Every age has its crooks and knaves in business and in politics. Some are better known than others. Few will have heard of Horace Farquhar, the subject of this article by Alistair Lexden. His life of treachery, fraud and deceit is revealed here for the first time.
Horace Brand Farquhar (1844-1923), first and last Earl Farquhar, of St Marylebone, was one of the greatest rogues of his time, a man capable of almost any misdeed or sin short of murder. He had three great loves: money, titles and royalty. After making himself a very rich man through his own considerable ability and a fair amount of sharp practice in the City of London, he bought himself titles by means of lavish donations first to the Liberal Unionists and then the Tories, in the course of establishing close friendships with both Edward VII and George V, who gave him senior posts at court and loaded him with further honours.
During his rise to prominence, he served briefly as a Liberal Unionist MP; in the years of his glory, he replenished the depleted coffers of the Conservative Party as its first formally appointed treasurer, a post which he filled with resourcefulness and skill after 1911. His successful career, and the connections he acquired in the highest places, protected his reputation, despite the publicity given to some of the very dubious business transactions in which he was frequently involved.
It was only in 1923 during the last months of his life that damning evidence emerged publicly which destroyed his reputation. A great deal of money was found to be missing from Conservative Party funds . Farquhar had misappropriated it. What had until then been known only to a few became common knowledge: Horace Farquhar was a complete scoundrel.
Nevertheless, when he died shortly afterwards , various members of the Royal Family and leading figures in public life looked forward eagerly to receiving the large legacies that he had ostentatiously promised them. None was paid. A man who had once been a millionaire was found to be bankrupt.
That at any rate is what the disappointed royals and everyone else were led to believe. But three years later Lord Crawford, a former Tory chief whip and minister, recorded in his diary on 2 February 1926 that George V’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, “surprised me by saying that he had actually received the legacy left him by Horace Farquhar. I always thought that the old boy’s bequests proved chimerical, in other words that the estate he so lavishly distributed was swallowed up by debts. Not so. If Stamfordham got his hundred guineas, the others presumably received their share.”
Was Crawford right and the tales of dashed expectations, repeated in several published accounts, wrong? Where the crooked Farquhar is concerned, nothing is ever plain or straightforward. Perhaps he had never been as rich as all that anyway. Crawford was told that “ some of the fine works of art in his house were hired!”, adding “ he was always a perfect snob.” What is not in doubt is that after his death his estate was formally assessed for probate at £400,000, but huge debts wiped out that sum. Could some additional property have been discovered later from which at least some legacies were paid?
The story of this extraordinary career in, and beyond, politics cannot be told in detail. Farquhar left no children. No personal papers have come to light, apart from a single letter to him from George V which is in the possession of my friend Lord Lingfield. However, though mysteries remain, enough information is available in books of memoirs and published diaries of his contemporaries, and in later biographies , to piece together the main outlines of a largely forgotten, but fascinating, life. It is possible that further material may yet emerge in the Royal Archives or in the vast quantities of private papers which exist for this period and have not so far been fully examined, to correct or amplify what follows here. What is known whets the appetite for much, much more.
Born on 19 May 1844, Farquhar rose to riches and prominence from the lower reaches of the aristocracy. He was the fifth son of a baronet with distinguished but impoverished Scottish forebears who became an unremarkable Tory MP for nine years (1857-66), representing Hertford where Lord Salisbury had significant influence among its 530 electors. Nothing is known about his education which he omitted from his entry in Who’s Who . His Scottish contemporary, Lord Huntly, recalled in his memoirs that at the outset of his career he was “dark-haired and good-looking, with plenty of assurance and push.” Drawing on those qualities, he abandoned his first lowly, poorly paid job as a clerk in a government office and, in Huntly’s words, “ wormed his way into the house of Sir Charles Forbes & Co., India merchants.” Established in 1767, the firm is still in business today. Through it, Farquhar began to accumulate serious wealth.
