This article is from the July issue of Total Politics
William Henry Grenfell was a multi-talented athlete and sports administrator in the late 19th and early 20th century. In this Olympics year, he is remembered as president of the 1908 London Olympics. He also had four separate stints as an MP over a quarter of a century.
He came from a political family. His father, Charles William Grenfell, was a Liberal MP, and young William was the great-grandson of Pascoe Grenfell, a Whig MP in the early 19th century. His maternal grandfather, William Saunders Sebright Lascelles, was also an MP for most of the period between 1820 and 1851.
Grenfell began his parliamentary career early. Shortly after graduating from Balliol College, Oxford in 1879 – for which he rowed in the Boat Races of 1877 and 1878 – he was invited to stand as a Liberal for Salisbury. He topped the poll in April 1880, and he and his fellow successful Liberal survived a legal challenge to the result.
However, this rapid rise stalled in November 1882, when Grenfell’s appointment to the political office of Groom-in-Waiting to the Queen necessitated a by-election. He was defeated by his Tory opponent, Kennard (whom he had beaten in 1880), after a brief campaign, and did not stand again until the 1885 general election, when he faced a straight fight with Kennard for the now single-seat constituency of Salisbury.
In November, he was returned in a very tight race, with just under 51 per cent of the vote.
Again, Grenfell’s tenure was brief, despite his having been made private secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He lost the seat in the 1886 general election caused by government splits over Irish Home Rule.
He tried unsuccessfully to return to the House at the April 1890 Windsor by-election. Despite support from Gladstone, and a lively campaign (in which Eton schoolboys tried to tear down pro-Grenfell banners), he was beaten in this Tory stronghold.
Success returned in July 1892, when he rode the rising Liberal tide to capture Hereford. However, he opposed Gladstone’s minority government on its new Irish Home Rule Bill, and on currency reform – Grenfell advocated bimetallism (linking currency value to both gold and silver, not gold alone) and thought the gold standard policy harmed the economy – and so the future Lord Desborough resigned from the Commons in August 1893 by being appointed, in the time-honoured manner, Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham.
His next electoral foray was as a Conservative in the 1900 general election, when he won Wycombe, after being selected at the last moment when the Tory incumbent succeeded to an earldom. His shift in party allegiance had become evident when he assisted the Tory candidate at an Oxford by-election in April 1895.
This time, Grenfell served virtually a whole Parliament, only departing when elevated to the Lords in the resignation honours list in December 1905. Having long been a keen and prolific climber, rower, cricketer, swimmer, coach driver and wrestler – he won a silver medal for fencing at the Athens Olympics of 1906 – when the British Olympic Association was formed and constitutionally agreed in May 1905, Grenfell was appointed its first chairman. During the formative months of preparation before the 1908 Olympics, he was described as being “a man absorbed in the actualisation of a dream”.
Based at Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, Grenfell was involved with ‘The Souls’, an aristocratic social set formed in the late 1880s whose most noted member was the future Tory PM, Arthur Balfour. Under William’s wife, Ethel (‘Ettie’), Taplow remained fashionable for many years, playing host to the political elite and royalty.
On 2 December 1920, The Times announced the sudden death of Lord Desborough, describing his collapse and almost immediate death during after-dinner speeches at a Birmingham hotel. It published an effusive obituary, lauding his many sporting feats, and listing more briefly his political career.
This came as a great shock to Desborough, who lived for another 25 years. The following day, the contrite newspaper published an apology for having confused him with Lord Bessborough.
Grenfell’s fame lies with his sporting prowess. As a politician, sadly, he did not quite reach gold (or even silver) medal standard.