obituary: Lord Harvington

Patrick Cosgrave
Sunday 18 September 2011 02:51

For all that he came from an impeccable Tory background, had impeccable Tory interests - golf, hunting, yachting and farming among them - and was a distinguished wartime fighter pilot, Robert Grant-Ferris was, above all other things, a great House of Commons man, with a solid background in local government.

In 1933 he was elected as a local councillor in Birmingham. In 1935 he entered Parliament as member for St Pancras North. He lost that seat (not least because he had been unable to devote sufficient attention to it during his time in the RAF) in 1945.

He then contested Wandsworth twice, unsuccessfully, before winning Nantwich in 1955: that seat he held until his retirement in 1974. He was Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee during the years of Edward Heath's government, having never before held any office but that of a Parliamentary Private Secretary in wartime.

Although he was staunchly right-wing in most of his opinions (for example, supporting General Franco enthusiastically during the Spanish Civil War) he won, over the years, the stout regard of the Labour Party. It was a Labour government that honoured him, first with a knighthood in 1969, and then, in 1974, with a peerage; he took the title Baron Harvington.

He was born Robert Grant Ferris in 1907, and went to Douai School in Berkshire. He worked briefly as an estate agent before entering Parliament: he always said that this experience stood him in good stead when be became a farmer. Then, in defiance of family tradition, he joined the RAF.

He served in most of the major theatres of war, including France, Egypt, India and Malta. Of his Maltese service he had particularly fond memories, and he was above all proud when - amid a string of foreign decorations - he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Sovereign and Military Order of Malta in 1949.

As befitted his background in local government, Grant-Ferris was deeply involved in hospital work, showing none of the hostility evinced by many Conservatives to the post-war creation of the National Health Service. But it was as a breeder of sheep that he really made his extra-parliamentary reputation. He was no mere jobbing farmer: he gave assiduous attention to the selective breeding of sheep, and his eminence in this field was recognised by his election as president of the National Sheepbreeders' Association in 1956; he also served no less than three terms as president of the Southdown Sheep Society.

Grant-Ferris's support of Franco was, in all probability, a reflection of his devout Roman Catholicism. Though never a religious prig, he carried the belief in honour and uprightness inculcated by his faith into his House of Commons career. If ever - so parliamentary tradition has it - a man's word was his bond, it was the word of Robert Grant-Ferris. It was his unwavering high reputation for straight dealing and unrivalled knowledge of parliamentary procedure which won him such a high reputation on all sides of the House.

He was not, however, a very active peer, for he moved, in 1974, to Jersey, to be with his daughter. But he left be- hind kind and grateful memories.

Robert Grant Ferris (Robert Grant Grant-Ferris), politician: born 30 December 1907; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1937; MP (Conservative) for North St Pancras 1937-45, for Nantwich 1955-74; Air Efficiency Award 1942; Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of Town and Country Planning (W.S. Morrison) 1944-45; President, Southdown Sheep Society of England 1950-52, 1959-60, 1973; President, National Sheep Breeders' Association 1956-58; a Member of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen, House of Commons 1962-70; chairman, Board of Management, Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth 1963-70; Kt 1969; President, Smithfield Club 1970; Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker, House of Commons 1970-74; PC 1971; created 1974 Baron Harvington; married 1930 Florence Brennan de Vine (deceased; one son, one daughter); died Jersey 30 December 1996.

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