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Extract from John Campbell's 'Roy Jenkins' published by Jonathan Cape

Extract from John Campbell's 'Roy Jenkins' published by Jonathan Cape

John Campbell
roy jenkins
Samuel Johnson Prize

This is an extract from Roy Jenkins by John Campbell published by Jonathan Cape

1 His Father’s Son

During his lifetime a typically British controversy surrounded Roy Jenkins’ origins. To his critics in the Labour party – themselves often guiltily middle-class and privately educated – it was almost inconceivable that this grand figure, with his drawling accent and air of lordly entitlement, should have been born and raised in the very heart of the labour movement. The son and grandson of miners, raised in the South Wales coalfield between the wars, his father actually imprisoned during the General Strike: romantic class warriors like Michael Foot and Tony Benn would have given their eye-teeth for such an impeccable socialist pedigree. Long before he abandoned Labour to found a rival party in 1982, Jenkins’ enemies accused him of having rejected his roots and betrayed his class, practically from the moment he went to Oxford. Some alleged a purely political betrayal, asserting with Denis Healey that he was ‘never really Labour at all’. Others – most prominently Leo Abse, Labour MP for Pontypool and mischievous amateur Freudian – diagnosed a deeper apostasy: the authentic Welsh working-class identity which Jenkins derived from his father was undermined, Abse claimed, by the influence of his anglicised and socially ambitious mother, leaving the young Roy rootless, pretentious and déclassé.

But most of this is nonsense. Roy Jenkins was indeed born into the heart of the South Wales Labour movement; but he was born into a Labour elite that saw itself confidently on the way to becoming the new governing class. His father had been a miner, certainly, but there was never any question of Roy following him down the pit. By the time Roy was born, on 11 November 1920, Arthur Jenkins was already a full-time union official, chairman of the Pontypool Labour party and a Monmouthshire county councillor.[1] He later became an alderman, Justice of the Peace, Vice-President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), a member of the National Executive of the Labour Party and in 1935 – when Roy was fourteen – MP for Pontypool. He then quickly became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the party leader, Clement Attlee, and held that position throughout the war when Attlee was deputy Prime Minister. He was briefly a minister in the 1945 government before his early death. In short, Arthur Jenkins was not just a pillar of the local establishment in South Wales – where Labour already was the establishment – but also, when Roy was growing to political awareness, at the very heart of government and national politics. More than all this, however, he was also gentle, bookish, internationalist and resolutely unmilitant: all characteristics that he passed on to his son.

Arthur exemplified, in Alan Watkins’ words, ‘the great (now largely lost) tradition of Welsh self-improvement’. He was born in 1882 at Varteg, a bleak moorland mining community five miles up from Pontypool in the easternmost valley of the Welsh coalfield, and educated up to the age of twelve at the Varteg Board School, when he left, like most of his contemporaries, to follow his father down the pit. After a dozen years at the coalface, however, educating himself through evening classes and discussion groups, he won a miners’ scholarship (worth £30 a year) to Ruskin College, Oxford – the enlightened institution founded in 1899 to offer the opportunity of higher education to working men who would otherwise have had no chance of it. The fact that Ruskin was not strictly part of the university did not stop Arthur regarding himself ever afterwards as an Oxford man. From there he gained another scholarship to study in Paris for ten months, where with his friend Frank Hodges (later general secretary of the Miners’ Federation) he forged lasting contacts with leading French socialists while learning to speak and read French better than his son ever did. ‘The classics of Russian fiction in his considerable library,’ Roy wrote years later, ‘were in French translations, which were unusual in the house of a South Wales miners’ agent.’ Jenkins’ love of France in particular, and Europe in general, was directly inculcated by his Francophile father.

