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date: 24 April 2024

Marquis, Frederick James, first earl of Wooltonfree


Marquis, Frederick James, first earl of Wooltonfree

  • Michael D. Kandiah

Frederick James Marquis, first earl of Woolton (1883–1964)

by Elliott & Fry

Marquis, Frederick James, first earl of Woolton (1883–1964), politician and businessman, was born on 23 August 1883 at 163 West Park Street, Salford, the only surviving child of Thomas Robert Marquis (1857–1944), a saddler, and his wife Margaret, née Ormerod (1854–1923). They were determined that their son would rise beyond the lower middle classes into which he was born and focused their support and hopes on him. After Ardwick higher-grade school they sent him to the best school they could afford, Manchester grammar school. However, their straitened circumstances prevented him reading classics at Cambridge; instead he went to the University of Manchester, from where, in 1906, he emerged with a combination science degree (mathematics, chemistry, and physics).

Social concerns

While an undergraduate Marquis became involved with the activities of Ancoats Hall, a settlement for the poor connected with the university, and became interested in the application of the social sciences to the understanding and alleviation of the problem of poverty. He would have liked to have gone on to further academic study in this area. However, limited family finances were to frustrate this desire and he had to turn down the offer of the Martin White fellowship in sociology at the University of London. Consequently he accepted the position of senior mathematics master at Burnley grammar school and occasionally lectured in the evenings on mathematics and general science at the local technical school. He continued to study poverty and labour mobility while at Burnley, an industrial town with a substantial urban proletariat, which for him was an ideal locality to examine, and he began publishing scholarly articles. For his work he was appointed research fellow in economics at the University of Manchester in 1910 and was awarded an MA in 1912.

In 1909 Marquis was appointed warden of the David Lewis Hotel and Club Association in Liverpool, a social experiment established by the Liverpool retailing firm of Lewis's in the city's docklands area. Run on a profit-making basis it provided cheap beds for the night, recreation in a ‘people's palace’, and a large theatre. Marquis was then invited by the vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool to take on the additional responsibility of the wardenship of the Liverpool University Settlement. He took full advantage of these opportunities to research and give practical help to the poor by establishing a successful free dental care unit and a maternity clinic. At this stage of his life he finally felt financially secure enough to marry, on 10 October 1912, his long-time fiancée, Maud (1882–1961), a teacher employed by Manchester city council; she was the daughter of Thomas Smith, an iron turner, of Manchester. The couple had a daughter and a son. Marquis's political views, however, were in a state of flux. His social concerns initially inclined him towards Fabian socialism and during this period he began wearing a trade-mark red tie, which was interpreted by many as a visual expression of his commitment to socialism. However, his background and his training as an economist at the University of Manchester made him place a high value on personal initiative and, by extension, private enterprise.

Such views were to be further developed through Marquis's experiences as a civil servant during the First World War. Never robust, he was judged unfit for active military service and, as he was already known in Whitehall for his work in Liverpool, was drafted into the war effort, first as an official in the requisition department of the War Office and then at the Leather Control Board. As civilian boot controller he liaised with manufacturers and distributors, and established a system whereby the industry managed distribution itself, with only a small number of temporary civil servants. His interaction with businessmen in the trade made him appreciate their abilities and confirmed his suspicion of the undesirability of government intervention, although he saw that central direction would be necessary in periods of emergency—like war. Once normalcy returned after the end of the First World War, he joined the Boot Manufacturers' Federation as secretary. To support a growing family he supplemented his income by freelance journalism, often writing about his favourite topics: public welfare and the role of the socially responsible entrepreneur. During this time he went to the United States to observe American sales and production methods which instilled in him the view that ‘the customer knows best’.

