Horace Wilson (civil servant)

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Sir Horace Wilson

Head of the Home Civil Service
In office
MonarchGeorge VI
Prime MinisterNeville Chamberlain
Winston Churchill
Preceded bySir Warren Fisher
Succeeded bySir Richard Hopkins
Personal details
Born(1882-08-23)23 August 1882
Bournemouth, England
Died19 May 1972(1972-05-19) (aged 89)
Bournemouth, England
Alma materLondon School of Economics
Sir Horace Wilson on 23 September 1938, along with the British Ambassador to Germany, Nevile Henderson

Sir Horace John Wilson, GCB, GCMG, CBE (23 August 1882 – 19 May 1972) was a senior British government official who had a key role with government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the appeasement period just prior to the Second World War.[1]

Early Life and career[edit]

Son of furniture dealer Henry Wilson and Elizabeth Ann Smith, Horace John Wilson was born in Bournemouth on 23 August 1882. For his education he attended Kurnella School in the town before graduating to the London School of Economics.[1][2]

Joining the old Second Division of the British Civil Service in 1900 his abilities came to the notice of senior officials. During the First World War, 1915 saw Wilson made secretary to the Committee on Production and the Special Arbitration Tribunal.[1] At the end of hostilities in 1918 Wilson moved to the new Ministry of Labour as part of the Conciliation Department. There he worked alongside Sir David James Shackleton. He was appointed Permanent Secretary to the ministry in 1921. It was at this time he developed a reputation for resolving industrial disputes, a high point in this regard was his handling of the cotton crisis on 1929. One great asset brought to bear in the arbitration of the disputes was reportedly his adherence to impartiality which was trusted by both employers and employees alike. Success with the ministry caused Wilson to be appointed Chief Industrial Advisor to the Government in 1930 by Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Wilson's reorganisation of the cotton industry in Britain was the highlight of this part of his career.[1]

At this point Wilson was to display his abilities on the international stage when travelling to the Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa, Canada. Wilson was the most senior official travelling with the British delegation to the conference.[3] There he impressed with his grasp of the subject and was said to have been largely responsible for the agreements reached at the conference. He returned from Canada to an appointment as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George.[1][4]

Wilson's career saw several official awards. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918, Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1920, Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1924, Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1933, and finally Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1937.[5] Under the Premiership of Stanley Baldwin, in 1935, Wilson was afforded a secondment described as 'for service with the Prime Minister'. This continued with ascent on Neville Chamberlain to the office in 1937.[1]

Lord Woolton recalled in his memoir that Wilson, "found himself enjoying tremendous power – in fact a power unequalled by any member of the Cabinet except the Prime Minister." On another occasion Woolton noted that Wilson left him after a dinner early saying, "I must go and look after my master: he's feeling very lonely just now".[6] Indeed, Chamberlain's biographer Robert Self noted that the men "enjoyed the sort of unparalleled intimacy only possible among truly kindred spirits."[3]


Sir Horace Wilson alongside Neville Chamberlain in a car, Munich, 23 September 1938

10 March 1938 saw Wilson meet with Theodor Kordt [de], the counsellor at Germany's London Embassy. Wilson stated his pleasure at hearing that Hitler had referred to England and Germany as 'two pillars upon which the European social order could rest'. Wilson expanded the metaphor by expressing his wish 'that an arch of co-operation should be erected on these two pillars'. He also expressed his hope that Germany would succeed in fulfilling her goals regarding Austria and Czechoslovakia 'as much as possible without the use of force'.[3]

In June Wilson went further, intimating to Helmuth Wohlthat [de] of the German Ministry of Economics, that Britain was prepared to recognise German economic dominance in central Europe. Furthermore, Britain would also accept the transfer of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. However, in exchange for this recognition Hitler would need to state the limits of Germany's territorial ambitions.[3]

August ended with Lord Halifax sending a letter from Winston Churchill to Wilson on the 31st. It suggested a joint declaration by Britain, France and Russia calling for a peaceful solution to the crisis. However, Wilson counselled Chamberlain against the inclusion of the Russians as he felt this would anger the Fuhrer and take away any benefit a declaration may bring. Wilson went further still, stating that he doubted the ability of Britain, France and Russia to act militarily against Germany. Furthermore, that if it came to military action, Britain would to all intents and purposes be attacking alone.[3]

