1926 was, as far as many political-economy historians are concerned, a watershed year. Although the General Strike, which started on 3 May, divided the country, the events that led up to it and how the situation was handled was a major learning curve. For many individuals caught up the General Strike the results were life changing and for a few, devastating, none more so than for the Mayor of Dover at the time, William Henry East (1852-1926).
William, was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire and came to Dover in 1878 to take up the post as Headmaster of Dover’s Art school. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and was, in 1896-97, elected Chairman of the Society of Art Masters. He married Emma Pawson, a Yorkshire lass, in 1880 and they bought a house in Maison Dieu Road that they named East-Lee – now a guesthouse under the same name.
The Art School had recently moved into the Drill Hall, owned by Dover Harbour Board in the then Northampton Street. The accommodation was one room on the upper floor and there were 171 fee-paying pupils. Most of these came from poor backgrounds, holding down full time (60 hours a week) jobs but determined to better themselves.
When William arrived, the school was being run as a charity with a total annual income of only £263. The teaching staff, although well meaning, had little understanding of application and art appreciation. The previous year 112 students had submitted 2,433 pieces of work for public examination but only 24 pieces passed.
However, as part of the deal for making the room available, the Harbour Board insisted on a professional and when William was in position, the school was renamed the Municipal School of Science and Art. It was then officially opened, with great pomp by the Lord Warden – George Leveson Gower the Earl Granville (1815-1891).
The appointment was inspirational. The exam results, year on year, improved. By 1892, the school was considered one of the best outside of London and the Dover Corporation agreed to fund it. William lost no time in persuading them to invest in a purpose built combined Art and Technical School.
On the assurance that William would remain the Principal, Kent County Council (KCC) gave a grant of £12,000 and the Corporation borrowed £11,000, repayable over thirty years. They purchased land in Ladywell for £3,000 and the contract was given to local builder, William Bromley. The architect was J.S.Chappel, who had worked with William Burges, the designer of Connaught Hall, part of the then Town Hall now the Maison Dieu.
In June 1894, the wife of Sir William Crundall, Mayoress of Dover opened the school and by 1903, students were successful in obtaining scholarships to the Royal College of Art. One of these students was Reginald Goulden – designer of the Dover’s War Memorial.
Two years earlier in 1901, William put forward the case of providing secondary education for the more academic boys of the town. At the time, the Education Bill was going through Parliament and if passed, schools and Dover’s public school – Dover College – governors had made it clear that it would remain private. William wanted an equivalent school for Dover’s poorer pupil population, subsidised by the state. In 1903 what eventually would become the Dover Boys’ Grammar School opened in the basement of the Ladywell premises.
William retired in 1920. With Emma and a son who had survived World War I (1914-1918 and two daughters, they were entertained by students, past and present of Dover’s Art and Technical school in Connaught Hall. The Mayor supported by other dignitaries also attended and William was presented with an oxidised silver rose-bowl and an illuminated address in book form.
Although intending spending his retirement painting, William was active in a local Masonic lodge. It was possibly there that he was persuaded, in August 1922, to stand for the council as a Conservative in an unopposed seat in Castle Ward. On election, he was assigned to the committee dealing with the municipal Electricity Company, eventually becoming its Chairman.
At the time, the country was sliding further into an economic depression. This was reflected in the increasing number of electricity failures in the town, due to the old plant wearing out and little money to replace it. The government’s Electricity Commissioners suggested a cable link between Dover and Folkestone but William’s committee decided instead to seek a loan. With this, the Corporation bought a 1500-kilo watt 3-phase 50-cycle turbo alternator costing £24,800.
In 1924, they bought a new boiler costing £10,000, which forced an increase in the price of electricity to their customers. William publicly stated that this would have been greater if they had bought home produced coal rather than imported … which did not go down with the local coal mining community. Cheap imported coal had led to short-time working, wage cuts and unemployment, in the domestic mining industry.
On 9 November 1925, William was elected Mayor at a time when tension throughout the country, due to these cuts, was mounting. In the spring of 1926, the strength of sterling had caused the price of imported coal to fall lower than domestically produced coal. A Royal Commission recommended a further cut in the miners’ wages. The first general strike in British history began at midnight on 3 May 1926. Out of fear to a Bolshevik type revolution, a national State of Emergency was declared.
The country was immediately divided into areas with arrangements run by Civil Commissioners. In Dover, the 78-year-old Mayor, William headed this. Attitude in the town towards the strike was divided. Lady Violet Astor, the wife of Dover’s MP, was reported as saying, “those miners wriggling again – can’t those earthworms keep still?” Five hundred locals answered Mayor East’s call for volunteers to man strategic places such as the electricity and gas works, the railway station and the post office.
On the other hand, under the leadership of the Kent Miner’s secretary, John Elks, the Dover Central Strike Committee was set up. This included Bill Newman, whose son of the same name was active in local politics up until recently. The railway and tram workers came out on strike followed by workers at Buckland paper mill and at the Packet Yard, where ship repairs took place. The second day saw Palmer’s Connaught Coachbuilders joining the strike and by the end of that day, most workers in other Dover industries were on strike.
Throughout the strike, William hardly slept and caught a ‘bit of a cold.’ At mid-day on Wednesday 12 May, the strike was called off and William, on behalf of Dover Corporation, sent a letter of congratulations to Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister. Over the next few days, he put in many hours getting the town ‘back to normal.’
On 25 May, he and Emma were guests of honour at the Boys’ County School (later Dover Boys’ Grammar school) sports day even though William’s cold was no better. The following weekend the couple cancelled all engagements as William’s health was deteriorating. By the Monday, William had developed pneumonia and he died on Wednesday 2 June.
The funeral, at St Mary’s Church, where William had been a churchwarden, was followed burial in Charlton Cemetery. On 26 October 1926 the Corporation resolved that for ‘eminent services rendered … particularly in conjunction with her late husband during the period of his Mayoralty … Emma East be admitted as an Honorary Freeman of the Borough.’ She was the first woman in Dover to be made an Honorary Freeman.
- Dover Mercury: 24 & 31 March 2011
- Dover Society Magazine: December 2011