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Party political

For over a thousand years our village has included amongst its residents people well known and influential but still very much part of our community. For our second story about summer events in Denham, we're focussing on just one event - the "party of a party" that took place at Denham Court in August 1888 and brought so many of the members of this community together.

First is something of the historical background to the social and political issues of those times which helps set the stage for the summer celebration. Then, as you read through the account of the Primrose League Party, do you recognise the family names included in the guest list? Were your ancestors there?

The social situation in late Victorian England

By 1870 Britain was the most industrialised and the most powerful country in the world. Imperialism was popular. British governments since the time of Elizabeth I in the late 16th century had thought nothing of invading and taking control of foreign lands without their own organised systems of government, plundering their resources and making use of their native peoples as cheap or even free labour. Britain in 1870 possessed the world’s largest empire protected by a very formidable navy. It had lost its thirteen colonies in North America in 1776 but made up for that by adding colonial possessions in India, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Malaya, Egypt, Nigeria and Rhodesia. The British Empire covered one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface.

But none of that could disguise the fact that all was not so well at home. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century had created severe social problems, as Britain became the world’s most urbanised country. There was extreme poverty in many of the country's towns and cities for the millions of people who fled from the country to the cities as agricultural mechanisation took away their jobs. There was little job security and little incentive for industrialists to treat their employees well. London’s East End in particular, was notorious as a place of extreme deprivation. There, living in poverty with squalid overcrowded conditions, was the norm.

A tide of republicanism, inspired by events in 1870s France had threatened Queen Victoria's throne even as her self-imposed isolation following the death of her husband Albert in 1861had diminished her popularity. The ideas for a new social and economic order developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were causing great alarm to Europe's ruling elites and by 1888 a good deal of social tension was growing here too, particularly in and around London.

Inspired by their Christianity, some early social reformers such as William Wilberforce and later writers like Charles Dickens focused on compassion and concern for others. The growth of Wesleyan Methodism and alongside it the development of trade unionism were among the means by which communities could come together to seek and achieve a better way of life.

Events in 1888 that precipitated changes

The year 1888 was characterised by two significant events in the East End of London demonstrating the social turmoil of the times.

The Bryant and May match making factory was in Bow, well known for the bells of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, London. To be born within the sound of Bow Bells is the traditional definition of a Cockney. Many of the women and young girls of Bow, some no older than 13, worked a fourteen hour shift for Bryant and May. Working with white phosphorus in dreadful conditions their work was extremely dangerous. The match workers would be required to stand for their work all day and with only two scheduled breaks. Any unscheduled toilet break taken would be deducted from their meagre wages, but the company thrived with dividends of 20% or more given to its shareholders.

One of the worst ramifications included a disease called “phossy jaw” which was an extremely painful type of bone cancer caused by the phosphorus. When someone inhaled phosphorus, common symptoms such as toothache would be reported however this would lead to the development of something much more sinister. Eventually as a result of the heated phosphorus being inhaled, the jaw bone would begin to suffer a necrosis and essentially the bone would start to die. Fully aware of the impact of “phossy jaw”, the company chose to deal with the problem by giving the instruction of tooth removal as soon as anyone complained of an ache and if anyone dared refuse, they would be fired.

The final straw came in July 1888 when one female worker was wrongfully dismissed as a suspected whistle blower. The "match girls" as they were known went on strike winning much support for their cause. Badly hurt by the publicity, Bryant and May conceded significant improvements in pay and conditions. The match workers success, backed by several social reformers, quickly inspired the formation and growth of new unions demanding improved working conditions.

…and then…

In the early hours of 8th August 1888 Martha Tabram was murdered in George Yard Buildings, a block of tenement flats in Whitechapel one of London's most deprived districts. Five more horrific murders terrified the citizens of Whitechapel between August 31st, 1888, and November 9th. The five murdered women were the known victims of the infamous but still unidentified "Jack the Ripper". Many historians believe that in fact the number of his victims was six and that Martha Tabram was the first. Again, the spotlight of publicity was cast on the poverty, deprivation and, in many cases, destitution of the people of east London and many other cities in Britain. Social reformers demanded action.

