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Robert Ensor, Edwardian Rationalist

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Jack-of-all-trades and master of a period of English history which he both lived through and epitomised.

Since its publication in 1936 R.C.K. Ensor's England 1870-1914 has sold over 100,000 copies. Only A.J.P. Taylor's successor, England 1914-1945 (1965), exceeds its sales in the fifteen-volume Oxford History of England series. Taylor's remarkable achievement is in part due to a greater accessibility in Penguin paperback from 1970 and to an established popularity as intellectual mischief-maker. Ensor was not surrendered to book clubs before 1985 or published in paperback by Oxford before 1986; and it is probable that to the generation of students who quadrupled his sales from 1951 Ensor initially appeared no more exciting than any other recommended or set text. But Ensor's sustained sales cannot simply be explained in coarse market terminology by reference to the expansion of higher education and the tardiness of other publishers to offer serious competition in the recent British history textbook field. In large measure all the Oxford volumes share an institutional and political emphasis and narrative style which conflicts with some post-1951 professional fashions in history-writing and teaching; and for some Oxford volumes this flaw has proved fatal and they are discarded. Ensor not only survives, he is imperishable. His work has classic status.

The explanation of why this should be may be found in the credentials he brought to the task. To the modern reader, Ensor is a historian tout court; in fact, historian was only his final vocation and almost an accidental one. He was chosen to write his Oxford History in 1930, the year he was displaced as chief leader-writer of the Daily Chronicle, when that newspaper was amalgamated with the Daily News and joined the Lloyd George camp. The editor of the Oxford History, G.N. Clark, was subsequently credited with having made an adventurous and inspired choice in snapping up Ensor; but it is worth asking what choice had he in an Oxford modern history faculty still largely Stubbs dominated in1930, in which the teaching of English history terminated in 1885. Though not a public figure in the general sense, Ensor was well known within political and academic circles as an authoritative and fluent writer with a power undimmed at the age of fifty-three. Ensor was not an unconventional man, therefore, but he was hardly an orthodox member of the establishment either; and it is this singularity that accounts for the special flavour which distinguishes his history.

A scholar of Winchester and Balliol, Ensor scooped the major academic trophies, winning firsts in classical mods. and Greats, the Craven and the Chancellor's Latin verse prizes. He was president of the Oxford Union in Hilary term 1900, during the Boer War, of which he was an opponent, like many at Balliol, led by the Master, the moral philosopher, Edward Caird. He experienced first-hand unhealed Liberal divisions at this time when the commissioned bust of Gladstone, by Onslow Ford, was unveiled in the Union's debating hall and Professor A.V. Dicey refused Ensor's invitation to be present. Following his examination successes, Ensor tried for a college fellowship and was mortified by failing at Merton and St John's and twice at All Souls. His friends consoled him by railing against 'a crooked world and a fatuous university'; but with his donnish ambition aborted, as that of another Balliol man before him, J.A. Spender, Ensor moved into journalism. He was not without connections. Laurence Scott, son of the Manchester Guardian's editor, was his contemporary at Corpus Christi College, and the two had canvassed Leigh on behalf of C.P. Scott's candidature in the 1900 General Election. Ensor was engaged by the Guardian in 1901, initially to undertake special assignments and to write reviews, theatre criticism, and occasional political leaders on labour questions in the wake of L.T. Hobhouse's departure.

Ensor doubled his duties by studying for the bar; but it was his continuing political education which merits notice. One of his first tasks for the Guardian was to cover the north Wales quarrymen's bitterly prolonged dispute with Lord Penrhyn, in which the military presence seemed like a foreign army of occupation, since so few of the villagers spoke English. He followed this with a critical leader on Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham speech which advocated old age pensions in January 1902, Ensor arguing that Chamberlain's 'whole view of pensions tends to mean little more than outdoor relief under another name'. Together -with Laurence Scott, Ensor was now active in the University Settlement movement at Ancoats; and here he met Helen Fisher to whom he became engaged in 1904 and married at Manchester Registry Office in 1906. Ensor was developing into a not untypical Edwardian progressive with many of the political sympathies and personal idiosyncracies which that term connotes. Tramper, vegetarian, teetotaller, and non-smoker, Ensor affirmed his anguish about the sordidness and poverty of modern urban civilisation in amateur verse. His Modern Poems was published in December 1903, with titles like 'Pan in the Pennines', in which the wind carries to the moors city smoke redolent of death, and 'July in a Slum', which contrasts the pent-up life of the urban toiler with the freedom of Worcestershire meadows. The liberal press was generally appreciative of Ensor's themes and feelings and, though critical of his composition, heralded 'a new poet of democracy'. Ensor's nature-worship was eventually privatised from January 1910 when he bought a substantial property near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire and devoted his leisure to gardening and bird-watching.