The key to his ascent, however, was his close and lasting friendship with the sixth Earl of Fife, whose family he was later to betray. He persuaded Fife, the owner of fourteen homes and a Liberal MP in 1874-9, to sell some of his vast estates of 250,000 acres in Scotland, and invest the proceeds in the private banking house of Sir Samuel Scott, Bart & Co. which both men joined. On 31 December 1883, their mutual friend, Edward Hamilton, one of Gladstone’s Private Secretaries and later a senior Treasury official, recorded in his diary that “ Horace Farquhar dined with me at Brooks’. He told me a good deal about the banking business (S Scott & Co) on which in company with Fife he has embarked.” In due course he became a partner and major shareholder, amassing a considerable fortune. In 1894, he played a leading role in the merger of Scott’s with Parr’s Bank, then the country’s sixth largest, on whose board he sat for the next twenty-one years (it was eventually absorbed by the NatWest).
By this time he had become the companion of royalty, thanks in large part to Lord Fife, who became a Duke in 1889 when he married the future Edward VII’s eldest daughter, Princess Louise (she and her two sisters were known unkindly as “ the hags”). The match was not universally applauded, but the bride’s father had no misgivings. In her brilliant life of Edward VII, Professor Jane Ridley writes: “that the 22-year-old Louise, a shy plain girl who had led a secluded life was being married off to a dissipated man eighteen years her senior seemed not to weigh upon the prince’s mind.” Queen Victoria noted with approval that Fife was “immensely rich.” Farquhar, best man at the wedding, was soon drawn into Bertie’s circle of rich friends who helped finance his expensive life with no questions being asked about their probity. He was one of ten intimate friends who were given a special bust of the debauched, spendthrift monarch after his death.
In 1895 at the age of fifty-one, he married the widow of the head of the Scott banking family to whom he had long been attached (her second son was named after him). She seems to have brought him yet further wealth. She also proved a most valuable support as hostess at the lavish parties he gave at his huge house in Grosvenor Square in London(as early as the 1880s he was praised by Hamilton for giving “the best dinner in London”), at White Lodge in Richmond Park (put at his disposal by George V), and at Castle Rising, an estate leased from the Howard family in Norfolk , to which George V would come from nearby Sandringham to shoot game in vast quantities( he was the best shot in the country) or ask Farquhar to help slaughter birds at Sandringham.
On 18 December 1910, the King-Emperor wrote to him from Buckingham Palace in his spidery , unregal hand: “Glad you had 3 such good days shooting at Castle Rising last week. If you are there on the 28th I hope you will come and shoot with me at Sandringham”, signing himself “ Yr. sincere friend George R.I”. Farquhar was one of the few people outside his family who were close to him. He brought the King little pieces of gossip that were doing the rounds, though they did not always have novelty value. In his letter the King stated: “I had heard the story about Mr Asquith before” (it probably involved excessive drinking). Farquhar cultivated this dull, highly respectable man with the same success he had achieved with his louche, improvident predecessor. He shared Edward VII’s enormous appetite. On 10 January 1921, he was the lunch guest of the British ambassador in Paris, Lord Hardinge of Penhurst, who noted in his diary: “In view of Horace’s love of food, I gave the cook ‘carte blanche’ to do anything he liked, and we had a Gargantuan feast in consequence.”
The friend of royalty also seems to have kept very different company. In the first serious history of homosexuality in Britain, The Other Love, published in 1970, H. Montgomery Hyde, wartime spymaster, Ulster Unionist MP and prolific author, wrote that “one of the most remarkable homosexuals at the turn of the century was the first and last Lord Farquhar, whose rapid advancement in business and court circles is said to have been due to his skill in exploiting his physical charms”. No details are given in this account which rests on “private information”; no names of gay friends have ever emerged.
Could there have been a sexual element in his lifelong relationship with Fife? The anonymous author of Uncensored Recollections, published in 1924, recalled Farquhar “then one of the handsomest and most charming men in London” (the same compliments appear in other publications of the period) as the “fidus Achates of the late Duke of Fife in their salad days” when they “were living together near Berkeley Square”. Are there inferences to be drawn from this? (The writer hated Fife: “ He was essentially a coarse man, extraordinarily selfish and utterly contemptuous of the feelings of others”.) They were both well-known as companions among the Paris demi-monde (where Fife was remembered as “le petit Ecossais roux qui a toujours la queue en l’air”). A taste for gay adventure seems not impossible. But the facts of Farquhar’s love life, whatever they were, remain his best-kept secret.