Nineteenth century politics

Politics in 1888 were rather different from how they are now. It would be five more years before anything resembling a political party representing the labouring classes was established and over 30 years before the Labour Party secured positions in government as part of an informal coalition with Liberals. Though readers of the works of Marx and Engels and the more moderate British Fabians could detect the trend, political party distinctions based on different social and economic philosophies was still something of the future. As the strike at the Bryant and May factory illustrated, the political organisation of "the labouring classes" was still at a tentative exploratory stage.

The two main political parties of the mid-Victorian age were the Conservatives led by one of Queen Victoria's favourites the urbane and sociable Benjamin Disraeli and the Liberals led by William Ewart Gladstone. Both their parties were successors to 18th century political groupings, the Conservatives to the Tories and the Liberals to the Whigs.

The Tories and the Whigs were rather more opposing factions in Britain's ruling eliltes than they were inclusive political parties in the modern sense. For 500 years up to 1688, the rivalry between England's kings and queens and its powerful nobility, from time to time spilled over into armed conflict. Though the distinctions were never well defined, in the 19th century, the Tories found their traditions in support for the monarchy whereas the sympathies of the Whigs lay rather more with the supremacy of a parliament representative of the barony (individuals with vast private land holdings) of England.

At the beginning of the 19th century "the other people" had little part to play in all this. The rules were made for them by their "betters" and they complied or were penalised. However, the swelling demand for voting enfranchisement which accompanied the industrial revolution could not be contained. Traditional political attitudes had to be modified to engage with a new reality. In 1867 a government led by Disraeli secured the enactment of a Reform Act which enfranchised all male urban householders and male lodgers paying £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation, and gave the vote to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land. An additional 1,500,000 men got the right to vote. The electorate was almost doubled. It was still far short of voting enfranchisement for the labouring classes, but it certainly meant that politicians seeking election had to rethink their ways of securing voter support.

By 1888 the Conservative and Liberals had evolved from their Tory and Whig predecessors with rather better-defined positions - though still far short of the commitments and loyalties we see reflected in today's election manifestos. In broad terms, the Liberals had evolved into a political party prioritising the aspirations of social reformers troubled by the poverty and deprivation they witnessed. The Conservatives, though with a leadership no less compassionate, were concerned about protecting the social order and the structures of wealth creation that they believed would continue to serve the country well.

This then was the situation into which stepped the members of the Primrose League

Late Victorian Denham

Denham in 1888 was still a rural community with craftsmen such as Sam Bush the boot and shoe maker and Arthur Peddle the blacksmith and Edwin Wiggins the tailor, shopkeepers such as Charles Hoffman the greengrocer and many farm labourers and servants on the grand estates of Denham Place and Denham Court. The over-crowded seething metropolitan district of Whitechapel was over 20 miles distant and the railway from Paddington ended at Northolt. The journey to the capital that now takes us half an hour was in 1888 more likely to take half a day.

But that does not mean that Denham was unaffected by the new ways of thinking about the place of the labouring classes in society, and the village played a part in one of the most significant movements of those times.

For over 1000 years Denham Village has been a place where people with significant influence, sometimes power, in national life have lived their lives alongside many others whose contributions have been important but more modest. That is something which makes the history of the village so rich.

So it was in August 1888, as the "match girls" of Bow began to enjoy the benefits of their improved working conditions and as the Ripper stalked the dingy threatening streets of Whitechapel that a party took place at Denham Court that had important implications for the Conservative Party and indeed for the country as a whole.

