Letter: H.M. Hyndman, 10 Devonshire Street, Portland Place, to Walter Shirley M.P.

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Includes a handwritten letter relating to the working class movement from Henry Hyndman to Walter Shirley MP.

Administrative / Biographical History

Henry Myers Hyndman was born on 7 March 1842 in London. He was schooled at home before going up to Trinity College, Cambridge where he graduated in 1865. After university, he initially studied law before changing career to become a journalist for the Pall Mall Gazette. During his time at the Gazette, Hyndman reported on the Italian war with Austria, and toured the world with his experiences contributing towards his praise of British imperialism, criticism of Home Rule for Ireland and his hostility towards the democratic experiments in the United States.

In 1880, Hyndman decided to change career once more and stood as an Independent parliamentary candidate for Marylebone. However, he received very little support and he eventually withdrew his candidacy. Following this defeat, Hyndman became increasingly interested in socialism, after reading The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. Although he did not wholeheartedly agree with Marx's analysis, he was inspired to form Britain's first socialist political party: the Democratic Federation, which first met on 7 June 1881. Despite concerns over Hyndman's previously anti-socialist stance, the new party attracted many other socialists including William Morris and Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx.

In 1881, Hyndman wrote England for All based on Marx's work, although he failed to credit Marx, which was followed by Socialism Made Plain in 1883, an exposition of the newly renamed Social Democratic Federation's (SDF) policies. The party's policies were particularly progressive for the time and advocated for an end to child labour, the provision of free education and for gender equality, amongst other issues.

Henry Hyndman dominated the SDF from the beginning, causing tensions and divisions within the party, which reached a climax at Christmas 1884. The party split with several members leaving to establish the Socialist League, including William Morris and Eleanor Marx. The split, however, served only to strengthen the SDF, as the remaining members' views were more homogenous.

The SDF went on to put three candidates up for election for the 1885 general election, although all were unsuccessful. Attempts at mass agitation, initially in response to the belief that protectionist trade policies would help the unemployment problem, during the winters of 1885-1887, only served to prove the futility of such endeavours and refocused the Left's mind on attaining parliamentary representation.

Although focused on gaining seats in Parliament, the SDF initially refused to support the creation of a new Labour Party and as such, caused more members to leave. More members later left because of Hyndman's dogged pursuit of parliamentary success over involvement in the trade union movement and others left to join the Independent Labour Party (ILP) led by Keir Hardie. Eventually, the SDF became formally united with the ILP and other left-wing parties with the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which ultimately became the Labour Party. However, problems continued within the SDF, largely owing to Hyndman's divisive leadership and various members left to found their own socialist parties.

The political force of the SDF was effectively at an end and in 1911, sections of various left wing organisations, including the remainder of the SDF combined to create the British Socialist Party, which lasted until 1920. Hyndman, left the group in 1916, owing to differences within the party over what position to take in the First World War, and set up the National Socialist Party. Hyndman remained leader of the National Socialist Party until his death on 20 November 1921.

The recipient of the letter is most likely Walter Shirley Shirley, born Walter Shirley Smith, in 1851 in Doncaster. The son of William Edward Smith and Jane Winteringham Shirley, the surname Shirley was adopted by the family in the early 1850s. Initially educated at Rugby School, he later studied at Balliol College, Oxford before being called to the bar at Inner Temple. Shirley worked as a barrister before being elected as MP for Doncaster in 1885 as a Liberal candidate. He resigned his seat in February 1888 and died on 1 May that year at only 36. Walter Shirley was also the first president of Doncaster Rovers football club.

Conditions Governing Access

Access will be granted to any accredited reader

Custodial History

Purchased from Myers (Autographs) Ltd., 80 New Bond Street, London W.1., 22 August 1967