Returning to Pontypool in 1910 after this two years’ mind-expanding absence, however, Arthur had little choice but to go back down the pit. Working in a reserved occupation, he was spared the still greater horrors of the trenches which culled so many of his generation; but he spent less and less time underground as he made his career in the union. In 1911 he became secretary of the Pontypool Trades Council; in 1918 he was appointed deputy miners’ agent for the Monmouthshire Eastern Valleys, and in 1921 he succeeded as agent. By this time he was also a county councillor and a governor of several local schools. Arthur was a good speaker and evidently not without ambition; yet he was an unusually unassuming politician – not at all a firebrand in the florid Welsh style associated with Nye Bevan, for example, raised in the next valley a decade and a half later. When Arthur died in 1946, aged only sixty-three, the obituaries all emphasised his scholarly manner. ‘This gentle and sensitive son of Wales seemed, at a first meeting, to be more the poet or the student than the man of action,’ wrote the Daily Herald. The South Wales Argus mourned ‘a man of outstanding personality and vision – an idealist and an internationalist, a self-taught man who started at the bottom of the ladder and, by perseverance and brilliant attainments, gained nationwide distinction without seeking it’.6 Other tributes praised his integrity and selflessness. Attlee called him one of the three most unselfish men he had met in politics.

Meanwhile Arthur had married, in 1911, Harriet (always known as Hattie) Harris, daughter of the foreman of the Bessemer steelworks at Blaenavon, three miles further up the valley. In the social hierarchy of the Welsh valleys her background was several notches above his. But her mother died when she was four and her father when she was seventeen; so when Arthur met her she had come down in the world, living in lodgings in Pontypool and working as an assistant in a music shop. By marrying the already up-and-coming Arthur it was Hattie who was bettering herself, though doubtless she was keen to regain the social position to which she had been brought up. After three years in a miners’ cottage at Talywain, Arthur and Hattie moved to a small but respectable terraced house set rather grandly above the main road through Abersychan – then a distinct village a couple of miles up the valley from Pontypool, with its own shops, police station, Working Men’s Institute and no fewer than six chapels – Baptist, Methodist and Congregational – as well as an Anglican church and a Catholic chapel.8 They named it Greenlands after the house where Hattie grew up. In 1915 she bore a stillborn son, and it was another five years before she conceived again, by which time she was thirty-four and Arthur thirty-eight. As the only child of mature parents, it is not surprising that Roy was cosseted and somewhat spoiled. Curiously, however, Arthur’s diary for the days around his birth barely mentions the event. He merely noted that ‘H. is going along very nicely indeed’ and went into Newport as usual on 11 November for a council meeting. Fathers did not get involved in childbirth in those days.

Before Roy was three the family moved again, 300 yards down the Snatchwood Road to a slightly larger house – also called Greenlands – less elevated but boasting a bathroom and a sizeable back garden running down to a railway track (and a monkey-puzzle tree in the tiny front garden). Arthur was now earning an unquestionably middle-class salary of £300 a year. Their neighbours were the headmaster of the local primary school on one side and the builder who had developed the terrace on the other. They had a live-in maid, and the union soon gave him the use of a motor car. The front room of the house was Arthur’s office, where a constant stream of people came to see him about their problems or union business. A cousin, interviewed in 1972, remembered ‘a very cosy house . . . there were always bright fires during the winter and vases of fresh flowers in the summer. And books! Why, there were books everywhere.’

This cousin denied that Roy was spoiled, ‘but his parents thought he was absolutely it, there was no doubt about that’.  Another agreed that Hattie ‘was very ambitious for him, from the earliest age, and made a tremendous fuss of him’. When, years later, the press began to look into his background, neighbours were happy to furnish memories of a rather pampered little boy. For instance, Derek Powell – the son of the next-door builder and one of Roy’s two best boyhood friends – remembered:

Hattie literally smothered Roy with love. She would hardly let him walk down the street alone. He was always a shy boy. I sometimes wonder if that was because his mother swamped him . . . His mother . . . tried to shelter him from everything. For example when he was at primary school she religiously saw him across the village road every day. He could have become standoffish as a result of this, and of being an only child. But with me and our little gang he was not given the chance.

The daughter of the other neighbours agreed:

His mother was loth to let him out of her sight. When he had an ordinary appendix operation in hospital Hattie stayed with him for three days and nights refusing to go home. Even when Roy went down the road to Pontypool railway station to collect train numbers, along would go Hattie to sit and knit on the platform with him.

That may be a bit unfair. The appendix operation, when Roy was seven, was serious enough to involve three weeks in hospital and six months off school; and Hattie certainly did not follow him around all the time, as Derek Powell’s memory of their ‘little gang’ makes clear. In most respects Roy was a quite normally active, if privileged, boy:

We were pretty lucky kids. Other boys in the valley . . . played on slag heaps. They had little else to do. But Roy and I had bicycles and splendid model railways and plenty of good things at Christmas.

