Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Herbert Samuel: from the slums of Whitechapel to Palestine via destitute Belgians

As a chancellor for the duchy of Lancaster in 1909-10 and 1915-16 (for the latter preceded by Winston Churchill), Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) was one of the first Jewish members of the British cabinet. He put forward the idea of establishing a British Protectorate over Palestine in 1915 and his ideas influenced the Balfour Declaration and is arguably most renowned for being the first British high commissioner for Palestine (1920–25), when he greatly improved the economy of the region (and therefore supporting increasing harmony among the religious communities).

Early career

While at Oxford (Balliol College), Samuel took an active part in university Liberal activity and joined George Bernard Shaw and others at weekends on the Oxfordshire countryside to unionize agricultural labourers. During the 1890s Samuel developed the radical Liberal outlook to which he clung for the rest of his life. Greatly influenced by the progressive social ideas of Graham Wallas and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, he wrote some Fabian pamphlets and joined J. Ramsay MacDonald, J. A. Hobson, Charles Trevelyan (his closest friend), and others in a radical discussion group, the Rainbow Circle. This sought to define a ‘new Liberalism’ (the title of a paper read by Samuel to the circle in November 1895) with a reformist and interventionist social agenda. In 1902, Samuel produced a comprehensive formulation of his political philosophy, Liberalism: its Principles and Proposals, in which he provided an intellectual foundation for many of the social reforms subsequently enacted by the Liberal governments after 1905.

Samuel had been a social worker in the slums of Whitechapel before he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal in 1902. A moderate supporter of the South African War, Samuel had visited Uganda in 1902 and developed a special expertise in African affairs. As a back-bencher over the next three years he attacked the inhuman regime of Leopold of the Belgians in the Congo, endorsing the charges of the former British consul there, Roger Casement, whom he called (to his later embarrassment) ‘a gentleman of the highest standing and reliability’ (Wasserstein, 1992:73). As Under-Secretary to the Home Office (1905–09), Samuel was responsible for legislation that established juvenile courts and the “Borstal” system of detention and training for youthful offenders. 

Twice Postmaster General (1910–14, 1915–16), he recognized the postal trade unions and nationalized the telephone services. As Postmaster-General, the responsible minister, he was mired in the Marconi scandal of 1912-13 (Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton accused Samuel, David Lloyd George and Rufus Isaacs of corruption). Other unfounded accusations, with an anti-Semitic edge, were also made at this time against Samuel and his cousin, Edwin Montagu (q.v.), a junior minister at the India Office. In January 1916, Samuel became Home Secretary in Herbert H. Asquith’s coalition ministry. In the political crisis of December 1916 Samuel was a consistent supporter of Asquith—and paid the price in self-exclusion from office under Lloyd George. At the general election of 1918, he was opposed for the first time by a Labour candidate and as a result lost his seat to a coalition Unionist.

President of the Local Government Board

In February 1914, Samuel was moved to the presidency of the Local Government Board, a post that afforded little room for legislative radicalism. In the crisis of July 1914 he was a moderate member of the war party in cabinet and in this capacity devised the formula on 2 August that became the basis for British entry to the European war two days later. At the Local Government Board, his ambitious plans for slum clearance and urban planning, announced in a speech delivered in Sheffield in May 1914, were frustrated by the outbreak of war (on the peace wing of the party, he nevertheless supported the war when Germany infringed Belgian neutrality). He did, however, launch a major expansion of maternity and child welfare centers. His social radicalism did not extend to women’s suffrage, on which he took a cautious line, although it was on Samuel's motion that women were given the right to stand for election to Parliament in 1918. 

As president of the Local Government Board (1914-1915), Samuel was responsible for overseeing the reception of Belgian refugees and the centrally organized distress relief efforts that came with the influx in Britain of over a quarter of million of Belgians. The presidency of the Local Government Board (LGB), which had taken over supervisory functions from the Board of Trade and the Home Office, was a ministerial post, often a Cabinet position. The post was abolished in 1919, with most duties transferred to the Minister of Health. 

