The Early Days of the European-Atlantic Group
Thoughts on the Founding of the E-AG by James (Lord) Abinger(1)
‘Although the EAG was the inspiration of Lord Layton, in reality it would never have come to fruition without the dynamism and energy of Elma Dangerfield. She contacted myself and Eric (Lord) Bessborough and we met with Lord Layton in my Chelsea House. It was to be a non party political pressure group to bring British interest together with European and the USA and Canada. (At that time the debate was very much either or).
In no time the Group was inaugurated by Elma’s amazing drive and initiative. Meetings were arranged at the Anglo Belgian Club in Belgrave Square, an influential Council and Committee were recruited of well known politicians, academics, economists and journalists. Elma did most of the work in a tiny office in Bloomsbury with much help from her journalist partner Dennis Walwin Jones. The main worry was finding enough money to fund this enterprise; (for me at least as I had drawn the short straw of becoming Treasurer!) We struggled to keep up with Elma’s expansive plans. Luckily Henry Tiarks joined me as joint Treasurer and things looked up at once.
I now look back with enormous admiration for Elma and great satisfaction at being connected with such a successful and fun enterprise. I wish it further triumphs in its next 50 years.’
Elma Dangerfield wrote the first history of the Group in 1955, in words that she put in her handwriting into the mouth and the pen of the Earl of Bessbough. It is below:
The first decades of the Group are largely a story about Elma Dangerfield. Lord Bessborough’s comments below, often repeated in much the same terms in the Minutes, call to mind Macauley’s ‘Great Man’ theory of history: for all the talk of underlying trends and decisions of key institutions, and the rest, it is ultimately the individuals who really make the difference:
‘I must, as usual, pay a very special tribute to the untiring efforts of Mrs. Elma Dangerfield, our Honorary Organiser and her able Assistants, without whose energies and enthusiasm the Group would certainly not be as active as it was.’
Elma Dangerfield wrote the following piece about the founding of the Group when it was suggested to her by her co-Director in the 1990s that this should be done.
‘The European-Atlantic Group was the inspiration of the late Lord Walter Layton, then the first British Vice-President of the Council of Europein Strasbourg. He then suggested the idea to Elma Dangerfield, at the time Foreign Correspondent of The Manchester Guardian at the Council. Lord Layton had been instrumental in inviting American and Canadian Senators and Congressmen to debate with European Members of Parliament in Strasbourg, and suggested to Elma Dangerfield that she should start a group in London with leading Representatives of all the Anglo-European and Anglo-American and Canadian Societies in London. Elma Dangerfield had been assisting him over Human Rights issues in Strasbourg, and on returning to London, she approached Lord Abinger, other Peers, MPs, Academics, Economists and Journalists. The Group was founded in London at Abinger’s London House, with the first Meetings held at the Anglo-Belgian Club in Belgrave Square. A Committee and Council were formed of well-known British, American and Canadian personalities.
Lord Layton’s original idea was to have such an International Group in each Capital of Europe as well as in Washington and Ottawa but the Founders discovered it was enough to have one active Group in London and have left it to the other countries of the West to form their own Groups…..’
It was pretty scant as histories go, but the past was passed over save for the odd occasion, as when Elma spoke at the funeral of Mary Melville about the inception of the Group:
‘I first met Mary during the war, with her mother, Lady Melville, the Russian wife of Sir James Melville, M.P. (who had been Solicitor-General in Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Government). It was at the Duchess of Atholl’s (the ‘Red Duchess’) flat in Inverna Court where she had founded with me and Rowmund Pilsudski ‘The British League for European Freedom’ to help East European Refugees in this country – especially Polish ones. Mary also helped us with ‘The Deportees committee’ -together with Rose Macauley, George Orwell, Rebecca West and a few MPs of all parties such as Ellen Wilkinson, Eleanor Rathbone, Ivor Thomas and Sir Victor Raikes, who first brought up the question of Deportations from Eastern Europe to Siberia in the House of Commons, followed by all of us at meetings in Caxton Hall and in the press. Mary also helped us found the ‘London International Group’ with the Duchess and Sir Ronald Story which later became The European-Atlantic Group.’
Here is Elma introducing herself to the Hon. Angus Ogilvy In a letter(2) by way of a curtain-raiser to the invitation that was her purpose in writing it:
‘…My husband, Captain Edward Dangerfield, R.N. was a great friend of Alexandra’s father George, when they were together in H.M.S. Hawkins, together on the China Station in the 1920s. Later, in London, he and I used to lunch at Belgrave Square with George and Marina when Alexandra was a child…..The Group is celebrating its 30th Anniversary with a Reception. Barbecue, short concert with Jehudi Menuhin and Dance at Hurlingham Club, on Wednesday June 27th….’
The earliest reference to Elma in the Group archives dates from 1929 and it is from HRH Prince George, who was godfather to Elma’s daughter, Gay. Prince George nearly a decade later writes to a mutual friend about the loss of Elma’s husband, Ted, a Lieutenant-Commander who served with him: ‘I know what this must mean for Elma. It seems so sad and unnecessary just now when so many are being killed by enemy action that he should be taken by illness when he was doing so well in the Navy. How long ago those days at Hong Kong seem and all our jokes and dinners – quite like another life….I wonder what Elma will do but she has many interests which will occupy and help her.’ Elma destroyed her letters from the Prince but kept an envelope, embossed with the Balmoral crest, he addressed to her.
