In 2010, our centenary year, Alex May, Research Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, contributed a wonderful biography of our founder, giving a unique insight into Sir Evelyn Wrench's life, aspirations and motivation, taking in his happy childhood in Co. Dublin, falling out with Gandhi, an tireless work to develop and promote ROSL.
The Edwardians were great founders of clubs, societies and associations, whether in sport, politics, or any other walk of life. Not many have survived to celebrate their centenaries, and very few have done so in such good health as the Royal Over-Seas League. For this, many people deserve credit. But ROSL owes its existence, to a peculiar extent, to one man: Sir Evelyn Wrench.
It was Wrench who founded the organisation in 1910, who initially ran it as a one-man band, who remained secretary for its first 30 years, who launched and for many years edited its journal, Overseas, and who was, until his death in 1966, its presiding spirit – though latterly perhaps more fidei defensor than genius loci.
Family and childhood
John Evelyn Leslie Wrench was born in Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, on 29 October 1882. The name Evelyn, by which he was always known, was given him after his godfather, Field Marshal Sir Evelyn Wood.
His mother, Charlotte, was a strong influence, and a spirited woman: a vegetarian and a supporter of women’s suffrage. She was one of the famed Bellingham sisters, daughters of Sir Alan Bellingham. Her sister Alice married Sir Victor Brooke; their grandchildren included Viscount Brookeborough, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
Evelyn’s father was the Rt Hon Frederick Stringer Wrench, PC. Originally from a Lincolnshire family, he was an Irish Land Commissioner, charged with developing the Irish rural economy by means of agricultural fairs, stock and crop improvements, and the encouragement of small industries. In pursuit of these aims he made regular tours of the west coast of Ireland in a schooner, frequently taking the young Evelyn with him.
Both parents were devout (without being strict), loving and encouraging, and it was by all accounts a happy childhood. Evelyn had three siblings. His brother Arthur (four years older) died of malaria in 1902, while a subaltern in the Central India Horse. His older sister Mary married young, but Evelyn was very close to his younger sister Winifride.
Evelyn was brought up mainly at Killacoona, Co. Dublin, but there were frequent stays with relatives, and the family travelled widely, including many times to the continent. He was kept quiet on long train journeys with a copy of the Army and Navy catalogue, and later with a partwork, ‘Peoples of the World’.
Like many Irish Protestant families, his was steeped in imperial service. At Castle Bellingham, Co. Louth (his mother’s birthplace), were the memorabilia of his ancestor Richard Bellingham, an early governor of Massachusetts, and of other Bellinghams who had served the Empire, whether as officials or as army or naval officers. Other relatives lived at Dunoon, near Glasgow, where he spent many a happy hour watching boats on the Clyde bound for distant lands. Drawings of boats figured prominently in his early artwork.
Summer Fields, Eton and Germany
In 1893 Evelyn was sent to the renowned preparatory school Summer Fields, in Oxford, where the headmaster, Dr Williams, took him under his wing. He was fair to middling academically, but noted for his popularity, and his almost manic energy. Early on, Dr Williams wrote to his father, ‘I’m keeping Evelyn in bed today as his temperature is a little above normal – and I am very glad that at last I have an excuse for sending him there!’.
In 1896 Wrench went to Eton, where his tutor was Lionel Ford, later headmaster of Repton and Harrow, and Dean of York. Again, he failed to shine academically, but was clearly popular. In July 1898, his housemaster reported that he ‘converses cheerfully as he works. It would not do for everybody, but he has a way of his own which carries things off’.
As a child, Wrench imbibed a conventional imperialism. He read Kipling, Baden-Powell’s The Matabele Campaign, and Mary Kingsley on West Africa. ‘Every day in my hurried morning prayers, I prayed that one day the British flag might fly over Tibet, Mesopotamia and elsewhere’, he wrote. ‘In optimistic moments I envisaged an all-red world’.
Having resolved upon a diplomatic or consular career (he had by now discarded an earlier ambition to become a missionary), in March 1899 he left Eton (two years early) in order to improve his languages. After travelling in Russia and Turkey, he spent eight months in Weilburg, Germany, staying in a 16th-century castle and taking German lessons. He was much affected by the hostility to Britain shown during the South African War, which served only to increase his patriotism.
While in Germany, Wrench noted the popularity of picture postcards, which were of a much higher quality than he had seen in Britain. Spotting a business opportunity, he put to one side his plans for a diplomatic career and instead launched the Wrench series of postcards on his return to Britain. He had the cards printed in Dresden and shipped in bulk to London. Old Etonian contacts were useful, especially Lord Esher at Public Works, who arranged permission for him to set up stalls at royal palaces.
