Charles Leatherland was part of Labour's history and heritage and a hero to boot. His small stature belied the dynamic energy which drove him on with a passion to see that he left this world a better place than when he entered it. Born in the Birmingham of Queen Victoria, he was, in the words of his daughter Irene, self-taught and -educated and proud of it. It was not until he became a founder member of Essex University some 60 years later that he tasted university life. He became a life member of the university court and was awarded an honorary doctorate of the university in 1973.
Leatherland was not an original Essex man. He moved to Buckhurst Hill in 1948 and became Chairman of Essex County Council in 1960. It was a time of major change in local government. At the time I was leader of Enfield council. Not for the first time, the Tories laid plans to wrest control of London from the grip of the LCC by creating the GLC. This involved adding chunks of Surrey, Kent, Hertfordshire - and Essex. It was due in no small measure to Leatherland's influence - and political guile - that Buckhurst Hill was kept out of the GLC to remain in his beloved Essex. His house looked out into Epping Forest and he enjoyed walking in the forest whenever he could.
Leatherland was one of the first of the breed of newspaper men - and women - to get to the House of Lords, as he did on the nomination of Harold Wilson in 1964. He had just retired as assistant editor of the recently closed Daily Herald, having first entered the newspaper world with the Macclesfield Courier. He was a prolific pamphleteer and played a significant part between the wars in the battle of ideas, being a head-office man and right in the thick of things - in the lobby of the House of Commons.
This was the period when he gained four gold medals awarded by the Prince of Wales for essays on sociological and economic subjects. He wrote extensively on local government matters and was proud of the fact that he was made a member of the Royal Economic Society. He went on to become a member of the Basildon New Town Corporation and the Monopolies Commission.
Leatherland must have been one of the few remaining peers to have served in the Great War. Giving a false age, he enrolled in the Warwickshire regiment when he was only 16. By 1916, at the age of 18, he was a Company Sergeant Major in a machine-gun battalion seeing service in France, Belgium and Germany. As a result of wounds, he had a limp for the rest of his life. During a meeting of Labour peers he reminded us all that his limp was as a result of action. 'Don't forget, I saw service on the Somme.' Up rose a colleague whose stature was as diminutive as his own, Douglas Houghton, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, Civil Service Rifles. 'Ah yes, Charlie,' he said, 'you may have been at the Somme, but you were not at Passchendale as I was.' Here were two of the smallest peers who had each earned glory on the battlefield and then gone on to outstanding public service, yet who could recall those awful days of carnage some 70 years later. It was an unforgettable moment.
Leatherland told me that he never lost his sense of frustration at not having had a better education. 'Long before I left school at 14, I had worked in all sorts of jobs. As a boot-boy for a JP; before I went to school I had delivered newspapers and cleaned, polished and swept. I swept snow; did golf caddying; worked in a chemist shop scrubbing floors. It was suggested that I would benefit from higher education, but family circumstances did not allow. However, before I left school at 14 I had taught myself shorthand and typing, and this led to my first real job with the Birmingham council, and eventually into a life in journalism.'
His daughter Irene (who worked at Transport House with Morgan Phillips) told me that her father considered the part he played in creating Essex University one of his most satisfactory achievements. 'As leader of Essex County Council he moved the resolution to create the university. He passionately believed that education was the key to a fuller life. Having missed out himself he wanted it for others.' I smiled, for when I once asked Harold Wilson how he would like to be remembered, he unhesitatingly said, for helping to create the Open University. Essex was Charlie Leatherland's Open University.
The day after he was demobbed at the age of 20 he joined the Labour Party. I suspect his membership of 74 years is something of a record. It led him to work in the Labour Party press office, the Commons, and eventually to become assistant editor of the Daily Herald. He told me that in 1945 there had been opportunities to enter parliament. Torn between his twin loves of politics and journalism he chose the latter. 'That's why the invitation to go to the House of Lords came as such a bonus,' he said, 'for which I was always grateful.' Until the present session, Charlie Leatherland was a regular attender. His speechmaking days were behind him but he was always good for a supplementary question or a perceptive intervention. He was something of a legend in his own time, loved by his fellow peers all round the House.
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