The Bearded Lady and the Puritan

Beverley Baxter January 15 1951

The Bearded Lady and the Puritan

Beverley Baxter January 15 1951

The Bearded Lady and the Puritan


Beverley Baxter

IF OUR old friend the Man From Mars had dropped in to the House of Commons on a recent evening he would have realized that some enormous issue was being fought. M.Ps were interrupting each other, taunts were being flung from both sides, and passions were rising. The visitor from Mars could only come to one conclusion—that we were debating a vital crisis in world affairs. But he would have been wrong.

Be it known to all and sundry that the subject before the House was whether or not the festival gardens in Battersea Park, including what is known as a fun fair, should be open on Sundays during the period of this year’s Festival of Britain. Perhaps I should explain a little more fully.

The Lord President of the Council, Herbert Morrison, decided some time back that Britain should hold a mighty festival in 1951 to show the world that these Islands of the Blessed are full of beauty, tradition and high achievement. Exactly 100 years have passed since the Exhibition of 1851 was opened by Victoria the Great and Albert the Good, so why not show to the world Britain’s progress in the century that followed?

Morrison is a Cockney and proud of it. He was born on the South Bank of the Thames and has never forgotten that Will Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, was also in that neighborhood. So he announced that the headquarters of the festival would be on his side of the river, that a new memorial theatre should be erected there and that the centre and heart of the exhibition should also be on the South Bank.

A national committee was set up to arrange that the whole country should join in the plan. Edinburgh would hold a festival of the arts, Stratford-upon-Avon should have a

special Shakespeare season with all sorts of pageantry, the ancient town of Bath should relive the glory of its past, that choral societies should give tongue and orchestras burst into music, that the Houses of Parliament should be on view and the Thames covered with pleasure boats, and that the London theatre should give of its glorious best.

But our ’Erb also knows that people want a bit of amusement as well so he decided that Battersea Park, which is on the opposite side of the river from Chelsea, should be turned into a festival gardens with an art gallery, a museum—and a fun fair. The swings and the roundabouts would lure the boys and girls, the bearded lady and the strongest man in the world would extract your sixpences, and the ancient cry of the barker, “Walk up! Walk up!” would be heard upon the land.

There was only one snag. If the gardens were to pay their way they would have to be open on Sunday. As it happens there are no fewer than 57 fun fairs open on Sunday in various parts of the United Kingdom. Strictly speaking they are illegal.

But supposing that that iniquitous anachronism, the Common Informer, decided to register a complaint with the courts against the Government for running a fun fair at Battersea Park on a Sunday? It was a risk that could not be taken, so Morrison decided to introduce a bill making it legal. And that is when the row started.

As soon as it was known that the bill was to be put before parliament the Lord’s Day Alliance got busy. It sent circulars to the churches and brought pressure on constituents to write letters of protest to their M.Ps. This mass lobbying was attacked by some of the newspapers as a form of blackmail. The

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Sunday Pictorial and the Evening Standard declared that it was monstrous for an M.P., who probably golfed on a Sunday or motored to the seaside, to interfere with the modest pleasures of the people.

There were ominous rumbles in the Labor Party. Morrison has only one eye hut he can see more with it than most men with normal vision. He explained to the House that it would not pay to keep the gardens open on Sunday unless the fun fair was available. A sly Tory asked him: “Are we to infer from this that the Socialist party is now committed to the profit motive?”

At last Morrison agreed that if we would let him have the Sunday opening of the gardens and the museum, etc., he would leave the fun fair to be decided on a free vote when every member could answer to his conscience and the whips would not be on.

Thus while the United Nations wrestled with the problem of Chinese intervention in Korea and the world was asking if the third world war was at hand, His Majesty’s Commons gathered to do battle on the issue of the Sabbath. I imagine that one did

not need to be a visitor from Mars to find it all rather puzzling.

Yet it proved to be one of the best debates we have had for a long time. Feeling ran high and there were charges of hypocrisy and humbug flung from side to side, but beneath it all was the realization that the basic issue was whether Sunday had ceased to be the Lord’s Day and a day of rest, or whether it was just an extra Saturday with a different name.

On the other hand there was a widely held view that no man had a right to force his code of conduct on his fellow citizens. One M.P. after another declared that they themselves would certainly not attend the fun fair on Sunday but neither would they prevent their fellow citizens from doing so.

The lanky Lord Winterton carried this argument to its peak when he declared: “The fires of Smithfield burn in men’s minds on an occasion of this kind. It is the age-old fight between Cavaliers and Roundheads. I proudly claim to be the descendant of the first attorney-general in the Government of Charles II, who was afterwards Speaker of the House. Therefore Cavalier blood boils in my veins.” And he glared at those of us who represented to him the palm-singing, thin-lipped Puritans who followed Cromwell and blighted England with their dark intolerance.

