

"A scene of wild excitement followed, and business was temporarily suspended in the centre of the town owing to a dense crowd assembling there."

The atmosphere of the campaign was captured by contemporary coverage in the Wellington Journal and Shrewsbury News.

“The greatest disorder observable took place at Oswestry, where, naturally, excitement ran high,” it said.

“Meetings, it is stated, were broken up in that town on Saturday, and spectators were hustled about and pelted with the missiles that came handy.

“When the mechanics and labourers had ceased work for the day Oswestry possessed all the elements of faction riots. The Cambrian Railway workers were addressed by the Free Fooders, and Councillor Pentland of Birmingham held a meeting at The Cross, Oswestry, which was mostly badinage and scrimmage, and it was ended by the police, who acted like mounted infantry in breaking up the crowd.”

A Mr Sandford, who was working for Clive Bridgeman, drove around Oswestry in a waggonette covered with blue rosettes and banners, addressing groups here and there. When he reached a poor part of town, a man tried to snatch the rosettes.

“Then blows were exchanged, and Mr Sandford and his companions were pelted with malodorous street refuse.”

The report added: “Street fights were common as the night progressed.”

In the Liberals' campaign armoury were about 20 cars and 200 other vehicles, while the Unionists had fewer cars but more carriages.

Bright, who was from Liverpool and a shipowner, had previously twice contested the Exeter seat.

The Oswestry by election result of 1904 was a sensation.

His tenure as Oswestry's Liberal MP was to prove brief. In a "return match" he was defeated by Bridgeman in the 1906 general election by a margin of 503 votes.

In 2006 there was a Conservative Party garden party at Aston Hall, near Oswestry, to celebrate Tory election success in the North Shropshire/Oswestry constituency, and Mr Bright’s daughter, Elizabeth Lloyd, and grandson, Allan Lloyd, were among the relatives of former MPs who were invited.

The seat's top political performer was John Biffen – Lord Biffen, as he was then – who held the seat for 36 years from 1961, when he took it in a by-election, to 1997, when after his retirement Owen Paterson carried forth the Tory baton.

Mr Paterson's majority at the last general election in December 2019 was 22,949 – a record for the seat– with Labour's candidate second.

The closest battle in the last 50 years was in 1997 when Labour's Ian Lucas came within 2,195 votes of the victorious Mr Paterson.

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