Wrench’s business expanded rapidly, and within a couple of years he had premises in Haymarket, 100 employees, and a turnover in excess of £60,000pa. He later estimated that in total he sold around 50 million cards. He was fêted by the press as a fine example of a young entrepreneur, and given a grand banquet (widely reported in the press) for his 21stbirthday.
Nevertheless, Wrench over-extended, with too much capital tied up in stands and stock. Ironically in view of his later career, the plug was pulled in early 1904 by Alfred Harmsworth’s Amalgamated Press, which owned an £8,000 debenture in the business. The failure of the business was a personal blow, but one from which he learnt: thereafter his enthusiasm was always tempered by perseverance.
With Lord Northcliffe
The press baron Sir Alfred Harmsworth (who became Lord Northcliffe in 1905) had been impressed by Wrench’s entrepreneurial ability and, after meeting him, by his character. On the winding-up of Wrench Postcards he offered him a post, initially as his private secretary. Harmsworth had a habit of recruiting promising young men, very few of whom lasted: on Wrench’s first day at Carmelite House he found his new colleagues taking bets on how long he would last. In the event, he stayed for eight years.
Acting as Northcliffe’s troubleshooter, Wrench served at various points as editor of the overseas edition of the Daily Mail, editor of the Weekly Dispatch, launch editor of the Braille edition of the Daily Mail, director of the Paris-based continental Daily Mail (standing in at times for the editor, Norman Angell), export and sales manager of the Daily Mail, and, finally, sales manager of the Amalgamated Press. Wrench later spoke of his “hero-worship” of Northcliffe.
An ‘Empire Society’
In 1906, Northcliffe sent Wrench to the US and Canada to study newspaper methods there, and to discuss ways of improving the news supply. In Canada he stayed for a week with Earl Grey, the Governor-General. They talked long into the night, and Grey (a Rhodes Trustee) showed him a copy of Rhodes’s political will and testament, with its vision of a ‘secret society’ to further the British Empire. Wrench ‘determined then and there to devote my life to an attempt to give effect to Rhodes’s idea, only I did not see any necessity for secrecy’.
In letters exchanged with Grey over the next couple of years, Wrench fleshed out some of his ideas for what he called an ‘Empire Society’. He spoke of an immediate target of recruiting one million members within a year. The object ‘would be to further the British Empire, British institutions and British liberty in every possible way’. This would include campaigning for better transport between the parts; improved cable services; state-aided emigration; a universal Empire Day, throughout the empire; dominion contributions to the costs of imperial defence; annual or biannual imperial conferences; and the opening of Indian and colonial civil services to recruits from the dominions. The society would also encourage the sale and purchase of Britishmade goods; disseminate imperialist literature; organise visiting ‘Imperial’ lecturers; and provide facilities for dominion visitors to Britain and vice versa.
The Over-Seas Club
Wrench finally launched the Over-Seas Club on 27 August 1910, with an article in the Daily Mail. Initially it was a non-subscription organisation (but sold badges costing one shilling), and run entirely by Wrench himself, out of Carmelite House. The launch prompted a vast correspondence. ‘The Empire became even more of a reality to me’, wrote Evelyn. ‘It was no dry as dust affair, but a living organism made up of living human beings.’ The club held its first meeting on 27 June 1911 (at the time of the Coronation), attended by some 300 people from Britain and the dominions. Wrench shared a platform with Northcliffe, Leo Amery, and others, who all struck ‘a high note of imperial fervour’.
Wrench himself spoke of “how largely the future of the world’s progress lies in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon race”. Wrench variously described the Over-Seas Club as ‘a kind of grown-up Boy Scouts’, ‘a kind of “Imperial” Salvation Army’, or ‘a kind of freemasonry open to both sexes with nothing secret about it’. Its stated objects were:
1 to draw together in the bond of comradeship British citizens the world over
2 to render individual service to the British Empire
3 to maintain the power of the British Empire and to hold to its best traditions
4 to help one another.
Wrench also drew up a ‘creed’: ‘Believing the British Empire to stand for justice, freedom, order and good government, we pledge ourselves, as citizens of the Empire, to maintain the heritage handed down to us by our fathers.’
Despite its imperialist character and aims, Wrench always emphasised that the club was non-sectarian, non-party, open to women, and non-jingoist. In 1924 he stated that it ‘has never stood for blatant Imperialism or flag-wagging, rather since its inception it has sought to emphasise the tremendous responsibilities incurred by citizenship of the British Commonwealth’, and that its aims included giving subject nations ‘a helping hand along the path of freedom and independence’.
