H. H. ASQUITH (1852–1928)
Prime Minister 1908–1916
The Wharf, 43 Church Street, Sutton Courtenay
Herbert Henry Asquith was born in Morley near Leeds, the son of a wool merchant. After his father’s premature death, he and his brother lived with their uncle in London. From the City of London School he won a classical scholarship to Balliol where he had a brilliant career and became President of the Oxford Union. He was called to the Bar in 1876.
He entered parliament as Liberal MP for East Fife in 1886 and held the great offices of state before becoming Prime Minister in 1908 and won three successive general elections. His government introduced ground-breaking welfare and constitutional advances, including the first ever old age state pension and the principle of national insurance contributions. When the ‘People’s Budget’ was obstructed by the Tory majority in the House of Lords, he skilfully steered through the Parliament Act of 1911, a constitutional milestone seriously curtailing the power of the veto in the Lords. Asquith was noted for his serene and imperturbable style exemplified by his famous maxim ‘Wait and see.’ Often called the Last of the Romans, for his noble character and ideals, he was nevertheless ‘a formidable, resolute, and resourceful radical politician’ (H. C. G. Matthew, ODNB).
He was PM at a time of growing industrial unrest, the militancy of the suffragettes and the continuing demand for Irish Home Rule, and then in 1914 it fell to his unhappy lot to take the country into the Great War to halt German aggression. He remained at the helm for the first two years of the war in which he suffered the personal loss of Raymond, his eldest son, on the Somme. Lloyd George succeeded him as PM in 1916 but Asquith remained for many more years Leader of the Liberal Party. In 1925 he accepted a hereditary peerage, becoming Earl of Oxford and Asquith.
In 1877 he had married Helen Melland, the daughter of a Manchester doctor, and after her death from typhoid, Margot Tennant, a rich socialite. Among his seven gifted children were Violet (later Lady Violet Bonham-Carter) and the film director Anthony Asquith. In 1912 he adopted Sutton Courtenay as his country retreat and Margot commissioned the Arts and Crafts architect Walter Cave to build the house called the Wharf, approached directly from Church Street, with grounds going down to the Thames. Here they entertained many great figures of the day. Asquith died in Sutton Courtenay in 1928 and is buried in the churchyard of All Saints.
- Sources: Memories and reflections 1852–1927 by H. H. Asquith (1928); The Genesis of The War by H. H. Asquith (1923); The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (1920); Asquith by Stephen Bates (2006); Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by H. C. G. Matthew.
- Oxford Mail, 20 March 2012: ‘Blue plaque plan for ex-PM’s house’
The plaque was unveiled at The Wharf on Saturday 30 June 2012 by his great-grandson Raymond Oxford, 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Dr Mark Pottle of Wolfson College, Oxford, also gave an address. The event was attended by other family members together with members of the local community and representatives of local government from all parts of the county.
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
H. H. ASQUITH
1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith