James Chuter Ede
Baron Chuter-Ede of Epsom

James Chuter Ede
James Chuter Ede.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

James Chuter Ede has been described as Epsom's greatest son and it is therefore ironic that, despite his lifelong association with and obvious affection for Epsom and Ewell, he could not be the local Member of Parliament. The reason is that he was initially a Liberal and then a member of the Labour Party and the constituency has never come remotely near electing anyone other than a Conservative. He had one attempt at Epsom, in 1918, and was thrashed. So, in order to be an MP he had to seek a Labour berth, which eventually turned out to be South Shields in Durham, although even that was not straightforward.

What has struck me whilst researching Chuter is that he had a long and eventful career before he even entered Parliament, which first happened in 1923; he had the seat for only a few months and did not fully cement himself in the House of Commons until 1935. This article is not in essence a list of his appointments, achievements and honours, although you can compile a fairly complete one from the text if you wish, but hopefully it is a portrait of the man and the times he lived in.

Early life

James Chuter Ede (or Chuter, as we shall call him from now on) was born in Epsom on 11 September 1882, the son of James Ede and Agnes Mary Chuter, who were married in 1881. James Senior's father, George, was a miller, who died in 1850, and his mother, Elizabeth, carried on a baking and grocery business in Epsom High Street, which James later took over, having been an assistant in London to one Mr John Budgen of the grocery family that founded the Budgens chain in 1872. Agnes was the daughter of local builder James Chuter.

Chuter Ede was one of four children, the others being Agnes Elizabeth (1884-99, buried St Martin's, Epsom), George Noel (1885-1960) and Constance Ellen (1886-1974).

James Ede was of the Unitarian faith, a form of liberal Christianity, and he no doubt instilled these values into his offspring. Indeed, Chuter later became president of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom.. After retiring from the grocery business James became full-time caretaker of the United Reform Hall; Agnes taught in the Sunday School and Constance, who was a music teacher, ran violin classes and formed the Band of Hope Orchestra. James was also a supporter of the Liberal Party, as was Chuter originally. There does not seem to have been much money in the family, as George (and possibly Chuter too) allocated part of his army pay to his parents while he was away at the First World War. .James Ede died in 1921, leaving effects of just £2.50, followed by Agnes in 1939 ;Agnes left £510.

The Ede shop in Epsom High Street
The Ede shop in Epsom High Street.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Chuter was educated at the Epsom National Schools and Dorking High School, following which he trained at Battersea Pupil Teachers' Centre. He then went on to Christ's College, Cambridge, studying natural science, but was obliged to leave without a degree owing to lack of funds. Had he finished the course his life might well have panned out very differently, but, whatever path he might have otherwise followed, he could hardly have become more distinguished than he actually did.

He became an assistant master at an elementary school in Mortlake, Surrey and soon became active in the National Union of Teachers; he was also president of the Surrey County Teachers' Association and in 1908 was elected to Epsom Urban District Council. In 1914 he was appointed to Surrey County Council, but the outbreak of war interrupted his political career and he served throughout the hostilities in the East Surrey Regiment and Royal Engineers, rising to the rank of Sergeant (sometime Acting Regimental Sergeant-Major). It was almost certainly his observation of the war and its effects that caused him to leave the Liberals and join the Labour Party.

Sergeant James Chuter Ede
Sergeant James Chuter Ede.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum
This image was badly damaged and has been retouched by the webmaster

On 14 November 1917 Chuter married Lilian Mary Stephens Williams (born 1876 Plymouth), who was also a teacher in Surrey and, from 1928 to 1937, a Surrey county councillor. By all accounts they were kindred spirits and a devoted couple and, when Lilian later became a chronic invalid, Chuter was to be seen wheeling her along near the Houses of Parliament. There were no children.

Lilian c.1937
Lilian c.1937.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Parliamentary hopeful

In 1918 (the first election in which some women could vote) Chuter stood as the Labour candidate in the Epsom constituency and was trounced by George Rowland Blades. At that point the Labour Party was still trying to make a major impact in national terms and its moment had not yet come - it won just 42 seats out of 707.

An early Ede election poster.
An early Ede election poster.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

In 1919 Chuter was foreman of the jury at the inquest on Station Sergeant Green, who had been killed during the Epsom Riot.