Ensor's politics meanwhile had been in a spin. At Oxford he had served as president for a term of the Russell Club, whose object was 'the promotion of Liberal and Progressive principles'. Ensor's Progressivism by 1904 outstripped his Liberbalism. He broke off all connection with the Liberal Party and edited a symposium of contemporary socialist literature, Modern Socialism, in 1904; and he joined the Fabian Society and Poplar Labour Representation Committee when he moved to London in 1905 to pursue a legal career in A. Llewellyn Davies' chamber.. He did not abandon journalism. He still reviewed and wrote occasional leaders for the Manchester Guardian, as well as special articles for Tribune, the Nation, Economist, New Age and Speaker; but more than one piece was either rejected or censored by L.P. Scott, H.W. Massingham, and F.W. Hirst because of Ensor's too forceful expression of socialist views. This was his most politically active period. He and his wife rented a London County Council flat in Poplar, and Ensor was a regular stump speaker at the dock gates with Will Crooks. He was elected to the executive committee of the Fabians as a representative of the reform group led by H.G. Wells and Sydney Olivier and was critical of the Society's attitude to the Independent Labour Varty, whose East End District Council secretary he became in the same year, 1907.

Wells' absurdities and inconsistencies Ensor quickly recognised; his own were not of the scandalous kind but chronic nonetheless. The mandarin manner incubated at Balliol (as an undergraduate he once wrote of England's 'three great universities, Oxford, Cambridge, and Balliol... in an ascending order of merit') was hardly suitable in London's East End. He ran an elocution class for the Poplar Labour Representation Committee and in the same month as he joined the Labour Party's National Advisory Council, April 1909, he applied for the professorial chair of Latin at Liverpool University. That failed but, since his income from legal fees was never sufficient, he also considered joining his old Oxford friend, Arthur Lord, as a classics lecturer at the University of Grahamstown in South Africa. The classics, indeed, always armoured Ensor. An omnivorous reader, gobbling up everything from the New Testament to Tennyson and Edwin Waugh's Lancashire dialect writings, Ensor never relinquished an appetite for the classics. In 1915 when the demands of war kept his pen at its busiest, his diary records that he reread the entire works of Virgil, before returning to Thucydides and Plato.

London and national Labour affairs were still occupying him – he became a London County Councillor in 1910 – but he had returned to full-time journalism in 1909, as leader-writer for the Daily News. This decision was taken from financial motives but it is also clear that Ensor now shared a general pessimism about the character and prospects of the Labour movement. His disenchantment was to grow, concerned lest socialists in seeking to abolish poverty might abolish liberty also; and this mood propelled him back to a progressive Liberal position in the years before the war. Afterwards, indeed, he retreated further and by the 1930s his rather prefectorial personality was asserting itself in increasingly conservative opinions. When he reviewed Equality (1931), written by his Balliol contemporary, R.H. Tawney, in the London Mercury, he rejected Tawney's confidence that welfare services and social equalisation could be financed without adverse economic consequences by taxing the rich. Redistributive taxation and its associated policies, Ensor feared, raised the costs of production, increased prices and threatened national bankruptcy more than they promised the millennium. It was not just budgetary brainstorms he mistrusted. The 1918 Representation of the People Act he described in the Spectator in 1938 as that 'happy-go-lucky extension of the franchise (far too wide to be wisely attempted in one instalment)'.

Most of all, events abroad had unnerved him. The 1905 Russian Revolution had seemed inspiring; the 1917 Revolutions were too alarming as friends in the Workers' Education Association movement in 1918 reported to him 'a good deal of evidence of the spread of Bolshevism of a most insidious kind'. The worst shock of all had been administered by Germany's invasion of Belgium in 1914. Ensor's interest in foreign affairs had grown markedly from 1912 when he acted as secretary to a Liberal pressure group hopeful of promoting rapprochement with Germany. Ensor was suspicious of Sir Edward Grey's foreign policy but not so heedless of German war preparations as to wish to overthrow the Russian entente. Nonetheless, the German will to war when it came surprised him, and the destruction of Belgium he considered barbarous enough to warrant the allies' subsequent dismemberment of the German Empire. Family connections affected him here: his mother and sisters had run a finishing school in Brussels after his father's banking business collapsed and his father was committed to an asylum for the insane, where he died in 1912. Significantly, Ensor's first sole-authored prose publication was on Belgium, written for the Home University Library series in 1915.

