MPs in World War I: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot (1872-1916)

100 years ago yesterday the Somme claimed another MP: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot. Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, blogs on his life…

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster - Own work, Public Domain

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster – Own work, Public Domain

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot was killed in action on 25 September 1916 while serving with the Grenadier Guards during the Battle of the Somme. Like Guy Baring, whose death we marked two weeks ago, he is buried at the Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt.

Arbuthnot’s parliamentary career had been a brief one. After unsuccessfully contesting the Lancashire borough of Burnley for the Conservative party in 1906, he worked hard to improve his position in the constituency. As well as making himself familiar with the town’s mining and cotton industries, he took a keen interest in party organisation. He initiated a Junior Unionist Association, while his wife began a Women’s Unionist Association, and together they started a Children’s Unionist Association. The Burnley Express later paid tribute to ‘his wonderful organising abilities, his genuine interest in the constituency, his charming manner and sincerity of purpose’. Arbuthnot’s efforts paid off, and at the January 1910 election he defeated the Labour incumbent, Fred Maddison. However, having spent just nine months as an MP, he was defeated at the December 1910 general election by the Liberal Philip Morrell, who was a noted pacifist during the First World War.

In contrast with his short stint in Parliament, Arbuthnot’s political career was a lengthier one. After serving as a midshipman in the navy from 1886 until 1891, he had studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He then spent a decade as private secretary to the Conservative Cabinet minister Walter Long, who served as President of the Board of Agriculture from 1895, President of the Local Government Board from 1900, and briefly as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1905. Long described Arbuthnot as ‘an ideal private secretary’, who also ‘possessed a remarkable power as a public speaker’. He used his talents on the platform as vice-chairman of the Budget Protest League, which campaigned against Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’, and was a prominent speaker against Irish Home Rule.


Primrose League badges, via Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Henrygb CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 1912 Arbuthnot told Burnley’s Conservatives that he would not stand again for that constituency. However, he continued to devote himself to Conservative organisational work, and in 1912 became vice-chancellor of the Primrose League, of which Long was chancellor. The Primrose League, which sought to attract men, women and children as members through its lively programme of social activities, was the largest political organisation of its day, with over two million people having enrolled by March 1910. The number of current members was, however, rather less, at around 656,000 in 1912. Arbuthnot took a leading role in efforts to galvanise the League into renewed activity as the rise of the Labour party presented fresh challenges for the established political parties.

Having previously served in the navy, Arbuthnot joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the outbreak of war in 1914. He spent around 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea. Wishing to play a more direct role in fighting the enemy, he secured a commission in the Grenadier Guards, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in January 1916, and went to the front in France that May. Killed at the age of forty-four, he was survived by his wife and three daughters. He was the fifth MP or former MP to die on military service in September 1916.


You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here. The series will return next year.

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Labour Unrest: Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour party, 1931

Our series this summer has taken a look at historical cases of division within political parties.  In our last post of the series, this week we discuss the Labour party of the 1930s, and how Ramsay MacDonald came to be reviled by the party he led for many years…

Ramsay Macdonald, via Wikimedia

Ramsay Macdonald, via Wikimedia

The wartime split in the Liberal party and the increase in suffrage in 1918 and 1928 created an opportunity for the Labour party to emerge as the new opposition to Conservatism. After the war the party ended their electoral arrangements with the Liberals, and twice formed minority governments (in 1924 and 1929-31), both led by Ramsay MacDonald. Yet in a dramatic reversal in 1931 Labour’s first Prime Minister was expelled from the party, and after the October election fewer Labour MPs were returned to Westminster than in 1918.

MacDonald had risen from humble beginnings to become Labour leader: an illegitimate son from a Scottish fishing village who established himself in a middle-class lifestyle with a deep commitment to Labour politics. He ‘looked the part’ in Commons, with great charisma, but he was also ‘prone to alternate feeling[s] of superiority with a self-pitying sense of martyrdom to duty.’ [Wrigley, ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ in Jeffreys (ed.), Leading Labour]. A moderate with few ties to the Trade Unions, his chief aim as the head of minority Labour administrations was to prove that the country need not be afraid of a Labour government.

