Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930)
A.J. Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, was born at Whittingehame (also spelt Whittingham or Whittinghame) on 25 July 1848. His parents were James Maitland Balfour and Lady Blanche – second daughter of the 2nd Marquis of Salisbury. An intellectual and a philosopher, he had a long career in politics, becoming Prime Minister (1902–06) and later a controversial Foreign Secretary under David Lloyd George (1916–19); he ultimately spent 40 years in Parliament.
Arthur Balfour inherited the estate of Whittingehame at the age of eight, when his father died. At an early public appearance, aged twelve, the Haddingtonshire Courier says: ‘The young gentleman, who bears a striking resemblance to his late much-respected father, returned thanks for his mother and himself in a most manly manner.’
Following in his father’s footsteps as a Conservative MP, Balfour entered Parliament when he was 26, and Lloyd George described him as ‘a great statesman, a great patriot and a great gentleman’.
As Foreign Secretary, Balfour left what was to become his most well-known (or notorious) legacy, when in 1917 he wrote to Lord Rothschild that, ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. Although he also said that nothing should be done ‘which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, this letter, now known as the Balfour Declaration, has since formed a substantial platform for the conflicts that have developed in that area ever since, and has severely damaged a reputation that was already beginning to tarnish.
For Balfour was also known in Ireland as ‘bloody Balfour’, due to his suppression of riots and prosecution of United Ireland patriots. Yet he also created the Congested Districts Board for Ireland, designed to relieve overcrowded living conditions and alleviate poverty, as well as providing subsidies for crofters and fisherman.
Known for working on his papers until 2 a.m., then sleeping late, he never read newspapers. However, he was a cultured philosopher; he gave the Gifford Lectures on Theism and Humanism and belonged to a group of aristocratic intellectuals called ‘The Souls’. He was also renowned for his sociability and hospitality.
Although rarely able to spend much time in East Lothian (or Haddingtonshire, as it was then known), he opened the Knox Institute in October 1881. In November 1914, early in the First World War, he addressed the Royal Scots in Haddington, before they left forFrance. As an early motor enthusiast he explored the county in a Rolls Royce saloon presented by both Houses of Parliament, describing the area as ‘incomparably beautiful’. A passionate golfer on North Berwick Links, he had been tutored by the great Ben Sayers, and felt that East Lothian was a ‘golfer’s paradise’.
He was appointed Hon. President of the East Lothian Antiquarian and Field Naturalists’ Society from its inception in 1924 until his death. He died at Whittingehame on 19 March 1930 and is commemorated by a tablet inWhittingehameChurch.
Dugdale, Blanche, Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., FRS. 2 vols. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937. An extensive biography written by A.J. Balfour’s niece.
Dick, David, A Millennium of Fame of East Lothian, Clerkington Publishing Co., 2000.