Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher
Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher GCVO, KCB, PC, DL (30 June 1852 – 22 January 1930) was a historian and Liberal politician in the United Kingdom, although his period of greatest influence over military and foreign affairs was as a courtier, member of public committees and behind-the-scenes "fixer".
Career Courtier and 'fixer'
Background and education
Reginald, known as Regy, Brett was the son of William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount Esher and Eugénie Mayer (1814–1904). Born in London, he was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. He held a militia commission after Cambridge. His father was Solicitor-General in the Derby-Russell ministry. He distinguished himself in the 1867 Reform Act debate dutifully supporting the triumphant Disraeli. Balliol Brett was an expert on northern politics, being Yorkshire born and bred. For many years he was MP for Bradford. In 1876 he was a Lord Justice, and Salisbury later elevated a Baron and raised to the bench. A distinguished common law judge, he was Master of Rolls for 1897, when created first Viscount Esher. Regy's mother was a jewess French émigré, who arrived in England, after being expelled for supporting Bonaparte. A refugee she was adopted by Colonel John Gurwood. She was the famous jejeune captivated in Disraeli's novel Conningsby. The couple met at the romantic bohemian Tory set in Longleat House and with the society hostess Countess Blessington.
At Eton Brett was taught by the influential William Johnson Cory, whose pupils included Rosebery and those in the highest echelons of society. Rosebery's idealistic learning from romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the liberal philosopher J S Mill, the chemistry of Leibnig, music of Mozart, and Jeremy Bentham were intellectual influences on the young Regy. Going up to Trinity College, Oxford, Brett was profoundly influenced by William Harcourt the radical lawyer, politician and Professor of International Law. Harcourt controlled Brett's rooms, and lifestyle at Oxford. Brett's father had introduced him to Albert Grey's Committee, but had a long-standing dispute with General Charles Grey, the Queen's Equerry. Brett was admitted to the Society of Apostles, dedicated to emergent philosophies of European atheism. Their number included the aristocratic literati of liberalism Frank, Gerald and Eustace Balfour, Frederick and Arthur Myers, Hallam and Lionel Tennyson, Edmund Gurney, S H and J G Butcher. Brett experimented approaching High Mass from Cardinal Newman on Sundays in London. The Oxford Movement included historians J Sedgwick and F M Maitland. The circle also knew science fiction writers ALdous Huuxley and W T Clifford.
Brett was seen with the Carlton Gardens set of Lady Granville, he was friends of the Clare brothers, introduced by the Earl de Grey. He visited Howick Park, and took law with Lord Brougham of Vaux. The famous lawyer's lectures coincided with Justice Brett's employment with Richard Cross, as a parliamentary re-drafter at the Home Office. Albert Grey ushered provided an invitation to the India Office and entrée to met Sir Bartle Frere, the colonial administrator. When Disraeli tried to enforce Anglicanism, in the Public Worship Bill, and was defeated, Brett wrote copious letters to Hartington, leader of the Whigs in the Lords. The consequences were to push Harcourt into the limelight as liberal leader in the Commons. But moderates tended to be dragged into sharing a religious position when the Disraelian tradition was threatening to split English liberalism. He visited the actor's daughter Lady Waldegrave at Strawberry Hill confirming a lettered art. Rejecting untidy ritualism preferred by Gladstone, he took deportment lessons from the Duchess of Manchester at Kimbolton. She was Hartington's private secretary, stamping his credentials as a rich aesthete.
Courtier, diplomat and Liberal MP
The Eastern Question of 1878 had crushed Russia despotism, and released the ramshackle bohemian Sultanate in cosmopolitan Istanbul from the threat of invasion. But the success of the Midlothian Campaign, re-energized Gladstone's authority as rightful leader of his party; casting Hartington and Brett as marginalized jingos. Six years later the Whigs would be pushed into the unionist camp. Brett needed his vanity satisfied but felt comfortable in neither party. He rose to become the mediator between aristocratic factions, and was a leading light at the Imperial Round Table Conference in 1887.
