NORMAN A Alvin MA writes about the Back to the Land movement in Bradford... THE late 19th and early 20th century was a period of great hardship for the British working class.

Depression of trade and the protectionist policies of the Conservative government led to mass unemployment and an increase in the cost of living. The Socialists and newly formed Independent Labour Party were active in promoting the poor’s cause, but the lack of food and non-existence of any welfare system apart from the workhouse encouraged many local leaders to take action. In 1906 this took the form of the “back to the land movement” and “land grabbing.” The movement began in July when a group of unemployed Manchester men occupied a vacant plot of land at Levenshulme and began to cultivate it. A few days later similar action took place in Plaistow, London. In both cases men occupied unused land and set up camp, intending to work the land to produce food for their families. Violent disputes between the men and landowners led to their eviction.

Later in July unemployed men Bradford seized a piece of land to start their own colony. Although they had a mixed reaction from the authorities and local population they managed to avoid violent confrontations at their romantically named ‘Klondike Villa’.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Men at work on the land, watched by local onlookers

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

At the camp at 'Klondike Villa'

The first indication of action in Bradford took place on the morning of July 23, 1906 at a meeting on vacant land near the Central Baths, Morley Street. Around 150 men, mostly young and unemployed, gathered to hear Malfew Wilkesbarre, a fiery rabble rouser claiming to be a descendant of reformer John Wilkes, who urged them to stand up for their rights and “find whether it was to their interest to die like rats in a hole or emulate John Bull, Wat Tyler, and other friends of freedom who defied the authorities”.

Before handing over to “the modern Cromwell of Bradford,” Charles Glyde, he encouraged them “to follow the example of England, which had always taken what it wanted, and apologised later”. Glyde, Secretary of the Gasworkers Union, member of the Trades Council and a Tong Councillor, had a long-standing interest in social reform and problems facing the unemployed. He castigated the local council for their treatment of the poor and ridiculed the Government for giving just £200,000 towards helping the unemployed whilst spending £60m on war preparations.

Glyde announced he had a piece of vacant land in mind, less than a mile-and-a-half away, which he intended to occupy. He intended to bring “idle land and idle labour” together, to prove the unemployed were not work-shy.

He initially wanted a few men, used to working on the land. Glyde told the crowd that land grabbing had always been carried out by wealthy classes, with Sir William Tempest acquiring land at Tong which had been common land for 1,000 years, and if they were evicted he had in mind they should move to Tong. He also mentioned land the Council had recently acquired at Esholt, where there was a mansion which could house the men while they worked the estate land. Glyde said next morning he would lead men to the land he intended to take possession of. Around 20 men gave their names as willing to join.

The land Glyde had settled upon was a vacant plot belonging to the Midland Railway Company at Girlington, lying between Thornton Road and Whetley Lane, close to Whetley Mills. Much of it had been used for allotments and a portion for poultry runs. At 6am next day a correspondent from the Bradford Daily Telegraph was waiting at Whetley Lane; his subsequent reports were to show a great degree of scepticism concerning this local movement and the men’s capabilities. He reported that at the appointed hour he was the only person there. Other reporters began to gather but had to wait until 7.45am before 12 men, led by Glyde, marched up the road carrying a tent pole, watched closely by a Midland Railway Company official. ‘Here is the pole, but where is the canvas?’ was the general enquiry. Glyde explained the tent had been sent from striking colliers in Hemsworth but the pole became separated from the canvas which was returned to London. A telegram was sent requesting another tent, which arrived before nightfall.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Charles Glyde, who led unemployed men to vacant land

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Bradford’s ‘Land Grab’ of 1906. Picture: Manningham: People through the Mill

Workers from neighbouring factories were curious as to what was happening. Glyde explained they were occupying the land and intended to live and sleep on it while they cultivated it. It was a peaceful campaign, they didn’t want a disturbance or any inconvenience to local residents. Following this speech one of the campers asked: “When have we to feel hungry Mr Glyde?” This plea led to a collection among onlookers raising 4s. With half of this the men bought some tea and bread and butter for breakfast. At 1pm they had the same and again in the evening. After their breakfast, the Telegraph reported that the men “lit their pipes and cigarettes and behaved in a manner suggestive of a gipsy’s life.” Around 3.30pm the tent finally arrived and the men erected their shelter, with a few boxes as seats and bundles of straw on the ground.

Later that day Wilkesbarre and Glyde addressed around 200 people in Morley Street, stating that they weren’t grabbing land but merely borrowing a piece of unused land. It was done to draw attention to the country’s 800,000 unemployed and they felt their actions would have the sympathy of thousands of Bradfordians. They weren’t intending to cause disruption to the neighbourhood and the land would probably be in a better condition when they left. Glyde assured his listeners they would readily quit the land if its owners had any plans to develop it. In the meantime the men needed several items to ensure their occupation was successful; they needed furnishings for their ‘Klondike Villa’ and required picks and shovels and a supply of seeds to grow produce. Glyde said 10 men would stay overnight at the site; Fred Lucas, P Wallbank, John Jackman, W Duckworth, G Clark, J Hackerham, WM Brear, Alf Hodder, Marshall Heaton and Tom Rushworth - mostly dyers’ labourers. There would be about 20 men on the site, required to work 10 hours a day and the cost of their meals would be around 6s.

Wilkesbarre, a more fiery orator, took the platform and stated that their action was to get work for the men, but if they couldn’t get work the next best thing was to get into trouble, because they might as well be in jail as out of work and starving: He said if he was out of work he would “go and steal something to eat”, justifying himself by stating that Ruskin and Cardinal Manning had admitted that a starving man had a right to steal.

Back at camp there were rumours of trouble during the night from ‘corner boys and loafers’. People were visiting up to midnight, offering the squatters beer, which was refused as no intoxicants were allowed. By 1.30am most squatters had settled down to sleep on the straw bedding but were disturbed by stones thrown against the tent and attempts to cut guy ropes. Some men got just 90 minutes sleep.

Next week Mr Alvin reveals more of the story of Bradford’s ‘land grabbers’ and their camp at Klondike Villa.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus:

Site of Klondike Villa from Ordnance Survey map, 1893