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John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon GCSI GCVO OBE PC (28 February 1873 – 11 January 1954) was a senior British politician who held senior Cabinet posts from the beginning of the First World War to the end of the Second.
Simon is one of only three people to have served as Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, the others being R.A. Butler and James Callaghan. He also served as Lord Chancellor, the most senior position in the British legal system. Beginning his career as a Liberal, he joined the National Government in 1931, creating the Liberal National Party in the process. At the end of his career, he was essentially a Conservative.
John Simon was the son of Edwin Simon (1843–1920), a Congregational minister in Manchester, and Fanny Allsebrook (1846–1936).
Educated at Fettes College in Edinburgh and Wadham College, Oxford, where he was a near-contemporary of F.E. Smith and of the athlete C.B. Fry, he became a fellow of All Souls in 1897 and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1899.
Simon became a successful lawyer, and entered the House of Commons as a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Walthamstow at the 1906 general election, later being elected for Spen Valley. He entered the Government as Solicitor-General in 1910, and advanced in 1913 to Attorney-General, in both cases succeeding Rufus Isaacs; he was the leader of the (unsuccessful) Cabinet rebels against Winston Churchill's 1914 naval estimates, and contemplated resigning in protest at the declaration of war in 1914 but in the end did not do so.
In Asquith's coalition government in May 1915, Simon became Home Secretary, declining an offer of the Lord Chancellorship, but resigned early the next year in protest against the illiberal introduction of conscription. He proved his patriotism by serving briefly as an officer on Trenchard's staff in the Royal Flying Corps.
After Asquith's fall in late 1916, Simon remained in opposition as an Asquithite Liberal until he lost his seat at the "Coupon Election" in 1918. In 1919 he attempted to return to Parliament at the Spen Valley by-election. Although the Coalition Liberals who had formerly held the seat were pushed into third place, Simon came second; in the view of Maurice Cowling his defeat by Labour marked the point at which Labour began to be seen as a serious threat by the older parties. During the early 1920s he practiced successfully at the Bar, before winning Spen Valley at the General Election in 1922, and in 1922-24 he was treated almost as deputy leader of the Liberal Party, a role he relinquished when Asquith once again lost his seat in Parliament and Lloyd George took over the chairmanship of the Liberal MPs. Unlike Lloyd George, Simon opposed the General Strike in 1926. Simon spoke for Newfoundland in a boundary dispute with Canada, before announcing his permanent retirement from the Bar, then from 1927 to 1931 he chaired the Simon Commission on India's constitution.
During the late 1920s and especially during the 1929-31 Parliament, in which Labour had no majority but were allowed to continue in office by the Liberals, Simon was seen as the leader of the minority of Liberal MPs who disliked Lloyd George's inclination to support Labour rather than the Conservatives. In June 1931, before the formation of the National Government, Simon resigned the Liberal whip and was accused by Lloyd George of leaving "the slime of hypocrisy" as he crossed the floor.
In 1931, when the Liberals split once again, Simon became leader of the Liberal Nationals (later to become the National Liberals) who continued to support protectionism and Ramsay MacDonald's National Government after the departure of the mainstream Liberals under Herbert Samuel. Simon was never opposed by a Conservative candidate at Spen Valley after 1924, and over time, Simon's Liberal Nationals became hardly distinguishable from the Conservatives, although some Conservative MPs continued to be known locally as "National Liberals" for decades after the Second World War.
Simon served as Foreign Secretary under MacDonald, highlights of his tenure of office being the repudiation by Germany, under its new chancellor Adolf Hitler, of the League of Nations and of Disarmament efforts, and the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. He attracted particular opprobrium for a speech in Geneva in December 1932, in which he failed explicitly to condemn Japanese actions. (Douglas Reed, 'All Our Tomorrows' pub.1942, pg.62 ~ Geneva, 1931, Sir John Simon congratulated by the Japanese emissary for presentation of Japan's case against China').
Simon then served as Home Secretary, during which time he passed the Public Order Act 1936 restricting the activities of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts, and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons under Baldwin and Chancellor of the Exchequer under Chamberlain, of whom he had become a close political ally.
Simon was cursed with an unfortunately chilly manner, and from at least 1914 onwards had difficulty in conveying an impression that he was acting from honourable motives. His awkward attempts to strike up friendships with his colleagues (e.g. asking his Cabinet colleagues to call him "Jack") often fell flat. Neville Chamberlain wrote of Simon: "I am always trying to like him, and believing I shall succeed when something crops up to put me off", while Harold Nicolson described him more pithily as "a toad and a worm". Another anecdote from the late 1940s tells how the socialist intellectual G. D. H. Cole got into a third-class compartment on the train back from Oxford to London, to break off conversation with Simon; to his dismay Simon followed suit, only for both men to produce first class tickets when the inspector did his rounds.