He also loved cricket, rugby and swimming. Moreover he was not entirely an only child, since for much of his childhood two elder cousins, Sybil and Connie Peppin, the daughters of Hattie’s  idowed sister, stayed with the Jenkinses much of the time, particularly in the school holidays: Sybil and Connie played with Roy in the sandpit, and later cricket in the garden – not cowboys and Indians, as Hattie did not allow guns; and in the summer the two families would go together to Swansea, Porthcawl or Weston-super-Mare. Later, when their mother died, Connie came to live with the Jenkinses. She was five years older than Roy, but he used to treat her, with a boy’s assumed authority, as though she were the younger: ‘He treated me like a sister. He’d give me worms to hold.’

At the same time he was always a studious boy; and unusually – indeed, obsessively – numerate. ‘The main thing about Roy as a boy was his addiction to numbers,’ Connie remembered. ‘He was always silent and counting or working out some sum. He was like that ever after!’ He loved collecting facts, and once he had learned them he never forgot them, as he characteristically demonstrated in an essay on Glasgow written in the last year of his life:

An excellent encyclopaedia (Harmsworth’s) published in the early 1920s, to the study of which I devoted many childhood hours, gave with complete confidence the exact population of every major city down to the last digit. Glasgow then scored 1,111,428 compared with Edinburgh’s 320,318.

Likewise he relished cricket not so much for the game itself as for the statistics that it generated. As a boy, he wrote nostalgically in 1996, ‘my life was dominated by cricketers, their scores and their enshrinement in the temporary pantheon of Players’ cigarette cards’.  All his life he loved making lists and grading things – cities, wines or Prime Ministers – in rank order.

Like many boys in those days, his love of numbers found an outlet in trainspotting. Not only did the Eastern Valley line from Newport up to Ebbw Vale run past the bottom of his garden; but Pontypool Road, just three miles away, was then a major railway junction where the GWR (Great Western Railway) expresses from Bristol and Plymouth up to Manchester and Glasgow crossed – ‘sometimes exchanging coaches’ – with those from Cardiff to Birmingham.[2] ‘The train for Glasgow, I remember vividly, had two engines, which made me feel that it must be both a distant and an important destination.’ Trains and distant destinations captivated him. ‘He used to plan train journeys,’ another schoolfriend recalled, ‘– complete with times and interchanges – to Jerusalem and Constantinople, and he could recite all the stations on the Paris metro at a very young age.’ Though not a mathematician, this numerological precision stayed with him all his life.

They were a very close family. Among themselves they all had animal nicknames. Arthur was ‘Jumbo’, Hattie was ‘Pony’ and Roy was ‘Bunny’. Even when Roy was grown-up and away in the army, Arthur still signed his letters to him ‘Jumbo’ and gave him the news of ‘Pony’. The maid, Kathleen Tuttle, remembered that Roy wanted her to have a nickname too: ‘He started calling me “Kathlet”, but his mother put a stop to that. I think she felt I might think it cheeky but I really rather liked it.’ Kathleen did not think Roy was spoiled, rather that he was quite strictly brought up, always made to do his homework and piano practice (which he hated). Arthur could be stern if Roy disappointed his expectations, whereas Hattie more easily forgave him. But Kathleen never once heard Arthur raise his voice. If Roy was naughty, which was not often, his punishment was not to be allowed to join Arthur on his evening walk on Penyrhoel, the nearby hill. ‘That would really hurt Roy. He worshipped his father, and because Arthur had to give so much of his time to dealing with the problems of other people, Roy used to clutch at the moments he could spend with him.’

Arthur, for his part, took Roy around with him to political meetings and union conferences all over South Wales and beyond. His earliest memory was of being taken to the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, when he was three. On Sundays they would drive to Abergavenny, Raglan or other places of interest around Monmouthshire. They went quite frequently to Cardiff – twenty-two miles away, but ‘very much the local metropolis’ – for shopping, theatre visits, rugby internationals or ‘semi-celebratory meals’ in the best hotels; and occasionally to London. In 1929, when Roy was eight, Arthur took him (with Hattie) abroad for the first time, to Brussels where he was attending a Socialist International meeting. Two years later they went to Paris for six days, visiting all the usual sights but also the house that Arthur had stayed in twenty years before. To a ten-year-old from Pontypool, Paris in those days was ‘a very attractive but slightly shabby city . . . interesting but strange, and potentially hostile’.