Business and government

In 1920 Marquis joined Lewis's, with which he had developed a close personal and professional relationship since his wardenship of the David Lewis Club. Henceforward he would become known more as a successful businessman than a social scientist. Nevertheless this did not mean the end of his interest in social welfare; that remained, but he would approach it from the perspective of a businessman. Working for Lewis's was probably supremely appealing to Marquis because it had provided him with an example of how business could work to improve the lives of the under-privileged. He quickly rose up the ranks of the company, the only practising Christian (a devout Unitarian) to do so in a firm dominated by a close Jewish cousinhood, becoming director in 1928 and chairman in 1936.

Through the rest of the 1920s and the 1930s Marquis established for himself a key position at the interface of business and government through participation in various government-appointed committees. Nationally, his appointments included: member of the advisory council of overseas development committee, 1928–31; member of the advisory council of the Board of Trade, 1930–34; member of the advisory council to the General Post Office, 1933–47; member of the Cadman committee on civil aviation in 1937; and member, 1936–9, and then chairman, 1939, of the Council for Art and Industry, which was linked to the Board of Trade. In recognition of these services and his success as a businessman he was knighted in 1935. All the while, he steadfastly refused to be identified with any political party or cause.

After Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 Marquis declared in a speech in Leicester that Lewis's would henceforward not trade in German goods and made a plea for other companies to do the same. As a result, he was reprimanded in person by the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. However, this incident did nothing to prevent his deepening involvement with government. On 9 May 1939 he was appointed as honorary adviser to the secretary of state for war, Leslie Hore-Belisha, to ensure that the armed forces were adequately clothed in the event of conflict with Germany and Marquis completed this task efficiently and quickly. Previously he had, through his committee work, come into contact with two supremely powerful civil servants, Sir Horace Wilson, who advised Stanley Baldwin and then Chamberlain, and Sir Warren Fisher, the permanent secretary to the Treasury and head of the civil service. Marquis was involved from 1937 onwards in various covert war preparation committees and had been brought in through the good offices of Wilson. Either Fisher or Wilson, or both, was responsible for recommending him for a peerage in 1939 to Chamberlain. This was done to allow Marquis to undertake high-level administrative and governmental work if and when war broke out. He was ennobled in mid-1939 and took the name of Woolton, an affluent Liverpool suburb, for his title. (It had been suggested to him that he become Baron Windermere, as he had property in the Lake District; his wife, on account of Oscar Wilde's play, Lady Windermere's Fan, refused to countenance it.) Wilson was subsequently instrumental in recommending to Chamberlain in April 1940 that Woolton be appointed to head the Ministry of Food.

Cabinet minister

Woolton was to be a non-party minister, one of a number of businessmen (including Sir Andrew Duncan, Lord Leathers, Oliver Lyttelton, and P. J. Grigg) brought into government to help with the war effort. At that time outside Liverpool and the precincts of Whitehall Woolton was largely unknown. This did not last long, as through regular radio broadcasts he was brought to the nation's attention. In them he reassured his listeners that everything was under control and he celebrated the British housewife's ability to cope. He also bequeathed his name to the Woolton pie, a dish designed to maximize the use of vegetables and leftovers. His biggest triumph was getting people to accept rationing as not only necessary and patriotic but also equitable and efficient. He soon became, next to Churchill, the most popular and identifiable government minister. Woolton took the opportunity to implement positive social reform when he began the provision of milk to schoolchildren and orange juice to expectant mothers.

The fact that Woolton was officially non-party may have worked to his advantage in his subsequent promotion to cabinet. In November 1943 he became minister of reconstruction in a compromise which Churchill made with the Labour Party representatives in the war cabinet. The support of Labour leader Clement Attlee, who had first come across Woolton when he was warden of the David Lewis Club, was probably pivotal in his appointment. As a non-party member of government Woolton could more easily fulfil the role of minister of reconstruction which was, as he was to find out to his distress, to act as mediator between the conflicting claims and aims of the Conservative and Labour members of the reconstruction committee and to find the limited common ground on which both sides could agree. Thus he produced the wartime coalition government's famous white papers on health, education, social security, and employment. He continued to refuse to acknowledge political colours throughout the period of the war and after Germany's defeat when he accepted the post of lord president of the council in Churchill's brief caretaker administration in 1945.

