Descended from a Frankfurt Jewish family that had settled in London early in the 19th century, Henry De Worms was educated at King’s College London. Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1863, he was elected Conservative member of Parliament for Greenwich in 1880, and from 1885 sat for the East Toxteth division of Liverpool until his elevation to the peerage as first Baron Pirbright a decade later.
Earlier, in 1868, he had unsuccessfully contested the Sandwich seat in the Conservative interest, thereby attracting disapproval from the Jewish community, which generally supported the Liberals because the Conservatives had at one time opposed the abolition of the “civil disabilities” to which Jews were subject.
Urbane and well-read, De Worms was not only immensely rich but was also an accomplished linguist, a fellow of the Royal Society and author of such scholarly works as The Earth and its Magnetism (1862), The Austro-Hungarian Empire (1870) and England’s Policy in the East (1877). He argued passionately for the provision of healthy dwellings for the poor, the removal of ignorance among the populace at large with regard to sanitation, and good education to enable intelligent and hardworking citizens to better themselves and their families. To further these aims, he caused model dwellings and other facilities to be created at Pirbright in Surrey, the place from which he took his title. He was also active in drawing attention to the plight of Jews in the Russian Empire and in Romania.
This book’s author, James Grimshaw, has lived in Pirbright since his retirement from Queen’s University Belfast, where he held the chair in chemistry. The ever-present evidence of De Worms’ impact on that part of Surrey prompted his first foray into biography, a venture he has described as “not so different from writing scientific papers”. He has certainly done a thorough job recording the life and work of a remarkable man whose daughter, Alice, “married out” of the Jewish faith: De Worms’ attendance at her church wedding forced his resignation from the Anglo-Jewish Association. He grew increasingly bitter at his exclusion from inner circles of Anglo-Jewish gentry, even leaving instructions that he was to be interred in a Christian burial ground, which duly took place at St Mark’s, Wyke, Surrey.
Grimshaw has been through almost every imaginable source to construct this splendid piece of detective work, and his publishers have done him proud, with a handsome production – decently illustrated, impeccably annotated, furnished with genealogical tables and appropriately indexed.
There are one or two minor quibbles: Kaiserin (from 1854) Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary spelled her name with an “s” rather than a “z”; Pietro Antonio Domenico Bonaventura Metastasio (1698-1782) is spelled thus, not “Metsatasio”; and the Kärntnerstrasse has an “n” between its first “r” and first “t”. These are blemishes that ought to have been picked up. There is also a slight problem in that instead of constructing a continuous chronological narrative, Grimshaw tends to hop backwards after he ends one chapter, which is mildly disconcerting.
However, complex issues of the day, not least those of caste and religion, are handled with tactful sensitivity, and, all told, this is an admirable, impeccably researched Life and Works of an extraordinarily accomplished man, put together in a thorough and well-designed volume, cleanly printed in London (praise be!) and attractively presented.
An Intelligent Tory: Henry Worms, Lord Pirbright (1840-1903)
By James Grimshaw
Book Guild, 224pp, £16.99
Published 30 October 2014