Although he played an important role in getting the Over-Seas Club off the ground (by encouraging Wrench, helping to fund the organisation, and providing the free use of an office and secretarial facilities), Northcliffe alternated between supporting Wrench and trying to curb his enthusiasm. As Wrench later wrote, to Northcliffe the club was a ‘side-show’, whereas to him it was a ‘religion’. Matters were not helped when Northcliffe got hold of a copy of the membership list and wrote to all members suggesting that it was their patriotic duty to subscribe to the overseas edition of the Daily Mail. In 1912 Wrench resigned his newspaper posts in order to devote himself solely to the club. Luckily, Northcliffe generously paid him off with a year’s salary over three years, and the continued use of an office.
In 1912-13 Wrench undertook a gruelling world tour with his sister Winifride to drum up support for the Over-Seas Club, eventually covering 64,000 miles, and addressing more than 250 meetings. He was again struck by the democratic atmosphere and vitality of the dominions – which he believed represented modernity. The dominions were in turn struck by his charm. One new recruit wrote to Lord Northcliffe from Pietermaritzburg: ‘They have captivated everybody with their charm… No wonder the Club has “caught on”. Its objects, of course, appeal to all true Imperial patriots, but such a lot depends on the organiser.’ On his return, Wrench decided to constitute the Over-Seas Club properly, with a new subscription basis for membership.
The First World War
On Empire Day (24 May) 1914, the Over-Seas Club opened its first premises, in General Buildings, Aldwych (with the help of a £3,000 donation from Alexander Smith Cochran, an Anglophile New York banker). By the eve of the First World War, however, the club still only had 850 subscribing members (though it had sold 180,000 badges) and, as Wrench later admitted, he was ‘still seeking for some tangible work to give the far-flung members’.
The outbreak of war answered Wrench’s dilemma. The club (now much helped by his first cousin Hylda) threw itself whole-heartedly into supporting the war effort. The club’s Tobacco Fund raised £1million for tobacco and other ‘comforts’ for the troops; 350 aeroplanes were bought for the Royal Flying Corps; and a hospital for flying officers was funded. In 1915, Wrench launched the club’s magazine, Overseas. Meanwhile, Wrench also served as secretary of the Patriotic League of Britons Overseas, which was formed in 1914 to fundraise for very similar objects, but among Britons who lived in foreign countries.
Evelyn Wrench presents aeroplanes donated by the Over-Seas Club in 1915, alongside Queen Alexandra
In March 1917 Wrench was called up and opted for the Royal Flying Corps. Rejected for active service, he was initially involved in recruiting work, then joined the staff of the Air Board. In December 1917 he became private secretary to Lord Rothermere (Harold Harmsworth), and in April 1918, he moved to the British Empire section of the Ministry of Information, working under yet another press baron, Lord Beaverbrook.
In 1917, and again in 1919, Wrench was closely involved in failed attempts to mediate in the Anglo-Irish crisis (and founded an Irish Unity League to agitate for dominion status for a united Ireland). He was more successful in Anglo-American relations. Having been fascinated by all things American from an early age, he was struck by the need for AngloAmerican unity. He outlined his first plans for a new society embracing Britain, the dominions and the US in 1915. On 28 June 1918 he formally launched the English-Speaking Union, at a meeting presided over by Lord Balfour.
The English-Speaking Union and the Over-Seas League
The English-Speaking Union prospered rapidly: it acquired its first office in July 1918; soon developed a programme of exchanges, travelling fellowships, debates, lectures and social events; and, in 1919, merged with the Atlantic Union (founded in 1897 by Sir Walter Besant). It also developed branches in each of the dominions, and a sister-organisation in the US, with ex-President William H Taft as its first president. In 1920, it moved to Trafalgar Square, and in 1926 it acquired Dartmouth House.
Though he remained closely involved in the English-Speaking Union, Wrench’s heart was undoubtedly more in the Over-Seas Club, of which he remained secretary (having handed over the corresponding post at the EnglishSpeaking Union to others). In 1918, the club merged with the Patriotic League, becoming (after a short interval) the Over-Seas League. He was again much helped by Hylda, who became the League’s honorary controller.
In 1921, the League purchased Vernon House to commemorate the soldiers of the Empire who had fallen during the war. Followed, in 1924, by 4 and 5 Park Place, this was soon able to provide accommodation for visiting members. The League also ran an Information Bureau, facilitating the exchange of information on a wide range of matters – from tips on fruit growing, through book recommendations for teachers, to information on employment opportunities; an Overseas Trade Bureau, to link importers and exporters; and various infant welfare programmes, run by Winifride Wrench. As a result of these attractions, by 1934 the League could boast 44,000 fully paid-up members, and an annual income of £79,000.
