What honour did a former Heaton schoolboy share with composer Sir William Walton, dancer Dame Margot Fonteyn, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell, writer and broadcaster Sir Alistair Cook, actor Dame Judi Dench, naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Ive, chief designer of Apple? We’ll come to the answer later but first of all, let’s go back to the early life of Esmond Wright.
Esmond Wright senior, an armature winder, and his wife, Isabella, were living in a Tyneside flat at 5 Amble Grove in what we now call Sandyford but which was then in the Heaton municipal electoral ward when, in 1915, they had their first child. They named him after his father, as many parents did.
Aged 11, young Esmond went to Heaton Secondary School for Boys, where he excelled. He then won a scholarship to read history at Armstrong College in Newcastle and graduated in 1938 from what had, by then, become Kings College, a constituent college of the University of Durham, also winning the Gladstone Memorial Prize. Coincidentally or perhaps a testament to the quality of history teaching at Heaton Secondary Schools, another distinguished Heatonian, Elsie Hume (later Tu) had graduated in History and English from the same institution just a year earlier.
After graduating, Esmond made the most of an opportunity which was to shape his future career. He was awarded a two year fellowship to enable him to continue his studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which had been founded by Thomas Jefferson and was now considered to be one of the top academic institutions in the USA.
Esmond fell in love with America and quickly made his mark on it. In 1939, he was awarded the University of Virginia’s John White Stevenson Fund Prize in Political Science. (Stevenson was a nineteenth century Virginia-born governor of Kentucky, who represented the state in both houses of Congress).
Much closer to home, his article entitled ‘American Politics in the Roosevelt era‘ appeared in the Summer 1939 issue of C A Parsons’ ‘Heaton Works Journal’, an in-house magazine for the company’s staff. Little did Esmond know when he wrote it that, just a year later, he would witness in person a speech of Roosevelt’s at a key point in the growing tensions that, in summer 1939, were still to escalate into a global conflict.
The following year, Esmond won the American History Prize, offered annually by the Virginia Society of the Cincinnati. (The Society of the Cincinnati, the USA’s ‘oldest patriotic organization’ was ‘founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army who served together in the American Revolution. Its mission is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence and to foster fellowship among its members’). The prize was a bronze medal and 100 dollars.
This achievement along with the news that Esmond had been appointed to the board of directors of ‘The Virginia Spectator’, a monthly magazine published by the university was proudly announced by the ‘Newcastle Evening Chronicle’ under the heading ‘Newcastle Man’s Success in USA’.
10 June 1940 was both a high point and a low point for Esmond Wright. President Franklin D Roosevelt was already due to address that year’s graduating students, a cohort which included his own son, when it became known that Italy had declared war on Britain and France. The address was hastily rewritten during Roosevelt‘s train journey to Charlottesville into the USA’s major political response to Mussolini’s act of war, which became known as the ‘hand which held the dagger’ or ‘stab in the back’ speech.The occasion was charged with emotion and the speech, in which Roosevelt’s anger was never far from the surface marked a turning point in US foreign policy: from then on there would be all-out aid to the democracies and an unprecedented build-up in America’s military preparedness. It must have been an incredible experience to have been introduced to the president on such a momentous occasion. Wright’s fascination with US history and politics never left him – and nor did his love of Virginia, in particular.
But Wright’s sojourn in the USA was at an end and when he returned home it was to join the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry Intelligence Corps where he served in South Africa and the Middle East and quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Below is a summary of his war service in Wright’s own handwriting.
In 1945, with the war drawing to a close, Wright was finally able to marry 27 year old Olive Adamson of Sunderland. (Their wedding service was officiated by the Reverend Herbert Barnes, late of Heaton.) Olive had been a fellow historian at King’s College who had graduated with a First. She, like her husband previously, had won the Gladstone Memorial Prize in Modern History before going on to teach at Ulverston Grammar School and then her old school, Bede School for Girls. The couple were to be together for nearly 60 years.
After demobilisation, the Wrights moved north to Scotland where Esmond took up an appointment as a lecturer in the history department at Glasgow University. As well was teaching and research, a major part of his role was to facilitate graduate student exchanges between the UK and the USA. His work enabled huge numbers of young people to benefit from these, just as he had done on graduation from Kings College.
We know too that he also gave adult evening lectures in current affairs, on such subjects as ‘The Russian Attitude’, ‘America and the Dollar Problem’, ‘Conditions in Germany’ and ‘Life in Palestine Today’. By 1957 Wright had been appointed to the post of Professor of Modern History, the first American history specialist to be appointed to a general chair of history at a British university. During his tenure as a professor, he wrote several books on his specialist subject including
- Washington and the American Revolution, 1957.
- Benjamin Franklin and American Independence, 1966.
Alongside his teaching and writing, Wright was also becoming known to the wider public, especially in Scotland, where he presented current affairs programmes on both radio and television, programmes such as ‘This Day and Age’, where he was introduced as a ‘noted historian’.
But to the surprise of many, his time at Glasgow University came to a sudden end in 1967.