Lord Randolph Churchill and John Eldon Gorst established the Primrose League in 1883 in the wake of the Conservative Party's loss to William Gladstone in the 1880 election. Though as Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli had done much to raise his party's profile and increase its appeal to the new electorate of better off working class men in the cities in particular, the electors had given William Gladstone's Liberals a Parliamentary majority of 115 over their Conservative rivals. Gladstone had been especially direct in his campaigning accusing Disraeli of presiding over an immoral government in its failure to deal adequately with the blights suffered by working people. The Conservative Party that was Disraeli's legacy following his death in 1881 had to maintain the course he had set for it with great determination if it was to return to government.

The League was both colourful and organised with almost heraldic fervour. Sir Henry Drummond Wolff was its most vigorous publicist. He devised a remarkable Primrose honours system, providing for the creation of its legendary knights and dames in very large numbers. Wolff was also responsible for the rich profusion of regalia—the Primrose badges (a monogram containing the letters PL, surrounded by primroses) clasps, stars, and banners—for which the organisation is chiefly remembered today.

The League's purpose and strategy was to reach out to working class voters using innovative campaigning and imaginative social opportunities. Churchill and Gorst chose the Primrose as an emblem because it was understood to be Disraeli's favourite flower. It had already been worn by Conservative Party members on the anniversaries of his death.

The hostess and horticulturist Lady Dorothy Nevill had been a close friend of Disraeli. She too had been active in the development of The Primrose League. Indeed, the founders met regularly at her lunch table at 45 Charles Street, London, where they developed their plans. Her presence provided the first indication of the remarkable contribution that women would make to the Primrose League.

The Primrose League would prove to be a milestone in political development in Britain as the League galvanised political participation and provided a more social aspect to political campaigning and lobbying. It began an extensive network of social activities which included music hall dances, high teas, summer fetes, excursions by train, cycling clubs and many other activities which had hitherto not been associated with the political process in Britain.

The League also appealed to women, including Lady Randolph Churchill, at a time before women were able to vote. Remarkably, in 1891 over half of the membership of the League were women.

Despite its use of novel events and campaigning methods, the Primrose League's founders made no concessions to the radical ideologies that were circulating amongst the labouring classes. The League remained deeply conservative in nature. It was designed to appeal to what was thought to be an innate patriotic attitude of many voters and of property owners in particular. Its members made their commitment to the League in clear terms: I declare on my honour and faith that I will devote my best ability to the maintenance of religion, of the estates of the realm, and of the imperial ascendancy of the British Empire; and that, consistently with my allegiance to the sovereign of these realms, I will promote with discretion and fidelity the above objects, being those of the Primrose League.

The League's motto, though brief, similarly left no doubts - Imperium et Libertas , Empire and Liberty

Prominent Primrose League Campaign Event in Denham

In August 1888, the Primrose League came to Denham - to party both politically and socially. The Middlesex & Surrey Express & Thames-side Chronicle reported in detail on a Primrose League Garden Party held at Denham Court. The record of events is a fascinating snapshot of the times.

As he had done previously and would continue to do later, Mr. H. Swithinbank opened his residence and the beautiful garden grounds of Denham Court [now the Buckinghamshire Golf Club], for a meeting of Conservative Party members, some of whom were Denham residents. The visitors, who numbered between two and three hundred, were most kindly received by Mr. and Mrs. Swithinbank. Some had come from rather a long distance; many were already members of the Primrose League which reached out to new voters using innovative campaigning and imaginative social opportunities, such as this garden party. Following the invitation to partake of tea, which was served in a tent on the lawn, guests did so in preparation for the programme.

The Chronicle's report goes on to describe how shortly after half-past 5 o'clock, the audience assembled in front of the mansion, where a platform had been placed. "After the band portion of a musical programme of a highly entertaining character had been gone through, addresses in reference to the political questions of the day were given to those then present."

