David Lloyd George, the Surrey farmer who ran Great Britain
David Lloyd George is remembered primarily as Britain's Prime Minister during the First World War - but few people realise he was also a successful Surrey farmer. Here, freelance journalist Ruth Longford, whose grandmother went on to marry him, reveals his fascinating story exclusively for Surrey Life
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2007
ONE GLORIOUS September afternoon, Frances Stevenson, Lloyd George's secretary and long-term mistress, visited an estate that was to be sold in the village of Churt, in Surrey, to see if it would suit the Prime Minister. She found herself on a hilltop with pine and bracken and glorious views, convinced it was the perfect spot.
The auction was about to take place, and as Lloyd George didn't have time to see the land for himself, he relied on her description, asking specifically in which direction it faced. Rashly, as it turned out, and because she thought it was so beautiful, she replied without checking that it faced south, whereupon he gave the order to purchase the 60 acres.
When Lloyd George finally found time to go down and visit, the day was dank and cold and the view almost obscured by mist. So when Frances drew his attention to the outlook, he took out the watch he always used for a compass and it was then that he made the terrible discovery. "It is due north," he said.
Close to tears, Frances was wondering if she could raise enough money to buy the land back from him and leave him free to go on with the search, when he laughed and said, "We shall call it Bron-y-de," which means, in Welsh, breast (or slope) of the south.
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I learnt all this, among many other fascinating stories, on a recent visit to Churt with Frances' daughter, Jennifer Longford, who grew up on Lloyd George's land. Now in her seventies, she had decided to revisit her childhood home out of curiosity - and the reason I was invited to join her on this nostalgic journey? Well, Jennifer is my mother, making Frances my grandmother and the late Prime Minister, Lloyd George, my grandfather.
As we wondered through the orchards that Lloyd George had planted, my mother recalled how he was advised against starting the farm. "He was told Surrey was not the place for fruit," she explained. "His advisors told him to buy in Kent, but he was convinced that he could make a fruit farm work here and he did."
In fact, he was enormously successful, using sometimes rather unconventional methods. While looking out over the fields by Avalon fruit farm, Jennifer pointed out where a Welsh water diviner had used hazel sticks to find water. "I remember that members of his staff were sceptical," she recalled. "But Lloyd George had seen the process at work in Wales and trusted her. Sure enough, 80ft down there was water exactly where the hazel sticks had said it would be, and he was able to build an irrigation system for his soft fruit."
By the time the Second World War broke out, Lloyd George had a very large staff for which he built accommodation and offices. The lovely Elizabethan house, Green Farm, was the main centre for his secretaries and office staff, and today it looks as though it still provides several lovely homes.
Before she married him, Frances could only be with Lloyd George at Bron y de when his family were not, so she had a beautiful modern bungalow built closer to the centre of Churt. She called it Avalon and had it designed by the architect Anthony Chitty. "It had a wonderful front door made of copper," Jennifer remembers. "When visitors were waiting on the doorstep, they saw themselves reflected in the door and the colour enhanced their appearance so you went into the house feeling happy."
The footpath that connected Avalon to Bron-y-de still lies just a little way down the road opposite the entrance to Avalon, but gates now conceal the bungalow from the road. Frances tried to farm as well, though much less successfully, but the fruit farm and garden centre are named after her house, not Bron-y-de. Like Lloyd George, she didn't restrict herself to the Bramleys and Cox's Orange Pippins that both did so well; they both expanded into growing plums, gooseberries, blackcurrents and various other soft fruits.
"When I was on summer holidays, I was employed to pick the fruit and I much preferred the soft fruit to going up the plum trees," Jennifer recalled. "I always seemed to pick the plum that was being eaten by a wasp and they objected by stinging me." She went on to add, "I'll never forget when I became 15 and my pay almost doubled from 11d an hour to one shilling and 7d because I technically became an adult."
A small farm shop sold their produce opposite the pub known even then as Pride of the Valley. Its name, however, was nothing to do with Lloyd George - who had only just arrived - but came from the amazing number of nightingales that sang their hearts out in the valley. Jennifer tells me she thinks they are no longer there but that "people used to come down from London especially to hear them they were so glorious. The BBC even made a programme about them." Now the car park of the pub acknowledges the area's link to Lloyd George with a display of model daffodils and leeks and there are no longer any nightingales: no farm shop either, though looking at old post cards shows that the private house there is largely unchanged.
Although Lloyd George is remembered primarily as the Prime Minister during the First World War, if war had not erupted, his legacy would be as the Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced Social Security and Old Age Pensions. These attitudes were reflected on his farm.
Now electric gates and a "beware of the dog" sign make it impossible to approach The Ridge, but it was originally built for the farm bailiff, Withers. When PAYE came in, Withers informed Lloyd George that the farm workers would receive their salaries three days later than usual. These three extra days would mean that certain families went hungry over what would no doubt feel like a very long weekend. Years later, a farm worker told Jennifer how Lloyd George, as a concerned employer, had insisted that money be paid out from farm profits so that there would be no gap.
Sadly, Bron-y-de burnt down in the Sixties, but the gates to Churt Place are still those that Lloyd George put up, and offices he had built for his secretaries can be found on the side of the Surrey hills. Best of all, you can still buy delicious apples at Hyde Farm in Churt, grown in orchards that were planted by Lloyd George himself.
Lloyd George: A potted history
David Lloyd George is the only British Prime Minister whose first language was not English. He was born in Manchester, but the early death of his father brought him to North Wales to be raised by his uncle, the village cobbler.
Lloyd George became Liberal MP for Caernarvon Boroughs at the age of 27 and soon became one of the most well-known politicians in the country, particularly when he made an unpopular and controversial stand supporting the Boers during the Boer war (1899-1902).
In 1905, the Liberals won a landslide victory and he became Minister for Trade, earning promotion to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908. His first budget, "the People's Budget", introducing an insurance scheme, was thrown out by the House of Lords. So the House of Commons passed legislation to ensure that the Lords could only delay a bill in future and the National Insurance Act giving workers sickness and unemployment pay went through.
When war broke out in 1914, Lloyd George was unsure what his position would be until the Germans invaded neutral Belgium and then he became a passionate advocate for their defeat. In 1916, his energy and drive took him into No. 10 and he became remembered as "the man who won the war". It is ironic as he would never have chosen to be a famous war leader, but that is how he is usually remembered.