Keir Hardie

Other names: 

James Kerr

James Keir Hardie

Date of birth: 
15 Aug 1856
City of birth: 
Laigbrannock, near Glasgow
Country of birth: 
Date of death: 
26 Sep 1915
Location of death: 

Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland

Neville’s Court, off Fleet Street, London


James Keir Hardie, originally James Kerr, was the son of Mary Kerr, a Scottish farm servant. His father was probably William Aitken, a miner from Holytown, but Mary Kerr brought up her son alone before meeting David Hardie, a former ship’s carpenter, who she married in 1859. Hardie is said to have raised his wife’s first son as his own, and he became known as James Keir Hardie. The family moved between Glasgow and the nearby countryside, suffering periods of poverty caused by unemployment. Keir Hardie received no formal education and started work as a miner at the age of 10. His early experiences of poverty were formative to his politicization. At the age of 17, he joined the Temperance Movement, and soon afterwards he became involved in miners’ associations becoming secretary of the Hamilton District Branch of the Lanarkshire Miners’ Union at the age of 21. At a similar time, he became a committed Christian, joining the Evangelical Union, a branch of the United Secession Church, in 1877. It was through the church that he met his future wife, Lillias Balfour Wilson, who he married in 1879. The couple had four children.

Hardie left the mines for trade union work in 1879, eventually becoming secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union. He then progressed to party politics, rejecting liberalism for socialism, and launching his own monthly paper, the Labour Leader. Having moved to London in 1891, Hardie was returned for West Ham South as an ‘independent Labour’ candidate in the General Election of 1892. Described by his biographer Kenneth O. Morgan as the ‘prophet and evangelist’ of the Labour Party, Hardie played a key role in the major events of its early history, including the founding of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 and that of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 - which became the Labour Party in 1906. Defeated in 1896, he was elected MP to Merthyr Tudful in 1900. In 1906, he was elected first chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party but resigned from the post in 1907. Both within and outwith Parliament, he campaigned tirelessly for the unemployed, free schooling, pensions, Indian self-rule and, perhaps most of all, women’s rights. He had a close friendship with the Pankhurst family, particularly Sylvia who was probably his lover. Hardie was also a pacifist and outspoken in his criticism of the First World War.

Hardie was an internationalist and vociferous critic of the British Government in India, frequently calling for Indian self-rule in Parliament. On 20 July 1906, he made a particularly harsh denunciation of conditions in India, including death rates, low wages and the exclusion of Indians from local government, receiving support from many of his fellow Labour MPs. The following year, he toured India. He gave numerous speeches there, exposing the corruption of the Raj, speaking out in favour of Indian self-determination and against racism, advocating non-violent agitation, and encouraging the Congress Party. He was accompanied on his tours by the revolutionary Indian Nationalist B. G. Tilak as well as leaders of the swadeshi movement J. Chowdhury and Surendranath Banerjea, and is said to have peppered his speeches with the slogan ‘Bande Mataram’, even though he advocated a gradual extension of self-government rather than immediate withdrawal. Hardie’s tour of India alarmed the British authorities, and was stirred up by the press. There were calls for him to be deported and accusations of sedition. On his return, he continued speaking out for Indian self-rule in the House of Commons, campaigning (unsuccessfully) for the release from prison of Tilak, and publishing in 1909 India: Impressions and Suggestions which was formative to the Labour Party’s position on India for the next fifty years.


Surendranath Banerjea, Fenner Brockway (disciple), John Burns, J. Chowdhury, Charlotte Despard, Friedrich Engels, Michael Foot, S. K. Gokhale, Emrys Hughes (son-in-law), Ramsay MacDonald, John Morley, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst (friend and lover), George Bernard Shaw, B. J. Tilak, Beatrice Webb.

Independent Labour Party, Labour Party.

Published works: 


From Serfdom to Socialism (London: The Labour Ideal, 1907)

India: Impressions and Suggestions (London: Indendent Labour Party, 1909)

Several pamphlets including:

The Mines Nationalization Bill (1893)

The Unemployed Problem and Some Suggestions for Solving it (1904)

The Citizenship of Women: A Plea for Women’s Suffrage (1906)

Indian Budget Speech, Delivered in the House of Commons on July 22nd, 1908 (1908)

Socialism and Civilisation (1910)

Labour and Christianity (1910)

Killing No Murder! The Government and the Railway Strike (1911)

Radicals and Reform (1912)

Contributions to periodicals: 

Wrote articles for several periodicals including:

International Socialist Review

Labour Prophet

New Liberal Review

Nineteenth Century

Socialist Review

Hardie also wrote weeky columns for the Labour Leader and the Merthyr Pioneer

Secondary works: 

Benn, Caroline, Keir Hardie (London: Hutchinson, 1992)

Cole, G. D. H., Keir Hardie (London: Victor Gollancz and the Fabian Society, 1941)

Hughes, Emrys (ed.), Keir Hardie’s Writings and Speeches, from 1888 to 1915, preface by Nan Hardie (Glasgow: Forward Publishing Company, 1928)

Hughes, Emrys, Keir Hardie (London: Allen & Unwin, 1956)

Morgan, Kenneth O., Keir Hardie: Radical and Socialist (London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1975)

Morgan, Kenneth O., ‘Keir Hardie’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) []

Archive source: 

Correspondence and papers, Baird Institute History Centre and Museum, Cumnock

Correspondence, diary and papers, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester

Correspondence and papers (including Indian travel notes), National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Correspondence with John Burns, Add. MS 46287, British Library, St Pancras

Correspondence with Lord Gladstone, Add. Mss 46062–46068, British Library, St Pancras

Letters to George Bernard Shaw, Add. MS 50538, British Library, St Pancras

Letters to the Fabian Society, British Library of Political and Economic Science

Independent Labour Party National Administrative Council Mss, British Library of Political and Economic Science

Correspondence with Sylvia Pankhurst, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam

Correspondence with G. W. Balfour, National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh

Letters to George Saunders Jacobs, Newham Archive and Local Studies Library, London

Emrys Hughes Mss, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Letters to niece Agnes, National Register of Archives, private collection

Hedley Dennis Mss, National Register of Archives, private collection