In our Archive, there are certain private collections so large given the task of writing a blog about one of these individuals its hard to know where to start…
For this reason, I’ve come up with a plan to streamline their career retrospectives into seven images that defined who they were and what they achieved. Over the duration of this year, I’ll be examining the papers of Lloyd George and Viscount Stansgate but to begin proceedings the focus turns on Herbert Samuel a leading light of British politics in the first half of the twentieth century.
This blog article was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
Inside the Cousinhood
Born in November 1870 Herbert Samuel came into the somewhat gilded world of Liverpool’s upwardly mobile Anglo-Jewish community, known as the Cousinhood. Mainly of Ashkenazi-German origin, his father Edwin was closely connected to the banking industry. Such was Edwin’s success in the sector that he relocated his growing family to London the global centre for foreign exchange markets. Sadly, he died suddenly when Herbert was just reaching school age leaving a legacy that allowed his wife and children to remain living in the way they were accustomed housed in a mansion beside Kensington Palace Gardens.
Close by resided their cousins the highly influential Montagu clan patriarchally led by Herbert’s treasured Uncle Samuel. The politically ambitious Montagu was elected as Liberal MP for Whitechapel in 1885. Achieving a fame not accustomed to the average backbencher when he very publicly put up a reward to help capture serial killer ‘Jack the Ripper’. The abject poverty of the East End constituency hugely populated by a Jewish diaspora left an imprint on the social consciousness of an impressionable Samuel. He assisted his older brother Stuart canvassing for county council elections, witnessing an existence far removed from having domestic staff and attending annual fancy dress balls.
As a Primrose League member, Clara Samuel considered Benjamin Disraeli as a deity hence her insistence on hanging a portrait of the former Conservative Prime Minister above her son’s bed. Yet by the time Herbert enrolled at Oxford University, he was embracing liberalism taking excursions to nearby villages to enlighten labourers on employment rights. Joined occasionally by contemporary George Bernard Shaw and William Hines a radical college window cleaner. The rural gentry never quite trusted Samuel enough to elect him despite numerous attempts. He’d have to stand in the North Sea climes of Cleveland to make that electoral breakthrough in a by-election declared on his thirty-second birthday.
Six months earlier he ignored familial advice and travelled to Uganda where he observed various railway projects. Eager to participate in cultural exchange he was formally introduced to the tribal King’s Regents in Kampala. The diaries he filled came in handy on his return when he was commissioned by the Westminster Gazette to chronicle the trip coinciding with a talk at The Royal Society of Arts including a lantern slide display. His initial forays into chamber debates were dominated by questions concerning Africa an area he felt confident to speak on from recent experiences.
Possibly due to the false starts he suffered en route to the Palace of Westminster once settled Samuel hit the ground running. As a Home Office Under-Secretary, he was granted free rein to enforce reforms that included the 1908 Children’s Act which ensured a semblance of state responsibility for child welfare. On the flip side he received heavy criticism regarding his treatment of suffragettes and alien immigration laws. Fierce ambition tends to be viewed with suspicion and popular writers enjoyed pouring scorn on Samuel’s assured image. Most notably by H.G Wells in his book The New Machiavelli.
Accusations of antisemitism had been levelled at the brickbats thrown in Samuel’s direction. This feeling intensified further when in 1912 he was dragged into the Marconi Company’s insider trading scandal that involved his friend and fellow party luminary Sir Rufus Isaacs. Correspondence between them was marked by a justified paranoia that inevitably ended up at the High Court as evidence was gathered for libel lawsuits to clear their names. Personal attacks in the press weren’t uncommon and ultimately Samuel was cornered into making an emotional statement to the House to draw a line under the matter, still, the mud stuck from this unsavoury affair.
By December 1918 eight long years and the Great War had passed since the nation was called to the polls. Samuel was in a sticky elective situation as his undivided loyalty to Liberal figurehead Herbert Asquith resulted in him not being bestowed a ‘nomination coupon’ endorsed by wartime powerhouses Lloyd George and Andrew Bonar Law representing a dream-team coalition alliance. Literally and metaphorically in the cold, he forlornly set up base in Saltburn-by-the-sea enormously frustrated by circumstance as a Europe-wide influenza epidemic meant public meetings were strictly off the soapbox agenda.