Party chairman

Woolton officially joined the Conservative Party when Churchill appointed him chairman of the party organization on 1 July 1946. Woolton had become alarmed by the prospect of permanent and substantial government intervention in the economy after the war, and for him Labour's landslide general election victory in 1945 posed a serious threat to free enterprise and the entrepreneurial spirit.

A ‘Woolton revolution’ was popularly supposed to have taken place during the years in opposition, 1946–51, which resulted in the entire machinery of the Conservative Party being overhauled and improved under his guidance. Woolton supervised organizational, financial, and structural changes. He succeeded in stimulating constituency associations, at their nadir at the time of the 1945 election, and encouraged the professionalization of party functionaries, both at Conservative central office and in the constituencies. The Maxwell-Fyfe committee's 1948 interim report on party organization endorsed the improvements in the conditions of work and the pension scheme he had devised for party agents.

Woolton's success as party chairman guaranteed him a place in Churchill's cabinet after the 1951 general election win. He was appointed lord president of the council and was also co-ordinating minister for food and agriculture. His combination of responsibilities made him one of the three ‘overlords’. Woolton was arguably the most successful of the overlords, but this was probably because the ministries he was to co-ordinate were related, and because he attempted only light control. During the Conservative Party's 1952 annual conference at Scarborough he fell seriously ill and could not resume duties until the following spring. He only returned to full ministerial work in September 1953, by which time the overlords system had effectively ceased to function. He was then made chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister of materials. He remained at the duchy until he retired from the chairmanship of the Conservative Party and from politics in the latter half of 1955.

As a minister Woolton was anxious that the government should honour pledges made during the 1950 and 1951 election campaigns, which committed the Conservatives to the welfare state but with increased emphasis on individual and business freedom. If his health had remained robust and if he had retained his post as lord president, he probably would have been a more effective and a more important minister. Before he fell ill in 1952, he urged all government ministers to take steps to reduce government expenditure and intervention. Also, while lord president, he was one of the few ministers urging fulfilment of the election pledges the party had made concerning denationalization; he suggested the Conservative government should begin with road haulage. Housing, which had been a crucial election issue during both the 1950 and 1951 election campaigns, was one of Woolton's concerns: he supported the extension of the ‘property-owning democracy’ and a shift away from the emphasis, which the Conservatives had inherited from the Attlee governments, on the provision of council housing, towards subsidizing or providing incentives to the private sector.

Chancellor of duchy of Lancaster

As chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster and minister of materials Woolton dropped in cabinet rank and had much less to do. He was charged with the task of winding up the Ministry of Materials and dismantling many of the controls on food and raw materials that had been in place since the war. Although this process had in fact begun before he took over, he was to receive all the public credit for its disbandment—people cheered him when sugar and sweets were finally derationed. He found the post at the duchy an empty one as far as serious departmental administration was concerned, but it gave him great pleasure to manage part of the queen's estates and increase her income. It was a period when he was marking time before retiring from active political life.

While a minister Woolton pushed measures in which he was personally interested. A passionate believer in the virtues of competition, he wanted to see the dismantling of the BBC's monopoly on television broadcasting and knew that this was the general view of Conservative back-benchers. Before the Conservatives won the 1951 election he had arranged to get Selwyn Lloyd, who was like-minded, onto the all-party parliamentary committee which investigated the future of broadcasting and was to be one of Lloyd's staunchest supporters. When Woolton became lord president, he chaired the committee which bound the government to the establishment of independent television, in the face of considerable hostility from Churchill and most other members of the cabinet. When it became evident that Lord De La Warr, the postmaster-general, who was entrusted with the task of establishing the Independent Television Authority, had some reservations about his task, Woolton pre-empted any change of heart by the Conservative government by publishing in August 1953 a pamphlet entitled There's Free Speech! Why not Free Switch?. This did not allow the government to retreat from its stated position. He had ensured that the government made an important concession to back-bench opinion and demonstrated that the Conservatives were committed to consumer choice and freedom, and also to private investment and profit.

