By Harry Taylor

Pluto Press. 268 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-4398-3

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Back in the 1980s I had a conversation with an elderly lady who told me that she remembered being taken as a child by her father, a socialist, to hear Ben Tillett speak. He stood on a brewer’s dray, she said, and he didn’t speak to the people, he spoke for them. I guessed from her age that she was talking about the period before the First World War, when radicalism, in all its variations, was in the air and hopes of revolutionary change ran high.

Victor Grayson came out of the same working-class background as Tillett, but unlike him he didn’t live to reach a ripe old age. Or did he? There is a mystery about Grayson. He disappeared in 1920, and though several theories have been advanced as to what happened to him, no-one has managed to come up with a definitive solution.

Who was Victor Grayson? He was born in Liverpool in 1881 and was one of six (or it could be seven) children. The family was poverty-stricken, with the father liking to work only when necessary and to drink whenever he could. Grayson’s mother was probably illiterate.  Grayson was said to have been a sickly child and stammered badly as he learned to talk. He was also afflicted with epilepsy. Neither condition appears to have been a factor in his later activities. It would seem that his family had somehow scraped enough money together for him to have elocution lessons to help cure the stammer. And there are no references to epilepsy affecting him as he got older.

Grayson would have seen at close hand how low wages, casual employment, poor housing, a lack of educational opportunities, and similar factors, affected the lives of the dockers and other workers. He started work when he was fourteen as an apprentice engine turner at the Bank Hall Engine Works of J.H. Wilson & Sons.  Grayson enjoyed reading Penny Dreadfuls at first, but soon took to more-serious literature, usually with a religious and sometimes political base. He listened to street-corner speakers standing on soapboxes and preaching either the message of the Bible or the promises of socialism. And he began to develop a flair for public speaking.

His skills as a speaker were noted by the people he associated with and he passed through different religious groups in Liverpool and Manchester. But he was developing a keen interest in socialism and more and more of his activities as a speaker were soon focused on politics. His reading, too, had moved from scriptures to Darwin, Max Nordau, and Edward Carpenter. There was also a book that had a specific influence. Popular in its day, The Roadmender by Michael Fairless told the story of “a few days in the life of a roadmender in East Sussex as he reflected on living a simple and charitable existence”. Harry Taylor says that it was not a political work, but “some of its passages could be construed as vaguely anti-capitalist and socialist”. The author was actually the Christian writer, Margaret Barber.   

In Liverpool Grayson had met the future Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin, and in Manchester he had been introduced to the Suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. He supported the Suffragette calls for votes for women and the general case for greater autonomy. This didn’t go down well with some on the Left, especially trade unionists who were suspicious of any changes which might encourage women to enter the workplace. Grayson identified with the more-radical elements in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) than with the members of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC, soon to become the Labour Party) which had negotiated pacts with the Liberal Party and believed in a gradual development of socialist ambitions via the ballot box.

It came as a surprise to many people when a by-election in the Colne Valley constituency saw Grayson chosen as the Labour and Socialist candidate despite opposition from the official Labour leaders. There are interesting parallels with more-recent situations where the central Labour administration has refused to accept a locally-nominated candidate. But it was more complicated in the Colne Valley district due to previous Labour and trade union agreements with the Liberals regarding not contesting too closely what were seen as safe Liberal seats. Grayson, who had built up a large amount of popular support through his speeches advocating socialism, was clearly going against the wishes of Labour notables like Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald when he stood identifiably under the socialist banner. 

Grayson won, though not by a substantial majority. His victory gave a boost to socialists throughout Britain and he was in demand as a speaker. It was probably the constant pressure to keep travelling to various destinations, coupled with the need to forever be on top form when addressing an audience, that started his problems with alcohol. A whisky or two seemed a good way to overcome the tiredness and mental strain associated with always having to respond to demands to appear in public. But it quickly developed into more than a pick-me-up and reports of Grayson’s drinking began to circulate in socialist circles.

His tenure in Parliament was short-lived, though marked by some disruptive acts and a period when he was suspended from the House of Commons because of his behaviour. It’s worth considering at this stage whether or not Grayson fulfilled any duties as a constituency MP. Provocative speeches both in and out of the House, and a capacity to arouse a crowd into action, brought him publicity, but did he achieve anything on a local level that might have benefited those who voted for him? I can’t imagine that he would have been content to sit through dull meetings dealing with routine matters. Edward Carpenter, who knew him, said that “for detailed or constructive arguments he was no good”.

