Winston Churchill, Charles Wakefield, and the British Academy

For the first two decades of its existence, the British Academy lacked financial resources and a home of its own. Charles Wakefield and Winston Churchill were both benefactors of the Academy, and some of their connections with the Academy would intertwine in coincidental ways.

Sir Charles Wakefield (1859-1941) was a Liverpool-born entrepreneur, the man behind Castrol lubricating oil; he was Lord Mayor of London 1915-16. At an event to mark the tercentenary of the death of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1918, Wakefield offered the British Academy ‘the sum of £500 per annum for at least five years as the nucleus of a Raleigh Fund for History’: the Academy’s Raleigh Lectures on History are an enduring reminder of this generosity.

In 1923 a powerful earthquake devastated Tokyo. The British government approached the British Academy to co-ordinate British efforts to restore the Tokyo Imperial University, which had gone up in flames. Charles Wakefield served as Honorary Treasurer of the ‘Tokyo Imperial University Library British Academy Committee’, generously paying the Committee’s the clerical and office expenses out of his own pocket. (See the British Academy Review article, Burnt books: The British Academy and the restoration of two academic libraries.)

The short-lived Labour government of 1924 gave the British Academy a grant of £2000 ‘in aid of the work, national and international, conducted by the British Academy – the whole sum to be devoted to the promotion and publication of research’. The annual grant was continued by the new Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rt Hon. Winston Churchill MP (1874-1965).

A Letter from Winston Churchill to Arthur Balfour about Burlington Gardens

In 1927, Winston Churchill wrote to the President of the British Academy, Arthur Balfour, to say that, ‘in recognition of the position of the British Academy and its services to the nation’, the Academy had been granted ‘free quarters’ in the east wing of Burlington Gardens. This good news was reported at the British Academy’s 25th Anniversary Dinner. Not only did Charles Wakefield announce at that very same dinner that he was presenting the Academy with a portrait of its President, Balfour, by Sir William Orpen RA; he also went on to pay for the space in Burlington Gardens to be reconstructed to become the Academy’s first home – opened in 1928 (with a plaque recording his generosity subsequently unveiled in 1929). (See the British Academy Review article, Charles Wakefield and the British Academy’s first home.)

In 1930, the British Academy invited Winston Churchill, in his capacity as a history writer, to deliver the 1931 Raleigh Lecture on History (the lecture series endowed by Charles Wakefield). Churchill declined the invitation.

In 1938, there were moves to honour the two men who had helped the British Academy move into its first home ten years earlier. Charles Wakefield (now Viscount Wakefield) was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy. Winston Churchill’s name was put forward by the Academy’s History Section as a prospective ‘Ordinary’ Fellow, i.e. a Fellow elected for his own distinction as a scholar. However, he did not survive Council’s final pruning of the list of candidates. That someone who had supported the Academy as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and who was ‘of such wide learning and commanding historical talent’ (even though not an academic specialist), could not get elected into the Fellowship provoked an angry response from within the Academy. Churchill’s name was put forward again in 1939 and this time Council recommended that he be elected; but now Churchill declined the offer because he was ‘too fully occupied’.

The British Academy determined to elect Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, as an Honorary Fellow in 1952, the year of its 50th Anniversary. Council had hoped to introduce its new Honorary Fellow at the Anniversary Dinner: Churchill declined the invitation to the dinner because of ‘the pressure of my public duties’, but he did accept the Honorary Fellowship (so long as it brought with it no ‘obligations’). (See the British Academy Review article, Winston Churchill and the British Academy).

[Note: Winston Churchill is not the only Prime Minister welcomed into the ranks of the British Academy. In December 1901 Lord Rosebery and Arthur Balfour were added to the list of ‘proposed Fellows of the British Academy’, selected as ‘persons distinguished in political life’: Rosebery had already been Prime Minister in 1894-95; Balfour became Prime Minister in July 1902, the month before the Academy was formally established by Royal Charter. Harold Macmillan, who had been Prime Minister 1957-63, was elected an Honorary Fellow in 1981.]

This page was created to mark 12 Decades of the British Academy.

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