What Is The Origin Of (256)?…

Couldn’t run a whelk stall

We live in an age of political ineptitude. Most British voters wouldn’t trust their motley collection of MPs to organize a piss up in a brewery never mind sort out the affairs of state and run the country. A politer summary of their collective ineptitude is to remark that they couldn’t run a whelk stall. What is interesting about this phrase is that we can attribute it to one man, that it was initially used to describe politicians and that it demonstrates that despair of the political classes is not a new phenomenon.

Our story starts with John Burns, an English trades unionist and politician, keen sportsman, teetotaler and, in his later years after receiving an annuity from Andrew Carnegie, historian. 1894 was a bit of a year for John. He was a keen cricket enthusiast and could regularly be seen watching a game at London’s premier grounds, Lord’s and The Oval. It is important, though, to keep your on the ball, something that John spectacularly failed to do, sustaining severe facial injuries when he was hit in the face.

On the other hand, 1894 also saw him lay claim to the title of the inventor of the phrase, couldn’t run a whelk stall. Addressing a meeting of his constituents in Battersea on January 7th of that year, he was in full rhetorical flow, as Reynold’s Newspaper recorded. “Am I”, he fulminated, “to take my orders from these political Admirable Crichtons who fancy themselves Pitts and Bolingbrokes, but who haven’t got the brains and ability to run a whelk stall?” At which point his audience burst out into cheers and whoops of laughter.   

Quite why Burns chose a whelk stall is uncertain. They were a regular sight on the streets, for sure, and as a simple operation selling a single product would not require much ingenuity to make a fist of it. What is clearer is that Burns was associated with the phrase, a letter from Walter Isaac, published in the Islington Daily Gazette and North London Tribune on January 2, 1903, noted, “[it] reminds us somewhat of Mr John Burns’ description of some public committee as not possessing sufficient ability to run a whelk stall”.

The phrase moved into political parlance, used as a telling critique of the aptitude and ability of the ruling party. A Labour candidate for the constituency of Wolverhampton West, a Mr T F Richards, was reported by the Lancashire Daily Post as sying, to laughter from his audience, that “the Government had not enough intelligence to run a whelk stall”.

The Labour movement took it up with some gusto, Ramsay MacDonald, on the stump in May 1926 was reported in several newspapers to have given this sound bite; “the intention is good, the masses are glorious, but your Government could not run a whelk stall”. Baldwin’s men, though, would not take this jibe lying down, the Tory Sir William Joynson Hicks retorting, according to the Evening News and Southern Daily Mail of May 20, 1926 that, “difficulty arose when a body of men, whose capacity was that of running a whelk stall, strived to run the country”.


The phrase has endured as has the notion that politicians couldn’t even run a whelk stall. John Burns also made another contribution to the richness of the English language. In 1929 when an American compared the Thames unfavourably with the Mississippi, he wrote, “The St Lawrence is water, the Mississippi muddy water, but the Thames is liquid history”. Another phrase that stuck.   

I wrote this before the General Election was called and it seems even more apposite now.

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