The earliest days in the main were happy, also to go by a letter of 1942(3):
‘… How we disliked Dr Grove…I shall never forget our Buttock jokes. I am glad Elma is getting on well with her job and is happier. Being busy must be a great help. A son has cheered us up amidst all the depressing news…’
Who now can entertain us with the buttock jokes, though to go by what else is in the files, they probably were not all that risqué. The record deals with weightier matters.
One year on from the foundation of the Group, it was up and running, sprinting more like. Here is further rubric from the Chairman’s Report of 1955:
‘The EUROPEAN-ATLANTIC GROUP was founded in London last June year by Members of the present Committee, headed by Lord Layton, Lord Abinger, Lord Birdwood, Commander Sir Stephen King-Hall, and Mrs Dangerfield. This Group drafted the Aims and Objects and issued invitations. (This is added in the handwriting of ED) to readers of the European-Atlantic Review to the first Meeting of the Group in July 1954 at the Anglo-Belgian Club, 6 Belgrave Square. There, with Sir Stephen King-Hall in the Chair the Group was joined by a number of the present Members, and was addressed by Lord Layton on the necessity of European-Atlantic co-operation…’
Tasters of this type of account can be read of those early days. They are putatively from Lord Bessborough, in A Record of Events in 1958 – though, if later E-AG usage can be trusted, the words were put into his mouth, or at least his pen, by Elma.
‘The Nordic Common Market’: This was the first time that this subject had been discussed at such a meeting in London. In view of its importance in relation to the proposed European Free Trade Area, this meeting was, I think, of considerable value and usefully informative to members and guests.’
‘I would like at the outset to refer to the great honour which the Prime Minister and Lady Dorothy Macmillan have done us in accepting to come to the Group’s reception in their honour on July 15th.’
Passages like the above abound in the E-AG Minutes and the Reports. A picture of the first flush of achievements by the Founding Fathers and Mother can be glimpsed, congealed beneath flat if patrician prose. In a period style that inter alia subliminally conveys unimpeachable respectability even a triumphalism, the entries can seem turgid to a modern sensibility.
‘Many thanks for your letters (to a mutual friend). So glad everything all right – & my god daughter is sweet – whatever are Elma & Ted going to call her really!
The above was found in 2020 in a cache of surviving letters addressed to Mrs O’Conor Donelan (Joseph O’Conor Donelan was buried in the same grave as Elma’s father). The correspondence was from the 1920s to shortly before the end of World War Two. The correspondents had partied in Hong Kong together and Prince George served in the Royal Navy with Elma’s late husband. This circle was broken up shortly before the end of World War II by the untimely demise of Lt-Commander Dangerfield from illness and that of Prince George in a fatal plane crash. A typed and signed letter in this packet is from his brother, the Duke of Windsor and the former King, expressing deep sorrow at his death. The letters from Prince George are the unguarded correspondence of a good friend, a humane person, and are mainly about personal matters. In the course of penning sentiments without waste of words, Prince George voices relief when the UK is strengthened with powerful allies against Hitler. This gravitates against the controversial depiction of the Prince on TV in 2020 and elsewhere as being a sympathiser of Germany at the time, let alone allegedly en route at the time of his crash to do a deal with Hitler.
Unlike the statute depicted in Shelleys’s Ozymandias only part of which, aeons after it was sculpted, protrudes from desert sands, it seems as if the granite-like verbiage in the E-AG archive is like a monument that was constructed in a desert in the first place. After the unveiling of ‘The Word’ the sense grows that it was destined to lie there un- interred, its fate all but lost in the sands. It was destined for burial beneath the next and the next event, in the unforgiving Present. Sage pronouncement on, and grappling with, the politics of State seem chiselled on an unending but disused tablet of stone, as if left to a Time Traveller to marvel at a procession though labyrinths lit by E-AG torch-bearers with names worthy of recording because of their illustriousness. Today, how many household names of the time will be recognised?
If this writer may breach convention by interjecting a personal note, he admits that the results of his quarrying into the compost of the Group record surprised him. There had been no time, given the exigencies in the heat of the office needs, to be spent in going over old ground or mountain peak. I worked cheek by jowl with Mrs Dangerfield for over a decade and was with her at gatherings such as the one at Guildhall where our association began. Elma took to me as a species of kindred kith and kin when I told her my surname, Glass, the same name as the Scottish town graced by her family seat, Beldorny castle, as if I was related to the bricks and mortar surrounding her from the cradle. I had no full idea till writing this history of how much the Group and Elma accomplished from Day One. Mrs Dangerfield’s dynamism even well into her mid- eighties makes one wonder how mighty her dynamo must have been in her youth and middle age!
Lord Russell Johnson, the President of the Parliamentary Assembly, told the Group on 19th July 2001: ”I would like to pay particular tribute to Elma Dangerfield sitting in front of me, whom I remember as a flibbertigibbet in the 60s when I first became a Member of Parliament. She does not seem to have changed all that much.”
The ‘Archives’ that had lain untouched for years before Justin joined the E-AG were captured for posterity by the art of Julia Couchman. What prescient genie, it may be wondered, whispered in her ear of their rightful niche in Group history?
Much of the ‘archive’ survived for some six decades the depredations of mildew, burglary and unintentional camouflage in the anonymity of unmarked cardboard boxes in Gertrude Street, and was transported lock, stock and barrel to the Finchley office. As an example of the way there was no looking back or sentiment: a mere two years before Justin joined the staff in 1987, the Group hosted the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. He had no idea of that, or of so much else accomplished in the Group’s antiquity – if harnessed to that term may be the idea that a week is a long time in politics. It was of even less contemporary relevance, then, that the Group mounted an event in the Albert Hall, as far back as in 1956. It never came up even in chat about possible future venues, but then nor did County Hall or Central hall, Westminster, where the E-AG had also held debates.