The Local Government Board consisted of 11 members. Presided by Samuel, other members were
-         Augustin Birrell, the Liberal MP who had been the president of the Board of Education (1905-07, he was succeeded by Reginal McKenna MP) and who was Chief Secretary for Ireland at that time. Birrell had succeeded James Bryce, notorious for the Bryce report on German atrocities in Belgium (the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ avant-la-lettre), in that position.
-         Thomas McKinnon Wood, the Liberal MP who was Secretary for Scotland at that time (1912-1916). Prior to that position, McKinnon Wood was the Financial Secretary of the Treasury. There he was succeeded by C.F.G. Masterman.
-         Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman – who associated chiefly with members of the liberal and progressive school of thought while at Cambridge, including Trevelyan, Samuel’s best friend – was a Liberal MP who lost his seat in 1914. When the First World War began, he served as head of the British War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), set up at Wellington House, London. The sole aim of the WPB was to provide support for Britain through the manipulation of information about the Central Powers. In this role, he recruited writers (such as John Buchan, H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle) and painters (e.g., Francis Dodd, Paul Nash) to support the war effort. Drawing on an extensive network of the most important and influential figures in the London arts scene, Masterman devised the most comprehensive arts patronage schemes ever to be supported in the country. By June 1915 more than 2 million books and other publications in seventeen languages had been published, almost entirely without the readers' knowledge that these were sponsored by the British government. Eventually subsumed into John Buchan’s Department of Information, and in 1918, Lord Beaverbrook’s even grander Ministry of Information, it became a template for the war art scheme in the Second World War. Masterman also played a crucial role in publicising reports of the Armenian Genocide (Lord Bryce again). For his role in this, Masterman has been the target of repeated Turkish allegations that he fabricated, or at least embellished, the events for propaganda purposes.
-         Walter H. Long was a Conservative MP. He succeeded Herbert Samuel as president of the LGB in 1915 and was succeeded himself in 1916 by William Hayes Fisher, a former secretary to Arthur Balfour another Conservative MP. In 1916, Walter Long on his turn succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as the Secretary of State for the Colonies. In 1919 Long became First Lord of the Admiralty.
-         Ramsay McDonald, the first ever Labour Prime Minister of Britain, was an MP for Leicester at that time and Treasurer of the Labour Party. Sidney Webb, a member of the first Labour government in 1924, sat on one of the subcommittees of the LGB.
-         Wedgwood Benn was a Liberal MP (he became Labour later on) who soon after the war started left the LGB and served with the Royal Naval Air Service.

The Belgian refugees

From 1902 until 1961, Hansard recorded 10734 contributions by Herbert Samuel. His first contribution recorded since the First World War had started concerned relief of distress (28 August 1914), mainly for British people out of work because of the circumstances. The first speech of the president of the Local Government Board on Belgian refugees concerned a note on 31 August about the health of the Belgians arriving in Folkestone, at that time in small numbers still. Samuel was also instrumental in streamlining the funding for charities and how these initiatives related to the Prince of Wales Fund and the Local Government Board (September 1914)
On 14 September 1914 J.D. Rees MP asked Samuel “whether an index can be made and kept up containing the names of the Belgian guests of the nation in order that they may be the more easily traced by their compatriots in this country?”. Herbert Samuel confirmed that a “record as complete as practicable is being kept of all persons for whom accommodation is provided”. 

However much the war had been going on for six weeks already, the measures in places for registering the Belgians became inadequate around the time of Samuel’s statement in Parliament. The influx simply was too big to comprise, the points of entry too numerous. The inaccuracies in registration upon arrival must have been what was on Rees’s mind as he continued to ask Samuel “if a careful scrutiny is made lest enemies might come in under the guise of Belgians?”, to which Samuel confirmed, albeit briefly. (Hansard, 14 September 1914)

