15 July 2016
Tim Koch writes:
By the time this post appears, new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, should have moved into 10 Downing Street, rearranging both the actual and the political furniture. This was not something that many predicted less than a month ago but, since Britain voted to leave the European Union on 23 June, many long and painstakingly nurtured parliamentary careers have been rapidly flushed down the Westminster Water Closet, while a buoyant Mrs May has bobbed to the surface. Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once noted that ‘A week is a long time in politics’ but it seems that currently this timescale can be shortened to an hour or two.
One of her Conservative Party colleagues recently described Mrs May as ‘a bloody difficult woman’ (though a male equivalent would be called ‘strong and principled’) and there have been many comparisons made between her and a previous occupant of Downing Street whose taste in shoes also attracted undue interest. As to the future, perhaps the new PM will reinvent the organisation that she once said was seen by many as ‘the nasty party’ or perhaps she will morph into ‘Maggie May’ and become some sort of female Margaret Thatcher. In the interim, she has won some support in the HTBS camp for attending the Friday of this year’s Henley Royal Regatta. She was pictured in the online Sun with guest badges for the Stewards’ Enclosure and for the inner sanctum of the Committee Lawn, and the online Daily Mail photographed her in an Umpire’s Launch, escorted by Regatta President, Mike Sweeney. Mrs May is Member of Parliament for the nearby Maidenhead, a place with a fine boating tradition, and she is no stranger to Henley-on-Thames as, from 1999 to 2009 she worked for Invesco Perpetual, which has its head office in the town. However, I suspect that her interest in Henley Regatta is more social than sporting – unlike a predecessor of hers as prime minister who had a genuine enthusiasm for the sport of rowing.
Stanley Baldwin was Conservative Prime Minister 1923 to 1924, 1924 to 1929 and 1935 to 1937, some of the most turbulent peace time years of the twentieth century. As can be the case with men from wealthy and privileged backgrounds, the seemingly archetypal conservative Englishman, pipe smoking and tweed wearing, was in part motivated by noblesse oblige and he sometimes championed progressive reforms, something that did not fit his right wing stereotype. Interestingly, some suggest that Theresa May will be a similar ‘liberal conservative’.
In his first administration, Baldwin attempted to reduce unemployment by calling an election to win a mandate for trade protection – which he did not get. During his second term in government, he got much of the credit/blame for defeating the General Strike but at least he did this with ‘a combination of firmness and conciliation’ when many at the time would have used harsher methods. In his third and final administration, Baldwin’s most notable role was as a supporter of parliamentary democracy when the rest of Europe seemed to be turning to Communism or Fascism (though some have harshly classified this as simple inaction, mocking his 1929 campaign slogan of ‘Safety First’).
Modern politicians are obsessed with their ‘legacy’ but it is difficult to imagine that the self-effacing Baldwin was quite so concerned. In a speech in 1925, he told a story against himself, of meeting an old school friend while travelling alone on a train while he was Prime Minister (he rarely went any distance by car). After some mutual reminiscing, the friend innocently asked ‘And what are you doing now?’
Of importance to him or not, Baldwin’s reputation has been through at least three very different phases.
Baldwin’s victory in 1935 still remains as the last time when a UK Prime Minister has received over 50% of the popular vote in a General Election. When he retired in 1937, he left in ‘a blaze of affection’ and he was regarded as a popular and successful leader. However, during and after the 1939-1945 War, he was vilified as one of the ‘Guilty Men’ who had tried to appease Hitler and who had not sufficiently rearmed the country. The criticism became unpleasant, petty and personal and when he made his final public appearance in October 1947, a crowd of people recognised and cheered him, but by this time he was deaf and asked pathetically: ‘Are they booing me?’ In modern times, Baldwin has little presence in popular knowledge but, among historians at least, ‘The pendulum has swung almost completely towards a positive view’ and he has also been rediscovered as ‘a moderate and inclusive Conservative for the modern age’.
As to Stanley Baldwin’s interest in rowing, I have found evidence of his attending Henley Regatta at least between 1923 and 1937 and there is no reason to think that he did not visit before and after those years. The Times mentioned his presence in 1923 and in 1926 noted that: ‘Among the spectators were the Prime Minister and Mrs Baldwin who received a great ovation as they came up the course in a launch with Lord Desborough after lunch’.
