Sir Ralph Glyn
1885 - 1960
Ralph George Campbell Glyn was probably Abingdon’s longest serving MP, holding the seat from 1924 to 1953. He was born in 1885; his father was Bishop of Peterborough and his mother a daughter of the eighth Duke of Argyll. Intended for the army, he was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst and commissioned in 1904 into the Rifle Brigade. He seems from the start to have gravitated to headquarters and staff rather than regimental duties. In 1910 he transferred to reserve status, managing to combine staff work at the War Office with helping to reorganise the Conservative Party and unsuccessfully contesting various Scottish constituencies.
During the First World War he participated in a military-diplomatic mission to Russia and to allies and neutrals in the Balkans. He served as a staff officer in the Dardanelles campaign and in Egypt and later in France. He finished with the rank of major, a Military Cross, three mentions in dispatches, the Légion d’Honneur, the Imperial Russian Order of St Anne, the Serbian Order of the White Eagle and the American Distinguished Service Medal.
In the post-war election he was finally successful in entering the House of Commons as member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire, but lost the seat in 1922. The Abingdon division of North Berkshire, as it was officially known, was a very extensive and still largely rural constituency. He first contested it in 1923 losing by 254 votes, but won it in the following year with a majority of over 4000. He then held it for almost thirty years.
Glyn was assiduous as a constituency MP, supporting and appearing at local events and communicating well with his electorate through regular articles in the Wallingford-based Berks and Oxon Advertiser. He became High Steward of Wallingford in 1933. In Abingdon, he was an active governor of Abingdon School for many years and latterly vice-chairman of the governing body, but his greatest contribution to the town was in his support for the civic society, the Friends of Abingdon. He was among the founders of the society in 1944 and its president from 1945 until his death. He was particularly effective as a fund raiser, and obtained over several years a total of £5000 from the Pilgrim Trust which made possible the acquisition and renovation of the Checker and Long Gallery. In 1952, he was active in the campaign to save Fitzharris House from demolition, but this was ultimately unsuccessful.
Glyn lived in Ardington and later near Farnborough where his almost 2000 acres on the Berkshire Downs were said to make him the largest landowner in the Commons. As a parliamentarian, he was always ready to support agricultural interests, with a particular emphasis on sheep farming and horse breeding. In 1928 he introduced the private member’s bill that eventually reorganised racecourse gambling and set up the tote, a publicly owned system that diverted betting profits to the benefit of the sport. But he was a businessman as well as a farmer, holding a number of industrial directorships.
In the Commons, Glyn was always his own man and never a party hack. It was entirely consistent with his independent views that he welcomed the formation of a ‘national’ coalition government to deal with the financial crisis of 1931, and he became parliamentary private secretary to the Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald. This was the nearest he ever got to a government, as against a parliamentary, position. The parliamentary record, Hansard, shows him to have been an active debater with a wide range of interests. He was made a baronet in 1934.
One of his interests, no doubt stemming from his military experience, was in foreign affairs, and sometimes he would make his own visits to trouble spots and, if he felt it necessary, criticise government policies. In the 1925 dispute over the fate of Mosul he went to Constantinople and wrote home supporting the Turkish case over the British. In 1938 he made an ostensibly private trip to the Balkans and had talks with the Hungarian prime minister. He favoured the League of Nations and disarmament.
After the Second World War, Glyn was a leading member of the Commons Committee on Estimates which monitored government expenditure. He became its chairman in 1951. His greatest disagreement with his own party was over transport policy. Although a director of one of the ‘big four’ railway companies, he supported nationalisation in 1948 and opposed privatisation of road haulage in 1953. He argued that all transport should be centrally managed and rail and road be allowed to cross-subsidise each other. Whatever differences he may have had with his party whips, his support among North Berkshire voters remained firm throughout his tenure of the seat: he was unopposed in 1931 and 1935, and had majorities approaching 5000 in each of the post-war elections
In 1952 Glyn indicated a wish to retire. He became Baron Glyn in the coronation honours of 1953 and moved to the House of Lords where he remained active until his death in May 1960. He had married in 1921 Sybell Long, widow of a senior officer killed in 1917. She died in 1958. There were no children of the marriage, and the barony became extinct.
