John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon

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The Right Honourable
The Viscount Simon
Portrait of John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon.jpg
Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain
In office
10 May 1940 – 27 July 1945
Prime Minister Winston Churchill
Preceded by The Viscount Caldecote
Succeeded by The Viscount Jowitt
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
28 May 1937 – 10 May 1940
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain
Preceded by Neville Chamberlain
Succeeded by Sir Kingsley Wood
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
5 November 1931 – 7 June 1935
Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald
Preceded by The Marquess of Reading
Succeeded by Sir Samuel Hoare, Bt
Home Secretary
In office
7 June 1935 – 28 May 1937
Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin
Preceded by Sir John Gilmour, Bt
Succeeded by Sir Samuel Hoare, Bt
In office
27 May 1915 – 12 January 1916
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Reginald McKenna
Succeeded by Herbert Samuel
In office
19 October 1913 – 25 May 1915
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Sir Rufus Isaacs
Succeeded by Sir Edward Carson
In office
7 October 1910 – 19 October 1913
Prime Minister H. H. Asquith
Preceded by Sir Rufus Isaacs
Succeeded by Sir Stanley Buckmaster
Personal details
Born John Allsebrook Simon
(1873-02-28)28 February 1873
Died 11 January 1954(1954-01-11) (aged 80)
Political party Liberal Party
Other political
National Liberal Party
Spouse(s) Ethel Venables (1899-1902; her death); 3 children
Kathleen Rochard Manning (1917-1954; his death)
Children Margaret Edwards
Joan Bickford-Smith
John Gilbert Simon, 2nd Viscount Simon
Alma mater Wadham College, Oxford

John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon GCSI GCVO OBE PC (28 February 1873 – 11 January 1954) was a British politician who held senior Cabinet posts from the beginning of the First World War to the end of the Second. He 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 (identified with the left-wing[1] and later the right-wing of the Party[2]), 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.

Background and education

Simon was born in a terraced house on Moss Side, the eldest child and only son[3] of Edwin Simon (1843–1920) and Fanny Allsebrook (1846–1936).[4] His father was a Congregationalist minister like three of his five brothers and was pastor of Zion Chapel in Hulme District, Manchester; his mother was a farmer’s daughter and a descendant of Margaret Pole.[5]

Simon was educated at King Edward's School, Bath, as his father was President of Somerset Congregational Union. He was then a scholar of Fettes College in Edinburgh. In 1891 he won an open scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, where he his attendance overlapped with those of F.E. Smith and of the athlete C.B. Fry. He took a first in Greats and was President of the Oxford Union in Hilary (spring) Term 1896. He became a Fellow of All Souls in 1897.[6]

Simon left Oxford at the end of 1898[7] and was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in 1899.[4] He was a pupil of AJ Ram and then of Sir Reginald Acland. As a barrister he relied on logic and reason rather than oratory and histrionics, and excelled at simplifying complex issues.[8]

Simon had been widowed in 1902 (see below) and buried himself in his work. He became a successful lawyer and in 1903 he acted for the British Government in a Canada-Alaska boundary dispute. Even three years after being widowed he spent Christmas Day 1905 walking aimlessly in France.[9]

Before the First World War

Simon entered the House of Commons as a Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Walthamstow at the January 1906 general election, later being elected for Spen Valley. In 1908 he became a KC (senior barrister).[10]

In 1909 Simon spoke out strongly in Parliament in support for David Lloyd George's progressive "People's Budget".[11] He entered the Government on 7 October 1910 as Solicitor-General,[12] succeeding Rufus Isaacs, and was knighted later that month.[13] At 37 he was the youngest solicitor-general since the 1830s.[14] In February 1911 he successfully prosecuted Edward Mylius for criminal libel for claiming that King George V was a bigamist.[15]

He was honoured with the KCVO in 1911. Asquith referred to him as “the Impeccable” for his intellectual self-assurance.[16]

He was promoted on 19 October 1913 to Attorney-General,[17][18] again succeeding Isaacs. Unusually for an Attorney-General, he was made a full member of Cabinet rather than simply being invited to attend as required. He was already being tipped as a potential future Liberal Prime Minister.[19]

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 changed his mind.[20]

Simon circa 1916

First World War

On 25 May 1915 , Simon became Home Secretary in H. H. Asquith's new coalition government. He declined an offer of the job of Lord Chancellor, as it would have meant going to the Lords and restricting his active political career thereafter.[21]