Journalist and public figure
For most of the interwar period, Wrench was editor both of Overseas and Landmark, the English-Speaking Union’s newsletter. Both were light, readable, but serious publications, which bore the hallmark of Wrench’s training on Northcliffe’s Daily Mail. But his journalistic interests found their most significant outlet in his connection with The Spectator. He first began contributing to the magazine in 1922, became a director in 1923, and in 1925 bought a controlling interest from St Loe Strachey. He edited the magazine himself from 1925 to 1932 (the year in which he was knighted); he then appointed others as editor. In 1954 he sold the magazine to Ian Gilmour, but he remained a regular contributor and chair of the board of management until his death.
During the interwar period, Wrench was particularly noted for his campaigns on two issues. The first was constitutional reform in India. As early as 1922 (three years after the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms), he was calling in The Spectator for further reform (and the formation of a British-Indian Friendship Union). In 1924, he again called for ‘a further instalment of freedom at the earliest possible moment’, and a policy of ‘magnanimity’ (which had been so successful in South Africa). As editor of The Spectator, his support of reform in India reflected a more general proposition: ‘Oldfashioned doctrines of white predominance must go by the board. Equal rights for every civilised man is the only logical goal. We must take all those nations into partnership when they are ready for political advancement.’
In an influential series of Spectator editorials in 1929, Wrench advocated an immediate offer of dominion status for India: ‘India’s permanent position in the British Commonwealth would be much more secure if based on the good will of the people of India rather than on force.’ When Gandhi was in London in the autumn of 1931 for the round table conferences, he specifically asked to meet Wrench. Wrench had him to dinner, seated on the floor – he cleared his dining room of furniture for the occasion – and later described the evening as the most interesting of his life. He continued to support radical reform in India afterwards, and was fiercely opposed to those, such as Winston Churchill, who sought to block the passage of the 1935 Government of India Act, though he considered this insufficient.
The second area in which Wrench achieved a particularly notable public profile was in relation to the ‘German problem’. He had been a critic at the time of the Treaty of Versailles, and his dislike of its punitive terms was only increased by the intransigent policy pursued by successive French governments. He made frequent visits to Germany and, in 1929, founded yet another ‘friendship’ organisation: the All Peoples’ Association. This soon established branches in 17 European cities, seven of them in Germany itself.
Though it is clear that Wrench abhorred Nazism, his attempts to understand and sympathise with the German people after 1933 caused him much subsequent embarrassment. After meeting Goebbels, he wrote a series of articles in The Spectatorsuggesting that antiJewish feeling in Germany was a passing phase, declaring that it was ‘as if the German people at last found themselves free’, and comparing Hitler to Éamon de Valera: ‘he was so terribly in earnest’. After its German branches were taken over by the Nazis, Wrench closed the All Peoples’ Association in 1936, but he continued to call for ‘understanding’ of the German viewpoint, and was a prominent advocate of appeasement. His final visit was in July 1939, when he attempted to broker a compromise on the status of Danzig.
Character and private life
At Over-Seas House, London, there is a portrait of Wrench by Sir Oswald Birley, painted in 1921, which captures his character and appearance in all but one respect: slim, ascetic-looking, with intelligent, quizzical eyes, as if bemused by the world’s eccentricity. But Birley also makes him look languid, and the one trait not captured by him – which all Wrench’s contemporaries remarked upon – was his intense – almost maniacal – energy, coupled with an infectious enthusiasm for the matter in hand.
He was indeed ascetic. As a young man he enjoyed ‘high society’, and was ‘Gold Stick’ at the Coronation of George VI. But he soon tired of the showy side of society life. In 1910 he gave up smoking and drinking. In later life he said that the two best meals of his life were beans and potatoes round a campfire in Canada and chapattis and curry at Gandhi’s ashram.
In May 1937 he caused a minor scandal by marrying Hylda, only four months after the death of her first husband. Wrench and she had been very close – he described them as ‘soulmates’ – from an early age, and corresponded almost daily when separated. But there is no suggestion that they had had sexual relations before their marriage. Indeed, in 1910, Wrench had also taken a vow of sexual abstinence, partly for religious and partly for supposed ‘health’ reasons, and he is known to have broken it only once (in Amsterdam, in 1912: curiously, he reported this to Hylda).
Perhaps the most notable of Wrench’s character traits was his ability to combine the idealistic and the practical, or the romantic and the businesslike, without admitting or even recognising any contradiction between them. A scrap of paper which he kept, entitled ‘Things I love in my beloved (written while shaving, Aug 8 1931)’ illustrates this perfectly. He lists ‘her humility, her steadfastness, her solicitude for others, her cosiness, her hair, her little fingers, her love of bathing, her love of flowers…’, before ending, without any trace of selfconsciousness, ‘her plans, her punctuality, her packing arrangements’.
The Second World War
In August 1940, Wrench and his wife embarked on an officially-sanctioned (but privately arranged) lecture tour of the US. They returned via New Zealand, Australia, Singapore (leaving not long before its fall to the Japanese) and India. The sudden deterioration of the British position meant that they were stuck in India until April 1944. Initially, they filled their time with a tour of the country, and had various meetings with Gandhi (staying at his ashram), Nehru, Jinnah, V D Savarkar and others.
Possibly because of his Irish Unionist background, or possibly because of his commitment to the righteousness of the British cause in the war, Wrench increasingly fell out with Gandhi, and expressed sympathy with Jinnah’s Muslim League and Ambedkar’s Untouchables. He believed that Gandhi was deluded in thinking he spoke for India, and was angered by Gandhi’s lack of faith in the British government’s intentions. He blamed the failure of the Cripps mission in 1942 on him (even though Jinnah also rejected it). Subsequently, he described Gandhi as ‘unyielding’, ‘full of prejudices’, and ‘not the great man that I believed him to be’.
In May 1942 he became the Government of India’s American Relations Officer, mainly arranging meetings for American journalists with Jinnah and others, in an attempt to reverse the largely pro-Gandhi line taken by the American press.
As well as being a prolific journalist, Wrench was an inveterate writer of memoirs. He wrote around 12 volumes in all, though only four of them were published: Uphill (1934), recounting his life up to 1914, Struggle (1935), taking the story up to 1920, I Loved Germany (1940), an attempt (much lambasted by his contemporaries) to explain and justify his support for appeasement, and Immortal Years (1945), about his wartime experiences in India.
After the war, he continued to write and rewrite his memoirs, including a one-volume edition (’Citizen of the English-Speaking World’), but he also turned to biography. In 1949, he published a study of his cousin, Francis Yeats-Brown (best known as the author of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, but also a supporter of Mosley’s Fascists – an episode not so much whitewashed as ignored in Wrench’s study). His biography of another archappeaser, Geoffrey Dawson, was published in 1955, and of the great imperial pro-consul and seminal figure of early 20th-century ‘new imperialism’, Alfred Milner, in 1958.
In 1958, Wrench founded two more organisations: the Commonwealth Union of Trade and the Anglo-Kin Society (the latter to promote genealogical research). He was also president of the Dickens Fellowship and a senior trustee of the Cecil Rhodes Museum. In 1960, on the occasion of the Over-Seas League’s golden jubilee (when it became the Royal Over-Seas League) he was knighted a second time, as a KCMG. (Friends quipped that he had wanted something after his name as well as before.)
Wrench at home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire
Despite his achievements, Wrench’s final years were rather sad. He was deeply affected by the death of Hylda in 1955, and spent much time copying and re-copying her letters. He also felt some unease at the direction that the Royal Over-Seas League was now taking (with the beginnings of its world-renowned cultural programme in art, music and literature, accompanied by the abandonment of any attempt to pursue a more political agenda) – though part of this seems to have been the understandable reaction of an old man unable, or unwilling, to let go of the organisation he had founded. He died at his home, Mill House, Marlow, on Armistice Day (11 November) 1966, and was buried at All Saints’, Marlow. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral on 9 December.
Wrench seems to have wanted to be remembered as a man of letters, like Leslie Stephen or Lytton Strachey. He certainly wrote prolifically on all manner of subjects. But although he had an easy and engaging style, his writings had neither the literary brilliance nor the intellectual profundity of a Stephen or a Strachey.
His books have mostly sunk without trace: his biographies have long been superseded, and few people now read his memoirs. Ironically, the one book which is still frequently quoted by historians is I Loved Germany. This is perhaps a shame: his memoirs, in particular, are marked by an engaging honesty and modesty, and are especially interesting for their observations on the countries he visited, whether America and the Dominions in the early 20th century, Russia before the revolution, or Germany under Hitler.
But it is undoubtedly as a practical man that he will be best remembered. He was the founder of five organisations, and attempted to found two more. Of these, two have flourished and endured: the English-Speaking Union and the Royal Over-Seas League. Neither could have done so without his vital contributions – his vision, but also his practical energy and enthusiasm. Both have developed in ways he did not and could not have foreseen. But to have founded and set on a firm footing two such organisations at the heart of British, Commonwealth and English-speaking cultural life is an achievement that few could match. Even if for nothing else, for that he deserves to be remembered.