Ralph Glyn was an old-fashioned figure even in his own time – a back-bencher who saw his prime duty as being to his country and his constituents, not his party. His private means enabled him to take personal initiatives. His business interests made him indifferent to hopes of government office. He worked hard for his constituents, and thoroughly deserved the confidence they placed in him.
© AAAHS and contributors 2019
Ralph George Campbell Glyn, who would be Abingdon’s MP for almost thirty years from 1924 to 1953, was born in Kensington on 3 March 1885. The family was wealthy and well connected. He was the only son of Edward Carr Glyn, Bishop of Peterborough, who was of the Glyn banking dynasty. The bishop was a son of the first and a brother of the second Lord Wolverton, financiers and railway magnates. Ralph’s mother, born Mary Emma Campbell, was a daughter of the eighth Duke of Argyll, one of the greatest of Scottish landowners. Both the duke and the two Lords Wolverton were prominent in the politics of their time.
Ralph was educated at Harrow and then went to Sandhurst as a gentleman-cadet. He was gazetted in March 1905 as a 2nd lieutenant to the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade. The battalion was stationed in Malta at the time, and he went out to join it. It transferred in the next year to Belfast, and Glyn was attached to the headquarters staff at Dublin. He was in Belfast, however, in the violent unrest of the summer of 1907, when the police sided with the striking workers and it fell to the army to enforce order with rifle butts, bayonets, and occasionally live ammunition. This experience must have provided him with an early political education, and was probably responsible for his lifelong distrust of socialism. He seems to have gravitated towards non-regimental duties: at some later time he was working at Farnborough on the military uses of balloons.
By 1909 Glyn was beginning to be active in politics. The army was helpful, allowing him to transfer at need to reserve status and back again. Making use of his Scottish connections, he contested Elgin & Nairn in the election of January 1910, South Edinburgh in a by-election in April, and the College division of Glasgow in the second general election of that year, in December. Following his grandfather’s principles, he stood as a Unionist, a party then allied to but not merged with the Conservatives. The seats were all held by Liberals and Glyn could do no more than reduce his opponents’ leads.
There were three main political issues at the time. Tariff reform – protection from foreign imports – was being discussed but was strongly opposed by many who feared it would lead to dearer bread. Glyn supported it as the reorganisation of the Empire into a closed trading bloc. The House of Lords was seen to need reform after the struggle over the 1909 budget. Glyn was moderately in favour; he was against the hereditary principle but accepted the need for a revising chamber that could “act as a brake when the lower chamber is running away with what is supposed to be public opinion”. There was fall-out from the Osborne judgement of 1909 which restricted the rights of trade unions to fund the Labour Party. Glyn, deeply anti-socialist, supported the judgement. These were not merely personal views; he was a member of Reveille, a Conservative ginger group claiming 100 members.
After 1910, he seems to have been able to continue a dual career, with work at the War Office as a reserve officer on what seems to have been on an occasional contract basis while also being involved in political organisation. In 1911, he was noted as secretary of the Unionist Reorganisation Committee which was enquiring into the electoral defeats of the previous year and which led to the absorption of the Unionists by the Conservative Party in 1912. That the Scottish Unionists continued as nominally independent may have been in part his doing, but definite evidence is lacking.
Glyn had an interesting war. In 1915, he accompanied General Paget on a mission to the Balkans and Russia. Officially, this was to give decorations to various potentates and high officials on behalf of the king. Unofficially, it was to assess the military potential of the various armies in the region.
