J. Howard Whitehouse

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John Whitehouse

John Howard Whitehouse (1873–1955) was the founder and first Warden of Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight and a Member of Parliament. His father, George Whitehouse, was a Quaker and an uncompromising Gladstonian Liberal whose strong views on issues such as Irish Home Rule and opposition to the politics of Liberal Unionist, later Conservative, leader Joseph Chamberlain were to shape his son's political views. Whitehouse, throughout his career in politics and later at Bembridge, was an intense believer in the right of the individual to shape his own life and a bitter opponent of any form of bureaucratic control.

He attended the Midland Institute and Mason Science College (which became the University of Birmingham), specialising at the former in literature, history and political economy. It was here that he first read the works of John Ruskin, of whom he became a lifelong disciple.

In 1894, Whitehouse joined the firm of Cadbury as a clerk. Living in Bournville, the model village, in 1899 he founded and managed a large youth club. In 1901 he began a campaign to establish a national memorial to Ruskin in the village. Ruskin Hall, now the Bournville Centre for Visual Arts, comprised a library, museum and lecture hall. In the early twentieth century he acted as treasurer to Birmingham Technical Education Committee.

Whitehouse founded the Ruskin Society of Birmingham in 1896, organising lectures by notable speakers, focused on the social questions of the day. Every year he organised excursions to places of Ruskinian interest, including some of England's great cathedrals. He founded and edited the society's influential quarterly journal, Saint George (1898–1911), managing its business affairs and eventually becoming its publisher.

In November 1903 he was appointed secretary to the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, resigning because of irreconcilable differences with the trustees in 1905, when he joined the university settlement, Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel, east London, as secretary. He took a keen interest in its education and youth work, and had lectured widely on such matters since the late 1890s.

He worked briefly with Baden Powell and edited "The Scout", became Sub-Warden of St George's School in Harpenden and was warden of the Manchester University Settlement at Ancoats.

In 1910 Whitehouse entered Parliament as a Liberal representing the constituency of Mid Lanark.

General election Jan 1910: Mid Lanarkshire [1]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 5,792 38.5
Conservative John Johnson Pickering 5,401 35.9
Labour Robert Smillie 3,864 25.7
General election Dec 1910: Mid Lanarkshire [2]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 6,033 38.7 +0.2
Conservative Henry Shanks Keith 5,702 36.6 +0.7
Labour Robert Smillie 3,847 24.7 -1.0

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, and pursued his interest in education, serving on a number of committees dealing with child labour, child wages and reformatory work.

Shortly before the Great War broke out Whitehouse was introduced to Edward Daws, who showed him the Isle of Wight. He was so taken with the place that he bought a field and a house known as The Old School House. This was to form the nucleus of Bembridge School a few years later.

At the beginning of 1916 he organised opposition to the Government's Military Service Bill that successfully introduced conscription. In 1916 he lent his support to the growing conscientious objector movement,[3] reflecting his Quaker background.

As a result of a minor revision of constituencies, Mid-Lanark ceased to exist, and Whitehouse unsuccessfully fought for the Hamilton seat in the 1918 election. Despite his past close working relationship with Lloyd George and because of his opposition to the Coalition Government during the war, Lloyd George publicly supported his Unionist opponent at the election.

General election 1918: Hamilton [4]
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Labour Duncan Macgregor Graham 6,988 42.1
Coalition Conservative Henry Shanks Keith 4,819 29.0
National Democratic David Gilmour 4,297 25.9
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 504 3.0

This defeat germinated the idea that had long been in his thoughts, the foundation of a boarding school based on different principles to those underlying orthodox public schools of the day.

Whilst his life from 1919 was closely bound up with the school he continued to pursue outside interests, penning a number of pamphlets and books on the subject of education and contesting every election between 1922 and 1935 (with, as he once noted wryly "equal measure of success").

He again stood as a Parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party at six General Elections; Hanley in 1922, Hereford in 1923 and 1924;

General election 6 December 1923 Electorate 28,538
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Conservative Sir Samuel Roberts 11,448 55.3 -20.9
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 8,280 40.0 +40.0
Labour Sydney Box 981 4.7 -19.1
Majority 3,168
General election 29 October 1924 Electorate 29,083
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Conservative Sir Samuel Roberts 13,210 60.6 +5.3
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 8,604 39.4 -0.6
Majority 4,606

Southampton in 1929, Thornbury in 1931 and finally Stoke Newington in 1935;

General election 1935 Electorate 34,591
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Conservative Sir George William Henry Jones 11,213 53.3
Labour David Weitzman 7,448 35.4
Liberal John Howard Whitehouse 2,364 11.2
Conservative hold Swing

He organised the committee to ensure the preservation of the Fram, the ship which carried Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen to the Arctic and later Roald Amundsen to the Antarctic. He also bought Brantwood, Ruskin's home in the Lake District.

In 1953, during an Old Boys cricket match, he was struck in the eye by a cricket ball, and was severely injured. The effects incapacitated him, and he died in his sleep on 28 September 1955.


  1. ^ Debrett's House of Commons and the Judicial Bench, 1916
  2. ^ Debrett's House of Commons and the Judicial Bench, 1916
  3. ^ An Open Letter To The Bishop Of Liverpool, J Howard Whitehouse MP, 1916
  4. ^ Whitaker's Almanack, 1920

Further reading[edit]

  • Conscription vote
  • Sara Atwood, "John Howard Whitehouse, Ruskin and Educational Reform"
  • Dearden, James S., Ruskin, Bembridge and Brantwood: the Growth of the Whitehouse Collection (Ryburn, 1994).
  • Eagles, Stuart, “Ruskin's 'true disciple': John Howard Whitehouse (1873-1955) and Ruskin's Legacy” in idem, After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920, pp. 232–261 (Oxford UP, 2011).
  • Wildman, Stephen, Keeper of the Flame: John Howard Whitehouse, 1873-1955 (Ruskin Library, 2005) (with contributions by Stuart Eagles and James S. Dearden).
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
James Caldwell
Member of Parliament for Mid Lanarkshire
Jan. 19101918
Constituency abolished