reading the history of 20th Century Britain through the story of James and Geoffrey
This is the story of two Cambridge graduates, who lived-for a time-in the same house but who never met each other and who had very different starting places and trajectories in life. It is told through a book, owned at different times by both of them, which is now in my possession.
Born in the 1880s, Colonel James Beaumont Worsley Pennyman MA Esq. attended first Eton and then the University of Cambridge. Upon his graduation in 1905, instead of pursuing the career expected of him and becoming a lawyer; he enlisted as an officer King’s Own Scottish Borders Regiment.
Pennyman hailed from a very wealthy family of gentleman farmers in Yorkshire’s North Riding. Following distinguished service in World War I, a conflict which saw him seriously wounded, Pennyman retired his commission to return to family seat, Ormsby Hall just outside Middlesbrough.
Picture of Ormsby Hall By John Davidson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2332708
At Ormsby Hall Pennyman lived the relatively quiet life of a genial local squire. Imbued with a kind of liberal Toryism, he and his wife Ruth displayed a certain noblesse oblige towards the populace of the harsh, hard and often becalmed industrial district that their estate adjoined. The National Trust, who took over the management of Ormsby Hall and its land holdings in 1961 after Pennyman’s death cite his creation in the early 1930s of job creating market gardening and livestock rearing schemes as “examples of his generous spirit”.
In addition to being a philanthropist, and something of a scholar (especially of his family tree) the Trust are keen to describe Ruth and James Pennymen as “patrons of the arts”. From this distance such a thing is hard to judge, and the National Trust may well be seeking to play upon the predilections of its patrons and paying visitors. Yet, as we shall see, it is evident that Pennyman, living on his estate in a comparatively isolated part of northern England, was keenly engaged with the latest current affairs, and contemporary historical debates of his age and indeed, at times, had walk on parts in them.
Geoffrey Arthur Allen was born in St. Albans in the summer of 1928. His family were working class, poor, but intense in their non-conformist Christianity, they would doubtless be described by today’s pundits as “aspirational”.
His father, lungs damaged by poisoned gas during the First World War, was thrown out of his job repairing radio sets by the Great Slump and the family suffered great financial hardship for a time. Allen attended a council run board school in the town centre until he was eleven when he passed the scholarship exam for St. Alban’s School. Today St. Alban’s School is independent, then it was a maintained grammar school partly funded by Hertfordshire County Council.
Hertfordshire County Council supported the family in other ways as well. Arthur, Allen’s father, eventually found work as a storekeeper at the County Hospital, whilst Daisy his mother worked as a charlady at the GPO. These poorly paid, but stable and eminently respectable jobs, along with the benefits-like a council house-that flowed from them, gave Allen and his sister Sylvia a firm grounding. Unlike their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles stretching back generations, they could finish their schooling, not have to rush out to work in domestic service, on the railways, as an errand runner or a street entertainer.
Allen’s time at St. Alban’s School was academically successful. In the summer of 1946, shortly before leaving school, as a VII Former he won the School’s Arts Prize, choosing as his reward a copy of Queenie Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public. This interest in, what was at that time, avant garde literary criticism; informed his next steps. In the autumn of 1950 after a series of odd job and two years National Service (including an apparently very dull spell as a translator for the residual remains of the Belgian Government in Exile) he enrolled as an undergraduate majoring in English at Downing College Cambridge.
After Cambridge and now married, Allen studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Social Sciences at the LSE (an institutional environment at he found far more convivial both socially and intellectually) before embarking on a career teaching in adult education.
He taught at a range of institutions including spells at colleges which later became part of the universities of Kingston, Central Lancashire and Birmingham. He has three children, the youngest of which is my father, who through the workings of fate, now lives (as do I) only a few hundred metres away from the old Selly Oak Colleges site where Allen was Vice Principal in the 1970s.
In 1979, quite late in life, Allen left the world of teaching, taking up, along with Mary his wife, an administrative post with the National Trust. His first substantive posting in this new role was as the General Manager of Ormesby Hall.
At this time Ormesby Hall was run as a kind of dual monarchy. Its land holdings and general upkeep were managed by the National Trust, to which it had past upon the death of James Pennyman in 1961. However, Ruth Pennyman-James’ wife-still lived there and was a formidable force in the management of the property.
Ruth Pennyman died in 1983, at which point the National Trust, opened Ormesby to the general public. Yet it was into the latter stage of this interregnum that Geoffrey and Mary Allen stepped. By all accounts Ruth Pennyman made for an interesting and at times challenging housemate, but due to Allen’s education and previous career, she evidently saw in him something of her husband’s intellectual interests and entrusted to him a number of books including his personal diary for 1915 (the year that he was wounded).
It is not, however, about the diary that I am writing. I am writing instead about James Pennyman’s copy of George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England.
