Hilaire Belloc, Son of the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation

Hilaire Belloc

Hilaire Belloc, the son of Louis Belloc, a barrister of Basque origin, was born in St. Cloud near Paris in 1870. His mother was Elizabeth Rayner Parkes, the daughter of the radical, Joseph Parkes, a Birmingham MP and locksmith by trade. Although she was converted to the Catholic faith from Unitarianism, she remained a political radical and was a strong supporter of women’s rights.

The family moved to London in 1892 when Belloc’s father died; and six years later his mother moved the young Belloc and his sister Marie from their London home to live in Slindon in West Sussex. The family rented Slindon Cottage, now known as the Dower House, then moved to Newlands, which they renamed The Grange.

After being educated at the Oratory School, Birmingham, Belloc served in the French Army. He returned to England in 1892 and became a student at Balliol College, Oxford. He graduated with a first class honours degree but was disappointed when he was not offered a Fellowship. Convinced that he had been rejected because of his Catholic religious views, he went on a lecture tour of the United States. There he had two books of verse published: A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (1896) and Verses and Sonnets (1896).

Belloc returned to England and in 1902 became a naturalized British subject. A member of the Fabian Society, Belloc became friends with George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells, who helped him obtain work with newspapers such as the Daily News and The Speaker. In due course he became literary editor of the Morning Post.

In 1896 Belloc had married Elodie Hogan in California. By 1902 the Bellocs had four
children and began to find their life in London too expensive. They decided to move back
to his beloved Sussex; to Slindon, Belloc’s childhood home. Belloc became fascinated
with the woods and Downs around his Slindon home and developed a love of the West
Sussex countryside, which was to stay with him for the rest of his life. One of his earliest
Sussex memories was of the Downland around Slindon:

“In this place, when I was a boy, I pushed through a fringe of beeches that made a complete screen between me and the world, and I came to a glade called No Man’s Land. I climbed beyond it, and I was surprised and glad, because from the ridge of that glade I saw the sea.”

From ‘the Mowing of a Field’ in Hills and the Sea (1906)

Hills and the sea were the essence of his love for Sussex. Here were his real roots; and away from Sussex was to be in exile:

When I am living in the Midlands
That are sodden and unkind,
I light my lamp in the evening:
My work is left behind;
And the great hills of the South Country
Come back into my mind.

The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it’s there walking in the high woods
That I could wish to be,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me.

From ‘The South Country’ in Verses (1910)

In his preface to The Four Men (1912), Belloc spelt out his passion for roots, the need for a native place:

“… a man come[s] to love with all his heart, that
part of earth which nourished his boyhood…. and
he finds in it the character of enduring things.

“When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,
for you will have lost the last of England.”

The family lived first in Bleak House before moving to Court Hill Farm in the village. Then in 1906 Belloc purchased King’s Land in the village of Shipley, near Horsham for £900. This included the house, five acres of land and Slindon Mill. (The mill, which was built in 1879, has recently been restored as a memorial to the writer.) King’s Land was to become the family home for the remaining (nearly) fifty years of Belloc’s life. This rambling country house, where he wrote so many of his books, will be linked forever with the name of Belloc. It was a uniquely Belloc home; indeed he described it as “exactly suitable to oneself, though a kind that no one else would like”.

“If I ever become a rich man,
Or if ever I grow to be old,
I will build a house with deep thatch
To shelter me from the cold,
And there shall the Sussex songs be sung
And the story of Sussex told.”

During his career he published around 150 titles, ranging from children’s stories and poetry, novels, political and religious tracts, history books and accounts of his travel. Soon after moving to Shipley, Belloc became the Liberal candidate for South Salford and in the 1906 General Election Belloc was elected to the House of Commons. However, Belloc was disappointed by Henry Cambell-Bannerman and his government’s lack of radicalism; and was particularly upset by the failure to repeal the 1902 Education Act. He also travelled widely in America, Italy, Cuba, Spain and the Holy Land. He lectured on a broad range of issues, once commenting during a visit to America, “I jabber and jabber for 250 dollars, 300 dollars and even 500 dollars a shot. I will talk on anything and everything.”

Although his mother, Elixabeth Rayner Belloc and his sister, Marie Belloc Lowndes, were supporters of women’s rights, Belloc held strong views against women’s suffrage. He wrote that: “I am opposed to women’s voting as men vote. I call it immoral, because I think the bringing of one’s women, one’s mothers and sisters into the political arena, disturbs the relations between the sexes.”

Hilaire Belloc won a narrow victory at South Salford in January 1910 but lost it in the second General Election in December. Belloc now returned to journalism and over the next couple of years wrote for the Pall Mall Gazette, the Glasgow Herald, The Academy and The New York World.

He became editor of the political weekly, The Eye-Witness, and attacked the political establishment in his book The Party System (1911). With contributors such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Maurice Baring and G.K. Chesterton, The Eye Witness sold over 100,000 copies a week. In The Eye-Witness, Belloc attempted to expose examples of political corruption, including the sale of peerages and the involvement of David Lloyd George in the Marconi Scandal.

After leaving the House of Commons, Belloc’s political persuasion moved to the right. He now totally rejected the kind of reforms advocated by his old friends in the Fabian Society. In his book The Servile State (1912) he attacked welfare programmes such as social insurance and minimum wage levels.

As well as a leading journalist and political thinker, Belloc was also a successful novelist, Mr. Clutterbuck’s Election (1908), A Change in the Cabinet (1909), Pongo and the Bull (1910) and historian, The French Revolution (1911) and the History of England (1915).

