When Angela Lansbury, star of stage and screen, died in October 2022, newspapers were quick to highlight her ties to Ireland. She lived in east Cork with her family for a time in the 1970s and kept a house there for many years.
One particular link received little attention, however – her paternal grandfather, George Lansbury. As the long-serving Labour MP for the constituency of Bow and Bromley in London’s East End, George Lansbury played his part in fostering good Anglo-Irish relations.
He did this by raising questions in the House of Commons during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s , and later about the oath of allegiance, land annuities, and the welfare of Irishmen held in British prisons.
So diligently did he work for those aims that when he died in 1940, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington described him as a “valiant friend of Ireland” and a “faithful friend of Ireland”. Sheehy-Skeffington first met Lansbury when he visited Dublin after the 1913 lockout. Lansbury was a supporter of the trade union leader Jim Larkin and has been described as a “tireless propagandist for socialism”.
He was also a campaigner for peace, social justice, local democracy, workers’ conditions, and women’s rights. At one point, his commitment to the women’s suffrage movement cost him his seat in parliament.
In 1912, he resigned his seat in order to be re-elected as an independent on the issue of “Votes for Women”. He was not returned on that occasion, but he made his point and continued to campaign for what he believed in.
Lansbury became interested in politics and socialism through the Irish-born trade unionist John Hales. When Lansbury was 11 years old, he heard Hales speak in London and became convinced that he should follow this path. He would later call Hales, who was secretary of the First International (founded by a group that included Karl Marx in 1864), his “adviser and friend”.
While still in his late teens, Lansbury watched as William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli debated on the floor of the House of Commons.
From a modest background, he entered politics after leaving school at age 14 and working in various positions, including as a clerk, wholesale grocer, and as a contractor for the Great Eastern Railway.
In 1912, Lansbury and other Labour MPs raised questions about Home Rule in the Commons. He would continue to raise questions about Ireland in the house and over the next two decades and even after he lost his seat for a period, continued to speak on issues relating to Ireland.
In 1920, he addressed a meeting of the Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain in London. As he got up to speak, the audience rose to its feet and sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow”. He said that the Labour Party would stand by the men and women of Ireland as it would stand by the men and women of Egypt, India and Africa.
He pleaded for an end to the blockade of Soviet Russia and while he was enthusiastically received by the crowd, the organiser, Art O’Brien, lamented the fact that the Labour Party speakers were “hopeless” and “seemed quite unable to keep to the point and wandered away to Russia on every possible occasion”.
As the Free State was finding its feet, Lansbury put questions to ministers in the Commons on what assistance would be given to the government in Dublin and on the issue of Irish prisoners held in British prisons.
In July 1925, Lansbury jointly handed over a cheque for £500 to the Irish section of the Workers’ International Relief, an international organisation linked to the Communist International (Cominterm). The money had come from the Russian Red Cross and was meant for relief in the West of Ireland. It was reported in the press that Lansbury called it a “present from the Russian peasantry to the Irish peasantry”.
He took over as leader of the Labour Party in 1932 at the age of 73. That year, Time magazine reported that “well-meaning old George Lansbury” was pleading with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury to intervene to halt the tariff war that was raging between the Free State and the UK. Clement Attlee succeeded Lansbury as party leader prior to the 1935 general election.
Lansbury toured Europe in the period leading up to the outbreak of the second World War, trying to convince leaders to do all they could to keep the peace. Adolf Hitler told Lansbury that Germany wanted peace but that countries around Germany were arming themselves.
Listening to Hitler defend his actions, Lansbury said that it brought to mind speeches he heard in the House of Commons where members defended concentration camps in South Africa or the actions of the Black and Tans in Ireland. After a meeting that lasted 2½ hours, Lansbury described Hitler as a “mixture – dreamer and fanatic”.
George Lansbury died on May 7th, 1940.