Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Cloud in France on 27thJuly 1870, to a French father and an English mother. Less than two months after his birth, the French suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1871, revolution came to Paris followed by brutal suppression. A year later, Belloc’s father died. His mother returned to England, taking the young Hilaire with her. She unwisely invested her money with a fraudulent stock broker and much of the family fortune was lost. These dramatic events shaped Belloc’s life. He remained ever vigilant of German (‘Prussian’) territorial ambitions, fearful of revolution and distrustful of financial institutions.
The young Belloc grew up in Slindon in West Sussex (his mother being unable to afford to live in fashionable London). He was very attached to the South Downs landscape and even as a boy would walk for hours in the ‘high woods’ and enjoy looking out towards the English Channel. He also developed a deep affection for the Sussex country people: their customs, traditions, songs and dialect. In later life the urbanisation of Sussex greatly distressed him. In 1936 he wrote that it was now possible to hear the sound of motor traffic on Chanctonbury Ring and that the glorious peace of country life had been shattered.

The young Belloc was a brilliant scholar and gained a 1stclass honours degree from Balliol College, Oxford. He became President of the Oxford Union and was renowned as a gifted orator and debater. In 1896 he married an American, Elodie Hogan. He had met her some years earlier in London when she was visiting England with her mother. Belloc travelled to America to gain her hand in marriage, making his own way across the continent to her home in California. The journey – much of which was taken on foot – took many weeks and demonstrated not just his love for Elodie but also his determination to overcome all obstacles, no matter how great.

By 1906, Belloc was living at Kings Land in Shipley in West Sussex, which would be his home for the rest of his life. He was an established and well respected writer and journalist, with five children to support. By this time he had marked himself out as a controversial and fearless campaigner. He was a Liberal MP, although a very unorthodox one. At times he appeared very radical and aligned himself to the left of British politics, with, for example, his opposition to the Boer War and his support for Irish Home Rule. At other times he seemed deeply conservative and reactionary, as when opposing extending voting rights to women, or in his opposition to the introduction of National Insurance.

There were two elections in 1910, Belloc successfully contested the first one but declined to fight the second. He had come to the conclusion that the political system was hopelessly corrupt and beyond reform. On leaving the House of Commons, he said he was pleased to have quit the ‘dirtiest company’ it had ever been his misfortune to keep. In 1912 he published ‘The Servile State’, in which he set out his political philosophy. Belloc would advocate neither capitalism nor socialism, but a third way that he termed Distributism, that was based on the equitable division of land. In short, Belloc argued, a man could not be truly free unless he owned enough land to feed himself and his family. Underpinning all his political opinions was his Roman Catholic faith and his belief that political problems required a theological rather than an ideological solution.

Together with Cecil Chesteron (brother of Belloc’s lifelong friend, G.K.Chesterton), Belloc edited the New Witness magazine.  In 1912, the magazine broke the story of the Marconi scandal, which implicated senior government ministers in the corrupt purchase of shares and insider trading. The scandal nearly brought down the government and tarnished the reputations of several leading politicians, including David Lloyd George.

In March 1913, while driving from his home at Shipley to visit his mother at Slindon, Belloc passed one of the favourite beauty spots of his youth – Halnaker Hill. He was distraught to see that the windmill that had been its crowning glory had been blown down in a storm.  He shortly afterwards wrote the poem Ha’naker  Mill, which reads like a premonition of disaster:-

 

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation
Spirits that loved her calling aloud:
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.

 

Spirits that call and no one answers;
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers
And never a ploughman under the Sun.
Never a ploughman. Never a one.

 

Disaster did indeed follow. England was soon to be engulfed in the First World War and the young men of Europe slaughtered in their hundreds of thousands on the battle fields of France and Belgium. The poem also suggests that the rural life that Belloc had known as a boy could not survive in the new world that was coming. More than this, Belloc also suffered personal loss: his wife died later in 1913, and his eldest son was killed in action in 1918.

Belloc was at his most prolific during the 1920s. He wrote book on many subjects, including histories and novels. He also wrote biographies and theological works. He became embroiled in a number of long-standing disputations. In response to H.G.Well’s ‘Outline of History’, Belloc sought to put a very different case to Wells, who had argued in favour of scientific progress leading mankind to a bright new future. Belloc rejected Wells’ contention, even pouring scorn on the theory of evolution. Wells thought that religion had become redundant and was a belief system best left in the past. Belloc begged to differ and argued that Christianity rather than ‘scientific socialism’ could answer the problems that confronted the human race.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Belloc continued to argue that the world and the English in particular, were sleep walking into a new dark age. He warned that free-born Englishmen risked becoming the slaves of the bankers and the financial system. Christianity may decline but other religions would not. Belloc was regarded as rather ridiculous when he warned that the West risked at its peril  “the burning flame of Islam”, that might well rise up in the future to challenge western values. For Belloc, of course, these were the values of “The Faith” not of the consumer capitalism that emerged in the years after his death.

The Second World War saw the fall of France to Nazi Germany in 1940. The surrender of France followed by the collaboration of French politicians and generals with the Nazis, stunned Belloc and he never recovered from the shock. The loss of his second son shortly afterwards led to a collapse in Belloc’s health. He suffered a number of strokes and although he did not die until 1953, the last years of his life were lived in a twilight world. He is buried at West Grinstead in West Sussex. But even in his dotage, Belloc retained both his humour and his courteous manner.

Copyright Chris Hare