The anniversary of the birth of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in Bradford, its connections across the district in Keighley and with Philip Snowden, one of the most talented and charismatic of Labour’s leaders

It is true that local history is only a second behind national current affairs. Given today’s volatile political climate and workers’ unrest, an examination of early 20th century history, is not the antiquated process that the notion of progress might lead us to hope for in 2023.

Keighley Library holds a small but important collection of ILP records (BK11) and also the Snowden collection that includes the libraries of early ILP members: Lord Philip Snowden and his wife, Lady Ethel Snowden, so we thought that we would look into these important and still very relevant local connections for this anniversary year.

The national Independent Labour Party was led by Keir Hardie who became its first chairman and had its inaugural meeting in Bradford at Laycocks’ Temperance Hotel, Albion Court, off Kirkgate on 13 January, 1893. Its foundations were rooted in the turmoil in the Bradford textile trade which was facing competition from France and rising foreign tariffs on British goods. This had led to greater local competition and an intensification of machine led production with pressure to produce more by fewer workers for the same wages. The Manningham Mills strikes of 1890 and 1891 saw powerful links forged between the ILP and local trade unions that the Liberal and Tory parties had failed to make. However, most importantly from an historical perspective, the ILP’s critical eye, focused as it was on established politics in such challenging times for lower paid workers, helped to lay the foundations for the growth of the “working class” affiliation with the less radical Labour Party that was emerging under Ramsay MacDonald and ultimately that party’s much greater political success in replacing the Liberal and Tory norm at both local and national levels of government.

In Bradford today, the founding meeting of the ILP is still marked by the large mural on the north side of Leeds Road near the city centre on the wall of the Priestley Theatre in Little Germany.

The ILP in Keighley

Keighley is joined with Bradford in its reputation as being part of the heartland of Labour politics at the Party’s time of emergence. In fact, in the 1890s, Keighley had one of the largest ILP branches in the country. Nevertheless, it seems that the politically dominant Liberal elite in Keighley was able to deter the political success of the ILP in the town.

The 1880s-1890s were full of discontent for working men and women in Yorkshire but despite this, the established party of choice, the Liberal party, still won elections – the largest single group on the Borough Council from 1882-1908. Furthermore, in spite of early electoral successes by 1900, consisting of four ILP town councillors and three School board members (both including Philip Snowden), ILP representation on the Council declined so that from 1904 to 1912 there were no Keighley town councillors for the ILP.

One argument could be that the successful influence and patronage within other areas of the town’s community life: employment, culture, education, religion and temperance were such, that voters could not ultimately be persuaded to embrace the ILP’s more radical politics.  Liberal leaders such as Sir Isaac Holden, Sir John Brigg and Sir Swire Smith had brought much success to Keighley, both as employers in successful and expanding industry but also socially and culturally. They were instrumental in the establishment and success of the Mechanics’ Institute, its popular and nationally successful technical education for young working men and women and also the establishment of a Carnegie Public Library for all in 1904. Keighley’s sizeable Irish population also backed the Liberals at a crucial time in Keighley because of the staunch Liberal Home Rule policy. It is also worth remembering that the ILP in Keighley had fewer funds than either Bradford’s ILP branch or Keighley’s Tory and Liberal parties that relied less on the coffers of lower paid workers. One more point is that voting was still restricted to women who were ratepayers and heads of the household and that excluded many potential radical votes from single working women, paid little within poor working conditions, many in the textile trade. Lady Ethel Snowden was to do much to support women’s suffrage and Philip Snowden also became a champion of this cause.

Another argument might run that as a smaller town than Bradford, there was perhaps less room for independent opposition in such an economically, socially and culturally interconnected town. The Liberal elite were employers, sometimes landlords and held good standing within Keighley’s Non-conformist and temperance led community. Minority radicals would have had to have the mesmerising charisma of John Wesley to pull in supporters who would be going against the grain of such family and communal loyalties. Keighley, as a small town, also appears to have had some class fluidity for the educated and skilled working men. David James, former Bradford District Archivist and Labour historian, points out that some Chartist sympathisers had also been able to do well and gain influence within various organisations in Keighley and that this had also subsequently somewhat clipped their radical wings, (David James, “Local Politics and the Independent Labour Party in Keighley” in Keith Leybourn and David James (eds), The Rising Sun of Socialism 1991), p.106.

