18 November 2022
How Sir Herbert Leon
saved a tram line and
built Bletchley Park
I was writing earlier this week about Napoleon’s great-nephew, ‘Prince’ Louis Clovis Bonaparte (1859-1894) was the managing director of the Stony Stratford to Wolverton Steam Tramways Company. But the man who was singularly responsible for saving the tram line was Sir Herbert Samuel Leon (1850-1926), the stockbroker, financier and Liberal politician who is best remembered as the main figure in the development of the Bletchley Park estate near Milton Keynes.
Herbert Leon was born in Islington on 11 February 1850, the second son of George Isaac Leon (1820-1885), a London stockbroker, and Julia Ann Samuel (1826-1901). He was a prominent figure in a nexus of Jewish grandee families at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Rothschild, Montefiore, Sebag, Samuel, Spielmann and Leon families.
He married his first wife Esther Julia Beddington (1853-1875) in 1873. She died two years later, on 15 May 1875, a week after giving birth to their younger child. She left two young children: Mabel Julia (‘Kitty’) Leon (1874-1970) and (Sir) George Edward Leon (1875-1947), who would inherit the family title. He married his second wife, Fanny Higham, in 1878, and they were the parents of two more children: Margaret Alice Leon (1881-1967) and Reginald Herbert Leon (1882,-1960).
In 1883, Herbert Leon bought the Bletchley Park estate, which I visited today. The estate, located conveniently beside the LNWR rail line, extended to over 300 acres. He extended the existing red-brick farmhouse and enlarged it over the next few years, making his mansion at Bletchley Park the Leon family’s main home. He objected to the nearby church bells and so grew trees between the house and church to absorb some of the noise, although, seemingly, he did not object to the noise of mainline steam trains.
At that time, business deals on the American Stock Market were considerably enhancing the family fortune and the Leon family bought holiday homes at Broadstairs in Kent and Ballater in Scotland, as well as owning a house in London.
Herbert Leon was instrumental in saving the Wolverton and Stony Stratford Tramway when it ran into financial difficulties in 1891. The Bedford Syndicate was headed by Leon and traded as Wolverton & Stony Stratford & District Tramways Company.
The Bedford Syndicate reopened the line on 20 November 1891. Gradually the shares were transferred to Leon until he held a controlling interest, but members of the Field family who were also associated with him in the purchase retained their holdings and Alfred Long Field was managing director and secretary of the company until he died in 1913.
Meanwhile, Leon was elected Liberal MP for Buckingham in a by-election on 28 May 1891 after his predecessor, Sir Edmund Hope Verney (1838-1910), a nephew of Florence Nightingale, was expelled from the House of Commons when he was jailed for procuring a girl under 21 for ‘immoral purposes’. Leon was re-elected in 1892, but was defeated in the 1895 general election. He stood for Parliament once more in 1906, but was unsuccessful in Handsworth, Staffordshire.
Leon was High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1909 and was made a baronet in George V’s coronation honours in 1911.
Over the years, Leon acquired many plots of land that he donated for public and educational uses. He gave the land for Leon Recreational Ground to the local council as a public park for the youth of Fenny Stratford and Bletchley. He also donated land near Bletchley for schools for the local children of the Lakes Estate.
He died on 23 July 1926 and is buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Two months earlier, in May 1926, the tram between Stony Stratford and Wolverton had its last run and closed after 39 years.
Lady Fanny Leon continued to live at Bletchley Park until she died on 23 January 1937 after being ill for some time. The members of the Leon family had their own family homes, and after her death none of them wanted to live in Bletchley Park. So the house, park and farm were sold at auction by Knight Frank and Rutley.
The property developer Captain Hubert Faulkner planned to demolish the buildings and sell the land as a housing site. But the Government Code and Cypher School, then based in London, needed a safer home where its intelligence work could carry on unhindered by enemy air attacks.
At a junction of major road, rail and teleprinter connections to all parts of Britain, Bletchley Park was eminently suitable. Throughout World War II, it was the headquarters of Britain’s codebreaking operations.
Key codebreakers included Ruth Sebag-Montefiore (1916-2015), who found herself working in the main manor house once owned by her great uncle, Sir Herbert Leon.
Leon School and Sports College was built in 1970 on the Lakes Estate in Bletchley and named in Leon’s honour. The school was renamed Sir Herbert Leon Academy in 2012 to honour the works and funding Leon and his wife had brought to the local area.
The family title is now held by the fourth baronet, Sir John Ronald Leon, who is better known as the actor John Standing.
Although Sir Herbert Leon was not a practising Jew, he had a Jewish funeral in Willesden and members of the Leon family continued to marry into prominent Jewish families like the Raphaels and Montefiores over several generations.
He identified with secular Jews, and for almost a decade he chaired the Rationalist Press Association (1913-1922), then the leading organisation for humanists, agnostics and atheists. Yet, during his life he was the most prominent Jewish figure in Stony Stratford and in the area that would become Milton Keynes, and he was one of the most prominent Jews of his generation in the United Kingdom.