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Sir  Horace John Wilson (1882–1972), by Walter Stoneman, 1941Sir Horace John Wilson (1882–1972), by Walter Stoneman, 1941
Wilson, Sir Horace John (1882–1972), civil servant, was born in Bournemouth on 23 August 1882, the sixth of seven children and the youngest of the three sons of Harry Wilson and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith. His father was a furniture dealer and his mother ran a boarding-house. He was educated at the local elementary school in Bournemouth, Kurnella School, and between 1904 and 1908 as a ‘night school’ student at the London School of Economics, from where he graduated with a BSc (Econ). On 7 April 1908 he married Emily (1879?–1973), daughter of John Sheather, a farmer of Beckley in Sussex, with whom he had one son and two daughters.

Ministry of Labour

Wilson's remarkable career, which took him from such humble origins into the confidence of successive prime ministers and to the headship of the civil service, started as a boy clerk in the Patent Office in 1898. He then entered the War Office in 1900 as an executive grade (second division) official and was transferred in 1907 to the labour department of the Board of Trade which, under the dynamic leadership of first Lloyd George and then Winston Churchill, was rapidly expanding as a consequence of central government assuming greater responsibility for industrial relations and welfare policy. It was in industrial relations that Wilson made his mark under the tutelage of the charismatic chief industrial conciliator, Sir George Askwith. In 1911 he became the registrar of the new Industrial Council, a body of leading industrialists and trade unionists designed to become the central authority for conciliation and arbitration. The council failed but during the First World War, and again under Askwith's chairmanship, Wilson became the secretary to the main arbitration body, the committee on production, as well as the special arbitration committee set up under the Munitions of War Act.

In all three posts Wilson not only honed his skills as a mediator but also gained a detailed knowledge of the character and ambitions of the leaders of both sides of industry. Such knowledge, together with his capacity for hard work and his administrative ability, made him indispensable within the new Ministry of Labour, to which the main responsibility for industrial relations had been transferred on Lloyd George's appointment as prime minister in December 1916. Askwith waged a running battle with both Lloyd George and his permanent secretary, Sir David Shackleton, a former chairman of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and he was obliged to resign from the service. Shackleton himself, although invaluable as a labour adviser at a time of intense industrial unrest, lacked the traditional administrative skills associated with a permanent secretary. Wilson was the natural person to succeed Askwith in 1919, becoming the permanent assistant secretary in charge of the wages and arbitration department. In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, he succeeded Shackleton as permanent secretary.

Wilson, as a result of his later record, has usually been credited with an innate hostility towards any increase in the formal interventionist powers of government. In these early years, however, he strongly supported Askwith's policy of extending such powers so long as their sole purpose was to defend the ‘public interest’ and, by improving their organization, to help both sides of industry to act more efficiently and responsibly. He had been the secretary of the 1916–17 Whitley committee (which recommended the appointment of joint industrial councils throughout industry) and the fair wages advisory committee; and so he was well versed in the attempts, during the idealism of post-war reconstruction, to improve both industrial organization and the government's role as a model employer. His own major initiative was the Industrial Courts Act in 1919 which established Britain's first permanent arbitration tribunal (in the hope that it would establish criteria for an ‘agreed and rational’ wages policy) and empowered the Ministry of Labour to appoint courts of enquiry (to inform and thereby mobilize public opinion during national disputes). However, the act's teeth, including the power to legalize voluntary agreements, were drawn by the two sides of industry, which had controversially been allowed to study a draft before it had been introduced to parliament. It was only after this disappointment that Wilson, possibly under the influence of the Scottish engineering employer Lord Weir, favoured a less proactive formal role for government.

Likewise as permanent secretary Wilson came to be criticized within and outside the ministry for complying too readily with the dictates of ‘Treasury control’—the strengthening under Sir Warren Fisher of the powers of the Treasury over the organization of the civil service, as an antidote to the perceived administrative waste and political corruption of Lloyd George's premiership. Such enforced uniformity hit particularly hard a department such as the Ministry of Labour with its distinctive traditions and novel responsibilities. At a departmental Whitley council he notoriously admitted that he considered himself to be ‘part and parcel’ of the Treasury. He was also the Treasury's staunchest defender before the 1929–31 Tomlin commission on the civil service, denying, contrary to the evidence in subsequently released papers, that the Treasury had ever rejected his reasoned advice on the ministry's organization. However, this compliance was forged during the virulent attacks on the ministry by the Northcliffe press which culminated in the recommendation by the 1922 Geddes committee on national expenditure that the ministry be abolished. It was only through his friendship with Fisher that, seven years after its establishment and to the relief of many non-established officials, the ministry was finally made permanent.