In March 1923 he contested a by-election in the Mitcham (now in south-west London) seat and beat the incumbent Conservative by 8029 votes to 7198, but it was a false dawn for him. If you look at the details of that by-election there was an independent Conservative in the pot, who took more than 2000 votes, and it's a fair assumption that, if the independent had not stood, then Chuter would have been beaten. Later in 1923 there was a General Election and Mitcham reverted to the Conservatives by a margin of around 1,000 votes.

Chuter did not win Mitcham at the 1924 election either, by which time Labour's Ramsay MacDonald was leading a minority coalition government. 1924 was a Conservative landslide and it also saw the near-annihilation of the Liberals nationally. Meanwhile Chuter continued to be active in local Surrey politics.

His next attempt to return to Parliament came at the General Election of 1929 and, although he might well have preferred to contest a seat nearer to home, South Shields in Durham (until very recently the seat of Labour's David Miliband) was where the opportunity arose. The one certain thing you could say about South Shields in that era was that the Conservatives would never have won it (and usually didn't even bother to contest it). It was a Liberal stronghold, but Labour had been putting up a strong performance for some time, and in 1929 Chuter won by the ultra-slim margin of 40 votes. So, at the age of 46, he was hopefully in the House of Commons for a full term and his career in national politics could commence. Or could it? Unfortunately not. By 1931 the Government was a shambles. Ramsay MacDonald could not hold his ministers together and the Liberals were in disarray. MacDonald decided to call an election, which let the Conservatives in the door and, although he remained as Prime Minister in a National Government, Labour lost over 200 seats, including South Shields, which went back to the Liberals by a margin of more than 10,000 votes. Back to the drawing board for Chuter but, as you will have gathered by now, he was a very determined man.

A long-term seat

The 1935 General Election was another Conservative victory, albeit with a reduced number of seats, but Labour put in a much improved performance and South Shields did a complete about-face, returning Chuter with a majority of around 9,000 over the Liberal. At this point we should have a brief look at the general area, since it had very particular problems, and at that moment it was no surprise that the voters wanted a Labour man to represent them.

Victory at South Shields.
Victory at South Shields.
Image courtesy of South Tyneside Council.

There are descriptions of Epsom and Ewell life all over this website, so you do not need me to tell you how it would have been during Chuter's time. However, he was the MP for South Shields, not Epsom, so what was that like in the 1930s?

One immediately conjures up a mental picture. South Shields is at the mouth of the Tyne, near to Jarrow and Newcastle, so think shipping, mining, unemployment and social deprivation. The plight of the North-East in the 1930s was encapsulated by the Jarrow Crusade, organised and led by the Jarrow Labour MP 'Red' Ellen Wilkinson (the nickname applied to both her hair and her politics), and was described thus by a participant.
'In October 1936 I left my family to go and join a march called the Jarrow Crusade. The march is consisting of 200 men (including me) and we are going to march 300 miles. We are marching in the cold wet from the north-eastern town of Jarrow all the way to London. The purpose of this march is we want Parliament, and the people in the south, to understand that we deserve the right to be respected and treated as orderly and responsible citizens. The north of England (where I live) is a region where there are many difficulties, and 70 per cent of the people that live here are unemployed and starving because they cannot afford food for themselves and their families because they have no job (like me.) We were fed during the journey and I have brought my harmonica with to keep my spirit up. One of the marchers I know described his home town as 'a filthy, dirty, falling down, consumptive area.' (Source: sea-pebbles Jarrow march diary formally at http://ammonite.wikispaces.com/)
Ellen Wilkinson MP with a group of Durham MPs
Ellen Wilkinson MP with a group of Durham MPs
and (left) Cabinet Minister and future Labour leader George Lansbury, c.1930.
Image source: www.parliament.uk

Before moving on I should say something about Ellen Wilkinson, who stood under five feet tall but packed a mighty punch: she epitomised both the socialist political struggle in depressed areas and the fight of women to have a say and a rightful place in national life. She was born in Manchester in 1891 and managed to secure a place at the University, where she studied history and became active in the suffrage and Labour movements. In 1920 she was a founder of the British Communist Party. She won the parliamentary seat of Middlesbrough East in 1924 and held Government office from 1929, but lost her seat in 1931. By 1935 she was back in the House, representing Jarrow, and in the 1945 Attlee administration was Minister of Education, a post that Chuter Ede might well have had if he had not been appointed to higher things. Well-informed rumour has it that she participated in a long-running affair with the married Herbert Morrison (who held the highest offices in the Attlee government but he is probably better known these days as Peter Mandelson's grandfather). 'Red' Ellen died of heart failure following a barbiturate overdose in February 1947 and, although her death was recorded as 'natural causes', it is thought that she may have committed suicide because of Morrison.