The E-AG overriding achievement in 1956 was in making the mercury shoot up the barometer of public consciousness of the Hungarian Uprising. The Group’s keynote speaker was the Archbishop of Canterbury. A politician might have seemed the obvious choice to present the Western cause, but the subject was Human Rights, long before President Jimmy Carter made of it a staple of international political discourse. If later custom is anything to go by, Elma bagged ‘the Archbish’ as a speaker then worked backwards, suiting a title of debate to her prize collared. Grand as were the second tier speakers – the Archbishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Hon. Viscount de L’Isle, PC, VC, Sir Robert Boothby, KBE, MP, The Rt. Hon. Kenneth Younger, PC, MP, Miss Jennie Lee, MP – it may be suspected that the ‘Tail-end Charlie’ at the bottom of the roster, ‘Hungarian speakers’, was indicative of Elma’s Rule Britannia mind-set. Foreigners were fine in their place beneath the salt of British loam. It admittedly could also be that the Hungarians during their uprising against their Russian overlords were too busy in their own counsels or manning barricades to rally a British chorus of support.(4)
Elma was not against foreigners particularly if they were aristocratic or Polish. Elma had so soft a spot for Poles the story went that she forfeited part of her inheritance because of family disapproval of this wayward penchant. Her slant on society was that it was, metaphorically speaking, cone-shaped, Royalty at its apex, and a base comprised of ‘the dribs and drabs’. Elma on occasion went in for personal reminiscence but was not one for boasting. Allusions to her ‘Great Connections’ were effective enough, and a certain mannerism let slip that they were of the air that she breathed. Had Elma wished to impress deliberately, a passing phrase or two might have passed her lips about, say, the holiday she took when younger with Dame Rebecca West, who was on the E-AG Ladies Committee and who wrote a preface to Elma’s book, Beyond The Urals. Elma did say of Prince George, Duke of Kent, in a rare revelation, that he would never read a word of what was written in the press about the Royal family: ‘All of it is untrue’, he told her.
One of Elma’s cousins only ever related a single anecdote about her to Justin. He chanced upon her in Parliament, a rare meeting, and this was her fleeting greeting:
“Can’t stop now! Must rush! Seeing the PM!”
Below is an entry gives a sense of divers matters exercising the corporate mind of the E-AG:
‘We have held Meetings each month, dealing primarily with European and Atlantic subjects connected with NATO and the Council of Europe. We have been fortunate enough to have been addressed by Lord Ismay, Secretary-General of NATO, last November, and by General Alfred Gruenther, Supreme Commander of S.H.A.P.E., in the House of Commons last March. This Meeting was attended by most of the NATO Ambassadors in London and by many Members of both Houses of Parliament, including the present Foreign Secretary, Mr. Harold Macmillan, who moved the vote of thanks to General Gruenther, seconded by Sir David Kelly. President of the British-Atlantic Committee.’
The Group was an arm of NATO spokesmanship in London. The Atlantic Council, co- founded by Mrs Dangerfield, arguably took on the mantle around the mid-80s, but the Group was always affiliated to NATO, in particular in the task of organising the Anniversary Celebrations every five or ten years up till 2019 when the Atlantic Council put on an event in London to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO.
The anniversary celebration of the founding of NATO became a fixture in the E-AG programme. Lord Bessborough (5) had his work cut out to describe the 1959 event in suitably restrained terms but the excitement of it can be deduced from his prose:
‘This has been a momentous year for the Group. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Council of Europe – the two chief international bodies which the Group was founded to support – have been celebrating their tenth anniversaries, and the Group is honoured by being invited to organise the NATO Banquet in Guildhall on 11th May, which was attended by H.R.H. the Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, H.R.H. The Prince of the Netherlands and the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London, cabinet Ministers of this and other countries, the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe together with a number of other NATO Commanders…The speeches which lasted an hour were relayed ‘live’ on both B.B.C. Television and Radio, as well as later on Independent Television, and the proceedings were shown on Movietone Newsreel. A full-length film of these has been made available to the Group by the B.B.C. and will be shown after the Annual General Meeting on 30th July.’
David Griffiths, Director of Atlantic 2000, remembered that as a young man he attended the E-AG NATO banquet in 1959. It determined his choice of career, so enthralled was he by it. Behind the glitter and glamour, there was serious stuff:
Below are further entries that indicate the lie of the land described by those in the cockpit of the E-AG, a land they made their own, thus that of the Group, and so it would continue: ‘The new British Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, Mr. Peter Smithers, (a former Member of Parliament) honoured us with a special visit from Strasbourg and spoke on developments over the past years in the Consultative Assembly and in the Council of Ministers. Lord Layton, our President, and a former Vice-President of the Assembly (from 1949 to 1957) presided, and a most interesting discussion ensued on the role which the Council of Europe is playing, being the only forum in which Parliamentary representatives of all the E.E.C. and E.F.T.A. countries are able to debate publically … problems affecting the whole of Western Europe, economically and politically.
