The Context

Thursday 23rd March 1933.

Rembrandt Rooms 2018
Until a recent modernisation The Rembrandt Room in Knightsbridge retained all its 1933 panelling

On this very evening the Chancellor of Germany, one Adolf Hitler, was eliminating the final vestiges of democracy as the Bundestag sat in its temporary home in the Opera House, its traditional home having already been torched by the Chancellor’s supporters. It was a tragedy in the making.

That day the main debate in the British House of Commons was on how to get the country out of its slump, a crisis which was perhaps felt most keenly in South Wales, especially in the Rhondda Valley coalfields.  In Parliament the young 29 year old MP, and future Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain to listen to the wisdom of John Maynard Keynes, marking himself out as truly a “Middle Way” centrist.  On this evening however we can assume he was present on behalf of his family firm, publishers of Lady Rhondda’s memoir, “This Was My World”, published just a week earlier, on 17th March 1933.

It was a time of increasing fear of war, alongside the social cost of on-going austerity – and so records show, a mini- heatwave in London. That evening however, at the Rembrandt Rooms, at the Rembrandt Hotel, opposite the Victoria and Albert Museum – perhaps with the windows open – 100 of the brightest and best women of the country (and some from overseas) sat down to dinner, joined by some two dozen or more gentlemen, to celebrate the successes of one Margaret Mackworth, Viscountess Rhondda and to present her with their own commissioned portrait of Margaret, painted by Alice Mary Burton. A similar version of this portrait now hangs in the St Fagans National Museum of History at  Cardiff, part of the National Museum Wales, both portraits being a more relaxed and familiar representation than the grander 1931 portrait by Alice that today hangs in the House of Lords.

Top table top 5, trimmed (1)
Lady Berry, Sir Norman Angell, Lady Rhondda, Winifred Cullis, Lord Camrose ©Mirrorpix[1]

Margaret was best known as a former suffragette (imprisoned for bombing a Newport letter box), as the head of a significant Welsh industrial empire, as the founder and editor of the leading feminist literary magazine, Time and Tide, and if you were to read the recent press coverage of her memoir, a dramatic survivor of the sinking of the Lusitania. Her friends and colleagues had gathered, as was their wont, to converse and celebrate. One press review of the event commented

“As I glanced at those who came to dine at the Rembrandt this evening in honour of Lady Rhondda, I found it difficult to make a mental list of the famous women who were not present. All seemed to be there. Even when my list was made I had to delete several because they had sent letters of apology.

[The Nottingham Journal of 18th March had mentioned Dame Ethel Smythe, the musician and composer of the suffragette anthem and Dr Edith Somerville (the Irish novelist) as expected guests.  Dame Ethel in fact sent apologies from Geneva and apologies for her absence were also sent by Labour M.P. Ellen Wilkinson. ]

The guest list reflected her world: writers, politicians (including the aforesaid Harold Macmillan), economists, industrialists, suffragettes and suffragists, feminists, artists, actors, theatre managers, musicians, journalists, publishers and media barons, bankers and accountants, lawyers, restauranteurs, teachers, doctors, scientists, philanthropists, social workers and socialites, and Olympic athletes – and she could count herself amongst many of the professions in the room – though not the latter. A room full of high achievers in almost all walks of life – except we might note neither farming nor serving military. Very few came from serious aristocracy. Almost all were born in the British Isles, and handful on the continent of Europe, in the far-flung British Empire or in the USA. Many, but not all, had benefited from a good start in life irrespective of their family income. For women this was the time of a great push for gender equality and not surprisingly a number were notable pioneers in breaking through the glass ceiling in their respective professions.
Largely absent were spouses or partners: the handful that were there were primarily accompanying their spouse/partner, though a few “power couples” graced the room (such as Arthur and Kitty Marshall who defended the suffragettes in the courts or through their martial arts abilities). A few brought a family member, often a daughter, perhaps to experience this extraordinary world of women. Only one member of Margaret’s own family attended: not her mother, the other living (Dowager) Viscountess Rhondda (who was abroad at the time – she did travel a lot), but her maternal aunt, Rose Haig-Thomas. We can identify with certainty all but a handful of guests: there are six listed simply as “Guest of..”, another five named guests remain real mysteries and a number where we have identified possible candidates with varying levels of certainty but are looking for more confirming evidence. On the Press table only one is named. In total 125 named individuals, each with a story to tell, which they no doubt did in some way to their fellow guests. And for trivia enthusiasts, no-one with a surname beginning with J, O, Q, T, U, X, Y or Z (that’s almost a third of the alphabet) and this Welsh lady had no-one called Jones at her dinner. However we have discovered that a notable Welsh Jones family did own the Rembrandt Hotel.

