A look back at Hitchin’s past MPs – Including a Russian baron and a Nobel Peace Prize winner
- Credit: Archant
We live in times of shifting political sands in Hitchin, having just elected our first new MP for two decades – but our parliamentary history is already a fascinating one, with previous MPs including a Russian baron and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
The Hitchin constituency was established in 1885, then sprawling as far as Buntingford in the east and Welwyn in the south.
And just like our new representative Bim Afolami, our first MP, Robert Dimsdale, was a Conservative educated at Eton and Oxford.
Unlike Mr Afolami, however, the original Hitchin MP held the aristocratic title of baron – inherited from inoculation pioneer Thomas Dimsdale, who had been given the title by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in 1769 as thanks for his work there vaccinating for smallpox.
Baron Dimsdale defeated Henry Fordham of the governing Liberal Party to claim the Hitchin seat for the Tories in 1885, and held it until 1892, when he was replaced by fellow Conservative George Hudson.
In 1906, Hitchin elected its first – and so far only – Liberal MP, Julius Bertram, who defeated Conservative JJW Miller by just 76 ballots.
Repton School and Oxford old boy Mr Bertram was a solicitor, Reform Club member and fox hunter living at Sishes in Stevenage’s Pin Green – Stevenage then being part of the Hitchin constituency. He gained the Liberal candidacy for Hitchin on the back of favourable reviews for his pamphlet making the case for free imports.
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The Tories won the seat back in January 1910, when Alfred Hillier defeated St George Lane Fox-Pitt of the Liberals – with his supporters celebrating by unhitching the horses of Dr Hillier’s carriage and pulling him all the way round the town and back to the Conservative Club in Sun Street.
Those thinking today’s hung parliament is close-run may do well to remember January 1910, when the Liberals and Tories had 274 and 272 seats respectively – with the Irish Parliamentary Party on 71 and Labour on 40.
Another election in December that year did little to resolve the impasse, with the Liberals now on 272 to the Conservatives’ 271.
Dr Hillier – who had spent much of his life in South Africa and taken part in the infamous Jameson Raid of 1895 – retained the Hitchin seat until overwork and stress led to his tragic death by suicide in London in October 1911.
The doctor was found partially dressed in the bath, having apparently cut his throat with a razor. It was said that he was driven over the edge by a delusion that men working outside the house were mocking him.
Dr Hillier’s death prompted a by-election that was won by Lord Robert Cecil – son of the former prime minister Lord Salisbury – who held the seat throughout the First World War and retained it in 1918 and 1922.
Lord Cecil remained Hitchin MP during his work drawing up the post-war League of Nations, which he unsuccessfully argued Germany should be allowed to join. He stepped down as MP ahead of the 1923 General Election, and spent the rest of his life advocating international co-operation and disarmament.
This work won him the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s Peace Award in 1924, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1937. Following his death in 1958, Lord Home – later Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home – told the House of Lords: “In the United Nations, which was the successor of the League of Nations, there is many a living monument to Lord Cecil.”
Labour won Hitchin for the first time amid Clement Attlee’s landslide victory near the end of the Second World War in 1945, with Philip Jones claiming the seat by 336 votes – but the Tories won it back five years later.
Founding SDP president Shirley Williams won Hitchin three times for Labour in 1964, 1966 and 1970, before switching to Hertford and Stevenage when boundaries were redrawn ahead of the February 1974 election. Ian Stewart then won the seat back for the Conservatives.
The Hitchin constituency was abolished in 1983, with the town then coming under North Hertfordshire until the Hitchin and Harpenden seat’s creation in 1997.
Conservative Peter Lilley held the seat from 1997 until this year’s vote, which ended with the election of Mr Afolami.
The fact that Mr Afolami went to the same school and university Baron Dimsdale attended in the 19th century perhaps shows that some things never change.