The 1929 General Election in the North East was enlivened by a socialist landowner who gave away his 13,000-acre estate. TONY HENDERSON reports on a re-run of the times.
They're all the same. As the election debates grind on, that’s a familiar dismissal of politicians from many in a bombarded electorate.
But one North East politician against whom that charge could never be levelled was Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan.
He owned the 13,000-acre Wallington estate and house, but was a committed socialist.
He served as Labour MP for Newcastle Central and also in Labour Government cabinets.
Charles no doubt unsettled the landed class in the region by having a hammer and sickle painted on a pillar at the entrance gate at Wallington and then made further sizeable social waves by giving his estate to the National Trust in 1941.
Now the trust is re-running the 1929 election campaign in which Charles was once again defending his Newcastle Central Labour seat.
Vote Wallington runs throughout the summer at the Northumberland property.
Visitors approaching the Clock Tower are greeted by 1929 election posters used by Charles and his Tory opponent, reproduced from the originals in the Trevelyan archive, which is currently being digitised by Newcastle University.
One poster implores voters to back Charles and help return a Labour Government which would save the coal industry, build cheap houses, shorten hours of work and tackle unemployment.
Another advertises Lady Trevelayn’s forthcoming address to new women voters at the Miners’ Hall in West Wylam.
In what was the estate office in the house at Wallington, the National Trust has teamed up with award winning arts company November Club to transform the location into Utopia HQ, the headquarters of Charles‘s campaign activity.
Through peep holes in voting booths, visitors can experience an image and sound combination which includes extracts from Charles’s speeches.
Visitors can discover more about Charles’s life after leaving Government, when he set about realising his own socialist ambitions through his work on the Wallington estate, including giving family allowance payments.
In the dining room of the house, the table is covered in copies of the letters and telegrams which Charles the politician received.
Gillian Mason, visitor experience manager for Wallington, said: “As it’s General Election year we’re taking the opportunity to tell the story of an incredible man, Sir Charles Phillips Trevelyan, at Wallington which is his former home.
“Sir Charles described himself as an illogical Englishman. He was an aristocrat who owned a 13,000 acre estate but had deep rooted socialist beliefs. His beliefs led him to give his estate to the National Trust, to be cared for on behalf of the nation forever.
“We’ll be telling the story of the 1929 election, which was known as the Flapper Election as it was the first time women over the age of 21 were allowed to vote. We’ll be giving visitors an insight into both Sir Charles’s campaign and his opponents.
“We hope it will give people a chance to escape the present day election hype and spin and give a fascinating insight into history.”
Cinzia Hardy, creative producer and director for November Club, said: “In Utopia HQ we’re using polling booths as peep shows so that visitors can hear recorded quotes and transcripts of speeches, and read diary entries, all of which give a flavour of Charles Trevelyan and his lifelong vision.
“Another lovely aspect of Utopia HQ is that we’ll be asking people to envisage their own personal ideal world and write it on a ballot card to add to the display.”
In her 2006 book A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and Their World, Laura Trevelyan describes Charles as “dashing, handsome, wealthy, sporty, and idealogically left-wing.”
Educated at Harrow and Trinity College at Cambridge University, he entered politics as a Liberal MP in 1892.
He became friends with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, founders of the Fabian Society, and travelled to the United States with them.
Later he wrote about the influences of his American trip: “Before the first war I lived chiefly with my own class. The only time I had ever felt I was in the society I wanted was when I was in the United States, where at last I plunged into an egalitarian world where everybody talked to everybody and not up or down to them.
“It was only when I joined the Labour Party that I found I could get the same atmosphere in England.”
He married Molly Bell, the grand daughter of the millionaire County Durham ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, and half sister of “Queen of the Desert” Getrude Bell.
They had seven children, and Molly played her part in delivering speeches during her husband’s campaigns.
Charles became Labour MP for Newcastle Central in 1922 and was president of the Board of Education in the Cabinet, pushing for the expansion of secondary education and the raising of the school leaving age.
In 1929 he and Molly invited the tenants at Wallington to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary, and he told them:
“You are all aware that I am no friend of the system which by pure chance makes me rich and a thousand others poor for life.
“I want you to know that I regard myself not as the owner of Wallington and the people of Wallington, but as a trustee of property which under wiser and more humane laws could belong to the community.”
He went on: “We have often expressed the opinion in public that it would be a fine thing if the nation were to give family allowances where there are children and that would be one of the best methods towards a wider and juster distribution of wealth.
“We intend to give an allowance to every family on the estate for every child from birth till such time as it leaves school or college. The allowance will be paid every month by Lady Trevelyan to the mother of the family.”
Explaining his decision to give Wallington to the National Trust, Charles said: “I do not believe in private ownership of land.
“By pure chance I own Wallington. I have been putting back into the estate all, and more than all, I have ever drawn from it in rents.
“But I can have no guarantee that in the future there might not some owners of Wallington who might want to make money out of the land again – who might no longer want to keep Wallington House and grounds open to the wider public who now so much and so increasingly enjoy it.
“I want you to feel that to come and see Wallington is on your part not an intrusion but a right.”
The voting theme will be continued at Wallington with visitors being asked to contribute their views on how to use a suite of rooms in the west wing of the house.
The rooms were the former quarters of the late Patricia Jennings, Charles’s youngest daughter, and have now come to the National Trust.
Visitors will also be able to vote on future developments of a winter trail at Wallington, where as a first step 100,000 snowdrops have been planted.