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  (George) Geoffrey Dawson (1874–1944), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1923 (George) Geoffrey Dawson (1874–1944), by Sir William Rothenstein, 1923
Dawson [formerly Robinson], (George) Geoffrey (1874–1944), newspaper editor, was born at Skipton in Craven, Yorkshire, on 25 October 1874, the eldest child of George Robinson (d. 1907), banker, and his wife, Mary (1847–1903), daughter of William Mosley Perfect. In 1917 he assumed by royal licence the name and arms of Dawson via his mother's eldest sister, Margaret Jane Dawson, the family being descended from a long line of landowners from Langcliffe Hall, Settle.

In 1887 Geoffrey Robinson went to Eton College as a king's scholar, and he found his years there an enjoyable experience (in later life he was to serve as a fellow of the college). He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a demy in 1893, obtaining firsts in classical moderations (1895) and literae humaniores (1897). He was later (1926) made an honorary fellow of Magdalen, and the university awarded him an honorary DCL in 1934. In 1898 he entered the civil service by open examination. His first position was in the Post Office, but after only a year he was transferred to the Colonial Office, under Joseph Chamberlain as colonial secretary. In 1898 Robinson was elected to a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, an honour which he shared with his lifelong friend Edward Wood, Lord Halifax.

South Africa: Milner's ‘kindergarten’

When the South African War broke out in 1899, Robinson had only a junior position in the South African department of the Colonial Office, but this happy coincidence affected the whole of his future career. In 1901 he was promoted assistant private secretary to Chamberlain, and later in that same year he obtained the same position with the high commissioner for South Africa, the imperialist Alfred Milner. Following the British conquest of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, the high commissioner became the administrator (later governor) of the two former republics with his headquarters in Johannesburg. There, in a red-brick villa in the suburbs, Robinson was a faithful member of Milner's famous ‘kindergarten’, whose number also included Robert Brand, Lionel Curtis, Patrick Duncan, Richard Feetham, Lionel Hichens, and later Philip Kerr [see also ]. The same brotherhood, inspired by Milner's devotion to the British empire, set up the publication Round Table in England.

When Milner went back to Britain, he left several of the kindergarten behind in key posts, at a time when South Africa was recovering from years of bitter struggle. In 1905 Robinson left the civil service on being appointed, largely through Milner's influence, editor of the Johannesburg Star, and he held the editorship until 1910, during the period of office of William Waldegrave Palmer, second earl of Selborne, Milner's successor as high commissioner. From 1906 onwards he was also the South Africa correspondent of The Times, which gave him a platform for a journalistic career in London. For the moment, however, Robinson remained in Johannesburg, a supporter of conciliation with the Boers and the process which culminated in the foundation of the Union of South Africa under Louis Botha in 1910.

Editor of The Times under Northcliffe

In 1911 Robinson returned to London and became a full-time staff member of The Times under its owner, the press magnate Lord Northcliffe. In August 1912, aged only thirty-seven, Robinson was appointed editor on the retirement of George Earle Buckle. At the outset of his editorship, Robinson seems to have ‘routinely acquiesced in Northcliffe's views and prejudices’ (Koss, 207), though Buckle urged him to stand up to Northcliffe. Others thought that Robinson wrote too many editorials and took too much upon himself. But differences between them emerged with the passage of time: Northcliffe, for example, was far more critical of the government about the Dardanelles fiasco in 1915–16 than was Robinson.

Robinson's successor, Henry Wickham Steed, later suggested that Robinson was too much under the influence of his mentor Milner. Although Steed may have overstated this influence, Robinson was a member of the Milnerite ‘ginger group’, along with Lloyd George, Milner himself, Leo Amery, and Edward Carson, which plotted Asquith's downfall; Robinson's leader of 4 December 1916 was one instance of the important role which The Times played in securing Asquith's removal as prime minister in 1916.

During 1918–19 tensions between Dawson (as he had now become) and Northcliffe became acute (he had already offered to resign once), as the owner of the paper became more bombastic and intemperate. Dawson's departure in February 1919 was inevitable, although it seems to have owed as much to Northcliffe's frustrations with the politicians of the day as to any deficiencies in editorship. Somewhat unreasonably, Northcliffe blamed Dawson for the government's alleged flabbiness. Before his departure, Dawson had the opportunity to observe the post-war peace negotiations in Paris with defeated Germany. ‘All the world is here’, Dawson wrote; ‘It's like a gigantic cinema-show of eminent persons’ (Dawson, letter of 18 Jan 1919, Dawson papers). But he had found Northcliffe's ‘irresponsible Hun-baiting’ (Lentin, 152) intolerable, and resigned his post. Already the seeds of Dawson's incarnation as an arch-appeaser had been sown.

