Radical grannies

Renewing my ancestry subscription after a lapse of some years, I spent the afternoon researching my grandparents. As I did so, I recalled that I had held for years held completely wrong perceptions of one of my grandmothers.

Living in the London suburb of Chiswick in a pleasant semi-detached house, my paternal grandmother would never have presented an image of political radicalism. Her father had been a milkman, a soldier badly injured in Flanders. Perhaps the treatment of the returning servicemen after the Great War had influenced her. Perhaps her political views had been influenced by her friendship with Hannie Collins, sister of Irish republican leader Michael Collins, with whom she worked in the post office savings bank. Perhaps her views were simply those of someone who reflected on the gross injustices of British society in the 1930s. A non-drinker, my grandmother admitted to having been drunk once: at an election victory in 1945 when the Labour Party had taken control of the local council. My grandmother’s political hero was well to the left of the post-war government, she would talk with fondness of hearing Jimmy Maxton speaking at open air meetings.

For years, I believed that the leftward leanings of my paternal grandmother were counter-balanced by the rightward leanings of my maternal grandmother. A farmer’s wife, daughter of a soldier, educated in a local convent, spending time in service, my grandmother seemed the model of rural conservatism.

I was often told of the voting pact between my grandparents – neither of them went to the polling station because they believed that the vote of one would cancel out the vote of the other. It was a pact about which I knew from teenage years more than forty years ago. It seemed logical, I assumed my grandfather to be a supporter of the Liberal Party and my grandmother to be Tory.

My perception was challenged by mother’s recollection of her uncle and his support of the Labour Party. “It came from my grandmother, she canvassed for the Labour Party when they won the election in Taunton in 1950.”

This seemed such an unlikely thought that I asked for clarification. “My great grandmother was a Labour Party member?”

”Of course,” she said, “that’s why Nan would have voted Labour – if she had voted.”

Decades of assumptions had been challenged. “Nan supported the Labour Party?”

”Yes, what did you think?”

I had to admit that I had always assumed my grandmother to be Conservative and my grandfather to be Liberal.

It seems odd to imagine that my great grandmother had been out knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, odd to imagine her daughter holding onto those principles in the heart of a Tory shire. Odd to imagine unlikely socialists on both sides of the family.

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