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Gritten, W. H. Howard


The Hartlepools - as the constituency comprising today’s Headland and West Hartlepool used to be called - had been a Liberal stronghold until the Party’s 44-years innings ended in 1918 with the election of W. G. Howard Gritten as its Independent Unionist Member of Parliament.

From 1900, shipping, steel and coal magnate and 30,000-acre landowner Sir Christopher (‘Kitty’) Furness had been its MP until he was unseated on petition in May 1910 because his agent in the previous January General Election had been found guilty of creating an ‘atmosphere of intimidation’ of the electorate. There had not even been a Tory Parliamentary candidate for twenty-four years when Howard Gritten was introduced by Lord Londonderry and adopted in 1909 by the local Conservative and Unionist Association.

In spite of being dubbed a ‘carpet-bagger’ and ‘stranger’ -  he was born in London and brought up in Cheshire  -  barrister Gritten reduced the Liberal majority in each of the three elections in 1910 until Stephen, the nephew of the deposed Sir ‘Kitty’, retained the seat for the Liberals in December by a mere 48 votes after a recount.

Because of the First World War intervening, Gritten did not stand again until the Liberal Lloyd George, after the Armistice, decided to test the public’s opinion of his Coalition Government by declaring a General Election in December 1918. As far as the Hartlepools were concerned, Conservative Central Office decided to support the official Coalition candidate, the Liberal C. MacFarlane, although the local Tory Association supported Gritten. Its Party leader, Bonar Law, requested him ‘to stand down’. He didn’t, and was returned with an over 5,300 majority. The Labour Party, standing a candidate for the first time, came bottom of the poll.

However, there was no winning spell for Gritten after the success of this fourth attempt in eight years to become MP for The Hartlepools; instead of accepting ‘offers’ of a safe Tory seat, at the 1922 General Election he was defeated by the Liberal William Jowitt and again in the December 1923 General Election, albeit by only 145 votes. In 1924 he didn’t stand and while his friend Sir Wilfred Sugden won the seat from Jowitt, Howard Gritten drifted in the doldrums of the political wilderness for seven years.

Then, in 1929, he contested The Hartlepools again, this time against Liberal Stephen Furness, son of the MP with the same name who had fallen to his death from a hotel window in 1914. Gritten topped the poll by a margin of 138 votes after a recount - to become the only Tory MP in the County of Durham.  Despite the national swing against Tory Premier Stanley Baldwin resulting in Labour’s Ramsay Macdonald forming his second Labour government, in the Hartlepools Labour had again been at the bottom of the poll, although G. Oliver polled well over 7,000 votes more than his predecessor had done in 1924.

Howard Gritten would be returned in 1931 and again in 1935 and would remain MP for the Hartlepools  - there were no General Elections during the Second World War -  until he died in 1943. In the ensuing by-election, his successor, Tory Colonel T. G. Greenwell, was returned unopposed by either of the two main parties because of the wartime truce; he would lose the seat in the post-war Labour landslide of 1945 but by only 275 votes. For the first time and for the next fourteen years, the Hartlepools would have a Labour MP:  another ‘stranger’, Welsh railway signalman David Jones.

When a local Tory candidate as early as 1868 won the seat with a majority of only three votes, it seems to have set the precedent in the Hartlepools for an unusual number of election narrow majorities after recounts. Whatever reasons may be advanced for this, an explanation should be attempted in the specific case of Howard Gritten as to why a Tory regained his seat in this industrial constituency at the depth of the recession in 1929 and retained it for another fourteen years. He would have a 34-year association with the Hartlepools, a total of eighteen as MP, and personally claimed that none of his contemporaries had stood anywhere in the UK nine times for the same constituency.

His performances within the House of Commons cannot account for him being returned three times following his defeats in 1922 and 1923.  While he supported the 1919 Act which gave (some) women the vote for the first time, his Bill to amend the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act failed; while his speeches on the floor of the House on behalf of the fishing and shipbuilding industries gained some publicity (including on cinema screens), his representation of Britain’s ten million cyclists would hardly have won him votes in the Hartlepools; and his Questions to the Home Secretary about the ‘cost of education of Jewish children’ (fleeing Hitler Germany) and whether the government intended ‘to continue its special favours to its friends the Jews’ must have alienated many liberal-minded people who were not necessarily Liberal Party supporters. Because he didn’t hesitate to vote contrary to the orders of his party whips, he was never given a ministerial post (which can enhance the reputation of an MP who, for instance, is seeking re-election).

So it would seem his popularity in the Hartlepools was achieved principally through his long-term, consistent interceding with Ministers on behalf of constituents, irrespective of their political sympathies about which, of course, he would never enquire. One of his claims was that he was the first MP to initiate what have long since been called ‘surgeries’ where, apart from being able to be lobbied at Westminster, an MP has an ‘open door’ at a certain time within his constituency to listen and attend to constituents’ problems.


This text has been kindly donated by Mr John Gritten. More information about Howard Gritten can be found in the book

'Howard and Son: Rebels of a Kind' by John Gritten

published by Matador, 2012; ISBN 978 1 78088 063 1

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