HL Deb 22 January 1957 vol 201 cc1-6

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, since we separated before Christmas your Lordships will have been grieved to hear of the death of the Earl of Athlone, and I am sure that it will be your wish that we in this House should pay our tribute to his memory. Lord Athlone, of course, played no personal part in the doings of the House of Lords—his close connection with the Royal Family made that impossible—but there can be no man whose life was more entirely devoted to the service of his country. In his younger days, as a soldier, he fought in the Matabele and Boer Wars and won notable distinction in these campaigns. But he will, I think, be principally remembered by the pre-eminent services he rendered, first as Governor-General of South Africa and later as Governor-General of Canada. In both those countries, with Her Royal Highness, Princess Alice, who shared throughout in his work, he won the trust and the deep affection of all sections of the people.

He had a singular charm of manner—quiet, unassuming, but with a simple dignity that was, as has been well said, founded on a natural humility. I do not suppose that Lord Athlone had an enemy in the world; wherever he went he was loved. He had, too, that fund of robust common sense which is, perhaps, the most valuable quality of all for public life. Such was Lord Athlone whom we mourn to-day—a great gentleman and a great servant of the Crown. His death will be a source of sorrow to the whole country, and especially to those of us whose privilege it was to know him personally. Our deep sympathy goes out to Her Royal Highness, Princess Alice, to whom he owed so much and whose name will always be linked with his in the hearts of the people they together served.

2.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Marquess the Leader of the House for having taken this opportunity of paying the tribute of the House to the late Lord Athlone. It would be spoiling matters to recount again the great and wonderful series of public services which the late Earl rendered to the State, but we all appreciate them to the full. I had the great privilege of knowing him very well, and I was able to appreciate something of what the noble Marquess the Leader of the House said just now about his easy, humble way of dealing with people. He was interested not only ill the great affairs of State in the Dominions and at home, but also in the common life of the people.

Those of us who had the privilege of meeting him in sporting circles will never forget the impression he made upon that great army of football clubs right through the nation, for he was for many years the beloved and respected President of the Football Association. To meet him at lunch at Wembley was something of an experience because, as one's neighbour, he spoke so quietly, with a fund of humour and with a quietness of approach which was perfectly delightful. He ranks highest, of course, as a great servant of the State. In the circles in which I met him, he certainly had the greatest respect and affection. With Her Royal Highness, the Princess Alice, we mourn one of the most charming and gracious servants of the people whom it has been the privilege of the nation to acknowledge. We should like to extend to Her Royal Highness our deepest sympathy in her loss at this time, after the so long and great partnership she had with the late Earl.

2.42 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to follow what has been said in paying tribute to the late Lord Athlone's work in a public capacity. I am sure that we on these Benches entirely associate ourselves with all that the noble Marquess and the noble Viscount have said on that subject. But there were two points in regard to the late Earl in which I was particularly interested. One is the great work he did as Chancellor of the University of London. He showed himself most keenly interested in the educational side of that work and, far from being merely Chancellor on paper, he took a meticulous interest in the work of the University and devoted a large amount of his time to that work.

There is one other, perhaps less important, point, though to me it was very important. About two years ago there was held in London an International Congress of Gerontology. It was at that time a new subject, and this was the first big Congress to be held in London. Both the late Earl and Princess Alice were extremely interested in that Congress. They came to our meetings and our festivities, and showed an enormous interest in that particular subject. It is for such matters as these that we sincerely mourn the loss of a devoted servant of the State. I should like to associate my noble friends on these Benches with what has been said in the way of sympathy to Her Royal Highness Princess Alice.

2.44 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words from a more personal angle. I had the privilege of knowing Lord Athlone personally for a great many years, and I rise to allude not to the public services that the Leader of the House has so rightly described but rather to some of his personal characteristics as I saw them; and in particular to pay a tribute to the superb example that he gave to the country of the way in which a Member of the Royal Family should behave in ordinary life.