The 'Spirit of Jarrow' statue at The Viking Centre, Jarrow.
The 'Spirit of Jarrow' statue at The Viking Centre, Jarrow.
© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Platform Party on the opening day of South Shields High School for Boys, 1936
The Platform Party on the opening day of South Shields High School for Boys, 1936.
Chuter Ede is second on the right. The gentleman centre left is the Bishop of Durham.
Image courtesy of www.boyshighschool.co.uk, the website for alumni of this school under its various names over the years.

In Government

The 1944 Education Act was a watershed at the time, although it was far from perfect. However, as someone who was educated under that regime, I think that, on the whole, it did a far better job than subsequent 'reforms'. Before the 1944 Act full-time education was compulsory up to the age of 14, with mandatory part-time education from 14 to 18. There were all kinds of different schools and funding/governance arrangements and, in summary, the system was complicated and incoherent.

Rab Butler (Richard Austen Butler, who was a Tory colossus but never actually reached the premiership) was the Conservative President of the Board of Education in Churchill's wartime coalition and he was the architect of the 1944 Act; Chuter Ede was Parliamentary Secretary to the Board and was also closely involved in formulating the new legislation - after all, it was a subject that he knew a great deal about. The fundamental planks of this Act were to introduce a two-tier system of secondary education - grammar schools and secondary moderns - with an examination at age 11 ('the 11-plus') to determine each child's destination; the school leaving age was raised to 15. Subsequently there were many criticisms of this system - for example, people said that a child placed in a secondary modern was stuck there forever (which was not true everywhere, since in my time we had children being 'promoted' into the grammar school from local secondary moderns). It is not my place, not in this forum anyway, to comment on whether subsequent changes to the education system have taken us backwards (although I think I have already said that!) - suffice it to say that the 1944 Act was perceived as a major step forward at the time.

Chuter became Home Secretary under Clement Attlee - described by Churchill as 'a sheep in sheep's clothing' - in the 1945 Labour Government, which was elected by a landslide. Voters obviously thought and hoped this would herald regeneration and a new dawn for Britain after the war. In large measure it did, setting up the welfare state, implementing a massive house-building programme and nationalising virtually all public services (e.g. railways and utilities). Incidentally, if younger readers want to know what everyday life was like just after the war, please have a browse through our Epsom and Ewell in the Fifties page.

As is usually the case in the UK, after a few years (or even months sometimes) of a new government public disillusionment sets in. In this instance it had much to do with the continued post-war austerity, especially when one notes that by 1950 West Germany had become the most prosperous country in Europe. And here we were - so a large proportion of the electorate must have thought -, supposedly the victors, still bogged down in rationing, which did not end completely until 1954. (I grew up in the 1950s and can remember, when I was small, that my mother used to go to some clinic or other to collect bottles of concentrated orange juice, which ensured that I imbibed some Vitamin C.) The answer was, of course, to change the Government and in 1951 Winston Churchill returned to power with a wafer-thin overall majority. The Labour Party did not form another administration until 1964.

By the time he became Home Secretary in 1945 Chuter was 62 years old (the same age as Attlee) and the advancing age and declining health of key ministers in that administration (as contrasted to the younger rising talent amongst the Conservatives) were contributory factors to Labour's loss of the 1951 election, but, despite the mountain of affordability problems it spawned for successors, the 1945 Labour administration was seminal and its legacy has been enduring.

One of Chuter Ede's biggest reforms as Home Secretary was the Criminal Justice Act of 1948 which, among other things, abolished hard labour and whipping and introduced detention centres for young offenders. One could view it either as enlightenment or 'going soft', but it was typical of that Government's humanisation of the State system.

Political life would not be complete without a major scandal and there was one during the Attlee years. When you read the screaming headlines in the tabloids these days you might tend to think that such scandals are a modern phenomenon, but every era has its political dirty linen and the Sidney Stanley affair in the late 1940s was grubbier than most, since it happened during the post-war era of shortages and rationing and featured rich people bucking the system.

