Lloyd George given the freedom of Barnsley

On 27 August 1921 the Prime Minister, the Right Honourable David Lloyd George, was awarded the freedom of Barnsley Borough at a grand ceremony at the Public Hall on Eldon Street. 2000 people attended the event, including the Lord Mayors of Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford, with thousands more lining Eldon Street to welcome the Prime Minister and his wife, Dame Margaret Lloyd George, to Barnsley. To mark the centenary, staff and volunteers from Barnsley Archives have been exploring our collections to find out more about the visit.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister and Liberal politician, was awarded the freedom on Barnsley on Saturday August 27 1921, at the Public Hall on Eldon Street (now the Civic, Barnsley). He was only the third person to be afforded this honour by the town. Dignitaries attended from across Yorkshire, and thousands of local people gathered to catch a glimpse of the Prime Minister and his wife on Eldon Street. However, not everybody was happy about the visit, particularly in the shadow of the 1921 miners strike. To mark the centenary, we have searched our archive collections, including some recently discovered documents catalogued as part of the Eldon Street HSHAZ, to find out more.

A war time honour

The decision to make Lloyd George a Freeman of Barnsley was taken during the final months of World War One. On the 26 September 1918, local newspapers reported that Barnsley Council had agreed to offer the Prime Minister the Freedom of the Borough, to show support for him in pursuing a victorious end to the war ‘so that a lasting peace might be assured to the world.’ One local councillor was reported to have said that ‘Barnsley was the great Coalopolis of England and no greater honour could be conferred upon it than the presence of Mr Lloyd George in their midst… [he] was recognised as the hope of England, inasmuch as he had done more than any living man to serve his country in the trials through which we were passing’ (quotes from Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Thursday 26 September 1918).

However, due to pressures arising from the war, it took the Prime Minister nearly three years to collect the honour in person. Even then, it took the wedding of his friend Sir William Sutherland MP to Miss Annie Fountain, in Darton, to bring him to Barnsley. This was mentioned in the freedom ceremony, with Lloyd George replying in good humour that had both come to see Sir William Sutherland made a bondsman, and himself a freeman.

An original programme for the ceremony has recently been discovered (sadly in poor condition)

Planning the event, and some last-minute dissent

Detailed planning for the freedom ceremony took place during August 1921. The Manager of the Public Hall and the Borough Surveyor were instructed to oversee the preparations, which included redecorating the Public Hall and borrowing 300 chairs from the Barnsley Girls School. A letter from the Harvey Institute papers in Barnsley Archives shows the school was happy to provide the chairs, on the understanding that any damage or breakages sustained during the event would be made good. Perhaps they were expecting a boisterous crowd!

Letter from Barnsley Girls School confirming use of 300 chairs on the condition any damages or breakages will be paid for.
Letter from the Barnsley Girls’ School to the manager of the Harvey Institute confirming loan of 300 chairs (Barnsley Archives)

Interestingly, despite some local papers reporting to the contrary, the event wasn’t supported by everyone. Council minutes show that a motion was brought to cancel the Freedom Ceremony at a town council meeting on the August 24 – only three days before it was due to take place. Sadly, the minutes don’t record the reasons for the motion, which was proposed by Councillor Broley and seconded by Councillor Melor, but it was defeated in a vote by 12 to 6, and the ceremony went ahead as planned.

The Prime Minister arrives in Barnsley

Lloyd George walking along Eldon Street with crowds looking on
Crowds on Eldon Street gathered to see Prime Minister Lloyd George and his wife Dame Margaret George arriving at the Public Hall (Barnsley Archives)

On the day of the event, the Public Library and Reading Room were closed from 12 noon. The Prime Minister and his wife, Dame Margaret Lloyd George, arrived by car and were met by huge crowds on Eldon Street. The street was decked in bunting and brass bands played as the guests arrived. A guard of honour was formed by a detachment of the York and Lancaster Territorials and the National Reserve, which was inspected by the Prime Minister. Interestingly, the Sheffield Daily Independent noted that ‘Mr Lloyd George was received with enthusiasm, but as at Darton, the same note of dissent was to be heard’ (Sheffield Daily Independent, August 29 1921).

Lloyd George inspecting troops on Eldon Street. The soldiers are standing to attention with rifles in their right hand and resting on their soldiers
Lloyd George inspecting the guard of honour on Eldon Street (Barnsley Archives)

The ceremony started at 4pm. The local papers reported that there were 2000 guests inside the hall including the Lord Mayors of Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford and the Mayors of Huddersfield, Dewsbury and Batley, along with many of the guests from the wedding the Prime Minister and his wife had attended earlier in the day. The Sheffield Daily Independent reported that the Public Hall had been ‘lavishly decorated, with a canopy of red, white and blue streamers. The balcony was draped and hung with electric lights in the national colours, and the platform was artistically adorned with alternate masses of mauve and white flowers with a background of exotic blooms and ferns’ (Sheffield Daily Independent, August 29 1921).

