Northumberland, History Society


A socialist aristocrat

A record-breaking audience turned out at Northumberland Family History Society at Belford for another talk by local historian Mike Fraser, who began his talk with an acknowledgement to the late Diana Herbert, of Belford.

Diana had enquired when he would turn his attention to a socialist. This talk was the result of his research. He had also been privileged to hear first-hand accounts from Sue Handoll, a Trevelyan descendant, and to have access to correspondence and private papers.

Born in London in 1870, Charles Trevelyan was the son of a Liberal Government minister, Sir Charles Otto Trevelyan, who held high expectations of his eldest son. After studying Classics he was sent to work for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland where he developed great sympathy for the Irish cause.

Early in his career he met Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who introduced him to Ramsay Macdonald, and he became friendly with George Bernard Shaw.

He was courted by several Liberal constituencies and at the age of 29 was adopted by Elland constituency. In 1905 the Liberals entered government and three years later he was appointed Under-Secretary at the Board of Education.

By now he had married Mary (Molly) Bell, who was to prove a devoted political wife.

Trevelyan grew suspicious of Foreign Secretary Grey’s intentions and hoped to avoid war. Horrified at Grey’s decision to go to war, he resigned office and helped found the Union of Democratic Control, opposing the Government’s war policies. Its members were denounced as German sympathisers. His own party voted to get rid of him, and the rift between him and George, his historian brother, began. He lost his seat in 1918.

He joined the Labour Party, which caused problems in his relationship with his parents. However, he had to stand for election as an Independent as there was already an official Labour Party candidate. He came bottom of the poll. However, he stuck to his principles and spoke against the outcome of the war, believing that Britain had behaved badly to its enemies.

He stood for Parliament again, this time as the official Labour Candidate for Newcastle Central. Surprisingly, his father paid his election expenses, and he won, holding this seat from 1922 to 1931.

Ramsay Macdonald became Prime Minister of a Government, which had 30 UDC members as MPs, including two responsible for foreign policy. Charles became President of the Board of Education and joined the Cabinet. He was driven by the desire to provide opportunities for all children, but did not manage to raise the school leaving age to 15. His views were opposed by many and Ramsay Macdonald was cautious.

During the next period of Labour minority government, when his Education Bill was rejected by the Lords in 1930, Charles resigned. He lost his seat in Newcastle in 1931 and his life took a new direction.

Charles inherited the family estate of Wallington in 1928 and opened the gardens free to the public. Members of the family showed visitors around.

He regarded himself as trustee of the property, not the owner, declaring “it is pure chance that makes me rich”. He resisted approaches by Morpeth Labour Party, preferring to run the estate.

He decided in 1937 to leave the estate to the National Trust. The family would remain as tenants.

Wallington became a centre for socialist and internationally-minded people, where WEA study weekends were held with links to the YHA and People’s Theatre in Newcastle.

His wife, Molly, never occupied the role of his political confidante. That was Edith Bulmer, his secretary, by whom he had a son, Martin, late in life. Edith and Martin were moved into a cottage within the courtyard of the hall where they remained until her death.

Obstinate and strong-minded, Charles was expelled from the Labour Party and was a loyal supporter of the Soviet Union.

He supported Britain’s role in World War II and appeared on Hitler’s death list.

He seemed a man of contradictions, simultaneously acting as aristocrat, socialist, democrat and dictator. Yet, as his daughter said, these created “no conflict in him”.

Charles Trevelyan died in 1958, aged 87.

He was the last surviving member of the first British Labour Government.

Our speaker believes him to be one of the most left-wing persons ever in government.

His achievements and opinions were skilfully described in this most interesting account.