Paget and Glyn spent ten days with the Russian army besieging Przemysl in Galicia and came seriously under fire. Glyn may have been selected for his role because of his family connection with the railways and finance. On his return, he prepared a long and detailed report advocating the construction of a 250-mile railway to connect Alexandrov, an ice-free port on the Arctic Ocean, with the existing Russian network, which a British consortium was ready to finance and undertake. Nothing seems to have come of this; the Russians themselves started building a northern railway in 1915 using prisoner of war labour, and it reached Murmansk two years later.
The ill-starred Dardanelles campaign was just beginning. Glyn was sent there as a staff officer, working under Major, later General, Guy Dawnay. Both were very critical of the enterprise. Drafts survive of many of their situation reports, all deeply pessimistic. In September 1915, they were sent to London to lobby for reinforcements. Instead, they lobbied effectively against the conduct of the operation. The commander was replaced, and his successor quickly accepted that it would have to be abandoned. Dawnay and Glyn then planned and oversaw the complex evacuations, which had to be completed without the enemy becoming aware of what was happening. 
In 1917, Glyn was in France, earning distinction with the 57th Division at Passchendaele, and later was attached to the arriving American forces as a liaison officer. At the end of the war he was a major and could boast of a Military Cross, three mentions in despatches, and foreign decorations from Serbia, Russia, France and the Unites States.
The end of the war coincided with the start of an election campaign and Glyn’s return to politics. It seemed too early for prewar conflicts to be revived. Glyn, standing for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire, although a Conservative (or, strictly, a Unionist), advocated a continuation of the wartime coalition led by the Liberal Lloyd George. He wanted no return to ”the dirty mill-pond of party politics”, and described himself as a “constructionist” – a term more often applied to reform-minded Liberals – rather than as a Unionist. After two weeks of intense electioneering, he won the seat with a majority of 1018. His opinions were widely shared; the overall result was a landslide victory for the coalition. Once in Parliament, Glyn showed himself as very active and with a wide range of interests. There were three in particular that would remain his preoccupations thereafter: agriculture, transport, and policies towards the Near and Middle East.
The political truce could not last. In the crisis of October 1922, Glyn stayed true to his anti-party principles. When the Conservative MPs, meeting at the Carlton Club, voted to withdraw from the coalition, Glyn stood with the minority. At the election, with a much higher turnout than in 1918, he came in third; it was the Labour candidate who took the seat.
He may not have been terribly disappointed. In 1921 he had married Sibell Long, widow of an officer who had been killed in 1917. Her background was in Yorkshire and in London. His business career was taking off; he had become a director of the Caledonian Railway and had advocated unsuccessfully that the Scottish railways should be kept separate from those in England in the grouping that was planned. Henceforth the centre of railway affairs would be exclusively in London. A move to the south of England would be convenient, and it was probably about then that he took up residence at a house named Marnhill in Ardington, later moving to Farnborough on the Berkshire Downs. At the 1923 election he stood as a Conservative for what was officially known as the Abingdon division of North Berkshire, an extensive and still largely rural constituency covering a region that included the towns of Abingdon, Wantage and Wallingford and the country round about. He lost by 254 votes, but won the seat in the following year with a majority of over 4000. He then held it for almost thirty years.
Glyn’s career followed three tracks, which he was able to keep largely independent. He was a significant figure in the business world, a director of many companies, notably of the LMS railway from 1929 until nationalization. With 2000 acres on the downs, he became a major personality in north Berkshire, associated with many causes, activities and events – his being a constituency MP was only a part of this. And finally he was an active parliamentarian, an advocate for his constituents’ interests as he had to be, but also with his own views on matters of policy which might well differ from those of his superiors.
Immediately the 1924 Parliament convened, Glyn arranged with the Wallingford-based Berks and Oxon Advertiser to publish weekly articles from him while Parliament was sitting concerning current issues. These continued until 1941 and were genuine attempts to explain debates and policies in a way that was often explicitly anti-socialist but not otherwise partisan. Readers were encouraged to write to him if they had matters of local interest to raise, but it was clear that on wider issues he would expect no help in coming to an opinion.
