Cyril Smith

Cyril Smith
Sir Cyril Smith MBE
Cyril Smith addressing the Liberal Party Assembly in 1987
Member of Parliament
for Rochdale
In office
26 October 1973 – 9 April 1992
Preceded by Jack McCann
Succeeded by Liz Lynne
Personal details
Born 28 June 1928(1928-06-28)
Rochdale, Lancashire, England
Died 3 September 2010(2010-09-03) (aged 82)
Rochdale, Greater Manchester, England
Nationality British
Political party Liberal Party (pre-1988)
Liberal Democrats (post-1988)

Sir Cyril Smith, MBE, (28 June 1928 – 3 September 2010) was a British politician who served as Liberal and Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament (MP) for the constituency of Rochdale from 1972 until his retirement in 1992.


Early life

He was born in Rochdale, and was, as he once described himself, “illegitimate, deprived and poor”.[1] Though he never knew the name of his father, he commented “I suspect I know who he was”.[1] He lived with his mother and two other illegitimate siblings, Eunice and Norman, and grandmother in a one-up one-down cottage (now demolished) on Falinge Rd. His mother, Eva Smith, worked in service to a local cotton mill owning family who lived at 8 Kilnerdyne Terrace.[2]

Education and public life

He was educated at Rochdale Grammar School for Boys and then began work at Rochdale Inland Revenue Tax Office. In the 1945 General Election, Cyril, aged just 16, gave a public speech in support of Liberal candidate Charles Harvey. Smith says he was given an ultimatum by his boss in the Tax Office to either choose the civil service or politics.

He quit his job at the tax office and obtained employment as an office boy at the Fothergill & Harvey mill in Littleborough, to the northeast of Rochdale. Although owned by the Harveys, a notable Liberal family, Smith claimed[3] the director Charles Harvey knew nothing of the job application by the young man who had lost his job for his public speech in favour of Harvey's Liberal party candidature.[4]

Smith joined the Liberal Party in 1945 and was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Young Liberals in 1948 and 1949. Between 1948–50, he was Liberal agent in Stockport but following the poor general election results experienced by the Liberal Party in 1950 and 1951, he was advised by the losing Liberal candidate for Stockport, Reg Hewitt, to join the Labour Party.

In 1952 Smith was elected a Labour Party councillor for the Failinge Ward of Rochdale. By 1954, he was Chairman of Rochdale Council's Establishment Committee. In 1963 Smith switched committee roles to be politically responsible for Estates. This included overseeing a considerable amount of residential and town centre development.

In 1966 he became Rochdale's Mayor with his mother Eva as Mayoress. Smith's mother also retained her job as a council cleaner in the town hall whilst Mayoress. Smith's Mayoral duties were recorded for a BBC Man Alive documentary. Also in 1966 Smith was appointed Chairman of the Education Committee. In this role, he oversaw the introduction of comprehensive education in his district. In 1966, he was also appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

According to his autobiography,[5] Smith was found guilty of an offence relating to public lotteries. He was bound over to keep the peace for 12 months.

In 1966 Smith resigned from the Labour whip when his party refused to vote for an increase in council house rents. As a result Smith sat with four other councillors as independents until 1970. His defection, and subsequent election as a Liberal MP, caused some surprise after his prominent role in opposing Ludovic Kennedy, the Liberal candidate in the 1958 Rochdale by-election. Controversy was sparked by older Rochdale Liberals when the existing Liberal parliamentary candidate, Garth Pratt, was deselected to make way for Smith's return to the party.

During the 1960s Smith was active in many Rochdale Council committees regarding youth activities. These included: Rochdale Youth Orchestra, Rochdale Youth Theatre Workshop, Governorship of 29 Rochdale schools and Chairmanship of the Youth Committee, Youth Employment Committee and the Education Committee.[6]

Having been Liberal candidate in Rochdale at the 1970 general election when he took the party to second place, Smith won the seat at the 1972 by-election with a large swing from Labour to the Liberals. Smith won with a majority of 5,171. He won the seat on five further occasions. In June 1975 Smith was appointed as the Liberals' Chief Whip and faced much pressure from the press in the wake of a sexual scandal involving party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Smith resigned from the Whips' Office on health grounds. Speaking to Granada Television in 2003, David Steel reflected on events in the 1970s with the conclusion:

"Cyril was not an ideal Chief Whip because he did not handle a crisis well and had a tendency to say anything to a news camera".[7]

In 1978 Smith approached former Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath to discuss forming a new Centre Party. In 1981 Smith was involved in moves to create "a party with a new image" but, according to the Rochdale Observer, at the foundation of the SDP in 1981 he warned Liberal Party colleagues to move with caution. Smith was quoted as being "opposed to an alliance at any price".[8]

He was knighted in 1988.[9]

Personal life

A lifelong bachelor, Smith told You magazine: "I haven't had a lot of time for courting women ... I've tended to be married to politics".[10]

After leaving Westminster and the death of his mother Eva in 1994, Smith was invited by a life-long friend, the public relations manager at Cunard, to become a guest lecturer on the QE2 cruise liner.[11]

Smith was a lifelong member of Rochdale Unitarian Church, and maintained strong links with the Unitarian church throughout his political career and afterwards. He held various posts in the church, including Sunday School Superintendent, and a member of the Board of Trustees which he chaired for many years.

