‘Half a Newcastle Man’
Malcolm Campbell sheds light on a Great Northumbrian who bore a well-known name, yet one of whom you may never have heard
April / May edition 2021, The Northumbrian
Lord Haldane of Cloan could well be the greatest Northumbrian of whom you have never heard.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that he should be rescued from “the condescension of posterity”. The former Secretary of State for Defence and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind has called for him to be recognised as “one of our very greatest 20th century statesmen”. The author Alexander McCall Smith has admired his “extraordinary life”. As these names hint, a move is afoot to have a great Scottish statesman recognised at last. So how was it that Haldane told some 3,000 people at a Northumberland Fusiliers’ prizegiving that he felt “at home” as he was “half a Newcastle man”?
Before giving the answer I should say why he was on Tyneside. It was here in 1906 that, as the recently appointed Secretary of State for War, he chose to make one of his earliest public speeches in which he explained the Haldane Reforms of the army.
These led to the creation of the British Expeditionary Force and the Territorial Army. Just after the end of the First World War, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig called Haldane the greatest Secretary of State for War we have ever had. Major General J. E. B. Seely, his successor in that position, described Haldane and his reforms, as tested by that war: “He saved the state.” But for him we may now be speaking German.
The clue to the Newcastle heritage is in Haldane’s first names: Richard Burdon. His mother came from the distinguished Burdon Sanderson family of Jesmond. She died, aged 100, only three years before the death of Haldane himself in 1928. He wrote to her nearly every day and she was a crucial influence on him. She inspired his wish to aim for the highest legal office and in this he followed the example of her great-uncle, Lord Eldon, educated at the Royal Grammar School, who like him became Lord Chancellor.
Haldane also instigated - or played a key role in the creation of - the Royal Flying Corps, which became the RAF, the Boy Scout movement and a whole range of civic universities in England, Wales and Ireland as well as the London School of Economics and Imperial College London, MI5, MI6 and the Medical Research Council.
Other proposals of his were further ahead of their time. The 1918 Haldane Report focused on the subject - very topical today - of reforming how government should work. In it he called for women to have equal pay and prospects in the Civil Service and for the creation of a Supreme Court. He also advocated a House of Lords with members chosen on merit.
Haldane was a sufficiently close confidant of Edward VII to be asked to spend a quarter of an hour with the Queen by his bedside shortly after his death. The Kaiser invited himself to a lunch which he had organised for German generals at his London home. As a friend of King and Kaiser he conducted secret negotiations between the two governments before the First World War.
But Haldane’s extraordinary network went far beyond the conventional great and the good.
Deeply interested in science, he brought Albert Einstein to Britain for the first time, to stay at his home and give lectures. Yet he also befriended the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde in prison, bending the rules by supplying him with the writing materials for his Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Haldane was a frequent visitor to the North East. He was President of the Newcastle Liberal Club and often stayed at Falloden, the Northumberland home of his close friend and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey.
After Grey’s Northumbrian wife died, having been thrown from her horse and cart near Embleton, Grey often stayed at Haldane’s London home, where he spent 10 weeks just before the outbreak of war.
The response of Northumbrians to Kitchener’s First World War recruitment call was exceptional by national standards and is still a source of pride. Yet who now knows that it was Haldane who brought Kitchener’s message to Tyneside? He was Lord Chancellor but it was his former role as war minister combined with his Northumbrian background which made him such a suitable public speaker to urge local enlistment.
Also hardly known today is Haldane’s crucial role in the process by which the country learned from the North East how best to generate and distribute electricity, a shining symbol of the Northumbrian industrial golden age.
Sir Charles Parsons’ invention of the steam turbine in 1884 on Tyneside revolutionised marine transport and naval warfare. It also made possible cheap and plentiful electricity. Neptune Bank and Carville Power Stations near Newcastle incorporated his turbo alternators some twice as powerful as any elsewhere.
Neptune Bank was the world’s first power station to generate electricity for industry rather than just for lighting. Demonstrations there for Cunard gave the necessary credibility for the installation of Parsons’ turbines on Mauretania which held the Blue Riband for the fastest crossings of the Atlantic in both directions for 20 years. Carville became the model for power station design worldwide.
These power stations were conceived by Charles Merz, a less well known but equally important figure of the Northumbrian industrial golden age. He slashed costs by siting power stations close to where the coal they burned was mined, maximising output and efficiency by installing large capacity equipment and creating a high voltage distribution network to link power plants together and supply industrial and domestic users.
The distribution network which he devised for the North East became the largest in Europe and the basis for the National Grid of which Merz (known the Grid King) was the father.
He first proposed a national system in a 1916 paper delivered to a meeting of the British Association in Newcastle.
The central figure in extending nationwide the North East’s way of supplying electricity was Haldane. A committee he had chaired had assessed the best use of Britain’s coal. Merz, a committee member, also chaired a subcommittee which considered his concept of a national power distribution network. Its recommendations became known as the Haldane-Merz Report.
When a bill was introduced to implement Merz’s proposals Haldane was thus ideally placed to explain how London, where he described the outlook for the supply of electricity as compared to that on Tyneside as “appalling”, and the rest of Britain should learn from Merz and the other “men of great enterprise and skill” active in the North East.
Haldane added that his committee’s conclusions had been considered by another committee. His reference to its chairman shows how accepted practice in the North East was then the gold standard in Britain’s electricity industry. Thus Haldane’s “clincher” for the House of Lords was his statement that “Sir Charles Parsons endorsed our conclusions.”
Merz established Merz and McLellan, the Newcastle-based firm which became perhaps the world’s leading electricity industry consultants. It designed Barking, the first large London area power station, which was modelled on Carville and with the highest European generating capacity. In addition to championing the concept of such large power stations in the House of Lords, Haldane had a series of meetings at ministerial level in which he argued for the Barking project. When King George V opened it in 1925 Merz showed him around.
A current theme is how to narrow gaps between the North and London. In the Northumbrian golden ages, the levelling up process went in the other direction for the benefit of the country and sometimes the wider world.
The inventions of the Stephensons and Parsons allowed far more people to travel further and faster, by land and sea. Parsons’ steam turbines championed by Merz enabled large power stations to supply reasonably priced electricity to industry and households across the country. As with transport, the economic and social benefits were enormous and widespread, while Haldane’s role was central in teaching the nation how it should learn from the North East example.
So I believe that Haldane, with his Newcastle genes and all he did both for the North East and the nation as a whole, should be regarded as a great figure of the Northumbrian industrial golden age.
We should also remember the range of interests and expertise of this extraordinary polymath and the fact that education was his primary passion. Here we are reminded of exemplars from the first Northumbrian golden age such as Bede and Alcuin of York.
My brother John has written a book, Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman who Shaped Modern Britain. In doing so he hopes that more people across the country will recognise the crucial benefits which his Northumbrian genes have brought to so many aspects of our national life.
There has been widespread praise for the book. The historian Andrew Roberts describes it as “well-researched and well-written”. His review in The Critic mentions that Prime Minister Asquith told King George V privately that Haldane deserved a statue in gold for preparing the country for war. Roberts thinks that he merited a gold statue just for the way in which, as the book relates, he put down Churchill who once prodded Haldane’s vast tummy and asked what was in there. “If it is a boy,” replied Haldane “I shall call him John. If it is a girl I shall call her Mary. But if it is wind, I shall call it Winston.”
Malcolm Campbell is brother of John Campbell, author of Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Modern Britain, published by Hurst. Malcolm, John and three siblings lived as children near the home of Haldane’s mother in Jesmond, and Malcolm still owns their parents’ home in Warkworth.