Violet Bonham-Carter

Violet Bonham-Carter

Violet Asquith, the only daughter of Herbert Henry Asquith and Helen Melland was born in Hampstead, London, on 15th April, 1887. Her father had been a lawyer but In the 1886 General Election he was elected as the Liberal MP for East Fife.

Her mother died of typhoid on 11th September 1891 while on the family's holiday on the Isle of Arran. After the 1892 General Election, William Gladstone formed a new Liberal administration and her father was appointed as Home Secretary.

Herbert Henry Asquith asked Margot Tennant to marry him. He was twelve years older than Margot and at first she rejected the idea but she changed her mind and they were married on 10th May 1894. Over the next few years Margot had five children but only Elizabeth Asquith (1897–1945) and Anthony Asquith (1902–1968) survived, three dying at birth. Margot had a reputation for speaking her mind and relations with her step-children were difficult. This was especially true of her dealings with Violet and her brother Raymond Asquith.

John Grigg has argued: "Because of her sex Violet was not, like her brothers, sent to school or university, but was taught at home by governesses.... She had a powerful and inquisitive mind, allied to a temperament of overwhelming force... She was also acutely sensitive to beauty, visual and musical, and a lover of literature, with a command of language that enabled her to write most colourfully and expressively."

According to her biographer, Mark Pottle: "Margot Asquith was an important influence on Violet in particular. She ensured that her stepdaughter's informal education was of a high standard, employing good governesses and overseeing her finishing in Dresden and in Paris. And she fostered the sense of style and ready turn of phrase that carried Violet triumphantly through... her first season in 1905. Relations between the two women, though, were constantly strained." Herbert Henry Asquith wrote to his daughter lamenting that the two women should be "on terms of chronic misunderstanding".

Margot Asquith commented: "My stepdaughter Violet... though intensely feminine, would have made a remarkable man. I do not believe there is any examination she could not have passed either at a public school or university. Born without shyness or trepidation, trom her youth upwards she had perfect self-possession and patience. She loved dialectics and could put her case logically, plausibly and eloquently; and, although quite as unemotional as her brothers, she had more enterprise and indignation. In her youth she was delicate... and this prevented her going through the mill of rivalry and criticism which had been the daily bread of my girlhood."

In April, 1908, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman resigned and Herbert Henry Asquith replaced him as Prime Minister. Working closely with David Lloyd George, his radical Chancellor of the Exchequer, Asquith introduced a whole series of reforms including the Old Age Pensions Act and the People's Budget that resulted to a conflict with the House of Lords.

The Conservatives, who had a large majority in the House of Lords, objected to this attempt to redistribute wealth, and made it clear that they intended to block these proposals. David Lloyd George reacted by touring the country making speeches in working-class areas on behalf of the budget and portraying the nobility as men who were using their privileged position to stop the poor from receiving their old age pensions. After a long struggle with the House of Lords Asquith and the Liberal government finally got his budget through parliament.

With the House of Lords extremely unpopular with the British people, the Liberal government decided to take action to reduce its powers. The 1911 Parliament Act drastically cut the powers of the Lords. They were no longer allowed to prevent the passage of "money bills" and it also restricted their ability to delay other legislation to three sessions of parliament.

When the House of Lords attempted to stop this bill's passage, Asquith, appealed to George V for help. Asquith, who had just obtained a victory in the 1910 General Election, was in a strong position, and the king agreed that if necessary he would create 250 new Liberal peers to remove the Conservative majority in the Lords. Faced with the prospect of a House of Lords with a permanent Liberal majority, the Conservatives agreed to let the 1911 Parliament Act to become law.

Violet Asquith became romantically involved with Archie Hamilton-Gordon, son of the John Hamilton-Gordon, 7th Earl of Aberdeen. He was seriously hurt in a motor car accident in December 1909. The doctors diagnosed several fractured ribs, a badly broken pelvic bone, a dislocated shoulder and a seriously ruptured bladder. They became engaged in Winchester Hospital as Gordon lay dying.