A strong supporter of Britain’s involvement in the First World War, Belloc was recruited by Charles Masterman, the head of the War Propaganda Bureau (WPB), to help support the war effort. This included writing The Two Maps of Europe (1915) for the WPB.

Belloc had always been hostile to the German race but in wartime, his views became extremely popular. He told the readers of Land and Water that the war was a clash between pagan barbarism and Christian civilization. His estimates of German casualties were often highly inflated and he constantly made inaccurate estimates about when the war would be over. He confided to his friend, G.K. Chesterton, that “it is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation.”

Belloc lost many friends during the First World War including Basil Blackwood, Cecil Chesterton, Edward Horner, and Raymond Asquith. His son, Louis Belloc, who joined the Royal Flying Corps, was killed while bombing a German transport column in August, 1918.

After the war Belloc wrote a book propounding his Catholic faith: Europe and Faith (1920). Belloc also published a series of historical biographies: Oliver Cromwell (1927), James II (1928), Richelieu (1930), Wolsey (1930), Cranmer (1931), Napoleon (1932) and Charles II (1940).

The Belloc family’s grave, next
to the Shrine’s tower door

But perhaps above all else, he cared passionately about the beauty of the landscape and the individuality of the countryman’s ways, which he saw threatened by modern progress. He steeped himself in history and many of his views were coloured by his staunch Catholicism, a product of his French background. Sadly, many in England felt uncomfortable with this accomplished public speaker; whose wide range of published work was often at odds with the mood of his time.

He died on 16th July (the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) in 1953 at a Catholic hospital in Guildford, Surrey, following a fall he had at King’s Land. He is buried in the ancient graveyard at the Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation & St. Francis at West Grinstead – a church he loved dearly and where he had regularly attended Mass as a parishioner.

“When I am dead, I hope it may be said:
‘His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.’ “

It has been commented (by J.B. Morton) that ‘his wit was French, but his humour English’. The beauty of English landscape profoundly moved him; although he preferred the French way of living.

Morton also said, ‘When you talked to him, or when you read him, you noted his zest for life, his appetite for conflict, his swift changes of mood, his orderly method of thought, his certitude, his sense of fun, his hatred of injustice. His very manner of speech was often echoed in his writing – with all kinds of parenthesis and afterthought thrown out noisily and impudently’.

Highlights of Belloc’s Life

1870 Born 27 July at what is now no. 8 Avenue Camille Normand, La Celle Saint Cloud, near Paris.
1871 Death of his French father, Louis.
1878 Belloc, his mother, Bessie, and sister, Marie, left London to live at Slindon, near Arundel, firstly renting Slindon Cottage – now the Dower House – then moving to Newlands, which they renamed The Grange.
1878-80 Attended Heath Brow prep school, Hampstead.
1880-87 Attended the Oratory School, Edgbaston, Birmingham.
1887 French naval cadet in Paris.
1888 Worked for a Sussex farmer at Bury, with the idea of becoming a land agent, but was dismissed. Apprenticed to a London architect.
1890 Fell in love with Elodie Hogan, an American staying in London.
1891 Followed her to her California home, but encouraged by her mother, she refused him and he returned to England. As a French citizen, he joined the French artillery as a driver.
1893-95 Oxford undergraduate at Balliol College, reading Modern History. Elected President of the Union and awarded a first class degree, but failed to be elected a fellow – a rejection that made him bitter all his life.
1896 Married Elodie Hogan in California. They returned to England to live at Oxford, where he worked as an ‘extension lecturer’.
1897 Birth of their first child, Louis John. His first American lecture tour.
1899 Moved from Oxford to Chelsea. The birth of their second child, Eleanor.
1900 Met G.K. Chesterton, who became a lifelong friend collaborator and supporter. The birth of their third child Elizabeth.
1901 He bought sailing boat, The Nona, which he moored at Littlehampton.
1902 Became a naturalised British subject. The birth of their fourth child, Hilary.
1903 Left Chelsea home (expensive and cramped) and went to live at Bleak House, Slindon, in West Sussex.
1904 The birth of fifth and last child, Peter.
1905 Travelled to North Africa, written up in Esto Perpetuo (published 1906).
Moved to Court Hill Farm, Slindon.
1906 Moved to King’s Land, Shipley – his family home for the rest of his life.
1906-10 Appointed Literary Editor of The Morning Post. Liberal M.P for South Salford, Lancashire. Became disenchanted with politics and resigned.
1914 Death of his wife, Elodie and her burial at West Grinstead. Belloc was shattered and in despair.
1914-18 Wrote and lectured extensively on the war.
1918 Death of eldest son, Louis, on active service with the Royal Flying Corps.
1923 Lecture tour of America.
1924 Death of his mother at Slindon where she was buried in the Catholic churchyard.
1934 Awarded Knight Commander of the Star Order of St. Gregory the Great.
1935 Tour of America, Cuba, Spain and the Holy Land.
1937 Last lecture tour to America.
1941 Death of his second son, Peter, on active service with the Royal Marines; buried at West Grinstead.
1942 Suffered a slight stroke, which left him prematurely senile. His writing and travelling now curtailed.
1953 Death 16 July at the Franciscan Mount Alvernia Nursing Home, Guildford, after a fall at King’s Land. Buried in the Catholic churchyard of the Shrine Church of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead. The shrine’s tower was built in his memory in the early 1960′s.

Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei
Requiescat in pace