Harcourt Johnstone

Harcourt Johnstone

Harcourt Johnstone (19 May 1895 – 1 March 1945), nicknamed Crinks, was a British Liberal Party politician.

Early life and education

Johnstone was born in London in 1895, the son of the Hon. Sir Alan Johnstone, a British diplomat, and his American wife Antoinette Pinchot. His nickname 'Crinks' is alleged to have derived from the wrinkled face he had as a baby.[1] One of his ancestors was Sir William Vernon Harcourt (1827–1904) who was Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer under William Ewart Gladstone. His paternal grandfather was the first Baron Derwent. Harcourt Johnstone was educated at Eton College and at Balliol College, Oxford. In the First World War he served in the Rifle Brigade and on the staff in France and Belgium.


Drawn to politics, he unsuccessfully contested Willesden East for the Liberals at the general election of 1922. However the sitting Tory MP, Sir H M Mallaby-Deeley, resigned in 1923 causing a by-election which was held on 3 March 1923. Johnstone was again chosen to contest the seat for the Liberals and won by a majority of 5,176 votes over the Conservative George Frederick Stanley. Johnstone held the seat in the 1923 general election, only to lose it to Stanley at the 1924 general election.[2] He then tried and failed to return to the House of Commons at by-elections: first at Eastbourne in 1925[3] and later at Westbury in 1927,[4] where he lost by just 149 votes. He fought Westbury a second time at the 1929 general election again losing narrowly. However at the 1931 general election he got in at South Shields, before losing the seat in 1935. In May 1940, even though Johnstone was outside Parliament, Winston Churchill decided to appoint him to the government as Secretary to the Department of Overseas Trade.[5] Two months later the Liberal constituency of Middlesbrough West became vacant when the sitting MP, Frank Kingsley Griffith, was made a county court judge[6] and Johnstone was returned for the seat at a by-election on 7 August 1940 unopposed under the terms of the wartime electoral truce.[7] He was made a Privy Councillor in 1943. By common consent he was an effective minister. As of 2015, he is the last MP for South Shields to have represented any party other than Labour.


Although little known today, Johnstone was the most prominent Liberal member of the wartime coalition government after Sir Archie Sinclair, who was Liberal leader from 1935 to 1945. He was a key figure in the Liberal Party Organisation between the two World Wars and was Secretary of the influential Liberal Candidates Association. He was a leading supporter of H H Asquith in the party split with David Lloyd George and used a lot of his own personal wealth to support the ailing Liberal party. During the National Government after 1931 he remained a faithful member of the Samuelite Liberals, always supporting the traditional policy of Free Trade against protectionism. After 1935, again out of Parliament, he gave close support to Sinclair and, despite the animosities of earlier years, endorsed Sinclair’s attempts to reunite the Liberal party with the Lloyd George family group of MPs. Despite any temptations to defect from the party during these difficult years – and plenty did – he remained a constant Liberal.

Johnstone’s unexpected return to government and Parliament in 1940 came about mainly as a result of his closeness to Sinclair and his friendship with Churchill. Johnstone had been a member and one-time co-secretary with Brendan Bracken of the Other Club since the early 1930s. The Other Club was a political dining club founded by Churchill and F.E. Smith in 1911. This fitted with Johnstone’s reputation for enjoying the good life. In his diaries, "Chips", Sir Henry Channon said that Harcourt "dug his own grave with his teeth". He was known as a lover of books, furniture and pictures, being good fun and good company and not being a great exponent of taking exercise.[8]


Aged only 49, Johnstone died suddenly in March 1945 of a stroke.[9] A memorial service was held for him at the Church of St. Margaret, Westminster on 13 March attended by the prime minister and Clementine Churchill, Clement Attlee (deputy prime minister) and Anthony Eden amongst prominent government mourners.[10]


  1. Coote, The Other Club
  2. F W S Craig, British Parliamentary Election Results 1918-1949; Political Reference Publications, Glasgow, 1949 p277
  3. Craig, page 480
  4. Craig, page 499
  5. The Times, 16 May 1940
  6. The Times, 18 July 1940
  7. The Times, 8 August 1940
  8. Jo Grimond, Memoirs 1979(p.69)
  9. The Times, 1 March 1945
  10. The Times, 14 March 1945 here

Further reading

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Harry Deeley Mallaby-Deeley
Member of Parliament for Willesden East
Succeeded by
George Frederick Stanley
Preceded by
James Chuter Ede
Member of Parliament for South Shields
Succeeded by
James Chuter Ede
Preceded by
Frank Kingsley Griffith
Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough West
Succeeded by
Donald Clifford Tyndall Bennett
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