Road Safety Campaigner and Parliamentary Candidate
Born 1904 Died 1986
Commander Bill Boaks might best be described as a Great British Eccentric with strongly held views on the issue of road safety, and once featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as holding the record for having stood as a parliamentary candidate more times than anyone else. As it turned out, Boaks who generally stood under the banner of Air, Road, Public Safety, White Resident, (or variations thereof) and in his later years as a Democratic Monarchist Public Safety White Resident, never came even close to winning a seat, but as Philip Howard once wrote in The Times there was a time when "no British election would be complete without Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks on his bike" (1)
His Early Life
William George Boaks was born on the 25th May 1904 at 104 Warner Road in Walthamstow, Essex, the son of William Robert Boaks, a "vegetable salesman's cashier", and his wife, the former Annie Palmer. Having received nothing more than an elementary education he joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman during World War I at the age of twelve, and thereafter enjoyed a distinguished naval career during which he also qualified as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (2). During World War II he was in command of the corvette HMS Basilisk during the evacuation of Dunkirk and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, and was later the gunnery officer aboard HMS Rodney when it engaged and helped sink the Bismarck on the 26th May 1941, as well as being amongst the first Allied officers at both Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
He eventually retired from the Royal Navy 1949 with the rank of lieutenant-commander and went to live in Streatham and worked in local government. It wasn't long before he developed an interest in politics and contested Walthamstow East in the General Election of 1951, which was actually a mistake on his part as he'd intended to put in his nomination for Walthamstow West, which was Prime Minister Clement Attlee's seat. He nevertheless stood on a platform that advocated equal pay for women, subsidised apprenticeships and the sale of council houses, as the representative of the Association of Democratic Monarchists Independently Representing All Ladies (ADMIRAL) and received one hundred and seventy-four votes.
However it was the issue of road safety which was to engage Boaks throughout much of his life and his revolutionary notion that the authorities should ensure the strict segregation of motor, cycle and pedestrian traffic. In order to publicise his campaign he painted his Vauxhall 12, which he named Josephine, as a zebra crossing and decorated it with placards bearing slogans, an eight foot pole, and loudspeakers, although he was also often to be seen on foot deliberately holding up traffic at zebra crossings, bearing a sign with the slogan 'Work to Rule on Zebra'. In later life when money became short, he was forced to abandon Josephine and so built his own reinforced bicycle similarly laden with placards which also served much the same purpose. His bike which became a familiar sight at various election contests up and down the country, weighed 140 pounds and came armed with a camera, in order that he might take photographs of any errant motorists that he came across in his travels. Unfortunately the bike was eventually hijacked and taken to Aberystwyth where it remained, its ultimate fate unknown since Boaks was unable to afford the £20 to have it repaired.
During the fifties and sixties, Boaks's various campaigning activities led to him making a regular series of visits to the law courts for one reason or another. He made his first appearance at Bow Street Court in September 1952 when he was fined twenty shillings on each of two counts of using a motor vehicle for advertising. Almost exactly a year later he was back again at Mansion House Magistrates Court on the same charge, at which time it was noted that he had equipped his car with an eight foot pole to which he had affixed a number of pennants demanding equal pay for women. He was again convicted and fined twenty shillings, despite his plea that he was merely publicising and not advertising.
More serious charges followed after the events of the 2nd April 1955 when Boaks stopped his car at a set of traffic lights on the Kilburn High Road, and refused to move until a large crowd of spectators who had just left the England v Scotland match at Wembley Stadium had passed by. Two hours later he stopped his car at a roundabout on Cambridge Circus, and issued an open invitation to all pedestrians to cross whilst the traffic piled up behind him. He was subsequently convicted of two counts of obstructing the highway, although in July 1955 he appealed against both convictions claiming that it was his "right to stop my car at any time I wish to do so to offer courtesy to any road user". His appeal was dismissed.
Boaks was however undeterred, and on the 1st October 1955 he stopped his car in The Strand to allow some pedestrians to cross the road, and claimed that since his car bore a sign which read 'Don't Rush, I Wait' he was obliged to remain stationary until all had done so. Although since Josephine was equipped with its own loudspeaker system, he also took the opportunity to make it clear to all those within earshot that this was his intention. He subsequently appeared in court on the 3rd October 1955 when he was convicted once more of obstructing the highway, although this time the presiding magistrate Francis Bertram Reece became concerned for his mental health and so remanded him in custody pending medical reports. Boaks therefore spent a week in Brixton Prison before being released on the 10th October. Naturally Boaks objected to this treatment and sued for wrongful imprisonment, and so the case of Boaks v Reece attracted some attention as Boaks sought £10,000 in damages. His case was however dismissed in June 1956, as was his appeal in November of that same year, it being noted that magistrates possessed a general power to remand for the purposes of making inquiries. The House of Lords refused his petition to hear his appeal and so Boaks was forced to admit defeat.
