A tribute to James Ramsden MP

Sadly we’re marking the deaths of more of our Oral History Project interviewees than normal during the current pandemic. Today Dr Emma Peplow, project lead, looks back on the life of James Ramsden MP, who took over from John Profumo as the last Secretary of State for War.

James Ramsden has been described in one of his recent obituaries as a ‘true Knight of the Shire’ Conservative, and our Oral History Project interview with him certainly gives a flavour of this. The son of a Yorkshire landowner, huntmaster and brewer, Ramsden described a privileged upbringing: playing soldiers whilst his mother sent in reports of the ‘day’s sport’ (the Hunt) to the Times, and daily household prayers for the staff led by his mother.

Ramsden did well at school: he won a scholarship to Eton, which led to early suggestions of a political career. Like many of his generation his education was interrupted by the war. He served in the Rifle Corps and took part in the advance on Germany, before returning to study Greats/PPE at Oxford and winning a rugby blue.

James Ramsden, photographed for our project in 2012

Despite the option of a career in the family brewery Ramsden chose to pursue politics, standing twice in the early 1950s for the safe Labour seat in Dewsbury (and receiving a less than warm welcome in some quarters! See this extract on our website for more). In March 1954 he won a by-election at Harrogate, the seat he held until leaving Parliament in 1974. He reflected on the ‘nice life’ the hours at Westminster allowed him to follow – he revived the West of Yore hunt to fit into his parliamentary duties. He had little enthusiasm for electioneering: campaigns were a ‘frightful bore’ and he neither liked nor was a particularly sparkling speaker at public meetings: ‘I couldn’t bear the sound of my own voice! […] But one got through somehow. As long as they were short, people didn’t listen anyway really.’

He arrived at Westminster a relatively young man, and described being a little overawed to begin with:

Yet he was popular with his colleagues, becoming joint-secretary of the 1922 Committee, and soon began to progress. He was PPS to family friend ‘Rab’ Butler in 1959 before being made a minister in the war office ‘quite out of the blue’ in 1960. During our interview he would not be drawn on the Profumo affair which saw him promoted to Secretary of State for War in 1963, other than to say it could be ‘quite uncomfortable’ at times. When the post was abolished in 1964 he became Minister of State for the Army. During his time in the ministry he saw the end of conscription and the closure of Woolwich Arsenal.

Although he had been popular with Conservative leaders Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, Ramsden was not favoured by Edward Heath, perhaps because of Heath’s dislike of ‘grouse moor’ Conservatism. Despite shadowing defence in opposition Ramsden was not part of Heath’s 1970 government, a decision which surprised Ramsden and led to his decision to step down from parliament:

Out of parliament Ramsden continued with a business career and his country pursuits in Yorkshire. He died on 29 March this year, aged 96. He was predeceased by his wife, Juliet, and three of their five children.


More blogs about our oral history project can be found here. You can find many of the interviews online at the British Library Sounds archive.

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