Bill Boaks

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Lieutenant Commander William George Boaks DSC (25 May 1904 – 4 April 1986) was a British Royal Navy officer who became an eccentric political campaigner for road safety. He died at the age of 81 as a result of a road traffic accident. His record of five votes, the fewest ever recorded for a candidate in a British by-election, set in 1982 and held jointly since 1988, still stands as of 2010.[1]

Origins[edit]

Boaks was born in Walthamstow, into a naval family, and was educated at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. He served for nearly thirty years in the Royal Navy and won the Distinguished Service Cross at Dunkirk, as well as taking part in the sinking of the Bismarck while he was a gunnery officer on board HMS Rodney. He was a qualified submarine officer, a flying officer in the Fleet Air Arm, and a qualified deep-sea diver. After the Second World War he was an executive officer of the Building Apprenticeship Training Council.

First candidacy[edit]

In the 1951 general election, Boaks fought Walthamstow East as an independent candidate for "Admiral" (which stood for "Association of Democratic Monarchists Representing All Women"). He had intended to stand against the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, but stood for the wrong seat (Attlee's constituency was Walthamstow West). In the event, Boaks received 174 votes out of 40,001 cast.

Political views[edit]

Over the years, Boaks's political label changed. In one election, he stood as the "Trains & Boats & Planes" candidate - the title of a contemporary popular song which he found it apt to adopt - but after revisions to electoral law allowed candidates to have a six-word description of their candidature on the ballot paper, he eventually settled on "Public Safety Democratic Monarchist White Resident".

Boaks's main concern was public safety on the roads. His other political views tended towards old-fashioned Conservatism, anti-Communism and an increasing distrust of "The Establishment" (as he put it), the latter fuelled by his frequent court appearances. Journalists, some of whom seem to have been scared of him, often expressed confusion over his claims, as they never quite knew whether he was being serious or simply having fun at their expense. For example, when deciding not to fight the Croydon North West by-election in 1981, he said that he would never fight in Croydon as he believed that the "Communist menace" was never a threat there. He also said on at least one occasion that he believed that homosexuals should be debarred from the Civil Service, as he thought they were more vulnerable to blackmail by foreign powers.

Attitude to race relations[edit]

Boaks's "White Resident" label led to him being labelled as racist by the Anti-Nazi League, but Boaks chose this mostly as a means of provoking left-wingers, whom he disliked (despite having a number of rather left-wing views of his own, particularly on the Health Service), and partly as he hoped to undercut votes for the National Front (NF) and similar parties. Boaks was contemptuous of the NF, having stood against a number of its members in the 1950s and 1960s when they belonged to more openly neo-Nazi groups, such as John Bean's British National Party, Colin Jordan's White Defence League and Oswald Mosley's Union Movement. The "White Resident" tag was also a means of more easily attracting media attention during the heated debate over immigration in the 1970s in the UK, in order to push his "Public Safety" agenda.

Boaks's stance led to his becoming the first promoter of ethnic minority candidates in United Kingdom elections.[citation needed] His usual set-piece response when confronted over his label by anyone non-white was to say "Why White Resident? Because that's what I am!" He would then grab the questioner's hand, slap a pound note into it and say "Now find 149 more of those [the deposit then being £150] and stand as a 'Black Immigrant' candidate for what YOU believe in. If you don't, who will?" Boaks reckoned that he had given away a couple of hundred pounds in this manner.[citation needed]

Road safety[edit]

Boaks was a major advocate of pedestrian and non-motor vehicle traffic rights, and a need for additional care in road safety. He did not object to all motorised transport - he used a car painted with zebra stripes before switching to his armoured bicycle - but he did object to the increased volume of road traffic at the expense of other forms of transport. He favoured having all freight carried by rail and was an advocate of helicopters as a potential means of alleviating traffic congestion. He also noted and highlighted the problems caused by pollution and the damage caused to properties beside roads favoured by heavy goods vehicles. Boaks's central campaign point was simple - he wanted the inversion of the law concerning Zebra crossings, so that all roadways would be treated as if they were Zebra crossings except those parts painted as such, thus giving pedestrians the right of way at all times. The idea was that it would save countless lives by increasing drivers' sense of responsibility, and would cause such chaos in urban areas as to force people back onto public transport rather than using private cars.