No such secrecy was possible where his dubious money-making ventures were concerned. In 1889, for example, he joined the board of the British South Africa Company(BSAC) along with the ever faithful Fife. The company was widely seen as a rather discreditable agent of British imperialism in the extensive territories over which it exercised political as well economic sway. Farquhar invited particular rebuke by retaining the chairmanship of an exploration company set up by the Rothschilds to secure mining concessions from the BSAC, despite the clear conflict of interests. In his history of the early years of the BSAC, Crown and Charter (1974), John S. Galbraith noted that “Farquhar’s business ethics belied his public reputation, and his presence on the board did not enhance its moral tone.”
Nor did his business ethics improve with the years. In 1907, Lord Lincolnshire, a former Lord Chamberlain, was shocked to discover that he was heavily implicated in an obviously implausible Siberian gold-mining company whose shares “were rushed up to £16…Horace Farquhar is said to have netted £70,000..[and] the papers are open-mouthed at this scandal.” Nevertheless, he escaped serious embarrassment and censure.
Farquhar took up politics, not out of conviction or even any particular interest in them, but to bring titles and honours closer to his grasp. Loosely attached to Liberal Party in the early 1880s after rejecting the family Conservatism, he sided with those who split from Gladstone over Irish Home Rule in 1886 and formed the Liberal Unionist Party. He was one of its principal donors alongside men of stupendous wealth like Lord Rothschild, the Duke of Westminster and, almost inevitably, his lifelong friend, the Duke of Fife. By 1890 he thought he deserved a peerage, pressing his claims in a long series of letters, often very insinuating in their tone, to Lord Hartington, the Liberal Unionist leader. He made clear that his bounty was far from exhausted. “I would of course give what was asked for the next Elections”, he promised in a letter of 17 July 1890. But after those elections had taken place in 1892, he had to content himself with a mere baronetcy which counted for little with him since he was due to inherit one.
He poured money into London local elections too as President of the London Municipal Society formed in 1894 to support candidates of the right, known as Moderates, the label adopted by the Tories and their allies for London local elections . He represented them on the newly formed London County Council from 1889 to 1901; it is not clear how hard he worked. His thoughts turned to the House of Commons. On 16 September 1894, his friend Edward Hamilton wrote in his diary: “Horace Farquhar has talked to me several times about his going into Parliament. He has been offered Marylebone”. The would-be candidate stressed that “one of the chief considerations” was to strengthen the representation of the Liberal Unionists, but Hamilton sensed what lay at the back of it: “I am sure that the main consideration of all is the hope that actual Parliamentary service will qualify him for further elevation which is his great ambition. He will no doubt enhance his claims; but I expect he will tire of House of Commons life, before he has made much of a Parliamentary record.”
Hamilton knew his man. Elected for Marylebone West with a majority of nearly 1,500 at the general election of July 1895 , Farquhar swiftly renewed his application for a coronet, writing to the Duke of Devonshire, as Hartington had now become, a few months later on 22 September 1895: “ May I first record what my services have been since 1892 – I never like mentioning l.s.d—but we all know very little politically can be done without it—I have collected since 91 for the Unionist cause £30,000 (£21,000 of that sum since the end of 1894) two-thirds of which I have given or guaranteed myself. The practical result has been the [creation of the] London Municipal Society, most of the victories at the LCC elections last March, and hence in a great measure the London Parliamentary ones in July…certainly Marylebone East & West which have fallen entirely on me”. He pledged that after joining the Lords he would “always do the needful in E & W. Marylebone in the future” and keep the London Municipal Society afloat.
His hopes of abandoning the lower house for the upper were not realised quite as swiftly as he would have liked. He lined up his stepson, Sir Samuel Scott, to take over his seat, but he had to wait until 1898 before the Tory leader, Lord Salisbury, reluctantly agreed that he could have his coronet. In his much praised life of Salisbury (1999), Andrew Roberts writes that, having rewarded other large donors, Salisbury was “against another large-scale contributor, Horace Farquhar, getting a peerage after only three years as a Liberal Unionist MP, but it went through, helped by the support of Devonshire and the Prince of Wales.” The new peer boasted that he had paid more than the “accepted tariff ” for his title.
