Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Arthur Hamilton Lee and Sir Thomas Jackson


The Buckinghamshire estate where Boris Johnson has gone to recover from his bout of COVID-19

There is a significant connection between Arthur Hamilton Lee and Sir Thomas Jackson, and I will get to it, but first - since it has been in the news of late - lets start with Chequers. It was donated to the British government in 1917, in the midst of WWI, by Arthur Hamilton Lee, aka Viscount Lee of Fareham (1868-1947) and his wife Ruth Moore.  

He was British with long-time service in the colonies while she was American, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. The two of them had met in Kingston, Ontario when Lee was a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada. After the death of her father, Chequers was included in her inheritance. A couple of decades before this, it could not have been imagined that Arthur Hamilton Lee could ever have married as well as he did, let alone been capable of gifting Chequers to the British government. His wife's inheritance is only part of the story.




Arthur Hamilton Lee: National Portrait Gallery photo:


Another part of the story is one told by Arthur Hamilton Lee himself  - of how a chance meeting with the celebrated Irish banker, Thomas Jackson totally changed his life. At the time, Jackson was Chief Manager of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank and Lee was in his early 20s serving as an adjutant in the Royal Hong Kong Regiment. In Lee’s version of their meeting: I was awfully seedy with malaria etc. and he [Jackson] happened to see me when I had gone to the Bank to cash in some mess accounts. Lee must have been quaking in his army-issue boots when Jackson called him into his office. If the extent of Lee’s debt had been  made public, he would likely have faced dismissal from the Army. Also, his father, a rector in Dorset, would have learned of the extent of his bar tab, and possibly worse - that he did not even have the cash flow to cover it.

Thomas JACKSON (1849-1915) - later Sir Thomas - as a young banker.



'Well, my boy,' said Jackson cheerfully, 'You are looking very seedy. When is your leave due? You should go on a trip to Japan.'

'Oh, sir,' the youngster replied, 'don't you know?'

'Oh, yes,' Jackson replied, '1 know all about that -but no sensible man ever makes a fool of himself twice in the same way, so take this note to the Chief Accountant - he will put your overdraft right and settle everything else - there'll be enough over to take you to Japan. Cut along now - ask for leave and forget all about it.'

[Thomas Jackson] in five minutes took me from hell to heaven and I've never owed a penny since, and in the course of my career I've met scores of men who as young chaps were saved by him in the same way. So long as I live I shall look upon him as the best man I have ever known.
 

Years later, when Jackson's daughter Amy Oliver Jackson was told this story, she added: ... this young man was not in our inner circle of friends and yet he did it and of course none of us ever knew it.  Not that this surprised anyone. Her father's generosity was legend, although how it was regarded depended on who you were. In the weekly letters he received from his mother, who still lived at the family farmhouse of Urker near the small town of Crossmaglen in Co. Armagh, he was often lectured about the foolishness of his open purse. Mind you, she and her many relations were often the prime beneficiaries. So too were their neighbours, including one neighbouring farmer and childhood friend. On one of his visits home, in the early 1900s, Jackson arranged and paid for a new house to be built for this man and his family.
Perhaps generosity can be radioactive - with a life and a half life. In 1917, when the Lees made this donation, their intentions were forward thinking, more than what we might expect from people of their class, specially in the middle of World War I. They were imagining a time when future MPs, unlike in the past, might not be wealthy enough to own their own country estate and might need a place to entertain foreign dignitaries in a style that would do Britain proud. They imagined leaders needing a calm oasis, one that was worthy of their political station, a place to retreat to in order to take a break from the sturm und drang of politics.

They expressed this in their own words in the language of the Chequers Estate Act 1917:

It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn. Some may be as in the past men of wealth and famous descent; some may belong to the world of trade and business; others may spring from the ranks of the manual toilers. To none of these in the midst of their strenuous and responsible labours could the spirit and anodyne of Chequers do anything but good. In the city-bred man especially, the periodic contact with the most typical rural life would create and preserve a just sense of proportion between the claims of town and country. To the revolutionary statesman the antiquity and calm tenacity of Chequers and its annals might suggest some saving virtues in the continuity of English history and exercise a check upon too hasty upheavals, whilst even the most reactionary could scarcely be insensible to the spirit of human freedom which permeates the countryside of Hampden, Burke and Milton. 

Apart from these more subtle influences, the better the health of our rulers the more sanely will they rule and the inducement to spend two days a week in the high and pure air of the Chiltern hills and woods will, it is hoped, benefit the nation as well as its chosen leaders. The main features of this scheme are therefore designed not merely to make Chequers available as the official country residence of the Prime Minister of the day, but to tempt him to visit it regularly and to make it possible for him to live there, even though his income should be limited to his salary.

In 1917, when the Lees signed Chequers over to Britain, their gift also included the surrounding 1,000 acres plus all the contents of the Mansion House: furniture pictures tapestry books manuscripts china relics works of art silver linen and other effects. They also included environmentally protective clauses:

The administrative trustees shall secure that all woodlands for the time being comprised in the Chequers Estate shall be managed in accordance with the rules or practice of good forestry. Chequers Estate Act 1917

As for Jackson, he had died two years before this bequest, and whether he knew of the impact of his actions on the young sub-altern Lee, we don’t know. What we do know is that act was part and parcel of who he was. He was well known all round the world of bankers, but specially in China, for his ability to size a person up, make a snap judgement, and then to simply trust whatever came next. And overall, it worked. Handshake promises had been the currency of the markets of Crossmaglen where Jackson had grown up and where his father had long sold cattle and sheep at the weekly auction. That was the gift of a small town to international banking.

As for Lee, I can’t imagine that the possibility of Britain ever having a PM such as a Boris Johnson could ever have occurred to him. Or to Jackson for that matter. But Jackson, and perhaps Lee as well,  would have known how to take the measure of the man, and then to act accordingly.

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