28 March 2020

Lady Nancy Astor, Cliveden Set and nasty appeasement plans

After their marriage in 1906, American expats Nancy and 2nd Vis­count Wal­dorf Astor moved in­to Cliveden, a large country estate in Bucks on the River Thames. There Nancy became a wealthy, prominent hostess for the upper class. Or in their London home in St James Square. Her hospitality showed her deeply felt, if poorly exercised noblesse oblige. The passionate ex-American was driven by a mania to do her Christian duty as she saw it.

The Astors were very well connected. Oswald Mosley met Lady Cynthia Curzon, daughter of George Curzon, former Conservative Par­ty MP and Viceroy of India, while helping Nancy during her 1919 election campaign. Rem­ember Nancy Astor was the first seated female MP in Brit­ish hist­ory! And Waldorf Astor owned the influential Ob­ser­ver Newspaper!

Lady Nancy Astor was the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, 1919

From 1926 on they held regular weekend parties at Cliveden. Guests included Lionel Curtis (British official, Royal Instit­ute of Inter­national Aff­airs, Paris Peace Conference 1919), Philip Henry Kerr (Marq­uess Lothian, emissary to Hitler), Edward Wood (Earl Halifax), Geof­frey Dawson (editor The Times), Samuel Hoare (Secr­etary of State, For­eign Aff­airs), Nevile Hend­erson (British Am­bassador to Berlin), Robert Brand (Baron Brand, director Lloyds Bank) and Edward Algernon Fitzroy (Speaker of the Commons). They formed a close-knit group, on intimate terms with each other for years.

Nancy Astor was anti-black, anti-Semitic and increasingly pro-German, as were most of her powerful coll­eag­ues in the Cliveden Set. Most of her group supp­orted governmental attempts to reach agree­ment with Hit­ler's Ger­many and she was connected to influent­ial people like Philip Kerr.

On the other side, Claud Cockburn resigned as NY corr­es­pond­ent from The Times in 1933 and founded The Week, a radical anti-Fascist news­letter. Its aggressive style and content meant MI5 was keeping a close eye on Cockburn’s activities, checking his mail and phone calls (but did MI5 check Lady Astor and her group as closely?) In June 1936 he wrote “The Best People's Front” in his Week news­letter, arguing that the Astor net­work was having a strong influence over the British govern­ment’s foreign policies. They control­led The Times and The Observer, and had become an important source of pro-German influence.

Cliveden, Bucks.

One weekend in Oct 1937, the Astors had 30 people to lunch, including Sir Al­ex­ander Cadogan (Permanent Under-Secretary, Foreign Office). They were happy that Neville Chamb­er­lain , a strong supporter of ap­p­easement, was now Prime Minister and that this would mean pro­motion for people like Lords Lothian and Halifax. Lord Lothian gave a talk on future relat­ions with Adolf Hitler, defining what Britain would NOT fight for eg the League of Nations! He explained that Britain had no primary interests in eastern Europe, areas that fell within Germany's sphere. To be dragged into a conflict not of Britain's making and not in defence of its vital interests would bedevil the Empire.

Lord Lothian was prepared to turn Central-Eastern Europe over to Germany; and Nancy Astor always supported Lothian on foreign pol­itics. Geoffrey Dawson also agreed with Lothian, reflected in the editorial in The Times that he wrote. Lionel Curtis was the only groupie with doubts. The term "Cliveden Set" was first used by the Sunday Reynolds News in 1937, arguing that the Cliveden-ites were sym­p­at­hetic to Fascism.

From May 1937, the new Prime Minister was Neville Chamb­er­lain. In Nov 1937, Chamberlain sent Lord Halifax to secretly meet Hit­ler, Goebbels and Goering in Germany. Lord Hal­if­ax told the Germans that much in the Nazi sys­tem profoundly offended British opinion, but he knew what Hit­ler had done for Germany, especially eliminating Communism. Re Danzig, Austria and Czech­osl­ov­akia, the British certainly had no desire to block reasonable settlements.