Kordt returned to Downing Street in early September but on this occasion as a member of the German resistance to Hitler. Kordt had already urged Wilson on August 23 that Britain must speak and act with clarity on the matter. Now he came with specific intelligence that Hitler would invade Czechoslovakia on September 19 or 20 as he felt France would not honour it's pledge to the Czechs. Kordt urged Wilson that Chamberlain should broadcast to Germany and state unequivocally that Britain would assist the Czechs in resisting a Nazi invasion. Moved by the request Wilson asked Kordt to come back the following day to say the same to Halifax and Cadogan. It was they who vetoed the idea as they felt it would preclude the possibility of a peaceful solution to the crisis.[3] According to Kordt, Wilson stated that Russia could be left out of any European settlement as "in his opinion the system there was bound 'to melt away' some day".[7]

On 15 September 1938, Prime Minister Chamberlain left for Germany to negotiate with Adolf Hitler regarding the disputed territory of the Sudetenland. He was accompanied on this mission by Wilson in what was his first diplomatic mission. Sir Harold Nicolson described the pair and their mission as "the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time".[1]

While he travelled with Wilson to meet Hitler during the crisis, Chamberlain still consulted the inner cabinet (Lord Halifax, Sir John Simon and Sir Samuel Hoare) on the matter as well as meetings of the full cabinet.[3]

Wilson travelled with the Prime Minister to three meetings with Hitler, but also travelled to see the Fuhrer alone on 26 September.[1]

His lone mission on 26 September to see Hitler followed the German leader issuing his Godesberg ultimatum to Czechoslovakia regarding the ceding of the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Wilson carried with him a letter from Chamberlain. It proposed direct negotiations between Germany and Czechoslovakia and His Majesty's Government would act for the Czechs if both parties agreed. Wilson was unable to deliver the second part of the message due to Hitler being in a bad mood, which left him impatient and irritable. Returning the following day, Wilson was able to complete his task, stating "if, in the pursuit of her treaty obligations, France became actively engaged in hostilities against Germany, the United Kingdom would feel obliged to support her".[1]

Later, in July 1939, Wilson continued his efforts at negotiation. Herr Wohlthat, a junior German government official was in London for a whaling conference. Wilson invited Wohlthat to a meeting in which Wilson presented a memorandum outlining a possible agreement between the United Kingdom and Nazi Germany. The paper proposed a joint declaration to abstain from aggression, arms limits, and economic cooperation. As Wohlthat left he reported Wilson as saying "...he saw the possibility of a common foreign and trade policy for the two greatest European states". Feeling himself too junior an official for such matters, Wohlthat reported to his superiors and asked what should be the reply. No reply has been found to that question.[1]

Wilson also liaised with the press, meeting newspaper owners to gain support for appeasement. He also warned the BBC to exercise self-censorship in relation to Germany.[3]

Wilson was referred to in the book Guilty Men by Michael Foot, Frank Owen and Peter Howard (writing under the pseudonym 'Cato'), published in 1940 as an attack on public figures for their failure to re-arm and their appeasement of Nazi Germany. [8] Wilson later stated in 1962 that, "Our policy was never designed just to postpone war, or enable us to enter war more united. The aim of our appeasement was to avoid war altogether, for all time."[9]

Later career and retirement[edit]

Just after the outbreak of war, John Colville joined the Downing Street staff as Chamberlain's Private Secretary in October 1939. Colville noted that Chamberlain seldom took action without Wilson's advice. Colville also felt that "he came to believe himself as infallible as the prime minister thought him to be". Labour Party leader Clement Attlee also commented that during Chamberlain's premiership Wilson "had a hand in everything, ran everything". However, Chamberlain's sister Hilda observed that her brother used Wilson purely as a messenger and knew his own mind. Wilson himself refuted the idea that he exercised power and felt himself to be merely a "chopping block" for the Prime Minister's ideas.[3]

Sources vary on specifics, but when Winston Churchill became prime minister Wilson was threatened with the governorship of Greenland should Churchill see him at Downing Street again. Some sources have this occurring on the day of the accession, 10 May 1940,[10] while others give 11 May.[11] There is also some disagreement as to whether it was Churchill's son Randolph and Brendan Bracken who made the remark or a quip by Churchill himself.[12]

Wilson reverted to his role as Permanent Secretary to the Treasury until August 1942 when he retired, having reached the age of 60, then the pensionable age for the Civil Service.[13] In January 1944 Wilson was appointed by the Minister of Health to act as Chairman of the National Joint Council for Local Authorities' Administrative, Professional, Technical and Clerical Services. The council was engaged in matters of pay and conditions of those in local government as well as supervision of recruitment and training provision.[14]