Following a proposal of Lady Violet Bonham Carter, one of our Vice- Presidents, the Lord Privy Seal, The Rt. Hon. Edward Heath, M.P., kindly agreed to receive a Deputation from the Council last March to discuss the European-Atlantic situation since the Brussels breakdown. After giving the Deputation, led by our President and Chairman and including some of other Officers, more than an hour’s resumé of recent events, Mr. Heath emphasised the need for the United Kingdom to work with all existing European and Atlantic Organisations rather than setting up any new Institutions. He was good enough to show his appreciation of the activities of the Group in supporting and publicising the work of these international organisations such as the G.A.T.T., the O.E.C.D., the W.E.U., the N.A.T.O., the Council of Europe and the E.F.T.A. Mr Heath fully endorsed the Hon. Director’s proposals for Meetings on these subjects during the rest of the year, and kindly agreed to address the Group himself at a future date. He also appointed a permanent liaison officer in the Foreign Office to assist in obtaining Speakers from abroad. Furthermore, he approved the suggestion of a large N.A.T.O. Dinner in the near future as a demonstration of support for the Atlantic Alliance, as well as other Meetings on Atlantic Partnership.
Another entry from the Record shows inter alia how the thinking of the Group was to be at the forefront of the events that mattered:
The “Control of Western Strategy” was discussed by Monsieur Maurice Schumann, President of the French Foreign Affairs Committee, under the Chairmanship of General Sir Richard Gale, former deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. This was the first occasion since President de Gaulle’s veto on Britain joining the E.E.C. that a French politician had addressed us and was a promising sign of an improvement in Anglo-French understanding.
If ever conventions can be a framework within which an institution moves forward, the E-AG is an exemplar. Policies and Group guidelines were consistent in the main over a period of some sixty years. As seen above, the Group was set on a course of inviting speakers at the last moment, when it was clear what the questions of the greatest topicality would be. Another idea of the Group was objective discussion run not along party political lines but according to the dictates of common sense. Might Democracy itself not gain if parliamentary thinking followed suit? The Group was inclusive and independent, not adversarial, and was free-thinking, all shades of opinion being represented. It was a boast that it was a Non Governmental Organisation. When in 1973 Sir Frank Roberts proposed Lord Chalfont as incoming Chairman, the reasoning was to redress the imbalance when, on Sir Geoffrey de Freitas’ retirement as President, Lord Layton and Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker MP did not represent all three major political parties.
The Group was among the first of the registered All-Party Parliamentary Groups. It had a long list of vice-Presidents comprised inter alia of all the Chairmen at the helm of the Societies representing a link between the UK and other European countries. Thus in 1957:
‘Our object… is to form a common meeting ground for these various organisations, which I think I may say we have happily succeeded in doing.’
The tradition continued on to 2015. The remit of European and Atlantic focus was cast ever wider. By 1957…
‘…The Group had a vital and important role to play. The recent ratification by Germany and France of the Common Market and Euratom Treaties have crowned the efforts of many Europeans in this field. These steps towards European integration show more than ever the tremendous need in this country for a forum for the discussion of all such questions, while maintaining and strengthening our links across the Atlantic…’
The idea of fostering amicable and useful relations was ever in the background. In the following year Lord Bessborough, with Elma no doubt his copy-writer, says:
‘….Since its inception four years ago the Group has held …thirty-six meetings and the number of members as of 30 June 1958 stood at 445. Increased interest in the past year has been demonstrated – not only by the size of membership but also in the Group’s influence in the international field both at home and abroad. It is already well- known in most capitals of Western Europe as well as across the Atlantic.’
There is something to be said for a principle hallowed in Ancient China where legal disputes were settled while breaking bread with an adversary. The Group at its best was a form of glue helping bind together leaders and opinion-formers. Whatever the advantages of cosy chats and dinners in a society of members who had got to know one another well over the years, the ideal outcome was not always forthcoming. Frank discussion did not always produce the desired results or chemistry. The meeting of the two Italian renaissance princes to resolve their differences through talking rather than warring illustrates the problem – after their discussion they understood one another perfectly… they both wanted Italy! The Group, for all its convocations conducted in unfailing courtesy to try to get to the bottom of what caused differences of opinion, was just as vulnerable to this as anyone else, as can been seen in the following account:
‘Professor Hugh Seton Watson led off the discussion on Relations with Soviet Russia giving us a fair and objective picture of what was happening in that country and in some of the satellite countries. It was clear during the course of the ensuing discussion that some members and guests were so strongly anti-Communist that the meetings only served to widen the gulf between those who consider that we should trade and have cultural relations with Communist countries and those who consider that such relations are only used by the Soviet Union for propaganda purposes.’
It was not just guests who might disagree with one another. There were rumblings behind the scenes in the upper echelons of the E-AG, not about office politics, but international politics, as is evident in the following passage concerning two eminent men who until then had been supportive of Group Aims:
‘We greatly regretted the resignations from the Committee of Lord Birdwood, one of our Vice-Chairmen, and Mr Gilbert Longdon M.P. on matters of principle in connection with East-West Trade.’
It was logical in view of the goal of furthering of good relations with opposite numbers abroad that delegations, eleven between 1955 and 1970, to other countries played a part in the life of the Group.
Thus Lord Bessborough – or his E-AG muse, Mrs Dangerfield – again:
‘These yearly visits to Europe are, in my opinion, amongst some of the most valuable of our activities. It is only by such exchanges that we can obtain first-hand knowledge of the countries with which we are endeavouring to have ever closer relations …This summer I, myself, had the honour of leading a Delegation of our corporate and individual Members to the headquarters of the European Economic Community in Brussels, where we were most cordially received by Professor Walter Hallstein, President of the Commission, and by other officials of the Commission. At this time, when the problems of the “Sixes” and the “Sevens” (EU and non-EU leagues of countries) are uppermost in our minds, it was invaluable to have the benefit of this personal contact with the leaders of the European Economic Community…. For these are surely some of the most pressing problems before us today and which the Group has to consider and discuss. For these reasons …some of our Members…visited the United States this summer for the British Trade Exhibition in New York.’
