The Life and Times of Edward McHugh (1853 - 1915):
Land Reformer, Trade Unionist, and Labour Activist
Newby, Andrew G.
Edward McHugh (1853-1915) spent a great deal of his lifetime engaged in the struggle for social reform not only in Great Britain and Ireland, but also further afield, including spells in America and the Antipodes. Born in rural County Tyrone to a smallholding family, before emigrating through economic necessity to the overcrowded industrial landscape of Greenock, and then Glasgow, McHugh shared with his friend, Michael Davitt, experience of both sides of the land question. It is not surprising that, having witnessed rural and urban poverty at an early age, McHugh would become firmly committed to the ideals of Henry George, and convinced that land, and its inequitable distribution, should lie at the root of all social ills.
After moving to Glasgow as a teenager to find work as a compositor, McHugh found himself in a city with various possibilities for developing his education as a social reformer. The Irish who had fled to the city in such numbers after the Great Famine were finally starting to organise themselves politically. Native Scots of all classes, especially those Gaels who had come from the Highlands as a result either of the Clearances or the region’s own famine in the 1840s, were contemplating the conditions in which the working classes of Glasgow, and other towns in Scotland, were forced to live. As a member of the Glasgow Home Rule Association, and then the secretary of the Glasgow branch of the Irish Land League, McHugh was singled out as a speaker and organiser of ability, and was chosen to lead a Land League mission to the Scottish Highlands in order to direct the nascent crofters’ agitation along radical lines. After the death of the Land League, McHugh toured Scotland with Henry George himself, and helped to found the Scottish Land Restoration League, a body dedicated to taxing land values to their full extent, thereby abolishing landlordism.
The ability shown by McHugh was then harnessed by the Trades Union movement, as he and his old friend Richard McGhee formed and ran the National Union of Dock Labourers, sustaining them through bitter strikes in Glasgow (1889), and Liverpool (1890). This latter strike was a turning point in McHugh’s domestic life, as he settled then in Birkenhead. Internal intrigue forced him to quit as General Secretary of the NUDL, but McHugh remained active in the Trade Unionism, spending the years 1896-1899 in New York, organising the American Longshoremen’s Union, and preaching the ‘Single Tax Gospel.’ The fact that McHugh was with Henry George at the time of the latter’s untimely death in 1897 gave the Ulsterman a great caché in Single Tax circles for the rest of his life, and on returning to Birkenhead he settled down and spent the rest of his life striving for social reform through the propagation of the George’s theories.
"Dr Newby has demonstrated clearly ... the importance of McHugh’s involvement in the ‘Crofters’ War’ of the Scottish Highlands in the 1880s, and his wider importance to Georgite and Trades Union politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century ... The book which has resulted from this research is important for the light it sheds on McHugh the individual activist and the political culture of the progressive politics to which he adhered.
Interest in McHugh arises not from the fact that he was a prominent leader who has been unjustly neglected by scholarship, but from his role as a figure from the middle ranks who remained in contact with the rank and file as well as the leaders of the movements which he served. His most abiding characteristic was his fixation with the ‘Single Tax’ philosophy propounded by Henry George, a nostrum upon which McHugh based his detailed appeals to the diverse audiences whom he faced in his long career. Dr Newby’s book will appeal to historians of the land question in Scotland and Ireland as well as to those interested in the history of trades unionism and progressive politics in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries: most importantly, it will provide evidence of the links and connections between such movements." -(From the Commendatory Preface) Dr. Ewen A. Cameron, University of Edinburgh
"I am very happy to recommend Dr Andrew Newby’s manuscript for publication by The Edwin Mellen Press. It is particularly valuable on two counts. In the first place, it makes a real contribution to our understanding of the complexity and nuances implicit in the relationship between radicalism and nationalism. Secondly, the subject of the proposed biography, Edward McHugh, is one of a small band of mediating figures in late nineteenth century Scottish and Irish history who have been sadly neglected in the existing secondary literature.
The author handles a very wide range of primary sources sensitively and intelligently. He also writes well. Indeed I think the work would not only find a market among the academic community, but also attract a wider informed readership. There is currently a lively interest both in Highland land reform and in the broader links between Scotland and Ireland in the modern period." - Professor E W. McFarland, Glasgow Caledonian University
"Dr Newby’s meticulous scholarship has recovered the career and influence of this remarkable activist. An Irishman, whose entry into political life was by way of Home Rule organisations in Glasgow, Edward McHugh first came to public prominence by bringing the message of the Irish Land League to the Scottish crofters; his career was to move between the spheres of land reform, trade union organisation and the single tax movement. This biography traces McHugh’s efforts in championing his ideas, in campaigns extending to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as the United States, Australia and New Zealand. It discusses his contribution to the crofters’ struggle and examines his role in fostering the New Unionism amongst dockworkers in Glasgow, Liverpool and New York. A lifelong follower and close associate of Henry George, McHugh was not a socialist but a radical Liberal – a political position the scale of which has sometimes been underestimated by historians of the period. Newby’s study analyses McHugh’s impact and ideas and skilfully sets them in the context of the overlapping and often contentious worlds of land reformers, Irish nationalists, trade unionists, single taxers, and radical Liberals. His study will be an invaluable source for historians of these subjects and related areas." - Dr. Carla King, Dublin City University
“This is a valuable biography on many counts. Edward McHugh may not have stood in the front of politics, but while Parnell postured and Gladstone thundered, McHugh became the consummate activist, a vital mediating figure linking the worlds of nationalism, radicalism, and labour representation. As such, his story helps us understand the nuances and complexities which surrounded the relationship between these classic nineteenth-century forces ... Sadly lacking a biographer to date, Dr. Newby’s work should do much to rescue this intriguing figure from his present fate as an historical footnote.” – Cambridge University Press
Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations
1. From Sweet Tyrone to the Misty Isle: 1853-1882
2. The Right Man to Raise an Agitation in Any Place: 1882
3. One So True and Capable: 1883-1889
4. Dispapointed and Heartsick: 1890-1899
5. A Platform Any Missionary Might Envy: 1899-1915
Appendix 1. Report by Malcolm Mac Donald, Sergeant, Portree, on the state of the Kilmuir District, 6 July 1882.
Appendix 2. Billposter for the libellous pamphlet by T.B. Kierman, August 1890.
Appendix 3. Manifesto issued by McHugh to the dockers of Liverpool, February 1891, with editorial addendum from the Liverpool Mercury.
ISBN10: 0-7734-6291-0 ISBN13: 978-0-7734-6291-5
Studies in British History Number: 76
Subject Area: England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland - History
Imprint: Edwin Mellen Press
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