Son of clergyman who became top academic and high level politician

Sir Douglas Savory
Sir Douglas Savory
Share this article

Historian Gordon Lucy looks at the life of Douglas Savory – a man who made a huge contribution to Unionism

Douglas Savory was born on August 17 1878 in Suffolk and was the son of a Church of England clergyman. He had a brilliant academic career at Marlborough College, the University of Paris and St John’s College, Oxford.

Savory was professor of French and English at the University of Marburg in Germany before becoming professor of French Language and Romance Philology at Queen’s University of Belfast in 1909.

During the Great War he served with Naval Intelligence and was attached to Room 40, the Admiralty’s codebreakers.

Between 1918 and 1919 he was Secretary to the British Minister in Sweden.

Returning to Queen’s, he sought to overhaul and modernise language teaching in both the university and in local schools. Between 1920 and 1922 he was a commissioner of intermediate education for Ireland. He was a member of the Lynn committee which was responsible for shaping the Education Act of 1923.

Retiring from his chair at Queen’s in 1940, he became Unionist MP at Westminster for the Queen’s University constituency, self-deprecatingly describing himself as ‘a professor who had strayed into politics’.

With the abolition of university seats at Westminster in 1950, he became MP for South Antrim, which he represented until 1955.

An assiduous parliamentarian, he was secretary of the Ulster Unionist Parliamentary Party between 1942 and 1953, becoming chairman in 1953, succeeding Sir Walter Smiles (who had perished in the Princess Victoria disaster), a position he retained until his retirement from the Commons. He was knighted in 1952.

These were eventful years in Irish politics and he contributed prominently in debates on Irish affairs. Eire was neutral during the Second World War which was euphemistically termed ‘the Emergency’. De Valera visited the German legation in Dublin to express his condolences on the death of Hitler.

In 1948 Eire legislated to become a Republic and in 1949 left the Commonwealth. In 1951 the Roman Catholic hierarchy condemned Dr Noel Browne’s ‘mother and child scheme’ as ‘opposed to Catholic social teaching’.

Politically, Savory operated at a very high level. During the third Home Rule crisis and the early 1920s his correspondents included Craig, Carson, Thomas Sinclair (the author of the Ulster Covenant), Lord Hugh Cecil (a prominent and extremely eloquent High Tory), E. M. Archdale (Northern Ireland’s first Minister of Agriculture), J. Milne Barbour (Northern Ireland’s Minister of Commerce) and Sir Dawson Bates (the secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council and Northern Ireland’s first Minister of Home Affairs).

As an MP, he corresponded with Churchill, Atlee, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home.

An ardent Francophile, between 1953 and 1955 he was vice-president of the Franco-British parliamentary relations committee. Although Churchill could speak ‘uninhibited and fairly intelligible French’, he often acted as interpreter between General de Gaulle and Churchill during the war.

In 1943 the London-based Polish government-in-exile invited Savory to investigate the massacre of Polish army officer corps at Katyń, a subject about which he became an expert. In April of that year the Nazis had announced the discovery of the first mass graves of Polish officers. When the Polish government-in-exile asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Stalin immediately severed all relations with it.

The massacres were instigated by Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), and sanctioned by the Politburo of the CPSU (the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) on March 5 1940. In all, 21,768 (the figure is derived from Soviet official documents) members of the Polish officer corps and intellectual elite were murdered at Katyń and elsewhere.

Among those who died at Katyń were an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 NCOs and seven chaplains. Twenty university professors, 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists) were also murdered. The NKVD executed almost half the Polish officer corps.

The Soviet Union persisted in its claims that the Nazis had carried out the killings in 1941 but, as Savory pointed out, the Soviets had buried the Polish officers in their uniforms. Their shoulder straps showed exactly what their ranks were — general, colonel, major, lieutenant, and so on. On their bodies were found letters from their friends, none of them of a later date than April 28 1940, and letters which they had written home but which had never been posted. This allowed the atrocity to be dated accurately. Between September 1939 and June 1941 the area was under Russian occupation.

However both Churchill and President Roosevelt felt obliged to go along with Soviet denials in the interests of maintaining the wartime coalition against Hitler. The UK and the United States were not overly interested in rocking the boat after the war.

It was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the truth. Subsequently the Russian Federation, the USSR’s successor state, condemned the crime and the cover up by the Soviet regime.

Carolyn Augsperger, an American scholar whose doctoral thesis focuses on Savory, also draws attention to his concern for the plight of various European minorities, both religious and ethno-linguistic.

His interest in the Waldensians and the Moravians was closely allied to his enthusiasm for church history. The Danish-speaking population of South Schleswig (in West Germany) and the German-speaking population of the South Tyrol (in Italy) also engaged his attention.

Being of Huguenot descent, he was president of the Huguenot Society between 1945 and 1948.

An evangelical Anglican, he was a lay reader in the Church of Ireland.

He had married Madeline Clendinning, a Queen’s graduate and daughter of a Lurgan solicitor, in July 1918. He died, aged 91, in Belfast on October 5 1969.

Few local politicians have left so extensive an archive, most of which may be found in PRONI but his Polish papers are held by the Polish Institute and the Sikorski Museum in London. Unfortunately at the time of his death there was an inadequate appreciation of his contribution to Unionism and public life.