However, despite the ultimate failure of an early political conquest in Keighley, the influence of the ILP, as in Bradford, was still a pervasive one. It endured and promoted an alternative political option to Liberalism and Toryism in frustrating times for those working people, particularly with skill and education, and it offered a means of publicly active criticism, not least through its growing relations with developing trade unions. Finally, and again in the words of David James, above all, “…it sowed the seeds of a successful independent working-class political party, though it was the Labour Party that was to reap the harvest.” (ibid., p.118).

Lord Philip Snowden, Chancellor of the Exchequer for the first Labour Government

Although he never became Keighley’s MP, it was in Keighley that Philip Snowden was to cut his political teeth.

Born in Cowling in 1864 to cotton and worsted weavers from Ickornshaw, his parents were staunch Methodists and members of the Temperance society. It was an upbringing that was to shape his later political career.

“I was brought up in this radical atmosphere it was then that I imbedded the political and
social principals which I have held ever since”

Philip was one of three children but unlike his two elder sisters, due to the shrewd saving of his father, he did not enter the local mill to work at the aged 10. Instead, Philip who was a bright child stayed on at school and attended the newly established board school from 1874, becoming a pupil teacher in 1877.

His interest in politics started when his family was forced to move to Nelson on the closure of Cowlings mill in 1879.Taking up a job as a clerk in an insurance office in Burnley. His early leaning however, were to favour the Radical Liberal ideals of his father.

In 1886 he won a competition to join the civil service and started to work as excise man. Over the next few years he travelled the country working in Liverpool, the Orkneys and Aberdeen.   However, his civil service career was cut short when in 1889 whilst at Plymouth he sustained a back injury that that left him paralysed. He returned home to Ikornshaw to be nursed by his widowed mother and over the next few years he learned to walk again but walked with a stick for the rest of his life.

Whilst convalescing he put his frustrations into reading and began to read widely on the subject of socialism. Between 1892-1995 his leaning went from the Radical Liberal to moving over to the Socialism of the Independent Labour Party.

His contribution to local politic in Keighley was a significant one, he joined the Keighley ILP in 1895 only a few years after its formation and he became editor of the Keighley Labour Union Journal in 1898. By 1899 he was a Labour councillor and School Board member. His journalistic abilities along with his fine oratory skills made him popular figure and he drew large crowds to his speeches. At the Labour Church and he went on to tour the nation giving talks on socialism.

Philip was now making a name for himself with in the Labour moment, one of the big four alongside Keir Hardie, Ramsey MacDonald and Bruce Glasier. He served as chairman of the National Administrative Council of the ILP.

The early 1900s saw his gradual withdrawal from the Keighley political scene and his attentions tuned first towards Leeds and then west to the Lancashire. Local politics had shown its limitations, and he became of the belief that real social change could only be achieved through entry to parliament. His attempt to stand as the ILP candidate in Keighley in 1895 had been thwarted by lack of funds. He did not give up and after two failed attempts at Blackburn in 1900 and in Wakefield 1902, he was eventually elected as Labour MP for Blackburn in 1906.

It was also around this time that he met Ethel Annakin a young school teacher, feminist and socialist. Like minded and both ambitious for their political causes they married in Otley in 1905, against his mother’s wishes. A leading suffragist it was Ethel that was to convert her husband to the cause. He was also becoming a recognised expert on economic issues and advised David Lloyd George on his 1909 peoples budget.

The couple were travelling when war broke out and they found themselves on the other side of the Atlantic. Snowden’s opposition to the Fist World War was contrary to the Labour Party’s patriotic support and he found himself once again aligned with the left and the anti-war ILP. Such views were against the grain at the time, saw him defeated at the next general election in 1918.


In 1922 he was elected as the Labour MP for Colne Valley. Only two years late in 1924 the first Labour Government was formed, and he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer under Ramsey MacDonald. He went on to reprise his role as Chancellor in 1929 as part of the second Labour government.

It was when he continued as chancellor 1931 under the National Government that he met with controversy. After he introduced a budget that had been rejected by the previous labour cabinet, he was expelled from the Labour party.

Struggling with ill health he did not stand in 1931 instead he given a peerage. They became viscount and Viscountess Snowden of Ikornshaw. Philip turned to journalism in later years, but he suffered from increasing ill health and died on 15th May 1937.

The town had obviously made an impact on her husband for it was to Keighley library that Lady Ethel Snowden gave his 3,000 strong collection of books along with his writing desk. Her books joined those of her husbands on her death in 1951.

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