Bob Cryer MP and MEP (1934-1994): A Childhood in Saltaire
Bob Cryer was born on 3rd December 1934, at 18 Kelsall Terrace, Shepherd Street, Great Horton, Bradford. His sister Joan was seven years old and she recalls that his arrival was not anticipated by her. It would have been very unusual to discuss pregnancy in the hearing of children in those days. As it was, on the day Bob was born, Joan was taken to the house of one of her mother’s assistants for tea and her father returned later with the news that she had a brother.
Bob’s mother, Gladys Evelyn Cryer, ran her own business as a tailoress and cutter and was a very talented businesswoman who normally had two or three assistants working for her in her workroom within the house. Bob’s father, originally trained as an engineer, had served (aged 17 years) in the Royal Flying Corps in World War One and was working as a painter and decorator at the time Bob was born. Despite the difficulties of the great depression in the 1930’s, Gladys was in demand as a dressmaker of high quality who was awarded medals for her work at a London exhibition in 1938, so the family was relatively well provided for.
Gladys was a keen church goer and Bob was christened George Robert Cryer at St. Columba’s Church, Great Horton, Bradford. The family house at Kelsall Terrace was rented from a local butcher who had installed electricity not long before Bob was born, and one of the three bedrooms was used as a workroom for the tailoring and dressmaking business. His paternal grandparents had lived in Shipley and his paternal grandfather, John Cryer, was a teacher who became a schools inspector and later the Deputy Chair of Education. John had a substantial history of involvement in local politics, initially as a member of the Liberal Party. John died in 1924 so cannot have been a direct influence on Bob’s later life in politics but there are similarities in the willingness of John to take up unpopular positions in public life. It is more likely that his mother, Gladys, a lifelong pacifist, was a significant influence on Bob’s future political views and direction.
In December 1936 the Cryer family moved to 15 Albert Road, Saltaire, nearer to his father’s family in Shipley and Baildon. No 15 was (and is) an attractive 3 bedroomed house with a front garden and a stone flagged area at the rear. The house was one of the residences that Sir Titus Salt had had built for his workers as Saltaire was developed around his magnificent Salts Mill (1853-1876). In 1933, the Mill company, that had been renamed Salts (Saltaire) Ltd. in 1923, sold much of the estate to the Bradford Property Company in the difficult economic period for textile manufacture.
Both Joan and Bob attended Albert Road Infant and Junior School (known now as Saltaire Primary School). Bob, aged three years, entered in the infant class and Joan the junior school. Joan, who won a County Minor Scholarship after eighteen months moved to Salts High School on Victoria Road and can only recall one year of normal school life before the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939. She recalls that the forbidding signs of war didn’t affect Bob, who was a cheerful five-year-old at this point.
After the declaration of war, Britain was zoned so that areas where children were to be evacuated from were identified. Some areas, such as Saltaire, were classed as neutral, requiring no movement of children, and the remaining rural areas were designated as reception areas for children who were to be evacuated from high risk towns and cities. Bob and Joan were able to remain with their parents but some children from the port of Hull were evacuated to Saltaire and a number became pupils at Albert Road Junior School. Bob formed a close friendship with one of the Hull boys. In the early summer of 1941, the school experienced an outbreak of diphtheria and whilst the first vaccinations against diphtheria had commenced in 1940, Bob’s father was opposed to vaccination and he hadn’t been protected. At the age of six years Bob developed a very sore throat and the family doctor diagnosed diphtheria.
Bob survives Diphtheria
Diphtheria is a contagious disease that usually infects the nose and throat. The hallmark sign is a sheet of grey coloured material that covers the back of the throat. It was later to become rare in the Western world but can be fatal in people who are not vaccinated against the bacteria that cause the disease. The infection can cause serious complications, such as nerve problems, heart failure, and can lead to death. The young and the elderly are the most vulnerable. As soon as Bob was diagnosed, he was taken to Morton Banks Isolation Hospital where visits were only allowed once each week and visitors could only be seen through a window. The reason that Bob had not been vaccinated had its origins in his paternal grandfather, John Cryer, who had publicly opposed vaccination when standing as a local election candidate. He firmly believed that if a child had a healthy lifestyle and a good diet there was no need for vaccination. His views had influenced Bob’s parents deeply.