When Labour returned to power in 1929 the chief issue was unemployment, especially in Labour’s industrial heartlands. Structural problems including an aging industry and high employment costs had already made British manufacturing uncompetitive. The government’s decision to return sterling to the Gold Standard in 1925 tied the pound to the value of gold at what many believe was too high a rate, making British goods even more expensive abroad. Labour entered government hoping to reduce unemployment through public works schemes inspired by the economist J.M. Keynes, but these had little impact after the Wall Street Crash began a period of global depression.

The immediate problem for the government was the growing cost of unemployment insurance – a vital lifeline to many, but considered at the time hugely expensive. The Labour party grew increasingly divided on how to respond to the crisis: Chancellor Philip Snowden favoured economic ‘orthodoxy’ – free trade, remaining on the Gold Standard, and balanced books – whereas others could not countenance a cut in unemployment benefits. Facing criticism in the Commons the government established a commission to investigate the state of the government’s finances. Its report in July 1931 that the government was £120 million in deficit (although today’s accounting standards would consider this figure greatly exaggerated) came at the worst possible time, following a European banking crisis. Confidence in sterling plummeted, and the Bank of England began to use up its reserves to keep the pound on the Gold Standard. Something had to be done: either large cuts were needed to balance the books and restore confidence, or Britain would be forced to leave the Gold Standard and devalue the pound.

The cabinet was divided. Cutting expenditure would mean cutting unemployment benefits, but leaving the Gold Standard would be seen by many (although not all) as a dramatic failure. MacDonald worked hard for a compromise. Believing that the credibility of the Labour party was at stake, he attempted to find a package that would satisfy the bankers, the opposition parties, and his cabinet. On 23 August MacDonald won a cabinet majority for cuts of £76 million, including 10% of unemployment insurance payments, by eleven votes to nine. However, those opposed, including former leader Arthur Henderson, supported by the Unions, indicated that they would resign from cabinet rather than stay to implement the cuts. MacDonald went to the King and offered his resignation and that of the whole cabinet.

What happened next destroyed MacDonald’s reputation in the Labour movement and proved fatal for the party for the next decade. MacDonald was persuaded to stay on as the head of a ‘National Government’ to implement the government cuts and restore confidence. His biographer David Marquand has argued he only did so ‘very reluctantly’, yet it was taken to be little short of treachery by Labour MPs [Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay’, ODNB].  Now MacDonald’s ability to ‘look the part’ as Prime Minister now appeared to be little more than vain social climbing, and for years many believed he had plotted to bring about this outcome. Sidney Webb called him the ‘author, producer and principal actor’ of the crisis. More recently historians have dismissed the theory of a deliberate plot, arguing that MacDonald acted for what he perceived to be the country’s best interest.

The consequences were dramatic. MacDonald led a ‘National Government’ comprised of the Conservatives, some Liberals and very few Labour MPs; all members or associates of the National Government were expelled by the Labour party. Despite government cuts Britain was forced off the Gold Standard anyway before the end of September.

The real damage to Labour, however, was the decision to hold an election in 1931, and for MacDonald to fight it on behalf of the National Government (although with the personal support of only a few MPs he had little other choice). In many constituencies Labour faced a single National Government candidate as the parties arranged pacts against them, and their former Chancellor Snowden called the party’s 1931 manifesto ‘Bolshevism run mad’ on a BBC broadcast. Labour’s vote share fell from 37.1% to 30.6%, but the real cost was in the number of seats: only 52 Labour or Independent Labour MPs were returned. New leader Arthur Henderson lost his seat. MacDonald returned to lead a government with a huge majority, but 470 of the 554 National Government MPs were Conservatives.

Macdonald remained Prime Minister until 1935, but was increasingly isolated. In December 1932 he wrote in his diary: ‘Was I wise? Perhaps not, but it seemed as though anything else was impossible.’ [Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay’, ODNB] MacDonald’s reputation has since been revised, but never fully rehabilitated.


Further reading:

  • Chris Wrigley, ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ in Kevin Jeffreys (ed.), Leading Labour (1999)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: David Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay
  • ODNB: Chris Wrigley, ‘Henderson, Arthur

You can read the other blogs in our ‘party split’ series here.

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MPs in World War I: Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham (1879-1916)

Yesterday we marked the death of Hon. Guy Victor Baring, who died on 15 September 1916. Another former occupant of the Conservative benches in the Commons was killed in action on the same day, as Dr. Kathryn Rix records…

Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham

Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham

Of the MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War, Charles William Reginald Duncombe was the only one to have been a member of both Houses of Parliament. He died on the same day as Guy Baring, being shot in the head as he led his men on 15 September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme offensive. At the time of his death, he was a member of the House of Lords, having succeeded his grandfather as second Earl of Feversham in January 1915. Before this, he had spent almost a decade in the Commons as Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, where he was known by his courtesy title, Viscount Helmsley.

The Duncombe family, of Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire, had a long tradition of parliamentary service. Feversham’s father, William Reginald Duncombe (1852-1881), was Conservative MP for the North Riding of Yorkshire from 1874 until his death. Feversham’s grandfather, William Ernest Duncombe (1829-1915), had represented East Retford, 1852-57, and the North Riding, 1859-67, before succeeding as 3rd Baron Feversham in 1867. He was created Earl of Feversham in July 1868. The first earl’s father, William, 2nd Baron Feversham (1798-1867), and grandfather Charles (1764-1841), 1st Baron Feversham, had also sat in the Commons, with the latter representing four different constituencies before he was rewarded by the Tory prime minister, Lord Liverpool, with a peerage in 1826.

As Viscount Helmsley, Charles William Reginald Duncombe was singled out as a man of promise by the County Gentleman magazine in its ‘Portrait of the Month’ feature in 1901. It described him as ‘one of the most popular as well as most prominent of rising sportsmen in England’, noting his prowess at hunting, riding, shooting and polo. It also recorded that he was ‘a fluent and ready speaker on the platform and in debate’. Educated at Eton and Oxford University, from 1902 until 1905 Helmsley served as assistant private secretary to Lord Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

In 1906 Helmsley was elected for Thirsk and Malton, and soon ‘fulfilled his early promise’, proving ‘an excellent speaker’. He was remembered as ‘in every sense of the word a real man, as straight as a die, and without the slightest suspicion of priggishness’. He made over 1,000 interventions in the chamber – including numerous questions to ministers – during his decade in the Commons. His fluent oratory ‘brought him speedily into the front rank amongst the younger Conservative element in the House’. Criticising the Liberal ministry for attempting to curtail debate on their 1912 bill for the disestablishment of the Welsh church, Helmsley reflected that ‘in the old days a great number of Members were content to be silent Members’, but that with ‘the increasing interest taken by the democracy in political matters’, there was a greater expectation from their constituents that MPs should speak in the chamber.

Despite entering the Commons almost four decades after his grandfather had left it, Helmsley had much in common with him. They shared a deep-rooted commitment to the landed and agricultural interests. Helmsley’s maiden speech on 9 March 1906 was in opposition to the land tenure bill, which he moved to reject as he believed it would be ‘injurious to the real interests of all classes connected with agriculture’. One contemporary recorded that ‘what he did not know about horses or about farming was not worth knowing’, a passion he shared with his grandfather, who had served as president of both the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and the Royal Agricultural Society, and was a renowned breeder of horses and shorthorn cattle. Helmsley himself was involved with a government scheme to improve standards of horse-breeding in Britain.

