There is a connection between the interestingly named MP Freeman Freeman-Thomas and my maternal Rollings family in Cornwall. But before I reveal the connection, perhaps it is best to provide an overview of Freeman-Thomas himself.
Freeman Freeman-Thomas was born in 1866 in Eastbourne, East Sussex. He was from a family of notable standing (his maternal grandfather was a Speaker of the House of Commons), and he was educated at Eton. He appears something of a “David Watts” character, due to his sporting success as captain of the cricket team and serving as president of the Eton Society. Then, after Eton, he continued onto the University of Cambridge before serving for fifteen years in the army. The “Freeman” part of his surname was only added in his twenties, at which point he married and had two sons.
In 1900 he began his political career, entering Parliament as a Liberal MP for the constituency of Hastings. In 1910 he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Willingdon of Ratton, before then serving as lord-in-waiting to King George V (apparently he became a favourite tennis partner of the monarch).
He later served in a variety of roles within the empire, including as governor of Bombay (where he had dealings with Gandhi), then as governor of Canada (from 1926 to 1931), before returning to India as Viceroy and Governor-General in the 1930s. He died in 1941 at the age of 74.
So, how does all of this connect to my rural, agricultural Cornish family?
The link is provided in the form of the 1906 by-election for the Bodmin constituency in Cornwall. Freeman-Thomas had lost his seat in the previous general election, and so looked to get back into Parliament through a handy by-election. This election was triggered due to the previous MP – the Liberal Thomas Agar-Robartes – losing his seat relating to a scandal in making payments to voters. The contest was a two-way fight, with Freeman-Thomas winning the seat with 56% of the vote, with his rival – the Liberal Unionist George Sandys obtaining 44%. The number of voters was small (below 5,000 voted for Freeman-Thomas), due to universal suffrage in the form of the 1918 Representation of the People Act still more than a decade away. Freeman-Thomas remained in the Bodmin constituency until 1910, the date in which he was made a peer.
About a decade ago I was told by an aunt (who had completed very deep and excellent research into the Rollings family) that my grandfather’s brother was named Thomas Freeman due to being named after this MP. The story goes, as best as I can remember, that my great-grandfather was so impressed by listening to Freeman-Thomas speak, presumably at a meeting or a hustings event, that he gave his next born son this name in his honour.
I really liked this link, due to my own interest in politics, and it provided a few intriguing hints as to the political interests of my great-grandfather. This suggested that he was a Liberal, as were many in Cornwall during this period, and he appears to have had a far greater interest in the political affairs of the county and kingdom than I originally imagined.
In his article ‘Liberalism in Devon and Cornwall’ (1995), Michael Dawson notes that ‘Liberalism in…Cornwall before 1914 pursued a traditional “democratic” rhetoric based on a class division which associated the Liberal party with “the people” and Unionism with a privileged aristocracy’. As such, perhaps this highlights how my great-grandfather believed in this principle – of the people versus the establishment. In many ways, this fits in with the popularity of the Liberals in the Celtic peripheries during this period, as highlighted in the popularity of dissenting religions, such as Methodism.
Furthermore, the Liberals during the period of 1906-1910 introduced a wealth of new legislation designed to improve the condition of the working class, such as the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908. Perhaps more specifically for rural Cornwall was the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1906 and the 1908 Smallholdings and Allotments Act which provided agricultural tenants with greater security. All of this may have impressed my great-grandfather to the extent that he was eternally grateful to his local Liberal MP.
However, there is a possible fly in the ointment of my speculation. Freeman-Thomas was MP until 1910, whereas my grandfather’s brother Thomas Freeman was not born until 1915, thereby providing a gap of five years. This throws up a few questions – all of which I cannot answer! Was my great-grandfather so grateful to Freeman-Thomas for being part of these reforms that he vowed to name his next born son after him, thereby saving the name for half-a-decade? Did Freeman-Thomas have a personal connection with my great-grandfather, perhaps helping him in a more specific way? Or, is it just a case of my great-grandfather considering the surname simply cool or endearing to the extent that he thought it would work for one of his sons?
I hope to delve a little further into this aspect of my family history in order to discover a little more of Freeman Freeman-Thomas’ activities in Cornwall in the 1906-1910 period. Whatever I discover, I do enjoy this interesting link of my family story.