Charles Trevelyan

Charles Trevelyan

Charles Trevelyan, the son of George Trevelyan, the Liberal MP, was born in Park Lane, London, on 28th October 1870. Charles and his brother, George Macaulay Trevelyan, were educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge. Charles graduated in 1892 with a history degree.

A member of the Liberal Party, he helped John Morley in his successful campaign to become MP for Newcastle. Trevelyan was rewarded by Morley when he arranged for him to become Lord Houghton's private secretary. Houghton was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and the job involved Trevelyan working in Dublin.

Trevelyan returned to England for the 1895 General Election but failed to win the North Lambeth seat for the Liberals. Instead he became a co-opted member of the London School Board. He worked closely with Sidney Webb, Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas on the board. Trevelyan became a member of the Fabian Society and began to develop socialistic views on social reform.

His biographer, A. J. Anthony Morris, commented: "Membership of the Fabian Society afforded some degree of precision to his political ideas. He never lacked for resolution but, as he disarmingly admitted, he did not possess quickness of mind." H. G. Wells was less impressed and argued that "undoubtedly high-minded, Trevelyan had little sense of humour or irony, and was only marginally less self-satisfied and unendurably boring than his youngest brother, George."

In a by-election in 1899 Trevelyan became Liberal MP for Elland in Leeds. Following the 1906 General Election, Trevelyan was disappointed not to be offered a post in the Liberal Government headed by Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Trevelyan married Mary Katharine Bell, the daughter of Sir Hugh Bell, a wealthy businessman, on 6th January 1904. Over the next few years they had three sons and four daughters.

In the House of Commons Trevelyan advocated taxation of land values, Liberal–Labour co-operation on social legislation, and the ending of the House of Lords. In October 1908, the new Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, appointed Trevelyan as his Secretary to the Board of Education. In this post he argued strongly for the establishment of a completely secular system of national education.

In the 1910 General Election Trevelyan argued: "I wish to make it clear from the onset that at the coming election I want support on no other understanding that the new Parliament is to destroy once and for ever, the power of the hereditary chamber to reverse the decisions of the representatives of the people. The power to delay or reject supplies must be abolished, and they must never again enjoy an absolute veto over ordinary legislation. They have rendered fruitless the most serious work of the present House of Commons."

At the end of July, 1914, it became clear to the British government that the country was on the verge of war with Germany. Four senior members of the government, Trevelyan, David Lloyd George, John Burns, and John Morley, were opposed to the country becoming involved in a European war. They informed the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, that they intended to resign over the issue. When war was declared on 4th August, three of the men, Trevelyan, Burns and Morley, resigned, but Asquith managed to persuade Lloyd George, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to change his mind. A. J. Anthony Morris has argued: "Trevelyan resigned from the government in protest. By this action he found himself estranged from most of his family, condemned and vilified by a hysterical press, and rejected by his constituency association."

The day after war was declared, Trevelyan began contacting friends about a new political organisation he intended to form to oppose the war. This included two pacifist members of the Liberal Party, Norman Angell and E. D. Morel, and Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party. A meeting was held and after considering names such as the Peoples' Emancipation Committee and the Peoples' Freedom League, they selected the Union of Democratic Control.

The four men agreed that one of the main reasons for the conflict was the secret diplomacy of people like Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey. They decided that the Union of Democratic Control should have three main objectives: (1) that in future to prevent secret diplomacy there should be parliamentary control over foreign policy; (2) there should be negotiations after the war with other democratic European countries in an attempt to form an organisation to help prevent future conflicts; (3) that at the end of the war the peace terms should neither humiliate the defeated nation nor artificially rearrange frontiers as this might provide a cause for future wars.

Over the next couple of years the UDC became the leading anti-war organisation in Britain. Trevelyan wrote articles for newspapers and gave a series of lectures on the need to negotiate a peace with Germany. As a result of this Trevelyan was attacked in the popular press as being a "pro-German, unpatriotic, scoundrel".

Like other anti-war MPs, Trevelyan was defeated in the 1918 General Election. Trevelyan joined the Independent Labour Party and over the next couple of years he became a controversial figure with his attacks on the Versailles Treaty. Trevelyan explained his political views in his book, From Labour to Liberalism (1921).

In the 1922 General Election Trevelyan was elected to represent Newcastle Upon Tyne Central. When Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 he appointed Trevelyan as his President of the Board of Education. In the short-lived Labour Government Trevelyan argued for a reduction in educational inequalities. According to A. J. Anthony Morris Trevelyan was "a sound administrator, he was not overawed, as were many of his colleagues, by his civil servants... his performances at the dispatch box won back his father's approval." H. G. Wells added: "I think your work for education has been of outstanding value and that everyone who hopes for a happier, more civilised England should vote for all, irrespective of party association. I have watched your proceedings with close interest and I am convinced that there has never been a better, more far sighted, harder working, and more unselfishly devoted Minister of Education than yourself."