Further intricacies of the reception of the Belgians burdened the president of the LGB even more. Mr. Bathurst MP asked “whether male Belgian refugees are available for employment, either permanently or during the period of the War, as agricultural workers; whether they include any Protestants; and, if not, whether Roman Catholics will accept employment in districts where the services of a Roman Catholic priest are not available?”. Samuel’s answer perhaps was another proof of not entirely reading the scale of the Belgian immigration well: “The Government cannot anticipate that none of the Belgian refugees in this country will obtain agricultural occupation, but, in view of the state of the labour market in this country, they do not contemplate taking any steps, unless the circumstances are exceptional, for providing them with employment. I have not sufficient information to enable me to answer the latter part of the question.” (Hansard, 17 September 1914)

After the fall of Antwerp first and of Ostend a few days later (10 and 15 October respectively), the Belgian refugees no longer came from what had become occupied Belgium, but via the Netherlands and France. Through the LGB and the War Refugees Committee hospitality was extended to those Belgians as well, especially those in the Netherlands. Mr. Goulding MP asked “whether, in view of the number of offers of hospitality at the disposal of the War Refugees' Committee, the proper authorities would be prepared to give facilities for bringing over to this country a further number of the destitute Belgian refugees at present in Zeeland and Brabant, for whom adequate provision cannot, in view of their numbers, be made?”, to which Samuel confirmed that arrangements were being made. (Hansard 23 November 1914).

The issue of able men among the destitute Belgian did not become a political problem. Only in early February 1915 did Mr. Thorne MP asked “what the Government are doing in regard to Belgian refugees of military age?”. Samuel was rapid in shrugging off the issue which was increasingly causing discontentment: “The question is not one for the Government, but for the Belgian military authorities and the Belgian refugees themselves.” (Hansard 8 February 1915) Not soon thereafter, with the Shell Crisis, would the Belgian able men in Britain be mobilized as labour forces in the war effort, employed in munitions factories and related industries.

One of the final contributions by Samuel recorded in Hansard (Samuel Long took over as president of the LGB in the 1915 Cabinet reshuffle), Samuel was asked by Mr. Hogge MP about “what progress is being made with further provision for Belgian refugees; and what is the total number to date in this country?”. Samuel provided a long and detailed answer:

" The Registrar-General estimates that the number of Belgian Refugees (excluding soldiers) now in this country is about 180,000. Of these it may be roughly estimated that the number of employable men is about 29,000, of whom about 17,000 have already been placed in employment, and efforts are continually being made to find occupation for the others. Of 17,000 employable women about 3,000 are employed. Several thousands of refugees, not included in the figures of employment, have enlisted in the Belgian Army. The number of refugees awaiting hospitality has so far diminished as to allow of my being able to close the Alexandra Palace as a refuge and to arrange for the transfer of the buildings to the War Office. About 2,400 refugees remain in other refuges, and further offers of hospitality would be gladly received by the War Refugees' Committee at Aldwych. (Hansard 29 April 1915) 

Samuel also acknowledged that at that time already a large number of Belgians were employed in the armaments industry, something that would soon be overseen by Winston Churchill as the newly appointed Minister of Munitions.

Post LGB career

When the coalition government was formed in 1915, Herbert Samuel was temporarily dropped from the cabinet, returning to his old job at the Post Office, but upon Churchill's resignation in November he was restored to the cabinet and in January 1916 became home secretary. Conditions of war, however, were held to preclude the introduction of any reformist measures: the only notable innovation was the introduction of daylight saving time and the related unification of British and Irish time (until then Irish was twenty-five minutes earlier than British).

As home secretary Samuel was obliged to deal with a number of delicate civil liberties issues and made several decisions that posterity judged illiberal. After the Easter rising in Dublin, he was briefly responsible for Irish affairs and for the heavy-handed repression that followed. In England conscientious objectors were maltreated, and Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway were imprisoned for anti-war propaganda. Roger Casement was hanged after landing in Ireland from a German submarine—Samuel declined to recommend mercy for his former ally in the Congo agitation. Other former allies such as Graham Wallas bitterly criticized what they considered Samuel's betrayal of his earlier principles.

