When Harold Wilson fought an election in Sunderland

Bede pupil Harold Wilson.
Bede pupil Harold Wilson.
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Just before the General Election of 1964, Harold Wilson was campaigning hard.

But this Harold Wilson was a Sunderland student, and not the man who, two days later, would become Prime Minister.

Harold Wilson in Sunderland.

Harold Wilson in Sunderland.

Today, with the help of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society including Philip Curtis, we look at the mock General Election which had its own intriguing results.

In October 1964, Bede Grammar School for Boys in Sunderland held their own mock General Election.

What made it unusual was that the pupil who stood as Labour candidate was called Harold Wilson, the same name as the real Labour Party leader.

Young Harold was a sixth form maths and physics student and had strong working class roots.

The pupils are acting completely independently. In the circumstances I feel I have not the right to interfere with their freedom in such matters … after all, the people are in the 18 to 19 age group and have reached a stage of maturity when they must be allowed to express themselves

AJB Budge, headmaster of Bede Boys’ School

Harold Wilson the Grammar School pupil was the son of a shipyard worker.

Like his namesake, the teenage socialist believed in comprehensive education, which would have meant the end of Bede as a grammar school.

He said: “I think it is too early an age at which to decide a child’s future.”

He believed the comprehensive system was more flexible and would achieve greater economy in the use of teachers.

Mr Budge.

Mr Budge.

His Conservative opponent, William Blyth was the son of an ophthalmic practitioner and defended the grammar school system.

It made for an interesting difference of opinions and a fascinating vote to come.

The Bede General Election was held just before the real poll and the result was as follows:–

William Blyth (Conservative) 493.

Harold Wilson (Labour) 234.

David J. Winters (Liberal) 155.

Peter Crowder (Independent) 46.

D.T.W. Carter (Independent) 12.

Harold Wilson lost to the Tory candidate at Bede by 259 votes.

When the real General Election was held two days later the other Harold Wilson defeated Alec Douglas-Home and became the first Labour Prime Minister for fourteen years.

Sunderland also returned two Labour MPs and they were Fred Willey and Gordon Bagier.

But young Harold’s views on the comprehensive system were not shared by the majority of his schoolmates, their parents or teachers.

In the month which followed the mock election, sixth formers at Bede Boys’ and Girls’ Grammar Schools organised a petition.

It was organised against the Local Education Authority’s plans to convert grammar schools into comprehensives.

Bede Boys’ School headmaster, A.J.B. Budge, said: “This petition is being organised outside the school.

“The pupils are acting completely independently. In the circumstances I feel I have not the right to interfere with their freedom in such matters … after all, the people are in the 18 to 19 age group and have reached a stage of maturity when they must be allowed to express themselves.”

These sentiments were shared by the Bede Girls’ School headmistress, Elizabeth Bradbury, who said: “I want to associate myself completely with the views of Mr Budge.”

On November 26, 1964 the petition, signed by 4,600 people, was handed to Reg Prentice, who was the then Minister of State for Education and Science.

He accepted it at the House of Commons and also hosted a visit from a deputation from Sunderland.

The deputation included William Blyth (who had won the mock General Election) and Jean Barnes, the Head Boy and Head Girl of Bede Grammar Schools as well as Peter Bettess and Elke Burnham, former head pupils who were then studying at London University.

The MP for Sunderland South, Gordon Bagier, introduced the deputation to the Minister who spent 15 minutes chatting with them.

The conversation clearly had an effect.

The Minister said that the petition against the loss of grammar school status for Bede Schools would be accepted as evidence of substantial local feeling when the Government considered Sunderland Education Committee’s plan for comprehensive secondary schools.

After a hard-fought battle Bede Grammar Schools eventually did become comprehensive and young Harold Wilson got his wish.