Like his grandfather, who had objected to the parliamentary reform bill brought forward by William Gladstone and Lord Russell in 1866 as a measure ‘which nobody wanted’, Helmsley was reluctant to see further reforms to the electoral system. Early in his parliamentary career, he raised objections to women being allowed to sit as borough and county councillors, fearing that it ‘would be one of the first steps in the downward path to female suffrage’. He was also an opponent of the introduction of the payment of salaries to MPs in 1911. In an article on the subject, he argued that in order to equalise conditions between rich and poor candidates, it would be better to reduce the costs of elections, at which candidates were still obliged to pay the expenses of the returning officer in conducting the election and the poll.

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire (photo credit: A. Rix)

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire (photo credit: A. Rix)

Given his equestrian interests, it was unsurprising that Helmsley began his war service with the cavalry, joining the Yorkshire hussars – a voluntary cavalry regiment in which he had been an officer since 1898 – at Ypres in 1914. When his grandfather died in January 1915, he returned home on leave, but was then commissioned to raise a ‘farmers’ battalion’ in the North of England. This new infantry unit, part of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, trained in the grounds of his residence at Duncombe Park, before going to fight in France. Holding the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Feversham was killed while commanding the 21st battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps at Flers. He had taken his deerhound to the trenches with him; it too was killed and was buried alongside him. Originally buried in an isolated grave, Feversham’s remains were later relocated to the main A.I.F. burial ground at Flers. He was succeeded in the earldom by his young son, Charles William Slingsby Duncombe (1906-63).


Feversham’s death and his formation of a battalion of The King’s Royal Rifle Corps are discussed in this BBC Radio broadcast.

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MPs in World War I: Hon. Guy Victor Baring (1873-1916)

The Battle of the Somme claimed another two MPs one hundred years ago this week. Today Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, continues our series with a short biography of Hon. Guy Baring, who died on the same  day as the former MP, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, second Earl of Feversham, who will feature on our blog tomorrow.


Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Guy Baring

With the Battle of the Somme entering a new phase in mid-September 1916, two parliamentarians were killed in battle on the same day, 15 September. Guy Baring was killed not far from where Thomas Kettle had died less than a week before. Serving with the Coldstream Guards with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Baring was shot while advancing with his men along the Ginchy to Lesboeufs road to attack a German position.

In common with other MPs we have blogged about in our First World War series, Baring came from a family with a tradition of parliamentary service. His father, Alexander Hugh Baring (1835-1889), had sat for Thetford, 1857-1867, before succeeding as 4th Baron Ashburton in 1868. He had followed in the footsteps of Baring’s grandfather, Francis (1800-1868), who represented Thetford in the Commons from 1830-1, 1832-41 and 1848-57. In turn, Francis had effectively inherited his Thetford seat from his older brother, William Bingham Baring (1799-1864). William had been MP for Thetford, 1826-30, Callington 1830-31, Winchester, 1832-37, and Staffordshire North, 1837-41, before a final spell representing Thetford, 1841-48. The family was related to the Baring banking dynasty, but Guy’s branch of the family was not actively involved in the management of Baring Brothers, his father having resigned his nominal partnership in 1864.

It was for one of the constituencies previously represented by his great-uncle William that Baring was elected in 1906, when he became Conservative MP for Winchester. His family had a long connection with Hampshire, having their seat at The Grange, near Alresford. Baring was re-elected with an increased majority in January 1910, and retained his seat at the December 1910 contest.

Like Duncan Campbell, whose death we marked at the beginning of this month, Baring had served with distinction in the Boer War. A career soldier, he had trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and had been commissioned into the Coldstream Guards in 1893. During the South African campaign he took part in the advance on Kimberley, and was also present for the actions at Poplar Grove, Driefontein, Vet River and Zand River. Mentioned in dispatches, he received the Queen’s medal with three clasps. He was also involved in operations in British East Africa, and in 1901 was part of the Imperial Representative Force which attended the ceremony in Sydney marking the creation of the Australian Commonwealth.

As a speaker, Baring had ‘a fund of humour which was used freely and tellingly’, addressing audiences in an ‘outspoken and soldierly’ manner. In the Commons, he confined himself largely to interventions on military matters, drawing on his expertise. He did, however, raise matters of interests to his constituents, such as the impact of an outbreak of ‘Isle of Wight bee disease’ on Hampshire’s bee-keepers in 1911.

Baring had resigned his army commission in June 1913 and been placed on the army reserve list. He rejoined his former regiment at the start of the war, initially serving at Windsor with a training company, before leaving for France in the summer of 1915. After acting as second in command of the 4th (Pioneer) Battalion, he was given temporary command of the 1st Battalion in October 1915 after the Battle of Loos. In May 1916 he was put in temporary command of the Guards Brigade, and he was killed while commanding the 1st Battalion. Twice mentioned in dispatches, Baring was buried at the Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt. Press reports of his death noted that his name had also been inscribed on the roll of honour of the House of Commons, which was being kept at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, ‘printed in a plain wooden frame’.


You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here

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‘Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor’: Thomas Michael Kettle (1880-1916)

Continuing our series of short biographies of the MPs who sadly lost their lives fighting in the First World War, today Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, discusses the second MP to die at the Somme, Thomas Kettle…

Five days before his death in France on 9 September 1916, while leading his men at Ginchy, Thomas Kettle wrote to a friend in Dublin:

This note is really a conditional “good-bye” to you all. We have been on the march for days, sleeping on the bare ground, eating what we could … and are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme. The bombardment, the destruction and bloodshed are beyond all imagination. Nor did I ever think that the valour of simple men could be quite as beautiful as that of my Dublin Fusiliers. I have had two chances of leaving them – one on sick leave, and one to take a Staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades.

Described as ‘one of the most brilliant minds of his generation in Ireland’, Kettle had sat as MP for East Tyrone from July 1906, when he was returned at a by-election, until his retirement at the December 1910 election. His father, Andrew, a farmer who supplied barley to Guinness and Jameson’s, was a founding member of the Irish National Land League, together with Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell. He made unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament in 1880 and 1891. Tom Kettle shared his father’s commitment to the Irish nationalist cause, and was a leading figure in the foundation of the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League in 1905. Although he had qualified as a barrister after studying at University College Dublin, he devoted most of his time to political journalism. He briefly edited the weekly newspaper, The Nationist.

A gifted orator, Kettle made a deep impression on one contemporary with his maiden speech in the Commons, ‘when he stood up among the Irish members, a tall, slim, dark young fellow, with a wide humorous mouth, sparkling dark eyes, and a brogue that would charm a bird off a tree’. He toured the United States speaking and raising funds on behalf of his party in 1906. At Westminster, Kettle acted as the Irish parliamentary party’s chief spokesman on financial matters, attacking the costs of British administration in Ireland. Unlike many Irish MPs, he was favourable to the cause of women’s suffrage, with which his wife Mary and his sister-in-law Hanna Sheehy Skeffington were involved.

In October 1909 Kettle was appointed as Professor of National Economics – although his preference would have been for a chair in English Literature – at University College Dublin, where his papers are held. He was re-elected for East Tyrone in January 1910, but decided to step down when a second general election took place that December.

Well-travelled in Europe, where he had spent some time studying at the University of Innsbruck, Kettle was in Belgium when it was invaded by Germany in August 1914. He remained there for two months as war correspondent for the Daily News. Horrified by the events he witnessed, he declared that ‘it is impossible not to be with Belgium in the struggle’. For Kettle, his Irish nationalism – he had gone to Belgium to procure arms for the Irish Volunteers – was not incompatible with his decision to join the British army to defend the cause of liberty in Europe. For Kettle, he was fighting ‘not for England, but for small nations’.

Poor health (including a struggle with alcoholism) meant that he was assigned to recruiting duties, using his oratorical talents to make over 200 speeches in England and Ireland. This, however, alienated him from many in the nationalist movement, including his brother-in-law, Francis Sheehy Skeffington, who was killed during the Easter Rising. The ‘sneers of critics’ that Kettle was ‘but a platform soldier’ prompted him to renew his efforts to be posted to the front, and he sailed for France in July 1916.


