I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on the proud political traditions of my home city of Plymouth. Plymouth is a city with a proud, diverse and radical political history. It is the city of Michael Foot, of David Owen, and of Lady Nancy Astor, the first female MP to take her seat in 1919.
Recently, I caught up with former MP Linda Gilroy who opened my eyes to an under appreciated figure in Plymouth’s political history. Lucy Middleton MP was MP for Plymouth Sutton from 1945 to 1951.
Born in 1894 to parents with rural working-class origins Lucy trained to be teacher at Bristol University and worked in Westcountry schools for 10 years. In 1936 she became candidate for Plymouth Sutton. At that time, a Labour victory seemed unlikely as Nancy Astor had been the seat’s sitting Conservative MP for 17 years. But there was not to be an election until the 1945 landslide when Plymouth Sutton returned a Labour MP for the first time in its history.
The rebuilding of Plymouth in the post-war period and the provision of housing were Lucy’s main political priorities. For six years running she was elected to chair a parliamentary party committee to work on the concerns of blitzed areas. Lucy was active in international politics, and was a member of the executive committee of the British Section of the Inter-Parliamentary Union representing it at various conferences in Western Europe. She prepared a report assessing international provision of social welfare and legal protection for women and children. She was re-elected at the 1950 General Election but when another was held in October 1951, and John Jacob Astor, Nancy’s son, again stood as Conservative candidate, Lucy was defeated by 710 votes.
In 1952 Plymouth Sutton Labour Party voted unanimously to select her as their prospective parliamentary candidate. In her campaigning she contrasted Jakie Astor’s patrician background with her own humble origins. She said “Those who had rank, wealth and privilege would do right to vote for him, for he came from that class. But I am far better able to represent those who work by hand and brain, and I make that same claim for my party.”
But the results of the 1955 election were deeply disappointing for Lucy and the Labour Party locally and nationally. In the 1956 selection process the party short-listed but did not select Lucy thus ending her twenty years of service with Labour in Plymouth.
In a January 1955 speech she made to the Plymouth Sutton Labour Women’s Section she said “We are not yet completely emancipated economically and professionally… When this party (the Labour Party) started women did not have the vote and counted for nothing in the life of the nation… In those days the nation cared nothing for maternal mortality, for unnecessary deaths amongst the infant population… for housewives who were condemned to spend their lives in hovels.”
Lucy remained active in politics as a member of Wimbledon Party and other labour movement organisations. She was a director and foundation chair of War on Want. She became vice-president of the Trade Union, Labour and Cooperative Democratic History Society and edited the 1977 book ‘Women and the Labour Movement.’ In October 1983, ill-health compelled Lucy to go into hospital and she died on 20th November 1983 aged nearly 90.
In her two decades in Plymouth Lucy made a significant contribution to the Labour Party. At a pivotal point in the city’s history her work as an MP on war damage was important not only to Plymouth but to other heavily bombed British communities. Lucy’s strong practical passion to build peace and stability shone through her international work over a period of six decades.
Thank you to former Plymouth Sutton and Devonport MP Linda Gilroy for her help and ongoing research into Lucy Middleton and the political history of Plymouth.