HICHENS, William Lionel
1st May 1874 to 14th October 1940
Lionel Hichens was a colonial civil servant who became chairman of the shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird. During the First World War he worked closely with the Ministry of Munitions.
Hichens was born in St Leonard’s, Sussex, the son of an army surgeon. He was educated at Winchester College, and then from 1893 at New College, Oxford, where he read Greats. Graduating in 1898 he taught at Sherborne College. In 1899 after the outbreak of the Boer War, Hichens enlisted with the City Imperial Volunteers as a private in its bicycle section. In South Africa, he served as cyclist dispatch rider and scout. On one occasion he was ordered to travel alone more than a hundred miles into enemy territory to arrest a Boer commando leader. Hichens completed his mission successfully without a shot fired.
In 1900 Hichens was transferred from the army to the Egyptian civil service, where he served in the colonial ministry of finance. In 1901 he returned to South Africa where he was appointed to the administration of the new British colony of Transvaal. He was a member of a group known as ‘Milner’s kindergarten’, young protégés of Alfred, Lord Milner, the high commissioner of South Africa. Hichens was town treasurer of Johannesburg from 1901-2, and colonial treasurer of Transvaal from 1902-7. During this period he made the acquaintance of Philip Kerr, a fellow civil servant who also went on to speak at a Rowntree conference alongside Hichens (in April 1925). From 1907-8 Hichens was in India as a member of a royal commission on decentralisation, and then in 1909 chaired a board of inquiry concerning the public service of Rhodesia; during this period he also became involved with the preservation of the ancient ruins of the city of Great Zimbabwe.
In 1910 Hichens returned to Britain, where he and a group of friends founded Round Table, a quarterly journal on the politics of the British Empire; Philip Kerr was the founding editor. Hichens and his colleagues saw themselves as ‘reforming imperialists’, and had the ambition of modernising the empire rather than retreating from it. Their ambition was to restructure the empire along federal lines, unifying and strengthening its administration and drawing all the colonies and dominions closer together. In 1919 this same group went on to found the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Also in 1910, thanks in large part to the influence of the Earl of Selborne, who had succeeded Milner as high commissioner, Hichens was appointed chairman of the struggling shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird. Although Hichens had no business experience, he had a sound knowledge of practical finance, and under his leadership Cammell Laird was returned to health; aided in part, it should be said, by the outbreak of the First World War and an upsurge in the demand for shipbuilding.
During the war Hichens helped to form the Imperial Munitions Council, and from 1916 to the war’s end, chaired the central council of the Associations of Controlled Firms, liaising between the Council’s 2,700 member firms and the Ministry of Munitions. Curiously, Hichens was never honoured for his wartime work. In 1919 he married Hermione Lyttelton, the daughter of a general.
Hichens was regarded as a model industrialist, particularly during wartime. According to Davenport-Hines (2004), under Hichens’s leadership, ‘Cammell Laird subordinated questions of profit to the public interest and avoided any suspicion of war profiteering. Hichens despised money-grubbing or idolatry of wealth. He regarded industry as a form of public service and industrial problems as essentially moral.’ This sentiment comes out clearly in his Rowntree lectures.
Following the war, Hichens remained as chairman of Cammell Laird until his death in 1940. From 1927-30 he also served as chairman of English Electric Company, and he was a director of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He continued to be active in public service, serving as chairman of the governors of Birkbeck College, governor of the Royal College of Music, and a member of various government committees and commissions on subjects as diverse as the national debt, licensing, and lotteries and betting. Hichens also served on the building committee for Church House, the headquarters of the General Synod of the Church of England, and it was while on a visit to Church House that he was killed by a German bomb that struck the building on 14 October 1940.