In 1988 Smith appeared in an advertisement promoting the Access credit card. As a large and jolly figure of fun, Smith was seen attempting to touch his toes whilst a presenter stated: "Nice one, Sir Cyril, but Access is more flexible".

Smith was a reasonable singer. He sang "She's a Lassie From Lancashire" on Jimmy Savile's TV show Clunk Click, appeared on a music video for 1980s pop group Bananarama, and sang a duet with Don Estelle in a 1999 re-recording of the Laurel and Hardy song "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine".[12]

In February 2006 Smith was taken to hospital after a fall at his Rochdale home. According to his brother, he had been weakened by dehydration and low potassium levels. Although retired, he was still active in his community, frequently visiting schools. His hobbies included collecting autographs.

In the summer of 2008 he came under fire for his alleged part in supporting asbestos production in Rochdale in the 1980s.[13] The New Statesman investigation revealed correspondence between Smith and senior directors of Turner & Newall. In November 2008 a parliamentary Early Day Motion[14] and Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror called for Smith to be stripped of his knighthood.[15]


Smith's larger-than-life personality (and stature — he is believed to have been the heaviest British MP ever, having had a peak reported weight of 29 stone 12 pounds, about 190 kilograms)[16] and popular television appearances made him one of the most recognisable British MPs of the 1970s. His nickname, "Big Cyril", was also the title of his autobiography. A common joke on the size of the Parliamentary Liberal Party in the early 1970s was that only one taxi would be needed to transport the entire party; after Smith's election, the party could fill two taxis.[17]

Suffering from cancer[18] and weighing just 10 stone,[19] Smith died in his sleep in a Rochdale nursing home on 3 September 2010.[20]

Allegations of sexual abuse

Allegations that in the 1960s he had spanked and sexually abused teenage boys in a hostel that he co-founded, and that the matter was investigated by police but not pursued by prosectors, were made in May 1979 by a local underground magazine, the Rochdale Alternative Press. The story was repeated in the same month by the national satirical magazine Private Eye. No public denial or legal action ensued, but after Smith's death the allegations were denied by his family.[21][22][23][24]


  1. ^ a b Telegraph Obituary
  2. ^ p18, Big Cyril, autobiography, 1977.
  3. ^ p49 Big Cyril Autobiography, 1977.
  4. ^ Rochdale Observer p17, 24 June 1996
  5. ^ p107, Big Cyril, 1977.
  6. ^ p101, Big Cyril, autobiography, 1977.
  7. ^ "Nice One Cyril" ITV Granada. Broadcast date 22 June 2003
  8. ^ Rochdale Observer 24 June 1996
  9. ^ London Gazette: no. 51558. p. 13986. 13 December 1988.
  10. ^ You magazine: 9 May 1993
  11. ^ Lancashire Life, June 1998
  12. ^ Don Estelle obituary. The Independent, 4 August 2003
  13. ^ "Asbestos: The lies that killed". New Statesman. 28 August 2008. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  14. ^ 2008 EDM 2470
  15. ^ Maguire, Kevin (5 November 2008). "Sir Cyril Smith should be stripped of his knighthood over asbestos speech". Daily Mirror. Retrieved 2009-05-15. 
  16. ^ Vallely, Paul (30 April 2010). "Rochdale makes its mark at last, to the regret of Mr Brown". Retrieved 5 September 2010. 
  17. ^ BBC Nationwide 1972
  18. ^ Membery, York (2010-09-06). "Exclusive: Cyril Smith - No pacts. Let's be independent". Retrieved 2010-09-08. 
  19. ^ Beattie, Jason (2010-09-04). "Sir Cyril Smith dies aged 82 - but was there a darker side to the former MP?". Retrieved 2010-09-08. 
  20. ^ "Former Rochdale MP Sir Cyril Smith dies at age of 82". Manchester Evening News. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  21. ^ Allegations of sex abuse
  22. ^ "Sir Cyril Smith dies aged 82 - but was there a darker side to the former MP?"
  23. ^ "Does Rochdale really want a LibDem MP??"
  24. ^ Private Eye, #1271. September 2010


  • Big Cyril: Autobiography (1977) ISBN 0-491-02261-1. Smith's autobiography.
  • Reflections from Rochdale: As I Saw it and as I See it (1997) ISBN 1-85187-340-6. A later slimmer autobiographical work.
  • Cyril Smith, entry by Tim Farron in Brack et al. (eds.) Dictionary of Liberal Biography (Politico's, 1998)

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Jack McCann
Member of Parliament for Rochdale
Succeeded by
Liz Lynne
Party political offices
Preceded by
David Steel
Liberal Chief Whip
Succeeded by
Alan Beith

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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