Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Reuben George - people's champion

“It was the greatest public demonstration of spontaneous affection for a public figure that the town of Swindon had seen for very many years,” reported the Advertiser on the funeral of Alderman Reuben George,one of the forgotten political heroes of the town.

But all that may be set to change as  Andy Newman, Swindon branch secretary for the GMB union, seeks to find any remaining family members.  

Born on September 11, 1864 the son of Stephen George, a bootmaker and his wife Elizabeth, Reuben grew up at Highfield Cottages in the hamlet of Barton St. Mary, Gloucester.

Reuben George moved to Swindon where he worked as an agent for the Wesleyan & General Insurance Company and by 1891 he lived with his wife Clara and their son, two year old Herbert Gladstone George, in two rooms in a shared house at 97 Princes Street.  The rest of the house was occupied by Albert Bick, an iron turner at the GWR works, his wife and her sister.

Socialist, pacifist, member of the Wiltshire Archaeological Society, an authority on Wiltshire local history, one of the founder members of the Worker’s Educational Association and supporter of the Richard Jefferies Society, George’s list of interests and achievements is a long one.

Elected to both Swindon Town and Wiltshire County Councils, he served on numerous committees, including the education committee of both authorities.  His lifelong interest in education stemmed from his own humble beginnings and early lack of opportunities.   

Reuben George stood as Labour Candidate for Chippenham in 1918, the first Labour Candidate to stand in that town, with the slogan - 'You have King George, you have had Lloyd George, and all you want is Reuben George'. ...

During his lengthy political career George served as Mayor of Swindon 1921-22.  George inaugurated the original wooden diving stage at Coate Water opened in 1921 and celebrated the occasion by being the first to dive off it.

Reuben George died in the Victoria Hospital on June 4, 1936.  Described as a champion of the under dog he was a socialist reformer inspired by William Morris, the 19th century artist, poet and political activist. George’s fame was not confined to Swindon.  “The news of the passing of Ald. Reuben George was broadcast to the nation in the second news bulletin of the National programme on Friday night,” the report of his death continued.

During a funeral service attended by not only local dignitaries but also the ordinary people to whom George had devoted his life, it was reported that ‘men and women sobbed audibly.’

A letter of condolence was sent by May Morris, daughter of the late William and among the floral tributes were wreaths from the employees at the Electricity Department, Swindon and Clifton Street School senior girls.  The pall bearers were six members of the Swindon WEA Executive Committee.

Among the family mourners were Reuben’s widow, who attended her husband’s funeral against her doctor’s advice, his three surviving brothers John, Alfred and Walter and his two sons, Granville and Stanley, eldest son Herbert had died whilst on military service in India.

Bareheaded crowds lined the streets and blinds were drawn everywhere along the route as the funeral cortege made its way from Christ Church to the Radnor Street Cemetery.

Today Reuben and Clara George's modest grave is neglected and overgrown, something the GMB union would like to address once permission has been obtained from the family.  Minor restoration work estimated at a few hundred pounds would be followed by a re-dedication ceremony.  

Photograph of Radnor Street Cemetery is courtesy of Paul Williams; Reuben and Clara George is courtesy of Swindon Local Collection - both images can be viewed on www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal

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