James Keir Hardie
James Keir Hardie, a controversial political figure was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland on August 15 1856. He was the illegitimate son of Mary Keir a domestic servant, who later married David Hardie, a ship's carpenter.
Growing up in Scotland, James Keir Hardie experienced the woes of manual labour from an early age; working as a baker's delivery boy at the age of eight without any schooling. By the time he reached the age of eleven he was sent down to work in the mines, working twelve hour shifts. However, his stint in the mines was brief, as he was blacklisted for agitation. By the time he reached the age of seventeen he had taught himself how to read and write. Keir Hardie's interest in politics was sparked by stories he would read in newspapers on workers attempting to improve working conditions and wages by forming trade unions.
Inspired by these stories, Hardie established a worker's union at his Colliery in 1880. A year later, he led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire. This career in politics continued as Hardie was appointed secretary of the Ayrshire Miner's union in 1886, and then later the Scottish Miners' Federation. Hardie was a trade union activist and a leader, and with his passion to make a difference, he decided to enter professional politics by running for MP. Although he failed to become an independent Labour candidate in Mid-Lanark in 1888, Hardie did not let this get him down, and continued to pursue this career. It was in 1891 that he was finally offered the role as an independent Labour Candidate for West Ham.
At West Ham, Hardie created a name for himself as an influential and radical working man's MP. Through his support of women's suffrage, free schooling, pensions, and Indian self-rule Hardie was labelled a ‘radical’. Hardie became renowned for fighting for the working class and essentially built the political foundation of the Labour party.
During the First World War, Hardie disagreed with many members of the Labour Party over the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, and even attempted to organise strikes against Britain's participation in the war; and he supported anti-war strikes by the working class. His unique views complimented an eccentric fashion as popular as his politics… he sported a tweed suit rather than the common MP formal dress!
James Keir Hardie died on September 25 1915 but solidified his legacy as an outspoken pacifist, trade union activist, leader and the country's first socialist MP. His impact has not been forgotten in Newham. The exhibition in Stratford Old Town Hall and the Keir Hardie housing estate in Canning Town, which was named after him, is testament to that.
James Keir Hardie will be forever regarded as a true working class hero, a radical and the first Labour MP for the then constituency of West Ham South.
Image: James Keir Hardie, Courtesy of Newham Archives