In December 1966, Alex Garrow the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollock died at the age of only 43. To the surprise of many, Esmond Wright was announced as the Conservative candidate to fight the resulting by-election. The campaign was complicated by the decision of the SNP to field a candidate for the first time, drawing votes from both main parties but especially Labour. Perhaps helped by his media profile but to his surprise, as well as that of others, and despite his stated lack of political ambition, Wright was the victor with a majority of just over 2,000. His parliamentary career did not last long, however. Labour regained the seat at the 1970 General Election. Nevertheless Wright continued to be involved in politics, becoming Deputy Chairman of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland and Principal of the Swinton Conservative Party College, a national, residential centre of education for party workers, based near Masham, Yorkshire.
Return to Academia
After his electoral defeat, Wright was free to return to academic life. He became Director of the Institute of US Studies and Professor of American History at London University and retained his links with Scotland as Visiting Professor in the Department of Economic History at Strathclyde University.
During this period, his writing career really took off, with many published works on American history and politics including,
- Benjamin Franklin; a profile, 1970.
- A Tug of loyalties : Anglo-American relations, 1765–85, 1975.
- Red, white and true blue : the loyalists in the Revolution by Conference on the American Loyalists, 1976.
- Franklin of Philadelphia, 1986.
- Benjamin Franklin: his life as he wrote it by Benjamin Franklin 1989.
- The search for liberty: from origins to independence, 1994.
- An empire for liberty: from Washington to Lincoln, 1995.
- The American Dream: From Reconstruction to Reagan, 1996
He also found time to write several world histories for a general audience and he continued to appear on television on radio both north and south of the border.
Incidentally, the dedication in Wright’s 1986 biography of Franklin recognised the contribution of his wife, Olive.
‘To my beautiful wife who devoted herself to these studies for so many years’.
Outside higher education and politics, Wright had many other interests. In the private sector:
- he was a Director of George Outram & Co, the publisher and printer of The Glasgow Herald, The Bulletin, The Evening Times and a number of weekly periodicals.
- despite not being a driver or owning a car himself, he was associated with the Automobile Association for over 30 years, as Vice Chairman, Honorary Treasurer and Vice President.
- he was associated with Border TV, as first Vice Chairman and then Chairman.
He also served on the British National Commission for UNESCO.
But it was an accolade in 1986 which Wright considered the high point of his professional career and to which the teaser that opened this article refers. His fascination with Benjamin Franklin, scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor and Founding Father of the United States, had led to him producing a number of works, culminating in ‘Franklin Of Philadelphia’ (1986), a ‘substantial, beautifully written biography’.
He was also a Governor of ‘Friends of Benjamin Franklin Ltd’ , a group which was striving to open a Benjamin Franklin Museum at 36 Craven Street, London, Franklin’s former home. (The museum finally opened to the public on 17 January 2006, the 300th anniversary of Franklin’s birth and three years after the death of Wright.)
Imagine then his thrill at the importance of his life’s work being recognised and also his being elevated into the illustrious company of people like Sir William Walton, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Harold Macmillan, Sir Bernard Lovell and Sir Alistair Cook – Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough and Newcastle Polytechnic graduate Jonathan Ive came later – by his winning a major prize named after Franklin himself, the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)’s Benjamin Franklin Medal. The prestigious award is conferred on individuals, groups, and organisations who have made profound efforts to forward Anglo-American understanding in areas closely linked to the RSA’s agenda. It is also awarded to recognise those that have made a significant contribution to global affairs through co-operation and collaboration between the United Kingdom and the United States. The citation referred to Wright’s ‘prodigious and persistent contribution to the promotion of Anglo-American understanding’. it also congratulated him on ‘his biography of Benjamin Franklin “Franklin of Philadelphia” which has received wide acclaim in this country and America’. He was presented with the medal, with his wife Olive seated next to him, by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Professor Esmond Wright died, aged 87, on 9 August 2003 in Masham, North Yorkshire where he and Olive lived in what could scarcely be called retirement – Wright was writing and being published well into his eighties. Although he had travelled widely and lived in the USA, Scotland and Yorkshire, many of Wright’s obituary writers refer to his lovely voice and charm. ‘The Times’ said he was ‘Blessed with a pleasant melodious voice’; ‘The Independent’ wrote ‘behind his Oxbridge manner, there lurked something like a Northumbrian intonation in his voice that struck a note of warmth, informality and dry humour, which his students always greatly appreciated and his friends will miss.’ In the opinion of ‘The Guardian’, he had ‘a wonderfully relaxed, informal manner and an effortless personal charm which made it almost impossible to have an argument with him, or to persist in any kind of grievance’. Perhaps we can put both his dulcet tones and his geniality at least in part down to his Heaton roots.
Researched and written by Arthur Andrews, Heaton History Group. Thank you to the Royal Society of Arts (RSA); Maurice Large, Unitarian Church Leader; Susan Cunliffe-Lister of Swinton Park and Masham and Newcastle University libraries for their help.
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British Newspaper Archive
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Guardian, Independent and Times obituaries of Esmond Wright
Who’s Who 2000
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