Cecil Parkinson and Dove Cottage

 

Much has been written in the obituary columns about the political career of Cecil Parkinson, who died yesterday. I thought it might be of interest if I said something of what he did to help the Wordsworth Trust at a difficult time.

I met him when I joined the Trustees[1] in 1993. He had been at school[2] with the Trust’s remarkable director, Robert Woof[3], and I suppose he joined the Board when he left the Government three years earlier at the time of Margaret Thatcher’s downfall. He was always quiet and polite, the very opposite of the “Tory Grandee” that the media use as a shorthand when they speak about him.

The Trustee was an eclectic mix of Wordsworth, Coleridge or De Quincey scholars, men or women of a literary disposition in public life (like Michael Foot[4]), or others, chosen by Robert or by Jonathan Wordsworth, the engaging chair of the trustees, as people who might bring something of value to the Trustee Board. We used to make the long journey to Grasmere twice a year, although the time came when the committees it felt obliged to create would meet rather more often.

The finances of the Trust at that time were hair-raising.  Robert, our resident meteor, had the most attractive jackdaw tendencies.  However, although he could usually identify donors to help him buy new artistic or literary treasures for the Trust, raising income for “core funding” – to pay current overheads and feed the interest on our burgeoning mortgage debt[5] – was a quite different matter.

I think Cecil was wanting to stand down as a trustee two or three years after I joined the Trust, when Robert twisted his arm to become our Treasurer.  Quite apart from having to find ways of balancing the books, the Trust faced another challenge as Robert had for a long time been very keen to build a Collections Centre[6] close to Dove Cottage, by way of complementing the new Museum whose creation he had been largely responsible for driving forward 15-20 years earlier.  A way had to be found to reduce the mortgage debt, raise money for the design and construction of the Collections Centre, and also hopefully to raise money for an endowment fund whose income might help to ease the financial position for our successors in the long term.

Cecil’s task was made no easier because Robert was now notorious among would-be donors as someone who regarded the Business Plans on which they insisted as tiresome hurdles which had to be surmounted if they were ever to help the Trust again – a sort of art form – but not as any kind of incubus which should be allowed to trammel his activities in driving the Trust forward to ever greater and grander glory.

Of course there were many others who helped in the efforts which helped to reduce the mortgage debt, to pay for what is now the Jerwood Collections Centre, and to see the beginnings of the creation of an endowment fund before Robert’s all too early death ten years ago.  But Cecil was at the centre of it all until the position was stabilised, and lovers of the romantic poets owe him a debt of gratitude.

I should end by saying that Cecil’s politics were light years away from those of my great grandfather, the founder of the Trust.  Stopford Brooke was one of the early Christian Socialists.  It was said of him that his path towards ecclesiastic preferment (before he resigned as a Chaplain to the Queen and left the Church of England in 1880) was blocked because Gladstone did not mind his politics – he was a very strong supporter of Irish Home Rule – but thought he was theologically unsound[7], while Disraeli could not care less about his theology but disliked his politics intensely.  He was once invited by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter to act as personal tutor to her eldest son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Would European history have been different if he had accepted the offer?

His portrait[8], formerly above the fire in the sitting room at Dove Cottage, now occupies pride of place at the entrance to the Collections Centre.

 

[1] Since my great-grandfather Stopford Brooke had spotted the opportunity to raise £650 to buy Dove Cottage and endow it in perpetuity (as he thought) as a shrine for English romantic poetry, there had always been a member of my family on the Board of the Dove Cottage Trust (later renamed the Wordsworth Trust).

[2] Lancaster Royal Grammar School. As all his obituaries have told us, his father was the stationmaster at Carnforth Station, in whose waiting-room Celia Johnson was filmed meeting Trevor Howard again and again in the film Brief Encounter.

[3] Robert, who died in November 2005 aged 74, was a Wordsworth scholar from Newcastle University whose genius and driving energy had transformed the Trust’s affairs ever since he started coming there in the early 1970s. His widow Pamela is now President of the Trust. She is a Dorothy Wordsworth scholar in her own right, and was acting as secretary of the Trust when I first met her.

[4] Although he never attended any Trustees’ meetings in my day, Michael Foot frequently took part in the Trust’s literary activities, particularly if the writings of William Hazlitt were under discussion.

[5] Whenever a property in the tiny hamlet of Town End (where the cottage was situated) came on the market, Robert was keen that the Trust should acquire it. By the time I joined the Board, the bank’s willingness to lend any more money was drying up fast, but that did not prevent him from arranging a mini-bus to take us to Keswick to consider the possibility of buying Greta Hall (the poet Robert Southey’s former home) at a time when its former school owners were keen to find a purchaser. We all said “no, no, no”, after the manner of Cecil’s former political mistress. Robert thought the less of us, but he soon recovered from his disappointment.

[6] The Trust’s collection of priceless manuscripts was first started when a member of the Wordsworth family gave a large quantity of the poet’s manuscripts to the Trust in 1934. They were housed in an old building in Town End which did not begin to meet the environmental standards needed for their long term preservation.

[7] In 1897 Gladstone told Stopford Brooke in a letter: “ I am afraid there are important questions on which we might not agree ; but I remember with pleasure an intense sympathy with which I once heard you preach at Westminster Abbey (what I called) a sermon against respectability.”

[8] Stopford’s, not Cecil’s.

One thought on “Cecil Parkinson and Dove Cottage

  1. Pingback: My Great Aunt Honor Brooke – Henry Brooke

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