Stanley was a Polish immigrant to Britain and called himself a businessman, which he was after a fashion, but more pertinently he was a sordid and crooked wheeler-dealer, heavily involved in bribery and corruption. He had been made bankrupt twice in the 1920s and 1930s and in 1933 was convicted of conspiracy to defraud: this resulted in a deportation order, but he disappeared for some time, lying low in England, and by the end of the war he was living the high life in a luxury Park Lane apartment. The man had so many aliases (his real name was Solomon Wulkan) that he probably could not remember who he was pretending to be on any particular day, so it is unsurprising that the authorities never managed to lay hands on him and send him back to Poland.

One of Stanley's strategies was to 'hook' influential people in the hope that they could lubricate the wheels for his business schemes and two of those he inveigled into helping him were George Gibson, a director of the Bank of England, and junior minister John Belcher. (Oddly enough, Belcher was the man who defeated Malcolm McCorquodale at Sowerby in the 1945 Labour landslide, which is how Epsom came to acquire Malcolm as its MP.) The general plot was that Stanley showered influential people with gifts and hospitality in return for 'business favours'.

A central issue in the scandal was the paper shortage and Harry Sherman, head of Shermans Football Pools, did not think he was getting his fair share for printing the coupons (remember those?), so apparently resorted to underhand methods to acquire more. Belcher was heavily involved with this. There were so many people mangled up in Stanley's various activities that, inevitably, word got out and the police became involved. Stanley was arrested and in 1948 Chuter Ede set up a tribunal under High Court judge Sir George Lynskey to investigate the whole affair.

Unlike modern inquiries, which seem to go on for years and often end up nowhere, the Lynskey Tribunal sat for only 26 days and reported almost immediately. Several high-profile 'suspects' were exonerated and the judicial finger pointed squarely at Stanley, Gibson and Belcher. The latter pair resigned their positions but there were no charges against Stanley, although he did decamp to Israel that same year, changing his name yet again. Sherman was described during the proceedings as 'cold, crafty and malevolent', but he is remembered more today (if he is) as a rich philanthropist.

One could easily argue that Stanley, Gibson and Belcher got away with it and should have been put on trial, but it seems that the lack of consequences was very much to do with dampening down the public outrage, which would have been inflamed by further proceedings. A practical political decision then, rather than a moral or legal one.

One of Chuter's major acts as Home Secretary - and one which haunted him in the years to come - was his denial of a reprieve to Timothy Evans, who was hanged for the murder of his baby daughter, Geraldine; he was also alleged to have killed his wife but that charge was left on the file. The Evans case has straddled the generations and has refused to go away down the years. You all know it - serial killer John Christie and 10, Rillington Place. It was worse than the fact that a man was hanged for a murder almost certainly committed by someone else. Evans was of low intellect and was easily 'persuaded' into a false confession by the police; the remains of Christie's previous victims were secreted in the house when the police searched for Mrs Evans and Geraldine but were not found. Christie even confessed to the Evans murders when he was arrested in 1953, but it took until 1965/66, following sustained pressure by the press and others (notably Ludovic Kennedy) to secure a judicial inquiry, chaired by High Court judge Sir Daniel Brabin.

Sir Harold Evans, a giant in investigative journalism and editor of The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, recalled the Evans case in his evidence to the recent Leveson Inquiry on the press. He said, '… I was back in London, sitting on a cold stone seat in the lobby of the House of Commons. The man I'd come to see had written the fatal words "Let the law take its course" on the death warrant for Timothy Evans. This was Lord Chuter Ede, Labour's home secretary at the time. He was the man with the least to gain from reopening the case, yet he had the humility and courage to say that he now believed he'd sent an innocent man to the gallows and society should make amends. I asked him if he'd visit the current home secretary with a group of MPs, and he agreed.' Chuter was true to his word but in 1965/66, the Brabin Report came to the astonishing conclusion that Timothy Evans had probably murdered his wife (!) but not Geraldine. As I said, Evans had never been tried for the murder of Mrs Evans - the conviction related to Geraldine -, so this led to a royal pardon and his remains were removed from the precincts of Pentonville Prison and reburied in a Roman Catholic cemetery at Leytonstone. Chuter never lived to see the royal pardon but he did survive for long enough to know that Evans would be reburied. By the time he died he had become a firm supporter of abolition.