Should the Poor Be Barred?

Then up rose Stanley Evans, a Lancashire Socialist with the rich humorous accent of the North, and a broad humanity that always grips the House when he speaks. “What we are arguing about today,” he said, “is whether this tremendous innovation is to become a permanent feature of our British Sunday afternoon. For myself,

I am not going to stand for it.” And he fastened his eye straight on the noble lord. The Roundhead was putting the Cavalier in his place.

“This is a continuing trend,” Evans went on. “This is not giving liberty but license. I deprecate the woodpecking which is going on at all these institutions which have built up the British character. I say further that the great social conscience of Greece and Rome was not founded on circuses. It was founded by philosophers who had time to think. The need for time to think is greater today than ever before.”

'Things were going badly for Herbert Morrison but he was not beaten. As a last desperate move to avoid defeat at Waterloo Napoleon threw in the Old Guard. Morrison chose the handsome Attorney-General Sir Hartley Shawcross to try and turn the relentless tide of battle.

Sir Hartley had a great reputation in the courts before he entered parliament in 1945 and was at once knighted and made attorney-general. Perhaps that promotion was too swift for his own good. It meant that he never had the rough-and-tumble training of a backbencher but was a minister from the start.

I do not want to do him an injustice for he has great charm and possesses a first-class brain. If Ernie Bevin should leave the Foreign Office, Shawcross would probably succeed him. But the fact remains that he will never be a great House of Commons man.

We suspected that he had no great relish for the brief that Morrison had handed to him on this occasion but, like the skilful lawyer that he is, he was determined to do the best possible for his client. So he decided at once to contrast the observance of the Sabbath as between the poor and the privileged.

He told us that the Sunday Observance Act of 1780 operates more harshly upon the poor than “those of us who are more fortunately placed, and are free to pursue those pleasures which commend themselves to us.” Thus did he confess that he was one of the upper ten.

With the deep attractive notes of his baritone voice Shawcross asked us not to despise the simple things that made poor people happy. Would the closing of the fun fair drive them to church? “There is a great deal of bigotry about the matter,” he declaimed. “I simply cannot believe that the opening of the festival gardens would be an evil in the sight of God.

I cannot persuade myself that the Christian churches, still less the Christian religion, need to support and buttress themselves by an overstrict regulation of the lives of others.”

A Ghost In the Chamber

It was a good speech with the virtues and failings of being a lawyer’s speech. Morrison turned to congratulate him but sank back with an air of defeat as he saw Walter Elliot (who is Edinburgh on two legs) rise to confound the attorney.

Elliot’s voice must be heard to be believed. It has the argumentativeness of Boswell, the authority of John Knox, the humor of Harry Lauder, and the combativeness of Wallace. His personality, too, has the quality of the glens and the highlands and the corridors of Edinburgh University. Elliot is more than Scotia’s son, he is Scotia.

Point by point he destroyed the arguments of the Morrisonites and then in rolling cadences delivered himself of these words: “That a civilization without rhythm, a mechanical civilization which can run seven days a week without a definite break, should arise is a danger. The tradition of a day of rest, on which as far as possible all work is stopped for everyone, is a tradition we ought to value and which we ought to infringe with the greatest reluctance.”

The game was up. A few minutes later the division was announced. A number of Morrison’s ministerial associates deserted him. So did many of his back-bench supporters. Even the Government Chief Whip marched with his chin up into the lobby with those of us who were against Herbert and his fun fair. When the count was announced a great shout shook the chamber. Morrison had been defeated by 389 votes to 134.

What he had failed to realize is that Britain at heart is still Puritan. In spite of the falling attendances at the churches the religious significance of Sunday remains. Beyond that there was a feeling that Morrison utterly missed that there was something basically grotesque in His Majesty’s Government asking the greatest of all parliaments to authorize a Sunday fun fair so that when our visitors arrive from abroad for the festival to learn of Britain’s greatness and heritage we should legally be permitted to show them the bearded lady and the strongest man in the world on a Sunday.

Although I had taken no part in the debate I did not escape calumny. The Evening Standard, in expressing its surprise at my vote, said the only possible explanation was that I came of a Methodist family and as a boy sang in the choir in Toronto. Well perhaps it is not a bad thing to turn to one’s early days for the path of wisdom.

Herbert Morrison can now go back to the South Bank and commune with Shakespeare. To be or not to be? The Sunday fun fair is not to be. ^