I only know all this because the guest list with their table allocations lay amongst a wonderful archive of papers that has come to me from my maternal grandfather. The Rev. J.T Rhys, congregational minister, temperance campaigner, social campaigner, would be MP, traveller,  newspaper columnist, and private secretary to Mrs Lloyd George throughout almost all her years at No 10 Downing Street, was amongst the non-distaff representatives at the Rembrandt. He had worked for the Dowager Viscountess Rhondda before finding himself at No. 10. This guest list has lain in a box for more than 80 years and for me these “Antics at the Rembrandt” are my “Rembrandt in the Attic”, or perhaps my “Antique from the Rembrandt”.

This “essay” is my attempt to be a fly on the wall at this dinner: to hear what the diners might have been talking about and thereby to try and imagine the flavour of the times.

The Speeches

We can start with what we do know what was said. There were eight speeches before Lady Rhondda was allowed to put in a word. The promoters had arranged for brief speeches, which were to be over within half an hour. The Nottingham Journal had also reported that all speakers were to be limited to 5 minutes, reporting that “But women have not yet established their reputation as the silent sex and it was very late before Lady Rhondda spoke and received her presentation portrait.” In response we could point out that half the speakers were male….

She was praised for innumerable reasons. Rebecca West gave “a mainly frivolous speech” (The Guardian) and “spoke as a colleague on “Time and Tide”.

“An absent friend telegraphed to emphasise her work as a would-be reformer of the House of Lords, while Sir Norman Angell spoke of her career as a suffragette” and of how Time and Tide was “keeping alive independence of thought”.

The Sheffield Independent of 24th March reported Lord Camrose as remarking on Lady Rhondda’s “loyalty to causes and to people” and The Guardian reported his confession that when she had first spoke of her desire to publish “Time & Tide” he had advised her against it”.

And St John Ervine, one eye clearly on events unfolding across the Channel, that “such weekly journals as Time & Tide were more important than ever now that empty-minded men were jumping up and dictating to their betters – Hitler, for instance, telling a man like Einstein what to think”.

The Belfast Newsletter previewed the dinner a week earlier (on 17th March) in anticipation:

“Friends and admirers of Lady Rhondda, who have subscribed for a presentation portrait by Miss Alice Burton, will next week hand it over to her a dinner to be held in London. If the portrait is as good I am told it is, it will show the features of an exceedingly strong-minded feminist. Lady Rhondda was a tower of strength to the suffragist, and then to the feminist campaign, and lived to see most of her ambitions for her sex well and truly achieved. She has had more serious adventures than being run in for window smashing. She was aboard the ill-fated Lusitania and was picked quite unhurt seated in a chair that drifted right way up. But I doubt if she believes in miracles.”

To give you a feel of what London was like in 1933 we can share this footage from the Pathé archive.

Half the fun of this dinner has been finding out who the guests were, about their lives and the relationships between them.  This website is our invitation not only to share what we have learnt but also to invite you to join the fun of  fitting the pieces together, of identifying who might have been the mystery guests, tracking down images of the guests where we have yet to find one, suggesting what might have been on their minds at the time and sharing your thoughts and ideas on these remarkable people and the turbulent times in which they lived.  If you have anecdotes about any of the guests at the dinner you can add them to the bottom of their pages.

RICHARD RHYS O’BRIEN

[1] Western Mail and South Wales Advertiser, 25th March 1933 ©Mirrorpix, created courtesy of the British Library Board, sourced from The British Newspaper Archive (www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk)