Devonport election. Winston Churchill sat by ballot box with dignitaries; 1950. From the collections of Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage) / © Western Morning News

Devon’s political history exhibition showcases electoral campaigns

The history of politics in Devon is the theme of a new touring exhibition, starting at the University of Exeter.  It showcases the political events in Devon from a local angle charting the changes in post-1945 campaigning, including images of Winston Churchill at the Devonport election in Plymouth.

The exhibition ‘From the Grassroots’ provides a picture of the county’s rich political heritage, as told by the participants involved in local politics at the time and thereafter. It brings Devon’s modern political history to life through the memories and experiences of Devon’s political movers and shakers and local activists. Themes developed within the audio interviews, include: family and politics, elections and electioneering and youth activism.

University of Exeter, historian Dr David Thackeray, is on the steering committee of the project and notes that the project uses Devon as an important showcase to highlight how the political culture of Britain has changed over the course of the 20th century.

He said:“Devon has played an important role in modern British politics, with Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, representing Plymouth Sutton. The county was also at the forefront of the Liberal party's modern revival. University of Exeter students have helped develop the project as oral history interviewers and we are delighted that The Forum has been chosen as the first venue for the 'From the Grassroots' exhibition.”

Former, Exeter City councillors Chester Long (Labour) and Jeff Coates (Conservative) have contributed to the exhibition with their memories of political life in the city.

Long came from a family who were deeply involved in local politics, his parents were influenced by a period spent living amongst mining communities and both strong Labour supporters. He became a union regional representative and city councillor in 1963 and a year later he met his wife, Anita, whilst she was canvassing for her father, a Labour councillor. Long’s two brothers became mayors, Anita was a member of the Young Socialists, and their two children are both Labour activists.

His first political memory was during the 1945 election, when he acted as a ‘runner’ for the Labour party. Chester Long explained:“We used to go chanting as children – that was the way of broadcasting who the candidate was.”

Although not involved in politics as such, Jeff Coates parents were ‘staunch’ Conservative supporters.  Coates developed an early partisan interest, describing his first active role as exhibiting Conservative Party stickers on his cycle while riding to and fro college during the 1966 General Election campaign. This was to be the start of an extensive and dynamic service in local politics.

Dr Paul Seaward, Director of the History of Parliament said:“Every day we hear about politicians at Westminster. But it’s rare that we celebrate the work and commitment of the many people who are involved in politics at the local level, who run local councils or hold them to account, and without whom our national political system would be impossible.”

The From the Grassroots’ exhibition is on display in The Forum on the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus, until Friday 6th February. The exhibition tours to Plymouth Central Library from 9th until 28th February, and concludes at Barnstaple Library 16th to 27th March, entry to the exhibition is free of charge. The project has been made possible through a grant of £53,400 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.


Date: 26 January 2015

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