On the outbreak of the First World War, her brother, Raymond Asquith, although he was 36 year old, thought that as his father was prime minister, he was duty bound to enlist in the British Army. In January 1915 he joined the Queen's Westminster Rifles.

Violet Asquith married in 1915 Maurice Bonham-Carter (1880–1960), her father's principal private secretary. She became Mrs Bonham-Carter until, in December 1916, when he received a knighthood and she became Lady Bonham-Carter. The couple had four children, Cressida, Laura, Mark and Raymond.

Raymond Asquith resisted attempts by his father to use his influence to transfer him onto the General Staff but against his wishes he did serve for four months at general headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force. In May, 1916, Asquith insisted on returning to the front-line and took part in the Somme offensive. As Mark Pottle has pointed out: "Though the staff position had been arranged without his knowledge and against his will, it naturally invited the conclusion that he had used his influence to escape the expected spring offensive. By returning to his regiment Raymond had set the record straight."

On 7th September, 1916, Herbert Henry Asquith visited the front-line and managed to obtain a meeting with his son. He wrote to Margot Asquith that evening: "He was very well and in good spirits. Our guns were firing all round and just as we were walking to the top of the little hill to visit the wonderful dug-out, a German shell came whizzing over our heads and fell a little way beyond ... We went in all haste to the dug-out - 3 storeys underground with ventilating pipes electric light and all sorts of conveniences, made by the Germans. Here we found Generals Horne and Walls (who have done the lion's share of all the fighting): also Bongie's brother who is on Walls's staff. They were rather disturbed about the shell, as the Germans rarely pay them such attention, and told us to stay with them underground for a time. One or two more shells came, but no harm was done. The two generals are splendid fellows and we had a very interesting time with them."

On 15th September, 1916, Raymond Asquith led his men on a attack on the German trenches at Lesboeufs. He was hit in the chest by a bullet and died on the way to the dressing station. According to a soldier quoted by John Jolliffe: "there is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King's uniform, and he did not know what fear was." Only five of the twenty-two officers in Asquith's battalion survived the battle unscathed."

Violet Bonham Carter, wrote: "He was shot through the chest and carried back to a shell-hole where there was an improvised dressing station. There they gave him morphia and he died an hour later. God bless him. How he has vindicated himself - before all those who thought him merely a scoffer - by the modest heroism with which he chose the simplest and most dangerous form of service - and having so much to keep for England gave it all to her with his life."

The consequences of the Battle of the Somme put further pressure on Violet's father. Colin Matthew has commented: "The huge casualties of the Somme implied a further drain on manpower and further problems for an economy now struggling to meet the demands made of it... Shipping losses from the U-boats had begun to be significant... Early in November 1916 he called for all departments to write memoranda on how they saw the pattern of 1917, the prologue to a general reconsideration of the allies' position."

At a meeting in Paris on 4th November, 1916, David Lloyd George came to the conclusion that the present structure of command and direction of policy could not win the war and might well lose it. Lloyd George agreed with Maurice Hankey, secretary of the Imperial War Cabinet, that he should talk to Andrew Bonar Law, the leader of the Conservative Party, about the situation. Bonar Law remained loyal to Asquith and so Lloyd George contacted Max Aitken instead and told him about his suggested reforms.

On 18th November, Aitken lunched with Bonar Law and put Lloyd George's case for reform. He also put forward the arguments for Lloyd George becoming the leader of the coalition. Aitken later recalled in his book, Politicians and the War (1928): "Once he had taken up war as his metier he seemed to breathe its true spirit; all other thoughts and schemes were abandoned, and he lived for, thought of and talked of nothing but the war. Ruthless to inefficiency and muddle-headedness in his conduct, sometimes devious, if you like, in the means employed when indirect methods would serve him in his aim, he yet exhibited in his country's death-grapple a kind of splendid sincerity."

