Horace Trevor Cox

Last survivor of the Chamberlain government

Horace Brimson Trevor Cox, farmer, landowner and politician: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 14 June 1908; MP (Conservative) for Stalybridge and Hyde 1937-45; Parliamentary Private Secretary to Ronald Cross, as Under-Secretary, Board of Trade 1938-39, as Minister of Economic Warfare 1939-40; Parliamentary Private Secretary to H.U. Willink, Minister of Health 1945; married 1957 Gwenda Ellis (one daughter); died Winterslow, Wiltshire 30 October 2005.

Horace Trevor Cox became the Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde in 1937, exactly a third of a century before the present incumbent for the constituency, the Culture, Media and Sport minister James Purnell, was born. Cox was the last survivor of those MPs who served under Stanley Baldwin and in the government of Neville Chamberlain, and I think the only remaining politician who was in the House of Commons before the Second World War.

His father, Horace Cox, was a successful businessman who became chairman of the Electric Light Company, famous for having introduced light bulbs. He bought the beautiful house of Whitby Hall near Chester, which alas was later demolished. The young Horace, born in 1908, went to the nearby Leas School at Hoylake, where one of his fellow pupils and lifelong friend was the future Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons and Speaker, Selwyn Lloyd. Another friend was Nicholas Monsarrat, author of The Cruel Sea (1951). At Eton, Cox went to the very successful house of J.D. Upcott where he boxed for the school and excelled in athletics. One of his best friends was the intellectual King's Scholar ("tug") Quintin Hogg, later Lord Hailsham, and his fag was Peter Wilson, later to be chairman of Sotheby's.

Ever enterprising, on leaving school Cox decided to go not to Oxford or Cambridge but to Hanover University. He had extra classes in German with Fräulein von Bock, sister of one of Hitler's field marshals. After his studies, Cox gained work experience on the floor of Berlin factories. In 1929 he left Germany to pursue business studies at the University of Cincinnati.

Returning to business in Britain he was chosen as the Conservative candidate for the North East Derbyshire constituency in 1935 and lost to Frank Lee by 25,382 to 15,802. However, his good performance and rumbustious style made him an obvious candidate for the by-election in the Cheshire constituency of Stalybridge and Hyde in April 1937. He won the seat, with a wafer-thin majority over the Rev Gordon Lang (Labour) of 21,901 to 21,567.

Within a year of entering the House he started to climb the greasy pole, with the appointment of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Trade minister Ronald Cross (later Sir Ronald), and therefore the most junior member of the government of Neville Chamberlain. His Commons speeches before the war had benefited from his knowledge of Germany in warning about the real likelihood of armed conflict. On 6 April 1939, Cox said:

I thought that the German Chancellor's last speech contained a number of sinister threats, as, indeed, did the German official commentary last Monday which stated that England was throwing all her resources into a policy of encirclement of vital interests of Germany on the Continent, and the Reich had no intention of waiting until the encirclement net had been closed and rendered untenable.

On the outbreak of war Cox immediately volunteered for the Welsh Guards and went to France in December 1939. With characteristic initiative he evaded capture and took himself to Paris and then under various disguises to Marseilles, from where he escaped back to Britain. He to-ed and fro-ed between service life and the House of Commons until D-Day in 1944; his speeches were taken seriously, not least on account on his military experience and his pre-war knowledge of Germany and fluency in the German language.

In 1944 he saw service from Normandy to the Elbe but returned to be overwhelmed in the Labour landslide of 1945, this time losing to Gordon Lang by 20,597 votes to 16,227. However, he threw himself into the work of the Russian Relief Organisation while developing his landowning interests in Wiltshire, where he became popular with the rural community and was elected to the executive committee of the Country Landowners Association.

In February 1950, he contested his birthplace constituency of Birkenhead but was defeated by Percy Collick, of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association, by 26,472 votes to 20,343. Shortly after I became an MP, Collick introduced himself by saying to me, an Etonian, that "at any rate my nicest Tory opponent was an Old Etonian". He was referring to Cox.

Cox had become interested in health problems having been briefly Parliamentary Private Secretary to Henry Willink, Minister of Health in the coalition government and later Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. It was partly dissatisfaction with the health policy of the Macmillan government that prompted Cox to stand as an Independent Conservative at the 1965 Salisbury by-election after the ennoblement of his friend Major John Morrison, the powerful chairman of the 1922 Committee. He gained only 533 votes against the former Conservative whip Michael Hamilton. The following year he joined the Labour Party, and contested Wiltshire County Council seats in 1970 and 1973. In later life he made his middle name Trevor part of his surname.

I met Cox on several occasions as a cheerful and vigorous member of the Wiltshire Labour Party. On one occasion at Devizes, he was as critical of the Wilson government as he had been of the Conservatives when he broke ranks. Horace Trevor Cox was one of nature's free spirits but a life enhancer. His full faculties and joie de vivre were with him until his late nineties.

Tam Dalyell

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