The Strange Death of Liberal England is a striking book that’s still a brilliant read eighty years after it was published. It caused a sensation when it was published in 1936 thanks to the savage glee, brutal irony and extraordinary rigour (in scholarly sense) that Dangerfield puts into kicking the prone and maggoty corpse of British liberalism.
A socialist and an electric prose stylist; George Dangerfield, ran the risk of libel action from phalanxes of still lingering Edwardian grandees (a threat all too prevalent in the inter-war period) to bring his account of how liberalism hit the buffers in the years prior to the World War I off the presses.
A quick Google search confirms its cult status. Just like A Clockwork Orange (Heaven 17) and The Uses of Literacy (Death Cab for Cutie) a rock band’s chosen of nomoclature has been drawn from The Strange Death of Liberal England
I have selected some choice fragments, which also handily illuminate Dangerfield’s-whilst not exactly Marxist-still dialectical, workerist and at its most simplistic teleological vision of historical change and social progress:
“I realise, of course, that the word “liberal” will always have a meaning so long as their is one democracy left in the world, or any remnant of the middle class: but the true pre-war Liberalism supported as it still was in 1910 by… the illusion of progress-can never return. It was killed, or it killed itself in 1913. And a very good thing too” (Forward p. VIII)
“[Lloyd George’s liberalism] looked back to the great nineteenth century delusion of and England where neither Wealth nor Work would ever combine… Where social ills would be medicinated by never cured… that delusion, not ignoble, of an eternal individualism was pretty faded, but still powerful enough to haunt Mr. Lloyd George’s speech, and to make his revolutionary language nothing more than the language of super-taxes and old age pensions”. (The Liberals p. 23)
“[on the 1910 Constitutional Crisis] It was a struggle between two doomed powers: between the middle class philosophy that was liberalism and the landed wealth which passed for aristocracy and which found its living symbol in the House of Lords… Could the Liberal Party succeed where the House of Lords had failed? Could it govern the country? Or was it perhaps too feeble and faint-hearted to avoid, in its turn, a swift and correct destruction”. (Their Lordships Die in the Dark pp. 29-30)
“To reduce the Liberal Party to a definition would be like attempting to reduce the glandular contours of a circus fat lady simply by talking her thin. It was an irrational mixture of whig aristocrats, industrialists, dissenters, reformers, trade unionists, quacks and Mr. Lloyd George: it preserved itself from the destructive contradictions of daily reality by an almost mystical communion with the doctrine of laissez faire and a profound belief in the English virtues of compromise.” (“Animalia Vagula” p. 68)
George Dangerfield, a journalist, a hack, is fundamentally a creature of his age. His book is well researched, informed by hundreds of newspaper clippings from the time. But, despite appearing as part of Constable’s “Background to the Present Series”, alongside worthy titles by eminent (and often politically liberal!) authors such as The Life of John Bright by G.M. Trevelyan and How Britain is Governed by Ramsey Muir, it fundamentally belongs alongside Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, Hesketh Pearson’s (admittedly fictional) The Whispering Gallery and Michael Foot’s Guilty Men as a shining example of the vim, brio and irony that angry young educated people in the inter-war period brought to bear attacking the generations that preceded them.
Interestingly the book’s Forward takes the form of a letter from Dangerfield to John Van Druten a fellow British emigre to the United States. Van Druten was a noted playwright, but also a figure of some controversy, his first play having been banned upon its arrival in London by the Lord Chamberlain because it depicted a scandalous relationship between a school boy and his headmaster’s wife.
The book’s fortunes have waxed and waned ever since and Dangerfield’s thesis about the bankruptcy and eclipse of British liberalism remains controversial. For Dangerfield’s part after he emigrated to the United States in 1930, continuing writing popular history, with the exception of a short biography of Edward VII’s early life published in 1941, he had little more to do with home country.
James Pennyman received a copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England as a Christmas present in 1936. The faded pen inscription on the inner leaf indicates that it was given to him by a W.G. Pennyman, presumably a relative. A quick Google search throws up a Reverend W.G. Pennyman who served as a chaplain in the Yorkshire Hussars in the decade prior to World War I, which would appear to be the right part of the world for a relative of James’. The name Reverend W.G. Pennyman also crops up a decade later. According to Abe Books his The Decline of Convention, a title about which I cannot easily find any information, was published in 1924. And according to this short history of the Royal Association in Aid of Deaf People served as their chair and occasional organiser of charity theatrical performances, during the 1920s.
Regardless of who the gift giver was, if they were a family member it seems likely that they knew Pennyman was involved with some of the events described by Dangerfield in the book.