One of the outstanding features of Woolton's chairmanship was his popularity with the rank and file of the party. They thought of him as ‘Uncle Fred’ and saw him as accessible and avuncular. He was sensitive to what they were thinking and what they wanted. The most obvious example of this was his acceptance at the party's 1950 annual conference of the target to build 300,000 houses if the Conservatives were returned to power after a general election. His broad popularity with the party was also rooted in the fact that he was a successful man who did not come from a patrician or a traditional political background, thus representing a welcome break with the past: he embodied the post-war ‘democratization’ and modernization of the party. Nevertheless Woolton actually revelled in the traditional social distinctions and enjoyed his titles. He was elevated to viscount in the 1953 coronation honours and finally to earl in the 1955 new year's honours list. He was deeply proud to have been made a privy councillor in 1940 and a Companion of Honour in 1942. He also remained for many decades a governor of Manchester grammar school and chancellor of the University of Manchester.

Final years

Marquis's public image of avuncularity shielded a very private man. 'Tall, fastidiously dressed and consciously squaring his shoulders, Woolton was a formidable figure both in private and on the platform' (DNB). After his devoted wife died in 1961, as a gesture of friendship in 1962 he married his personal physician, Dr Margaret Eluned Thomas (1903–1983). He was never comfortable with professional politicians, apart from David Maxwell-Fyfe (later earl of Kilmuir) and his wife, Sylvia, both of whom he knew from their mutual Liverpool connections. Certainly he was not an intimate of Churchill or most other Conservative leaders. Nevertheless, he remained interested in the activities of the Conservative Party until his death at the country home he had acquired at Walberton House, Arundel, Sussex, on 14 December 1964. He was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Walberton. He was survived by his second wife and was succeeded as second earl by his son Roger.


  • M. D. Kandiah, The political biography of Lord Woolton (1998)
  • Lord Woolton, The adventure of reconstruction: peace, expansion and reform, selected speeches (1945)
  • Lord Woolton, The memoirs of the Rt Hon. the earl of Woolton (1959)
  • Lord Woolton [F. J. Marquis], The Rt Hon. Maud Marquis, countess of Woolton (privately printed, 1962)
  • J. Ramsden, The age of Churchill and Eden, 1940–1957 (1995)
  • K. Jeffreys, The Churchill coalition and wartime politics, 1940–1945 (1991)
  • S. Brooke, Labour's war: the labour party during the Second World War (1992)
  • A. Calder, The people's war: Britain, 1939–1945 (1969)
  • M. Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, 8: Never despair, 1945–1965 (1988)
  • J. D. Hoffman, The conservative party in opposition, 1945–1951 (1964)
  • Lord Redcliffe-Maude, The experiences of an optimist: the memoirs of John Redcliffe-Maude (1981)
  • A. Seldon, Churchill's Indian summer: the Conservative government, 1951–55 (1981)
  • b. cert.
  • census returns, 1911
  • private information (2020) [Robert Sharp]



  • W. Stoneman, three photographs, 1939–52, NPG
  • A. C. Davidson-Houston, oils, 1945, Salters' Company, London
  • H. Coster, photographs, NPG
  • G. Davien, caricature, plaster bust, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Gunn, portrait, University of Manchester, Whitworth Hall
  • Lady Kennet, bronze bust; in family possession in 1981
  • D. Low, pencil caricature, NPG

Wealth at Death

£407,790: probate, 18 Jan 1965, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
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University of Warwick, Modern Records Centre, Coventry
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British Library, London
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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National Portrait Gallery, London
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Nuffield College, Oxford
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British Library, National Sound Archive
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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London