Before Samuel moved to Palestine, he had been Special Commissioner for Belgium for a few months in 1920. After his time in Palestine, Herbert Samuel presided (1925–26) over the royal commission on the coal industry and helped to settle the general strike of May 1926. 

One of Samuel's early acts as high commissioner for Palestine, in August 1920, was to visit Transjordan (at that time a political vacuum, owing to the French ejection of the emir Faisal from Damascus). Without authority, and rather against the spirit of Foreign Office instructions, he effectively annexed the territory, quadrupling the area under his control. The foreign secretary, Curzon, initially repudiated Samuel's action. That December, however, the region passed under the aegis of the Colonial Office and in March 1921 the colonial secretary, Churchill, visited Jerusalem and confirmed the addition of Transjordan to the mandatory area—with the proviso that it would be under the nominal rule of the emir Abdullah and would not form part of the Jewish national home established west of the River Jordan.

As the Liberals' chairman early in 1927, Samuel took charge of the arthritic party machine and succeeded in reviving it as an effective political force. Samuel faithfully served under Lloyd George's leadership and joined J. M. Keynes, Walter Runciman, and others in producing the Liberal ‘yellow book’, Britain's Industrial Future (1928).

Reentering the House of Commons in 1929, Samuel joined Ramsay MacDonald’s national coalition government in 1931 as Home Secretary. Being a free trader himself, he soon resigned in protest against import tariffs (1932). Herbert Samuel led the Liberal Party from 1931 to 1935, but his actions widened the division within the party. Created viscount in 1937, he led the Liberals in the House of Lords (1944–55). Later in 1937 Samuel, although Jewish, aligned himself with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Adolf Hitler, urging that Germany be cleared of its 1914 war guilt and recommending that Germany's former colonies be returned to her (even after the war he continued to believe that this was the correct course). He declined a later offer by Chamberlain to return to government. In 1938 he supported the Kindertransport movement for refugee children from Europe with an appeal for homes for them.

From 1931 until 1959 Samuel was president of the British (later Royal) Institute of Philosophy and in that period he published books such as Practical Ethics (1935) and Belief and Action (1937; new ed. 1953).

Samuel papers can be found in the Parliamentary Archives (House of Lords Record Office), the Israel State Archives, Oxford University, Southampton University, London School of Economics (a.o. correspondence with E.D. Morel), Cambridge University, Durham University, National Library of Wales, British Library, Churchill Archives, Bodleian Library (a.o. correspondence with Lord Lugard), Welwyn Garden City Library, Newcastle upon Tyne library.

As he surveyed in old age a career in Liberalism that stretched from the era of Gladstone to that of Jo Grimond, he deeply regretted the decline of his party: his lasting achievement, none the less, was the preservation of historic Liberalism as a significant current in British political life. Samuel died at his London home, 32 Portchester Terrace, Bayswater, on 5 February 1963, and was buried in Willesden Jewish cemetery, close to St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, where Belgian refugees are buried.

Herbert Louis Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel. (2013). In Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. Retrieved from
President of the Local Government Board. (2013). In Wikipedia Online. Retrieved from
Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel. (2013). In Wikipedia Online. Retrieved from,_1st_Viscount_Samuel
Biography of Viscount Herbert Samuel. (2013). In Liberal Democrat History Online. Retrieved from:
Mr. Herbert Samuel. (2013). In Hansard 1803-2005. Retrieved from:
Wasserstein, B. (2011). ‘Samuel, Herbert Louis, first Viscount Samuel (1870–1963)’. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011. Retrieved from
Wasserstein, B. (1992). Herbert Samuel: a political life. Oxford University Press.
Local Government Board. (1915) Report on the special work of the Local Government Board arising out of the war. House of Commons Parliamentary Papers.
Charles Masterman. (2013). In Wikipedia Online. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. Samuel enormously enhanced the economy of the area and took a stab at congruity among the religious groups. Coming back to Great Britain, he directed (1925–26) over the imperial commission on the coal business and served to settle the general strike of May 1926...
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