After the Labour Party lost power, Trevelyan was the opposition spokesman on education. He also began to develop plans for a educational policy that could be implemented by the next Labour government. Trevelyan's plans included raising the school-leaving age to fifteen and increased public expenditure on education. Trevelyan also wanted a reduction in church control over education. He suggested that the government should provide finance to Anglican and Catholic schools in return for local managers giving control over their teachers to the local authorities.

Following the 1929 General Election he was once again appointed as President of the Board of Education. However, Trevelyan's Education Bill, that included the measure of raising the school-leaving age to fifteen, was rejected by the House of Lords. Disillusioned with the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald, Trevelyan resigned from office in March 1931. Trevelyan opposed MacDonald's National Government and like most Labour MPs was defeated in the 1931 General Election.

In 1931 G.D.H. Cole created the Society for Socialist Inquiry and Propaganda (SSIP). This was later renamed the Socialist League. Other members included William Mellor, Stafford Cripps, H. N. Brailsford, D. N. Pritt, R. H. Tawney, Frank Wise, David Kirkwood, Clement Attlee, Neil Maclean, Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, Alfred Salter, Jennie Lee, Gilbert Mitchison, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Ellen Wilkinson, Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Pugh, Michael Foot and Barbara Betts. Margaret Cole admitted that they got some of the members from the Guild Socialism movement: "Douglas and I recruited personally its first list drawing upon comrades from all stages of our political lives." The first pamphlet published by the SSIP was The Crisis (1931) was written by Cole and Bevin.

According to Ben Pimlott, the author of Labour and the Left (1977): "The Socialist League... set up branches, undertook to promote and carry out research, propaganda and discussion, issue pamphlets, reports and books, and organise conferences, meetings, lectures and schools. To this extent it was strongly in the Fabian tradition, and it worked in close conjunction with Cole's other group, the New Fabian Research Bureau." The main objective was to persuade a future Labour government to implement socialist policies.

Trevelyan's biographer, A. J. Anthony Morris, pointed out: "Trevelyan encouraged the Socialist League, gave help both political and material to a number of aspiring and established left-wingers, and seemed quite convinced that the Labour Party was at last committed to socialism. There was a brief moment of personal triumph at the annual party conference in 1933. He successfully introduced a resolution that, if there were even a threat of war, the Labour Party would call a general strike."

The United Front agreement won only narrow majority at a Socialist League delegate conference in January, 1937 - 56 in favour, 38 against, with 23 abstentions. The United Front campaign opened officially with a large meeting at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24th January. Three days later the Executive of the Labour Party decided to disaffiliated the Socialist League. They also began considering expelling members of the League. G.D.H. Cole and George Lansbury responded by urging the party not to start a "heresy hunt".

Arthur Greenwood was one of those who argued that the rebel leader, Stafford Cripps, should be immediately expelled. Ernest Bevin agreed: "I saw Mosley come into the Labour Movement and I see no difference in the tactics of Mosley and Cripps." On 24th March, 1937, the National Executive Committee declared that members of the Socialist League would be ineligible for Labour Party membership from 1st June. Over the next few weeks membership fell from 3,000 to 1,600. In May, G.D.H. Cole and other leading members decided to dissolve the Socialist League. Trevelyan now decided to retire from politics.

Charles Trevelyan died at Wallington Hall on 24th January 1958.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In 1895 Charles Trevelyan joined the Fabian Society. In a letter that he wrote to his parents, Trevelyan described a Fabian outing to Eastbourne (12th April, 1895)

We (Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Samuel and Graham Wallas) travelled down together yesterday. At Eastbourne, a bus came to meet us with red wheels and a coachman in livery. Here we have monopolized the Hotel, except the bar, which is filled with tourists and fly men during the middle of the day. Till eleven and after five we have the whole of Beach Head to ourselves. It is glorious weather, and Mrs. Webb had had to borrow glycerin for her sunburn. I am teaching the whole party to bicycle. Mrs. Webb will soon be proficient. Mr. Webb is hopeless. Bernard Shaw is at the moment industriously tumbling about outside.

(2) Charles Trevelyan, letter to Caroline Trevelyan (12th April, 1895)

George Bernard Shaw is very much what I hoped and expected, excessively talkative, genial and amusing, and not unduly aggressive or cynical. He is not full of praise for anything or anybody - but is the perfection of real good nature.