As so often in Dawson's life, All Souls College provided a refuge and an encouragement, and on giving up the editor's chair he became estates bursar to the college. On 14 June 1919 he married Margaret Cecilia Lawley, the younger daughter of Sir Arthur Lawley, later sixth Baron Wenlock, who had been lieutenant-governor of the Transvaal from 1902 to 1906. They had one son and two daughters. The South African link was also renewed, as Dawson took up a directorship in the Consolidated Gold Fields of South Africa Company. He was, in addition, secretary to the Rhodes Trust from 1921 to 1922, and became a trustee in 1925. The interest in journalism was maintained by a temporary editorship of the Round Table, preserving the links with his Milnerite past.

Second period as editor

Northcliffe, whose political machinations had been largely futile, died in August 1922, and this created the opportunity for Dawson to return to The Times as editor for a second time in January 1923. The new owners, John Jacob Astor and John Walter, were not interventionists in the Northcliffe mould, and Dawson's second term as editor lasted for nineteen years. A contemporary journalist found him at the peak of his power in the office of The Times to be ‘urbane and friendly’ (Grant Duff, 66). For most of this period, too, he was a pivotal figure in British politics, so that in ‘the 1930s it can be said that Dawson was privy to more Cabinet thinking and secrets than most members of the government, whether the Prime Minister was MacDonald, Baldwin, or Chamberlain’ (Cockett, 12). During the internal crisis over King Edward VIII's abdication in December 1936, Dawson's opposition to the royal position was crucial, as the other newspapers looked to The Times for a lead. Dawson had been concerned before the crisis burst that the contents of the American and foreign press ‘have been percolating more and more in this country’ (Jones, 289).

Dawson's closest relationship was with Lord Halifax, whose Eton, Oxford, and high Anglican antecedents he shared. Chamberlain shared his outlook on Anglo-German relations, but Dawson's influence over Stanley Baldwin may not have been as great as has sometimes been suggested. In 1936 Dawson supported Ribbentrop's proposal (via Thomas Jones) for Baldwin and Hitler to meet, though not in Berlin, but ‘in Brussels or on the sea’ (Jones, 220). No such meeting ever took place, which supports the more recent view that Baldwin kept his own counsel if advisers like Dawson ‘were too unsympathetic to his own opinions, or intruded on sensitive questions’ (Williamson, 72).

In reality, Dawson knew little about European affairs, and this weakness was exacerbated by his failure to appoint a foreign editor to succeed Harold Williams at The Times on the latter's death in 1928. His ‘life moved between Printing House Square, Eton, All Souls and the moorland estate he inherited from an aunt in 1917’ (Cowling, 128). He was on safer ground with domestic issues, although he could be condescending about Labour politicians like MacDonald and Thomas. He was a friend of leading Conservatives such as William Ormsby-Gore, Samuel Hoare, Thomas Inskip, and Anthony Eden as well of the Astors. A regular visitor to Cliveden, he could be counted upon to share Nancy Astor's pro-appeasement, pro-Chamberlain leanings [see ].

Dawson was a mainstream Conservative. He was suspicious of the Labour Party, but believed that The Times's policy of fair play for the government of the day should be maintained when Labour came to power in 1924 and again in 1929, and was an important influence in convincing Baldwin and MacDonald to go to the country as a national coalition in 1931, following the formation of the National Government. He supported MacDonald and Wedgwood Benn over reform in India, and in the early 1930s gave strong backing to Baldwin, Hoare, and Lord Irwin (Halifax) in the internal struggle within the Conservative Party over Indian reform, having toured there and written a series of articles in The Times advocating the policy which led to the Government of India Act (1935). Briefly in the later 1930s he seemed to be trying to revive the peace movement of the early thirties in concert with his friend Lord Lothian (the former Philip Kerr), the former member of Milner's kindergarten. But he was unenthusiastic about the League of Nations. Sometimes he could be daring, as when advocating Churchill's inclusion in the 1924 Conservative government, even if ‘he was astounded at the use to which he was put’ (Middlemas and Barnes, 283) at the exchequer. Yet he rightly saw that Baldwin was the key figure in Conservative politics then, as he was to be in the National Government after 1931. He wrote in a magisterial tone, saying that Baldwin's contribution to the cohesion of the National Government ‘was a matter which history will assess and which perhaps only Mr MacDonald can yet appreciate’ (The Times, 7 June 1935).

Appeasement

It would be wrong also to see Dawson as merely a conduit for government opinions. During Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in the Abyssinian crisis of 1935–6, which brought about the resignation of Dawson's friend Samuel Hoare as foreign secretary, The Times was critical. It published many letters attacking government policy, and Dawson ‘sketched out a leader trying to show the Government the strength of public feeling’ (Wrench, 326). The leader duly appeared on 16 December 1935 under the unflattering heading ‘A corridor for camels’, a devastating critique of the government's attempt to hand over part of Ethiopia to Mussolini in collaboration with the French. Dawson saw no particular need to appease Mussolini, and ‘as a Milnerite imperialist, he was suspicious of any attempt to upset the status quo in Africa’ (Waley, 57). In this he differed from Chamberlain, who always favoured accommodation with the Italian dictator.