In 1993 another boyhood friend whose memories had been awakened by reading Jenkins’ memoirs wrote him an almost idyllic recollection of these days:

Snatchwood Road, games in ‘the wood’ . . . cricket in back gardens (those ‘Test Matches’), the swimming pool, or rather baths, at Pontrenewydd with Derek Powell pounding out length after length much to the astonishment of us all, your kindly, caring mother and father, trips to the country in your father’s car (if memory serves me right, an early Jowett), brown blazers and brown caps, listening to rugger internationals on the radio . . . What a happy and carefree, but cosseted childhood we had.

The most famous episode in Roy’s childhood, however, was one he was unaware of at the time. Roy was not yet six when Arthur was involved in a violent incident at the Quarry Level colliery in Pontypool in August 1926, one of many such skirmishes during the bitter miners’ lockout which continued for seven months after the collapse of the General Strike in May. Pickets at the pithead were attempting to stop around forty ‘scabs’ from going to work, while the police tried to escort them. Stones were thrown and the police baton-charged the pickets – the sort of scenes that were to be familiar again half a century later in 1972 and 1984. As agent, Arthur had undoubtedly helped organise the picketing; but he was almost certainly trying to prevent violence, not foment it: anything else would have been utterly out of character. The Times report the next day supported this interpretation:

Mr Arthur Jenkins, the miners’ agent, scrambled to the top of a coal truck and called a truce. He then addressed the crowd, saying: ‘I have seen all that has happened here. The attack was a most ferocious one on the part of the police without the slightest cause.’ Members of the crowd shouted: ‘Let’s give it to them.’ Mr Jenkins replied: ‘No, we don’t want that. I shall say what I have to say elsewhere.’ The police ordered the demonstrators to leave the premises, and they dispersed.

Nevertheless Arthur was arrested with several others for riotous assembly, and additionally charged with inciting his co-defendants to commit riot and damage. When the case was heard at the Pontypool police court three weeks later the police gave evidence that he had told the crowd, ‘I can do no more. They have . . . decided to work. I now leave them to you’, as a result of which the crowd turned hostile and started throwing stones. The case was passed up to the Monmouthshire Assizes in November, where it lasted for five days. Several impeccable witnesses testified to Arthur’s good character; but the police, in his view, ‘lied terribly’, and Mr Justice Swift chose to believe the police. ‘I am satisfied,’ he declared, ‘that from the early morning of August 30 . . . you were laying plans to intimidate these workers and to thwart the police.’

Your position was deplorable. You were a man of high position, not only in the Miners’ Federation, but in the county, and it was above all things your duty as a public man, as a member of the County Council and as one of the Standing Joint Committee, to have assisted the police in maintaining order. His co-defendants got three months; but Arthur was sentenced to nine months in prison.

The sentence was widely seen as a travesty of justice and a campaign was launched, supported not only by local and national newspapers but by the chairman of the South Wales coal owners, to have it reversed. Far from considering Arthur disgraced, his fellow county councillors placed flowers on his seat to mark his absence. Ramsay MacDonald, Labour Leader of the Opposition, raised the case in the House of Commons, and a petition of 40,000 signatures was presented to the Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks. Perhaps fortunately for Arthur, the notoriously hardline ‘Jix’ was ill; deputising for him, Lord Birkenhead (the former F.E. Smith, now Secretary of State for India) ordered his release after only three months. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, with miners and their wives cheering his car as it passed through every village in the valley.

Roy remembered the emotional homecoming, but not until years later did he learn where Arthur had been. At the time he was merely told that his father was visiting coalmines in Germany – the sort of thing he did quite regularly – while Hattie took Roy away from Abersychan (he had not yet started school) to stay with friends in Newport. Leo Abse alleged that Hattie kept the truth from Roy ‘not out of protectiveness but from sham respectability’; in her defence Alan Watkins wrote that ‘most Welsh mothers would have behaved in the same way. In any case, she had been instructed to act as she did by Arthur, who did not wish his son to grow up with hatreds or prejudices.’ Even so, Connie Peppin remembered that ‘Aunt Hattie took it all very badly. Absolutely knocked out. She needed a lot of support at that time, otherwise she would have stayed in her own house. But she couldn’t, and could never bear to talk about it.’ Nor could Arthur. ‘To the end of his life,’ Roy recalled, ‘my father hated the memory of that jail sentence.’ Even three months must have been a painful ordeal for a man of his tastes and temperament, and Hattie believed it did lasting damage to his health. But he had no wish to pose as a martyr or make political capital out of his imprisonment; nor did he want his son to do so, and Roy never did. The one lasting effect it had on him was to instil a healthy scepticism about police evidence.