Labour’s candidate Harry Dack was seemingly scooping up the miners' support while the exotic ‘coupon entry’ Sir Park Goff intrigued the locals by regaling tall tales of breaking the record for climbing Sweden’s highest mountain amongst others. Beneficial to the faltering campaign was Samuel’s wife Beatrice who appealed to the freshly enfranchised women of Cleveland to forget his previous ambivalence to the female suffrage cause and back him to victory. The Northeast Gazette betting pollster foolishly had Samuel as an evens favourite on the morning of the polling day. A frenetic whistle-stop tour of the region proved futile as he came home a distant third behind the triumphant Goff.
The Palestine Question
Seatless and out of synch it was expected that Samuel may momentarily take a breather from the furnace of politics for something more sedate. However, that wasn’t in his nature, and he stepped into the fire when accepting the position of Palestinian High Commissioner as the legislative embers continued to burn from the 1917 Balfour Declaration. As his memoirs detailed, Samuel slowly gained the confidence of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann the decade previous challenging the perception of British Jewish people's ambivalence to Zionism. He now sought to prove the doubters wrong by forging a power-share initiative with the regional Arab nationalists via constitutional means.
All sides benefitted from Samuel’s all-encompassing programmes to modernise transport and health. Even in the turbulent aftermath of the Jaffa disorders protesting over Jewish nationhood his even-handed approach to governance engendered a relative peace that held firm for the remainder of his five-year tenure. A studied blueprint for the future was devised in a Palestine White Paper he drafted in collaboration with Sir John Shuckburgh and delivered to the UK Parliament by Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill. For his farewell official engagement in April 1925 Samuel was a guest dignitary at the opening of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Rock in a Hard Place
Picture the scene, you’re relaxing in the sunshine of Lake Garda reading a volume of Pliny’s Pompeii letters with not a dark cloud on the horizon. Then a telegram arrives requesting you to get to London immediately to save Britain from a General Strike – it was an offer Samuel couldn’t refuse. Of course, there was sense of culpability at play as the Coal Commission he chaired in the early spring of 1926 had failed to provide a balanced settlement. Stymied by the spendthrift owners and militant miners clashing horns leaving doom-mongers to rightly predict an unprecedented industrial shutdown orchestrated by a formidable Trade Union Congress (TUC).
On arrival in Folkestone, he was picked up by motor racer Major Henry Segrave who clocked a speedy 81 mph to dispatch Samuel at the Reform Club on Pall Mall in a mightily impressive hour and ten minutes. There he burnt the midnight oil with Labour’s union conduit Jimmy Thomas to hastily construct a memorandum primarily based on a fixed wage resolution to break the seismic deadlock. It done the job as the strike petered out by day nine and Samuel was deservedly elevated to hero status as ‘the man who averted a revolution’.
Viscount Samuel of Mount Cartmel & Toxeth was inducted to the Upper House in June 1937 on the same day as another General Strike survivor Stanley Baldwin. Noting the atmosphere as ‘placid, unemotional and demure’ though the level of discourse was ‘commendable’ especially during World War Two. Discussion alone didn’t feel sufficient to thwart the rise of Nazism and Samuel used his talent for networking to fundraise for Jewish refugees. His endeavours as chairman for the Council for German Jewry enabled him to develop a kinship with internationally known scientist Albert Einstein who encouraged Samuel to pursue his philosophical studies.
A natural communicator Samuel leant his dulcet tones to the BBC’s Third Programme (pre-cursor to Radio Three) on the much-loved Brains Trust. Paid a princely sum of fifteen guineas an episode plus travel expenses he was an ever-present on the high-brow panel even when the show was transferred to television. Intrigued by this new medium prior to the 1951 General Election he made history as the first UK politician to give a Party-political broadcast. Aged ninety his final speech in the Lords concerned a motorway proposal in his beloved Oxford. Passing away in February 1963 - a man for all seasons.
Memoirs: Viscount Samuel
Herbert Samuel: A Political Life by Bernard Wasserstein
Oxford Dictionary National Biography – Herbert Samuel by Bernard Wasserstein
Hansard Parliamentary Debates