‘In 1956, the Group sent a delegation of representatives of those industries, such as Oil and Nuclear Energy, that were most interested in the proposed European Free Trade Area to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. It was the first industrial delegation from the United Kingdom to attend a session of the Consultative Assembly.’
The verdict of Lord Bessborough was: ‘I think I am speaking for all members of the delegation in saying that the visit was a most useful as well as an interesting experience.’
Russia, the focus of much ongoing concern, featured in the round of E-AG visits abroad. Findings were awaited with interest by the Group at large:
‘Rt. Hon. Aubrey Jones MP (former Minister of Power) Mr Maurice Edelman MP. Sir John Rothenstein, Geoffrey Kitchen (Chairman Pearl Insurance) JB Scott (Director of Crompton Parkinson) each gave their impressions …of their visits… the President of the Board of Trade Rt. Hon. Reginald Maudling M.P. and Sir James Hutchinson Bt addressed us on East-West Trade with specific reference to the British Trade Fair in Moscow to which a dozen of our members went at their own personal expense to see for themselves what possibilities exist for better trade and cultural relations between our two countries. …Mr Henry Tiarks, our Joint Hon. Treasurer, kindly showed us the excellent colour film which he had taken during the visits to Leningrad and Moscow. (It) was the first time we had had the benefit of T.V. screens in three rooms…’(6)
Delegations abroad had dwindled to a dribble by 1970 until, led by the Mid-Atlantic Group in the early 2000s, an E-AG contingent of members went on a fact-finding mission. Numbers the E-AG could certainly provide, given its peak membership of a thousand. That said, it was a first for the Group that a meeting of the E-AG in Washington in 2009 was held (see previous section).
Here are some details of a 1963 event:
‘This ‘Old Dominions‘ Dinner and Discussion was followed by a small Reception at Overseas House for some of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers and their staffs who were attending the London Conference. Lord Layton and Lord Colyton (one of our Vice-Presidents and a Former Minister of State, Colonial Office) received our distinguished guests who included the Prime Ministers of Jamaica and Malta as well as a number of leading African Commonwealth representatives. Again, each emphasised the importance of increasing their trade with Europe, but some of them reiterated their objections to ‘Association‘ with the European Economic Community from the political and ‘neutralist’ viewpoint. Lord Listowel (former Secretary of State for India) took the chair of the African Commonwealth (2nd meeting), but some of them reiterated their objections to ‘Association‘ with the European Economic Community from the political and ‘neutralist‘ point of view.’
The marriage between ‘Captains of Industry’ and the Group was more of a platonic affair than one consummated, let alone with a Golden Egg emerging from this union. A flaw of the Group from the start was its limited purse. Justin was parachuted into the Group in 1987 initially as Financial Director, partly to head off a take-over bid by Robert Sigmon, who went on to run the Pilgrims, but mainly to sort out the woeful finances of the Group. It was a ‘cosmetic’ appointment as Justin’s real contribution was to help reverse a slide in attendance at E-AG events due to Elma’s declining years. He also eventually reversed the trend pointed out in the statement of Alan Smith, the E-AG treasurer, for 1957, a recurring refrain down the years:
‘Although we are solvent, our finances are still dependent on the subscriptions of our members and generous donations from members of the Council and Committee. These however are insufficient to extend our activities in any way.’
E-AG activity was much extended without need of largesse from a visitor from El Dorado or elsewhere. At AGMs, Alan Smith put in different words and for different reasons an oft repeated story of straitened finance. Geoffrey Smith, treasurer some 40 years later, was able to strike a more upbeat note, but had an advantage over his namesake because of income through a level of sponsorship that both dwarfed the previously vaunted corporate and individual membership subscriptions and replaced them as the key to sound finance.
The Achilles Heel in the early period of the Group, its insufficient income. The paltry sums involved holed some extra-mural activities below the water-line – specialist work- study groups, and in particular the early publications. These had flourished for a while then petered out, and it is not difficult to see the explanation in Alan Smith’s words in 1963:
‘The European review shares offices and the services of a short-hand typist with the Group. Recently the review has been unable to meet its share of the joint cost and now owes the Group about £115.’
It comes as little surprise that the partnership of Group and Review dissolved:
‘The working arrangements of the European Review would now be separated from the Group and that it would no longer share the Group’s Office (in Kingsway) or Secretary. It was agreed that the Group should have a full-time Secretary and Assistant.’ (7)
The Review did valuable work but their respective ways parted. The Review sank, not the Group. The fact that ‘the Group should have a full-time Secretary and Assistant’ shows what was afoot. ‘The Group’ was run by the same person as the editor of the Review. No prizes for guessing the identity of this person. She was …
‘…Mrs Dangerfield is also Joint Editor of the European-Atlantic Review on whose editorial board are some of our members. The Review continues to be published in association with the Group and is reaching a wide public both here in Europe and across the Atlantic’
It is doubtful if a barren treasure chest explains why the Group in the person of Elma detached from the publication arm. The great day, after all, finally had dawned when sanction was given for payment of Elma’s office staff. More likely an explanation is that there was divergence in philosophy about the work, as done respectively by Group and Review. The Review for at least ten years was immensely informative, as excerpts below show, but it did not discuss issues so much as explain them. It was didactic, in the manner of such publications. It was about international relations and it expounded the views of top commentators, whereas the main idea behind the Group was to interact with the wire-pullers and influence them. Personality no doubt also entered into it. No Queen Bee should have to put up with a King Bee, still less stomach another Queen Bee, certainly not if the foremost Bee was Mrs Dangerfield.