Morton Banks was originally named ‘The Keighley and Bingley Joint Isolation Hospital’. It opened on “a most eligible site” at Morton Banks, in February, of 1897, and by the end of the year had treated 131 patients with infectious diseases, including two of the nurses, one of whom had contracted scarlet fever and the other typhoid fever. Another 240 were admitted in 1898, including 67 with diphtheria. That year a further smallpox hospital was built a little higher up the hillside. The hospital pavilion was photographed in its earlier years, and it remained no less essential as the 20th century progressed. In 1938 there were 415 admissions, with diphtheria accounting for 286 of these.
Each time the family visited the hospital, where they could not enter the wards and were only allowed to wave at Bob through a window, they were informed there was no change in Bob’s condition. One Sunday morning however, a policeman arrived at the family house to inform Bob’s parents that he had ‘taken a turn for the worse’, and his mother and father went immediately to the hospital. They returned very late when they had been informed that the crisis had passed but it was many weeks more before Bob returned home. He was very weak, had to be fed invalid foods and his recovery was very gradual. Sadly, the friendship he had formed with the boy evacuated from Hull was lost as this boy died of the disease, which affected Bob profoundly. Joan recalls that Bob was unable to walk and for a time his mother gave up work to care for him. His bed was brought downstairs and he had to be fed little and often and to a certain extent he was spoilt, being the one who received scarce oranges if a consignment arrived in the shops.
Bob went on to make a full recovery and his mother gradually re-established her dress making business, taking on assistants to work for her. She also found time to coach Bob a little for the eleven plus exam, which included training Bob to write with his right hand, which had no effect on him, he remained a ‘left hander’. By the end of the war in Europe, in May 1945, Bob had passed the exam and the family were very relieved that his near fatal illness had not prevented him achieving a County Minor Scholarship and entrance to Salts High School, though Joan recalls that he wasn’t particularly interested in academic study. His preferences were going to the cinema, looking at cars in Hirst Wood garage, and numerous outdoor activities with his friends.
Bob’s love of Cricket and Steam Trains
Bob’s father took him on some sunny evenings to Northcliffe playing fields and he received some coaching in batting and bowling whilst his sister Joan played wicket keeper. Bob and his friends enjoyed sledging in winter when the whole length of Albert Road was ideal for this occupation. His passion for trains involved himself and friends rushing out of school at 4 pm to the bottom of Albert Road, where the LMS line ran, and getting there in time to see the train running from Kings Cross to Edinburgh. He was a member of St. Peter’s Church Scout Group and participated in all the traditional scouting activities. Some of Bob’s emerging interests and passions were to become lifelong and ‘home movies’ were to become a part of his adult life, as was the lead part he played in the restoration of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, calling the very first meeting of the preservation society and becoming its first chair in 1962.
Bob attended Salts High School and played cricket for the school and later for Saltaire Cricket club in the Bradford League. A letter written to his wife Ann, after his fatal car accident in 1994, by a friend who had known Bob for fifty years, gives some insights into his character and interests as the extract below shows –
‘Bob was a good cricketer and an excellent captain of the school team, for which I was the scorer. I recall his elegant left arm slow bowling and his huge old Armstrong Siddeley, in which he took about half the team to away matches. Bob was rebellious (at School) and disliked by the headmaster, Mr. Parkin. In the 1953 staff match in Roberts Park he obtained a measure of revenge. Parkin had been a reasonable cricketer in his day but overestimated his own abilities. He ill-advisedly opened the batting and Bob gave the ball to a lad named Scrimshaw, who was not a regular member of the team but known to be fast. He bowled Parkin first ball and two other masters in the first over, when Bob took him off to give the other masters a chance.
The letter’s author also recalls that when they studied English in sixth form with a teacher who encouraged debate, Bob argued that Chaucer’s ‘Prioress’s Tale’ was full of vile race hatred and sickening sentimentality, which took the teacher by surprise but is perhaps a good indication of his growing interest in the ways of the world, the inequalities in society and the importance of being active in politics in order to change things. Bob joined the Labour Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.
The Formation of Bob’s Principles
Bob’s secondary schooling didn’t lead to high level academic success and he didn’t achieve many pass grades in the school certificate, but this didn’t worry him. He applied for and was offered an apprenticeship with Jowett Cars in Bradford, a company that manufactured vans and a famous local car, the Jowett Javelin. However, when the offer came, his mother was very firm about him refusing this as she very much wanted Bob to study at University. It was with a great deal of reluctance that he stayed on into the 6th form at Salts High School and he eventually entered the University of Hull, working part time to make ends meet. He did some of his holiday work at Salts Mill and did graduate. After graduation he began to teach in Keighley Schools, where the records show he was much respected as a teacher by his peers and warmly approved of by the pupils.