Roy did not go to school till he was seven (and then he had six months off following his appendix operation – possibly an example of Hattie’s over-protectiveness). For the next three years, however, he attended the local primary school at Pentwyn, which was dramatically sited between a bare mountainside and a large coal-tip: his memories of sliding down the latter on his way home contradict the idea that Hattie accompanied him everywhere. From Pentwyn he easily won a place at one of the two local grammar schools. West Monmouth, a semi-boarding school partly owned by the Haberdashers’ Company, was universally recognised as the top school in the area. Arthur was a governor and would have had no difficulty in sending Roy there. Instead he chose to send him to Abersychan County School, slightly closer, but much less highly regarded. The choice was strange since Arthur was already determined that Roy should follow him to Oxford. There survives in Roy’s papers a fragment of a letter or diary entry dated 21 May 1929 – when he was just eight and a half – typed but childishly spelled:

This year for Witsun we decided to go to Oxford so that I could deside whitch college I wanted to go to . . . When we arrived at Oxford Daddy drove up to Russgin Colleg to see the . . .

Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, a family friend, believed that Arthur was torn – like many a Labour parent since – between his ambition for his son and his political need to support the local school. He was a governor of Abersychan too, and thought highly of the headmaster; so on this occasion he made the political choice. But Bulmer-Thomas believed it set Roy back academically.[3]

One or two more childish letters have survived. From one, dating from April 1930, typed on SWMF paper – ‘Agent: Alderman Arthur Jenkins’ – it seems that Roy was being allowed to have a dog:

Dear Jum,

I think I have decided to have one of Peter’s brothers or sisters . . . one that rolles over on her or his back, and wags his wager . . . who has a nice dispsishon and is very playful . . . I am in diviculty bying a he or a she i want to by a she but mammer wants me to buy a he. you do not mind me having it? do you!




Another, six months later, handwritten in pencil, shows a marked improvement in spelling. Arthur and Hattie were evidently in London:

Dear Mammy & Daddy,

I got your letter this morning. I thought you would enjoy the journey up . . . Walter Daniel has got a scooter and I can’t half go on it . . . I read Oliver Twist in three hours this morning . . . Mrs Thomas told me two tell you that I have been a good boy . . .

Love from Bun xxxxxxxx

Roy started at Abersychan in September 1931, two months before his eleventh birthday, and left at sixteen. Being so young, and the son of a local bigwig, he was given a rough initiation. Another new boy named Norman Edwards recalled, sixty-five years later, how he had got into a fight trying to protect Roy and been given a hundred lines for his pains:

What struck me . . . was that you were unwilling to defend yourself or me, and that the fashionable dogma of Ghandi [sic] of passive resistance . . . held sway. My view was that a miner’s son fought for every crust of bread and principle.

The charge of reluctance to fight would frequently be levelled at Jenkins in years to come. Looking back, however, Edwards saw things differently:

You were hard on yourself when you say that you lacked steel. You must not forget that you were 1 year younger than the rest of us, and that makes a vast difference in academic attainment, physical prowess and sheer guts. You lived with that for six years.

Roy was already a budding journalist with a high sense of his own importance. At the age of ten he produced two editions of a newspaper called the Greenlands News, filled with items about pets, illnesses and cricket scores, all broken up into paragraphs with a crossword and weather forecast. The first edition contained the following report:

Important Member of Greenlands Ill

From our special correspondent Middle Bedroom Wednesday.

It is reported that Roy H. Jenkins who is suffering from Broncitis is improving rather rapidly. But I regret to state that he is unable to run in his School sports at Talywan on Friday July the 3rd where he would undoutbably have won!