The general strike, unemployment, and industrial policy

Wilson's reputation was made at the ministry with regard first to industrial relations and then to unemployment policy. As an adviser on industrial relations he was fully in tune with Baldwin's conciliatory instincts, and he became a member of the prime minister's inner circle of advisers during the 1926 general strike. It was reputedly he who seized on the incident at the Daily Mail on 3 May as a pretext for calling off negotiations between government and the TUC; and also he who refused to allow the TUC delegation to see Baldwin on 12 May until it confirmed that it was prepared to surrender unconditionally. However, he also drafted many of the formulae designed to avert the strike as well as Baldwin's famous ‘man of peace’ broadcast on 8 May; and he later ensured that, whatever its later reputation within the labour movement, the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trades Union Act was as moderate as it could be in the given political circumstances. For Wilson, as for Baldwin, the strike was a regrettable necessity which had to be faced and defeated before the pragmatists on both sides of industry could sit down together and agree practical solutions to mutual problems.

In unemployment policy Wilson was no expert on the intricacies of unemployment insurance. This was the direct responsibility of his long-standing adversary within the ministry, Sir Thomas Phillips. His close study of government reports, however, convinced him earlier than most in Whitehall that mass unemployment was caused by structural problems within the economy which no return to the gold standard and subsequent revival of world trade could alleviate fully. He estimated, for example, that there were at least 100,000 miners surplus to the needs of the industry, and this led him to champion the creation of an industrial transference board, through which advice and loans could be provided by government to those willing to leave the ‘distressed’ regions for identified jobs elsewhere. Between 1928 and 1930 some 100,000 individuals and 6000 households were so helped.

Wilson's initiative and growing expertise in this area made him the natural choice to head a body of officials, seconded from various departments, to advise J. H. Thomas in 1929 when, as lord privy seal in the new Labour government, he became in effect the minister for employment. Wilson's initial memoranda detailed all the strategies that might be followed including some which involved, as with his advice on industrial relations immediately after the war, an expansion of government's formal interventionist powers. However, the ultimate political decision, no doubt influenced by Wilson's own predilections, was to maintain financial orthodoxy and to reject all such options. Thus not only the bold public works programme, inspired by Keynes and advanced by Lloyd George in the 1929 election, but also the plans for state-controlled investment drafted within the lord privy seal's office by Oswald Mosley, were rejected. This decision led to a long-standing animosity towards Wilson among the supporters both of Keynes and of economic planning within the labour movement (including at that time Clement Attlee) which was to overshadow his later career. In the short term it also caused the first major hiatus in Wilson's seemingly irresistible rise. The rejection of the Mosley memorandum led to the transfer of Thomas in June 1930 and the appointment of a new secretariat under Sir John Anderson to advise his successor. Wilson remained in limbo until transferred himself to the Board of Trade in November as the government's chief industrial adviser—a grandiose title for what was potentially a sinecure similar to those to which other ‘awkward’ inter-war officials (notably Sir Robert Vansittart) were consigned.

Wilson's energy and accumulated expertise, his friendship with Warren Fisher and conservative politicians within both major parties, and not least his latent ambition prevented him from being sidelined. His energy was best demonstrated at the Board of Trade where, to encourage a private enterprise recovery with a minimum of formal government intervention, he developed a policy of covert industrial diplomacy. Businessmen were tirelessly exhorted to rationalize their industries and to combine locally in order to attract new companies to the depressed regions. They were also expertly advised on how to draft proposals that would secure either capital from the City of London or, in the last resort, legislative support from government. Two major, albeit not wholly successful, results of this policy were the creation of the Lancashire Industrial Development Corporation and, following the reorganization of the cotton industry in 1935 (which his Times obituary identified as his ‘outstanding success’), the 1936 Cotton Act which permitted a statutory industry-wide levy to reduce overcapacity.

