George Ernest Spero, the vanishing MP

As part of the ongoing Wikidata MPs project, I’ve come across a number of oddities – MPs who may or may not have been the same person, people who essentially disappear after they leave office, and so on. Tracking these down can turn into quite a complex investigation.

One such was George Ernest Spero, Liberal MP for Stoke Newington 1923-24, then Labour MP for Fulham West 1929-30. His career was cut short by his resignation in April 1930; shortly afterwards, he was declared bankrupt. Spero had already left the country for America, and nothing more was heard of him. The main ambiguity was when he died – various sources claimed either 1960 or 1976, but without it being clear which was more reliable, or any real details on what happened to him after 1930. In correspondence with Stephen Lees, who has been working on an incredibly useful comprehensive record of MP’s death-dates, I did some work on it last year and eventually confirmed the 1960 date; I’ve just rediscovered the notes from this and since it was an interesting little mystery, thought I’d post them.

George Spero, MP and businessman

So, let’s begin with what we know about him up to the point at which he vanished.

George Ernest Spero was born in 1894. He began training at the Royal Dental Hospital in 1912, and served in the RNVR as a surgeon during the First World War. He had two brothers who also went into medicine; Samuel was a dentist in London (and apparently also went bankrupt, in 1933), while Leopold was a surgeon or physician (trained at St. Mary’s, RNVR towards the end of WWI, still in practice in the 1940s). All of this was reasonably straightforward to trace, although oddly George’s RNVR service records seem to be missing from the National Archives.

After the war, he married Rina Ansley (nee Rina Ansbacher, born 14 March 1902) in 1922; her father was a wealthy German-born stockbroker, resident in Park Lane, who had naturalised in 1918. They had two daughters, Rachel Anne (b. 1923) and Betty Sheila (b. 1928). After his marriage, Spero went into politics in Leicester, where he seems to have been living, and stood for Parliament in the 1922 general election. The Nottingham Journal described him as for “the cause of free, unfettered Liberalism … Democratic in conviction, he stands for the abolition of class differences and for the co-operation of capital and labour.” However, while this was well-tailored to appeal to the generally left-wing voters of Leicester West, and his war record was well-regarded, the moderate vote was split between the Liberal and National Liberal candidates, with Labour taking the seat.

The Conservative government held another election in 1923, aiming to strengthen a small majority (does this sound familiar?), and Spero – now back in London – contested Stoke Newington, then a safe Conservative seat, again as a left Liberal. With support from Labour, who did not contest the seat, Spero ran a successful campaign and unseated the sitting MP. He voted in support of the minority Labour government on a number of occasions, and was one of the small number of Liberal rebels who supported them in the final no-confidence vote. However, this was not enough to prevent Labour fielding a candidate against him in 1924; the Conservative candidate took 57% of the vote, with the rest split evenly between Labour and Liberal.

Spero drifted from the Liberals into the Labour Party, probably a more natural home for his politics, joining it in 1925. By the time of the next general election, in May 1929, he had become the party’s candidate for Fulham West, winning it from the Conservatives with 45% of the vote.

He was a moderately active Government backbencher for the next few months, including being sent as a visitor to Canada during the recess in September 1929, travelling with his wife. While overseas, she caused some minor amusement to the British papers after reporting the loss of a £6,000 pearl necklace – they were delighted to report this alongside “socialist MP”. He was last recorded voting in Hansard in December, and did not appear in 1930. In February and March he was paired for votes, with a newspaper report in early March stating that he had been advised to take a rest to avoid a complete nervous breakdown about the start of the year, and had gone to the South of France, but “hopes to return to Parliament before the month is out”. However, on 9th April he formally took the Chiltern Hundreds (it is interesting that a newspaper report suggested his local party would choose whether to accept the resignation).

However, things were moving quickly elsewhere. A case was brought against him in the High Court for £10,000, arising from his sale of a radio company in 1928-29. During the court hearing, at the end of May, it was discovered that a personal cheque for £4000 given by Spero to guarantee the company’s debts had been presented to his bank in October 1929, but was not honoured. He had at this point claimed to be suing the company for £20,000, buying six months legal delay, sold his furniture, and – apparently – left the country for America. Bankruptcy proceedings followed later that year (where he was again stated to be in America) and, unsurprisingly, his creditors seem to have received very little.

At this point, the British trail and the historic record draw to a gentle close. But what happened to him?

The National Portrait Gallery gave his death as 1960, while an entry in The Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History reported that they had traced his death to 1976 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (where, as a citizen, it was registered with the US embassy). Unfortunately, it did not go into any detail about how they worked this out, and this just heightened the mystery – if it was true, how had a disgraced ex-MP ended up in Yugoslavia on a US passport three decades later? And, conversely, who was it had died in 1960?

George Spears, immigrant and doctor

We know that Spero went to America in 1929-30; that much seemed to be a matter of common agreement. Conveniently, the American census was carried out in April 1930, and the papers are available. On 18 April, he was living with his family in Riverside Drive, upper Manhattan; all the names and ages line up, and Spero is given as a medical doctor, actively working. Clearly they were reasonably well off, as they had a live-in maid, and it seems to be quite a nice area.

In 1937, he petitioned for American citizenship in California, noting that he had lived there since March 1933. As part of the process, he formally notified that he intended to change his name to George Ernest Spears. (He also gave his birthdate as 2 March 1894, of which more later).

While we can be reasonably confident these are the same man due to the names and dates of the family, the match is very neatly confirmed by the fact that the citizenship papers have a photograph, which can be compared to an older newspaper one. There is fifteen years difference, but we can see the similarities between the prospective MP of 27 and the older man of 43.

George Spears, with the same family, then reappears in the 1940 census, back in Riverside Drive. He is now apparently practicing as an optician, and doing well – income upwards of $6000. Finally, we find a draft record for him living in Huntingdon, Long Island at some point in 1942. Note his signature here, which is visibly the same hand as in 1937, except “E. Spears” not “Ernest Spero”.

It is possible he reverted to his old name for a while – there are occasional appearances of a Dr. George Spero, optometrist, in the New York phone books between the 1940s and late 1950s. Not enough detail to be sure either way, though.

So at this point, we can trace Spero/Spears continually from 1930 to 1942. And then nothing, until on 7 January 1960, George E. Spears, born 2 March 1894, died in California. Some time later, in June 1976, George Spero, born 11 April 1894, died in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, apparently a US citizen. Which one was our man?

The former seemed more likely, but can we prove it? The death details come from an index, which gives a mother’s maiden name of “Robinson” – unfortunately the full certificate isn’t there and I did not feel up to trying to track down a paper Californian record to see what else it said.

If we return to the UK, we can find George Spero in the 1901 census in Dover, with his parents Isidore Sol [Solomon], a ‘dental mechanic’, and Rachel, maiden name unknown. The family later moved to London, the parents naturalised, Isidore died in 1925 – and probate goes to “George Ernest Spero, physician”, which seems to confirm that this is definitely the right family and not a different George Spero. The 1901 censuses note that two of the older children were born in Dublin, so we can trace them in the Irish records. Here we have an “Israel S Spero” marrying Rachel Robinson in 1884, and a subsequent child born to Solomon Israel Spero and Rachel Spero nee Robinson. There are a few other Speros or Spiros appearing in Dublin, but none married around the right time, and none with such similar names. If Israel Solomon Spero is the same as Isidore Solomon Spero, this all ties up very neatly.

It leaves open the mystery, however, of who died in Yugoslavia. It seems likely this was a completely different man (who had not changed his name), but I have completely failed to trace anything about him. A pity – it would have been nice to definitively close off that line of enquiry.

What’s in a name? MPs and their preferred titles

A quick skim of the list of members in Hansard shows that there is no consistency in how it refers to politicians – some are Ms Jane Smith, others are merely John Brown.

My understanding – I welcome corrections! – is that this is ultimately personal choice. MPs are asked to choose how they are described in Hansard, with the option for a title. (I am not sure quite how this process works, but I assume there is a form; there always is.) This decision eventually percolates through to all of the data produced by Parliament. Of course, “personal choice” might just be “whatever they [or their assistant] happened to think was expected when filling out the form”, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice.

So, what do people do? A 2010 Commons factsheet says vaguely that “A few Members of both sexes have requested that no title be used (e.g. Jennifer Jones MP” but a cursory glance down the list shows it’s more than “a few”. It turns out the full data is available from (as a big blob of XML) and so we can actually do some stats on this.

For current MPs, 145 of 650 have a preferred title (based on current data not past preferences). 33 Sir, 6 Dame, 17 Dr, 7 Ms, 11 Mrs, 71 Mr. Overall, 78% of MPs do not have a preferred title.

Of those, 44 are Labour, 93 Conservative, 3 LD, 2 SNP, 2 DUP, 1 Independent. So 17% of Labour MPs have a preferred title and 29% of Conservatives. Split by gender, 15% of women (32 of 209) list a title, versus 25% of men (113 of 441).

Of course, in some circumstances you don’t really have a choice – it would be a bit odd to say “I’d rather not be Sir X” once you’ve accepted a knighthood. Omitting anyone who’s a knight or dame, it becomes 20% of Conservatives & 15% of Labour having preferred titles, & overall 20% of men and 13% of women. The general proportions are broadly the same but the Labour-Conservative gap has narrowed a bit.

Doctors are an interesting question. Some PhD’ed MPs make a point of using their doctorate, but many others don’t. (They are in good company if so – the world’s most prominent doctorate-holding politician doesn’t, either). A couple of years ago, Chris Brooke tried to track down every current MP with a PhD. I took his list (with post-2017 updates), and a paper in the BMJ listing new medical MPs after the last election, and pulled together a total of 31 MPs who could be “Dr” – 21 have PhDs (or similar), 10 are medical doctors of various forms. (I have counted one with a D.Clin.Psy as “medical” rather than “like a PhD”). We’ve seen that only 17 people list themselves as Dr – who are they?

It turns out that every medical doctor uses “Dr” as their title, but only a third of PhDs (7 of 21). Two of the PhDs are “Sir”, but didn’t appear to use the title before getting knighthoods, and one sticks firmly to “Mr”; the rest are blank.

Across the parties, the Conservatives have six medics (all Dr) and 11 PhDs (three Dr); Labour have two medics (all Dr) and eight PhDs (four Dr). Not really enough to say anything confident about the difference between the parties.

Lastly, there’s the question of the change over time. Interestingly Paul Seaward noted that in the 1990s, the trend was for new doctoral MPs to use “Dr” for a few months and then quietly drop it.

The raw XML includes a note of the change of style by date since c. 2010 (presumably so that you can check you’re using a time-appropriate form if needed). It’s a bit noisy because it seems to have a lot of back-and-forth changes around election dates, which probably hints at changes not purely initiated by the Members themselves. Given this complicating the data I’d be cautious about drawing any conclusions from it without much more careful examination, but perhaps in a few years time we can start saying things about whether Members’ titles are indeed becoming gradually less common, or if it turns out that mostly not using them is a fashion that comes and goes…