Hichens’s first paper was given in September 1922, while Britain was still afflicted by the post-war trade downturn. He begins on a note of gloom; things are bad, and he does not see them getting worse. His own company, Cammell Laird, has been quoting for business at a loss simply in order to keep going, and is still not able to secure orders against international competition. ‘We have been living off our fat’, he said, and warns that there is not much fat left to live on. Hichens also makes the point that what affects capital, affects labour too. Unemployed workers likewise have been living off their fat, drawing on their savings, but they too cannot go on for much longer.
What prevents a trade revival? In Hichens’s view, the problem is twofold: political instability in some of Britain’s main trading partners, especially Germany, and fluctuating exchange rates. He sees German hyperinflation as a real danger to the economic stability of Europe, and warns that Austria is in a state of complete economic collapse and in danger of breaking up.
The solution, Hichens believes, is for Germany and Austria to be forgiven a large part of the reparations imposed on both powers by the victorious Allies at Versailles. It is quite apparent that neither party can pay their postwar debts, and Hichens regards a reduction in the reparations as a matter of practical politics and economics. (Philip Kerr, who had played an important role in drafting the Treaty of Versailles, had come to a similar conclusion; it is possible that his views influenced Hichens.)
Similarly, France is unable to pay its wartime debt to great Britain, and French debt should be wiped off. This would reduce the financial burden on all three countries, which would in turn allow the exchange rates and markets to settle and improve the prospects for trade. Cost reduction, the payment of fair but regulated wages, and the reduction of the tax burden are among the other solutions Hichens offers for the crisis.
Hichens closes the paper by advocating closer cooperation between labour and capital. Although he is very much a capitalist in spirit, Hichens’s lecture reveals him to be far from uncaring about the plight of the workers. Wage regulation is seen as a way of ensuring that all are paid fairly, not as a means of driving wages down.
By the time Hichens gave his second paper in 1925, the economic situation had improved but British exporters were still finding it difficult to compete in international markets. Hichens notes the worsening balance of trade, with the value of imports rising and the value of exports declining. He examines several possible solutions, including nationalisation and state subsidies, both of which he rejects as being unlikely to make exporting industries such as shipbuilding any more efficient than they already are. He defends industry against those who attack it for being inefficient and wasteful:
The unfortunate employer is never given credit for all that has been done to improve material efficiency since the war. In point of fact, I don’t suppose a day passes in which some improvement is not introduced into some factory. This is a cumulative process which goes on from year to year. But it does not work miracles. We cannot suddenly transform industry through some wonderful new process or method. The evolution is gradual, and the material progress which follows in its train must also be gradual and slow.
The main problem faced by exporting industries, says Hichens, is the disparity in wages between Britain and continental Europe. He rejects the notion of cutting wages in Britain – though he does hint that the trades unions could be somewhat more accommodating – and suggests instead that the solution is to ensure that wages rise on the continent until they are on a par with Britain. This might happen naturally over time as the European economies recover from the war, but Hichens makes the novel suggestion that British unions might send delegates to the continent and urge workers there to campaign for higher wages, to speed the process up.
At the heart of the matter, though, says Hichens, is the need for employers to stop considering business simply as a matter of making a profit. He calls again for more cooperation and a spirit of unity. Industry is a public service, he says, and must be seen as this. Capitalists must see themselves as servants of the nation:
…it is the duty of all men and women who belong to a community, and owe their lives to it, to assist that community by service. Only by service can we pay our debt.
Bosco, A. and May, A. (eds), The Round Table: The Empire, Commonwealth and British Foreign Policy, London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1997.
Davenport-Hines, R., ‘Hichens, William Lionel’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
‘Hichens, William Lionel’, http://www.winchestercollegeatwar.com/archive/hichens-william-lionel/
Kendle, J., The Round Table Movement and Imperial Union, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975.
‘Lionel Hichens’, The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs 31, pp. 5-16, 1940.
‘William Lionel Hichens’, Grace’s Guide to Industrial History, http://www.gracesguide.co.uk/William_Lionel_Hichens
‘Hindrances to a trade revival’, 23 September 1922, Balliol College
‘The general trade position’, 16 April 1925, Balliol College