Remembering David Penhaligon

david-penhaligonBlogs are supposed to be a topical and pithy commentary on the news of the day, so it might seem strange to be talking about a Cornish MP, who was elected 40 years ago this year. However, students at Exeter University in Cornwall are building a fascinating political history project that will record local and national memories of this famous Cornishman.

I met David only once, when I was 16, at the Knowsley North by-election, where the Liberal/SDP candidate was Rosie Cooper in a by-election caused by the resignation of Robert Kilroy-Silk. I wonder what ever happened to them… but I walked into the HQ to see the rather odd sight of a man, with his shirt sleeves rolled up with his head inside an old offset litho printing press. I assumed he was just a bloke come round to mend the thing which was clearly in a poor state of repair. You can perhaps imagine my surprise when I discovered he was the MP for Truro.

There are hundreds of memories of David like this one and from people who knew he much better up and down Britain and the project intends to record them over the next year in the run up to the 40th anniversary of his election in October 1974.

Because the students want to make the website accessible, so that people who met him can upload their own memories of David, as well as conducting some of the interviews themselves, they have launched a crowdfunding project to finance the cost of this bespoke website.

Liberal Democrats up and down Britain owe David a great debt for helping to bring Focus and community politics to British streets so I hope you will take five minutes to pledge a contribution or take one of the rewards on offer. These include a specially commissioned picture of David or a recent book which includes an article about David by the Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies, Dr. Garry Tregidga, who is a well-known author on Liberalism in the West of England.

The website is – please give the project the support it deserves.

* John Ault is a member of the Liberal Democrats, a former Cornwall County Councillor in Cornwall and works at the Penryn campus of Exeter University as an Associate Lecturer in Politics. He blogs at

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  • James BLESSING 4th Feb '14 - 12:57pm

    Little know fact, David was one of the people who first let me loose on a Litho (at an age today where many would have considered it down right dangerous)

  • David Rogers 4th Feb '14 - 2:29pm

    John, and all involved with this project, I have several non-specific memories both of hearing him speak and meeting him briefly – all of them positive and happy! More importantly, he was indeed an inspiration to community campaigners everywhere, and this project will I’m sure pay tribute to that. For me he is also amongst that small number of people for whom I can remember exactly where I was when I heard of his tragic death…
    I have already made a small pledge towards this scheme, on the Crowdfunder website, and hope others will do so too.

  • Bill le Breton 4th Feb '14 - 3:23pm

    In 1986 I was sent to Ryedale for the by-election to support our candidate Elizabeth Shields. Maggie Clay was miffed that the Party was concentrating its resources in the West Derbyshire by-election scheduled for the same day. A few of us thought we could win Ryedale and of course we wanted a woman in the Commons. We also wanted to beat the 1st Team’s effort in Derbyshire.

    Whilst there, we had the usual visits from MPs (but not as many as one might now expect). One of these demanded in advance that he was only prepared to sign personal letters to the local doctors. Perhaps he was our Health Spokesperson. He arrived and took out his gold fountain pen and began his heavy work. He then adjourned to a restaurant and proceeded to alienate all the staff that we had spent many evenings getting to vote for Elizabeth.

    Then, one day, David Penhaligon arrived. He had driven through the night. “Where’s the printer,” he said. I have a feeling James Blessing will know what happened next.

    We took him down to the cellar where the printer was installed. We did not see him again for hours and hours. Every now and then someone went down to collect the ‘product’ or to take another leaflet for him to print off. He emerged eventually covered in printers ink and went to do some canvassing.

    He was that kind of campaigning Liberal.

    And we won – in case you don’t know.

    Good luck John.

  • Steve Griffiths 4th Feb '14 - 3:32pm

    David Penhaligon was a reforming radical of the sort that the Lib Dems badly lack these days, because he had seen and worked with people from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds in his pre-political life. I have recently heard an interview where he spoke of some of the experiences that lead him to politics, in which he spoke of his father’s caravan site in Cornwall, in the town where lived. It was not a residential site, but a weekly rental one which as he recalled attracted a “heavy drifting population” and was a significant effect on his life. He said;

    “… had my father been in any other business I would probably have lived up the prosperous part of town, as did the rest of the business people, whereas I didn’t I lived in what was the poorest community in the town and they were my friends; they were people I spoke to and they made me very aware of a whole series of problems that people faced, that weren’t always solved by that standard middle class attitude…”well they should pull themselves together and sort themselves out”. I think it might well have been one of the ingredients that started getting me interested in this crazy business of politics”.

    I have written on LDV before about the dwindling numbers of senior party officials, parliamentary advisors and ordinary party members that have witnessed, or had direct experiences of social housing and low wages and how this has led to poor decision making in several spheres. I often wonder what David would have thought of the current direction and policies of the party.

  • Phil Beesley 4th Feb '14 - 4:21pm

    I worked in the print shop at the Knowsley North by-election (with Terry MacFadden sp?). One evening, a couple of days before polling, we cracked the plastic fount tray on one of the desktop Rotaprints which put it out of action for a while. David Penhaligon joined us as the gofer so we gave him something responsible to do. We sent him off to the chip shop which closed at seven o’clock…

    Putting our heads together, we bodged a repair using solvent from spray mount and plastic trimmed from a plate negative. It survived long enough to complete the print run — not a bad result for three engineering graduates!

  • Thanks for all the positive feedback the students are looking forward to getting the project started when the funding has been finalised through the crowdfunder. Paul, I’ve sent you an email to explain a bit more about the progress but essentially at this stage we are in the funding part of the project and then when this has been acquired we will launch the project for real and start the process of interviews.

  • David Evans 5th Feb '14 - 2:17am

    A great man, sadly missed. I remember his superb comment on English China Clays (the biggest employer in the area). While the Tory MPs’ views were “What is good for ECC, is good for Cornwall,” David’s view was “What is good for the workers at ECC, is good for Cornwall,”

    Never a danger of him going native.

  • Simon Banks 5th Feb '14 - 11:09am

    I cried when I heard of his death. He was Liberal through and through, a shrewd politician and with a wonderful sense of humour.

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