How did the Conservative party try to enthuse its younger members during the interwar period? Some new research by a Kingston University historian has explored the activities of the ‘Junior Imperial League’ (JIL), otherwise known as the ‘Imps’, and how they organised at local level in Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey.
Published in the new edition of the Richmond History Journal (May, 2016), and written by Dr. Steven Woodbridge of Kingston’s History department, the short article on Richmond’s ‘Imps’ in the 1920s outlines the history, nature, and activities of a fairly typical local branch of the JIL.
So, who were the ‘Imps’? As a national organisation the ‘Imps’ had their roots in the Junior Imperial and Constitutional League, which had been formed by the Conservative party in 1906 to encourage ‘practical political work’ among the younger generation in Parliamentary Divisions in Britain and across the Empire. By 1909, there were 36 branches, and by 1914 this had increased to between 330 and 350 branches across Britain, with an estimated 200,000 members. However, the First World War had a devastating impact on the JIL, including the loss of 100 branch honorary secretaries who had joined the army to fight on the Western Front.
In the post-war world of the 1920s, the Conservative party became very keen to widen the appeal of the party to the ‘younger generation’, and thus sought to rebuild the League as part of Stanley Baldwin’s project for a ‘New Conservatism’. Senior figures in the party said they wanted to create ‘practical interest’ again in political work and organisation amongst the young men and women of Britain and the Empire. Moreover, they increasingly saw the need to attract young women, fearing that young female ‘flappers’ (as they were called) might be tempted by Labour and Socialism.
By 1926, it was being reported that the JIL had seen significant growth again, reaching 961 branches, and by 1928 there were an estimated 1,500 JIL branches. In 1929-30 alone, 150 new branches were started and, by mid-1930, there were nearly 2,000 across the nation.
The Richmond branch, which was open to all ‘boys and girls aged 14-25’, had its inaugural meeting in February, 1925, and was based at Bellevue House, in Petersham Road in Richmond. During the next few years, the branch’s activities involved a combination of political initiatives and regular social events. In fact, the ‘social’ side to the League was a particularly important way of drawing in young people and gradually introducing them to Conservative ideals: this included concerts, dances, walks, sports events and special day trips.
However, there were some occasional misgivings expressed by the parent party’s officers that the JIL were perhaps too fond of the ‘social’ side. To overcome this, JIL dances (which were popular and often well-attended), would usually have a ‘talk’ given by a party officer at the half-way point of the evening, emphasising the need for dedicated constituency work by JIL members or promoting Conservative ideological values: in this sense, ‘politics’ remained a big part of JIL culture. There was an emphasis on Home, Nation, and Empire, and (at branch HQ) members also heard talks by special guests from the world of politics or industry, especially anybody with a strong record of ‘service’ to the Empire, such as former soldiers.
During his exploration of both the Richmond branch and the JIL in general, Dr. Woodbridge was also able to build up a detailed picture of JIL activities in the wider Thames Valley area, in both Surrey and Middlesex. In addition to Richmond, branches appeared, for example, in Surbiton, Kingston, and New Malden, while other branches were founded in Bedfont, Isleworth, Twickenham, and Brentford and Chiswick.
Steve said: ‘I found that one of the most active – and most outspoken – of the local JIL branches was in Hounslow, especially in the run-up to the 1929 General Election. They held regular open-air meetings, and some of these became very ‘lively’, to say the least! It was quite a blow to them when Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour party won that election’.
Some JIL members directly blamed their leader, Baldwin, for the defeat. In fact, in 1930-31, the Hounslow JIL appears to have split, with some of the most active members defecting to the ‘Crusaders’, the junior wing of Lord Beaverbrook’s campaign for Empire Free Trade.
The nearby Richmond branch, on the other hand, seemed more able to survive such turmoil, and continued to function throughout the 1930s.
Richmond History Journal no. 37 (May, 2016) is available to purchase from the Richmond Local History Society: