Heritage: The wartime minister whose Wimbledon hideaway was bombed
Last Friday would have been the 119th birthday of Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron of Devonport (1893-1957), the controversial Transport Minister who championed the cause of road safety in the 1930s, was sacked as War Minister by Neville Chamberlain early in the Second World War, and was the last resident of Old Warren Farm to stock dairy cattle beside Wimbledon Common.
Mainly remembered today for having introduced the Belisha beacon at pedestrian crossings and introducing 30mph speed restrictions on Britain’s roads during the 1930s, Hore-Belisha bought part of Old Warren Farm from landowner Admiral Drax in 1938, shortly after his promotion to the War Office.
He leased the rest of the 14 acres of paddock and woodland from Wimbledon Council and lived there until his death in 1957. For most of those years it was a peaceful haven, remote from the nearest neighbours but useful for discreet meetings with national and international leaders, especially in the early years when it also had a direct phone line to Whitehall. Hore-Belisha modernized the farm buildings – which dated back to the 17th century – and sold milk to a local dairyman.
Wimbledon really was a haven for a man whose political career was as stormy as it could get. A former Liberal, he was nevertheless promoted by the Conservative Neville Chamberlain but soon alienated senior military figures by introducing major reforms for the benefit of ordinary troops. Having been mentioned in dispatches during the First World War and reached the rank of major, he understood their plight. He then annoyed Chamberlain by introducing conscription in April 1939, when the Premier was still trying to appease Hitler, and after the start of the Second World War, warned of the inadequacy of the British expeditionary force in France before the advancing Germans. He was soon proved right as the fleeing British troops narrowly escaped from Dunkirk and the Blitz got under way.
As he was Jewish, Hore-Belisha was subjected to anti-Semitic propaganda from the Nazis, both through the radio broadcasts of “Lord Haw-Haw” and fraudulent press coverage purporting to come from Fleet Street. But he also suffered prejudiced comments from within the British political and military establishment where racism was still unexceptional. In January 1940 he was forced to resign.
The Nazis knew of his hideaway at Old Warren Farm and “Lord Haw-Haw” promised to bomb it. In November 1940 a German incendiary bomb fell nearby, causing little damage but in June 1944 when RAF pilots shot down two flying bombs, the second one hit the farm, landing on Hore-Belisha’s bed. Then on 19 July, a V1 rocket damaged most of the buildings. He and his young wife Cynthia, a volunteer ambulance driver who had previously been captured by the Germans in France and imprisoned for four years, were away at the time. The farm was rebuilt but the cattle had to be sold and never returned.
Hore-Belisha failed to rebuild his career under Winston Churchill and in the 1945 landslide election was defeated in his Devonport seat by the future Labour leader, Michael Foot. After the war he was elected to Westminster City Council and had rooms and an office at 16 Stafford Place, SW1, but remained living at Old Warren Farm, riding on the Common and playing golf in his spare time. Cynthia did her shopping in Wimbledon town.
In 1954 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Hore-Belisha of Devonport but died suddenly age 63 in February 1957 while leading a British parliamentary delegation to France and making a speech at Reims town hall. Cynthia remarried an Army major called Ian Victor Major. She and Hore-Belisha had had no children so the title died with him.