James Chuter Ede (1882-1965)

James Chuter Ede (m. 1903) was the longest-serving Home Secretary since the nineteenth century, holding the post throughout the Attlee administration, from August 1945 to October 1951.

Ede came from a Liberal, nonconformist background. After elementary education in Epsom, he won a scholarship to Dorking High School and then trained as a teacher. He came to Christ’s to read Natural Sciences in 1903, with some financial help from his local authority, but found it was insufficient to support him. According to one account, his grandfather wanted to make his stay at Cambridge conditional on his becoming a priest, which (Ede said) he considered, until he chose politics instead; perhaps he was offered family money on that proviso.  Whatever the reason, he left in 1905 without a degree and returned to teaching at Surrey elementary schools, active in the National Union of Teachers.  He joined Epsom Urban District Council and, in 1914, was elected to Surrey County Council, as a Liberal, which required him to give up his teaching post as a Surrey employee.

From 1914, Ede served as a sergeant in the East Surrey Regiment and the Royal Engineers, and changed political allegiance to Labour.  He was elected to Parliament at his second attempt, at a by-election in 1923, but lost his Mitcham seat in the general election later that year.

From 1929 he was MP for South Shields, though in 1931 he lost to a Liberal supporter of the National Government.  He won South Shields back in 1935, and held the seat until his retirement in 1964.

Ede’s political activities cover three aspects – in local government, in education, and the Home Office.

In local government, while a council member at Epsom, he remained on Surrey County Council till 1949, at one time being on both while MP for South Shields.  He was still a Surrey member for his first four years as Home Secretary.

He was credited with Surrey’s achievement of being the only county to build a new hospital between the wars, and of having more (and earlier built) bypasses than any other.  He took action to reduce river flooding,and ensured Surrey bought property to preserve its countryside, open space and woodland, and to create “green belt” (a term perhaps coined around 1935 by him and others).

At the Board of Education, Ede spent the greater part of World War II as RA Butler’s deputy in the Churchill coalition.  With his professional experience, he made a major contribution to the Education Act 1944, to which Butler’s name is generally attached.  The Act might not have been possible without Ede in the team, as Rab was well aware. There was considerable cross-party respect between them.

In 1942 Churchill asked him to transfer to the Ministry of War Transport.  Ede insisted, however, on staying at Education and, after the Labour victory in 1945, expected to take charge of Education.

However, Attlee decided to appoint him Home Secretary, the post he held until the Government lost office in1951 (for the final few months he was Leader of the Commons also).  The remit of the Home Office was wide in those days.  Within two months, he had swept away more than 200 Defence Regulations, and in due course got rid of some very small police forces.

Ede set up a Boundary Commission to redraw constituencies (which is believed to have contributed to the Government’s loss of seats in 1950 and defeat in 1951).  He was involved with the British Nationality Act 1948 and then chaired a committee on Commonwealth immigration.

His Criminal Justice Act 1948 abolished hard labour, penal servitude and corporal punishment, among other sentences.  It made several changes to the law on probation, evidence, and the management of prisons, and also ended the right of peers to be tried in the Lords.

As Home Secretary he had sole responsibility for the death penalty.  The Commons amended the Criminal Justice Bill, to suspend the penalty for five years. Ede opposed this, but stopped approving any hangings while the proposal went to the Lords.  However, it was defeated there, and he felt it right that death sentences should then resume.  The best-known person affected by this was Timothy Evans, who was duly hanged.

After 1951 and a few years in the shadow cabinet, Ede went to the back benches, where he was a useful supporter of Roy Jenkins’s Obscene Publications Act 1959.  He eventually retired in 1964, and became Lord Chuter Ede of Epsom.

Well before then, it was apparent that Timothy Evans had been innocent and, partly in the light of this, Ede became a firm supporter of abolishing capital punishment. He went on to press for a pardon for Evans and, shortly before Ede’s death in November 1965, the death penalty was effectively abolished, and Evans’s body was returned to his family.

Ede was an admirer of John Milton.  He kept a copy of Paradise Lost at the Home Office, and sometimes quoted Areopagitica.  That suggests a devotion to free speech and opposition to censorship, commendable in a Home Secretary, as well as loyalty to another notable member of Christ’s.

Cambridge University awarded Ede an honorary degree in 1943, and in 1953 he was made a Companion of Honour.

by Dr Stephen Hart (m. 1968)

A portrait hangs in Surrey County Hall and is accessible via ArtUK: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-right-honourable-james-chuter-ede-ch-jp-dl-13139