Dawson's views on appeasing Germany, although supported by his long-standing deputy Barrington-Ward, caused divisions in the office of The Times. The paper's in-house historian, Stanley Morison, later claimed that Dawson had censored the reports of the Berlin correspondent of The Times, Norman Ebbutt, though this account was disputed by G. L. Pearson, Dawson's chief foreign sub-editor (and an opponent of appeasement), and others. Ultimately, Ebbutt was expelled from Germany in the summer of 1937, despite Dawson's attempt not to upset Nazi susceptibilities. For an anti-appeaser like Churchill's friend Robert Boothby, Dawson then became ‘the Secretary General of the Establishment, the fervent advocate of Appeasement’ (Rhodes James, 175). Dawson's position has been variously explained: an ignorance of Europe and of European history; too close a rapport with particular politicians; an empirical outlook lacking in principle (Rowse, 115). It is arguable, however, that his support for the Munich agreement stemmed primarily from his imperial concerns; he believed that war with Germany over Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1938 ‘would have been misunderstood and resented from end to end of the Empire’ (Dawson to Neville Chamberlain, 8 Nov 1940, Dawson papers, 81, fol. 48).

In the later phase of his second editorship, Dawson's leadership of The Times underwent a dramatic transformation. Previously stigmatized as a proponent of appeasement, Dawson advocated an energetic war policy and criticized Chamberlain's stewardship in the ‘phoney war’. The noted military correspondent B. H. Liddell-Hart was forced to leave The Times in October 1939 because of his defeatism. The damage had been done, however, and The Times suffered a considerable loss of prestige because of its earlier associations with appeasement. His health failing, Dawson resigned from his post as editor on 30 September 1941. His last years were spent in retirement in north Yorkshire until his death at one of his homes, 24 Lowndes Street, London, on 7 November 1944.

Peter Neville

Sources  

Bodl. Oxf., MSS Geoffrey Dawson · I. McDonald, A man of The Times (1976) · R. Cockett, Twilight of truth (1989) · O. Woods and J. Bishop, The story of The Times (1983) · [S. Morison and others], The history of The Times, 4 (1952) · J. E. Wrench, Geoffrey Dawson and our times (1955) · I. McDonald, The history of The Times, 5 (1984) · A. Lentin, Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the pre-history of appeasement (1985) · T. Jones, A diary with letters, 1931–1950 (1954) · P. Williamson, Stanley Baldwin (1999) · M. Cowling, The impact of Hitler (1975) · K. Middlemas and J. Barnes, Baldwin: a biography (1969) · R. Rhodes James, Bob Boothby: a portrait (1991) · D. Waley, British public opinion and the Abyssinian War (1975) · S. Grant Duff, The parting of ways: a personal account of the thirties (1982) · S. E. Koss, The rise and fall of the political press in Britain, 2 (1984) · W. Nimocks, Milner's young men: the Kindergarten in Edwardian imperial affairs (1968) · J. Lee Thompson, Northcliffe: press baron in politics, 1865–1922 (2000) · A. L. Rowse, All Souls and appeasement (1961) · L. Heren, Memories of Times past (1988) · W. R. Louis, In the name of God, go! Leo Amery and the British empire in the age of Churchill (1992) · Burke, Gen. GB (1937) · DNB · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1945)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp., diaries, and papers · News Int. RO, corresp. and papers |  BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil of Chelwood, Add. MS 51156 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MSS 62243–62245 · BL OIOC, letters to Sir B. P. Blackett, MS Eur. E 397 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir S. H. Butler, MS Eur. F 116 · BLPES, corresp. with Violet Markham · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis; Round Table corresp. · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lady Milner · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Simon · Bodl. RH, corresp. with J. H. Oldham · CAC Cam., Lord Halifax MSS · CUL, Baldwin MSS · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · National Archives of Zimbabwe, corresp. with Sir Francis Chaplin · News Int. RO, The Times Archive · NL Scot., corresp. with F. S. Oliver · Parl. Arch., letters to Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., corresp. with J. St L. Strachey · U. Birm., Neville Chamberlain MSS · U. Reading L., corresp. with Nancy Astor  

FILM

 

BFINA, documentary footage


Likenesses  

W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1923, NPG [see illus.] · O. Birley, group portrait, oils, 1937, News International, London · F. Dodd, oils, 1943, Bodl. RH · O. Birley, oils, Langcliffe Hall, Settle, Yorkshire · J. Gunn, oils, priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£76,006 9s. 4d.: probate, except settled land, 3 Feb 1945, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £50,507: further grant limited to settled land, 29 Nov 1945, CGPLA Eng. & Wales