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Reference group
Romney Street group (act. 1917–1922), a luncheon club founded in February 1917 by the drama critic of Punch, Joseph Peter Thorp, existed in its initial phase to generate ideas on post-war reconstruction. Its name comes from 58 Romney Street, London, the home of the actress Edyth Goodall (1886–1929), whom Thorp persuaded to provide a meal in her dining room. From April 1917 onwards the group met there every Wednesday. Towards the end of 1918, when members felt they were becoming a burden to their hostess, the group moved to the premises of the Garton Foundation in Dean's Yard, Westminster, but retained the Romney Street name.

Thorp's achievement was to bring together two different sets of people, the editorial team of The Athenaeum and the friends of the prime minister David Lloyd George who were advising him on changes in the machinery of government. The editorial team led by Arthur Greenwood had already decided to devote their journal to post-war reconstruction questions for the duration of the war. The Lloyd George advisers, influenced by Tom Jones, were instrumental in setting up the Cabinet Office and the prime minister's secretariat later called ‘the garden suburb’. The individual who belonged to both sets was R. H. Tawney, whose ideas about social inequality tended to set the tone of the group's subsequent discussions.

A remarkable feature of the group was its proximity to the reconstruction secretariat and then the Ministry of Reconstruction. Six of the original twelve members were temporary civil servants working under Vaughan Nash, the former private secretary to Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, who was charged with reconstruction planning. Nash himself did not become a member of the group until 1920. But Tom Jones, who went to the Cabinet Office, invited into the group J. J. Mallon, Philip Kerr, Eric Henry Edwardes Havelock (1891–1974), Alfred Zimmern, and J. L. Hammond. Zimmern and Hammond were at the time sharing a research post in the reconstruction secretariat. Gilbert Murray joined as a friend of Hammond. The secretariat then recruited the services of two members of the Athenaeum team, Arthur Greenwood (1880–1954) and John Hilton, who, as secretary to the Garton Foundation, had been responsible for finding the group's new venue. When the group was expanded a little in 1918–19 two temporary civil servants in Greenwood's section of the Ministry of Reconstruction were invited to join it, Cecil Delisle Burns (1879–1942) and H. J. Gillespie. Thorp himself, a prominent member of the Athenaeum team, never joined the civil service.

Women were excluded from the group. Thorp wanted ‘a sodality of men and clubbable men at that’ (Thorp to E. St J. P. Catchpool, Jan 1946, copy, NLW, Thomas Jones papers, class C, 19/1). Edyth Goodall as hostess agreed to withdraw as soon as the meal had been served. Two distinguished members of the Athenaeum team were not invited to join because they were women, Ada Elizabeth Levett, the vice-principal of St Hilda's College, Oxford, and Winifred Mercier, the educationist.

Tom Jones became the group's first chairman. His position in the Cabinet Office gave him the opportunity to become a confidant of four successive prime ministers. He set the agenda of each weekly discussion. His diaries and papers contain the most revealing evidence of the group's activities. They contain the oldest surviving group membership list (1919) and some of the papers written by the group for discussion.

The editorials of journalist members of the group may have reflected these discussions. The journal published by the group called Change survived for only two issues in 1919. The group lost control over The Athenaeum when that journal reverted to its pre-war function of concentrating on literature and the arts in April 1919 under John Middleton Murry as editor. But the Rowntree Trust as proprietor of The Nation, having found itself at odds with the editor, H. W. Massingham, insisted on an amalgamation of The Nation and The Athenaeum, which were formatted separately but bound together and sold as one issue from February 1921 onwards. The new editor of this combination was a member of the Romney Street group, Hubert Henderson, who was later assisted by another member, Harold Wright (1882–1934). Another journal, the New Statesman, also got into difficulties during the 1920s when its editor, Clifford Sharp, suffered from acute alcoholism. Charles Mostyn Lloyd, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and a member of the group, managed to keep the New Statesman afloat until it was compelled to amalgamate with The Nation and The Athenaeum in 1931. This combination, the New Statesman and Nation, was then edited by another group member, Kingsley Martin.

The influence of the group beyond that of its journalists is difficult to assess. Surviving papers show that members were particularly concerned about post-war international order and industrial unrest. They followed closely both the preparation of treaties after the armistice and the construction of Whitley councils from both employer and trades union representatives. Some thought that the wartime control boards for the cotton and woollen industries provided a model for future partnerships between government, employers, and trade unions. G. D. H. Cole, who became a member of the group in 1919, introduced members to guild socialism. But the Lloyd George coalition after the ‘coupon’ election of 1918 was not sympathetic to the group's aspirations. The resignation of Christopher Addison as minister of reconstruction in July 1919 symbolized the collapse of the group's hopes.

The Romney Street group never had any collective affiliation with the Labour Party. Some members, such as Greenwood, Mallon, and Delisle Burns, became stalwart Labour activists; others continued to keep in touch with the Asquith wing of the Liberal Party. The only member to move strongly to the right was H. J. Gillespie, who having been research secretary to the Fabians and a journalist for the Daily Herald became propaganda secretary to the Mining Association of Great Britain, a loose federation of district associations of individual mineowners.

Many members were associated with adult education and with social work. Thorp himself saw the group as an offshoot of the Agenda Club which he had helped to found in 1910 for the promotion of social work. That organization had contacts with university missions to the poor in large towns, particularly with Toynbee Hall in the East End of London. A founder member of the Romney Street group, Mallon, was the warden of Toynbee Hall from 1919 to 1954. Other members helped that mission. A constant theme in the group's discussions was the need to prepare for adult male suffrage with improvements in education for the working classes. The Workers' Educational Association gave several members of the group, who acted as tutors, close contact with labouring men. Greenwood, who had been an extramural tutor in the University of Leeds, was granted exemption from military service on the grounds that his knowledge of working men was indispensable to the reconstruction committee. The group appears to have had no contact with the campaign on behalf of votes for women.

The Romney Street group continued to meet regularly after the fall of Lloyd George in 1922, in spite of its failure to influence government policy. Those members who were journalists enjoyed a weekly opportunity to hear Whitehall gossip. Since 1950 it has had weekly discussions led by an invited guest speaker. Since 1984 it has met in the Athenaeum.

J. M. Lee

Sources  

E. L. Ellis, T. J.: a life of Dr Thomas Jones (1992) · T. of Punch [J. P. Thorp], Friends and adventures (1931) · J. M. Lee, ‘The Romney Street group: its origins and influence, 1916–1922’, Twentieth Century British History, 18/1 (2007), 106–128 · P. Mountfield, The Romney Street group, 1917–1987 (privately printed, 1987) · J. Turner, Lloyd George's secretariat (1980) · J. M. Winter, Socialism and the challenge of war (1974) · NL Wales, Thomas Jones papers, class C, vol. 19, no. 1 · BLPES, papers of the Romney Street group, GB0097