He had made just one speech as an MP, an amazing performance in which he ignored the convention that maiden speakers should be uncontroversial and hit out at the many critics of the controversial British South Africa Company in the House, provoking a number of angry interventions. His successor was no bird of passage; Sir Samuel Scott, Bart., an honourable army officer, was to serve the 8,500 electors of Marylebone West for twenty years, and represent a new single Marylebone seat created in 1918 until 1922.
Farquhar’s tongue, little used in the Commons, was not readily loosened in the Lords either. A member for twenty-five years, he made just six speeches, all of them short, on legislation affecting the London County Council, a subject on which he remained an expert. There was no repetition of the ugly scenes he had provoked in the Commons. Lord Farquhar—a Viscount in 1917 and an Earl in 1922—spoke with elegance and restraint.
By the start of the twentieth century, Farquhar had fulfilled his three great ambitions. He was extremely rich, titled and the friend of kings. He moved happily between his three magnificent homes, his bank and the stock exchange, and the royal palaces of the realm. On his accession in 1901, Edward VII made him Master of the Household, responsible for the administration and good order of the palaces which had come to contribute to his happiness. He helped make the court much more efficient and grand, as the new king wished. He worked alongside the other great officers of state, with whom he had a marked propensity to quarrel.
Matters came to a head in 1921, by which time Farquhar had come to occupy the ancient post of Lord Steward, long regarded as a sinecure. He insisted that he had precedence over the Lord Chamberlain, and took to pushing the latter out of his way on ceremonial occasions to assert his rights. The court as a whole was delighted when Farquhar left its service in 1922 on the resignation of the Lloyd George coalition for which he had performed occasional light duties in the Lords, such as moving adjournments of the House. In his later life, few people ever seem to have liked Farquhar, apart from the members of the Royal Family whom he courted so assiduously. It was probably only their presence at his numerous grand parties that mattered to him.
It must have been Farquhar’s fame as a money-maker, and perhaps his earlier first-hand experience of the seamy side of political finance, that led the Conservative Party to appoint him as its treasurer when that post was created in 1911 as a result of a major reform of the Party’s organisation which also brought the post of Party Chairman into existence. Farquhar was then sixty-seven (very old for such an important job) with friends, but no record of work, in the Tory fold. He always described himself as a Unionist, never as a Conservative. He was by no means the unanimous choice. As the Party’s Chief Whip, Lord Balcarres (the name by which the future Lord Crawford was then known), was at the centre of discussions about the appointment . According to Professor John Vincent, editor of the Crawford diaries, he wanted to appoint his predecessor as Chief Whip to the post, not Farquhar, “a man of every possible sinister quality”, in Vincent’s words. A group connected with Bonar Law who was shortly to replace Balfour as Party leader hustled Farquhar into the post by “crude methods.”
Farquhar swiftly silenced his critics. A highly successful fund-raising drive was launched. He got large capital donations “thanks in large part to the very generous example set by Lord Rothschild”, as the new Party Chairman, Arthur Steel-Maitland, reported to Balfour. A great deal was collected from wealthy peers (with whom Farquhar seems to have had a winning way) and the City. In his authoritative history of the Party in this period, Professor John Ramsden states that by 1914 “the invested funds amounted to £671,000—twice the sum in 1911 and worth four years’ expenditure—and there was a special cash deposit of £120,000 for the coming election” which the outbreak of war postponed. That was extremely reassuring since “ an election costs from £80,000 to £120,00”, as Steel-Maitland informed Bonar Law in 1912. There would be more money to come when the Tories returned to office, Farquhar’s success having been obtained “to a large extent, but not wholly, irrespective of future honours”. In other words, some donations had been given as down payments on the titles that could conferred when the Tories were back in office but leaving others entirely unmortgaged.
The Tories had not been so rich for years. They got richer still during the years of the Lloyd George coalition when honours were sold more profusely and brazenly than ever before. It was through Farquhar that negotiations for such sales were conducted on the Tory side, according to Lloyd George’s biographer, John Grigg. “Throughout his career”, writes Grigg, “there were people who knew that he was (to put it mildly) a financial adventurer, but refrained from exposing him because his connections were so exalted.” After his death ,the silence was broken. On 27 August 1927, the Daily Mail alleged that Farquhar had “often in his indiscreet old age…recounted to his friends the names of individuals for whom he had procured titles, with the exact sums they paid.”