The latter contentions are reinforced by two factors. Had the Review primarily been an organ for views expounded at the E-AG’s High Table then the presentations of its Speakers surely would have been flaunted in its pages. This was not the case, as it was with the European-Atlantic Journal of later date, which showcased speeches given at the E-AG. To the contrary, in the Review very few E-AG Speakers got a look in. This bespeaks independent editorial hands at the helm of the Review who were beyond the authority or at least the focus of Elma and her partner, Dennis Walwin Jones MC. Pedants may find a further example or two but almost the only Speakers at the Group – among whom were top-notch personalities – accorded space in the Review were Leo D’Erlanger, Chairman of the Channel Tunnel Company, Sir Claud Gibb, Chairman of the Nuclear Power Plant Company, and Monsieur Paul-Henri Spaak, Secretary-General of N.A.T.O. That is not to say that Elma’s editorial say-so was overlooked. Had Elma’s voice not been one to heed it may be wondered how, among the reams of close analysis in the European-Atlantic Review, a whimsical article like that penned by Elma and quoted at the foot of this section could have appeared.
… The review Members of the Editorial Board were very happy that Lord Pakenham accepted to join them in succession to Lord Listowel and that Sir Edward Beddington Behrens and Sir David Kelly likewise agreed to be among their number. Mrs Dangerfield and Mr Dennis Walwin Jones90 have continued to act as executive editors of this highly successful publication. Issues this year have included special supplements on Scandinavia, Benelux and Switzerland, and it is now initiating a series of industrial supplements.’
It is a tendency in language to conflate an end-of-day conclusion with a final verdict. The accountant often has the last word. Mealy-mouthed talk of ‘the bottom line’ may be only a part of a whole story, and sometimes a misleading one. It describes the engine but does not run it. The European-Atlantic Review did good work in its day and was associated with the European-Atlantic Group up to 1964.
Movements in the zeitgeist found a champion in Elma. The Ladies Committee and its annual House of Lords Ladies Luncheons was weaponised into an espousal of the cause of women, with platforms gender-oriented to those scaling to the apex. Baroness Elliott, Janet Fookes MP, Lady Chalker, Christina Foyle, the list is as long as the decades the Ladies Committee thrived before it descended, more or less, into an inspection of seating plans on Guest Lists. Ideas and suggestions came. ‘Lola’, Lady Lidderdale, for instance wrote to Elma with a newspaper cutting on Katherine Graham; invitations all but identical to the output of the E-AG ‘menfolk’ ensued. Lola wrote ‘Horrified that you should be up at 4am working. We are not grateful enough to you.’ In her prime, Elma’s researches had gone further. Elma’s book Beyond The Urals (published in 1946) was a survey of the persecution and deportation of over a million Polish citizens from Eastern Poland by the Soviet authorities during their occupation there from September 1939 to June 1941. These deportations affected about 10% of the population in that country. It was a solid work of research, as indeed were Elma’s Mad Shelley and Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland about these poets.(9) All the more surprising then, that in the European-Atlantic Review, there was only a light piece from her pen, in an article entitled The Heart of Little Europe.
‘….The modern Geneva of supra-national organisations…this strongest fortress in Europe was successively incorporated in each succeeding European empire from the Middle Ages down the last war…Christianity first came to Luxembourg from England, being brought to the town of Echternacht in 968 by St Wilibrord of Northumbria…there is, in truth, a nineteenth century air about the whole atmosphere of the Grand Duchy….No one is in a hurry and everyone is courteous. Even the taxi-drivers doff their hats when they open the taxi door with a bow, wishing you Bonjour …Not luxury but good solid comfort. ….The Grand Ducal family spend most of their time in their stately Chateaux, as do most of the wealthy families, and foreign ambassadors often rent pleasant homes in the countryside. On the whole, however the well-to-do Luxemburger lives either in a solid, Victoria-style mansion in the city itself, or in one of the ultra-modern villas which are springing up on the outskirts, Luxemburgers are a thrifty people, spending more on their homes than their backs.’
Thrift might be all very fine but it was hardly a characteristic prominent in Elma’s social set, intertwined as it was with the Group. Get-togethers in mansions of friends such as Princess Helena Gagarin-Moutafian were of the air Elma breathed. Elma to the end thought afresh about deeper questions: in conversion to the Bahá’í faith she saw a light shed of religion’s key riddles. And who can deny that the imprimatur of Society, a knighthood, has been conferred only on one religious leader: Abdu’l-Bahá.
Elma retired from hyperactive service at 92, not that a Rastafarian who tried to steal her handbag would have judged her to be so elderly after she gave chase to him in her car. Her participation in the running of affairs had been handed over by then, but as late as 2002 Elma would put on her finery and come to events to lap up all the adulation for her at the Group.
We are unlikely to see her like again(10). Elma would quote the bible: ‘And the Lord walked abroad in the cool of the evening’. It is an apt metaphor for her twilight days.
