Lord Beaumont of Whitley: Millionaire priest and publisher who became the first Green peer

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:30
Beaumont was a mobile and versatile entrepreneur, in ecclesiastical, political and social life
Beaumont was a mobile and versatile entrepreneur, in ecclesiastical, political and social life

Timothy Beaumont was the publisher of a string of radical religious magazines who became a prominent member of the Liberal Party, serving as chairman of the party, 1967-68, then president, 1969-70. Created a life peer in 1967, he went on to make parliamentary history in November 1999 when he crossed the floor of the House of Lords from the Lib Dems to become the first (and still the only) Green Party peer.

At one time both a priest and a millionaire, he had donated enormous sums to charities and to individuals down on their luck before losing the bulk of his fortune in the stock-market collapse of the early 1970s. Having been ordained after coming down from Oxford, he resigned holy orders in 1973, an unusual occurrence in itself, but set some kind of precedent by resuming orders a decade later, partly, without doubt, because he needed a steady if modest income and a roof over his head, partly perhaps to try to impose some sort of sense and shape upon what had been an erratic career.

Timothy Wentworth Beaumont was born in 1928, a grandson of the first Baron Allendale and, through his maternal grandmother, heir to an immense American-based fortune. He was educated at Eton and Gordonstoun, and without any very clear idea what he wanted to do with his life, he spent a carefree three years at Christ Church, Oxford. The result was a Third.

Like many of his idealistic contemporaries, Tim Beaumont thought he saw, in the needs of society, a future for himself that made sense through ordination, and he trained for the priesthood at Westcott House, Cambridge. He held first an assistant chaplaincy at St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong, and from 1957 until 1959 he was incumbent of the parish of Christ Church, Kowloon Tong.

On the inheritance of his fortune he returned to England, and decided it would be no bad thing to enjoy his wealth while at the same time improving the standard of Anglican church literature. His venture into publishing coincided with the upsurge of interest in religious affairs that spanned the decade of the 1960s, and with a mind inherently attuned to the speedy reception of new ideas, and a natural gift for encouraging enterprise in others, he was soon absorbed in a rash of risky adventures. His most prestigious purchase was Lady Rhondda's Time and Tide, which he continued to run as a liberal political weekly under the editorship of John Thompson until he shocked his staff and readers by selling out to a new right-wing ownership.

Under the initial umbrella of Time and Tide Group of Papers, Beaumont also published the intellectual Christian monthly Prism, a new parish magazine inset called New Outlook, frequently attacked for its professional and radical presentation of religious and secular issues, and an entirely novel concept in church journalism, a tabloid parish newspaper called National Christian News.

For the first three years, Beaumont kept his hand in as a cleric by holding an honorary curacy at St Stephen's, Rochester Row, at the same time entertaining on a lavish scale at his home in Green Street. The guests on one occasion included Princess Margaret, whose husband's cousin, Mary Rose Wauchope, Beaumont had married in 1955. Hospitality, uneconomic business ventures and generous donations to charities, many of them chosen precisely because they were unlikely to attract funds from the public or from hide-bound charitable trusts, consumed enormous sums, and inevitably invited ethical questions concerning the eye of the needle whenever Beaumont met the press.

But he had no qualms about his good fortune or the way he spent it, and the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith and Churchill College chapel were just two of the divergent institutions that benefited. Personal friends received substantial loans free of interest, and at one time Beaumont employed a secretary just to sift, and advise on, appeals for his help.

Beaumont's laudable desire to plug the gaps that other people ignored led on occasions into some expensive errors of judgement. Without proper market research, he founded a heavyweight monthly magazine, Aspect, on the dubious hunch that tired businessmen wanted to read "in-depth" articles on matters of the moment. They did not, advertisers ignored it, the magazine folded after a year and an unusually competent staff, fêted en masse at the Café Royal when they were first engaged, were thrown out of work.

Far more successful was New Christian. From 1965 until 1970 it shadowed the progress of renewal in the churches, with a special interest in the ecumenical movement, and became required reading for radicals of all denominations. The demise of New Christian coincided with a massive reduction in Beaumont's personal resources, and left a permanent void in religious journalism.