Guests included Lord and Lady Curzon, Mr. and Mrs. Swithinbank, Lady Cox and party, Lady Wilshire, Lady Willoughby, Rev. R. H. Lathbury, Rev. T. W. James, Rev. H. Way and Mrs. Way, Rev. C. Joyce and Mrs. Joyce, Mrs. Stevenson and party, Mrs. Boothby Heathcote and party, Mrs. Mayne (Fulmer), Mrs. Garrard, the Misses Martin. Mr. anal Mrs. James (Denham Mount), Mr. and Mrs. Wakefield, Mrs. R. E. Master, Mr. and Mrs. C. E. S. Tompson, Mr. and Mrs. Springall Thompson, Mr. and Mrs. J. A. Tompson, Mr. W. B. Byles, Mr. and Mrs. B. H. W. Way and party, Capt. Barnes, Mr. B. C. Stephenson, General Swanston and party, Capt. Bradshaw and Miss Bradshaw, Dr. and Mrs. Ferris, Mr. C. Roberts, Mr. W. Avery Bird, Mr. C. Wyld, Mr. S. S. Philips, Mr. E. Willis, Mr. B. T. Giles, Mr. G. Harrison, Mr. Fleming, Mr. W. Gurney (Chalfont St. Giles).and the Wardens of the Denham Habitation, Messrs. Bateman, Sellman, and Allison.

Standing out amongst these illustrious names are Harold Swithinbank whose daughter Isobel abandoned her father's political path and married the left winger Sir Stafford Cripps who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour Government following the Second World War. There too were members of the Way family, owners of Denham Place through several generations and the Rector of St. Mary's, Robert Henry Lathbury who was to distinguish himself in 1904 by publishing an extraordinarily detailed history of Denham village over 900 years.

It is apparent too from the guest list that Denham had its own "habitation" or branch of the Primrose League. It was represented at the party not by any local dignitary but by local Wardens of the Denham Habitation, retired schoolmaster Robert Bateman and the landlord of the Lambert Arms in New Denham, Robert Sellman. Evidently the Primrose League was reaching its intended audience.

Harold Swithinbank trained as a veterinarian, but his career was mostly military. He served as Justice of the Peace for Buckinghamshire and three years after he hosted the League's event at Denham Court. At the age of 33 he became High Sheriff of the County. His wife Amy was born Amy Eno. Her father James gave the family name to Eno's Liver Salts once famed as a remedy for most digestive ills.

The Middlesex Chronicle reported on Harold Swithinbank's generous hosting of the Primrose League event.

Mr. Swithinbank, who was heartily received, said his duties on that occasion were of a pleasing kind. He had, in the first piece, to welcome what he might term his own, that was the Denham, Habitation of the Primrose League, and he had also to extend a hearty welcome to the members of other habitations who were in attendance. Within the previous four years (1884), the Primrose League had developed a nationwide network of branches ...which had become an army of voluntary activists committed to Conservative Party ideals and winning elections.

Mr. Swithinbank then introduced his noble guest Lord Curzon who after a few of the usual thanks and pleasantries treated his audience to reflections on the then hot topic of home rule for the Irish, the Employers Liability Bill, and "economical reforms considered necessary in the government spending departments". The Chronicle's rather fawning report, punctuated by bracketed applause and cries of "Hear,Hear" from Lord Curzon's audience, fails to suggest that the speech was one of great humour but it clearly pleased his listeners.

In conclusion, Lord Curzon thanked those present warmly for giving him the opportunity of speaking, and he hoped that the fact of their meeting would make them even stronger than they were before in Denham. (Applause.)

The Middlesex Chronicle had more to report of a speaker's hostile condemnation of all things socialist.

Mr. Swithinbank then called on Mr. G. Harrison of Uxbridge, to propose a vote of thanks to Lord Curzon for the lucid speech he had made, and also a similar vote to Lady Curzon for attending. He thought it was most appropriate to call upon Mr. Harrison to propose the vote, for it would be remembered that he proved himself of great service to them at the last election. (Hear, hear.)

