In the mid-1930s Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was going from strength to strength and in 1934 it had 40,000 members. Those who were tired of the economic and political stagnation of interwar Britain were attracted by Mosley’s nationalistic messages such as ‘Our first task and duty is to awaken the soul of England again.’ Mosley was a powerful speaker and thousands gathered at Blackshirt rallies to hear him proclaim, ‘England is not finished. England is not dead. Send to all the world a message – England lives and marches on.’ But while those inside the venues raised their arms in Fascist salute to Mosley, outside ever larger crowds gathered. Communists, Socialists, Jews and pacifists, opposed to Mosley, scuffled and came to blows with his Blackshirt henchmen.
Lady Lucy Houston, proprietor of the weekly Saturday Review, was watching Mosley’s progress carefully. Now in her late seventies and one of England’s richest women, she had dedicated her last years to the support and promotion of Britain and the Empire. She blamed politicians, and in particular Prime Ministers Ramsay MacDonald and Stanley Baldwin, for Britain’s weakness. Lady Houston had already printed articles in the Saturday Review written by and in favour of Mosley. In February 1934, for example, Mosley’s article ‘Our Policy – Britain First!’ was accompanied by a full-page portrait of the Fascist leader. Mosley desired to become Britain’s dictator, styling himself along the lines of Italy’s Mussolini. Lady Houston, believing that the democratic system had failed Britain, wondered whether Mosley offered the solution that she was looking for. But although Mosley’s words expressed her sentiments there was something about him she did not quite trust.
Lady Houston had £200,000 burning a hole in her pocket. She had tried to give it to the Government on condition that they use it to boost Britain’s air defences, but she had been turned down. Should she give it to Mosley instead? By October 1935 she had more or less made up her mind and invited him to join her on her luxury yacht, the Liberty, then moored at Southampton. It would be their first meeting. Mosley was speaking at Reading and had difficulty escaping in his car from an angry crowd of 2,000 outside the venue. But at Southampton all went well. Once aboard the Liberty, Mosley recorded in his autobiography, he found Lady Houston in bed. It was, he commented, a ‘curious habit of these magnates to do such business in bed.’ She had, he wrote, not the ‘slightest idea’ what his Fascist policies were about but nevertheless their interview was ‘easy,’ and they parted on the ‘firm understanding’ that she would support him financially.
Indeed, Lady Houston got as far as writing out a cheque for £100,000 and was about to send it to him when something caused her to change her mind and tear it up. The reason was that Mosley’s Fascist newspaper, the Blackshirt, had printed an offensive paragraph that sneered at her and her newspaper. Indeed, the British Union of Fascists had been deeply infiltrated by the security services, and the article might even have been written by a government agent specifically to prevent her from giving the money. Although Mosley had not written the article Lady Houston held him personally responsible. She wrote a strong letter in which she accused him of ingratitude. He would have cause to regret the paragraph, she said. Mosley’s reply was more of a lecture than an apology. ‘Huh,’ said Lady Houston, ‘teaching his grandmother to suck eggs!’ She gave instructions that Mosley and his Fascists were not to be mentioned again in the Saturday Review.
By Teresa Crompton