Two years later he relaunched the newspaper on a larger scale, reporting TERRIBLE SNOW STORMS and DOG’S TERRIBLE FRIGHT , but also:

The following agreement has been written out and drawn up by Sir R.H. Jenkins K.C.

‘It is hereby agreed, sealed and signed that Arthur Jenkins shall pay Roy Harris Jenkins the sum of 6d (six pence) every Saturday morning without fail.

Should R.H. Jenkins get into Class B, then the amount will become 1/- (one shilling) and should R.H. Jenkins get into Class A then the amount will become 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence).

Should Arthur Jenkins fail to pay on Saturday morning, then he must pay the amount plus 3d as soon as possible.

It now remains for the signatures to be added.’

There was also ‘our grand competition . . . s’easy. Send in your efforts with two penny stamps to Roy Jenkins, Snatchwood Road Abersychan Mon not later than Sunday March 5th’; and a useful fact: ‘on this day 1882 – Electric tramcars were first intriduced into the world’. The twelve-year-old editor was already an avid newspaper reader.

Despite some initial bullying, Jenkins claimed in his memoirs to have been ‘thoroughly happy’ at Abersychan, though academically he did not shine. ‘It wasn’t an intensely competitive school,’ another boyhood friend, Hugh Brace, recalled, with no tradition of sending boys to university beyond Wales. The quality of the teaching was variable: the French mistress was ‘particularly bad’, the history teacher ‘all right, but no more’.[4] But Roy, oddly, did no history for two years before the sixth form – which he later blamed for gaps in his knowledge. For his School Certificate in 1935 he took six subjects (English, geography, French, maths, physics and chemistry), to which he added Latin – ‘absolutely necessary for Oxford’ – the following year. (He and Hugh were taught Latin together by the head.) Then, after a misguided flirtation with chemistry, he switched course and took history, geography and English for his Higher Certificate. His reports recognised his intelligence, but thought he lacked concentration. ‘I am convinced that if Roy would concentrate more resolutely in class he would improve his position very considerably,’ his form master wrote at the end of his first year: significantly he did better in exams than course work. In his final year his English master described the budding writer pretty well:

Thinks for himself and is interested in life & books . . . Work expresses mental alertness and keen interest in ideas and literature. Essays are clear and logical and vocabulary expressive. Roy has read outside the limits of his books and has acquired general ideas. He would be wise to confine himself to set books for the next few weeks . . . If he does himself justice he should do very well.

It is clear from this that he was already reading widely. Asked by a newspaper in 1995 to nominate his favourite Penguin, he chose Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (first published in 1921):

In the summer of 1937 when I was driven by my parents around Devon and Cornwall they (although far from being anti-books) complained that there was little point in showing me the splendours of the coasts and moors of South-West England if I spent the whole time sitting in the back of the car engrossed in Huxley. His aura of sophistication was alluring for a sixteen-year-old.

This was just after he left school. But asked on another occasion for a favourite poem, he picked ‘Prospice’ – a meditation on death by Robert Browning, which he said he had studied for his Higher Certificate and still found ‘powerful’ in his seventies. Outside the classroom Roy was ‘more enthusiastic than skilled’ at games, though he played in the scrum at rugby, was not a bad slow bowler and won prizes for swimming. He was popular enough to become a prefect, though the girls – it was a co-ed school – thought him ‘a bit uppish and detached’. Hugh Brace remembered him ‘going around with the girls a bit in the sixth form, one in particular’, who must have been his first girlfriend.

By this time Arthur had become MP for Pontypool when the previous Member retired in 1935. From now on he normally stayed in London during the week when the House was sitting, lodging with other Labour Members in a hotel in Bloomsbury, and came home only at weekends. But that year the family moved to a much larger house reflecting his new status.[5] This third Greenlands – rented from the GWR – was two miles further down the valley on the edge of Pontypool, near the railway station, a square white-stuccoed house standing in a substantial garden, with an open aspect to the south-east towards England. It was not a ‘big house’ in the full sense of the word, but in the context of Pontypool it was a substantial residence. Here Arthur and Hattie frequently entertained parliamentary colleagues for the weekend: the Attlees and Arthur Greenwood, Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton, among others. The teenaged Roy thus grew up knowing all these leading figures of the 1945 government as family friends – though the guest who most impressed him was his own future Cabinet colleague, Dick Crossman, then a thirty-year-old Oxford don who stood as Labour candidate at a Birmingham by-election in 1937. ‘His blend of verve and paradox I found very exciting at sixteen.’[6]

If Roy was not already hooked on politics, he certainly became so now:

As a schoolboy, I was an assiduous gallery-sitter in the House, whenever I could persuade my parents to take me up to London, which was not too infrequently . . . I remember on one occasion, during I think the long drawn-out debates on the 1936 Unemployment Assistance Bill, being very indignant when, at 4.00 a.m., my father insisted on sending me home to his hotel in a taxi and refused to allow me to see the night through from the Gallery.