And that is the story of the end of Elma’s life, but not the end of the story of Elma. The office clutter had more secrets to yield up and if anything it eclipsed what was found in ‘the scullery’ as it was known – a large cubbyhole that had lain untouched for decades, save for when an electrician had tried, and all but failed, to clamber over grubby suitcases into a pile of junk inside. At the end of that ‘scullery’ lay a mouldy trunk, much like all the others. It contained the family silver, the horse racing trophies won or to be distributed by Henry Birkett, Elma’s father, in Hong Kong, a crested tray bearing the genealogical tree of the family’s ancestors, and so much silverware that it covered a dining table when laid out in Justin Glass’s house, he having brought the trunk home to see what was inside. Elma never referred to it. Any such heirlooms were thought to be long gone in ‘the burglary’. The family, retrieving the silverware, were amused by its tale that they had thought accounted for its loss.
A friend of Elma who was connected to Nureyev, the ballet dancer, had been staying in Elma’s house and he was said to have some dubious acquaintances, one or more of who were probably responsible for what happened. It looked as though a madman had broken in, beginning with the front door, which was shattered open by an axe. The house, though not quite upside down, was certainly inside out. Elma had gone home to dress for dinner in a Polish café called Daquise with a Polish friend, Richard Kazuba, when she came upon the utter chaos. Her ansaphone message to Justin has to be heard to be believed.
“Justin, Justin, come immediately! A mad axeman has broken in! He has stove in the door! EVERYTHING has gone. The place is in UPROAR! You’ve never seen anything like it!”
There followed a short pause in the breathless recital, a minute pause, before Elma continued on a different tack, and on a pleading note:
“…We’re just off to Daquise. You know how you like it. Richard is coming. You know you like Richard. Oh, do come! It will be such fun! Please come!”
A lady of Elma’s generation not born to rule an empire or two could have had a swooning fit or called for smelling salts. A more modern lady would contact her shrink for counselling. Elma was of different clay. ‘Onward Britannia!’ was a phrase still au courant. Her attitude may account in part for the surprise find of the ‘Letters to Mrs O’Connor Donolan’ (see above) which throw light on her early days in high circles.
Obituary of Elma Dangerfield in The Times
Elma Dangerfield, CBE, writer and campaigner, was born on October 11, 1907. She died on January 22, 2006, aged 98
Intellectual powerhouse embroiled in the literary, political and social life of Britain for more than 60 years
ELMA DANGERFIELD, to those who knew her or merely met her, could seem like a force of nature. Pertinacious, single-minded, formidable, she would take “no” for an answer only when it issued from her own lips. She was a daughter of Empire, both as to her background and her social attitudes. Grafted on to these attributes were a fine intellectuality, a keen political interest and a flair for organisation.
As an author, her works were admired by aficionados and experts; as founder and honorary director for 50 years of the European-Atlantic Group and for 32 years of the Byron Society, she cut perhaps a greater dash in the influential political and academic circles she so admired.
Born Elma Birkett in Wavertree, Liverpool, in 1907, she spent much of her childhood in the Far East. She cherished memories of her amah, or nanny, in Manila. Her father was connected with Jardine, the trading company, and a doyen of the Hong Kong stock exchange. It was said that when a financial crisis threatened the savings of investors, he all but bankrupted himself in honouring obligations that were not, strictly speaking, his.
In later childhood and her teens Dangerfield stayed with her uncle, Sir Thomas Birkett. One of his family seats was a vast mansion in Scotland. A cousin was the Lord Birkett of legal lore (10) ; Dangerfield described an episode in which she saw him bring a coffin into court and lie down in it, his forensic point backed up by a showmanship that was much to Dangerfield’s taste.
Her husband, Captain Edward Dangerfield, used to joke that he needed to get back to his desk at the Admiralty for a rest after the social whirl of a weekend with Elma. A personal friend of the Duke of Kent, he died of phlebitis in 1941, a tragedy for Elma and their daughter, Gay, aged 12 years, and damaging for the war effort: he had been in the process of commissioning the cruiser HMS Dido.
Dangerfield continued to move in the smartest of sets. Though she rarely stooped to gossip about celebrities, she abhorred vanity and once characterised the Duchess of Argyll by her way of never passing a mirror without stopping. Dangerfield herself, tiny and — to judge by her numerous male admirers — captivating, appeared not to give a thought to her appearance after having daubed on her make-up.
During the war she had liaison jobs at the Admiralty, and with MI9 and the Ministry of Information. She was involved behind the scenes with delegations from Eastern Europe.
Her researches and contacts led her to write Beyond the Urals, with a preface by Rebecca West, a chilling insight into what befell deportees and dissidents in the hands of the communists. Her articles in The Nineteenth Century and After were among the first to alert a wider public to the extermination by the Nazis of Gypsies and Jews.
Her friendship with Sir Edward Hulton resulted in contributions to Picture Post; her editorship later in the European-Atlantic Review with the Earl of Bessborough, Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens and Lord Layton among others drew her to subjects so diverse that she even explored in print the unconscionable way that the flower of British maidenhood was inclined to fall headlong into the matrimonial embrace of foreigners. Behind these apparent preoccupations was a concern for the future of Europe and in particular the need to endorse the power of the Council of Europe.
Aside from more direct forays into politics — she once stood for Parliament as a Liberal, something of a lost cause at the time — she formed, with colleagues in 1954, the European-Atlantic Group. Her view was that Europe and America needed more institutions in place as amicable meeting grounds for parliamentarians and opinion- shapers from both sides of the Atlantic.
