The main new display in the Museum of Abernethy this year (2009) is “The Abernethy Hall of Fame”. It gives images and details of famous people who were born in, have lived in, or have visited Abernethy. Almost 100 years ago two of the characters featured in this display visited the village at more or less the same time. One was the statesman and future war leader, Sir Winston Churchill, the other being the suffragette Adela Pankhurst.
Churchill, aged 35, was an up-and-coming minister in 1909 and was a Liberal candidate for a Dundee constituency. George K Smith of Ballomill, Abernethy was a Dundee businessman and was prominent in local Liberal circles. It was through Smith’s influence that Churchill was persuaded to give a campaign speech in Abernethy one Saturday in October. This required considerable organisation. Special trains were chartered from both Perth and Dundee. A huge marquee (to hold 2,500 people) was erected somewhere on the grounds of Ballomill (Does anyone know where?). A refreshment tent was also provided. Mr Smith even had an extension built on to Ballomill so that he could accommodate his distinguished guest in more style. Dr Wood, who now lives there, tells me that there is a toilet that to this day is referred to as “Churchill’s loo”! According to local press reports the event seems to have been a success. They vary in their estimates as to how many attended. One report says that 600 came from Perth and 1000 from Dundee by train. Certainly the marquee was full and several hundred also congregated outside it. The tiny railway station at Abernethy struggled to cope. The eagerness of the crowd to reach the place of the meeting would not permit of their remaining until the latter part of the train was drawn forward to the platform, but they dropped down on the railway embankment and scrambled down to the roadway.
Mr Churchill on rising to address the gathering was received with unbounded enthusiasm; “For he’s a jolly good fellow” being started in various parts of the assemblage and sung in as large a variety of keys. The cheering having subsided, Mr Churchill observed that “This is a very fine gathering for a lonely glen”, a sally which was received with much laughter.
Only a quarter of the large crowd in the marquee had seats.
Hundreds were prepared to stand for the duration of young Winston’s 70 minute speech, delivered by the light of paraffin lamps. Admission appears to have been controlled by a system of white, yellow and red tickets. At the entrance to Ballomill was stationed a little army of stewards, who vised admission cards of the throng, and closely observed the ladies who sought admission, ready to obstruct the way of the suffragette. The aim of the suffragettes was to achieve the right for women to vote in general elections. Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were prominent leaders of this movement. Adela Pankhurst with a group of activists arrived by motor car in Abernethy while Churchill was giving his oration, their aim being to disrupt the proceedings. This they did not manage to do. They were in fact handled quite roughly by part of the crowd assembled outside the tent and were pelted with mud. Some days later Miss Pankhurst and six others were jailed in Dundee for acts of civil disobedience at some of Churchill’s other pre-election events. In later life Adela was prominent in Australian politics.
Full press articles relating to this Abernethy political event of the century can be read in the museum, but hurry as it closes for the season at the end of September. We at the museum are eager to learn of any more details relating to Churchill’s visit, to the local suffragette organisation, or to any other famous faces with an Abernethy connection. We would also like to have a photo of George K. Smith of Ballomill, who comes across as a colourful, extrovert burgher of Abernethy. Buoyed up by the success of organising this event, Smith said to Churchill when he was leaving that he would expect his assistance to induce Mr Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to Abernethy next year. So far as we know this did not happen. Now in 2009 a general election looms. Could we persuade Fife M.P. Gordon Brown, or his Chancellor, Mr Darling, to address us in a tent in Powrie Park? How big a tent would we need?