By now, Ensor's brilliance and range as a leader-writer were established. His versatility was extraordinary. Take January 21st-25th, 1910, for instance: in four days he contributed separate leaders on small-holdings, battleships, the Osborne judgement, American politics, wages fluctuations, and the Kaiser's tour of Posen and east Prussia! In the course of 1911 he wrote on England and the Continental Powers, the siege of Sidney Street and the problem of alien criminals, British trade and its enemies, arbitration with the USA, grants in aid, Morocco, the King's visit to Ireland, Kitchener and Egypt, the empire and the navy, industrial conciliation in New Zealand, the railway strike, the military in labour disputes, a living wage, and umpteen leaders on the House of Lords crisis, referendum proposals, and the Parliament Bill. Small wonder he was hurt on November 30th, 1911, when the editor, A.G. Gardiner, reported the impending merger of the Daily News with the Morning Leader and gave him notice to quit. Ensor consulted his Oxford friend and contemporary E.C. Bentley, the deputy editor, who subsequently departed for the Daily Telegraph; but Ensor was even less of a slouch. Within two weeks he was seeing Robert Donald and early in 1912 became leader-writer for the Daily Chronicle. Again, he wielded a pontifical pen across a range of subjects in his leaders while maintaining a regular flow of articles for the New Statesman and reviews and obituaries for the Manchester Guardian. In 1917-18 also, he was an active member of the Fabian Society's empire reconstruction committee. The 1920s saw no great reduction of his journalistic output, though the Liberal party's divisions and eclipse made his position increasingly uncomfortable, eventually indeed untenable. In 1930 when Clark offered Ensor the Oxford History commission, he was a beached whale. But his friends had no doubts about his fitness. One, Robert Leiper, wrote that he was 'only astonished that Oxford should have stumbled on the right man to do it'.

Ensor's strengths remain obvious to High and low politics – 1910 General Election posters at the Earls Court exhibition vividly illustrate the appeal of the Liberal 'Peoples Budget'. today's readers, his comprehensiveness, his authoritativeness, his limpidness. For the Disraelian and Gladstonian period he benefited by being able to draw upon the tombstone biographies: Huckle and Morley for the masters, and Hardinge, Fitzmaurice, Maxwell, Holland and the rest for the minions. Lowell, Low, Dicey, Anson, Traill, Jenks, Redlich and Hirst, supplied the constitutional development of central and local government; Clapham the economic history, and so on. The integration of all this bespoke Ensor's extreme competence, which was elevated further by characteristically individual touches of acute observation, clever contrasts, and epigrammatic wit. But his book reached an even higher level of operation from the late 1.890s. The point can be located exact]y: page 239, footnote 1, which concerns the succession to the Liberal leadership at the end of 1898. Ensor cite. as proof of his judgement a letter he received at the time from his Wykehamist and Balliol friend, Raymond Asquith. Two things are striking about this and one is governed by the other. The first is that Ensor was truly an intimate, much more than most historians who subsequently write a history of the period through which they have lived. It is not every undergraduate who is lucky enough to receive a letter from the son of a future Prime Minister about the inner counsels of a party. And this intimacy deepened as Ensor's own journalistic and political career developed in the Edwardian period. But a second comment upon that Asquith letter is necessary. A price of intimacy is discretion. Ensor was ever reluctant to betray fleshly detail lest misconstruction or mis-use result. A fuller quotation from Raymond Asquith's letter will make the point (the section cited in Ensor's Oxford History is italicised):

Harcourt, as you rightly say, should be shot: he is an enormous, sentimental imposter, & has behaved most disloyally: as for Morley, he is worse – a schoolgirl & no statesman: he will never know his own mind: certainly no member of the party has blasphemed W.H. so much in the past. He carries the 'Honest John' pose so far that it has become a paradox. The whips lunched here the other day & offered my father the leadership: but he defers to C. Bannennan, being a poor man & dependent on his practice at the Bar. From a pawky letter, wh. he has received from C.B., I gather that the latter will take it with a little pressing. All men agree in hating Rosebery, wh. is odd: apparently he has played Fabius too long.