Lord Layton had been instrumental in inviting US and Canadian politicians to debate with European parliamentarians in Strasbourg, and suggested to Dangerfield that she should start a group in London with leading representatives of all the Anglo- European and Anglo-US and Canadian societies in London. She had been assisting him over human rights issues in Strasbourg and, on returning to London, she approached Lord Abinger and other peers, MPs, academics, economists and journalists. The group was founded in London at Abinger’s London house, with the first meetings held at the Anglo-Belgian Club. She remained a director of this group until the end of her life, but was also a co-founding member of other groups with comparable objectives, whose influence is still felt today, namely the British-Atlantic Group (forerunner to the Atlantic Council of the UK) and the Mid-Atlantic Group.
Dangerfield’s literary pursuits were as dear to her as those of her political career. Her Byron and the Romantics in Switzerland (1978) is a model of concise writing, as is her play Mad Shelley. Her penchant for organisation led her to re-found the moribund Byron Society in 1972, together with Dennis Walwin Jones, and they remained partners until his death (in 1975) (11).
The society under her helm was an eclectic mix of blue bloods and notable academics. Its programme, devoted to every aspect of Byron’s poetry and life, was and is a tribute both to Dangerfield’s interests and her organisational genius. She was for many years editor of The Byron Journal, and its reputation as a serious publication assisted in the rehabilitation of the poet’s reputation.
The powerhouse that was the HQ of both societies, and the human dynamo that was Dangerfield, has been recorded under light disguise by Muriel Spark. It was not just the lowly who stood in awe of her. The list of presidents and ministers and notables who have addressed the European-Atlantic Group over the years does scant justice to the unrelenting determination with which Dangerfield so often secured their attendance.
In the early 1970s, when OPEC held the West to ransom over oil prices, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Oil Minister, wished to bow out of his engagement as a speaker. “If you do not come, it will be an insult to this country,” he was informed, before finally capitulating to the Dangerfield coup de grâce: “And the Palace will have to be told!” Dangerfield was appointed OBE after the group mounted the tenth anniversary celebration of the founding of NATO at Guildhall; the Duke of Edinburgh, who attended as a guest of honour again at the 30th anniversary, replied to the question: “What do you need to do to have a place in the roped-off enclosure?” by saying: “You have to know Mrs Dangerfield.”
For services to international relations, she was advanced to CBE when in her nineties. In 2000 she was given a European Woman of the Year award (12).
She died on Lord Byron’s birthday. Members of the Nottinghamshire Byron Society (13), in their annual celebration on this day, drank a toast in tribute to an extraordinary woman.
She is survived by her daughter.
(1) The family name was ‘Scarlette’ and his forebear was among those in command at the famous Charge of the Light Brigade
(2) 84 October 1983
(3) July 11; a letter from 3 Belgrave Square.
Prince George, according to Chips Channon’s diaries, had the most elegant dining room in London.
(4) Sir Frank Roberts in his review of ‘A voice in the Wilderness’ (See Book Review section) offers a personal perspective on Imre Nagy who was at the centre of the Hungarian revolution of 1956
(5) Transcripts of speeches by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh to another E-AG NATO Anniversary celebration banquet are in the Speeches section, as is a speech on the same occasion, and a Book Review, by the Earl of Bessborough
(6) The next time that there were three TV screens in three different rooms for an E-AG event was in 2009 at the E-AG NATO banquet in St James’s Palace
(7) The Editorial and advertising base was at 61 Gloucester Place. London
(8) Dennis Walwin Jones MC (b1913-d1975): Chairman, the Byron Society 1971-1975; Executive Editor, Byron Journal 1973-1975; Founder Member, European-Atlantic Group 1965-1975; Director-General, British-European Movement 1960-1970; British Secretary, European League for Economic Co-operation 1960-1970. Dennis and Elma lived together and were partners also in the early fusion of the worlds of the Byron Society and the European-Atlantic Group
(9) Elma’s treatise for Oxford University on ‘The Romantic Movement’ (1789-1830) was followed by her first book entitled ‘A Diary of the Forty-Five’ (the Jacobite Rising). She was Assistant Editor of the ‘Nineteenth Century’ during the war (as well as being a liaison officer between different war departments), then became editor of ‘Whitehall News’ (as well as founding The British League for European Freedom’ with the Duchess of Atholl). She edited ‘European Affairs’, ‘The European Digest’ and ‘European Review’ after the war, and the Byron Journal (as well as standing for Parliament as a Liberal candidate for Aberdeen South (1959) and Hitchen, Herts (1964). Elma also founded The International Byron Society.
(10) Justin Glass submitted this Obituary to ‘the Times’ who printed it as sent with two minor alterations. Several years later he met a grand-daughter of Lord Birkett who discounted knowledge of Elma being family.
(11) Dennis Walwin Jones’s memorial stone is in Putney Vale cemetery, in front of the tomb of Henry Birkett (d. 1932). Its inscription is more a CV than an epitaph, including his roles as Founder of the E- AG and Byron Society and as the Director-General of the European League of Economic Cooperation; and the European Movement
(12) This award was given by the European Union of Women
(13) Elma re-founded the London Byron Society in 1972 with Dennis Walwyn-Jones as treasurer and grandees in her circle if not of her political persuasion such as, later, Michael Foot, the former Labour leader with who Elma went on holiday. The imposing list on the Byron Society letterhead was almost such as to rival that of the Group
(14) Gay emigrated to America to the chagrin of her mother who intended her ‘to marry well’ in the old sense of the phrase, the celebrated Nigel Nicholson being one swain ear-marked. Gay has three children.