The rôle of collateral Princes is a very difficult one: they are neither sovereigns nor subjects: they have to find a very nice balance between the dignities of Court life and the ordinary conditions of the country. It always seemed to me that the noble Earl, Lord Athlone, particularly succeeded in holding this difficult balance. After all, the duties of a Royal Prince in the kind of position in which he found himself have often led to many troubles. It is not so very many years ago since we had the scandals and the vagaries of the Royal Dukes at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, and I can say in my own experience that when I was in Russia during the First War immense harm was done to the Imperial Crown by the irresponsible actions of several of the Grand Dukes. How fortunate we have been to have someone like the noble Earl. Lord Athlone, to avoid those dangers!

Dignified, there was nobody who looked better in uniform than the noble Earl, Lord Athlone—nobody, at any rate, since the old Duke of Connaught—superb at any public ceremony; single-minded; ready to undertake any service for the country; very modest, showing much of that delightful shyness which was so attractive in Queen Mary; very sociable, moving freely in every walk of life and making friends wherever he went. I used to see him upon many occasions. I think particularly to-day of the times when he and Her Royal Highness, Princess Alice, used to come to the tennis championships at Wimbledon. There he would sit, talking freely to the players, watching the game and showing constantly his very delightful sense of humour, laughing quietly to himself whenever there was anything amusing or unexpected in the play.

I believe that, great as were the public services of the noble Earl, Lord Athlone, the greatest service that he performed was to leave to this and to future generations the standard example of an English gentleman.

2.47 p.m.


My Lords, I think it will be suitable if these tributes to the noble Earl, Lord Athlone, contain a contribution from one who was for two years on his personal staff. Those were the years, long at the outset of that outstanding, successful period of his Governor-Generalship of South Africa. The Nationalist Party, under General Hertzog, had newly come into power and displaced General Smuts, and the position of the Sovereign's representative was by no means easy. But in the political sphere, just as much as it any other, the qualities of both, Lord Athlone and Her Royal Highness Princess Alice were such that they made an outstanding success of that period. No man can keep a secret from his personal stair, and it was easy for those of us who were privileged to be on his staff (we were members of the Services from Britain and from South Africa) to see the secret of his extraordinary popularity: it was that he and Her Royal Highness took an enormous delight in the country and the people. He had known the country for a number of years, while soldiering, and they both had a natural sympathy with farming people and country people, and, moreover, a delight in meeting people and in human contacts. So it was that, whatever the politics and whatever the profession or walk of life of the people they met, they instantly attracted their confidence and trust and, indeed, their affection.

Other speakers to-day have described far more adequately than I can Lord Athlone's qualities, but what always seemed to me his most characteristic gesture occurred on one of his tours. When I was w Ah him in those days, only ten years had elapsed from the 1914 period when some parts of the Union had come out in armed rebellion against the then Government. Yet it seemed perfectly natural that when Lord Athlone visited one of those areas on an official tour he was invited, and he accepted the invitation, to ride at the head of a commando into the town. The commando was composed of Boer farmers, who had themselves mostly been in rebellion but a few years before, and they pointed out proudly that for this occasion they had flown the old Free State flag over the town hall. It was his capacity to meet people half way, his toleration, his sympathy, his good humour and his outstanding dignity, which won him the enormous success of which we all know.

2.50 p.m.


My Lords, as one most of whose working life has been associated with the University of London, perhaps I might add a word in tribute to the work of Lord Athlone as Chancellor of that great University. Lord Beveridge, in a letter toThe Times, has described its value at a very critical time in the history of the University, and it is quite unnecessary for me to add anything to that; but I should like, in support of what was said by Lord Templewood to pay tribute to Lord Athlone's extraordinarily kindly and likeable way with the students. He was very ready always to accept invitations to meet the student body, and he did so in a quite inimitable way. I shall never forget an occasion when lie addressed a large body of "Freshers," and described an encounter which he had had with a lion in Kenya. It was so thrilling that one could see their mouths open, and one realised that they were hanging on every word that was being spoken. And that was true, not only of the undergraduates but also, I freely confess, of members of the staff.

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