(3) Charles Trevelyan, speech in Boston (1896)

I have the greatest sympathy with the growth of the socialist party. I think they understand the evils that surround us and hammer them into people's minds better than we Liberals. I want to see the Liberal party throw its heart and soul fearlessly into reform so as to prevent a reaction from the present state of things and the violent revolution that would inevitably follow it.

(4) Charles Trevelyan, Manifesto to Constituents (10th December, 1909)

I wish to make it clear from the onset that at the coming election I want support on no other understanding that the new Parliament is to destroy once and for ever, the power of the hereditary chamber to reverse the decisions of the representatives of the people. The power to delay or reject supplies must be abolished, and they must never again enjoy an absolute veto over ordinary legislation. They have rendered fruitless the most serious work of the present House of Commons.

(5) Charles Trevelyan, letter to his constituents explaining why he had resigned on the decision of the Liberal Government to declare war on Germany (5th August 1914)

However overwhelming the victory of our navy, our commerce will suffer terribly. In war too, the first productive energies of the whole people have to be devoted to armaments. Cannon are a poor industrial exchange for cotton. We shall suffer a steady impoverishment as the character of our work exchanges. All this I felt so strongly that I cannot count the cause adequate which is to lead to this misery. So I have resigned.

(6) C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, wrote a letter to Charles Trevelyan suggesting that he should not publish a pamphlet he had written that raised doubts about the reported atrocities being committed by the Germans in Belgium (5th September, 1914)

It would be expedient to hold back the pamphlet. The war is at present going badly against us and any day may bring more serious news. I suppose that as soon as the Germans have time to turn their attention to us we may expect to see their big guns mounted on the other side of the Channel and their Zeppelins flying over Dover and perhaps London. People will be wholly impatient of any sort of criticism of policy at such a time and I am afraid that premature action now might destroy any hope of usefulness for your organisation (Union of Democratic Control) later. I saw Angell and Ramsay MacDonald yesterday afternoon and found that they had come to the same conclusion.

(7) The Daily Sketch (4th March, 1915)

Trevelyan would then have a very congenial atmosphere - in the Reichstag. We have no time to listen to his foolish and pernicious talk. It is a scandal that he should be in Parliament when he continues to preach these pro-German and utterly impracticable pacifist doctrines. Trevelyan must go.

(8) In August 1914, George Lansbury commented on Trevelyan's decision to resign from the government.

He must have known when he resigned that he was giving the death blow to his career, and the courage which compels such a step is not to be distinguished from the courage of a soldier who falls in battle.

(9) In 1915 leading members of the Union of Democratic Control, Charles Trevelyan, E. D. Morel and Arthur Ponsonby considered the possibility of joining the Independent Labour Party. Trevelyan wrote about it to Morel on 9th July, 1915.

I am inclined that I can be more useful to the UDC by being identified with no political party. I am clear that it would be fatal to any progress with Liberals for anyone to take a definite step towards political change of allegiance who is in a prominent position among us. We cannot yet tell at all how the political situation will develop. There is no hurry.

(10) Robin Price, was recovering from wounds received on the Western Front when he wrote to Charles Trevelyan in November, 1917.

I often think of you Charles and wonder how you stick it. Give me shells any day rather than abuse.

(11) Charles Trevelyan, speech, October 1915.

The ruling classes today nourish the conviction that national hatreds and rivalries are inevitable. I turn for hope away from the great and learned and rich who have had the making of the war, to the common men and women whose only responsibility is that they left the war to others to settle. It is only by democracy beginning to think for itself by the putting into operation of the principles of human brotherhood that anything can be made out of the present deplorable embroilment but unutterable and permanent human disaster.

(12) In a letter to his parents, Charles Trevelyan explained why he had joined the Independent Labour Party (30 November 1918)

I have worked in close comradeship with several of the leaders of the Labour Party for four years. But beyond that at least half of my Liberal friends are either joining the Labour Party now or are on the verge of joining it. At least thirty Liberal members have been discussing the pros and cons of it for the last eighteen months. Any amount of my private friends of the same education, and, if that matters, social position as myself, are joining now.

(13) Letter to Trevelyan from J. Pollack McCale, an old friend from Harrow School (3rd February, 1918)

Do you in the utter tosh you write at a time critical for our country, wish to turn Europe into a commune with Lenin as Prime Minister and Ramsay MacDonald as deputy? Do you wish to introduce us to the luxuries of Bolshevism, murder, rapine and pillage, or do you merely wish to see you own country ruined.