Having been a Conservative supporter as a young man, Brett began his political career in 1880, as Liberal Member of Parliament for Penryn and Falmouth. He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Hartington, who was Secretary of State for War (1882-5) and once drove him to a Cabinet meeting on a sleigh through the snow. However he elected to withdraw from public politics in 1885, after losing an election at Plymouth, in favour of a behind the scenes role. He was instrumental in the Jameson raid of 1895 vigorously defending the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
In 1895, Lord Brett became Permanent Secretary to the Office of Works, where the Prince of Wales was impressed by his dedication to the elderly Queen Victoria. A lift was built at Windsor Castle to get the elderly Queen upstairs in a redecorated palace. In Kensington Palace, Esher would push the Queen around in wheel chair so she could revisit her childhood. The devoted royal servant would work even more closely with Edward VII. Upon his father's death on 24 May 1899, he succeeded him as 2nd Viscount Esher.
During the Boer war Esher had to intervene in the row between Lansdowne and General Wolseley, c-i-c who tended to blame the politician for military failures. He would make the walk between palace and War Office to iron out problems. Into the political vacuum, Esher wrote the memos that became established civil service procedure. When the Elgin Commission was asked to report on the conduct of war, it was Esher who wrote it after the Khaki Election, and continued to act to influence both King and parliament. They met Admiral Fisher at Balmoral to discuss reform of Naval structures, which relied heavily on Fisher's complex web of relatives in senior posts.
In 1901, Lord Esher was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Berkshire and became Deputy Governor and Constable of Windsor Castle, he remained close to the royal family until his death. By the end of 1903 Esher was meeting or corresponding with King Edward VII every day. He lived at 'Orchard Lea',Winkfield on the edge of the Great Park. During this period, he helped edit Queen Victoria's papers, publishing a work called Correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907).
From 1903 Esher shunned office, but was a member of Lord Elgin's South African War Commission, which investigated Britain's near-failure in the Boer War. At this time he was writing to the King daily (and having three or four meetings a day with the King’s adviser Knollys), informing him of the views of the Commission, of party leaders, and war office civil servants with whom he was still in touch from his days working for Hartington. St John Brodrick, Secretary of State for War, was resentful of Esher’s influence. Broderick's scope for operation was paralysed by Esher's circumvention, and in October 1903 the government nearly fell when Chamberlain and Devonshire resigned over the rejection of Tariff Reform.
In 1904 Esher set up a sub-committee of Committee for Imperial Defence, known as the Esher Committee. To achieve the King's desired reforms of the Army, formed an uneasy alliance with Sir George Clarke, the permanent secretary, to directly undermine Hugh Arnold-Foster's attempt to block militia reform. A Triumvirate included Esher, Rosebery, and General Murray, notorious for making policy on the hoof. His scheming encouraged by the King, wanted Balfour to look to party first. Esher's role was for sixty-seven years a secret, by a memorandum behind the scenes, unaccountable to parliament. Esher cultivated a friendship with Colonel Sir Edmund Ward, secretary to the Army Council to control minute-takings, agenda, and meetings quorum. When Haldane entered the War Office, he was provided Colonel Sir Gerard Ellison as a new military secretary to make the transitional reforms. Haldane wished to avoid 'corner cuts' and so established the Information Bureau in the War Office. Although Eshers's biographer Peter Fraser argued "the Haldane reforms owed little to Haldane." The initial Liberal reforms were thrown out by the Lords, and the resulting documents looked like Esher's original efforts.
Esher found his son, Oliver Brett, a job as an additional secretary to John Morley. And he was on good terms with Capt Sinclair, Campbell-Bannerman's secretary.
