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Saturday, 1 November 2014


Charles Masterman, a cousin of my grandfather, is regarded by many as one of the last great old-school Liberals. But his political potential was frustrated by his inability to find a safe seat. He lost as many parliamentary elections as he won, and his party was eclipsed by the emergence of the new Labour Party before he could shine in office. He died a disappointed man in 1927 at the age of only 56.

From Punch in July 1914, Charles Masterman (right), absent from parliamentary debate, visits in spirit his harshest critic, Conservative MP Lamington Worthington-Evans

He wrote throughout his life. But it was through his friendships with other writers, forged in the years before the First World War, that he had his greatest literary influence. When Britain entered the war in 1914, Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George put Masterman in charge of the newly created War Propaganda Bureau.

Books shape minds. Their very presence by a bedside encourages you to read them. The words within challenge your ideas and form your dreams. If nonconformists like the Gurneys understood this, so too did the propagandists. On 2nd September 1914 Masterman summoned a Who’s Who of British authors to his offices in Wellington House on Buckingham Gate in London. Twenty five literary giants of the day were present at the meeting, among them J.M. Barrie, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, my grandfather’s friend G.K. Chesterton, Cambridge Apostle G.M. Trevelyan, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. Rudyard Kipling sent fulsome apologies and his full support.

What an extraordinary gathering! It took place that September afternoon, and I imagine our authors, all male, arriving one by one as dusk is falling. It’s raining and their capes and overcoats drip as some civil servant removes them from their shoulders before ushering them into a long-tabled meeting room. Full-length portraits of forgotten politicians look down on green leather chairs and the backs of those writerly heads. On the table before them, writerly hands hover over the pens and notebooks of each author’s choice or beside crystal tumblers filled from nearby jugs of water or decanters of brandy and whisky. The heads are wreathed in tobacco smoke as they wrestle with what Conan Doyle might have described as a three-pipe problem: how to counter the newly discovered German propaganda machine.

The approach which they agreed that evening was a subtle one. Rather than pump out propaganda through some patently biased organ of state, Masterman encouraged his authors to write in their own terms about the outbreak of war and about British values. Their output was printed, by secret arrangement, by mainstream publishing houses rather than the government’s own stationery offices. Consequently, none of the output of the War Propaganda Bureau was identified as state propaganda by the British public, but simply as patriotism.

Members of the Junior Debating Club at St Paul’s, London – among them Edward Fordham (tallest, at rear) and G.K. Chesterton (seated, front centre)

Masterman’s authors recruited other authors to the cause. For example, after that first meeting G.K. Chesterton roped in his and my grandfather's old school friend E.W. Fordham. Fordham, like my grandfather, was too old for recruitment into the army, but older men such as he were urged to serve in other capacities, releasing younger men for military service. Fordham (a poet by inclination but, like my grandfather, a lawyer by profession) volunteered to be a Special Constable.

A large force of Specials was recruited during the war years to replace the younger officers who had gone to fight overseas. They were unpaid, and served mainly as a visible reminder of the need for law and order in unstable times. They were also of practical use, chiefly in guarding the nation’s water supply against sabotage by enemy agents. Fordham seems to have been placed on such duty. In 1916 he published Songs of the Specials, describing in his preface the melancholy tedium of “keeping relentless watch on a brick wall.” The first song in the collection, Who?, begins

Who dashes, careless of his skin,
To meet the love-bird of Berlin,
The chuck-and-chance-it Zeppelin?
The Special.

Who watches by the water-works,
Where privily the Teuton lurks,
Besides Bulgarians and Turks?
The Special.

Hugh Riviere’s illustration for E.W. Fordham’s verse Who? In Songs of the Specials

Songs of the Specials was one of millions of books and pamphlets published at arm's length by Masterman's Propaganda Bureau. That first meeting, exactly two hundred years and two months ago tomorrow, launched one of the biggest and most successful propaganda efforts the world has ever seen. Thanks to it, and the Special Constables which it encouraged, the nation's water supply was kept safe from sabotage. Well might Edward Fordham sing!


  1. My subject is Sir Gilbert Parker. I think that Gary Messinger and others have done a disservice to Parker, and to Masterman. They have characterized them as cheap propagandists. Well, propaganda their products may have been, but they were written from the heart and (in Parker's case) based on the evidence that was available at the time. It was a company of gentlemen created by need. They did not sell their talents to be twisted and deployed by the highest bidder.

  2. Approacing this blog genealogically rather than politically or historically, I confess I didn't know much of Sir Gilbert until looking into your comment - but having done so, I agree with it entirely. Both men acted out of conscience according to the morals and conditions of their day. Certainly the thwarting of Charlie Masterman's literary and political ambitions and his unfortunate early death are a loss to subsequent generations.


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