Close shaves and royal visits - the life and times of Charles Swift

1983 council leader charles Swift talking to Margaret Thatcher about the colsure of Peter brotherhood works with MP Brian Mawhinney looking on ENGEMN00120130416130719
1983 council leader charles Swift talking to Margaret Thatcher about the colsure of Peter brotherhood works with MP Brian Mawhinney looking on ENGEMN00120130416130719
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He dined with the royals, had his house windows smashed for taking in Ugandan refugees, angered his dad for starting a club for homosexuals, and housed the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd.

The man, of course, is Charles Swift (85) who last week announced that he would not stand for re-election in May after 62 years as a councillor in the city.

Charles Swift when he was mayor

Charles Swift when he was mayor

Cllr Swift led the council for nearly 20 years, represented the city as mayor and was an ever-constant on the Peterborough Development Corporation which set-up much of the city’s infrastructure.

He was also chairman of the committee which set-up Thorpe Wood Police Station, a place he was later bailed from for alleged corruption, although the charge was dropped 19 months later after causing damage to his family which “can never be repaired.”

But reflecting on happier times at his home in Scotney Street, which he bought for £2,750 50 years ago with a £50 deposit, it is the people rather than the positions he held which brings Cllr Swift the most joy.

“Your greatest achievements are summed up by what you do for the individual. When people come up to you and say ‘my family wouldn’t have been here today’,” he said.

Brenda Swift and Charles Swift at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE

Brenda Swift and Charles Swift at Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE

Cllr Swift was elected in 1954 and enjoyed a long spell as council leader which even saw him punched by a member in the council chamber.

Originally affiliated to Labour, he was something of a left-wing firebrand - “I hated Tories when I was first elected” - but he soon mellowed and even lost the Labour whip in 1992 due to his friendship with Conservative MP Brian Mawhinney and from asking Margaret Thatcher to help save Peter Brotherhood, the engineering firm.

That led to a cheque of £500,000 from the Prime Minister and even a personalised letter. “I got on like a house on fire with her,” he said.

The closest Cllr Swift came to being an MP was 50 years ago when he narrowly lost out on being the Labour candidate to a man brought in from London, who then lost by three votes in the election after a world record seven recounts.

“There were dozens of spoiled papers with the name ‘Swift’ written on the top. Even the Tory agent said ‘you’ve made my life simple. If you’d have had Mr Swift we’d have lost’,” he said.

After losing the Labour whip he stood as an Independent with Tony Blair writing a letter on behalf of the rival Labour candidate in North Ward. “But I trounced him and I’ve trounced everybody else since because people will not have that,” he said.

Cllr Swift, who went down the mines as a youngster in Yorkshire, started his working life stitching footballs aged 14 when he left school, and as a young man wearing Brylcreem began a 48 year career working on the railway.

He was forced to resign as council leader in 1985, only to be re-instated 19 days later, and he had a narrow escape when he shared a flight with the infamous John Poulson who was jailed for five years for bribing public figures to win contracts in what was known as the Poulson Affair.

It was only a note written down by the town clerk, which stated Cllr Swift’s wish not to have any more dealings with Poulson or his associates, which kept him free of Special Branch when they arrived in Peterborough. “Everyone on that plane went to prison, bar me,” he said.

Cllr Swift believes there needs to be far fewer councillors: “I spent about 250 hours a week in committees and I spent about 15 hours last year.” But he does not believe things are better than 60 years ago with a shortage of housing largely to blame.

“Everybody got a flat a fortnight before they were married. Today, we have homelessness,” he concluded. “Young people today I feel very very sad and sorry that they don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance.”