A Norwich family home
PUBLISHED: 12:17 24 August 2015 | UPDATED: 12:17 24 August 2015
A university open day was so successful that it brought not just the student son, but Mum and Dad too, to Norwich. Rowan Mantell talks to author Alun Wyburn-Powell about the Wedgwood Benn family, flat-pack houses and the lure of Norfolk.
The late great politician Tony Benn needs no introduction – but how about his father, William Wedgwood Benn, Viscount Stansgate, a cabinet minister and air commodore with active service in both world wars?
William Wedgwood Benn led a fascinating life, including taking part in the first parachute drop behind enemy lines.
His story has just been told by Norwich author Alun Wyburn-Powell, who deals not just with Benn’s part in national and international affairs, but also reveals that the ancestral home of the Viscounts of Stansgate was a flat-pack house made in Norwich. Political Wings is the first biography of William Wedgwood Benn and charts his life from his birth in the East End of London through being created an hereditary peer, to his legacy as a politician himself, and as the father and grandfather of notable politicians.
This is Alun’s third book of political history and he says Tony Benn, who died last year, was delighted to discover someone was writing his father’s story. He was also helped by the veteran politician’s brother and children.
“Like everyone else who meets Tony Benn, I found him charming. He was in his late 80s but his mind was still absolutely perfect,” says Alun, who has been fascinated by politics for as long as he can remember.
This year Alun and his wife Diana and their son moved to Norwich. They first visited when 19-year-old Christopher attended a University of East Anglia open day and fell in love with the city. They now live at Friars Quay in the city centre and this autumn Christopher will begin a degree in climate science, while Diana embarks on a PhD, also at UEA. “We really like the city. We can live right in the middle, without a car, and walk to great coffee shops and the theatre and the cathedral and by the river, and you can get to the sea by train,” says Alun.
While researching his book he was delighted to find an unexpected link between the Wedgwood Benns and Norwich.
“Their house at Stansgate, which everyone assumes is the ancestral home, is actually a pre-fab which cost £600 and was made by Boulton and Paul in Norwich!” he says. The flat-pack house was brought by barge around the coast to Essex, for William’s father, more than 40 years before William was enobled in 1942. It stands in Stansgate village, north of Southend, and is still owned by the Benn family.
William had expected to be succeeded by his eldest son but Michael was killed on active service with the RAF and a new law had to be passed to allow second son Tony not to inherit.
“He didn’t particularly want the honour and later it was a bit of a mill-stone around his family’s neck,” says Alun, whose research has led him to a great admiration for his subject – a man who was not only a war hero and parliamentarian but also a practical, inventive man and responsible for appointing Britain’s first woman chaplain to the armed forces.
He joined the RAF the day it was founded, flew Norwich-made aeroplanes in the First World War, and was involved in the first ever parachute drop behind enemy lines – the Italian involved survived to name his son Wedgwood Benn Tandura.
He was part of a political dynasty which lives on today, although the family business was originally in publishing and its leading magazine, The Cabinet Maker, was about cabinets of the cupboard, rather than the political kind.Political Wings, William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate, by Alun Wyburn-Powell (published by Pen and Sword) is £25.