Anthony Eden, Earl Avon was a Conservative politician who ser­v­ed 3 terms as Foreign Secretary. When Eden resigned as Foreign Secret­ary in Feb 1938 and was replaced by Lord Halifax, left-wing newspapers argued that the appeasement coup had been organised by the Cliveden Set. The story spread to the USA. Nancy believed she was be­coming a victim of Jew­ish Communistic propaganda in both countr­ies!

Note that letters between Nancy Astor and Joseph P Kennedy (US Ambassador to Britain 1938-40)  showed her to be violently anti-Semitic, viewing the Nazis as a solution to the world’s prob­lems i.e Judaism and Commun­ism. And she accused the Foreign Office of being manipulated by Catholics, people she also loathed.

The Evening Standard reported Hitler was ready to offer Britain a 10-year truce. In return Hitler expected the British Government to leave him free in Central Europe. In The Week Cock­burn reported that the deal had been “first moulded in­to usable diplomatic shape at Cliveden”, and that Lord Halif­ax was the “representative of Cliveden”.

Amy Johnson, Charlie Chaplain, Nancy Astor, George Bernard-Shawat Cliveden

Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini and Ciano
after signing the Munich agreement, Sep 1938

On a U.S visit, Eden discovered the impact on public opinion about the Cliveden Set, perhaps created by articles in The Week. An anxious Eden told Stanley Bal­dwin that “Nancy Astor and her Cliveden Set has done much damage, and most of the US believed that the Tories were Fascists in disguise”. 

In spring 1937, Sir Vernon Kell head of MI6 complained that The Week was full of gross errors and was written from a left-wing perspective. And Kell was concerned about rep­orts in The Week about King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Chamberlain met Hitler in Berchtesgaden in Sept. Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia unless Britain supported Germany's plans to takeover the Sudetenland. After negotiating with Edouard Daladier (France) & Eduard Benes (Czech­os­lovakia), Chamberlain rejected Hitler’s prop­osals. But Hitler knew that Britain and France were unwilling to declare war and he thought it unlikely that Britain and France would unite with the unloved Soviet Union.

Mussolini and Hitler held a conference in Munich in late Sept 1938 between Germany, Britain, France and Italy. By excluding Czech­os­lovakia and the Soviet Union, they’d increase the possibility of signing the ag­reement. Chamberlain and Daladier agreed to losing Sudetenland and in return, Hitler prom­ised to make no further terr­itorial demands in Europe. The Munich Agreement was signed!

The Cliveden-ites were delighted with the Munich Agree­ment; Lord Lothian said Chamberlain had pulled off a masterly coup. Not all the community agreed.

In Oct 1938 Claud Cockburn reported in The Week that American hero Charles Lind­bergh spoke to the Cliveden Set, noting that the German air force could take on and single handedly defeat the Allied air fleets. Pravda denounced Lindbergh as a liar. I would have too.

Conclusion For the decade ending in 1939, the Cliveden Set was identified as a secret political group that manip­ulated British foreign policy, even neg­­otiating a dishon­our­able settlement with Nazi Germany. But was the Cliveden Set a trait­orous cabal or simply an influential right­wing think-tank? Not easily discerned in 2020, as you will see in the excellent Tweedland Blog.


Andrew said...

I will opt for the latter, an influential right wing think tank. Thank goodness for people like Cockburn and his like. There was a lavish 1980s tv series featuring her and I don't remember any of this bad stuff you mention. Sanitised or defective memory.

Deb said...

I am surprised. Everything written about Nancy Astor raved about her successful political career, generous hospitality and feisty behaviour. Not about her racist politics.

Hels said...


Yes, I do know that series: "Nancy Astor" (1982) produced by the BBC. The era was beautifully recreated, showing that the Astors were very lavish with their wealth, giving homes, land and money to Plymouth. Plus they well-spoken, hospitable, well dressed and politically astute.

Yet with all the contemporary writing about the Cliveden Set before WW2 started, how could the British tv industry not be more honest about Nancy Astor and her closest colleagues? Fear of legal consequences?