Esher's royal triumph and the Entente Cordiale
Behind the scenes, he influenced many pre-World War I military reforms and was a supporter of the British–French Entente Cordiale. He chaired the War Office Reconstitution Committee. This recommended radical reform of the British Army, including the setting up of the Army Council, and established the Committee of Imperial Defence, a permanent secretariat that Esher joined in 1905. From 1904 all War Office appointments were approved and often suggested by Esher. He approved the setting up of the Territorial Army, although he saw it as a step towards conscription; a step not taken as the Conscription acts became mandatory. Many of Esher’s recommendations were nonetheless, implemented under the new Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Herbert Henry Asquith by Haldane, Secretary of State for War, assisted by Esher's protege the young Major-General Douglas Haig.
Esher was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of London in 1909. and the King's Aide-de-Camp. Esher was an able administrator, and a silky, smooth influence as a courtier, and supporter for the monarch. Moreover the King liked Esher, as his influence over the Army grew, leading to a more liberal far-sighted attitude towards the possibility of conflict in Europe. Esher's invaluable contribution prevented further promotion in a political career, in which he had been destined for high cabinet office. His close political friends in the Liberal party included Edward Marjoribanks and Earl Rosebery. His aristocratic connections and military experience made him an ideal grandee, but such was the importance of his ties to the monarch, that his career was somewhat restrictive of ambition. He was by nature ambitious, 'clubbable' sociable, and frequently seen at High Society parties in the fashionable houses of the Edwardian era.
In 1911 Esher helped ease out Lord Knollys, who was then seventy-five years old, having been in the Royal Household since 1862, but who had lost some royal confidence over the negotiation of the Parliament Act. Esher arranged a replacement as King George V's principal adviser with Lord Stamfordham.
During the First World War Esher was, in one writer’s description, de facto head of British Intelligence in France, reporting on the French domestic and political situation, although he told his son he preferred not to have a formal position where he would have to take orders.His son Maurice Brett set up a bureau in Paris called Intelligence Anglaise keeping his father informed through a small spy network with links to newspaper journalists.
Lord Esher was also a historian; besides the aforementioned work, he also published works on King Edward VII and Lord Kitchener. Together with Liberal MP Lewis ("Loulou") Harcourt he established the London Museum, which opened its doors on 5 March 1912.
- Their elder son, Oliver Sylvain Baliol Brett became 3rd Viscount Esher and was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He married Antoinette Heckscher, daughter of August Heckscher.
- Their second son, Maurice Vyner Baliol Brett, married the famous musical theatre actress Zena Dare.
- Their older daughter, Dorothy, was a painter and member of the Bloomsbury Group. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Arts and spent years in New Mexico.
- Their younger daughter, Sylvia, became the last Ranee of Sarawak on 24 May 1917, following the proclamation of her husband Charles Vyner Brooke as Rajah.
Although married with children, Esher had homosexual inclinations, but his flirtations with young men were regarded with tolerant amusement in polite society. He was evidently sufficiently discreet to avoid becoming entangled in the Cleveland Street Scandal, unlike his friend Lord Arthur Somerset.
- Hedley (2004)
- Reid 2006, pp127-31
- "Brett, Reginald Baliol (BRT870RB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- The London Gazette: . 5 February 1901.
- The London Gazette: . 23 July 1901.
- "The Papers of Viscount Esher (Reginald Brett)". Janus. Cambridge University.
- Fraser, p.23.
- Fraser, p.23-4
- The London Gazette: . 28 May 1909.
- Bailkin, Jordanna "Radical Conservations: The Problem with the London Museum" Radical History Review - Issue 84, Fall 2002, pp. 43–7
- Lees-Milne, James (1986). The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.
- Reid, Walter (2006). Architect of Victory: Douglas Haig. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1-84158-517-3.
- Fraser, Peter (1971). Life and Times of Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher. Routledge.
- Brett, Oliver (1938). Journals and Letters of Reginald Brett, Viscount Esher. 6 vols. Routledge.
- Magnus, Philip (1964). King Edward VII. John Murray.
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by the Viscount Esher
- The Papers of Viscount Esher (Reginald Brett) at Churchill College
- Works by Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Viscount Esher at Internet Archive
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