Harry Hayfield on the 1955 Election Replay

Harry Hayfield on the 1955 Election Replay

eden 1955.jpg

    The election that saw Anthony Eden’s victory for the Tories

When the House of Lords voted to allow the broadcasting of their work in the House of Peers (which led to the broadcasting of the House of Commons), I doubt any of them paid attention to the question “What happens when we’re not at work?”. Well, in this age of multi channel television, BBC Parliament (who holds the responsibility of broadcasting Parliamentary
activities) came across a corker of an idea. Raid the BBC archives to create “General Election Replay”.

There is something I should point out though before I begin. As I am sure you are aware, the BBC haven’t always been good housekeepers. The reason for this? Well, by the late 1960’s the BBC was running out of storage space and so thought it would be a good idea to get rid of anything that wasn’t serving any practical use. As a result, all we have of the 14 hours of coverage of that first televised election is 2 hours and 53 minutes


At 9.30pm on May 26th 1955, Big Ben duly chimed the half hour and through the wonder of television we are taken to the BBC’s election studio and introduced to our master of ceremonies for the evening, Richard Dimbleby who explains how the election results will be published.

And we have our first election graphic, a map of the UK, that wouldn’t look out of place on an old seventies game show! We are then shown the backroom boys and girls and then the stars of the show. First to be introduced is a certain David Butler, the inventor of swing, who is joined by some of his colleagues from Nuffield College, Oxford. Next is Edward (Teddy) Thompson, the BBC’s parliamentary correspondent, and he is followed by Robert Mackenzie (the inventor of the swingometer allegedly) who is at Conservative party headquarters. His job for the evening is to interview Conservatives and he starts off with the Conservative Party Chairman at the time, Lord Walton.

And as the BBC are famed for their neutrality in all things electoral, we then go to Transport House, base for the Labour Party and join William Clark who is interviewing the Labour Party Chairman Morgan Phillips. And of course, we can’t forget the Liberals now can we (who shouted “YES” then?) and interviewing their chairman is Brian Con.

Having got the humble opinions of the party chairmen, it now time to see how the count is going on (that’s been happening for at least 45 minutes now) and as we pay a visit to Exeter (Con 51% Lab 41% Lib 9% in 1951) and it is here that we are reminded that television is a guest (and has to be invited into the count by the returning officer).

This means that certain rules have to be adhered to. First, all the camera crews and reporters have been sworn to secrecy and second, they can’t show close ups of ballot papers. And aren’t the counters in Exeter a busy little bunch eh? Sixty counters have been assigned to count as many of the 54,000 possible ballot papers that could have been used and they are all verifying like there is no tomorrow.

After Exeter, it’s off up to Salford (with two constituencies of East and West which both returned Labour MP’s with passable majorities of 13% in East and 7% in West). Next is Watford (Lab 48% Con 47% Lib 5%) then Cheltenham (Con 57% Lab 43%) and we finish in Wembley (which like Salford elects two MP’s only this time they are both Conservatives with majorities of 20% in North and 11% in South).

Next comes the regions. First is Scotland, and the presenter up there apolgise in advance that in four seats the votes take such a long time to be counted, that we won’t know who the MP is until after the programme finishes explaining that Argyll (Con 68% Lab 32%), Invernesshire (Con 65% Lab 35%), the Western Isles (Lab 49% Con 41% Lib 6% SNP 5%) and Orkney and Shetland (Lib 57% Con 26% Lab 16%) are so big that it takes most of the polling day to get the votes to the counting centres.

Next comes Wales and Professor Brynle Thomas (who is introduced by a grid showing Wales in 951 having elected 6 Conservatives 3 Liberals and 27 Labour MP’s). He explains some of the seats may be influenced by the actions of the Welsh Nationalists and the recent defection of Lady Megan Lloyd George to Labour and her campaign for a Parliament for Wales.

Allan Bullock and Herbert Nichols are our next guests and they spend a good three minutes discussing the election in front of a fire in their rooms in Oxford but are interrupted by Mr. Dimbleby with news that the first result is expected from Cheltenham.

(Transcription of Cheltenham declaration)

Clerk: The Returning Officer is about to ask the candidates if they are
satisfied with the way that the count has been conducted. The figures are
being brought up here now. (to candidates) Are you satisfied? (Both
candidates nod in agreement) Will everyone keep quite quiet while the
results are being announced. Are all the papers been completely given,
because the Mayor, Colonel Biggs, the Returning Officer is about to announce
the result. Would you like to stand Your Worship

Mayor: I, returning officer for Cheltenham, hereby give notice that the
total number of votes given for each candidate at this election was:
Williams, Whitehead Hicks Beach 24,259, James Finnigan 16,638 and that
Williams, Whitehead Hicks Beach has been duly elected as Member of
Parliament for the Cheltenham constituency

[The picture features Anthony Eden’s declaration in Leamington]

Harry Hayfield

Note from Mike Smithson
: This is the latest of PB.C’s guest contributions. If you have any thoughts about an article then please email me.

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