Lloyd George arriving at the front of the Public Hall on Eldon Street with crowds to either side
Lloyd George arriving at the Public Hall on Eldon Street (Barnsley Archives)

The ceremony was opened as a formal meeting of the Council. Alderman, Lieutenant Colonel W. E. Raley proposed the motion to admit David Lloyd George to the Freedom of Barnsley “the highest honour which it is within the council’s power to confer, in grateful acknowledgement of the many services rendered by him to the Empire during his long and distinguished career” (quote from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, Monday 29 August 1921). The motion was unanimously agreed to by the council members and Lloyd George signed the freedom roll with a silver fountain pen. It was announced that this was the same pen that he had used to sign the Treaty of Versailles, which had set out the terms of peace at the end of World War One. This met with cheers from the crowd. Following the signing, the mayor presented the Prime Minister with an engraved silver cup.

The Prime Minister then made a long address, which was reported in depth in the local papers. He spoke about the war and the service that Barnsley had rendered to the war effort, through the production of coal, the manufacturing of munitions, and the many men from Barnsley who had fought on the front line.  He also spoke about the industrial disputes that had disrupted England since the war, and how he felt that it was in the interests of everybody that these had been settled. This is interesting in the context of Barnsley, as one of the disputes he was referring to was the Miners’ Strike of 1921, which had ended less than two months before, and had caused huge hardship for many Barnsley families.

Lloyd George was instrumental in handing control of the mines back to the mine owners in March 1921, despite the mining unions petitioning for nationalisation. The miners had experienced better working conditions whilst the mines had been under Government control during the war, and the mine owners had already announced that wages would be cut and working hours extended to keep mines profitable in the immediate post-war years. This led to the mining unions calling a national strike, which started in April 1921 and lasted for four months.

The Prime Minister also talked about ‘the Irish question’. This was another hot topic, and his speech was reported in a number of Irish papers the following week. After the speech, a vote of thanks was given to the Premiere by the Mayor and seconded by Sir Joseph Hewitt, who caused some amusement by referring to Barnsley as ‘the right eye of Yorkshire’. Lloyd George responded by saying that the right eye of Yorkshire had given him a very friendly wink, and thanked the Mayor for the meeting.

Mr and Mrs Lloyd George walking through an arch with 'Good Luck' written above. Both are wearing hats and Mrs Lloyd George is carrying a large bunch of flowers.
Lloyd George and his wife Dame Margaret George at the wedding of Sir William Sutherland and Miss Annie Fountain in Darton, 1921 (Barnsley Archives)

A Barnsley Welsh Deputation

After the ceremony, the Prime Minister and his wife were taken to Ousethwaite Hall for dinner with Sir Hewitt and his wife. The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported that they were met in the gardens by a deputation of Welsh men from the village of Carlton (which had a large Welsh mining community) along with others from Sheffield and Dewsbury. They spoke to him in Welsh and sang a number of hymns before making a presentation (again, in Welsh) on behalf of the Welshfolk of Barnsley, expressing their joy in welcoming Lloyd George, an eminent Welshman himself, to the borough. Lloyd George spoke back to them in Welsh, saying that he was an exile as they were and encouraging them to be faithful to the Empire and to their love of Welsh hymns and airs, which they should never forget. Following his address, the paper reports, more speeches were made, and more hymns were sung. Lloyd George is notable as the only British Prime Minister (so far) to have spoken Welsh as his first language.  

Voices of Dissent

Ten men and women in white aprons in front of a wooden notice board that says 'Miners Strike 1921 Salvation Army Barnsley soup kitchen cooks and assistants. 300 to 500 free dinners daily.
Salvation Army soup kitchen in Barnsley during the 1921 Miners Strike, which provided up to 500 free meals a day to striking miners and their families

Although the Prime Minister’s visit in August 1921 was a big event for Barnsley, it also shines a light on what was happening in the country (and elsewhere) at the time, and the ongoing impact of the First World War. Many of the newspaper reports at the time suggested that the Prime Minister was universally welcomed. However, other sources show this was not the case. Although he was popular during the war, and for his welfare reforms, Lloyd George was not universally loved, and his approach to the post-war industrial disputes in particular was very unpopular with the mining unions, amongst others.

The 1921 strike had caused months of hardship for mining communities, including many in Barnsley, with soup kitchens set up to feed the miners and their families. The attempt to cancel the event just days before it was due to happen, and the reference to local dissent in the Sheffield Daily Independent suggests that, unsurprisingly, the local picture was more nuanced than some of the official reporting acknowledges, and demonstrates the turbulent politics of the post-war years.

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