Unfortunately, there are usage issues with some of the Baldwin pictures, so I can only link to them. This photo from 1924 shows Stanley Baldwin at Henley with Prince Henry, third son of King George V. Two wonderful pictures taken in 1936 show Prime Minister Baldwin socialising in the Stewards’ Enclosure, unmolested (perhaps even unnoticed) despite winning a large majority in the General Election of only a year before. Look at them here and here. The Age newspaper reported at the time: ‘In accordance with his usual practice, the Prime Minister (Mr Baldwin) was present at the Henley finals today’ and Pathé newsreel filmed the evidence. A year later, in 1937, the movie cameras showed the then Earl Baldwin in an umpire’s launch while a stills photographer snapped the Baldwin Party in the Enclosure.
Of course, attendance at the great social occasion that is Henley does not necessarily signify any special interest in rowing, but there is much more evidence of the great man’s love of the sport.
Baldwin went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1885. Frustratingly, I can find little about his time there and if he took up rowing or not. The biography by Roy Jenkins has almost nothing to say about the Cambridge years, perhaps because Baldwin himself admitted: ‘I wasted my time but soaked myself in the beauty of the place’. The only evidence of a youthful sporting involvement is this nice photograph from 1880 showing, second from the left, a 13-year-old Stanley in the football team of the (non-rowing) Harrow School. The future Prime Minister did, however, gain an ‘oarsman’s degree’, a Third (in History), and emerged a life-long supporter of the Boat Race and of The Light Blues.
The Times of 26 March 1927 wrote of Baldwin in the Cambridge launch during Boat Race practice. On 21 March 1929, The Glasgow Herald reported: ‘On Saturday morning the Prime Minister will witness the centenary boat race between Oxford and Cambridge from Duke’s Meadows…. An old Cambridge man, he is especially keen on rowing and during the final training of the crews at Putney he has on several occasions watched the eights at work from the coach’s launch’. A report on the 1930 Boat Race recorded the fact that ‘Mr Stanley Baldwin, the ex-Prime Minister, who is a keen spectator, described the race as the most thrilling event he had witnessed for years’.
This marvellous and telling picture from December 1930 shows Baldwin in deep conversation with Gilbert Charles Bourne, a renowned rowing coach and author of the very influential A Text-Book of Oarsmanship (1925). It looks like they were outside Thames Rowing Club in Putney and were presumably at the Head of the River Race. According to The Time, another rowing event supported by Baldwin was the Cambridge May Bumps of 1934.
The rowing world was not adverse to using their influential friend when they felt it necessary – though not even Baldwin’s help could guarantee success. In Berlin Games – How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream (2006), author Guy Walters tells this story about the 1936 Olympics:
(Edgar Howitt) had been selected as stroke for the British coxless four. His teammate from the London Rowing Club, Martin Bristow, recalled how the four men had all applied for extra leave from their employers or tutors, and all had been granted it except for Howitt, who worked at Cable & Wireless. ‘His boss said no. ‘’You’ve had your leave, that’s it.’’’ A fellow member of their club then came up with a solution that looked infallible. ‘This chap was called Bradshaw,’ Bristow remembered, ‘and he knew Stanley Baldwin, the prime minister. So Bradshaw had a word with Baldwin and Baldwin had a word with the chap at Cable & Wireless – and he still said ‘no’!
Another failed attempt to use Baldwin’s love of rowing is in the record of the House of Commons proceedings for 22 March 1923 when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer:
Mr Becker: Is the Chancellor of the Exchequer aware that Entertainments Duty is being charged this year for seating accommodation provided for visitors to the river bank to view the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race; and if he can see his way to suspend this duty because of the great hardship it will cause amongst boatmen and others who arrange this temporary accommodation annually?
Mr Baldwin: If payment be made for the seating accommodation referred to, such payment is, under the law, liable to Entertainments Duty, and I have no power to suspend the collecting of the duty.
Mr Becker: Can the Boat Race be regarded as an ‘entertainment’ when it is an education?
Sadly, no reply is recorded.