Mr. Harrison said it was gratifying to him as a Middlesex man to have the opportunity of congratulating the people of Denham upon such an excellent meeting that afternoon composed of those who were pledged to support the constitutional cause in this country. (Hear, hear.) He trusted that meetings of that kind would tend to cement that feeling of unity which they knew was so particularly necessary, to prevent the evil machinations of such men as the Socialists and those who sought to pull down and divide this mighty empire. It was a common occurrence with him as a working man, while going about among those who were opposed to him in politics, to hear them say, " What we want in this country is not a government such as we have; it is not the Queen and the Crown that we want: we want a mighty revolution." He did not mention these things in the middle of what was termed a croaker—(laughter) —or because he thought of frightening them, or wished to do so, but merely to show that it was most necessary for them to band themselves together, and to have such meetings as that, in order to defeat what such people wished to do.

Before the meeting closed, a resolution was carried with the intention that it should be passed to the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. The resolution notes that by 1888 the Liberal Party had split over Gladstone's policy of granting home rule to the Irish and a group calling themselves the Liberal Unionists had allied with the Conservatives. The resolution duly delivered to Lord Salisbury made Denham's contribution to the great debate of the times very clear:

"That this meeting of the Denham Habitation of the Primrose League and their friends, both Conservatives and Liberal Unionists, desire to record their admiration and respectful approbation of the consistent and able policy of Lord Salisbury and the present Ministry, and the successful results which, with the assistance of Lord Harrington and the Liberal Unionists, have crowned their courageous endeavours during the session now drawing to a close, to maintain the unity and advance the interests of the of the British Empire."

Then finally the political meeting turned back into a party as The Chronicle reported "an extremely clever and diverting musical entertainment by Mr. Frank Buckley of London, was resumed".

The lasting influence of the League

Enthusiasm for the Primrose League at that time spurred its adherents into excess. In May 1891 the Oxfordshire Telegraph reported on a political meeting in Bletchley chaired by a Labour Party member who reminded those gathered “not to be intimidated by Primrose ladies.” They had only to send to him particulars of a harassment, with evidence ready, and he would take the matter up and have the culprits punished as they deserved to be. (Prolonged applause.) He would remind these enthusiastic miscreants that the ballot was absolutely secret. He found it necessary to emphasise this, "inasmuch as the Tories were fond of giving an impression that they could tell how a labourer or any other elector voted". The ballot was entirely secret, and the Tories knew that as well.

Nonetheless other parties realised the value of the Primrose League's initiative of mixing party politics with social events and events like this became part of the summer calendar. In September 1929 for example, Sir Oswald Mosley, then a Minister in a Labour Government before his disillusionment with mainstream politics drove him towards fascism, hosted a fete for Labour at Savay Farm. The Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette anticipated the event: "Given a continuance of the fine weather, many hundreds should spend a happy day in the grounds of Savay Farm, Denham where the Labour Party are holding a fete, in September 1929 by kind permission of Sir Oswald Mosley, M.P., and Lady Cynthia Mosley, M.P. The grounds open at 12, sports commence at 2:30, and there will be sideshows, competitions and refreshments. Music will be provided by the Wycombe Excelsior Band, and there will be dancing on the lawn."

For Lady Cynthia, an admirer of Trostky who was known to friends and family as

"Cimmie", this fete in support of the Labour Party would have been a curious event in her family history for she was the daughter of Lord and Lady Curzon who had been the special guests at the Primrose League Party hosted by Harold Swithinbank at Denham Court in 1888.

The Primrose League itself continued to hold its social meetings for many years, but it never managed to return itself to such political relevance as between the crucial years of 1885 - 1906. As other parties and organisations emulated its tactics and techniques, the Primrose League became just one voice amongst a sea of others. It held its centenary in 1983 but was seen as little more than a Conservative social club by then. In 2004, it transferred its remaining assets to the Conservative Party that year.


Primrose League banner Originally uploaded to English Wikipedia by Henrygb., Creative Commons Licence <>, via Wikimedia Commons -

Other images by Wikimedia Commons Images public domain


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