Together, Max Aitken, David Lloyd George, Andrew Bonar Law and Edward Carson, drafted a statement addressed to Asquith, proposing a war council triumvirate and the Prime Minister as overlord. On 25th November, Bonar Law took the proposal to Asquith, who agreed to think it over. The next day he rejected it. Further negotiations took place and on 2nd December Asquith agreed to the setting up of "a small War Committee to handle the day to day conduct of the war, with full powers", independent of the cabinet. This information was leaked to the press by Carson. On 4th December The Times used these details of the War Committee to make a strong attack on Asquith. The following day he resigned from office. Aitken later recalled that it was the most important thing that he had done in politics: "The destruction of the Asquith Government which was brought about by an honest intrigue. If the Asquith government had gone on, the country would have gone down."

David Low, Lady Bonham-Carter (January, 1920)
David Low, Lady Bonham-Carter (January, 1920)

Violet Bonham-Carter was devastated by these events and did everything she could to defend her father's reputation. She was also a fierce critic of the Versailles Peace Treaty. She warned in 1923: "In Germany today one feels there is always a revolution in the offing, if not in full swing. A new and unsteady Democracy is struggling on to its feet, and we've got to keep it there: we've got to help it and back it up. French action in the Ruhr is threatening with extinction this new spirit which is struggling for life, and if the German workers are defeated in their fight against militarism it may have far-reaching and disastrous international consequences, for which our children and the children of the world will have to pay."

Violet Bonham-Carter was active in the Liberal Party and served as president of the Women's Liberal Federation (1923-1925), but grew disillusioned with politics after her father gave up the party leadership to David Lloyd George in 1926.

Bonham-Carter returned to the world of politics when she began to attack the government of Neville Chamberlain and his policy of appeasement. Her biographer, Mark Pottle, has argued: "As a young woman Violet had reflected the antisemitism of her social background, but the Nazi persecution of Jews fired her indignation." After the election of Adolf Hitler she commented: "In Germany freedom as we conceive it seems to have perished in the last few weeks, in the twinkling of an eye, almost without a struggle, and given place to a nightmare reign of force whose horror how this nightmare can have arisen - how it has become possible. I can truthfully say that nothing within my political memory has ever moved me more deeply to horror and indignation than recent events in Germany." In a speech given on 20th October 1938, she described "appeasement" as the policy of "peace at any price that others can be forced to pay".

During this period she became a strong supporter of Winston Churchill and became a leading figure in his anti-fascist group Freedom Focus. This cross-party pressure group acted under the auspices of the League of Nations Union. During this period she described Churchill as "that brilliant political phenomenon who eludes all categories and defies classification."

During the Second World War Bonham-Carter worked as an air-raid warden. She was also as governor of BBC with served a second term as president of the Women's Liberal Federation. Her son, Mark Bonham-Carter joined the Grenadier Guards and took part in a major battle in Tunisia in March 1943. His biographer, Roy Jenkins, has pointed out: "His battalion lost fourteen officers killed, five wounded, and five taken prisoner (with the casualties among other ranks 255). As the total officer strength of a battalion was under forty this was an appalling rate of loss. Bonham Carter was lucky to be among the five taken prisoner. He was transported to a camp in the north of Italy, from where he escaped six months later. He and another officer then proceeded in night marches and thirty days to cover 400 miles before they reached British lines near Bari."

Maurice Bonham-Carter, Mark Bonham-Carter and Violet Bonham-Carter
Maurice Bonham-Carter, Mark Bonham-Carter and Violet Bonham-Carter

At the 1945 General Election, Violet Bonham-Carter, the Liberal Party candidate, came bottom of the poll at Wells. Her biographer, Mark Pottle, has pointed out: "It was a crushing disappointment, and for some time afterwards she feared the party's extinction. Although Churchill reassured her that he wanted its survival, he could not persuade Conservatives to throw Liberals the lifeline of electoral reform. And at the 1951 election he could not even guarantee Violet the undivided support of local Conservatives when she stood at Colne Valley. Though they withdrew their candidate in her favour, many abstained from voting. The election was narrowly lost to Labour. To add insult to injury fellow Liberals attacked her for openly accepting Churchill's support. She regarded their lack of pragmatism as symptomatic of the Liberal decline."

