Continuing our series on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr. Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of Francis McLaren, who had a close connection with the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood.
On 30 August 1917, Francis McLaren, Liberal MP for Spalding, was killed in a flying accident while training with the Royal Flying Corps. His plane crashed into the sea a mile off the coast at Montrose, Scotland. He was rescued by a fishing boat, but did not regain consciousness and died of his injuries before reaching land. McLaren is the only MP among those killed during the First World War to have served in the Royal Flying Corps. Paying tribute to him in the House of Commons later that year, the former Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, whose son, Anthony, and daughter, Violet, had been a page and a bridesmaid at McLaren’s wedding in 1911, declared that,
we have lost one of our youngest and most loved of our members … who was cut off in a youth of radiant promise, still untarnished by disappointment, a man with clear and firm conviction, a faithful and loyal friend.
McLaren was first elected for the Spalding division of Lincolnshire in January 1910, when he became the youngest Liberal member of the Commons, aged 23. His entry to Parliament was undoubtedly aided by his family’s impressive political pedigree. In his first Parliament he served alongside his father, Sir Charles Benjamin Bright McLaren (1850-1934), Liberal MP for the Bosworth division of Leicestershire, who had first entered the Commons in 1880 as MP for Stafford, and was soon to be created Baron Aberconway. His older brother Henry (1879-1953), who had sat for West Staffordshire from 1906 until January 1910, joined him in the House in December 1910, when he replaced their father as Bosworth’s MP. Further political connections came through his brothers-in-law, Reginald McKenna (Home Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Henry Norman, another prominent Liberal MP.
Both McLaren’s grandfathers had also been MPs. His maternal grandfather, Henry Davis Pochin, had sat briefly for Stafford, 1868-9, while his paternal grandfather, Duncan McLaren, enjoyed a lengthier parliamentary career as Liberal MP for Edinburgh, 1865-81. Duncan McLaren’s wife, Priscilla Bright McLaren, was the sister of the noted Victorian Radical MP, John Bright, and of Jacob Bright, who as Liberal MP for Manchester secured the extension of the municipal franchise to women in 1869. She and McLaren’s maternal grandmother, Agnes Pochin, were both leading activists in the women’s suffrage campaign, as was McLaren’s mother, Laura.
One of the numerous meetings McLaren addressed during his election campaign at Spalding was a gathering of the Boston Women’s Liberal Association, at which a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage was carried. He did not rest on his family’s political laurels, working assiduously to win the seat. Adopted as candidate in July 1909, by December he had travelled 6,000 miles by car in order to visit every corner of the constituency. His efforts were rewarded with his victory over the Conservative candidate in January 1910, which was repeated in December. He served for five years as parliamentary private secretary to Lewis Harcourt, then Colonial Secretary.
Although McLaren’s war service ended as a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, it began with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in September 1914, and left for France in October. According to his fellow MP, Josiah Wedgwood, McLaren ‘had got overseas by offering his Rolls-Royce car to the General with himself as chauffeur’. A chance encounter between McLaren and Wedgwood at Ostend led McLaren to join Wedgwood in the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. He assisted Wedgwood in recruiting and organising four new squadrons of armoured cars. They were initially based at Wormwood Scrubs, where, Wedgwood recollected, ‘each morning Francis drove me … never quite late, but always at 60 m.p.h.’ He also recorded that McLaren, who had ‘the manners and bearing of a Prince of the Blood’, would ‘vanish nightly for bridge with the Asquiths in Downing Street’. Despite these foibles, Wedgwood was close to McLaren, who ‘always behaved to me as a son to an indulgent father’.
After further training at Henley-on-Thames and in Norfolk, McLaren and Wedgwood’s lobbying of Asquith and Churchill persuaded the Admiralty to send armoured car squadrons to Gallipoli. They arrived on the island of Lemnos in April 1915. Concerned that the armoured cars might be left without a role, McLaren persuaded Wedgwood to let him transfer to HMS Doris as an observing officer, which meant that he missed the landing of the River Clyde at V beach, Gallipoli on 25 April. As operations continued, in early May Wedgwood was injured by shrapnel. He credited McLaren with saving his life after he searched for him on the hospital ship and insisted that he be operated on immediately. In Wedgwood’s absence, McLaren commanded the armoured cars in a futile attack on the Turkish defences at the third Battle of Krithia on 4 June, the only occasion on which they were deployed during this campaign.
Having contracted dysentery, McLaren recovered at home, and was then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps on 1 January 1916. Ill health during his training at Brooklands meant that he was invalided out late that year, but he ‘besieged the War Office’ to protest against this decision, and was reappointed as a second lieutenant in June 1917. He had almost completed his advanced training when he was killed.
McLaren was buried in Busbridge churchyard, Godalming, Surrey, where his grave is marked with a carved oak headboard designed by Edwin Lutyens, who had designed a Westminster townhouse for McLaren and his wife, Barbara. She was the niece of Gertrude Jekyll, the garden designer, who had worked closely with Lutyens. Barbara was also responsible for the selection of Lutyens as the designer of the Spalding War Memorial, where McLaren is commemorated. Their elder son, Martin John McLaren (1914-79), continued the family tradition of parliamentary service, sitting as Conservative MP for Bristol North West, 1959-66 and 1970-4.
J. C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a fighting life (1941)
S. Snelling, The wooden horse of Gallipoli (2017)