The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Labour MPs Lucy Middleton (1894-1983) and Muriel Nichol (1893-1983) took up their seats in Plymouth, Sutton and Bradford North in 1945. Both were well known in socialist and anti-war circles as accomplished platform speakers and campaigners and had stood in previous elections—Middleton in Paddington South and Pudsey and Otley, and Nichol in Bradford North. Middleton, a long-standing member of the Independent Labour Party and organiser of local Labour groups, was secretary of the No More War Movement between 1924 and 1934. Nichol was active in the ILP from an early age. When her father, Richard Wallhead, an ILP campaigner and a committed opponent of the first world war , was imprisoned under the Defence of the Realm Act, she toured the country in his stead speaking publicly on women’s suffrage and peace.
The two women differed in their views of the relative importance of women’s suffrage: Nichol was a speaker for the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies), while Middleton, like many of her contemporaries, did not campaign directly for women’s rights, believing that Labour’s social reforms were the best way to improve women’s lives. She fought her initial parliamentary election campaign “not as a woman, but as a socialist.”
With demands for self-rule in India growing increasingly strong, three roundtable conferences were set up between 1930-32 to discuss constitutional reforms in India. An expert on international affairs, Middleton advised the Hindu minorities at the third conference in 1932. She also qualified as an advertising consultant and became a national campaigner for the Labour party. In the early 1930s she met James Smith Middleton, who served as General Secretary of the Labour party from 1935 to 1944, and they married in 1936. Middleton was elected for Plymouth Sutton, directly succeeding Nancy Astor, who had retired
In Parliament, Middleton focused on peace and international understanding. In her maiden speech, she talked about the need for international co-operation and the extension of social justice. She asked how “peace-keeping machinery will suffice for peace keeping if men, women and children are fed, clothed and housed under conditions that do not conform to civilised standards.” She cited the difference in diet between the people in western Europe and those in eastern Europe and the far east.
Housing and post-war reconstruction were an important priority for Middleton. For six years in succession, she was elected to chair an all-party committee on war-damaged areas. She joined the executive committee of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and travelled widely to attend its conferences.
After losing her seat in 1951 to John Jacob Astor, the son of Nancy Astor, Middleton continued to work in the Labour movement, attending speaking engagements and writing, editing and publishing on Labour history. She became a director and foundation chair of War on Want, and edited “Women and the Labour Movement”, a 1977 collection of essays celebrating women’s contribution to Labour politics.
Like Middleton, Muriel Nichol’s father was also imprisoned for pacifist activities during the First World War. Nichol was a Welwyn Garden City pioneer. She moved there in 1922 and served on Welwyn District Council from 1937 until her election to Parliament, chairing the council in 1944-45. She and Alice Bacon, who was also elected in 1945, were Yorkshire’s first female MPs.
A year after taking her seat, Nichol participated in the parliamentary delegation to India—the only female MP to do so—and made several speeches firmly in favour of Indian independence. “To say that India is in a state of emotional and political disturbance is an understatement,” she told the House on 15 March 1946. “India is sick to death of British imperialism. She wants independence.”
Nichol served on the Curtis committee on the care of children, and supported adoption and foster care. She welcomed the Children Bill, which focused on the care and welfare of those up to the age of 18 who could not be cared for by their own parents or in their own home. She often spoke on education: she supported grammar schools and a broad curriculum for school children until the age of 16; and raised issues including shortages of text books and art supplies for schools. Nichol saw links between housing and quality of life, decrying cost cutting and shoddy materials as making “an infinite amount of extra work for the woman in the home” and urging the Government to build “splendid houses in every sense of the word”. After the 1955 election, Nichol worked for Labour at a local level in Welwyn Garden City.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
Images courtesy of Parliamentary Archives
No More War Movement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_More_War_Movement
Richard Wallhead, MP for Merthyr 1922-1934: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._C._Wallhead
Roundtable conferences (India): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Round_Table_Conferences_(India)
Queen’s Speech Address: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1945/aug/20/debate-on-the-address
Debate on India (Cabinet Mission): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1946/mar/15/india-cabinet-mission#S5CV0420P0_19460315_HOC_57
Second Reading of the Children Bill: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1948/may/07/children-bill-lords#S5CV0450P0_19480507_HOC_72
Debate on Housing: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1946/oct/21/housing
Article in The Times on the Parliamentary Delegation to India https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/archive/frame/article/1946-01-01/3/17.html