Probably the first instance on which his independence of mind was shown was in relation to Turkey. In the Dardanelles he had learned to respect his enemy, and he was inclined to be pro-Turkish in the post-war wranglings that finally broke up the Ottoman empire. There was a serious difficulty in 1925 over British insistence that the potentially oil-rich region of Mosul should become part of the mandated territory of Iraq rather than remain in Turkish control. He took himself to Constantinople, and from there wrote one of his Berks & Oxon Advertiser articles sharply criticising his government’s policy. He had no official standing, and there is no record of what discussions he may have had and with whom. In a later Commons debate, he advocated friendship with the new Turkey led by Kemal Ataturk and that Turkey should be allowed a share in any oil to be found at Mosul. He had little support and was ignored.
Through the 1920s and 1930s, Glyn continued as an active back-bencher, interested in a wide range of topics. As probably the greatest landowner in the Commons, he supported horse breeding and sheep farming. He was accumulating railway directorships, and spoke frequently on transport policy. An imperialist, he saw the Empire primarily as a trade bloc and deplored the collapse of the coalition government in 1931 over protection. Nonetheless, he was aware, as some of his Conservative colleagues were not, that Empire trade would never be as important to Britain as trade within Europe, and that only if we imported agricultural produce from eastern European countries could they afford to buy our industrial output and repay their long-standing debts to us. In 1931 he ”astonished his Conservative friends” by advocating financial credits to and trade with Soviet Russia.
Glyn twice submitted private member’s bills. One, in 1926, was on the regulation of moneylenders. It was not passed on that occasion, but was, in an amended form, a year later. The other, in 1927, was on racecourse betting, and led to the introduction of the Totalisator or Tote, a state backed system that channelled profits, or some of them, from traditional bookmakers to the racing industry itself. Racehorse breeding and training was a major industry in his constituency.
Glyn had started his parliamentary career supporting a coalition government and in the crisis of 1931 he helped to install another. The Labour government was split over reductions in unemployment benefit. The Conservatives wanted extreme cuts, but Glyn expressed his approval for the proposals of the Labour faction led by Ramsay MacDonald. When MacDonald formed his “national” government, Glyn became one of his parliamentary private secretaries. The two men got on well together in spite of their political differences and are recorded as playing a round of golf during a break in more serious activities. When in 1935 MacDonald, his powers failing in old age, was demoted to Lord President of the Council, Glyn remained with him in the same function.
As the international situation darkened in the 1930s, Glyn shared the general fears and confusions. Hitler was deplorable, but a strong Germany might be a stabilising factor in the political and economic chaos then prevailing in Europe. To men who had fought in the Great War, a repeat was unthinkable. Glyn favoured cooperation with Germany, but also modernisation of the air force. In 1936, he opposed the continuation of sanctions against Italy over Abyssinia, and worried that France, like Spain, was unstable. France was being excessively belligerent over the German occupation of the Rhineland; we should honour our treaty obligations to her, but no more. In the Spanish civil war, he preferred Franco over the republican government which was “full of communists and anarchists”. He was unhappy about letting men who had fought for the Spanish republicans return to Britain. As late as March 1939, he was ready to accept Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and argued we should not send our expeditionary force to help France if she were attacked; it should be reserved in case of a need to defend Holland or Belgium. And, as he had done before, he took independent action on foreign policy, touring the Balkans and talking apparently informally to the king of Romania and the prime minister of Hungary. But in April 1939 he forecast correctly that war would start in the autumn with a German attack on Poland, though incorrectly that Russia would fight to defend it. He was again mistaken in June 1941, when he believed that Russia would be defeated within weeks and a German invasion of Britain would immediately follow.
