Nineteen people were at the north Northumberland branch of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society to hear Michael Fraser’s talk The Lamps Went Out, about the political involvement of Sir Edward Grey (Lord Grey of Fallodon) at the outbreak of the Great War.
We heard that though his political work as MP for Berwick and as Foreign Secretary for 11 years was well documented, the destruction and loss of his personal papers has made it difficult for the historian to learn over much about the private motivations of this famous Northumbrian.
In August 1914, Grey was a widower of 52 with failing eyesight. His tenure of office may well have ended sooner had it not been for his sense of loyalty to his political masters and country at this time of crisis.
In some ways he seemed unfitted for his role – largely untravelled, unversed in the diplomatic language of French, and with interests and hobbies that rooted him in country pursuits.
Yet he came of experienced political and military stock and brought to his work the sort of radical liberalism that was inherited from his personal education at the hands of Mandell Creighton (Vicar of Embleton and later Cambridge Professor and Bishop of London).
Many A-Level students have found themselves feeling confused about the causes of the Great War and historians haven’t always agreed, but our speaker endorsed Christopher Clark’s view that various governments ‘sleep-walked’ into the conflict – totally unaware of the potentially calamitous consequences that would unfurl as months of fighting turned into years.
Grey’s words were indeed prophetic: ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.’
Apart from the diplomatic exchanges before and during the conflict, Grey was well remembered for having made an honest and dignified moral case in the House of Commons for Britain (and the Empire) to go to War.
He was spoken of by the American President Roosevelt as a ‘high-minded public servant’, but was released from office two years later, both ‘aged and broken’.
There was however, to be more personal happiness for him and affirmation of his contribution with the ambassadorship to the USA, Chancellorship of the University of Oxford and an earldom.
He died at his beloved Fallodon in 1933.
Members were grateful for Mike Fraser’s careful and balanced introduction.
The Society’s next meeting will be on March 21, at 10am at Bell View Resource Centre, Belford, when members will be sharing some ancestral oddities. Newcomers are always welcome.