(14) George Trevelyan wrote to his son when he heard he had been appointed Minister of Education (23rd January, 1924)

It is a great advantage indeed in any genuine and important office, to go to a department the working of which you familiarly know. To be the one man in a great office who knows nothing about the processes and the one man who has to make the decisions, is a most bewildering business. My father, even, felt it, and said that in his first fortnight at the Treasury he saw the snakes coming out of the papers in his dreams at night. Well, you have as long a family tradition of official work to keep up as George has of book-writing, and I have no doubt you will do it worthily.

(15) H. G. Wells, letter to Charles Trevelyan (21st October, 1924)

I think your work for education has been of outstanding value and that everyone who hopes for a happier, more civilised England should vote for all, irrespective of party association. I have watched your proceedings with close interest and I am convinced that there has never been a better, more far sighted, harder working, and more unselfishly devoted Minister of Education than yourself.

(16) Charles Trevelyan believed that the Zinoviev letter was responsible for Labour's defeat in the 1924 General Election. His friend, Francis Hirst, wrote about the matter to him on 3rd November 1924.

I will be utterly disgusted it the Labour Cabinet timidly resign with probing the mystery (of the Zinoviev letter) and explaining it to Parliament. It's the biggest electoral swindle. I personally believe you were right in denouncing it boldly as a forgery.

(17) Charles Trevelyan, letter to Bertrand Russell (May, 1929)

I represent a constituency swarming with Irish Catholics. I would rather lose my seat than give the priesthood a bigger power in the schools. I am absolutely determined that the Labour Party shall not get into the hands of any religion, least of all Catholic.

My anchor is the appointment of teachers. If I could get that into the hands of the public I would concede a great deal in other directions. Scotland has dealt with the question as well and tolerably as it probably can be. The schools are wholly in the hands of the people and teachers are appointed by the local authority. The task is tougher in England with the old Church of England on our back and the 6000 single school areas.

(18) Trevelyan believed Ramsay MacDonald did not give him enough support in his efforts to persuade the House of Lords to pass his 1930 Education Act. He wrote a letter to his wife about this issue on 16th November 1930.

MacDonald detests me because I am always quite definite and won't shirk things in the approved style. He will let me down if he possibly can, the real wrecker (is not the House of Lords) it is MacDonald with his timidity.

(19) Charles Trevelyan, letter of resignation to Ramsay MacDonald (19th February, 1931)

For some time I have realised that I am very much out of sympathy with the general method of Government policy. In the present disastrous condition of trade it seems to me that the crisis requires big Socialist measures. We ought to be demonstrating to the country the alternatives to economy and protection. Our value as a Government today should be to make people realise that Socialism is that alternative.

(20) Charles Trevelyan, speech to the Parliamentary Labour Party (19th February, 1931)

I have for some time been painfully aware that I am utterly dissatisfied with the main strategy of the leaders of the party. But I thought it my duty to hold on as long as I had a definite job in trying to pass the Education Bill. I never expected a complete breakthrough to Socialism in this Parliament. But I did expect it to prepare the way by a Government which in spirit and vigour made such a contrast with the Tories and Liberals that we should be sure of conclusive victory next time.

But the first session was a bitter disappointment. Now we are plunged into an exampled trade depression and suffering the appalling record of unemployment. It is a crisis almost as terrible as war. The people are in just the mood to accept a new and bold attempt to deal with radical evils. But all we have got is a declaration of economy from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We apparently have opted, almost without discussion, the policy of economy. It implies a faith, a faith that reduction of expenditure is the way to salvation. No comrades. It is not good enough for a Socialist party to meet this crisis with economy. The very root of our faith is the prosperity comes from the high spending power of the people, and that public expenditure on the social services is always remunerative.

Though I differ profoundly with the present leadership I have not the slightest sympathy with the action of men like Mosley. The Labour Party is going to be the power of the future however long it takes to evolve leaders who know how to act. But it is as in an army. The leaders for the time must settle the strategy. The officers who command the battalions can retire, but they must not rebel. I have taken the one step of protest open to me. I resign my position as an officer and become a private soldier.

(21) Morgan Philips Price, My Three Revolutions (1969)

The May Economy Committee was appointed by the Government to recommend a general cutting down on all public expenditure. The Committee reported on these lines during the summer of 1931 and a general sacrifice of public works schemes was the result. In the holocaust my cousin Sir Charles Trevelyan's Education Bill was dropped. This Bill raised the school-leaving age by one year and gave grants to the parents of children in their last year at school. Owing to what happened to his Education Bill, Sir Charles resigned his office.