By 1940 Simon, along with his successor as Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, had come to be seen as one of the "Guilty Men" responsible for appeasement of the dictators ("the snakiest of the lot" in Hugh Dalton's description), and like Hoare his continued service in the War Cabinet was not regarded as acceptable in the new coalition. Simon was raised to the peerage as Viscount Simon, of Stackpole Elidor in the County of Pembroke, and became Lord Chancellor in Churchill's government, although he did not sit in the War Cabinet. In 1945 Churchill formed a brief "Caretaker" administration but once again excluded Simon from the Cabinet. After Churchill's defeat in 1945, Simon never held office again. Although he had won plaudits for his legal skills as Lord Chancellor, Attlee declined to appoint him to the British delegation at the Nuremberg War Trials, telling him bluntly in a letter that his role in the pre-war governments made this unwise. In 1951 Churchill did not offer him a return to the Woolsack. Simon's portrait (by Frank O. Salisbury, 1944) is in the National Portrait Gallery.
In 1952 Simon published his memoirs, Retrospect, which Harold Nicolson reviewed as saying that he described the "nectarines and peaches of office" as if they were "a bag of prunes". The quote, "I so very tire of politics. The early death of too many a great man is attributed to her touch" is from Simon's memoir. After his death in 1954, Simon's estate was probated at £93,006.
The 1st Viscount Simon was the son of Rev. Edwin Simon and his wife, Fanny Allsebrook. He married Ethel Venables in June 1899 in Headington, Oxfordshire, later to be vice-principal of St Hugh's Hall. They had three children - Margaret (Mrs. Geoffrey Edwards), Joan (Mrs. John Bickford-Smith) and John Gilbert, the 2nd Viscount Simon, (1902–1993). His first wife died soon after the birth of her son in September 1902. He remarried in 1917 Kathleen Rochard Manning (1863/4-1955) from Ireland, daughter of Francis Eugene Harvey and herself a widow with one son who had for a while been governess to Sir John Simon's children. Lady Simon was an anti-slavery activist and also involved in opposing antisemitism, supporting black civil rights in the USA, child welfare and the Salvation Army. After her first marriage to Dr. Thomas Manning, she and her husband had moved to Tennessee and there she had encountered and been appalled by segregation; after his death and her return to Britain she joined the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1929 she wrote a book, Slavery, describing the current situation around the World and in particular as it still existed in the British Empire. She was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1933. She died in 1955 aged 91.
Sir John Simon bought Fritwell Manor, Oxfordshire in 1911 and lived there until 1933.
Sir John Simon on the front
cover of Time, 21 March 1932
John Simon (Viscount Simon), 1873-1954
Though he never rose to the premiership, John Allsebrook Simon's collection of the highest offices of state - the Home Office (twice), the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Woolsack - is unique in twentieth-century history. He played a major role in British politics over more than three decades, while also enjoying a distinguished legal career. The leading barrister of his age, it was said that he had an annual income of up to £50,000 in the year immediately before the First World War. He shared with Winston Churchill (q.v.) the distinction of being the only man who sat in the British Cabinet at the outbreak of both world wars.
Simon's origins were humble and he owed his political rise above all to his academic distinction. He was born on 28 February 1873 in a terraced house in Moss Side, Manchester, the only son of the Rev. Edwin and Mrs Fanny Simon; his father was a Congregational minister in the Hulme district of the city. Simon was educated at King Edward's School, Bath, before winning a scholarship to Fettes College, Edinburgh. From there he gained an open scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford in 1892, becoming President of the Oxford Union in 1896. After securing a first in Greats, he won a scholarship to All Souls. Coming down from Oxford at the end of 1898, he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple.
In 1899 Simon married Ethel Mary Venables, a student whom he had met at Oxford. Two daughters were born in 1900 and 1901 but, a few days after the birth of a son in September 1902, Mrs. Simon died. This tragedy had a profound and perhaps permanent effect upon his personality. He became increasingly reserved as his natural shyness intensified, and he sought solace in ever greater attention to his work. In December 1917 he married Kathleen Manning, the widow of a Dublin doctor. This marriage had its problems. Socially rather gauche, Lady Simon suffered from poor health and excessive drinking.
Simon was elected to Parliament for Walthamstow in the Liberal landslide of 1906 and soon rose from the ruck of newly elected hopefuls as a man marked out for early promotion. In 1910, at the remarkably young age of thirty-seven, he became Solicitor-General, with a knighthood, and was promoted to Attorney-General with, unusually, a seat in the Cabinet, in 1913. But Simon always regarded the law as a vehicle to political promotion and, at the formation of the first wartime coalition in May 1915, he turned down Asquith's (q.v.) offer of the Lord Chancellorship, becoming instead Home Secretary. He resigned in January 1916 over the issue of conscription and was not to hold government office again for a further decade and a half. Up to this point he had been regarded by many as Asquith's likely successor as Liberal leader.