Perhaps frustrated at his general lack of success as a defendant, Boaks then decided to try his hand as a prosecutor, as on the 18th December 1959 he sought to bring a prosecution against Violet Attlee (the wife of former Prime Minister Clement Attlee) after she's been involved in a serious road accident, Despite citing precedent from his copy of Halsbury's Laws of England, the court rejected Boaks's submission, and when he later applied to the Court of Appeal for a writ of mandamus that too was rejected. As it turned our Mrs Attlee was involved in another car accident in the following year, and so Boaks was back in court when he again attempted to being a private prosecution against her. The court rejected that application as well, and his subsequent attempts to prosecute Rab Butler's chauffeur, Prince Philip and Princess Anne ("no one is above the law" he once explained) for road traffic offences similarly came to nothing. It is however worth noting that as far as Mrs Attlee was concerned Bill Boaks did have a point. Time magazine once wrote that it was "almost as certain as fog" that she would have "a traffic accident every so often" and noted that she'd experienced nine accidents in thirteen years, and she was a decidedly awful driver who in all honesty should not have been allowed on the public highway.
Unfortunately Boaks's one-man prosecutorial campaign came unstuck in June 1963 when he launched a private prosecution against one Ernest Robert Wilkin for dangerous driving after he'd struck a young girl crossing the road. As it turned out Boaks himself had stopped his car at a set of lights even though they were green and ushered two young girls to cross the road; straight into Wilkin's path as it happens, since he naturally hadn't expected any pedestrians to be wandering in the middle of the road given that the lights were in his favour. Once the jury had heard Boaks's evidence they stopped the case, which was then dismissed with Wilkin being awarded fifty guineas costs. The judge had some harsh words to say regarding Boaks's attitude towards road safety, and regretted his inability to make him pay the fifty guineas.
Boaks's court appearance were not limited to the criminal courts either, as on the 27th March 1962 edition of the South London Press praised some of his innovative transport plans but nevertheless described him as "nutty". Boaks sued for libel and lost. He again sued Associated Newspapers for libel when the London Evening News of the 18th March 1966 falsely claimed that he was living on National Assistance. Although he won this case he received merely notional damages of a £1, and later complained to the Court of Appeal that the judge had misdirected the jury. He lost that case. Then in 1967 the South London Press once again referred to him as "nutty", perhaps feeling that it was free to do so given their victory of a few years later. Boaks again sued for libel. The South London Press claimed fair comment and justification, and although the judge Melford Stevenson ruled against the former, the jury accepted the latter argument, and found for the defendant.
However despite his many court appearances, Boaks would be best remembered for his repeated attempts to secure a seat in the House of Commons. Although he had of course, begun his career as an aspiring parliamentarian back in the fifties, it was following his retirement in 1969 that Bill Boaks naturally found that he had more time on his hands, and he became something of a permanent fixture on the electoral landscape.
He contested Wandsworth Clapham at the General Election of 1970 and received eighty votes and would have fought the Liverpool Scotland by-election in 1971 only he failed to pay his £150 deposit on time. He later made up for this by standing for no less than three constituencies at the General Election of February 1974, receiving thirty-five votes at City of London and Westminster South, forty-five in Streatham and two-hundred and forty at Wimbledon. Despite his triple failure, he was apparently of the opinion that "If I had been elected I would have been the next Prime Minister".
As things turned out Wimbledon was to be the high point of his electoral career as he was never again to get anywhere near that kind of support. Not that this made the slightest difference to Boaks, who felt obliged to put his name down for every by-election going. In 1976 he contested the Walsall North By-election occasioned by the antics of John Stonehouse, and in 1977 he fought the City of London, Birmingham Ladywood and Bournemouth East by-elections, in 1978 there was the Ilford North by-election, followed by Southend in 1980, and Warrington, Croydon North-West, and Crosby in 1981. In 1982 he again contested the by-elections at Birmingham Northfield, Southwark and most notably Glasgow Hillhead, where he received a total of five votes, believed to be the lowest number of votes ever cast in favour of a parliamentary candidate in modern times. In fact between 1976 and 1982 he contested no less than eighteen by-elections, at the end of which he claimed to be "penniless" and was reported to be incensed at plans to raise the deposit required from candidates from £150 to £500.
