OBITUARIES: John Oldfield

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JOHN OLDFIELD ceased to be a Member of Parliament in the reign of King George V. He was the last survivor from the House of Commons of that time. He was born in July 1899, but for some time in his Who's Who entry postdated this event by one year, until he concluded that his great age was in itself a distinction.

His long life was full of contrasts. An Old Etonian, he was a member of the Labour Party for 40 years and of the Conservative Party for another 40. Born an Anglican, he converted later to Roman Catholicism. An officer in the Coldstream Guards in the First World War, in the Second he joined up as an ordinary seaman.

A landowner throughout his life, Oldfield was greatly interested in the poor. On his 90th birthday, in a memorable speech, he recalled that his abiding impression of the village of Doddington, Kent, in his youth was of the poverty.

When Jack Oldfield was exactly one year old his father was killed in action in the Boer War. Thereafter his mother lived a peripatetic life, never owning a house or flat. As a result Doddington Place, near Sittingbourne, became a second home to Oldfield. This house was bought in 1906 by Oldfield's father's sister, Maude, who was married to General Douglas Jeffreys, and by her father, Oldfield's grandfather, Sir Richard Oldfield.

Doddington provided a firm foundation and background. Oldfield claimed to have spent every Christmas there but one since 1906. Every day until the last two years of his life, he walked along the drive and back, the same walk taken by Sir Richard until his death in 1918, following a cold caught while going down to the village to vote in the Khaki election. Every day, Oldfield looked out across the Syndale valley at the same view of woodland, orchards, grazing and arable land. These surroundings gave him, in recent years, as eyesight, hearing, and memory deteriorated, a fundamental contentment and tranquillity.

When not at Doddington, Oldfield was brought up in London. His mother had various charitable activities and he was obliged at some of the consequent workhouse tea parties he attended with her to stand on a chair and recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and other works which he had learned at Gibbs' school. The good reception which these performances met with gave him a lifelong taste for public speaking.

After Gibbs', Oldfield was educated at Eton, and, after a time at the very end of the war as a newly commissioned Coldstream Guards officer, at Trinity College, Cambridge. The latter had an enormous influence on him. It was while he was there that he converted to Roman Catholicism. He also began to take an interest in social matters, spending several days, as an experiment, working his way round a series of London dosshouses to see what they were like. He started doing voluntary work at Toynbee Hall and became closely associated with it, indeed living there on and off for much of the 1930s.

Oldfield became a member of the Labour Party in the early 1920s. He was elected Member for South East Essex in 1929, and became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Air, Lord Thomson. The latter pushed along the R101 airship project and invited Oldfield to be among the passengers on its inaugural flight to India. But shortly before the due date Oldfield was disinvited. Later he learned that Thomson had decided to take along his valet rather than his PPS.

On the evening of the maiden flight, Oldfield was walking through the City when he saw the R101 passing over St Paul's, far too low. Later, in a thunderstorm, it crashed in France. Thomson, his valet, and all the other passengers were killed.

In 1931, every Labour MP was faced with the dilemma of whether to stand in the general election as the National Government candidate or as the candidate of the Labour Party. Oldfield's mind was made up when he was confronted in a House of Commons corridor by the Minister, J.H. Thomas. "Ah, Oldfield, you'll know which side your bread is buttered on, won't you?" Oldfield thereupon decided to stick with the depleted Labour Party, and was soundly beaten. He stood again in the 1935 election, and was beaten again. He continued his political activities as a member of the London County Council.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Oldfield, then 40, tried to join up and was rejected all round. Finally, he was accepted as an ordinary seaman. Careful, quiet and fastidious, he was not obviously predisposed to the hurly-burly of life below decks, but in fact he loved it. In any assortment of people he proved to be a natural mingler, helped by his gifts as a raconteur who could make the story of a visit to the post office to buy some stamps quite gripping, with perfect, wry phrasing and timing.

Oldfield had agreed with Herbert Morrison that if a safe Labour seat came up in a by-election he would be summoned back from sea. He got the summons while his ship, HMS Vanoc, was in the Atlantic. Just as it completed its task and was offshore at Boston, it was ordered out into the Atlantic again to chase U-boats. Although given a much- coveted place on an aeroplane, Oldfield finally arrived in London just a few hours after nominations had closed, and he did not try again. During this hiatus Oldfield decided to take a commission, and he finished the war as a sub-lieutenant.

After the war, Oldfield continued on the LCC and became vice- chairman, the chairman at the time being Victor (now Lord) Mishcon. He should have succeeded Mishcon, but something went wrong. Commuting between Westminster and Doddington, he neglected his constituents, and he was advised not to stand in 1955.

Oldfield and his wife Jonnet, whom he married in 1953, had already taken up permanent residence at Doddington, cohabiting with his formidable Aunt Maude until her death in 1954. Oldfield created a mushroom farm at Doddington, making use of the Nissen huts left behind by the Army from the war. This went on until 1979. He and his wife also created at Doddington a woodland garden of rhododendrons and azaleas, having discovered that one area of the garden had acid soil, unexpected on the chalk downs.

Oldfield had been both Protestant and Catholic, both Coldstream officer and ordinary seaman. There was one further double to complete. In 1964 he became a Conservative, and was persuaded by Sir Leslie Doubleday to join the Kent County Council, where he became one of the mainstays in education and social services. He stood down in 1981.

Jack Oldfield was a man of great wisdom and thoughtfulness, erudition and wit, able to recite with equal relish great chunks of A.E. Housman and ribald naval songs. He was always interested in others, and they, especially the young, were always charmed and encouraged by him.

John Richard Anthony Oldfield, politician and landowner: born 5 July 1899; MP (Labour) for South East Essex 1929-31; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Air 1929-30; member, London County Council 1931-58, Vice-Chairman 1953; member, Kent County Council 1965- 81; married 1953 Jonnet Richards; died Doddington, Kent 11 December 1999.