He resigned in January 1916 in protest against the introduction of conscription of single men, which he thought a breach of Liberal principles. He proved his patriotism by serving briefly as an officer on Trenchard's staff in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917.[22]

After Asquith's fall in late 1916, Simon remained in opposition as an Asquithian Liberal until he lost his seat at Walthamstow, at the "Coupon Election" in 1918.[23]

Out of Parliament

In 1919, he attempted to return to Parliament at the Spen Valley by-election. Lloyd George put up a coalition Liberal candidate in Spen Valley to keep Simon out. [24] Although the Coalition Liberals, who had formerly held the seat, were pushed into third place, Simon came second; in the view of Maurice Cowling (The Impact of Labour 1920-4) , his defeat by Labour marked the point at which Labour began to be seen as a serious threat by the older parties.


In the early 1920s, he practised successfully at the Bar before being elected for Spen Valley at the general election in 1922, and from 1922 to 1924, he served as deputy leader of the Liberal Party (under Asquith),[25][26] a role he relinquished when Asquith once again lost his seat in Parliament and Lloyd George took over the chairmanship of the Liberal MPs. Simon, who was increasingly anti-socialist and quite friendly to the Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, clashed with Lloyd George.[27]

Unlike Lloyd George, Simon opposed the General Strike in 1926. On 6 May 1926 he declared in the House of Commons that the General Strike was illegal.[28] Simon was at this time the highest-paid barrister of his generation, and it seemed for a while that he might abandon politics altogether.[29] Simon spoke for Newfoundland in a boundary dispute with Canada, before announcing his permanent retirement from the Bar.

From 1927 to 1931 he chaired the Indian Constitutional Development Committee, known as the Simon Commission on India's constitution. His personality was already something of an issue: Neville Chamberlain wrote of him to the Viceroy of India Lord Irwin (12 August 1928): "I am always trying to like him, and believing I shall succeed when something crops up to put me off".[30][31] Dutton describes his eventual report as a “lucid exposition of the problems of the subcontinent in all their complexity.” However, he had been hampered by the Inquiry’s terms of reference (no Indians were included on the committee) and his conclusions were overshadowed by the Irwin Declaration of October 1929, to which Simon was opposed, which promised India eventual dominion status.[32] Simon was awarded the GSCI 1930.[33]

During the late 1920s and especially during the 1929-31 Parliament, in which Labour had no majority but continued in office with the help of 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. Simon still supported free trade during the 1929-31 Parliament.[34]

In 1930 Simon headed the official inquiry into the R101 airship disaster.[35]

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. Simon and his thirty or so followers became the Liberal Nationals (later to become the National Liberals).[36] 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, but some Conservative MPs continued to be known locally as "National Liberals" for decades after the Second World War.

1930s: the National Government

Foreign Secretary

On 5 November 1931 Simon was appointed Foreign Secretary, when Ramsay MacDonald's National Government was reconstituted, an appointment at first greeted with acclaim.[37] Simon's National Liberals continued to support protectionism and Ramsay MacDonald's National Government after the departure of the mainstream Liberals under Herbert Samuel, who left the government in 1932 and formally went into Opposition in November 1933.[38]

Simon's tenure of office saw a number of important events in foreign policy, including the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931. Simon attracted particular opprobrium for his speech to the League of Nations on 7 December 1932 in which he failed to denounce Japan unequivocally.[39][40]

This period also saw the coming to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany in January 1933. Hitler immediately withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and announced a programme of rearmament, initially to give Germany armed forces commensurate with France and other powers. Simon did not foresee the sheer scale of Hitler’s ambitions, but as Dutton points out neither did many others at the time.[41]

Simon's term of office also saw the failure of the World Disarmament Conference (1932-4). His contribution was not entirely in vain, as he proposed qualitative (seeking to limit or ban certain types of weapon) rather than quantitative (simple numbers of weapons) disarmament.[42]

The first stirrings of Italian aggression towards Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) were also seen at this time. During Simon’s tenure of the Foreign Office British defence strength was at its lowest point of the interwar period, severely limiting his freedom of action.[43] Even Simon’s colleagues thought he had been a disastrous Foreign Secretary, “the worst since Æthelred the Unready” as one wag put it. He was better at analysing a problem than at concluding and acting.[44]

Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer

Simon served as Home Secretary (in Baldwin’s Third Government) from 7 June 1935 to 28 May 1937. This position was, in Dutton’s view, better suited to his abilities than the Foreign Office had been.[45][46] During this time he passed the Public Order Act 1936, restricting the activities of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts. Stanley Baldwin appointed Simon as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons. He played a key role behind the scenes in the Abdication Crisis of 1936.[47]

He wrote a well-received Portrait of My Mother in 1936, after her death.[48]

Simon was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Neville Chamberlain's government (1937-40). He was raised to GCVO in 1937. He had become a close political ally of Chamberlain. As chancellor he tried to keep arms spending as low as possible, believing that a strong economy was the “fourth arm of defence”.[49]

Lord Chancellor

On 2 September 1939 Simon led a deputation of ministers to see Neville Chamberlain, to insist that Britain honour her guarantee to Poland and go to war if Hitler did not withdraw. He became a member of the small War Cabinet.[50]

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" was Hugh Dalton's description), and like Hoare, his continued service in the War Cabinet was not regarded as acceptable in the new coalition.

Simon became Lord Chancellor (at that time, besides being Minister in charge of the judiciary, the Lord Chancellor was also Speaker of the House of Lords and himself the most senior judge) in Churchill's government although without a place on the War Cabinet. On 13 May 1940 he was created Viscount Simon, of Stackpole Elidor in the County of Pembroke, a village from which his father traced descent. In Dutton’s view, of all the senior positions which he held his was the one for which he was most suited. He interrogated Rudolph Hess after his flight to Scotland. He delivered important judgements on the damages due for death caused by negligence, and on how the judge ought to direct the jury in a murder trial if a possible defence of manslaughter arose.[51]

Later life

In 1945, after the end of the War in Europe, Simon continued as Lord Chancellor but was not included in the Cabinet of the short-lived Churchill caretaker ministry. After Churchill's defeat in 1945, Simon never held office again.

Although he had won plaudits for his legal skills as Lord Chancellor, Clement 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.

Simon was still active in the House of Lords and as a senior judge on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1948 he succeeded Lord Sankey as High Steward of Oxford University. He wrote a well-regarded practitioners’ text “Simon on Income Tax” in 1948.[52]

Although Simon was still physically and mentally vigorous (aged 78) when the Conservatives returned to power in 1951, Churchill did not offer him a return to the Woolsack, or any other office, and blocked him from joining the Conservative Party.[53] Simon's portrait (by Frank O. Salisbury, 1944) is in the National Portrait Gallery.[54]

In 1952, Simon published his memoirs, Retrospect,[55] which Harold Nicolson reviewed as describing 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.

Viscount Simon died from a stroke on 11 January 1954. He was an atheist and was cremated in his Oxford robes.[56] His estate was valued for probate at £93,006 12s (around £2.3m at 2016 prices).[57][58][59]

His personal papers are preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.[60]

Private life and personality

Dame Kathleen Simon, Viscountess Simon (17 February 1920)

Simon married Ethel Mary Venables, a niece of the historian J R Green, on 24 May 1899 in Headington, Oxfordshire: she was later vice-principal of St Hugh's Hall, Oxford. They had three children: Margaret (born 1900, who later married Geoffrey Edwards), Joan (born 1901, who later married John Bickford-Smith) and John Gilbert, 2nd Viscount Simon (1902–1993). Ethel died soon after the birth of their son Gilbert, in September 1902.[61]

In 1917, Simon married the abolition activist Kathleen Rochard Manning (1863/64–1955), a widow with one son, who had for a while been governess to his children.[62]

Simon bought De Lisle Manor in Fritwell, Oxfordshire in 1911 and lived there until 1933.[63]

Simon possessed an unfortunately chilly manner, and from at least 1914 onwards, he had difficulty in conveying an impression that he was acting from honourable motives. His awkward attempts to strike up friendships with his colleagues (asking his Cabinet colleagues to call him "Jack") often fell flat.[64] In the 1930s his reputation sank particularly low. Although Simon’s athletic build and good looks were remarked on even into old age, the cartoonist Low portrayed him with, in Low's own words, a “sinuous writhing body” to reflect his “disposition to subtle compromise”.[65] 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.[66]



  1. ^ Keith Laybourn. "Fifty Key Figures in Twentieth-century British Politics". p. 209. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  2. ^ Jennings, Ivor (1961). Party Politics: Volume 2: The Growth of Parties. Cambridge University Press. p. 268. Retrieved 3 August 2015. 
  3. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  4. ^ a b Dutton, D. J. (2011) [2004]. "Simon, John Allsebrook, first Viscount Simon (1873–1954)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36098.  (subscription required)
  5. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  6. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  7. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  8. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  9. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  10. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  11. ^ "FINANCE BILL. (Hansard, 4 November 1909)". Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  12. ^ "No. 28424". The London Gazette. 4 October 1910. p. 7247. 
  13. ^ "No. 28429". The London Gazette. 28 October 1910. p. 7611. 
  14. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  15. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  16. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  17. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  18. ^ "No. 28766". The London Gazette. 21 October 1913. p. 7336. 
  19. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  20. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  21. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  22. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  23. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  24. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  25. ^ "London Correspondence", Glasgow Herald, 24 November 1922, p.9
  26. ^ David Dutton, Simon: A political biography of Sir John Simon, p.59
  27. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  28. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  29. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  30. ^ Jenkins, Roy The Chancellors (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 366–67.
  31. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  32. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  33. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  34. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  35. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  36. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  37. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  38. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  39. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  40. ^ Douglas Reed, All Our Tomorrows (1942) ,p.62 ~ Geneva, 1931, Sir John Simon congratulated by the Japanese emissary for presentation of Japan's case against China'.
  41. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  42. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  43. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  44. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  45. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  46. ^ Rose, Kenneth (1983). King George V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 402. ISBN 0-297-78245-2. OCLC 9909629. It was thus that on the morning of 20 January 1936, three members of the Privy Council came down to Sandringham... MacDonald, the Lord President of the Council; Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor; and Simon, the Home Secretary. 
  47. ^ Matthew 2004, p665
  48. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  49. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  50. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  51. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  52. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  53. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  54. ^ "NPG 5833; John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery". Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  55. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  56. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  57. ^ Keith Laybourn. "British Political Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary". p. 298. Retrieved 2016-04-01. 
  58. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  59. ^ Compute the Relative Value of a U.K. Pound
  60. ^ Langley, Helen (1979). "Catalogue of the papers of John Allsebrook Simon, 1st Viscount Simon, mainly 1894-1953". Bodleian Libraries, Oxford. Retrieved 22 March 2016. 
  61. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  62. ^ Matthew 2004, p664
  63. ^ Lobel, Mary D. (ed.) (1959). Victoria County History: A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 6. pp. 134–46. 
  64. ^ Jenkins, Roy The Chancellors (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 366–67.
  65. ^ Matthew 2004, p666
  66. ^ Jenkins, Roy The Chancellors (London: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 366–67.


  • Dutton, David (1992). Simon: a political biography of Sir John Simon. London: Aurum Press. ISBN 1854102044. 
  • Dutton, D.J. (2011) [2004]. "Simon, John Allsebrook, first Viscount Simon (1873–1954)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36098.  (subscription required)
  • Matthew (editor), Colin (2004). Dictionary of National Biography. 50. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0198614111.  (pp.663-6), essay on Simon written by David Dutton.
  • Simon, John Simon, 1st Viscount (1952). Retrospect: the Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. Viscount Simon G.C.S.I., G.C.V.O. London: Hutchinson. 

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by the Viscount Simon
  • A Chessplaying Statesman
  • Biography of Simon
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website
  • Portraits of John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon at the National Portrait Gallery, London
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
David John Morgan
Member of Parliament for Walthamstow
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
Tom Myers
Member of Parliament for Spen Valley
Succeeded by
William Edward Woolley
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Rufus Isaacs
Solicitor General
Succeeded by
Sir Stanley Buckmaster
Attorney General
Succeeded by
Sir Edward Carson
Political offices
Preceded by
Reginald McKenna
Home Secretary
Succeeded by
Herbert Samuel
Preceded by
The Marquess of Reading
Foreign Secretary
Succeeded by
Sir Samuel Hoare, Bt
Preceded by
Sir John Gilmour, Bt
Home Secretary
Preceded by
Neville Chamberlain
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by
Sir Kingsley Wood
Preceded by
The Viscount Caldecote
Lord Chancellor
Succeeded by
The Viscount Jowitt
Party political offices
Preceded by
New position
Leader of the Liberal National Party
Succeeded by
Ernest Brown
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Viscount Simon
1940 – 1954
Succeeded by
John Gilbert Simon
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