[More from the papers of L.R. Reeve* who writes:] I remember, somewhere around 1907, reading a wrong prognostication in a Manchester newspaper, the 'Daily Despatch', about Lloyd George, Grey, Runciman, McKenna, Birrell, Samuel, Haldane, Morley and Winston Churchill.
Nine names of nine outstanding men who, under Henry Herbert Asquith, formed one of England's strongest cabinets ever known. The cabinet was so powerful, said the prophetic journalist, that Asquith might never be able to control so formidable a group of parliamentarians. We all of course know that he did, and that by 1914 some far -reaching acts of parliament had been passed by the government.
One of the early acts, causing the lengthy, bitter 'ninepence for fourpence' controversy and angry snarls about stamp-licking can never be forgotten by octogenarians, and I cannot believe that widespread antagonism towards individual members of parliament today is as vindictive as that of my young days; and as yet parliament hasn't witnessed the unprecedented scene encountered by Asquith when he rose to speak on the bill abolishing the veto of the House of Lords. For nearly an hour he stood almost unheard against the continuous roar of anger from the opposition. Finally he sat down defeated by the pandemonium. Later the incident was known as 'the Pothouse Brawl'.
During calmer moments Asquith's speeches were superb in their precision, lucidity and intellectual ascendancy over his audience, and experienced critics have stated that his parliamentary gifts equalled those of the renowned Gladstone. They were certainly needed in the turbulent period between 1908 and 1916 during which years arose such questions as Home Rule, House of Lords Reform, Enfranchisement of Women, pensions, mining industry, Free Trade, and two years as prime minister during the War which began in 1914.
The reform of the House of Lords was his crowning glory; and on that question I retain some clear memories of exciting arguments between 1905 and 1910. I was on the staff of Barnes Home residential school at Heaton Mersey. My headmaster was an ardent Conservative -and a fair one; I was a young Liberal, just as ardent. Our intermittent arguments continued for five years. He frequently stumped me; occasionally I stumped him; and one discussion I shall never forget. 'Why', I asked, 'does the House of Lords sometimes reject measures presented by a Liberal Government'? 'Well', he replied, 'a Conservative Government always presents good measures'.
Having disposed of that digression let us turn to Asquith's early days. An implication that the boy is, at least sometimes, father of the man. At the city of London school the headmaster, Dr Abbott, was impressed by the brilliance of the young Asquith (who, later, often expressed his gratitude to Dr Abbott). Then the promising teenager won a Balliol scholarship, and in addition a Craven university scholarship; during his undergraduate days he became President of the Union, subsequently a fellow of his college: a distinction to HH. Asquith and eventually a distinction to Balliol.
Also, because of assiduous study he became an unusually competent barrister who began to interest leaders of the legal profession when he defended Cunnuingham Graham and John Burns for their rioting in Trafalgar Square; but I learn that it was at the Parnell Commission that his deadly probing and cross examination of the manager of 'The Times' established his reputation. It was his boyhood's wish, however, to be a politician and most of his activities were connected with the political scene; hence his decision must have been a loss to those concerned with the maintenance of law and order: but for additional knowledge of his legal experiences I would refer any interested party to a good public library.
All of us I am sure can testify to certain unimportant frustrations which vex us out of all proportion to their significance in our general philosophy. I can think of two such minor events of my life. When young I always wanted to see Frank Woolley batting for Kent. Almost every time I was able to see a county match he was in the field. Eventually I went to Blackheath and there was Frank walking to the wicket with a bat in his hand. At last! at last I should see him giving the sort of display which made the Australians declare that they were never happy in a test match until Woolley had lost his wicket. Alas! he was out in fifteen minutes on that occasion.
I had an ambition to hear one of Asquith's oratorial triumphs in the House of Commons. Except to answer a question or two he never spoke when I was in the Strangers' Gallery; but I did manage to enjoy a minor consolidation. I heard that Asquith and Donald Maclean (at one time the very handsome Minister of the old Board of Education) were to be at the City Temple, Holborn, on a certain mid-week occasion. There I found that he could deliver an exquisite and short address, perfect in its utterance, when away from the parliamentary atmosphere. He spoke for about ten minutes; during his introductory remarks, decidedly witty, he declared that he never expected to be in the pulpit once occupied by the famous Dr Parker, whose thunderous exhortations used to excite and stimulate a young Herbert Asquith.
'Be to my faults a little kind'! As I prefer to record the great achievements of famous men I say little about their mistakes. I feel bound however to declare what I have always believed the great statesman's most historic blunder. John Burns, the first Labour Member, agitated for Proportional Representation. The Prime Minister fought against it. Had Burns been successful in his quest to-day there would have been more Liberals in Parliament.
I think it is in Roy Jenkins's biography that there is a photograph of the young adult H. H. Asquith. Photographs can be cruel; they can also be flattering; but I should hazard the opinion that the one shown in the biography by Jenkins is just about as truthful as a camera can make it. Eyes wide apart, wearing the sort of earnest look one would see on a man searching for knowledge; a determined mouth indicating a strong will, expected in an ambitious young man. In all a powerful and attractive face which many a barrister would give half his fees to possess.
In Asquith's heyday there must have been a shortage of script writers for red-nosed comedians and nit-witted political agents. 'Wait and See' was quoted 'ad nauseam' and was one of the cheapest reminders I have ever heard; but only a few of the offenders had heard it in its appropriate context, for the reply was sharp and quick in answer to repeated vicious questions.
How similar Asquith and Gladstone were in their careers. Both were great orators; each went to Oxford; both loved the university as one of the world's greatest civilisers; each spoke at the Oxford Union: the great school of oratory; and both will be known for centuries as great statesmen.
[L.R. Reeve* writes:] *Found among the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5 - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.
L R Reeve had in a long life met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers, H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that many I have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."
Nicolas Murray Butler Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent 6 typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes...