Astor: A short timeline

19 May 1879 – Nancy Witcher Langhorne born in Danville, Virginia.

Nancy was born into relative poverty and was one of 11 children born to Chiswell ‘Chilie’ Dabney Langhorne and Nancy Witcher Keene.

1905 – Mrs Nancy Shaw (divorced) moves to England

Nancy had married Robert Gould Shaw II in 1897 but they were divorced in 1903.

1906 – Nancy marries Waldorf Astor

Upon their marriage Waldorf and Nancy were given Cliveden House (the estate is now owned by the National Trust) as a wedding present by his father William Waldorf 1st Viscount Astor.  Nancy became a society and political hostess of some repute supporting her husband’s political career. Waldorf became MP for Plymouth Sutton in December 1918 and his family purchased their constituency home on Elliot Terrace.

21 November 1918 – Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act

Most people assume that the right for women to become MPs was given with the 1918 Representation of the People Act associated with the partial female vote.  It was not.  It came months later with one of the shortest acts in British parliamentary history – an Act containing just 28 words allowed women to become full members of the polity. 17 women stood in the 1918 election including Christabel Pankhurst. Constance Markievicz of Sinn Fein was duly elected but did not take her seat.

28 November 1919 – Nancy Astor elected at a by-election

On the death of his father Waldorf Astor became 2nd Viscount Astor which necessitated giving up his seat in the House of Commons. Nancy stood in his stead as she was well known and popular in Plymouth. There was a high turn out for the Plymouth Sutton by-election – 72.5%* of the 38,539 people on the electoral roll voted:

  • Viscountess Astor (Con) 14,495 (51.9%)
  • WT Gay (Lab) 9292 (33.3%)
  • I Foot (Lib) 4239 (14.8%)

*turnout was 59.6% in General Election 1918

1 December 1919 – Nancy took her oath and seat in Parliament

Accompanied by David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour.

24 February 1920 – Astor gave her Maiden Speech

First speech by a woman in the House of Commons Chamber.

31 July 1923 – Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons Under Eighteen) Bill passed

Nancy is responsible for the first Private Members Bill ever passed by a woman. The bill was often commonly referred to as ‘Lady Astor’s Bill’. It was named such to be used against her as an election tactic.

1931 – Astor visited Russia and had an interview with Stalin

Nancy had a long term platonic friendship with George Bernard Shaw despite their very different politics. George Bernard Shaw, Nancy and Waldorf (her husband)  made up a party who visited Russia. In an interview with Stalin, Nancy asked him, ‘When are you going to stop killing people?’ Stalin responded ‘When it is no longer necessary for the protection of the state’.

17 June 1936 onwards – The Cliveden Set and appeasement

Many of the Astor’s social circle were supporters of appeasement and were accused of influencing foreign policy. In 1936 the communist journalist Claude Cockburn published an article in his anti-fascist journal, The Week alleging the existence of a ‘Cliveden Set’, a group of influential people who used their wealth, connections and ownership of newspapers to subvert the policy of the government.

This was a claim which Nancy called a ‘terrible lie’ and considered herself a pacifist. However, her reputation was irretrievably damaged. In reality the Astors’ attitudes were little different than many of their class and social standing who saw fascism as a bulwark against communism. The term ‘Cliveden Set’ was first used by Reynolds News on 28th November, 1937. There is no evidence that Nancy was a fascist or a Nazi sympathiser.

Anti-Catholicism and Anti Semitism: Astor was anti-Catholic as there is plenty of archival evidence for this including her refusal to employ Roman Catholics as staff, though her position softened as she got older and there are many anecdotal stories of kindnesses towards Catholics she later employed. But evidence that she was strongly anti-Semitic is often circumstantial. As is common with Nancy, she often made statements off the cuff but they are markedly different to her responses to Jewish individuals who contacted her directly in the late 1930s asking for help and who she did help. Undoubtedly, by modern standards Nancy held some views that today are difficult to swallow, Stafford Cripps referred to her in Parliament as ‘The Member for Berlin’. She did feel that she was being made victim of ‘Jewish Communistic propaganda’ (for more information please see ‘FAQs’ and ‘Astor’s legacy’).

1939-1945 – World War II

Nancy Astor was MP for Plymouth Sutton, a naval constituency. Despite her initial support for appeasement by 1940 she believed her patriotic duty was to vote to install Churchill as Prime Minister. The Astors remained in the constituency during the Plymouth Blitz which razed much of the city, holding steadfast with their constituents and servicemen. She organised the evacuation of children, arranged and attended tea dances on the Hoe to boost morale. In March 1941, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Plymouth . Only hours later, Plymouth suffered one of the worst air raids of the war. When Winston Churchill visited in May 1941 she told him “It’s no good crying Winston, you’ve got to do something!” Astor also supported a Red Cross hospital for Canadian soldiers at Cliveden. Moreover, by the end of the war, all four of her sons were on active service abroad (for information on the ‘D Day Dodgers’  legend please see ‘FAQs’ and ‘Astor’s legacy’).

Viscountess Nancy Astor giving a campaign speech in London, 1941

5 July 1945 – Nancy retired from Parliament

Nancy Astor won 7 elections between 1919 and 1945. She retired reluctantly, influenced by her family and an aging local party. Lucy Middleton succeeded her (1945-1951) followed by her son Jakie.

17 July 1959 – Nancy given the Freedom of the City of Plymouth

2 May 1964  – Nancy Astor died at Grimesthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire.

 

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