Chuter Ede was in a horrible dilemma when he declined to reprieve Evans. In April 1948 the House of Commons voted to suspend the death penalty for five years and he announced that all those sentenced to hang would be reprieved until the Bill either passed into law or was defeated. Had the Bill become law, Evans would not have hanged but Chuter did not know at the time the catalogue of blunders and inappropriate police activities which subsequently came to light. In November 1948 the House of Lords rejected the Bill, so the Gowers Commission was set up, the hangings resumed and the whole capital punishment saga dragged on for years. I will not repeat it here - please see the final few paragraphs of The Cleft Chin Murder for a potted version. There are still people around today who think that Evans did murder his wife and we shall never know the truth now, but what we can say with the benefit of hindsight is that a conviction on that charge would have been highly unsafe.

The grave of Timothy Evans
The grave of Timothy Evans in Leytonstone.
Image source: Wikipedia

Endings

In March 1951 Chuter had become Leader of the House of Commons, but his Cabinet days ended in October of that year when Labour lost the election. He never held high office again but remained in Parliament, representing South Shields, until he retired in 1964, by then aged over 80.

Chuter Ede was hugely respected, both locally and nationally. He was appointed a Privy Councillor in 1944, a Companion of Honour in the 1953 Coronation Honours and was raised to the peerage on his retirement in 1964, at which point he changed his surname to Chuter-Ede. He was a magistrate and in 1937 he was Charter Mayor of Epsom and Ewell, followed by the award of Freedom of the Borough (1939).

Chuter in his Epsom and Ewell regalia c.1937.
Chuter in his Epsom and Ewell regalia c.1937.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

A number of things have been named after him, including a ward at Epsom Hospital, a primary school near Newark, Nottinghamshire and a community centre in South Shields.

The Edes lived at Tayles Hill, Ewell from about 1940 but at the time of his death Chuter's address was given as Chuter House, 172 East Street, Epsom. As mentioned earlier, Lilian Ede had been an invalid for a long time, but she did live to see Chuter achieve Cabinet rank, dying on 1 July 1948 in Ewell; she was buried in Epsom Cemetery. Chuter's sister, Constance, often accompanied him to local events, as in the picture below. Following a fall, Chuter died at the Wilmar Lodge Nursing Home, Ewell on 11 November 1965 and, after a service at St Martin's, Epsom, was also interred at Epsom Cemetery.

Chuter and his sister Constance at a local exhibition in the 1950s.
Chuter and his sister Constance at a local exhibition in the 1950s.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Frontispiece of  the order of service for Chuter's funeral
Frontispiece of the order of service for Chuter's funeral.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

I have not been able to find much information on Chuter's brother George, who also started out as a teacher, but by 1911 he had become a rating surveyor. He served as a Private in the RAMC throughout World War 1, was in France as a meteorological observer and I believe that he worked in local government after that. When he died in 1960 he was living at Worcester Park, Surrey.

Postscript

When writing about Epsom and Ewell people who are no longer with us and who did not live in an era when senior politicians were all over the television on a daily basis, I often wonder what they were like as people - were they very serious, jovial, bad-tempered etc etc? Chuter looks quite serious, although I have seen a photograph where he is smiling (see below).

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that,
'Close colleagues were struck by his tolerance, humour and deep commitment to what he called the good old causes of freedom and social justice. Those who knew him less well found him to carry the aura of an austere schoolmaster, especially after the death of his wife in 1948. They were a devoted couple and he was much affected by the loss.'
For recreation he enjoyed photography, motor boating and watching cricket. He loved attending the Derby (but did not bet) and was tolerant of moderate consumption of alcohol (but did not drink).

His obituary in The Times of 12 November 1965 said,
'Ede was one of the most sensible politicians of his generation. His wit and wisdom were a constant refreshment to the House and a salutary corrective to vagaries and vacuity. He brought to it the finest qualities of the best type of schoolmaster - patience, good humour, tolerance and an acute instinct for detecting humbug and woolly-mindedness. His sympathy for the weaknesses of humankind and his understanding of the criminal mind, derived from long experience on the bench, were invaluable assets to him as Home Secretary. But he was no sentimentalist: corrupters of youth found him an implacable foe.'
Epsom's greatest son? Quite possibly.

A smiling Chuter with Epsom and Ewell  Mayor Ronald Mitchell in the 1950s.
A smiling Chuter with Epsom and Ewell Mayor Ronald Mitchell in the 1950s.
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.

Linda Jackson
April 2013


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