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II

A happy memory of my stay in London during the jubilee year was a day spent at Chequers, the beautiful mansion that was provided by the munificence of Lord Lee of Fareham, to be used as an official country home for British Prime Ministers. My sister-in-law, Mrs. Geoffrey McIntyre, had been also invited. It was a Sunday near the end of March, 1935, as we motored from London, a lovely spring morning with the sun shining brightly, a bracing refreshing atmosphere and


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a sense of nature's awakening. Trees and bushes were in bud; early flowers, daffodils, violets and primroses, were in bloom. Travelling eastward, passing through quaint and picturesque villages and towns, finally we reached Chequers, found the gates open and drove up the long drive through the attractive park grounds with wide stretches of green grasslands studded with trees, amidst which sheep grazed. The suggestion was of quietness, peacefulness and rest. Chequers is at the end of the Chiltern Hills, far removed from the busy hum of people. It is just the retreat needed by the ever-harassed occupant of the highest ministerial office as an occasional relief from worry.

Though the house is in Elizabethan style yet it seems older than the sixteenth century, and the visitor is not surprised when he learns that parts of it date from a much earlier period. Spacious and with numeous gables, it looks a fitting home for Prime Ministers.

It was a simple family gathering. Ramsay MacDonald was transparently genuine in his kindly greeting. His daughter, Ishbel, was there, also a friend. His son, Malcolm, received us with happy friendliness. They made us immediately feel as much at home as if we had been members of this little homely group for years. Conversation at luncheon was mainly about Australia. The Prime Minister had toured it in 1906 and hoped soon to go there again. His son had paid it two visits.

After luncheon we strolled over the grounds. The Prime Minister showed deep interest in the surroundings, remarking on the difficulty of keeping the fine lawn in front of the house clear of weeds; then he


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talked of the flowers, trees and birds. It was evident he was a true nature-lover. We climbed a high and steep hill and admired the view, an immense and diversified expanse of typical English country. On the top of a hill not so high as where we were, were the remains of what he told me was an old fort of the Ancient Britons. It was where Cymbeline was born, an ancient stronghold from which the Roman invasion met with the stoutest resistance. It was part of the property attached to Chequers. Not far distant is the home and burial-place of John Hampden, who died of wounds received in the Civil War and was a cousin of Oliver Cromwell. These and other such historical memories were appropriate associations for the country residence of the head of the Government of the Empire. We were taken to the rose garden, inspected the terraces and parapets, box hedges and old sundials.

At afternoon tea the Prime Minister talked freely. I remarked that his work was so heavy and his responsibilities so great that the strain on him must be terrific. He said he was feeling it after so many years of public life and his various terms as Prime Minister and he hoped to be able to retire soon.

“Unfortunately,” he added, “Baldwin tells me that he, too, finds the strain more than he can bear. He does not want to lead.”

The visit was made some days after Hitler had delivered the famous announcement of Germany's return to conscription. The Prime Minister referred to it with a sadness in his voice. He felt it gave the policy of international peace and disarmament a severe shock. It might now be essential for Britain to strengthen her defences.




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I expressed the opinion that when the history of the last few years came to be written, his Government would get credit for all they had done to preserve peace.

“We did our best,” said he, “we risked even the national safety.” His tone of voice was that of a tired and disappointed man.

We spoke of the growth of the work of governments due to the ever-increasing scope of governmental activities. He mentioned that the questions to be dealt with to-day are complicated and countless. Decisions had to be made continually on important issues and made quickly.

“When I read biographies of my predecessors,” he said, “I envy them the comparatively little work they had to do and the time at their disposal.”

Then he went on to say that his eyes nowadays could not stand too much reading. He had had an operation for glaucoma and had to be careful.

“Come,” said he, “I love going round this house. Let me take you.”

It was clear he enjoyed showing the different rooms with their priceless treasures.

“The atmosphere is kindly,” said he, “and the ghosts are friendly and make me feel it is the proper home for Prime Ministers.”

As we wandered round he pointed to pictures by famous painters of the past, showed us wonderful cabinets, a library of old-world books bound in a style to last for centuries, rare china, miniatures, armour and ancient weapons. There was the ring of Queen Elizabeth that was brought to James the Sixth of Scotland to announce her death. On a mantelpiece was the


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sword worn by Cromwell at the Battle of Marsden Moor. Near it and framed with glass on both sides was a long letter written by him on the battlefield to his brother and whilst the loyalists were in flight.

The house had many relics of Cromwell, one of whose relatives married a former owner. There were portraits of his two daughters and both his sons. The Prime Minister also showed us a wonderful life mask of Cromwell.

At the end of a long room there was a lofty stained-glass window showing the coats of arms of the numerous residents of Chequers since the eleventh century. Under each were the names in full, also the length of residence done in old lettering. A window close by gave the coats of arms, names and dates of residence of the Prime Ministers who have lived at Chequers since it was given to the nation.

I remarked that it was fortunate that the house was owned by the country as it would thus be preserved for all time. The Prime Minister said it was specially fortunate as when it was handed over it was in a bad state of repair. The woodwork was in a terrible state. Few private individuals could have afforded the great expense of restoring it, and had it not been restored it would have become a ruin.

Up by small rickety winding stairs we came to apartments in which Lady Mary Grey, the sister of Lady Jane Grey, had been imprisoned for a couple of years. The poor lady's offence was that she had married her coachman, which was a serious crime in the eyes of Queen Elizabeth. In frames round the walls were letters sent by Lady Mary to Lord Burleigh pleading for her release. They were without avail, and Lady


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Mary evidently lost patience. On the white wall there are drawn by her caricatures of a vixen-faced disagreeable lady evidently meant to be Elizabeth.

Our hosts insisted on our staying until late in the afternoon so that it was quite dark when we got back to London. Our memories of Chequers are of a homely, hospitable family in picturesque surroundings and a Prime Minister weary and worn out with the cares and worries of office. Soon afterwards he retired in favour of Mr. Baldwin.

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