Edwards, Sir George, MP, OBE

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Trade unionist, born on 5 October 1850 at Marsham, East Norfolk, the youngest child of Thomas Edwards, a former soldier and farm worker, and his wife Mary. With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854, food prices rose to unaffordable levels for farm workers, so Thomas stole a few turnips and was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour. Mary and the children were forced to go into Aylsham workhouse, where George was separated from his mother. Aged five he became a crow-scarer and subsequently worked as a labourer on various farms.

Passing a Primitive Methodist chapel while a service was in progress, he went in; his conversion followed in 1869. In 1872 he married Charlotte Corke and soon afterwards was recognised as a Local Preacher. For his first service he learned the Gospel reading by heart. He was taught to read by his wife.

His Christian faith led him to devote himself to improve the social and economic conditions of working people. When meetings of Joseph Arch's agricultural union were held in Norfolk, he saw this as a way forward and joined.. He campaigned to extend the franchise to agricultural workers; in 1889 he helped to reform the failed union and became its organiser. His political involvement made it hard for him to find work and thus somewhere for his family to live.

He stood for Norfolk County Council as a Liberal in 1892, supported by several Local Preachers. His opponents made this a class struggle, hiring bands of hooligans to disrupt his meetings, and he was defeated by a small margin. In 1893 he was invited to give evidence to a Royal Commission on the administration of the Poor Law. Both he and his wife were elected to Aylmerton and Felbrigg Parish Council and he also became a Poor Law Guardian.

In 1906 he formed the Eastern Counties Agricultural Labourers' Union and became its paid official. He cycled to meetings over a huge area and succeeded in raising the wages of agricultural workers to 14 shillings a week Renamed the National Agricultural Labourers' and Workers' Union, and later the National Union of Agricultural Workers, its activities became nationwide.

After World War I he joined the Labour Party and was elected at a parliamentary by-election for South Norfolk in 1920. In 1923, during a period of agricultural depression, workers on the land struck in protest against wage cuts. When strikers were convicted of causing a disturbance at Walsingham, it seemed that a riot would break out, but George calmed the situation and subsequent negotiations held wages at 25 shillings a week. Although this was a compromise, it was seen as a victory for the Union.

George became a magistrate and continued to serve on the County Council and on District and Parish Councils. He received an OBE and in 1930 was knighted. He moved into Fakenham, where he attended the Buckenham Memorial Methodist Church. It was there his funeral service was held after his death on 6 December 1933. An annual service of remembrance was held on May Day at his graveside.

His autobiography, From Crow-scaring to Westminster, published in 1922, was updated by his adopted son Noel and republished as Ploughboy's Progress in 1998..

His adopted son , Noel Edwards (1914-2004) was apprenticed to a Fakenham printer and spent most of his working life in Norfololk. A local preacher for 70 years, he was heavily involved in the local Methodist church and local political life.

  • R.F. Wearmouth, in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, January 1952 pp.40-43
  • M. Stenton and S. Lees (eds.), Who's Who of British MPs, vol. 3 (1979)
  • Noel Edwards, Ploughboy's Progress (1998)
  • Jill Barber, 'From Crowscaring to Westminster: the story of George Edwards' in Ranters' Digest, no,4, August 2011, pp.15-20
  • Methodist Recorder,14 October 2004
  • Oxford DNB