Despite not being elected to the House of Commons, she continued to campaign for equal pay for women. She also had the satisfaction of her son-in-law, Jo Grimond, become the leader of the Liberal Party. In 1958 her son, Mark Bonham-Carter, won Torrington. She also was involved in the Anti-Aparthied Movement and in January 1960 defended a boycott of South African goods on the BBC's Matters of Moment radio programme. She also wrote several books such as Winston Churchill As I Knew Him (1965) and several volumes of diaries and letters including Lantern Slides (1904-1914), Champion Redoubtable (1914-45) and Daring to Hope (1946-69).

After the success of the Labour Party of 1964 General Election, the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, gave her a place in the House of Lords. She took the title, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, and despite of failing health she regularly attended debates. She also voted in favour of more liberal laws on abortion and homosexuality in 1966–7. Her last speech, in November 1968, was on the need for reform of the second chamber.

Violet Bonham-Carter died in London on 19th February 1969 and was buried at Mells, Somerset.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Margot Asquith, Autobiography (1920)

My stepdaughter Violet - now Lady Bonham Carter - though intensely feminine, would have made a remarkable man. I do not believe there is any examination she could not have passed either at a public school or university. Born without shyness or trepidation, trom her youth upwards she had perfect self-possession and patience. She loved dialectics and could put her case logically, plausibly and eloquently; and, although quite as unemotional as her brothers, she had more enterprise and indignation. In her youth she was delicate... and this prevented her going through the mill of rivalry and criticism which had been the daily bread of my girlhood.

She had the same penetrating sense of humour as her brother Raymond and quite as much presence of mind in retort. Her gift of expression was amazing and her memory unrivalled.... She is a natural speaker, easy, eloquent, witty, short and of imperturbable sang-froid.

(2) Violet Bonham Carter, speech to the National Liberal Federation (1923)

In Germany today one feels there is always a revolution in the offing, if not in full swing. A new and unsteady Democracy is struggling on to its feet, and we've got to keep it there: we've got to help it and back it up. French action in the Ruhr is threatening with extinction this new spirit which is struggling for life, and if the German workers are defeated in their fight against militarism it may have far-reaching and disastrous international consequences, for which our children and the children of the world will have to pay.

(3) Violet Bonham Carter, speech in Scarborough (18th May, 1933)

In Germany freedom as we conceive it seems to have perished in the last few weeks, in the twinkling of an eye, almost without a struggle, and given place to a nightmare reign of force whose horror how this nightmare can have arisen - how it has become possible.

I can truthfully say that nothing within my political memory has ever moved me more deeply to horror and indignation than recent events in Germany. We in this country have looked on with dazed astonishment at this nightmare. We have seen libraries burnt. We have seen monuments erected to murderers. We have seen faith and race persecuted and proscribed, thought and art forbidden unless confined in the straight-jacket of State control. We have seen Germany banish and despoil many of her greatest and most distinguished sons, men whose high achievements in every field of endeavour have brought her honour throughout the world.

(4) Violet Bonham Carter was a member of the Liberal Party and had been strongly opposed to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy. She record her thoughts about Chamberlain's resignation in her diary (10th May, 1940).

At 9 o'clock I went downstairs and listen in to (the radio) and heard Chamberlain make a very dignified resignation speech - and say he had recommended the King to send for Winston as his successor. What a moment to take on! He will have to ride the whirlwind and direct the storm. If any man can he will, but he has as a heritage the years that the locust has eaten. How different if he had been allowed to take a part during the last 5 years in preparing for the peril which he so clearly foresaw.