The odd thing about Bill Boaks's successive attempts to win election to the House of Commons was that he never believed in actually carrying out any campaigning. Once he'd been to a constituency and secured the necessary nominations, he never returned there and never canvassed or solicited any votes, believing that it was unethical for a commissioned officer to go "knocking on doors in support of Her Majesty". As far as Boaks was concerned, "all that I stand for is those six words on the ballot paper" (3) which he claimed gave "thinking people a chance to vote for public safety", adding "If they don't think, they will just vote Labour anyway".
Those "six words" were the once famous Democratic Monarchist Public Safety White Resident. According to Boaks, the 'Democratic' was there because he wanted to end the division lobby at Westminster and introduce secret ballots for MPs, whilst he was a 'Monarchist' because he believed that the crown was the last bulwark against tyranny. 'Public Safety' of course referred to his long standing campaign for road safety, although also wanted to ban fireworks and have all homosexuals removed from public office. He justified the use of the words 'White Resident' on the grounds of "that's exactly what I am", and after securing the nomination for a seat he claimed that he would often approach a "black", give him a pound and invite him to find another 149 people willing to do the same so that he could stand as a 'Black Immigrant'. There was however, no evidence of anyone taking him up on that offer.
In addition to his strongly held views on road safety, Boaks also had some radical views about transport in general, which he promoted under the guise of the British National Airways National Heliport Network and Central London Airport and Aerodrome Association. Specifically Boaks wanted to close Heathrow Airport together with all inland airports and replace them with a series of airports built in coastal areas, which would be serviced by a fleet of helicopters. In fact Boaks was very keen on helicopters which he believed should take the place of all trains, buses and cars, arguing "why have roads when the sky takes you anywhere". Indeed he was so keen on helicopters that he applied for planning permission for a heliport in his garden in February 1961. Lambeth Borough Council refused his application, as it did all his other helicopter related planning applications, including his proposal to excavate his garden and build an underground hanger for eight civil defence helicopters. In the end Lambeth Borough Council became so fed up with him that they issued a compulsory purchase order on his home, demolished it and build a block of flats, forcing Boaks to relocate to the Kingston Road in Merton.
It was of course bitterly ironic that Boaks was injured in a road accident in November 1982 and received head injuries which appears to dissuaded him from further pursuing his electoral career. He abandoned his plans to contest the Bermondsey by-election in 1983, although he did attend the count as a representative of Screaming Lord Sutch, whose Official Monster Raving Loony Party made its electoral debut at that contest (4). As it turned out Boaks never fully recovered from the injuries he received in 1982, and later died of pneumonia and heart failure at the St George's Hospital in Tooting on the 4th April 1986. As befitting his long service in the Royal Navy, he was buried at sea with full honours in the naval graveyard outside Portsmouth harbour. He was survived by his wife Ivy June Collier whom he had married in 1930 and their three children.
The odd thing was that although many of ideas about road safety appeared to be "nutty" back in the fifties, some of his ideas, such as his enthusiasm for pedestrianised areas, appeared to be less insane in a world that came to be dominated by the motor car. Peter Bottomley, then Minister of Transport, indeed attended his funeral to pay tribute to his dogged, if sometimes misguided, pursuance of the issue of road safety down the years.
(1) Although as it happens Mr Howard mispelt his name as Boakes.
(2) So said The Times, although this was possibily in error as they might have meant the Fleet Air Arm.
(3) Since under British electoral law, any description used by a party candidate must not be more than six words long.
(4) It was of course Screaming Lord Sutch that was to overtake Bill Boaks to claim the record for the most appearances as a parliamentary candidate.
- Robert Ingham, 'Boaks, William George (1904–1986)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- Various contemporary reports from The Times most particularly;
Philip Howard, Political axes to grind and hobbyhorses to ride The Times, Feb 14, 1974
Laurie Weston, Go for Boak, The Times, Thursday, Oct 28, 1982
- See also; Bill Boaks, c 1970. Photograph by Tony Ray-Jones (1941-1972)