Known as Harry to his friends and family, Whitley was born in 1866 to Nathan and Sarah (nee Rinder). Nathan Whitley was a card maker, producing pattern punch cards for Jacquard looms in the booming Halifax textile industry. He was later a senior partner in his brother’s cotton spinning firm S. Whitley & Company. The family prospered and Nathan went on to become the Mayor of Halifax no fewer than three times in 1876-7, 1881-2 and 1882-3. The family lived at 11 Park Road, an affluent street overlooking the newly created People’s Park. Their next-door neighbour was Edward Crossley (1841-1905), the grandson of the founder of the highly successful Crossley’s carpet manufacturers, who became chairman of the business in 1869.
At the age of twelve, Harry attended school at Clifton College, Bristol, where he studied for six years. Upon the death of his uncle Samuel in 1884, Whitley took up work in the family cotton spinning business at S. Whitley & Co, whilst also completing an external BA degree from London University, which he received in 1885. Upon the death of his father Nathan in 1889, Whitley took over his position as senior partner in the family firm. In 1892, Whitley married Margherita (known as Margaret) Marchetti, the daughter of Giulio Marchetti and Anne Crossley (granddaughter of John Crossley, the founder of Crossley’s carpets). Margaret’s father had been one of the most trusted Lieutenants of Garibaldi and a Knight of the Crown of Italy who had settled in Britain and become a senior manager at John Crossley & Sons, where he met Anne.
The couple moved into Brantwood, a home on Stafford Road in the well-to-do area of Skircoat just off Manor Heath Park. They had two daughters and two sons. In 1893, Whitley was elected to the Halifax Borough Council as a Liberal and set his sights on a career in politics. By 1898 his brother Alfred took over the role at S. Whitley & Co, and Whitley began his campaign to become an MP. He was elected as the Liberal MP for Halifax in 1900 and served in this seat for 28 years. During his time as MP, Whitley had an innovative style of philanthropy, working to help the underprivileged of Halifax through groups such as the Halifax Guild of Help throughout his political career. His personal commitment to philanthropy has been credited to his childhood home’s location at Park Road, which although hosting a pocket of wealthy homes, was surrounded by the industrial, poor working class housing of King Cross, where Whitley witnessed the effects of poverty.
Whitley was a keen sportsman, and during his time as an MP, he displayed his personal passion for both philanthropy and physical fitness by establishing a gymnasium in Halifax, which at various times was housed at the Drill Hall and Heath Grammar School. He funded the Recreational Evening School Gymnasium, as well as running an annual camp for poor boys. In 1918, he purchased Clare Hall in Halifax for this purpose, and it was soon turned into the YMCA branch for the town. It was later purchased by the Halifax Corporation and rebuilt into the Halifax Swimming Pool, Spa and Gym. In 1919, Whitley purchased Spring Hall, known today as the Halifax Register Office, to serve as a guest house for young men (similar to the YMCA in function), and a sports ground to promote athleticism and fitness in the area. His commitment to these causes was lifelong, and £3000 was left in his will to Spring Hall to ensure its continuation after his death.
From the time of his election as MP, Whitley had an illustrious political career. He was made Junior Treasury Minister in 1907 and became the Liberal Party Whip by 1910. By 1911, Whitley had become the Deputy Chairman of Ways & Means (Deputy Speaker), and in the following ten years moved upwards to become the Chairman of Ways & Means, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons and the Chairman of the Committee of Relations of Employers & Employees. Whitley’s success in his political career is often credited to his experience as an industrial manufacturing businessman. There were very few men in politics who came from this background at the time, as the majority of MPs came from the landed gentry, or the field of law.
In 1921, Whitley became the Speaker of the House of Commons, and was the first Yorkshire MP to do so for over a century. He was also the first ever Nonconformist Speaker, and the first Speaker of religious dissent since the time of the Reformation. He was also to be the last ever Liberal Speaker. Whitley served as the House Speaker for seven years, adopting a ‘loose reign’ approach to managing the house, and allowing the Opposition, the burgeoning Labour Party, to develop and grow as vocal and defiant group of Members in the House. Stepping down in 1928 due to ill health, Whitley broke from tradition by declining the customary knighthood offered to former Speakers from the monarch since 1789, causing a sensation amongst his contemporaries.
Following his time as Speaker, Whitley turned his attention to other political projects and in 1929 became the Chairman of the Royal Commission of Labour in India and was an outspoken advocate for impoverished Indians. The commission was set up to assess labour conditions in the British colonial state and set out ways to improve those conditions to ease unrest in the nation. In 1930, Whitley became the Chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and developed a new broadcast called the ‘Empire Service’ in 1932, which went on to become the BBC World Service.
Whitley died in London on February 5th 1935, just before his 69th birthday. His ashes were interred in Warley, Halifax, with a memorial placed in Lister Lane Cemetery. There were many obituaries to him, including a two-page spread in the Halifax Courier who headlined the piece ‘Death of an illustrious son of Halifax’. Former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow described Whitley as a remarkable and unconventional man with “humour and self-deprecation… whose quiet impact at the time continues to have resonance many years after his death.”
Today, there is the J H Whitley Secondary School in Halifax, named in honour of Whitley’s commitment to the education of the youth of Halifax. The full archive of materials belonging to Whitley were donated by the Whitley family to Heritage Quay, an archive based at the University of Huddersfield, and an annual J H Whitley lecture has been hosted in his memory every year since 2012.
Bankfield Museum houses the portrait shown of Harry Whitley by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884-1937).
Find out more
- View Heritage Quay Whitley Archive on John Whitley;
- Or review Hargreaves, J. A., Laybourn, K., & Toye, R. (2018). Liberal reform and industrial relations: J. H. Whitley (1866-1935), Halifax radical and Speaker of the House of Commons. Routledge.