In the final pages of the book; as war looms over Europe, Dangerfield describes the Bachelors Walk incident, an ominous occasion that foreshadowed the violence that tore into Ireland a few years later. A British army detachment returning from their inept and failed attempt to seize a shipment of guns (procured by Roger Casement from Germany) from their landing point at Howth Pier, coming along Bachelors Walk in central Dublin, encountered a group of Irish civilians throwing stones and jeering. In a pattern that would be tragically repeated many times throughout the 20th Century the British army, supposedly led by an officer who didn’t know their guns were loaded, fired a volley into the crowd. Three civilians were killed and 38 were wounded.
It is here that James Pennyman enters the margins of history. Literally.
Judging by his copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England which is very well kept for a book printed 80 years ago Pennyman was not one to doggear his reading matter or scrawl notes in the margin. That is until the last page before the index is reached, here under the heading “Actual Story of Bachelors Walk” Pennyman decides to have his say.
It is clear from Pennyman’s pencil that he was an eyewitness, part of the British detachment, at Bachelors Walk and it is evident from his intervention beneath Dangerfield’s account that something about it rankled with him, he clearly felt that it wasn’t right.
In a dozen tightly written lines, Pennyman sets out his version of what happened at Bachelors Walk. It can be read below:
This intervention is fascinating, not just in terms of the words that Pennyman writes-his take on what happened during the incident-but also the manner and nature of the intervention itself. It is hard, neigh impossible, from this distance to ascertain as what Pennyman’s intentions, his thoughts and feelings, were when he read and reacted to Dangerfield’s account of what happened at Bachelors Walk.
Was his concern to jot down for posterity what he experienced and saw that fateful July day? Did it stem from a pedantic, military, lawyerly desire to express the truth of the matter? Or was his desire to impart his perspective as a British soldier triggered by a sense of guilt or remorse?
Without straying too far into the territory of the graphologist, I am more inclined towards the first and last of those potential motivations. Pennyman seemingly wrote at speed, he clearly misjudged how much space he had, or decided mid-flow to write more, because there is not enough space on the page to contain the full passage. The words at the bottom are squished close together, barely legible, having been crammed onto the page.
His engagement in this way with Dangerfield’s work prompts other questions, who did Pennyman see as his audience? If indeed he had one in mind. At times we probably attribute to much cunning and calculation to our sources, maybe he wrote-whether in a fit of pique, a burst of remorse, or merely a fit of inspiration purely for himself.
It is not hard to imagine, however, that Pennyman might have loaned his books out to others or discussed his reading matter (especially on matters pertaining to current affairs and contemporary history) with friends and neighbours. Maybe it was for them that he wrote? Especially if they knew about his involvement in Ireland. Alternatively maybe his mind was on future generations? Writing for nieces, nephews: future children (Pennyman in fact died childless, hence the bequest to the National Trust) books do after all sometimes pass down family lines… Or perhaps it just stemmed from a sense that he wanted his story told regardless of whose hands his copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England ended up in.
Geoffrey Allen’s ownership of the book, which roughly spanned the period 1981-2010, left fewer marks. I did, however, as I was working on this post stumble across an Essex County Council Learning Service bookmark circa 2000 (see below).
The bookmark is to recent to be of much strictly historical interest. Yet, already its “dated” aesthetic (not least the technology that it portrays) radiates nostalgia, especially for someone like me who practically grew up at the public library. Its speaks to a moment when the internet was in existence (note the web-address on the bookmark) but before the moment when it was decided to move all services online and citizens became expected to deal with services through their website in the first instance. Future historians might consider this deeply significant, their readers might find it poignant.
Around the turn of the century my grandparents lived briefly in Brentwood Essex a street over from the older of my aunts and her family. Finding the town a little devoid of things to do they moved to Salisbury in 2001. The bookmark is seemingly an indication that the book was read whilst they were living there. Wikipedia’s ever helpful pages about UK local government election results inform me that Brentwood Borough Council was controlled at this time by the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps this led trusty old Dangerfield to be dusted down and brought off the shelves?
I suppose that having written about everyone else’s engagement with James Pennyman’s old copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England it is only right that I should chip in something about how I have engaged with it. The book came into my possession around the time of the May 2010 General Election, about the time of my 18th birthday. Instinctively not a Conservative, angry at Labour and what I perceived to be the deficiencies of “statism” (this seems so long ago) like so many of my generation I pinned my hopes on Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrats and their offer of radical centralism.
I remember discussing at some length with my Grandpa about the election and my thoughts on politics. I remember him listening indulgently and with some interest, noting that as our family, prior to his and my Grandma’s generation; were working class non-conformists in the east midlands and East Anglia, by embracing liberalism I was almost certainly following in a strong family tradition.
Some time later, shortly after the formation of the Coalition Government, at the end of a visit to my family in Birmingham he handed me Pennyman’s copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England, giving me a potted version of its history and significance. He then left saying that “[I] might find it interesting”.
It would be far too overwrought for me to say that when I got around to reading it the flames that were lit on the Millbank Tower forecourt were flicking on the page, but the experience of the Coalition Government definitely illuminated my reading of it and gave it an added bite and poignancy. Today-like so many British Liberals in the inter-war period-my politics have migrated dramatically leftwards.
My Grandpa, a lifelong Labour voter and Christian socialist knew this of course. A wise man, possessing vast quantities of both hindsight and foresight; he came of age during the first majority Labour government and benefited enormously from the settlement that they lay the ground for. There’s no Ken Loach smaltz or Polly Toynbeesque cant about it; families like mine owe everything that they have to the onwards march of Labour that swept away liberalism. My mother’s family, from Liverpool, followed a broadly similar trajectory to that of my fathers, albeit a generation later. When I look at the political situation in Britain today, when I think about how things are going, I am reminded of Carolyn Steedman’s reflection in Landscape for a Good Woman on a conversation with an icily breezy, brutally judgemental upper-middle class woman at a wine reception where she felt rather out of place:
“…we are divided: a hundred years ago I’d have been cleaning your shoes. I know this and you don’t.”
My great grandmother began her working life in service (actually more than one of them, but I write here about the one that became Daisy Allen). Nearly ninety years later (and only five or six after Daisy died) my Grandpa, her son, ended his career as the Administrator of Ickworth House, Suffolk.
Picture of Ickworth House By Squeezyboy – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3134083
Ickworth, part of which is still resided in by the family of the Marquess of Bristol; is one of the jewels in the crown of the National Trust. Geographically it’s a couple of hours-max-from St. Albans, but in cultural terms its universes away from the semi-detached, municipally owned, home of a low grade, manual, council worker. The home from which Geoffrey Allen won a scholarship to St. Albans School and began to become middle class.
On a larger scale the story of James Pennyman’s copy of The Strange Death of Liberal England tells us something of the way in which the social fabric of Twentieth Century Britain altered. How it ended up in my possession illuminates something of how the formal equality that characterised the gilded age society against which George Dangerfield railed gave way to something, which whilst still deeply imperfect and arguably unsustainable (on a dialectical level if nothing else) granted something that allowed a far wider section of population opportunities for self fulfilment, development and liberty that were hitherto utterly unattainable for them.
By all accounts, my main source in this are my parents (my Mum first got to know my Grandparents in the mid-1980s when they were running National Trust properties) Grandpa didn’t enjoy running National Trust properties all that much. My Mum especially recalls him muttering darkly when she and my Dad went to visit first at Beningbrough then at Ickworth about exploitation and repression: ghosts, ghouls and vampires, murdered servants and the blood (and blood money) from slavery. In many ways, my Grandma’s frustration at urban life and the state of primary school teaching (her profession) aside, he might have preferred to remain in the world of further and higher education where he spent most of his career.
That coming from his background he was able to go to university and then embark on a career teaching and research is rather a testimony to the times in which he was born. It bespeaks the rise of expertise, managerial as well as educational, in addition to the creation of a social democracy. Whilst we still see glimpses of the old order, it is hard to argue that this harder, more professional culture did not pretty much completely supplanted the kind of gentlemanly amateurism that prevailed in British society prior to the mid-twentieth century. This shift has proved lasting, far more so, it would seem than the kind of social democracy that supplanted the Tory philanthropy embodied by James Pennyman’s private “relief efforts” during the Great Slump.
The story of Geoffrey and James, united through a shared copy of a popular contemporary history book, illustrates both these themes. Whereas my Great-Grandpa was thrown out of work by the slump and may well have had to depend-for a time-on the charity of men like James Pennyman, it was my Grandpa-who for a time-looked after Pennyman’s house in trust, with the support of donations and membership fees from people who in virtually every instance wouldn’t have been able to afford a house remotely like Ormsby Hall but who now could enjoy it for relatively little money. A small pleasure which fifty years previously would not have been open to them.
On the surface of it a dusty eighty year old contemporary history book, written by a hack with an axe to grind, doesn’t appear the most promising place to start studying the recent British past. However, by chopping away at the thickets of ownership and questions surrounding their textual interventions and engagement with it it is possible to approach the book and the issues that it raises from a fresh angle. Hopefully the story of James and Geoff, tacking as it does between Cambridge and Middlesbrough, via Wiltshire and Essex to Birmingham: from the thought patterns and reactions of a country squire who witnessed a military atrocity, via the impressionistic biography of a reluctant National Trust manager uprooted by the force of the new criticism and the reforming state, to a middle middle class university administrator, come writer, come historian with Marxist leanings; frantically tapping away late at night: is of some use in showing how we can move beyond what is merely written on the page and use these items to evoke and provoke wider reflection on our recent history.
If you would like to read another instance of me getting really excited about old books please click here.