British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by John Gullick
The Jester
Arthur Frederick Richards
1st Baron Milverton
I write this in tribute to Lady Milverton who passed away recently (see obituary below). The incidental reference to her husband recalls my encounters with a man who was still remembered for his wit when I reached Malaya (in 1945) long after he had departed to a sequence of governorships.

I first heard of MIlverton from Adolphe Jomaron, an older colleague, who told me how years before he had been an Assistant Secretary in the branch of the Secretariat headed by Arthur Richards (as he then was) as Financial Secretary. The General Manager of the Railway wrote in to ask for a supplementary vote to cover the cost of safety measures that had unexpectedly been found necessary. Unless the money was provided he could not be responsible for the safe operation of the railway. Jomaron minuted: 'F.S. We are being blackmailed', but Richards approved the expenditure without comment. It then occurred to Jomaron, a nice chap but not very bright, that he could save writing a letter by minuting the file to the railway headquarters to note that approval had been given. Thus it was that the GMR saw the comment about blackmail. He was incandescent with rage and wrote to Richards demanding that this insolent underling be beaten with whips or scorpions or whatever other instruments might be specified for the purpose in General Orders.

Richards minuted: 'Mr Jomaron, you have been guilty of the four most heinous offences that a Secretariat officer can commit. 1. You have made an offensive remark about a head of department. 2. You have done this on an open file. 3. You have allowed the head of department to see it. 4. It is completely true.'

I first saw Milverton (as he had become) when I attended the Second Devonshire Course in 1948. Before we dispersed to various universities the whole course gathered in Cambridge to discuss some matters of common interest. Some men had brought their wives to Cambridge and an invitation was extended to the ladies to come to the discussions and take part if they wished. Milverton was in the chair at the session on improved teaching of languages. An earnest young wife rose to argue that arrangements for teaching languages should include wives. Milverton turned an owlish but benign countenance upon her. 'Madam. I do sympathise. It is so trying when a lady cannot speak her mind.'

When he retired Milverton became a director (a very useful one) of some companies with colonial interests. One of these was a member of a group owning rubber estates in Malaya, for which a leading agency house acted as London secretaries. I was then in its employment and acted as secretary at a meeting of the Board of which Milverton was a member. The chairman of this Board, as of most others in the group, was a forceful businessman who had made many millions for his shareholders and a tidy fortune for himself in a City career that was not without controversy. We came to one of those items which get into an agenda without too much thought. The subject could not come to a decision for many years if ever. The chairman, mindful that if the meeting finished before lunch he could play a round of golf in the afternoon, said 'I don't think we need spend time on this - it won't come to anything in our lifetime.' Milverton chimed in with 'I look forward to discussing it with you down below. Sir John.' There was an awful hush while the pillar of respectability at the head of the table, an elder of the kirk in his home town, decided whether even in jest he would contemplate going to Hell. But in the end he just passed on to the next item of business.

A few years later the chairman died and I was walking along a Kensington pavement to the church where the memorial service was to be held. I met Milverton heading for the same destination. As we walked we agreed that whoever was to deliver the customary tribute would have, like Agag in the book of Samuel, to 'come delicately' to his subject. The three children of the deceased had declined and so it fell to the clergyman to speak of him. At the end we rose to go and Milverton commented that the reverend had done rather well, speaking of various Christian virtues and of the career of the deceased, but never touching on both themes in the same sentence.

It is not always easy to laugh at a joke when you are the butt, but anyone who can lighten the tedium of working in a secretariat gets my vote.

The Jester
Lady Milverton
At the remarkable age of 105 Lady Milverton died on 11 September 2010.

Benda Whitehead, beautiful daughter of an eccentric Colonial Police Officer in Malaya, was wooed by Arthur Richards, then a senior officer in the Secretariat. When Whitehead violently opposed their match Richards continued to pursue her. They eloped and married without his consent. He rose to be Governor of North Borneo, Gambia, Fiji, Jamaica and finally Nigeria where 1 met them on the gubernatorial yacht at Onitsha in 1945.

1 was really too junior to be invited but we had met at a jumble sale I was running for the Win The War Fund. Sir Arthur must have decided 1 deserved a reward and summoned me to the party on board. We had a long talk about books. Two years later I was summoned again to be his ADC - much against my will as I was essentially a Bush officer.

I found Lady Richards the archetypal Governor's wife, gracious and devoted to the support of her husband. She was also still a beautiful woman. Life for me was far from easy. Sir Arthur required few hours sleep and was very demanding. At table he could be rude to the point of cruelty with those like Mrs Creech Jones, the Colonial Secretary's wife who was a guest and whose views he decried. It was embarrassing and distressing for his wife. She kept loyally mum.

We met again after retirement. 1 was a volunteer manager of the Country Houses Association which had rented Flete from the Mildmays. Lady Benda came late for lunch, and seeing me there paused dramatically at the entrance and exclaimed "My God! My past is catching up with me." After that we had much to talk about - not just old times. She led a very active and worthwhile retirement, painting, playing her beloved piano, buzzing about the country in her little car - and also sunbathing starkers on the sheltered balcony of her apartment. She was an inveterate traveller, a great character and a good companion.

1 happened to be there when she received a copy of Old Sinister, Dick Peel's biography of Lord Milverton, and also when the nickname was given by the young men in the Secretariat. She was distressed. I hastened to assure her that it was a term of affection! It was a comfort but I do not suppose she quite believed me.

Her lifelong support of the Red Cross from its foundation in 1921 was rewarded in 2004 when she was 100 and guest of honour at the Devon Festival of Remembrance. She continued to collect until the year of her death. Even that occurred by accident. She had always eschewed the lift and eventually fell on the stairs.

She was for many years a member of our Association and truly a great lady.

Frank Bex

British Colony Map
Map of Colonial Malaya
Colony Profile
Malaya Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 102: October 2011
Obituary in OSPA Journal 101: April 2011


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