The Newnham College graduate who made the case for nationalising the Bank of England

…and it was one of her friends from Cambridge who delivered her policy just after the Second World War.

I stumbled across Amber Reeves – later Amber Blanco White almost by accident. It was in the process of writing my last blogpost on ‘new old books‘ – i.e. old books that I’ve bought second hand. Or more given the age of the books!

Amber’s name came up as the author of a book called The New Propaganda, of which numerous copies are available on AbeBooks. The reason why her name stood out was simply gender – women writing about politics and current affairs in those days were far less frequent than today. Given the huge barriers that women had to overcome to become prominent writers in this field, it meant from my perspective Amber had to be someone who was worth finding out more about when compared with unknown [to me] male writers of the same era.

Amber Reeves – later Mrs Amber Blanco White, a photograph from numerous sites, none of which seem to state where it came from!

So accordingly, I’ve gone and bought a book containing what I hope are some more interesting details about Amber – including this one about six Newnham College graduates which features a piece by Margaret Drabble on Amber. Ms Drabble wrote this very interesting piece on Amber back in 2005, citing Sally Alexander’s entry for Amber in the Dictionary of National Biography. For those of you who can access it, the link is here. One of the reasons why I bought a remote membership subscription to the private London Library is that it gives me access to nearly all of the databases and digital archives that normally come with university membership. So I’ve been able to access that article amongst many others.

Amber Reeves and H.G.Wells

One of the frequent returns in any search online for Amber is her relationship with the then married author Herbert George Wells. Others have written far more about this without me needing to add to it. I watched far too many episodes of the Jerry Springer Show in the late 1990s to respond to the otherwise tales of scandal and woe of the time with anything other than a shrug of the shoulders. After all, given that one of the people Amber got to know around the same time was a young poet called Rupert Brooke. This also meant she got to know another young chap with left-wing leanings, and his name was Hugh Dalton – remember him?

Amber as Mrs Blanco White

Around the time she gave birth, she married the barrister George Rivers Blanco White QC, according to Amber something that was arranged between the two men, and something that seemed to work out for all concerned. If you’re interested in what Beatrice Webb made of all of this, read on from the foot of p556 here – her diaries digitised by the LSE.

Amber at Newnham College – and Dr Keynes

In the grand scheme of things, Dr John Neville Keynes (Florence’s husband and Maynard’s father) has only really played a bit-part in the #LostCambridge story. Outside of immediate family, Amber is one of the few people where Dr Keynes is credited as being a big influence on any of the women that I have featured in this blog.

When Amber left Cambridge (which she ‘adored’) in 1908 her tutors—who included ‘old Dr Keynes’, father of Maynard, who had taught her logic and for whom she never made a single mistake—provided references which described her as a ‘clear and vigorous thinker [who] can express herself with admirable force and directness’ (J. N. Keynes, Blanco White MSS)

Sally Alexander on Amber Blanco White, in Dictionary of National Biography –

Although Amber only spent three years in Cambridge, one of the societies that she co-founded would go on to be influential in early 20th Century Cambridge, instrumental in the formative years of not just Hugh Dalton and Rupert Brooke, but also Dame Leah Manning, the Cambridge head teacher from Homerton College who later went onto become President of the National Union of Teachers and MP for Islington East (1931) and then Epping (1945-50).

Amber the civil servant

Shortly after the birth of her third child – her second with her husband in 1914, Amber started working for the Admiralty at a time when women working in the civil service was very rare. One other Cambridge figure who also made her way down to London to work for the civil service was a young Margaret Darwin – daughter of Sir George and Lady Maud Darwin. In her memoirs about life at Newnham Grange, Margaret recalled how she was recruited as a translator by Admiral Sir Percy Scott (I think it was him but will need to double-check the reference) who was paying a social visit to her mother Maud – who at the time was busy organising what would become the nucleus of the first group of women police officers in Cambridge. Margaret would work in the unit that cracked the Zimmerman Telegram that brought the USA into the war. After the war, Margaret married the son of Dr Keynes, Geoffrey – the surgeon and pioneer of the modern blood transfusion, for which he was knighted.

Sally Alexander then writes of how at Winston Churchill’s request, Amber moved to the Ministry of Munitions before joining the National Civil Service Whitley Council, which negotiated wages, terms and conditions for staff across entire industries. The main advantage of this system is that for a very large group of people undertaking broadly similar functions, you have one group (the recognised trade unions) representing the workers, and the employer represented by senior managers suitably qualified and experienced. Instead of repeating the meetings in different offices all over the country, costing time and money, the outcome of one set of negotiations covers the whole industry.

MPs demand Amber’s removal from the civil service. The men win.

With a grim inevitability, Amber was forced out of the civil service in a coup by MPs lobbying the minister concerned. The source from Amber’s WikiP page appears to quote Ruth Fry’s biography of Amber, but it hasn’t been fully referenced so I’m awaiting a new old copy of that biography to confirm that source. And that was the end of Amber’s civil service career – on the excuse that Amber was depriving a splendid chap of a job. What they were probably too ignorant to realise was that it was their own Government’s policy of spending cuts, along with exhortations to the public to save rather than spend that was leaving too many former soldiers destitute. What made things worse from a local perspective was that the minister responsible for wielding the axe was Sir Eric Geddes, a Conservative who was parachuted in unopposed as the MP for the Borough of Cambridge. Shortly after wielding the axe, Geddes rubbed everyone’s faces in it by quitting politics shortly after to become a director of the rubber and tyre firm Dunlop, and then becoming chairman of Imperial Airways. This also led to a by-election in Cambridge, which would be only the second time in its history that Labour stood a candidate for Parliament in the borough. Their candidate? Dr Hugh Dalton.

Amber the author, teacher, and Labour Party candidate

Amber joins the ranks of women who are long overdue a substantive biography. Her personal papers from her civil service days are at the University of Leeds and are available to access. She also stood for parliament along with her husband – both unsuccessfully. In Amber’s case she stood in the then safe-as-castles Tory-held seat of Hendon in 1931 and 1935…and didn’t stand a chance. Yet the British Newspaper Archive online comes up with over 1,000 articles returned from a search for “Mrs Blanco White” between 1900-49. So there’s a study waiting to be done on the newspaper coverage Amber received as a politician, mindful that when Ruth Fry wrote her biography of Amber and her mother Maude in 1992, she did not have access to key word searches of newspapers of the day.

Amber wrote a number of books, both fiction and also public policy pieces. One of her most significant contributions was a commission from the New Statesman (founded by Sidney & Beatrice Webb) into economic and financial policy in the early 1930s. It culminated in her book titled The Nationalisation of Banking in 1934 (digitised for borrowing on the Internet Archive). What’s striking is that just over a decade later, Dr Hugh Dalton – an economist in his own right would go ahead and nationalise the most significant bank of them all – the Bank of England. By that time he had become Chancellor of the Exchequer under Clement Attlee’s radical Labour Government of 1945. Prior to that, Dalton had served as President of the Board of Trade, and Minister for Economic Warfare in Churchill’s wartime coalition. I would find it astonishing if Amber and Hugh had not discussed economic policy – in particular policy on banking in the aftermath of the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

One for an early career researcher to take forward?

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