Hels said...


her achievement being the first woman ever to sit in Parliament, and for holding her seat for decades, can not be underestimated. She was a really important role model for other women who joined her in Parliament in the 1920s.

But what we read after the British victory in WW2 jumped straight from 1919, totally omitting those horrible years of negotiating with the Germans, lobbying British cabinet members re appeasement and writing editorials in influential British newspapers.

Mind you, lots of politicians and royals have had their alcoholism or sexual adventurism hermetically sealed from the public by newspapers and tv.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The British certainly did find out what kind of friends their pals the Nazi Germans turned out to be. And all of these machinations were based on hatred, not real political or economic interest.

A big conflict for architecture buffs like me is that many magnificent houses are built or inhabited by the worst kind of so-and-so's, like the novels and music that are similarly marred.

Hels said...


the British believed that being wealthy, belonging to the aristocracy, living in beautiful city and country estates, and being guided by Christian duty were the ultimate responsibilities in life. The fact that Cliveden House was one of the most beautiful stately homes in the country only confirmed the family's importance and their guests' importance.

But that importance did not exclude racism, anti-Semitism, pro-Fascism, anti-Catholicism etc. In fact the opposite! It was not a coincidence that Oswald Mosley, Charles Lind­bergh, Lord Lothian and others were warmly welcomed at Cliveden.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - it's an area of history I know little about ... so this has opened my eyes a little - lots to get to grips with though.

I know of Waldorf Astor's office on the Thames - Two Temple Place ... a truly magnificent place - beautiful woodwork, interiors, including stunning glass windows by Clayton + Bell ... when there's an exhibition on I take the opportunity of visiting - I just love the interiors. Initially I went for a Cornish artists' exhibition: Cornish Heroes ... sadly I missed the first one - on William Morris - they are usually free ... so love that! I written up about the house and the Cornish exhibition ...

Thanks for another informative post - showing me how little I know about that period of our history ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


thanks for the link to Two Temple Place on your blog and on Spitalfields Life. Two Temple Place/aka Astor House must have been glorious back in the day, but after the older Astor’s death in 1919, it was rented out to any commercial enterprise. We are therefore very lucky that it was preserved properly and opened by the Bulldog Trust just this decade.


bazza said...

Isn't it ironic that the Cliveden set behaved in exactly the way that they accused Jewish 'cabals' of behaving? That is to say, manipulating governments and media.
I have visited Cliveden, now a hotel, on business. It is more famous in the UK as the place where John Profumo met Christine Keeler.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s righteously rebarbative Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Remember the gorgeous teen Christine Keeler? She was already among Stephen Ward’s favourite guests at his Cliveden cottage. Nancy’s son Lord William Astor also hosted summer parties at Cliveden, including John Profumo, Tory Secretary of State for War. Profumo’s passion for Keeler forced his resignation and harmed the Prime Minister.

1961 was a different situation from that in the 1930s, but we can say that Cliveden changed British politics.. again!

mem said...

Lets face it they were racist bigoted and probably fascist but so were many of their day . It why examining history properly is so important . I am sure that some of these people would have had regrets about their attitudes just as some communists were pretty horrified and disillusioned bu the atrocities that Stalin perpetrated. Let just say that being bigoted in any direction is a dangerous path to tread .

Hels said...


The First World War was such a nightmare, I can imagine that thinking British people would respond with a range of responses in the interwar era - workers movements, socialism, pacifism, communism etc etc. The difference was that most organisations were explicit in their goals eg Oswald Mosley and his Fascists wore readily identifiable uniforms and symbols in their public street demonstrations.

That was never true for the Cliveden Set. Even now, there is no certainty about their true influence on Cabinet decisions pre-WW2.

Andrew said...

1982 was a long time ago now and I doubt such a production in 2020 would dare to omit such information.

Hels said...


it seems that the closer we approach British royalty and parliament, the more difficult it is for the average reader to be clear about dodgy dealings in the inter-war era. That doesn't mean that "Nancy Astor" 1982 wasn't very well created for tv .. but it does mean that academic journal articles need to be carefully peer reviewed.