The Case of the Chinese Coolies, 1906-7

Chinese labour in South African mines presented a problem to Liberal consciences, writes John Lehmann.

In the liberal landslide of 1905-6 my father, R.C. Lehmann, was elected as Member for the Harborough division of South Leicestershire, winning by a comfortable majority of nearly 2,000.

He had been prominent in the Liberal party’s affairs, on the Radical wing, for some time. He had unsuccessfully contested Cheltenham in 1885, Hull in 1886, and Cambridge Town in 1892. These reverses made him unwilling for some years, in spite of a number of offers, to go through the labour and expense of further election campaigns. He was deeply moved, however, by what he considered the unjust way the Boers in the South African colonies were treated in the sequence of events that led up to the outbreak of the Boer War.

When war was declared he stood up to be counted, together with a large number of his Radical friends and colleagues, as an anti-imperialist. He appeared on anti-war platforms beside them, wrote a series of polemical pieces in Punch, of which he had become a member of the Table in 1890, and for a time, in 1901, became editor of the Daily News, and made it their mouthpiece.

During the next few years he took an active part in the affairs of the National Liberal Federation, the ‘Eighty’ Club, and in the running of the Speaker, and appears to have gained the confidence and friendship of the new Liberal leader, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. In a letter to my mother, dated May 13th, 1903, he gave a vivid and amusing account of a great Liberal rally in Scarborough:

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