June 23, 2013

Finest Hour 137, Winter 2007-08

Page 48

History Detective: 13 May 1940 – Who was “My Hon. Friend Below the Gangway”?

By Paul H. Courtenay

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“To form an Administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself, but it must be remembered that we are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history, that we are in action at many other points in Norway and in Holland, that we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean, that the air battle is continuous and that many preparations, such as have been indicated by my Hon. Friend below the Gangway, have to be made here at home.”
—WSC, House of Commons, 13 May 1940


Susanne Mclntire writes: “In Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister, in which he had ‘nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,’ who is he referring to by “my Hon. Friend below the Gangway”? I’m working on a collection of speeches for high-schoolers for Facts on File, and I think I should explain it. Can you also explain the meaning of the term “gangway”?

On 13 May 1940, the House of Commons met at 2:45 pm for Questions to the Secretary of State for War (Anthony Eden, who had been in the job for only two days); it was the first time the House had met since 9 May, and the first appearance of Churchill as Prime Minister.

Questions to Eden lasted for only nine minutes, and Churchill rose at 2:54 pm to make his famous speech, which included the quotation referred to above.

It follows that Churchill’s reference must have been made in respect of one of the six MPs who spoke during the nine minutes of Questions. Of these, I feel sure that our quarry was the first MP to speak: the person who raised a matter on which the other five then briefly elaborated.

He was, at the time, Mr. Henderson Stewart (1897-1961), a Liberal Unionist MP for East Fife. (In 1957 he was made a baronet and adjusted his name to Sir James Henderson-Stewart, Bt.)

On 13 May 1940, Stewart urged the creation of local forces to meet enemy parachute landings, avoiding displacement of regular troops. These, he said, would form a volunteer corps of older responsible men who should be armed and trained for action. He added that public demand was insistent. Eden replied to the effect that such matters were being addressed.

The other five MPs then all spoke very briefly, backing the point being made. They were: Sir Percy Harris, Bt. (1876-1952), Liberal MP for South-West Bethnal Green; Brigadier General Sir Henry Croft, Bt. (1881-1947), Conservative MP for Bournemouth, who was raised to the peerage fifteen days later as Lord Croft and joined the Government as Joint Under-Secretary of State for War; Commander Sir Archibald Southby, Bt. (1886-1969), Conservative MP for Epsom; Will Thome (1857-1946), Labour MP for West Ham; and a Mr. Stephen (unidentified).

The Gangway (Aisle)

Government ministers occupy seats in the House of Commons in the block of seats nearest to the Speaker (on his right). Members of the Opposition party, forming the shadow cabinet, occupy similar benches opposite the Government members. There is an aisle next to these benches on both sides of the House (i.e., farther from the Speaker). “Below the gangway” means the benches on both sides of the House, occupied by members of the respective Government and opposition parties who are not themselves in the Government or shadow cabinet.

That is the normal situation. But when Churchill became head of a coalition government on 10 May 1940, the distinction between Government and Opposition almost completely disappeared. So, although the new Government occupied its traditional benches, many other MPs sat opposite even though not in opposition.

Nevertheless, “below the gang-way” metaphorically meant that the MP concerned was not a member of the Government. Stewart might have sat on either side, and even opposite, the Prime Minister.

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