Grayson was becoming increasingly unreliable in terms of turning up at meetings. He failed to appear at a major Labour Party conference in Portsmouth in 1909, where his supporters had been expecting him to present the case for “an alternative, more definitively socialist policy”.  In addition, when he did arrive on time at meetings  ”some of his performances were erratic and blundering, where they had once been spellbinding”. His drinking was getting out of hand. And rumours about his sexuality were circulating and alienating some of his supporters. He was bi-sexual and had, for a time, been in a homosexual relationship with someone he knew in Liverpool. This was something that would come back to possibly shape his actions a few years later. When there was a General Election in 1910 Grayson again stood as a candidate for Colne Valley, but came in third behind the Liberal and Conservative contestants.

The formation of the British Socialist Party (BSP), with Grayson at its head, offered “a fresh beginning for the whole socialist movement in Britain”, as various groups on the Left seemed prepared to join together in unity. But it soon became apparent that the members of the Social Democrat Federation (SDF), a Marxist-oriented party inclined to be doctrinaire, were intent on taking control of the BSP. And when Grayson failed to turn up for the first annual conference of the BSP the SDF were soon firmly in the saddle. As Taylor notes, the failure to give the BSP a genuinely revolutionary programme was “a wasted opportunity for the British left”. 1911 “had seen a wave of industrial unrest, the like of which Britain had never before witnessed”. Railway workers, seamen, dockers, and others, went on strike, and there were signs of a growing commitment to a socialist programme across the country, but there wasn’t a truly efficient radical party that could provide a leadership and a system of co-ordination to direct activities towards a common goal. The BSP never made any great impact on British politics, and is probably only remembered now as one of the groups which formed the British Communist Party in 1920.

Grayson married the actress Ruth Nightingale in 1912, but his health was poor and he was said to have been drinking a bottle of whisky each day. He had a breakdown in 1913, travelled to Italy, and then to New York where he gave an interview in which he sympathised with the syndicalist aims and actions of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He and his wife returned to Britain and when war broke out in 1914 he reported on events in France. Grayson was not a pacifist and supported the government’s war programme. In 1916 he went to Australia and New Zealand to encourage people to volunteer, and in 1916 he enlisted himself. He was wounded at Passchendaele and suffered from shell shock. He toured Britain speaking in factories against strikes and also wrote articles in favour of greater efforts to defeat Germany.  

It was during this period that Grayson’s wife died in childbirth in February, 1918, along with the child. He was working for the National War Aims Committee (NWAC), a “shadowy propaganda unit”, visiting factories and shipyards to make speeches in favour of the war and denigrating “growing industrial militancy”, He was making money with his speeches and writing articles and pamphlets and living well, but still drinking heavily. Taylor refers to a visit to Hull in November, 1918, when Grayson arrived late and apologised for his “battered” appearance which, he claimed, was caused by falling down some stairs.

What happened to Grayson when the war ended? Taylor says that his life “is shrouded in mystery”. As a result several suggestions have been made regarding his disappearance. He may have been associated with J. Maundy Gregory, “the flamboyant fraudster and Lloyd George fixer”, perhaps knew too much about “the illegal sale of honours”, and was threatening to go public with the information. Maundy Gregory was said to have had him murdered. Taylor easily demolishes this theory, and says that a likelier reason for Grayson suddenly going quiet was that he was more or less blackmailed into silence by leading lights in the Labour Party. They threatened to release some letters that he had written to his male lover in Liverpool many years previously. Taylor says that the letters had been in the possession of J.H. Thomas, one-time head of the railwaymen’s union and then a Labour MP, Cabinet Minister, and a prominent supporter of Grayson’s old antagonist Ramsay MacDonald.

Whatever the reason, Grayson never surfaced in public again, though there were alleged sightings of him here and there over the years. There was the curious fact of a Scotland Yard investigation into his disappearance as late as 1942. Reg Groves, who wrote an earlier book on Grayson, was called in by the police and asked what he knew. He gave them some documentation, which was never returned, but heard nothing further.  Groves, years later, tracked down the retired police officer he’d dealt with in 1942 and was told that Grayson was “married – settled in Kent”. When Taylor, researching for his book, contacted Scotland Yard he was informed that there was no record of the 1942 investigation. I’ve abbreviated the search for Grayson, and Taylor’s more-detailed account certainly makes for intriguing reading.

I suppose that, at this late date, it is the mystery surrounding Grayson’s sudden silence that will interest most readers. But Taylor has written an account of his rise and fall that also throws light on the early days of socialism in Britain, and in particular the years between 1900 and 1914 when many people believed that radical change could be achieved either by direct action of the kind that Grayson so often espoused, or by following the path to parliamentary power through the ballot box. It’s worth asking the question if Grayson’s methods could ever have succeeded, and if he himself, even without the intervention of the First World War or his alcohol problem, could have stayed the course. Taylor seems to have doubts about Grayson’s activities. To him it is obvious “That a dizzying array of parties on the left will never further the cause of socialism in Britain, that the Labour Party was formed to represent working people in Parliament, not to be an instrument of protest, and strong party structures and organisation are the basis of electoral victory”.