Today is the birthday of Norah Runge (27 September 1884 – 6 June 1978), an unsung interwar woman MP. To mark the occasion we are delighted to publish this guest post by Vote 100 volunteers Oonagh Gay and Isobel White.
Who was Norah Runge?
Norah Runge would have been an exceptional woman in any age but in the early years of the twentieth century she defied the conventions of her sex and class to become the Conservative Member of Parliament for the docklands constituency of Rotherhithe in east London. Norah was one of 15 women MPs elected in 1931 but very little was known about her until the discovery of her diaries which have provided a fascinating insight into her political career.
Norah Cecil Hasluck was born on 27 September 1884 at no 29 Kensington Gardens, London. Her grandfather had been a jeweller in Hatton Garden and her father was a chartered accountant. In 1906 Norah married Julius Joseph Runge with whom she had four children. J J Runge was a sugar broker, who became a director of the Tate and Lyle Company. Despite managing two homes, one in London and one at Kippington in Sevenoaks, Kent, and the demands of a large family, Norah worked throughout World War One supervising the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Free Buffet at Paddington Station. She was awarded the OBE for this work.
After the end of the war Norah turned her attention to politics, in particular Conservative women’s groups and to working for the Conservative party in Rotherhithe where her husband’s business interests were located. Norah did not plan to become the constituency’s MP but when the Conservative candidate decided not to stand for election very close to the 1931 general election she declared that she would seek the nomination.
Elected as MP for Rotherhithe in October 1931 general election
After vigorous campaigning in the streets and pubs of Rotherhithe, Norah defeated the sitting Labour MP, Ben Smith, by just 130 votes. Smith had first won the seat in 1923 and his majority in 1929 was over 10,000. Norah noted in her diary on 27 October 1931:
General election. Dense fog early. Polled at Rotherhithe at 7am. There all day. Home to change at 7 o’clk. To the count. Beat Ben Smith by 130 after recount. Back to committee rooms. Huge excitement. Home about 3am.
The 1931 general election had been a breakthrough moment for 10 Conservative women candidates, including Norah, who became MPs, joining three other Conservative female MPs, Lady Astor, the Duchess of Atholl and the Countess of Iveagh in the House of Commons. The unusual political circumstances of an economic crisis followed by the formation of the National Government and the Labour Party’s collapse enabled women to win in normally hopeless seats.
Norah’s maiden speech was on 13 April 1932 in support of the second reading of the Sunday Performances (Regulation) Bill, a contentious measure which allowed cinemas to continue to open on Sundays. Her speech showed her concern for the poorest of her constituents and her independence of mind. She urged the Commons to support the Bill:
Now let me turn to the conditions of the poor. They live in streets of small houses, with large families often crowded together in one room. If this Bill is rejected those people will be deprived of something to which they have become accustomed and nothing will be offered to them in its place. We shall not only deprive the children of their entertainment, but also the fathers, and in particular the mothers. You may say that fathers and mothers do not go to the cinemas. But they can send their children and thereby gain a little rest themselves…
This is a burning subject and I can hardly expect to escape without being scorched. I might have decided to abstain from voting, but, speaking generally, I conceive it to be the duty of a Member of Parliament to have the courage of his or her convictions, and, if necessary, to give expression to them. This Bill has a large force of public opinion behind it. In my view it is urgently needed. If passed, it will put an end to an intolerable situation.
Life as an MP
Norah worked hard in her constituency and her diaries show her visiting Rotherhithe regularly and, unusually for the time, holding regular weekly surgeries for her constituents which she called “interviews” in her diary. She was supported in her political activities by her children and friends; there were no staff apart from an election agent. She travelled between Kippington in Sevenoaks, Rotherhithe, her flat in Smith Square and the House of Commons and some typical diary entries from the summer of 1932 give an insight into her life as MP, wife and mother.
Tuesday 28 June
To House [of Commons]. Had tea on Terrace with Lady Astor who had a party of constituents. Home at 7 o’clk. Had dinner party at flat for 6. Ladies Carlton Ball…To House for short time. J and I to Kippington after dance. Home at 3am.
Friday 1 July 1932
To House. To Port of London people about registration cards. To Rotherhithe for interviews. Met Doris there and we came down to Kippington.
Tuesday 5 July 1932
Wrote letters etc. To lunch with Lady Astor. Helen Keller there…To the House. Not home till 2am.
Norah’s concern for her immediate family and for her friends was considerable, especially when they were ill, but she also poured her energies into representing her constituents; calling for slum clearance and taking an active role in trying to resolve the Thames lightermen’s strike of 1932. She relished being at the centre of political affairs, often writing in her diary about a particular crisis or debate but she also enjoyed the life of a wealthy middle class woman with a busy social life both in London and Kent.
Norah stood again for re-election in 1935 but the Labour Party had now recovered its working class votes and she lost to Ben Smith by 4,665 votes.
Oonagh Gay and Isobel White, Vote 100 Volunteers
Read more about Norah Runge’s political career 1931-1935 from highlights and extracts from her diary:
Note on sources: The Runge diaries and scrapbooks
Norah Runge kept a diary throughout her life. Her diaries for 1931 to 1935 when she was MP for Rotherhithe were loaned to the Parliamentary Archives so that they could be transcribed by Vote 100 volunteers. Extracts from the diaries are reproduced with the kind consent of Norah’s family.
Scrapbooks containing press articles about Norah’s political career were discovered early in 2017 and acquired by the Parliamentary Archives. They are on display in Parliament’s Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition until 6 October 2018.