Thus Glyn, like many Conservative politicians, was an appeaser in the 1930s. Even after the outbreak of war, he was spoken of in the German Foreign Office as concerned with its financial cost and possibly open to the idea of a negotiated peace. But in the critical Norway debate in May 1940 he voted against the government and for a more aggressive prosecution of the war, and there is no evidence that his support of the war effort was ever anything less than whole-hearted.
When the war started, Glyn set up the Upper Thames Patrol, a home defence organisation that became part of the Home Guard. Boats and their crews on the Thames were commandeered to guard against enemy action such as mining or sabotage. It got him the colonelcy he had missed earlier.
He continued active in Parliament, especially on financial matters and the post-war reform of social services. After the war, he chaired a parliamentary committee that travelled annually to Germany and Austria, checking the finances of the occupation authorities. He was very critical of British policy, which, in his view, regarded Germany as a newly conquered colony and its natives as primitive. It would be cheaper to let them run their own affairs.
Under the post-war Labour and then Conservative governments, Glyn continued reluctant to play party politics against what he considered as the national interest. He rejected tax cuts when tax income was needed, and argued against the denationalisation of road transport in spite of his earlier commitment to the railways. He was “a one-man revolt against his party’s policy”, and was described by the Labour politician Michael Foot as his “favourite Tory rebel”.
Glyn was always an active participant in the affairs of his constituency. In 1947, as part of a campaign started by the poet John Betjeman who lived in Wantage, he was able to prevent the building of a television transmitter on White Horse Hill. In 1952, he was active in the campaign to save Fitzharris House from demolition, though this was ultimately unsuccessful. He became High Steward of Wallingford in 1933. In Abingdon, he was a governor of Abingdon School for many years and latterly vice-chairman of the governing body, but his greatest contribution to the town was in his support for the civic society, the Friends of Abingdon. He was among the founders of the society in 1944 and its president from 1945 until his death. He was particularly effective as a fund raiser and obtained over several years a total of £5000 from the Pilgrim Trust which made possible the acquisition and renovation of the Checker and Long Gallery.
Glyn was made a baronet in the New Year honours list of 1934, “for political and public services”. In the coronation honours of 1953, having decided not to contest the next election, he became Baron Glyn of Farnborough and moved to the House of Lords where he remained active until his death in May 1960.
In 1921 he married Sibell Long, née Vanden-Bempde-Johnstone, widow of a senior officer killed in 1917, who had herself served in France as a volunteer ambulance driver. She had a house in London and was a councillor there in 1924-5. But after her husband gained the Abingdon seat she became a conventional Conservative wife, supporting his constituency activities. Her son Walter Long, who had inherited a viscountcy from an uncle, was killed fighting in the Netherlands in 1944. She died in 1958.
There were no children of Glyn’s marriage, and the barony became extinct at his death.
Ralph Glyn was unusual as a politician, seeing his prime duty as being to his country and his constituents, not his party. His personal preference was for coalition governments, so long as the more extreme socialists remained in opposition. His private means enabled him to take personal initiatives, as in foreign affairs. His business interests meant that he was never a candidate for government office and left him free to oppose party policy when he thought it necessary. He worked hard for his constituents, and thoroughly deserved the confidence they placed in him for almost thirty years.
© AAAHS and contributors 2022
 Glyn Obituary, The Times, 2/5/1960 p. 21
 London Gazette, Supp 27772, p. 1846 (7/3/1905).
 Homeward Mail from India, China and the East (newspaper), 6/5/1905, p. 26
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 The Scotsman, 2/4/1910, p.8.
 London Gazette, Supp 28356, p. 292 (12/4/1910); Supp 28425, p. 7353 (18/10/1910).
 The Scotsman 27/1/1910, p.7; 30/4/1910, p. 9; 9/12/1910, p.7. (To The Scotsman, the Unionists were the true Liberals, and the Liberal candidates were described as Radicals.)
 The Scotsman 29/4/10, p.9.