Simon lost his seat at the coupon general election of 1918, returning to Parliament as member for Spen Valley in the election of 1922. But the internal dissensions and decline of the Liberal Party seemed to preclude further ministerial appointments. His relations with Lloyd George (q.v.) were never easy and his most useful work during the decade was as chairman of the Statutory Commission on India between 1927 and 1930. Simon found his position within the Liberal Party increasingly uncomfortable. On intellectual grounds he was prepared to renounce the Liberal creed of free trade and to consider the possibility of tariffs to ease the country's economic difficulties.
In 1931 he and a number of fellow Liberal MPs broke away from the mainstream party to form the Liberal National group (known as National Liberals after 1947). Simon was rewarded with appointment as Foreign Secretary in November 1931 in Ramsay MacDonald's National Government. By common consent he was not successful in this position. His handling of the Manchurian crisis of 1931-33 was particularly criticised, but it was not an easy time to be in charge of the Foreign Office, as the post-war settlement faced its first serious challenges from the aggressor powers, including Hitler's Germany. Simon seemed unable to make up his mind in relation to key issues. In part this was a tribute to the complexity of his brain, but it was not a strong point in a practising politician.
He was more suited to the Home Office, to which he returned in 1935, and where he played an important backstage part in the management of the abdication crisis. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer in May 1937, where he continued the policy of his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, in maintaining the strength of the economy as the nation's fourth arm of defence, even if this meant limiting conventional rearmament. A member of Chamberlain's inner circle, and widely regarded as one of the guilty men of the appeasement era, Simon was elevated to the upper house as Viscount Simon of Stackpole Elidor at the formation of Churchill's (q.v.) government in May 1940. There he served with distinction as Lord Chancellor until the end of the war in 1945.
This marked the end of his ministerial career, though he remained hopeful of returning to office as late as 1951. In his final years he became increasingly remote from his fellow Liberal Nationals, whose leadership he had given up in 1940, and he put out feelers to join the Conservative Party. These were firmly rebuffed by Churchill. His uninformative memoirs, Retrospect, appeared in 1952. He died in London on 11 January 1954. A modern biography, Simon, was published by David Dutton in 1992.
Simon was one of the most intellectually distinguished politicians of the twentieth century. But he lacked warmth and the common touch. The Liberal Party split of 1931, in which he played a leading part, put paid to any last hopes that the party would recover from the internal divisions which had plagued it since the First World War.
(a) Free Trade Union Medal, 18 carat gold, 44mm. diameter,
58 gms., in fitted case of issue. Medal reverse engraved "Presented to the Right Honourable Sir John Simon K.C. M.P. in commemoration of his
speeches at Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, 1913". With a
letter to Simon from the Free Trade Union, for him to accept this medal.
b) Presentation Key. 'Presented to J. A. Simon Esq. K.C. M.P.
on the occasion of his opening the Central Public Library,
Walthamstow July l0th 1909'. Silver-gilt. In White & Co. fitted
case of issue.
(c) Presentation Key. 'Presented to Rt. Hon. Sir John Simon,
K. C. by Lepton Liberal & Working Mens' Club, opening of New
Club Dec. 11th 1920. Silver-gilt. In fitted case of issue.
(d) Presentation Key. 'Court House Chichester, 14.11.41, opened
by Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor'. Silver-gilt, in fitted case of issue.
Together with three other medals and medallions.
(a) Free Trade Union Medal, 18 carat gold, 44mm. diameter, 58 gms. (Almost 1½ of an ounce AGW.)
In fitted case of issue, reverse engraved "Presented to the Right Honourable Sir John Simon K.C. M.P. in commemoration of his speeches at Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Liverpool, 1913". With Presentation letter.
Lepton, West Yorkshire
Simon as Chancellor of the Exchequer, addressing the nation about the 1939 budget
Simon (former Lord Chancellor) supporting the 1948 Lords' rejection of the Commons' suspension of the death penalty
(c) Presentation Key. "Presented to Rt. Hon. Sir John Simon, K. C.
by Lepton Liberal & Working Mens' Club, opening of New Club
Dec. 11th 1920."
Silver-gilt; in fitted case of issue, 6 3/16 x 2 3/4 inches.
See the Catalogue of the papers of John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon, mainly 1894-1953, of the University of Oxford, Bodleian Library, at
Viscount Simon, Lord Chancellor.
Silver-gilt; in fitted
case of issue,
6 9/16 x 2 3/4 inches.
Chichester Court House, West Sussex, U.K.
9th Nov. 1933 Daily Herald: Ramsay Macdonald, Stanley Baldwin, Sir John Simon cartoon. (Depiction only; original not available.)
Suspicious voice from inside: "But who's there?" The animals: "Don't you recognise our voices, brother? Baa-a-a!"
Left: Enlargement of the top of the key shown above and right
Left: Enlargement of the top of the key shown below left and below
Above: Enlargement of the top of the key shown left and below left
Walthamstow Central Library
(d) Presentation Key.
Court House Chichester, 14.11.41
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1936; inscribed "To Lady Romer
from the Lord Chancellor"
Four members of Neville Chamberlain's War Cabinet 1939: Seated: Sir John Simon and Neville Chamberlain. Standing: Sir KingsleyWood and Winston Churchill