Thomas M. Kettle memorial in St. Stephen’s Green park, Dublin, Ireland by Jaqian at English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5

With no known grave, Kettle is among the soldiers commemorated on the Thiepval memorial. He was also – rather belatedly – remembered with a bust on St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin. A memorial fund had collected over £500 and selected a site for their tribute by 1917, but it was decided to postpone its erection until the war was over. In 1923 the memorial committee decided that given the ‘present circumstances’ in Ireland (where the war of independence had been followed by civil war), the unveiling of the bust should be delayed. Following further delays caused by a dispute over the inscription it should bear, the memorial was finally unveiled – without any official ceremony – in 1937. It bears lines from Kettle’s poem, ‘To my daughter Betty, the gift of God’, written in the field at the Somme in September 1916:

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, –

But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,

And for the secret scripture of the poor.


You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here

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Parliament, patriotism and the Last Night of the Proms

As the Proms come to an end this Saturday with the traditional ‘Last Night’, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the political history of the proms…

Few events appear more synonymous with Britishness than the flag-waving jamboree that is the (second half of) the Last Night of the Proms – the gala concert that brings to a close an annual two-month-long festival of music. For many the Last Night is a joyous opportunity to indulge in some popular musical party pieces; for others it can appear at times to verge on jingoism. The history of the proms and of similar efforts at bringing music to the masses is more complex, though, and far more cosmopolitan.

Perhaps the most famous instance of musically-based patriotic celebration in the 18th century was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The suite was composed to celebrate the (far from popular) peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which brought to a close the War of the Austrian Succession, but in keeping with the mood of disappointment with the terms of the peace settlement the event, which took place in Green Park on 27 April 1749, verged on disaster. One of the wings of the setting for the fireworks display, dubbed ‘The Temple of Peace’, caught fire during the show and had to be pulled down. An unfortunate painter named Curtis fell from the structure and dashed out his brains, while an intoxicated shoemaker fell into one of the ponds in Green Park and drowned before he could be pulled out [London Evening Post, 27-29 Apr. 1749]. Perhaps most dramatically of all, a lady in the crowd was set ablaze by a rogue rocket and only saved when obliging members of the audience stripped off her outer clothing [Penny London Post or the Morning Advertiser, 28 Apr.-1 May 1749]. Interestingly, the papers had little or nothing to say about the music itself, though it had already attracted a huge crowd at the main rehearsal held a few days before and ultimately became a mainstay of the English concert programme.

Just over a century later, celebration of Handel’s music was at the heart of a series of concerts promoted by the Sacred Harmonic Society first held in the 4,000-seater concert space within the Crystal Palace in 1857. At this first festival Queen Victoria was present with other members of the royal family and at the queen’s request ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ was repeated, and she and all present stood for a rendition of the ‘Old Hundredth’, which rounded off the evening [The Musical Times, xli no. 689 (1900)]. Such occasions emphasized both a celebration of national (and international) achievements but also a clear effort to entertain and improve the minds of the people and proved popular events for as long as the Crystal Palace survived. Sir Henry Wood, founder of the proms, was later to conduct the June 1926 Handel Festival, still running at the Crystal Palace.

The original motivation behind Wood’s new series of ‘promenade concerts’, which were launched at the Queen’s Hall on 10 August 1895, was not dissimilar and along with the events held in the Crystal Palace formed a continuum with the earlier promenade concerts that had been such a feature of 18th-century society. In common with an earlier series of concerts put together by Sir Arthur Sullivan, these new ‘promenade concerts’ were initially intended to help educate the public in the ways of classical music – particularly that of the continent. Thus, the opening concert conducted by Wood may have begun with the national anthem, but the first piece on the programme was the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi and over the years Wood came to be criticized for championing foreign over British composers with whole evenings dedicated to Wagner and Beethoven. Such relatively harmless critiques took on a more serious hue during the First World War.  On 28 July 1915, the Liberal MP, Sir Arthur Markham, rose in the Commons to question how seriously the government was taking its duties when several key industries and services remained in the hands of Germans, or people of German descent. One of the examples he cited was Sir Edgar Speyer, proprietor of the Queen’s Hall:

I suppose it is because he is of German origin that we in this country are to be treated during the next few weeks by Sir Henry Wood to a series of concerts entirely composed of German music. I have the whole of the programmes here, from which it will be seen that some of the concerts are to be devoted entirely to Wagner’s music. What would France or Russia do under conditions of this kind? The people are not recognising the seriousness of the position. I cannot understand how people can go to listen to German music, when every people in the world, except ourselves, would not tolerate during a time of war that they should be entertained by German music. But as the Queen’s Hall belongs to him, I suppose we in this country are to be instilled with German virtues.

The effect of Markham’s oratory was perhaps dented slightly by an ensuing exchange with two colleagues, one of whom (R. McNeill) questioned whether or not there was any Beethoven in the series, to which Markham responded, no, the whole programme was German. Sir Frederick Banbury then retorted that Beethoven was German.

Markham’s assault on both Speyer as proprietor and Wood as concert-master, was called to mind in the chamber once more over a decade later during the debates in the Commons over the Cinematograph Bill, which sought to encourage the British film industry. One of those to question the wisdom of the bill was Ramsay MacDonald, who spoke on 16 March 1927 against one of the measure’s primary aims, that of ensuring that a quarter of all films shown in Britain should be of British make. MacDonald queried sardonically whether the bill’s sponsor would:

extend the principle of the Bill to provide that if we go to a promenade concert at Queen’s Hall at least 25 per cent of the music must be British-produced music every time we go there?

A similar, though perhaps more heartfelt, intervention was made later in the year during subsequent exchanges over the same bill by Frederick Mountague (MP for Islington West):

Members of this House remember that during the War there was a point of this character brought out in the attitude which was adopted by a well-known conductor of music in London. I refer to Sir Henry J. Wood. At that time there was a movement more or less official – semi-official and of a public character – which endeavoured to prevent the performance of German music, because we were at war with Germany. To the credit of his artistic and moral courage, Sir Henry Wood stood up against it. He realised that in matters of art the only possible attitude of mind would have to be an international one, whether it was a question of war or not.

By the time Mountague strode to his defence, Wood had long since become a champion of several British composers as well as continuing his long-standing exposition of Wagner, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Wood himself had arranged the Fantasia on British Sea Songs for the 1905 season celebrating the centenary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, a piece that has since become a regular item on the programme of Last Night concerts – somewhat to Wood’s surprise.

The tradition of promenade concerts at the Queen’s Hall came to an end in 1941 when the venue was destroyed in an air raid. The proms were relocated to the Royal Albert Hall and ultimately came to be known as the ‘BBC Proms’. This did not, of course, mean an end to discussion of the proms in Parliament, though by then complaints appear to have become less about the nationality of the music’s composers as of their antiquity. Thus in January 1964 during the debates on the BBC licence Donald Chapman spoke to complain at the increased levels of 20th century music on the radio and how even the Proms were ‘very different from the old pattern.’ Chapman, a self-confessed ‘low-brow’ devotee of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms decried the unwillingness to heed the lessons Wood had taught. For him the Proms were, as Wood had first envisaged them, an opportunity to educate the public in traditional ‘popular’ classical music and woe betide those who sought to rewrite the formula.


Further Reading:

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‘The thing is to get on with the War’: Duncan Frederick Campbell (1876-1916)

Our blog today returns to our series, all written by Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, of short biographies of the MPs who sadly lost their lives fighting in the First World War. It’s the first of several in this series during September as the Somme offensive continued to claim the lives of thousands of British soldiers…

Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan Frederick Campbell

Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan Frederick Campbell

On 4 September 1916 Lieutenant-Colonel Duncan Frederick Campbell died at Southwold, Suffolk, after an attack of pneumonia. He had been severely injured by the explosion of a mine in France a few weeks earlier. As the war on the Western front intensified with the beginning of the Somme offensive in July 1916, Campbell was the first of five MPs to die within three weeks.