 The Scotsman 21/4/1910, p.6; 22/4/1910. p.8;2/12/1910, p.9.
 The Scotsman 25/11/1910, p. 11
 Larry L Witherell, Rebel on the Right: Henry Page Croft and the crisis of British conservatism 1903-14 (1997), p. 21.
 Obituary, The Times, 2/5/1960, p. 21; Berks RO, letter from Charles French, (undated), C30/19
 Peter Gordon (ed), Politics and Society: the journals of Lady Knightley of Fawsley 1885-1913 (1992), p. 487.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unionist_Party_(Scotland) (accessed 25/1/2020).
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 The Scotsman 24/11/1919, p. 8; 25/11/1918, p. 3; 26/11/1918, p. 3; 4/12/1918, p. 6.
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 The Scotsman 26/2/1921 p. 8.
 Westminster Gazette 6/6/1922, p. 7; 28/8/1922, p. 7.
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 The Tatler 22/8/1929, p. 29.
 Berks & Oxon Advertiser (B&OA) 12/12/1924, p.9.
 The Scotsman 28/3/1922 p.8; The Times 3/10/1922 p. 6.
 B&OA 23/10/1925, p. 8.
 Hansard, 21/12/1925, cols 2098-2101.
 Coventry Evening Telegraph 30/11/1928 p. 5; Belfast Telegraph 4/2/1930 p.6; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 1/3/1930 p. 15; Western Gazette 13/5/1932 p.4, 29/5/1932 p.2.
 Londonderry Sentinel 23/7/1931 p.5; B&OA 29/7/1932 p.5, 23/9/1932 p.2, 21/10/1932 p.2, 30/9/1932 p. 3; 28/10/1932 p.5.
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 Glyn Obituary, The Times, 2/5/1960 p. 21
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 B&OA 19/6/36 p.4.
 Martin Gilbert, Richard Gott, The Appeasers (London, 1960),pp. 203, 205.
 B&OA 02/07/1937, p.4.
 B&OA 10/02/1939, p.6.
 B&OA 16/09/1936, p.4, 17/03/1939 p.4.
 B&OA 09/09/1938, p.3.
 B&OA 06/04/1939, p.3
 B&OA 27/06/1941, p.3
 Akten zur deutschen auswaertigen politik 1918-1945 (Frankfurt, 1961) Series D Vol VIII p. 285
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 B&OA 21/06/1940, p.3
 Daily Herald 16/4/1943 p. 4; The Scotsman 13/10/1943 p. 4.
 Nottingham Journal 4/5/1950 p. 4; Michael Zvegintzov, J. R. L. Anderson, Col. Sir Ralph Glyn M.P., ‘British Policy towards Germany’, Chatham House Discussion, November 14, 1946; Chatham House Online Archive.
 The Scotsman, 4/11/1949, p. 7; Daily Herald 22/5/52, p.1
 Birmingham Daily Gazette 4/11/1949, p.1; Daily Herald 11/5/1950, pp. 1-2; Daily Herald 14/11/52, p. 4.
 Reading Standard 9/5/1947, p. 5; The Times 26/4/1947, p.5; 8/5/1947, p.4.
 Dick Barnes, ‘Fitzharris Manor, Abingdon: from gentleman’s residence to demolition’, Berkshire Old and New, No 23, 2006, pp16-25; Hansard, 02/12/1952, col 138.
 B&OA – Friday 10 November 1933, p.8.
 The Abingdonian, Vol IX, No 5, April 1949, pp 136, 142,145.
 RCM Barnes, The Friends of Abingdon: A History of the Society 1944-1994 (Abingdon, 1994), pp 2,26,32.
 The Times, 1/1/1934, p. 14.
 Obituary, The Times, 2/5/1960, p. 21.
 Kensington Post 2/5/1924 p.4; West London Observer 30/10/1925 p.9.
 Obituary, The Times 25/11/1944, p. 7.