As well as politics, the young Roy was habituated very early to taxis, hotels and restaurants.

In February 1935 he wrote a detailed account of a trip to London with his mother and a friend, which included breakfast on the train. Food was something he already took very seriously:

This was very sound – the usual G.W.R. breakfast. Porridge, Corn Flakes or Grape Nuts with a peculiar kind of extremely rich and good cream. Some kind of fish, generally kipper, plaice or haddock (the former two of which I like, the latter one I eat), any variety of eggs, bacon, sausage, cold ham etc., and finally toast, some very good butter (frozen or half-frozen), and marmalade, all washed down with two, or even three large cups of good coffee. The coffee on the G.W.R. is always very good. There is never the least suspicion of skin about it. I dislike intensely coffee on which skin is prone to form.

They stayed at the Strand Palace Hotel which, he noted, was ‘in many ways, an amazing hotel. It is very large and, despite the fact that the charges are quite reasonable, extremely luxurious.’ They went up the dome of St Paul’s, met Arthur for lunch at the Strand Corner House and went to Selfridges, before going to see Love on the Dole – a very suitable choice for a Labour MP – at the Garrick Theatre. ‘It was a very good play,’ Roy wrote, ‘but was not particularly marked by its cheeriness.’ The next day they went to the Science Museum, the zoo and Madame Tussaud’s. (‘I had never been there before, and I cannot say that it impressed me very much’), before catching the 5.55 back from Paddington and having a good dinner on the train.

A few months later he did it again, this time on his own. At Newport station, doubtless feeling very grown-up, he bought the Daily Mirror, the News Chronicle (a Liberal paper) and the Humorist magazine. Breakfast was up to standard, ‘the kipper being one of the best that I have ever tasted’. But lunch at the Strand Palace was disappointing. ‘The lunch is not nearly so good as the dinner is, although I have no doubt that they bear a very distinct relation to one another.’ The dinner he confidently judged ‘one of the most amazing in London’, comprising six or seven courses for three shillings and sixpence.55 But he was not interested only in food. After one of these London trips he compiled an exhaustive description, in nine chapters, of the unfolding view from the train window. ‘The journey from Newport to Paddington,’ it began, ‘must be, for its length, one of the most beautiful in the country.’ The scenery was ‘varied and interesting’, and he counted it a recommendation that ‘the line passes no areas that are disfigured by basic industries’. Artlessly these teenage journals foreshadow the man he would become.

In the summer of 1937 he left school, but his Higher Certificate results were ‘indifferent’ and he was not yet ready to try for Oxford. So he went for a year to University College, Cardiff – an interlude he omitted from his entry in Who’s Who. Hugh Brace thought it was ‘a kind of crammer . . . because he was so young’.  It was really more like a sixth-form college, intended to bring him up to the level needed to achieve his father’s ambition. Soon after he had started there, Arthur – away in London as usual – wrote him a characteristic letter on his seventeenth birthday:

My dear Roy,

This is your 17th birthday and I am writing this note to wish you many happy returns.

You are now starting on your university career. In school you have done splendidly. With good health and perseverance you will no doubt be equally successful in the next five or six years. I wish you well.

A good rule in life is never to do to anyone what you would not like done to you. I once heard Sir Harry Lauder say he had never said or done anything in his profession he would be ashamed for his mother to hear or know. That, I thought, was a proud record. May you be able to achieve that high standard!

Pony and I are very proud of you. I know you will do everything possible to preserve that pleasure for us. I enclose a small token of our love.