Adviser to Baldwin and Chamberlain: appeasement

Wilson's political rehabilitation commenced at the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa, where he was the chief official adviser to the British delegation, headed by Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, in the complex and frequently acrimonious negotiations over imperial preference. Again the negotiations met with only limited success and even this was undermined by later bilateral deals with non-dominion countries, in which Wilson was also closely involved. His personal rehabilitation was completed, however, with his secondment in 1935 to the Treasury as a personal adviser to Baldwin on his reappointment as prime minister. This was an expedient devised by Fisher to galvanize Baldwin into action by providing him with a sounding board for his ideas, which Wilson could then turn into detailed policy (through his mastery of the facts) and implement (through his knowledge of the administrative machine). It was in this position and from his office next to the cabinet room at 10 Downing Street that he played a key role as a mediator between the government and the Palace during the abdication of Edward VIII.

It was also in this position and from this office that, after Baldwin's retirement in May 1937, Wilson met his nemesis. He was retained, to his surprise, by Neville Chamberlain; and both he and the new prime minister quickly became involved in an area in which they lacked—and rejected—expert knowledge: foreign affairs. Notoriously Wilson became Chamberlain's closest and most trusted confidant throughout the unsuccessful attempt to appease Hitler. He was the sounding board for all the prime minister's ideas including, well before the cabinet was informed, Chamberlain's dramatic decision to fly—at the age of sixty-nine—to meet Hitler in Germany in September 1938. He drafted innumerable formulae and letters designed to conciliate the German government rather than to threaten it with force, as was the Foreign Office's wish. He worked ruthlessly behind the scenes to manipulate public opinion. This included the closing down of the Foreign Office's news department, veiled threats to the BBC, and the heavy influencing of editorials in The Times. He also acted as Chamberlain's personal emissary, covertly establishing close links with the German embassy and a series of other intermediaries and publicly accompanying the prime minister on his successive visits to Berchtesgaden, Godesberg, and Munich. He even undertook an individual mission to Hitler between the last two visits, on 26 September 1938, during which he was angrily berated by the Führer for urging a less confrontational annexation of the Sudetenland; and on the day prior to the declaration of war, 2 September 1939, his perceived influence was so great that he received an invitation to visit Germany as part of Ribbentrop's last-ditch attempt to maintain peace.

In the vitriolic press campaign which followed the declaration of war much of the culpability for the failed policy of appeasement was placed on Wilson [see ]. Subsequently, the policy has been justified as a strategy to buy time while Britain rearmed. Neither this attack on Wilson nor his defence is wholly justified. Chamberlain, as Sir Robert Armstrong argued in the Dictionary of National Biography, ‘was nobody's puppet’. Appeasement was his personal policy and Wilson only became so trusted an adviser because ‘there was a high degree of intellectual and personal sympathy, even affinity, between the two men’. Moreover the object of appeasement, as Wilson made plain in his one post-war interview, was not the postponement but the avoidance of war (Gilbert, 6). It was conceived as a bold attempt to resolve Germany's legitimate grievances, which included the right to self-determination for the Germans in central Europe and greater access to world markets. The resolution of such grievances was perceived to be in Britain's national interest. It would remove the justification of, and domestic support for, Nazi aggression. It would consequently remove the threat of war, the cost of which would cause immense damage to both the British economy and the empire. It would also maintain Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and thus the spread of communism. Appeasement was thus a constructive attempt to protect British interests and this explains why, largely through Wilson's contacts with Helmut Wohltat, negotiations over economic appeasement (including some colonial concessions) continued even after Hitler's breaches of faith in 1938. In these exchanges, however, it was always made plain that any agreement was dependent on political restraint both within and outside Germany.

Consequently appeasement, and Wilson's role within it, was not characterized by weakness, although that may been have the impression which—for their own reasons—various German emissaries sought to convey to their government in reports, which in turn—and for different reasons—were released by the Russians after the war. Where Wilson may more properly be faulted is in his reliance on the experience of domestic conciliation to confirm Chamberlain's prejudice that all problems could be solved by negotiation; their joint miscalculation of the nature of Nazism and of the impression of weakness that their readiness to negotiate portrayed; and the contempt for alternative views, in particular of the Foreign Office's advice that peace could be best secured through the strengthening of defensive alliances against Germany.