Campbell was already an experienced soldier before the First World War. Born in 1876 in Toronto, Canada, where his father Archibald was a barrister, he graduated from Trinity College (later part of the University of Toronto) in 1898. He moved to Britain that year to join the Lancashire Fusiliers, and served in South Africa with the second battalion during the Boer War. After being wounded in his foot, he recuperated on the floating hospital set up by Lady Randolph Churchill, before returning to the fray. Mentioned several times in dispatches, he received the Distinguished Service Order in 1901, and was also awarded the Queen’s medal with six clasps.

Continuing his military career, Campbell served in Malta, Egypt, Gibraltar and the West Indies, and transferred to the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) in 1908. He had married in Canada in 1902, but made his home in Britain, where he was selected to contest Mid-Lanarkshire for the Conservatives at the 1906 election. With the Liberals winning a landslide across the country, Campbell suffered a resounding defeat. He was equally unsuccessful at Paisley at the January 1910 election, and lost by 250 votes at North Ayrshire that December.

In December 1911, the sitting Liberal MP, Andrew Anderson, had to seek re-election at North Ayrshire following his appointment as Solicitor General for Scotland. Campbell fought an energetic campaign against him. The main election issues were the Liberal ministry’s National Insurance Act (which provided a contributory scheme of insurance for sickness and unemployment) and Irish Home Rule. Campbell protested that the former, whose details he criticised, had been passed with ‘undue haste’ to make way for the latter. He defeated Anderson, describing his victory as ‘a very serious blow to the Government’ and a warning against their ‘rash precipitancy’.

Campbell had retired from the Black Watch in 1910, but joined up at the start of the war in August 1914, and was attached to the 2nd Gordon Highlanders. He was wounded during heavy fighting at Ypres that November. Despite being hit in the shoulder by shrapnel, he carried on leading his men in the successful capture of an enemy trench, but was then struck by another shell. His left arm was so badly injured that he only narrowly avoided amputation while recovering at a Paris hospital. He returned home to recuperate, spending time at his residence in Ayrshire, where he was involved in recruiting work and raising war relief funds.

He also resumed his place in the Commons, where ‘he was a conspicuous figure in debate’ in his military uniform. Although ‘a speaker of much fluency and vigorous expression’, he did not speak often. He was, however, involved in a notable clash with the pacifist Liberal MP for Hanley, R. L. Outhwaite. During discussion on 10 January 1916 of the government’s suppression of the Glasgow-based socialist newspaper, Forward, Campbell backed David Lloyd George, then Minister of Munitions, on this matter. He remarked that Lloyd George was

a man … I have never supported before, and who I see no reason to support for his past history, but who I see every week deserves support for the honest and businesslike endeavour he is making for the carrying out of this campaign.

Urging that ‘the thing is to get on with the War and banish everything that retards the progress of the War’, he condemned MPs such as Outhwaite for undermining national unity. Campbell declared that if Outhwaite were ‘in my battalion at the front he would be strung up by the thumbs before he had been there half an hour’. When Outhwaite asked ‘How many of your battalion would undertake to do it?’, Campbell retorted that

I would leave that task to myself, even though I have the use of only one arm, having lost the use of the other one in a task which the hon. Member for Hanley would never dream of attempting or daring to risk.

Campbell regained sufficient use of his arm to return to the front early in 1916, serving in Belgium. Promoted to lieutenant-colonel in March, he became commanding officer of a battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) regiment, with whom he was serving in France when he sustained the injuries which led to his death. Survived by his wife and children, Campbell was buried in Kilmarnock. He is also commemorated at the University of Toronto on the Soldiers’ Tower.


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