Yours affectionately,


Looking back in a piece written for the college centenary in 1982, Roy claimed to have enjoyed his seven months at Cardiff. He lived at home and travelled in each day by bus, an hour and a quarter each way, so he did not experience much of university life, partly because he was so young, but also because his focus was so firmly fixed on Oxford. But he remembered that the food was ‘rather good, better certainly than that which I subsequently had to accustom myself to at Balliol’, and claimed to have made two lasting friends with whom he made frequent expeditions to the Kardomah Café to drink Russian tea ‘in glasses with straw holders, which we thought a rather daring drink’. He was supposed to be brushing up his history and French and starting some economics. He was presumably taught by Hilary Marquand, soon to be a minister in the 1945 government but at this time Professor of Industrial Relations at Cardiff, since he named Marquand, along with his headmaster, as a referee in his application to Oxford; but he mainly remembered writing nineteenth-century history essays for Dorothy Marshall, later a distinguished historian of the eighteenth century, whom he credited with teaching him to write in the approved Oxford style.[7] At any rate, this year at Cardiff did the trick. In March 1938 he sat the history scholarship for a group of six colleges, including Balliol – then the only Oxford college operating admission solely by competitive examination. Sending his application to the Balliol admissions tutor, he wrote naively that he had ‘obtained past papers  from an Oxford publishing firm, but they gave no indication of the scope of the work required’, and asked for some advice.[8] The tutor replied reassuringly that the extent of his reading was less important than the power of using the material he possessed: the point was whether he had the sort of mind that would enable him to gain a First, not whether he had the knowledge now that would be expected at the end of three years. He failed to win a scholarship; but the college evidently did detect first-class potential and he was offered a place to read PPE (philosophy, politics and economics, otherwise known as Modern Greats), already the course of choice for aspiring politicians.

That goal achieved, Arthur took him again to Paris where Roy stayed on for a month on his own, staying in a pension near Montparnasse and exploring the city on foot and by metro. This was when he acquired ‘almost a taxi-driver’s knowledge of Paris’ – but not yet a taste for wine. ‘It was rather nasty wine they served us,’ he recalled years later, ‘a vin ordinaire which most people diluted with water. But I didn’t like it, diluted or undiluted.’63 As the war clouds gathered over Czechoslovakia, however, he hurried back to England ten days before Munich bought a temporary reprieve, then went up to Oxford at the beginning of October 1938, still a month short of his eighteenth birthday.


[1] It may not be unimportant that Roy was born on the second anniversary of the Armistice,

which meant that throughout his childhood his birthday was marked by solemn ceremonies,

brass bands and processions. 11 November was a very special date in the calendar in the


[2] Looking at the map today, this seems surprising. But until Dr Beeching slashed the railway network in the 1960s, trains from the South-West went through the Severn tunnel to Newport before proceeding north via Pontypool, Shrewsbury and Carlisle to Glasgow.

[3] Ivor Bulmer-Thomas had a remarkable career. Born plain Ivor Thomas in 1905, the son of a brickyard worker, he progressed from West Monmouth – where Arthur first took an interest in him – to a brilliant academic career at Oxford and then, via journalism, into Labour politics, before crossing the floor to join the Tories in 1949, marrying into the Bulmer cider family and devoting the rest of his life to saving ‘friendless’ churches. He remained a friend of Roy’s up to his death in 1993.

[4] * Near the end of his life Jenkins recalled it more candidly in an unguarded interview in the Spectator. ‘I got into Balliol 62 years ago from a most awful school – no, I mustn’t say that, but . . . it was a very, very minor school, with very little good teaching.’

[5] MPs’ pay was raised in 1937 to £600 p.a. This was a solid professional salary, but it was supplemented by no additional expenses beyond the train fare to their constituencies, hence the need for cheap accommodation in London during the week.

[6] Arthur took Roy with him when he went to speak for Crossman at this by-election – Roy’s first visit to the city he was to represent for twenty-seven years. His principal memory was of Birmingham’s impenetrable one-way traffic system.

[7] More than half a century later Jenkins was able to invite Dorothy Marshall, now aged ninety-two, to lunch at East Hendred. She greatly appreciated his reference to her in his memoirs and was ‘as excited as a schoolgirl’ at seeing him again.

[8] He signed this letter ‘R. Harris Jenkins’. It is not clear whether he then saw Harris as his preferred Christian name or as part of a double-barrelled surname. At any rate he dropped it very quickly as soon as he got to Oxford.



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