For Beaumont, ordination and publishing both eventually lost their charms, and politics took their place. The Liberal Party suited to perfection his emotional and intellectual inclinations, and provided a relatively small goldfish bowl in which to exercise his talents and rise to the top. By 1962 he was treasurer of the party, and five years later he received his reward for substantial contributions to party funds by way of a life peerage. It was the one honour he had always wanted, and coincided with his chairmanship of the Liberal Party. In the Lords he became Liberal spokesman for education and arts, 1968-86, later, for the Lib Dems, on conservation and the countryside. When he announced his defection to the Greens in 1999 he blamed the Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy's lack of action on the environment for his decision.

Beaumont was conscious of the impression he had given of being a wealthy dilettante, and always claimed that if need arose he could earn his living. This, after the loss of his fortune, he did in an assortment of ways. For some years he wrote on food for the Illustrated London News, and in 1974 he edited the diaries of James Agate. He kept a diary of his own, and although intending publication himself, it was typical of his spontaneous generosity that he made it available to Michael Bloch when he was researching a biography of Jeremy Thorpe. He continued to champion minority interests, taking on the chairmanship of the Albany Trust in 1969-71. He helped the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (then called Exit) over a difficult period by becoming chairman for a year in 1980.

He was sometimes criticised for a lack of staying power, a criticism inevitably focused on his decision in 1973 to resign holy orders, and, on resuming orders, only to serve for four years (from 1986-91) as vicar of St Philip and All Saints, Kew. But for better or worse he saw his role, in ecclesiastical, political and social life, as he had in publishing, in terms of a mobile and versatile entrepreneur.

While still a wealthy man, Tim Beaumont moved from Green Street to an unlovely 20th-century house on Hampstead Heath equipped with a ballroom, and then at one point to an elegant 18th-century house in Hampstead Square, formerly occupied by Norman St John Stevas. He patronised modern artists and acquired a serious knowledge of food and wine, but following a heart attack in his fifties he became teetotal. He had few close friends, perhaps because few of the people he met through the church, politics and publishing felt able to return his hospitality. Sometimes his judgements on people seemed a shade facile, but he could spot a principle a mile away, and his moral courage and personal concern were never in doubt. His adoption of a large and shaggy beard coincided with his return to parochial life, and lent an impressively patriarchial if somewhat eccentric air.

Tim Beaumont had four children, on whom he and his wife bestowed a series of somewhat esoteric names: Hubert, Alaric, Atalanta and Ariadne. Although a seemingly undemonstrative father, the death of Alaric in a road accident in 1980 was a blow from which Beaumont never really recovered.

Michael De-la-Noy

Timothy Beaumont's defection from the Lib Dems gave the Green Party their first seat at Westminster, supporting small farmers, promoting peace and raising concerns about rail and aviation, writes Alan Francis. For Green Party campaigners, he provided invaluable information on topics like renewable grants and the Government's dismal energy planning through written questions. These would frequently aid the party's campaigns.

He was often ahead of the political game. Six months before the demise of Railtrack, for instance, he called on the Government to renationalise it, forcing ministers to defend the failing rail set-up. Three years ago, he got the full backing of the House of Lords for an Air Traffic Reduction Bill, highlighting an issue which has since become a major public concern. At the time, this was a serious political achievement, despite the inevitable rejection of the Bill by the House of Commons.

During the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, Beaumont highlighted its impact on farmers and also the unnecessary cruelty created both by the culling of animals and the long distances they were being moved for slaughter.

In the last few months, he had campaigned on energy saving, the renewables industry and housing. Tim Beaumont's legacy will be a track record of serious Green parliamentarism, paving the way for future Green MPs.

Timothy Wentworth Beaumont, priest, publisher, philanthropist, politician and writer: born 22 November 1928; ordained deacon 1955, priest 1956, resigned priesthood 1973, resumed priesthood 1984; Assistant Chaplain, St John's Cathedral, Hong Kong 1955-57; Vicar, Christ Church Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong 1957-59; Honorary Curate, St Stephen's Rochester Row 1960-63; editor, Prism 1960-63, 1964; Joint Honorary Treasurer, Liberal Party 1962-63, Chairman, Publications Department 1963-64, Head of Organisation 1965-66, Chairman 1967-68, President 1969-70; editor, New Outlook 1964, 1972-74; proprietor, New Christian 1965-70; created 1967 Baron Beaumont of Whitley; food columnist, Illustrated London News 1976-80; Vice-Chairman, Liberal Party Executive and Director for Policy Promotion 1980-83; Vicar, St Philip and All Saints, with St Luke, Kent 1986-91; married 1955 Mary Rose Wauchope (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 8 April 2008.

* Michael De-la-Noy died 12 August 2002

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