The Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture – a brief history

Part I: Sydney Smith and the establishment of the Annual Lecture

Emeritus Professor Michael E. Turner,

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

In advance of our Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture next week, Emeritus Professor Michael Turner provides a brief history of the lecture’s creation and development. The first part is given below, and the second part will appear next Thursday on the day of the lecture. You can sign up to the lecture here.

The history of the Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture goes back to the 1970s, and the Department of Economic and Social History, which was later absorbed into the Department of History. To understand the lecture’s creation, however, we have to begin with the man himself.

Sydney Smith came from a family of tailors who moved from Birmingham to Ipswich and then to London, where he was born in 1885. After spending his earliest years in the capital, Sydney moved to Goole at the age of nine when his father fell ill. His father’s brother lived there and the family thought it would be wise to be nearer to him. Sydney’s cousin was a Goole newsagent and Sydney became one of his newspaper sellers, later buying into the newsagent’s business himself.

By the age of 18 Sydney had moved to Hull and was living on the Boulevard. Thereafter he never strayed far from the Hessle Road. Born into a Methodist family, Sydney became a lay preacher in adulthood, but there were also early family connections with politics – his maternal grandfather, Charles Hedges, had been political agent to conservative politician and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Sydney took a different political direction, became a socialist and joined the ILP (Independent Labour Party). He eventually attended Ruskin College in Oxford, a popular college for bright young socialists before attending St Catherine’s College, also Oxford, where he read modern history. He expanded his newsagent business into books, especially those of the Fabian Society, and active politics beckoned. He was first elected to Hull City Council in 1923. Sydney remained almost continually on the Council until 1942, and served as Lord Mayor in 1940. Being unmarried, he took as his lady mayoress his niece, Miss Daisy Sunderland, who was only 23 at the time.

In the 1945 General Election Sydney was elected to Westminster as part of the Labour landslide. Representing the South-West Hull seat, he deposed the sitting MP Richard Law, who later became Lord Coleraine. His maiden speech was on the subject of the National Insurance Bill, where he spoke against a proposal to introduce a means test for unemployment benefits – it was contrary to the Beveridge line that paying into a fund conferred rights of entitlement if hard times and unemployment followed later. Sydney’s other main interventions at Westminster were on local issues, specifically the urban reconstruction of Hull which had been the most ‘densely’ bombed city during the Second World War. He also spoke on Hull’s fishing industry. However, Sydney stood down from Parliament after only 5 years in 1950 at the age of 65 and returned to municipal politics. Twenty years later, when he retired from the Council, he was made an Honorary Alderman for life. External honours followed in the final years of his life: a school was named after him in Hull; he became an Honorary Freeman of the City; and the University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Law and conferred on him membership of the University Court for life.

The Alderman Sydney Smith Lecture was created when the new Department of Economic and Social History was formed in 1970-71.  Following negotiations conducted by two of the Department staff, John Saville and Mike Brown, Sydney made a financial bequest to inaugurate a four-year lecture series in labour and social history. Saville was the first Professor of Economic and Social History at Hull, and Mike Brown was an historian of the labour movement and very much a friend of Sydney. Reputedly Mike’s family dog Syd, was named after him. The endowment became perpetual through a trust fund.

The very first lecture was given by Professor Asa Briggs on 15 May 1972, then Vice-Chancellor at Sussex and himself a noted historian of the Labour Movement. Brigg’s lecture was on Social History and Human Experience. Sydney was therefore in his mid-80s when the lecture series began. He attended the first lecture and wrote Briggs a warm letter of appreciation, although he disclosed that he ‘scarcely heard a word of what was said. I knew he was carrying the audience with him by the ripples of laughter which shook those sitting about me’. Sydney was already blind and nearly deaf by this point, and so in subsequent years details of the lecture were narrated to him by Mike Brown (and tape recordings of the lectures were made).

Following Briggs appearance, the annual lecture became a who’s who of the intellectual left with such noted and often controversial figures as Edward Thompson in 1974. Three more heavyweight intellectual Marxists followed in the period 1978-80 in the shape of Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, and Christopher Hill. The lecture also attracted the Welsh fireball Gwyn Williams in 1983, not to mention a relatively young new member of the intellectual left, Gareth Steadman Jones, in 1986. In those early years there was only one female lecturer, Charlotte Erickson, who spoke on Women Emigrants from Britain to the USA in the early nineteenth century. However, the lecture was proving to be a great success, attracting academics of reputation and distinction to Hull, and confirming the Department of Economic and Social History as an important centre for the study of Labour History. As Part II will show, it is somewhat ironic then that it was labour relations that would bring the first phase of the Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture to an end.

Reproduced by kind permission of Hull History Centre