Head of the civil service and fall from favour

Early in 1939 Wilson was appointed permanent secretary to the Treasury and head of the civil service. After the outbreak of war and in particular the establishment of the Churchill coalition in May 1940 this created considerable problems. The prime minister (given his experience of appeasement) banned him from Number Ten on pain of being exiled as governor of Greenland; and Attlee (mindful of the general strike and the rejection of economic planning in the early 1930s) demanded his resignation. That was prevented, mainly because of the intercessions of Sir Kingsley Wood, but he was obliged to retire at the earliest possible date, August 1942, to be replaced—apparently as a slight but actually quite rationally—by the somewhat older Sir Richard Hopkins. Thereafter he remained so out of favour that, for such an able person, he had a remarkably limited public role. Between 1944 and 1951 he was chairman of the National Joint Council of Local Authorities' administrative, professional, technical, and clerical services; and as a constituent he defended Nigel Nicolson MP against his local Conservative Party over Suez in 1956. Otherwise he devoted himself to family life.

Wilson's career was replete with contradictions. From the humblest of origins and with a ‘soft-spoken, deferential, courteous, almost self-deprecatory’ manner, he rose to the top of an intrinsically élitist institution and acquired ‘a more powerful position in Britain than almost anyone since Cardinal Wolsey’ (Brown, 220). At a time when the civil service was seeking to establish its political neutrality he attracted widespread and bitter resentment. This served as a warning to later officials not to assume a political role—a warning which returned to haunt another head of the civil service, William Armstrong, in 1974. The most sympathetic of men to colleagues who had fallen on hard times in the 1920s, he acted with ruthlessness towards those who opposed the prime minister's policy in the 1930s. Finally, as someone who claimed that his life's work had been to strive for ‘progress through constructive compromise’ (Dupree, 2.90), he left a far from lasting legacy in relation to the reorganization of industry, the restructuring of the economy, and the relief of international tension. This may have been because he was too ready to ‘find a soothing formula which each party will accept in his own sense and both agree to long enough to compromise the issue—no matter how disastrously’ (C. L. Mowat, Britain Between the Wars, 1968, 593).

No assessment of his career would be complete, however, without an appreciation of his exceptional personal qualities: his capacity for hard work, his clarity of mind, his lucidity of expression, his self-control, and above all his integrity and commitment to ‘the welfare of the state’ which not even his bitterest enemies questioned (Cato, 87). It was perhaps his misfortune, as much as his fortune, that he came to embody the political caution of the age. As a foil to more instinctively progressive politicians in different times his ability and the initial instincts he displayed in relation to industrial conciliation and unemployment policy might well have resulted in more positive and enduring achievements.

Wilson was a slim figure of medium height, with a grave expression, and not much given to laughter. He was appointed CBE in 1918, CB in 1920, KCB in 1924, GCMG in 1933, and finally GCB in 1937. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Aberdeen and Liverpool in 1934 and 1939, and an honorary fellowship by the London School of Economics in 1960. He died in Bournemouth on 19 May 1972.

Rodney Lowe


DNB · The Times (26 May 1972) · M. Gilbert, ‘Horace Wilson, man of Munich?’, History Today, 32/10 (1982), 3–9 · R. A. C. Parker, Chamberlain and appeasement: British policy and the coming of the Second World War (1993) · R. Lowe, Adjusting to democracy: the role of the ministry of labour in British politics, 1916–1939 (1986) · R. Lowe and R. Roberts, ‘Sir Horace Wilson, 1900–1935: the making of a mandarin’, HJ, 30 (1987), 641–62 · W. J. Brown, So far (1943) · F. A. Norman, Whitehall to West Indies (1952) · Lancashire and Whitehall: the diary of Sir Raymond Streat, ed. M. Dupree, 2 vols. (1987) · D. C. Watt, How war came (1989) · Cato [F. Owen], Guilty men (1940) · private information (2004) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1972)


TNA: PRO, papers, CAB 127/ 157–158 |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Monckton · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · NL Wales, corresp. with Thomas Jones, P 3/68 · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Viscount Davidson · U. Birm., Neville Chamberlain MSS


W. Stoneman, photographs, 1920–41, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, 1930, Hult. Arch. · double portrait (with Neville Chamberlain), repro. in R. Cockett, Twilight of truth (1989), pl. 2 · photograph, repro. in The Times

Wealth at death  

£8866: probate, 4 July 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales