‘I was elected by the highly intelligent, far-sighted people of the constituency of Hereford in 1929 – and thrown out by the same besotted mob two years later.’ Hereford Liberal MP Frank Owen
Has there ever been a more curious and mercurial an MP as Frank Owen. Why he isn’t more widely known and admired – locally and nationally - is a mystery really. He was born in Widemarsh Street, Hereford, appropriately enough near to the then Liberal Club. He went on to represent the county at Westminster as Liberal MP between 1929 and 1931. The only evidence of him remaining in his home city is quietly tucked away in an unprepossessing cul-de-sac: Frank Owen Court. It’s hardly representative of his life, work or achievements. He may not be considered Herefordshire’s most successful MP, but his life is worth remembering here, isn’t it?
So, in a way, this blog is an appeal to anyone out there who may have known him. As the years rush by, there is an urgency to this appeal. His trail goes cold sometime in the late sixties/early seventies. What became of this extraordinary character?
This is what we do know. He was the high-achieving son of Hereford innkeepers, Thomas Humphrey Owen and Cicely Hannah. A clever boy, he was educated at Monmouth School before moving onto Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honours in economics and history. He was interested in politics from a young age and was a huge admirer, and later close supporter, of David Lloyd George, the last Liberal Prime Minister. He later wrote Lloyd George’s biography, Tempestuous Journey.
But first his career began at the South Wales Argus, between 1928–29, where he cut his young journalist’s teeth in the fervent and febrile atmosphere that dominated the time. What a period to be working as a newsman. While the interwar period (1918-1939) was one of peace, there was also real economic stagnation as the depression descended. South Wales was severely affected, halting and reversing the industrial growth that had been booming for 150 years. The consequences of this was massive emigration. Between 1925 and 1939, Wales lost 390,000 people. It took until 1973 for Wales to regain its 1925 population level. So, it was into this that a Hereford ‘boy’ saw first-hand the visceral effects of a struggling economy. It was a good training ground for what was to come.
It’s possible his time reporting in South Wales led to his decision to stand as MP for Herefordshire. In 1929 his ambitions came true and he was triumphant in the general election of that year. Yet it was to be for an all-to-brief period for by 1931 he had fallen out of favour. Down but not defeated he remarked on his constituency: ‘I was elected by the highly intelligent, far-sighted people of the constituency of Hereford in 1929 – and thrown out by the same besotted mob two years later!’
But this wasn’t a man to go quietly into the night licking his wounds. He was already making a name for himself on Fleet Street. Similar to his earlier journalist experience in South Wales, this was another exciting period as Europe entered a tumultuous pre-war period. He quickly rose through the ranks, and by 1938 became Editor at the Evening Standard under Lord Beaverbrook. After the fall of the Chamberlain government in 1940, he co-authored (but published pseudonymously), with a young Michael Foot and Peter Howard, Guilty Men, one of the most apposite and influential political polemics of all time. It exposed the Conservative-dominated National Government of 1931-40 and identified those responsible for Appeasement and Britain’s ill-preparedness for WWII. An unprecedented 200,000 copies were sold within days. Owen was a fierce anti-Nazi, and, during the years of appeasement, made a feature of rewriting Mein Kampf week after week to sound the alarm. Owen’s star was in ascendant.
During World War II he served with the Royal Tank Regiment between 1942–43, and was commissioned in September 1943. He went on to serve with the South East Asia Command (SEAC) from 1944–46. He edited the SEAC, the services newspaper of South East Asia Command that was serving in Burma, at the personal request of Louis Mountbatten. It was said the two men helped shape the Burma campaign, but we are unable to confirm this. Owen was rewarded with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. We don’t know if the two men stayed in touch after the war’s end. After the war, Owen returned to his old stomping ground on Fleet Street, first as a contributor to the Daily Mail, and later as the paper's editor. By 1946 he had been awarded the OBE for his services in South East Asia.
In 1939, Owen married Grace Stewart McGillivray of Boston, USA. There is some suggestion she was an heiress. She died in 1968. Throughout their marriage, Owen continued to write, authoring several books on war and current affairs and was an early ITV journalist. Yet in 1955-56, after a 25-year absence, he attempted a political comeback in his home city and won the by-election of 1955-56. The Liberal party was very weak at the time, but he managed to achieve one of their better results, pushing Labour into third place. His Conservative opponent was then elevated to the House of Lords creating a vacancy. Owen was chosen again as Liberal candidate for the Hereford by-election, 1956. The Liberal campaign was able to present him as the main challenger, having won second place in 1955. This helped him increase his vote but he came second to the Tory candidate. After this attempt, he declined to stand for parliament again. He was replaced as Hereford Liberal candidate by Robin Day. Derek Evans was on hand then, as he was with all Liberal candidates, to photograph and shepherd them around.
From the late fifties/early sixties, Owen’s trail goes cold. What became of him, former Hereford MP, Fleet Street legend, and former side-kick to Lord Mountbatten? Some references say he died in penury in 1979 in Worthing. We would love to know and rescue this man’s name and reputation from obscurity. If you have any information, please do let us know.
By Marsha O’Mahony