Sir Howard Kingsley Wood:
A Thoroughly Modern Man? (1881-1924)
Sir Kingsley Wood (1881-1943) is a little known figure today. He was a lawyer, politician and a Methodist who was prominent in the early twentieth century: key political players such as Churchill and Lloyd George worked closely with him, a number of whom paid tribute to him on his death in 1943. Many of the issues with which he grappled, as part of Coalition and Conservative governments, are familiar to us today.
During June 2014, coinciding with the publication of the first part of a new biography by historian Hugh Gault, this exhibition followed Wood’s progress from lawyer to politician to minister. During the period 1881-1924, Wood championed the creation of National Insurance, promoted tenants' rights, pensions and benefits, played an important role on the Home Front during World War One and proposed a national Ministry of Health. Examining this early part of Wood's life, the exhibition concluded that Wood certainly saw himself as driven by moral concerns and that, in many ways, he was a thoroughly modern man.
The Kingsley Wood Scrapbooks were deposited at the University in 1972 by Wood's law firm, and cover the years from 1903-1940. More information about this collection is available on the Special Collections & Archives web pages.
The curators are very grateful to Hugh Gault for his assistance in creating this exhibition, and his generous provision of text from his draft to support the narrative. Making the Heavens Hum: Kingsley Wood and the Art of the Possible (Gretton Books, 2014) by Hugh Gault, is available now. The second part of the biography will be published in 2016.
Kingsley Wood was born in 1881 in Hull, at number 1 Elm Terrace. In 2013, a blue plaque was installed there to commemorate its famous occupant. His father was a Methodist minister and so was sent to a number of parishes during Wood's childhood, culminating in a position in City Road in 1891. City Road had been Wesley's own chapel; it was (and is) a central location for Wesleyan Methodism. Doubtless Wood's experience of the slums which were in his father's care, as well as the general sense of mission against poverty amongst his associates, was a key influence in his later life and work.
This sense of social responsibility may have influenced Wood's decision to go into Law; he was articled to the liberal solicitor John Bamford-Slack immediately after finishing school. In 1903, Wood qualified in his chosen profession with excellent results, including an award for 'the most practical solicitor'. His practical mindset and attention to detail would be characteristics upon which others would comment later in his career.
The Methodist influence is also clear in Wood's work as a Poor Man's Lawyer at the Bermondsey and other settlements, which he began in his early twenties. Newspaper cuttings record a number of early cases in which Wood sued employers for dangerous conditions which had led to workers' death or injury. One of these was Caroline Eaton, who was caught and dragged through machinery in a printer's workshop. Wood successfully proved that a precautionary guard had not been in place at the time of the accident, on behalf of the nineteen-year-old's parents.
Around the same time, in 1905, Kingsley Wood married Agnes Fawcett (right) at Wesley's Chapel. Agnes had returned to London from Australia, where she had moved with her family as a child. Agnes is something of a mystery: she claimed to be several years younger than she really was, and that she had been born in Kensington, although she was registered as being born at her grandfather's house, near Southwark Cathedral. Her career as a chorus girl in London ended upon her marriage, but she later took up singing lessons. The eldest daughter of her singing tutor, Marjorie Henry, was later unofficially fostered by the Woods; from 1914 until her marriage in 1930, Marjorie was primarily in Agnes' care.
While a shadowy figure in the records which are left, Agnes was certainly a society figure throughout her husband's climb to political prominence. Earlier depictions show a rather demure figure, but after 1920, with her husband now an MP, she seems to have become much more glamorous.