Maurice de Forest, the Liberal baron of West Ham
- Credit: Archant
Millionaire, aristocrat, aviation enthusiast, racing driver, chum of Winston Churchill, self-professed ally of the working class, victim of racism – and proud West Ham MP.
That colourful biography, the kind occasionally to be found sprinkled across the 20th Century, belongs to Baron Maurice Arnold de Forest.
Born in Paris 137 years ago, he was adopted by a stupendously rich German Jewish banker and his wife when, at the age of three, his circus-performing American father died alongside his mother in Constantinople.
It has been postulated that he was adopted by his real father – the man in question, Maurice von Hirsch, was said to be a philanderer as well as a philanthropist – but either way the adoptee was raised as a full member of the family, being sent to Eton and Oxford.
In 1900 he was naturalised as a subject of Queen Victoria and, three years later, broke the world land speed record by racing at 84mph in Phoenix Park, Dublin.
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“He was a member of that strange pre-First World War aristocracy, many of whose members were fascinated by flying planes and racing cars,” Mick Oakey, managing editor of the magazine The Aviation Historian tells me.
“It seems strange to us now, but planes were at the cutting edge of technology – aviation was a dangerous game that attracted lots of testosterone-filled young men.”
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But de Forest didn’t climb into the cockpit himself – Mick says there is no evidence of him ever getting his licence.
He chose instead to use the vast fortune he inherited from his adoptive father to encourage others.
“In 1909, he offered £4,000 [about half a million pounds today] to the first Englishman that crossed the channel in a plane,” Mick says.
“There were 57 entries – including Cecil Grace, a famous aviator who disappeared forever in his attempt, and Thomas Sopwith, the eventual winner and later a figure involved in the creation of the Sopwith Camel and Hawker Hurricane fighter planes.
“It’s no stretch to say de Forest’s sponsorship was a great boost to Sopwith and therefore to British aviation in the wars.”
In 1910, the baron formally entered politics, being defeated as a Liberal candidate for Southport in a campaign marred by racism.
A year later, he headed for Newham to fight in a by-election as a champion of the working man.
At a meeting in West Ham he announced himself “against the landlord interest” and of the belief that “the working classes worked hard and had very little reward,” being unable to afford a home in the place they were born.
When a heckler at Stratford Town Hall said de Forest was not an Englishman, he replied passionately that in 1900 he “was serving in the British Army” and “volunteered to go to South Africa.”
He added: “I am as much an Englishman as you are, and I want to know where was the Tory candidate at that time?”
That candidate, Ernest Edward Wild, made clear it was his “duty to keep England first for English men, women and children.”
De Forest won, and spent seven years as an MP – enjoying a close friendship with fellow Liberal Winston Churchill, who spent his honeymoon on the baron’s yacht.
In 1913, he was blackballed from the Reform Club, prompting both Churchill and David Lloyd George to resign in outrage.
But once he left politics in 1918, he didn’t return – instead moving to Liechtenstein and dying in 1968.
Paul Reynolds, 2015’s Lib Dem candidate for West Ham, explained the baron’s place in his party’s – and movement’s – history.
“Despite his great wealth inherited from his adoptive parents, Maurice chose liberalism as his creed due to his belief in equal rights – and votes – for women, and his belief that all should be equal before the law regardless of religion or background.
“He would no doubt fit in well with today’s ‘pro-European’ Liberal Democrats and the recently revived Newham Party.
“Liberalism in Newham has deep roots indeed.”