When Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee lived near Chesham
Aneurin Bevan the founder of the NHS lived for a time near Chesham, and he lived with his wife Jennie Lee who founded the Open University.
Founder of the NHS
Aneurin “Nye” Bevan was born in 1897 in Tredegar in south Wales, where he grew up in a coal mining community. In 1928 Nye was elected as Labour MP for Ebbw Vale. He served as Minister of Health in Atlee’s post-war Labour Government. Nye worked hard on forming the National Health Service, which started on 5th July 1948. The NHS was born out of the ideal that good healthcare should be available to all, regardless of wealth.
In 1934 Nye married Miss Jennie Lee. She had been Labour MP for North Lanarkshire. After they married she kept her maiden name, and continued to call herself Miss Jennie Lee. In June 1944 they bought 23 Clivedon Place in Chelsea. From 1945 Jennie Lee was elected as a Labour Party MP representing Cannock.
In July 1954 Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee sold their house in Chelsea. They wanted a place near London but in the country. He was told about Asheridge Farm, in the village of Asheridge near Chesham, which came up for sale. He bought it for £9,000 from Mr Dugdale who wanted to retire from farming. Jennie got central heating installed, and converted an adjacent barn into a guesthouse for visitors.
Nye the farmer
The old farmhouse came with just over 50 acres, plus farm buildings, and 2 cottages. The farm came with an existing farm manager and cowman who their kept on, Guernsey cow herd, and 60 hens.
As well as a politician, Nye became an enthusiastic farmer. He built up the herd to 60 cattle, and also started to keep pigs. Local farmer and Labour Party activist, Tony Harman and his family became good friends. Nye often visited the Harmans at Grove Farm between Orchard Leigh and Whelpley Hill, and they often visited him at Asheridge.
The Blue Ball
Nye was very social and joined in local life, and they shopped in Chesham. He used to visit the “Blue Ball” pub in Asheridge where he was friendly with the landlord Ted Shea and his wife and he was on Christian name terms with many of the regulars.
The Bevan family signed up with the local Chesham NHS doctor, who was Dr H.T. (Tom) Wise, who lived at the top of White Hill in Chesham. David Darvell told me that even today there are people in Chesham proud of the fact that that their doctor, Dr Wise, was the doctor to the man who created the NHS.
Travelling to work
Nye worked a couple of days mid-week in London. He used to catch the train to London from Chesham Station.
In the 1950s Denzil “Taffy” Walters would get up at 4:30 a.m. each day to run the newspaper stall at Chesham station, Taffy took over the stall from Dick Evans.
Taffy came from the Rhondda, and Nye Bevan would buy his newspaper from him to read on the train. Taffy and Nye would greet each other in Welsh and sometimes have a chat in Welsh.
Speaking at local events
Nye took up invitations to speak at local events. He spoke at Bellingdon Village Hall on Monday 24th January 1955 when he met members of the Cholesbury-cum-St. Leonards, Bellingdon and District Labour Party at their AGM. He explained that he left London because “it is absolutely essential to have some time for reading, some escape, or you become used-up.”
Aneurin Bevan said that they found the people around Asheridge quite charming and of sturdy independence. He joked that if he lived there another 20 years they might count him as a native. “But we have no cause for complaint – everyone has treated us as ordinary human beings”, he said.
With the General Election coming up Tony Harman and Nye Bevan spoke on Friday 29th April 1955 at a public meeting in the Co-operative Hall in Chesham. In February 1956 Aneurin Bevan accepted the invitation of the Chesham and District Cricket League to be their Vice-President.
In 1960 whilst he was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Nye fell severely ill and retreated to Asheridge Farm. In May 1960 Jawaharial Nehru, Prime Minister of India, whilst in England for the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference, visited his friends the Bevans at Asheridge Farm.
The reality was that Nye had stomach cancer. He never gave up hope, and just before he died he had been in the process of trying to buy another field. Nye died on 6th July 1960 at home near Chesham, aged only 62. Bevan’s death led to an outpouring of national mourning, and there were memorial services to him in Wales and at Westminster Abbey.
Baroness Lee of Asheridge
Jennie Lee did not have her husband’s interest in farming. In March 1961 she rented out the land at the farm, but continued to live at the farmhouse. In April 1961 the farm equipment and cattle were sold by auction. In 1964 Jennie Lee was appointed Minister for the Arts in Harold Wilson’s government, where she played a key role in establishing the Open University.
In May 1968, whilst also Chairman of the Labour Party, she sold Asheridge Farm through the estate agents Knight, Frank and Rutley. Their spokesman said “Miss Lee finds her public life leaves her insufficient time to enjoy the home which she and her late husband Aneurin Bevan bought and improved…”
She moved to London, but then lost her Cannock constituency in the June 1970 election. In November 1970 she was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge, so that she could work from the House of Lords. She died in 1988 aged 84.
Bevan Hill, Chesham
In 1973 Chesham councillors decided to name a new road off Asheridge Road in honour of Nye Bevan. It is called Bevan Hill. There is a statue to Nye Bevan in Cardiff, but the best memorial to him is the NHS.
This article was first published in the pages of the Bucks Free Press, Amersham and Chesham edition, on May 22, 2020. It was also given as a talk to the Chiltern Welsh Society on 14th May 2021.