Simmons, Charles James (‘Jim’)
1893-1975

Born on 9 April 1893, the eldest son of a Primitive Methodist family in Moseley, Birmingham, who attended the Greet PM Mission in Balsall Heath. His maternal grandfather, Charles Henry Russell (1848-1918), a PM local preacher, was a Liberal and a friend of Joseph Arch. His parents were strong temperance advocates. Leaving school at 14, he had a succession of jobs. Visiting the homes of Sunday School pupils with his aunt convinced him that the causes of poverty were more complex and deeper than the temperance movement acknowledged. At 16 he became a local preacher, but when Methodist Union took place in 1932 he withdrew, saying, ‘The straitjacket of orthodoxy was not for me.’ Nevertheless, his allegiance to evangelical religion was not weakened.

His political development was influenced by Socialist philosophy, especially the speeches of George Lansbury on Christian Socialism. Attracted by ‘the warm human inspiring’ socialism of the Independent Labour Party, his break with the Liberals came finally when Winston Churchill sent troops to Birmingham during the 1911 transport strike. Influenced by the writings of Robert Blatchford, he enlisted in the Worcester special reserve battalion, joined the Army Temperance Movement and went to the local PM chapel. In 1914 he declared, ‘I’m off to the front and, in a way I am glad, for though I have come to oppose all war, I am no coward and wish to prove it.’ Wounded on 17 March 1915, he nevertheless returned to the front line in time to go ‘over the top’ at Richbourg on May 15 and spent five nights in a shell-hole in ‘no man’s land’ behind the German lines before being rescued. While convalescing at a hospital near Bacup, he preached in many local PM chapels and on returning to the front was presented with an inscribed clock by Booth Road PM Chapel. Shot in the foot at Vimy Ridge in May 1916, his lower leg had to be amputated.

He campaigned with the ILP for a negotiated peace and was arrested and threatened with court martial for speaking against punishments meted out to soldiers on the battlefield. His wife Beatrice contacted Ramsay Macdonald, who raised the matter in the House, which led to his release. He then represented the ILP at military tribunals of conscientious objectors.and was a leading member of the National Union of Ex-Servicemen, a socialist organization fighting for their post-war rights.

Elected as a Labour member of Birmingham City Council 1921-1931 and 1942-1945, he failed to win the Birmingham Erdington seat at the 1924 general election, but was successful in 1929, only to lose it in 1931. Having worked as a political journalist and as the editor of the Town Crier, the journal of the Birmingham Trades Council, he returned to Parliament in 1945 as the Labour member for Birmingham West and for Brierley Hill 1950-1959, serving as a Lord of the Treasury 1946-9 and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Pensions 1949-51. His defeat in 1959 was probably caused by his support for the temperance movement’s campaign for the banning of fourteen-year olds from bars and clubs serving alcohol. He died in Birmingham on 11 August 1975.

His first wife Beatrice was also politically involved and became a member of the Birmingham City Council.

Sources
  • Jim Simmons, Soapbox Evangelist (1972)
  • Times, 19 August 1975
  • Wesley Historical Society, Proceedings, 53:6, October 2002, pp.203-15
  • Methodist History, 41:1, October 2002, pp.316-28
  • Donald H. Ryan, 'Charles James Simmonds' in Ranters' Digest, no.14, Autumn 2016 pp.5-13
  • Oxford DNB