To reinforce his point, Boaks would sometimes deliberately hold up traffic at crossings. He later took to pushing a trolley or pram full of bricks back and forth repeatedly, at Zebra crossings. Occasionally he would sit in a deckchair in the overtaking lane of the Westway (A40) in North Kensington, reading The Daily Telegraph.

Litigant[edit]

In the 1950s, Boaks became involved in a series of legal cases in which he launched private prosecutions of public figures who had been involved in road accidents, particularly those involving drunk driving. Clement Attlee relied upon his wife, Vi, to drive him when campaigning, but Mrs, later Lady Attlee was a notoriously bad driver and Boaks would attempt private prosecutions whenever she crashed.

Boaks himself was charged and fined several times for publishing "unlawful" advertisements as part of his campaigns.

In the 1960s Boaks lived in a large house in Palace Road, Streatham, South London.[citation needed] There were a couple of old rusty cars in his drive that didn't work. He was a regular sight on Streatham High Road riding his bicycle, which had been adapted to display various anti-car messages on boards that were tied with string to its frame. He also had a camera tied to the front of the bike, so that he was ready to take a picture of any motorist breaking the law. There was a message on his bike to this effect. Palace Road was privately owned until Lambeth Council purchased it in the early 1970s. The owners of the very big detached houses, with the exception of Boaks, all moved away and the empty houses were boarded up awaiting demolition. Boaks fought against the council but eventually lost.[citation needed]

Later life[edit]

Boaks eventually moved to Wimbledon in south west London, where his mode of transport was still the bicycle. He continued to stand as a candidate in elections from time to time, but his campaigning escalated in the mid-1970s, when he took to travelling around the country to fight most by-elections. He would find the ten registered voters he needed to fight the election, but would not usually spend a long time in the constituency. He would campaign intermittently by cycling around the target constituency, wearing a large cardboard box daubed with his slogans. He was limited to six words of description on the ballot paper, and usually described himself as "Air, Road, Public Safety, White Resident" or "Democratic Monarchist, Public Safety, White Resident".

Boaks usually obtained a tiny number of votes and often finished at the bottom of the poll. His highest vote was 240 in Wimbledon at the February 1974 general election. At the Glasgow Hillhead by-election in March 1982, he received just five votes, a record low for any candidate in any Parliamentary election; the record stood until the 2005 general election. Growing infirmity forced Boaks to give up contesting elections after standing simultaneously in the by-elections in Peckham and Birmingham Northfield in 1982, though he attended the count in Bermondsey as counting agent for Screaming Lord Sutch in 1983 while recovering from being knocked down by a motorcycle. But there was also the simple matter that his money was running out. The plans, mooted at Bermondsey, for him to be part of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party roster for the 1983 General Election, standing in Sutch's and Boaks's own home constituency of Streatham, never came to pass.

Death and legacy[edit]

In 1984, Boaks was injured in a second minor road traffic accident while getting off a bus. His death in hospital two years later was the result of complications from the head injuries sustained. His funeral was attended by the then Transport Minister, Peter Bottomley.

Boaks left three continuing legacies. The first is the pedestrianisation of London's Carnaby Street, which he took an active part in campaigning for, along with Screaming Lord Sutch, and which has set the precedent for pedestrian precincts elsewhere in the UK. The second is HMS Belfast, which is moored near Tower Bridge in London as a tourist attraction. It was Boaks' advice as to the depths of the waters of the Thames that persuaded the Royal Navy of the ship's viability as a floating museum rather than scrapping it. Finally, there remains his passing role in the creation of the Official Monster Raving Loony Party - a number of their more successful candidates (particularly Wild Willi Beckett & Peter "Top Cat" Owen) emulating one of Boaks' old tactics of using the middle of roundabouts as a place to campaign from during elections (until the police arrived to move them on).

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