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; according to one unverified account, 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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