1917 Aberdeen South by-election

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The Aberdeen South by-election, 1917 was a parliamentary by-election for the House of Commons constituency of Aberdeen South comprising the local government wards in the southern part of the city of Aberdeen. The by-election took place on 3 April 1917.


The by-election was caused by the resignation of the sitting Liberal MP, George Esslemont for reasons of ill-health.[1] Esslemont had been MP for Aberdeen South since retaining the seat for the Liberals in a by-election in February 1907 following the appointment of James Bryce to be British Ambassador to the United States. Although he was aged only 57 years, Esslemont died on 2 October 1917, just a few months after stepping down from Parliament.[2]



On 1 March 1917, it was reported that the Liberals intended to put forward the name of Sir James Murray, the former MP for East Aberdeenshire.[3] In fact the local Liberals were in dispute over their candidate, reflecting the growing division in the party between those supporting the coalition government of David Lloyd George and those favouring the opposition Liberals led by H H Asquith. Murray was said to be a strong supporter of Lloyd George’s government. The Asquithians gave their backing to Vivian Phillipps, Asquith’s private secretary. A third name was also under consideration, that of Sir John Fleming, an ex-Provost of Aberdeen.[4] Fleming may well have been seen as a good compromise candidate, as, following the intervention of the prime minister himself, Murray was persuaded to withdraw from the contest and Fleming was formally selected.[5]


As partners in the wartime coalition government, the Conservatives abided by the electoral truce between the main parties and did not put forward a candidate.[6]


Two other candidates came forward to contest Aberdeen South. James Watson, Professor of Chemistry at Anderson’s College, Glasgow declared he wished to stand as an independent citizen’s candidate, a vigorous supporter of what he called patriotic democracy.[7] Watson had contested the Bridgeton Division of Glasgow at the 1895 general election standing for the Independent Labour Party.[8]

The other candidate was Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. He sought election as a ‘Peace by Negotiation’ candidate and was sponsored by the Union of Democratic Control of which was the treasurer.[9]

The election[edit]

The writ for by-election was issued in Parliament on 26 March 1917.[10] Nomination day was 30 March, with polling to take place on 3 April. Despite the atmosphere of wartime campaigning and the absence of a Tory candidate, some Liberals were fearful of the result. It was reported that there had been a backlash amongst some of Sir James Murray’s supporters, who had not accepted his withdrawal and who refused to vote for Fleming; that Watson had the potential to get a large vote from Labour supporters, from Unionists, who had no candidate of their own, and disaffected Liberals.[11]


The result however was a comfortable win for Fleming, with a majority of 1,776 votes over Watson or 34.7% of the poll. This was consistent with other election results in Scotland during the war with public opinion overwhelmingly pro-government.[12] Fleming took his seat in Parliament on 24 April 1917 [13] but only represented his constituency until the 1918 general election. Standing as an Independent (Asquithian) Liberal he lost to Frederick Thomson, a Conservative barrister who seems to have been awarded the Coalition Coupon.[14]

Aberdeen South by-election, 1917[15]
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Liberal John Fleming 3,283 64.1
Independent James Watson 1,507 29.4
Independent Frederick Pethick-Lawrence 333 6.5
Majority 1,776 34.7
Turnout 37.1
Liberal hold Swing

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Times, 27 February 1917 p10
  2. ^ The Times, 4 October 1917 p11
  3. ^ The Times, 1 March 1917 p5
  4. ^ The Times, 16 March 1917 p6
  5. ^ The Times, 21 March 1917 p5
  6. ^ F W S Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results, 1885-1918; Macmillan Press, 1974 p492
  7. ^ The Times, 26 March 1917 p5
  8. ^ F W S Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results, 1885-1918; Macmillan Press, 1974 p504
  9. ^ Brian Harrison, Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence; Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online, 2004-13
  10. ^ The Times, 27 March 1917 p12
  11. ^ The Times, 27 March 1917 p5
  12. ^ Christopher Harvie, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes: Twentieth Century Scotland, Edinburgh University Press, 1998 p29
  13. ^ The Times, 25 April 1917 p8
  14. ^ F W S Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results, 1918-1949; Political Reference Publications, Glasgow, 1969 p574
  15. ^ Craig, FWS, ed. (1974). British Parliamentary Election Results: 1885-1918. London: Macmillan Press. ISBN 9781349022984.