In a final note to Joan Petford’s chapter about Bob’s childhood, she suggests that Bob had only needed a little more application to have achieved higher academic success, because he had an excellent memory. She recalls discussing the 1945 General Election with him, when no. 15 Albert Road had been used as the committee rooms for the Labour Party and voting took place in Albert Road School. Joan was 17 years old at the time and Bob was just 10 years old, but he remembered far more about the day’s events than Joan herself did and that he had clearly enjoyed the whole process of politics. Bob’s father was a committed Labour party activist and Bob’s involvement in the Labour party was to be lifelong.
He came to public notice whilst still at Hull University and on May 17th 1957, the Shipley Times ran a headline ‘Old Salt’s Scramble’, reporting that the 22-year-old Mr. Robert Cryer, of 15 Albert Road, was to be presented to the Queen as President Elect of Hull University Students Union. The news report stated that at the last moment, the University’s registrar was not happy with Bob’s appearance as he was wearing grey trousers and brown shoes beneath his university gown. Bob was admonished and sprinted off to change into navy blue trousers which then met the registrar’s approval and he was duly presented to the Queen in this, his last year at University. As a reader of the earlier parts of Bob’s life, I cannot help but wonder how he felt about this.
Bob, the Politician Caring for People
Bob taught for some time at Holycroft Secondary Modern School and later at Highfield School in Keighley, marrying Ann Place, in Darwen, Lancashire in 1963. He continued to have great success in preserving the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and within the Labour Party. He was elected as the MP for Keighley in the general election of February 1974 and in the first paragraph of his maiden speech to parliament he made clear with whom he felt aligned
‘I am pleased to be here and to be able to make this speech representing Keighley in Yorkshire. It is a constituency of 55,000 people, many of whom are engineers who were foremost in the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act ……………’
Bob also noted the mixed social context of his constituency, explaining how it contained urban, rural and semi-rural areas, including Haworth, the famous home of the Bronte’s. It was this mix of urban and rural communities that made the seat a difficult one for a Labour candidate to hold. Nevertheless, Bob was re-elected in the rapidly following general election of October 1974, gaining an even greater share of the vote, during a turbulent time for the British economy. During this period in Parliament Bob was critical of some of the costs involved in travel for the royal family, refused to endorse a rise in MPs’ salaries, refused an invitation to play cricket in South Africa with other MPs and Members of the House of Lords and became a Junior Minister for the Department of Industry. As Under Secretary of State for Industry he launched a ‘save and recycle’ scheme in 1977 but resigned his ministerial post in 1978 in disagreement with Government’s economic policies when significant cuts to public services were being considered. Nevertheless, Bob was re-elected as MP for Keighley in May 1979 and for many local people this did not come as a surprise because Bob had earned a very good reputation for helping the disadvantaged in his community and was always accessible to his constituents.
Things were to change however and, in part due to boundary changes, Bob lost his Keighley seat in the general election of June 1983 to the Conservative, Gary Waller. Bob continued in his political career by standing for the European Parliament in 1984 for Sheffield and he was heard of during this period on several issues that included criticism of trade union leaders who accepted life peerages. It was not long before Bob stood for the British Parliament again in the constituency of Bradford South. He won the seat in the general election of 1987 and again in 1992, during the height of the ‘Thatcher’ years. His personal honesty and integrity placed him heads above other candidates for parliament. Tragically for the Bradford Metropolitan District, Bob met his death on 12 April 1994, in a car accident whilst he, accompanied by his wife Ann, was returning to parliament after the Easter recess.
He has been followed into parliament by his wife Ann, who held the Keighley seat from 1997 to 2010 when she retired, and his son John, who at the time of writing is MP for Leyton and Wanstead and whose wife Ellie is MP for Lewisham West and Penge.
Saltaire has had other residents who have made an impact on the world, influencing it in several positive ways. Bob Cryer is one of these and the Saltaire Collection is proud to record him as one of their local heroes.
Maggie Smith[drawn from notes taken in an Interview with Ann Cryer; Chapter 1 of ‘Boldness be my Friend’, written by Joan (Cryer) Petford, Bob’s sister and a timeline by Colin Coates]