Henry Lucy by ‘Spy’
Henry Lucy was one of the most famous English political journalists of the Victorian era. He was both a serious commentator of parliamentary affairs and an accomplished humourist and parliamentary sketch-writer, acknowledged as the first great lobby correspondent. And he lived in Hythe – or at least weekended there.
Henry was born in Crosby, near Liverpool on 5 December 1842, the son of Robert Lucy, a rose-engine turner in the watch trade, and his wife, Margaret Ellen nee Kemp. He was baptized William Henry at St. Michael’s Church and the family moved to Everton, Liverpool soon afterwards. His mother taught him to read by the age of four and then he attended the private Crescent School until he was twelve. His first job was as junior clerk to Robert Smith, a hide merchant. In his spare time, he wrote poetry for the Liverpool Mercury and went to night school to learn Pitman’s shorthand.
It paid off and in 1864 he was appointed chief reporter on the Shrewsbury Chronicle, but also supplied ‘penny-a-liners’ of Shropshire news for London newspapers.
Then, in 1869, he took his life savings of £200 and went to live in Paris to learn French.
On his return, he became a reporter for the Pall Mall Gazette, who immediately took advantage of his knowledge of French and sent him on a mission to Belgium. In 1873 he was despatched to report on the enquiry into the wreck of the Northfleet, an emigrant ship which in January, while riding at anchor off Dungeness, had been run down by a large steamer which then proceeded on her way. The enquiry was split between Dover and Lydd and providentially the drive between the two towns took him through Hythe, which charmed him with its ‘old-fashioned roofs and house fronts dating back beyond Stuart times’.
In October that year, he married Emily Anne White, the daughter of his old schoolmaster, and they started to visit the town for holidays.
Emily Lucy as a young woman Photo: C. Melchers
At this stage, his career began to take off. He was Parliamentary reporter for the Daily News from 1873, took a trip to Canada in 1878 to report on a Royal visit and became Parliamentary sketch writer for Punch from 1881. Used the nom-de-plume ‘Toby, M.P.’ he wrote the weekly column ‘The Essence of Parliament’ for the next thirty-five years. In 1880, he also began writing for The Observer the ‘Cross Bench’ column, which continued for twenty-nine years
In August 1883 he and Emily bought from St John’s Hospital in Hythe a plot of land between North Road and Hillside Street in the town. (1). They paid £150 for it. (2) He wrote to his solicitor that he was thinking of asking Frederick Porter to design his house and asked for his address – it was Moyle Tower on the seafront in Hythe. (3)
The deeds to the house were destroyed during the second World War, so we don’t know if Frederick Porter obliged, but while Henry and Emily took a round-the world journey, the house took shape: ‘rock-built, red-tiled Whitethorn, where roses grow beyond compare, and through late spring nights the nightingale sings’. (4)
The Lucys’ ‘weekend cottage’, Whitethorn… Photo: C. Melchers
…and with its roses beyond compare Photo: C. Melchers
The gardens were larger than at present and abutted the gardens of the Commandant of the School of Musketry. He and Henry were able to chat companionably over the garden wall.
Henry and Emily moved their furniture into the house in September 1884 though they maintained their London home at 42 Ashley Gardens
Henry loved Hythe and wrote fondly of it, though he was less impressed by the increasing number of ‘excursionists’. He appreciated the slow pace of life there. He wrote of the bathing establishment:
‘…regularly at the end of September the pump gets out of order, and the new year is far advanced before the solitary plumber of the place gets it put right. He begins to walk dreamily round the place at Easter. At Whitsuntide he brings down an iron vessel containing unmelted solder, and early in July the pump is mended. The mending of the pump is one of the epochs of Hythe, a sure harbinger of the approaching season.’ (5)
In 1886, Henry became editor of the Daily News, a short-lived post. He was busy compiling permanent records of his Punch parliamentary sketches, A Diary of Two Parliaments (2 vols., 1885–6); A Diary of the Salisbury Parliament, 1886–1892; A Diary of the Home Rule Parliament, 1892–1895; A Diary of the Unionist Parliament, 1895–1900 ; and The Balfourian Parliament, 1900–1905. These amount to a history of the Commons in its heyday, and have been extensively mined by historians.
Henry was also a long-time friend of Ernest Shackleton and raised funds for his expedition to the South Pole by using his influence to obtain a financial grant from Parliament. As a gesture of thanks, Shackleton named a mountain in Antarctica for him, Mount Henry Lucy.
Henry was knighted in 1909 and he and Emily (now Lady Lucy) received over two hundred telegrams of congratulation from the great and the good. They included politicians, ambassadors, editors, actors, and bishops. One who wrote a letter was Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a hugely successful actor-manager
Sir Henry and Lady Lucy later in life Photos: C. Melchers
The title was perhaps only what he felt to be his due, as he believed that his father should have inherited the Lucy baronetcy together with the family estate at Charlcote, Warwickshire. He said that his father had lost touch with the titled family and on the death of one of them with no sons it went to a cousin who was more distant than his father. He said, though, that he was not bitter.
Henry died of bronchitis at Whitethorn, on 20 February 1924, aged eighty-one and was buried quietly in Saltwood. Whitethorn was in the parish of Saltwood and Emily had worshipped at the parish church there, rather than the closer St Leonard’s in Hythe. Henry, meanwhile, walked one of their succession of dogs on Sunday mornings.
His obituaries were mostly flattering, even reverent. The Times wrote: ‘Never in the House, but always of it, Lucy seemed to occupy for a long time a position of his own, as a species of familiar spirit or licensed jester, without which no Parliament was complete.’
But he was rich and famous and therefore bound to have his detractors. Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist wrote spitefully, ‘I knew Lucy very well – a little toadie, who afterwards toadied himself into a title.’
Henry left a huge sum of money, over a quarter of a million pounds, and was probably the wealthiest Victorian journalist who was not also a newspaper proprietor. In his will he endowed a ‘Sir William Henry Lucy Bed’ at Shrewsbury’s Royal Salop Infirmary ‘in memory of his pleasant connection with Shrewsbury’ as a journalist. In December 1924, Lady Lucy got permission from Hythe Town Council to plant an avenue of cypress trees from the Cricket Ground to South Road in Hythe and to erect a commemorative tablet. The avenue was to be known as ‘Lucy’s Walk’. She also endowed a Lad’s Club in Saltwood, which still stands and is in regular use today, not far from the churchyard where Henry is buried. .
Emily continued to use Whitethorn and in 1935, she donated £1,000 to found the Sir Henry Lucy Scholarship at Merchant Taylors’ School, Crosby. She and Henry had no children of their own. She died in Hythe in 1937.
Emily in old age in her garden at Whitethorn Photo: C. Melchers
In 1948 the orchard adjoining Whitethorn was sold for building and with it the main entrance gate in North Road, bearing the house name. The new building thus became ‘Whitethorn’ and the old house ‘Lucy’s’, and the steep lane next to it, ‘Lucy’s Hill’, though in all probability, that is what the locals had always called them.
A caricature of Henry Lucy, by Kate Carew
With thanks to Chris Melchers for additional information
- Kent Archives: EK2008/2 111(1-12)
- Kent Archives: EK 2008/2/Book 13
- Kent Archives: EK2008/2/112.
- Henry W. Lucy Sixty Years in the Wilderness, London, Smith Elder, 1911, p84
- Henry W. Lucy Faces and Places, London: Henry & Co, 1892, p. 7