Ensor's discrimination is characteristic. He illuminated the main issue, but left in shade the penumbral conditions. Much of Ensor's writing about the high and low politics of the progressive circles of this period demonstrates these twin features – a sureness which placed him at advantage over all historians until relatively recent times when archives were finely combed; and a reticence which is frequently hard to pin down but is ever present. The result is a more linear course than is now found convincing, and an emphasis upon rationality, that opiate of the Victorian and Edwardian intelligentsia to which Ensor belonged, rather than upon passion, prejudice, instinct and impersonal forces. Of course, he always understood the Conservative and Unionist side less well than the Liberal and Labour side before 1914; in addition, we must reckon with the shift in his own political opinions by the time he came to write his book. Undoubtedly, Ensor was ready to amend in 1930 the hopes and expectations and the sharp dissatisfactions which the pro-Hoer, progressive president of the Oxford Union felt in 1900. In sum, Ensor's England 1870-1914 is itself an historical document, combining extraordinary insight, deft reserve, and convalescent revision.

The book is an elegy for the progressive liberal tradition, not always represented by the liberal party. The emphasis upon the evolution of institutions was not forced upon Ensor by the series' format since this interpretation embodied his deepest beliefs. When he reviewed the progress England had made in the generation from 1900 he recognised the raised standard of living comprised of higher wages, better education, insurance against ill health and unemployment, pensions, and child care. This amounted to a revolution, achieved peacefully, with popular consent and without dictatorial planning for the most part. The explanation for this, as he saw it in 1938, was that:

...every one of these changes was at its root political, and grew from definite Acts being passed by Parliament and implemented by Whitehall, or the local governing authorities, or the trade unions. The main political battles were fought in the ten years before the War, and the school of thought and action which won them, whether you call it Liberal Socialism or Socialistic Liberalism, was a pretty definite and very English thing. It was not dogmatic about policies, it copied good models where it could find them... [but] it was very firm about its principles... Every ounce of freedom that the people of Great Britain had evolved, they were to hold fast and develop. It would be propter vitam vivendi perdere causas, if in order to enrich people you enslaved them. This way of thinking did, in fact, enrich the British proletariat far more than any dictatorship has enriched any other; and at the same time it so buttressed British political freedom...

In a world monstrously drawn towards Hitlerian Fascism and Stalinist Communism, it was more than ever necessary for Ensor to stress how England's central government had cherished liberty. That is why the theme of the state looms so large in Ensor's Oxford History. The central state was cardinal, and however much other institutional structures assisted or extended, these – local government and the trade unions – received their inspiration and conditions of operation from the primary source. Hence the partial and refracted picture of provincial England which he painted in his history. He acknowledged that 'on the side of institutions the feature of the period was the new local government'; and we can be sure that he knew a great deal about it, from his own experience of the LCC and from his service in Manchester, and because he had been employed by Edward Jenks in 1906-7 in revising the 1894 edition of his Outline of English Local Government, Hut he abstained from much detail in his Oxford History, devoting no more than three pages to local government institutions, and scattering elsewhere his references to town planning, housing and education. The metropolitan focus was paramount and nothing dimmed the centrality of the state and Westminster politics as the arbiter of the nation's development.

Clark's original commission to Ensor had given him a latitude as regards the period, '1870 to 1914 or later'. It was Ensor who determined to halt in 1914, and he gave his opinion on the penultimate page of his history that 'the war altered direction less than is often supposed. It accelerated changes – at least for the time being; but they were germinating before it'. The acclamation which greeted Ensor's volume in 1936 encouraged Clark to contemplate a sequel. On September 17th, 1937, he invited Ensor to write it, otherwise he would reluctantly take it up himself. The period would be '1914-1937 or thereabouts'. Ensor accepted, almost by return of post (September 20th), but pleaded that he be allowed to delay starting serious work on it until 1939. He was a busy man, taking an increasing part in the new sub-faculty of politics at Oxford where he was now a college Fellow. But he also felt a few years further space was required both to yield more material on the 1920s and 'to see the period (and the Treaty of Versailles) in a historical perspective'. 1939 indeed was a fateful year; and subsequently for the first time Ensor failed to deliver a commission. The Sunday Times had picked him up in 1941, to which he contributed his 'Scrutator' column; and service on royal commissions, on population and on the press (1944-49), absorbed other energies. A sketch of the military course of the Great War survives among his papers, but it is the only fragment of the projected volume. In correspondence with Clark, Ensor complained of the difficulty of deciding upon an axiomatic theme. Ensor's confidence from the pre-1914 era was finally drained.

Further reading: 
  • The Ensor Papers are in the Bodleian Library; M.G. Brock, 'Ensor' Dictionary of National Biography 1951-60
  • Published works by Ensor, apart from his journalism, include: England 1870-1914 (Oxford University Press, 1936); Belgium (Oxford University Press, 1915); Modern Poems (1903); Modern Socialism (edited by Ensor, 1904).


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