Wilson spoke at a 1957 meeting in support of Nigel Nicolson MP, for the constituency of Bournemouth East and Christchurch, when the local constituency part moved to deselect him over disagreements about the Suez Crisis. Wilson told the meeting that "he was against all subservience and dictators, and all for freedom in thought and speech – even if it meant an independence which might annoy some of those in power at headquarters or locally".[15]

British journalist Leonard Mosley interviewed Wilson among numerous others for the 1969 book On Borrowed Time, about the months leading up to the outbreak of World War II. Wilson acknowledged having felt out of his depth in dealing with Nazi Germany, while Mosley remained critical of Wilson's role.[citation needed] It has also been reported that he showed little interest in the fate of Germany's Jews during the negotiations with Hitler. Speaking to another journalist, Colin Cross, in 1968 – that is, 23 years after the liberation of Auschwitz – Wilson, by then well into his eighties, is quoted as saying that he understood Hitler's feelings about the Jews. "Have you ever met a Jew you liked?" he asked Cross.[citation needed]

Wilson died in Bournemouth on 19 May 1972.[2]

In fiction[edit]

Wilson is a key character in Michael Dobbs' novel Winston's War. In the book Wilson is portrayed as an arch-manipulator who has the telephones of all potential enemies to Neville Chamberlain tapped and will use any methods he can to get rid of Winston Churchill.[citation needed]

Wilson also appears in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel The Reprieve.[citation needed]

Wilson is something of a macguffin in the alternative history writings of Harry Turtledove. In both the Southern Victory Series and The War That Came Early series, Wilson serves as Prime Minister for part of an analog of World War II.[citation needed]

In the TV mini-series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years (1981) Wilson is depicted by the actor Clive Swift.[16] This film is technically "fiction" though it adheres closely to historical facts and was made with input from professional historian and biographer Martin Gilbert. The film shows Wilson holding enormous (and malign) influence in the ramp-up to war in the 1930s. A pivotal sequence of the film shows Neville Chamberlain (played by Eric Porter) and Wilson having a late-night meeting, in Wilson's office, about Wilson expanding his role in the government and becoming Chamberlain's right-hand man. Wilson doesn't explicitly ask for much but cannily steers Chamberlain toward what he wants.[citation needed]

Wilson also features in Munich by Robert Harris. The book is a fiction story but set against the real Munich Conference in 1938.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Obituary of Sir Horace Wilson". The Times (58488). 26 May 1972. p. 21.
  2. ^ a b "Wilson, Sir Horace John (1882–1972), civil servant | Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-31844. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Penden, George C. (December 2010). "Sir Horace Wilson and Appeasement". Historical Journal. Cambridge University Press. 53 (4): 983–1014. doi:10.1017/S0018246X10000270 – via STORRE - University of Stirling.
  4. ^ "Central Chancery of the Orders of Knighthood". The London Gazette (33898). p. 5.
  5. ^ Wilson, Sir Horace John (1882–1972), civil servant. Rodney Lowe, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  6. ^ "Horace Wilson: Man of Munich? | History Today". www.historytoday.com. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  7. ^ "Lessons from the Past". The Times (51436). 18 July 1949. p. 5.
  8. ^ Cato (1940). Guilty men. London: V. Gollancz. OCLC 301463537.
  9. ^ "That worthless piece of paper | The Spectator". The Spectator. Retrieved 2018-06-25.
  10. ^ 1943–, Adams, R. J. Q. (Ralph James Q.), (1993). British politics and foreign policy in the age of appeasement, 1935–39. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0333494555. OCLC 27726458.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  11. ^ "'Zealous ferret' to national saviour: Churchill in 1940 – The Historian". projects.history.qmul.ac.uk. Retrieved 2018-07-04.
  12. ^ 1963–, Roberts, Andrew, (1995) [1994]. Eminent Churchillians. London: Phoenix. ISBN 185799213X. OCLC 32609938.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  13. ^ "New Head Of Civil Service". The Times (49266). 19 June 1942. p. 4.
  14. ^ "Local Government Staff Conditions". The Times (49760). 22 January 1944. p. 4.
  15. ^ "Bournemouth M. P. 'To Fight Back'" (53766). 15 February 1957. p. 4.
  16. ^ Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, Robert Hardy, Siân Phillips, Nigel Havers, retrieved 2018-07-04CS1 maint: others (link)
  17. ^ Harris, Robert. Munich. ISBN 978-1784751852.

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Warren Fisher
Head of the Home Civil Service &
Permanent Secretary to the Treasury

Succeeded by
Sir Richard Hopkins