By 1922, Farquhar, now seventy-eight, had accumulated over a million pounds (or so he said; only he knew because no one else had access to the money which was held in his own personal bank accounts). He would not allow any of it to be touched at the election which followed Lloyd George’s overthrow in October 1922. He refused to sign a cheque for £20, 000 in January 1923 to meet election bills. It was coalition money, not Tory funding, he said. Bonar Law was told that there was good reason to believe that “ he has handed sums—perhaps large sums—to L.G. for his party, while acting as our Treasurer”. Lord Beaverbrook, a close friend of Bonar Law who drew on some important private papers for his book, The Decline and Fall of Lloyd George (1963), had no doubt that “ large sums of Tory money contributed by their supporters had been diverted by Lord Farquhar to Lloyd George’s Fund”, for which the Welsh wizard rewarded him by making him an Earl in his resignation honours.
Farquhar’s attempts to explain what had happened to the Tories’ money became more and more muddled. The indulgent Tory leaders were inclined put his incoherence down to senility. “He is so ‘gaga’ that one does not know what to make of him”. Could it have been an act to disarm his accusers? The suspicions increased. Lord Astor, father-in-law of Nancy Astor, who was created a peer in 1916 and made a Viscount one year later, had given him £ 80,000 by one account--£200,000 by another—some of which was for Conservative funds. Where had the money gone? No sense could be got out of him. Lord Edmund Talbot, a former Chief Whip, told Bonar Law that “ I tried to speak to him seriously, but he would not listen and was quite hopeless.” Talbot added: “ He certainly cannot be relied upon” -- which would have been a considerable understatement at any stage of his career.
According to Beaverbrook, Farquhar refused to release any money from his personal bank accounts where Tory money had been lodged because nothing remained in them. “The cupboard was bare.” Diversion to the Lloyd George Fund was part of the explanation, but there still remained other large sums which “could not be traced.” In his book, Corruption in British Politics 1895-1930 (1987),Dr G.R.Searle concluded that “in all probability, to quote Beaverbrook’s coarse words, ‘Horace had spent the lot’ .” Some years later, Bonar Law’s Private Secretary at the time, J.C.C. Davidson, who was well-versed himself in the darker political arts, said that Farquhar had been “ paying sums intended for the Conservative party into his own account and generally behaving with total irresponsibility.” Yet this was the man at whose enormous house in Grosvenor Square during a grand ball three years earlier the future George VI had met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.
It was not only the Tories who were robbed. A year after his death on 30 August 1923, it emerged that he had taken £80,000 from the trust set up by his greatest friend and constant ally, the Duke of Fife, to provide for his wife, the plain Princess Louise, and their children after his death in 1912. She was described as being “open-mouthed” at this appalling betrayal of a family to whom he owed so much. Several old masters had to be sold to replenish the trust.
What had he done with all the money? There is no satisfactory answer. Kenneth Rose, who developed a fascination with Farquhar when researching his excellent George V (1983), states: “Rumour had it that Farquhar, always a patron of the stage, had invested recklessly in the theatres of London and Paris at a time of depressed conditions”. But this could not account for the millions in today’s values that the rogue disposed of. Rose and others have dwelt enjoyably on the extravagant legacies of which the royals and high-ranking personages were deprived when it emerged that Farquhar was an undisclosed bankrupt at the time of his death. This dissipation of vast sums at the end of his life is the greatest mystery that the scoundrel took to the grave. He was buried in an obscure corner of the London Road cemetery in Bromley, the kind of place he would have despised in life. It seems a fitting symbol of his downfall and disgrace.
Unpublished Sources: Bonar Law Papers in the Parliamentary Archives. Devonshire Papers at Chatsworth House. Letter from George V to Farquhar in the possession of Lord Lingfield. Extract from the diary of Lord Hardinge of Penhurst in Cambridge University Library, CUL Add.1.20(for which I am indebted to Professor T.G. Otte of the University of East Anglia).
Published Works : Anonymous author, Uncensored Recollections (Eveleigh & Grayson, 1924). W.R. Bahlman(ed.), The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton 1880-1885, 2 Vols.(Clarendon Press,1972). Lord Beaverbrook, The Decline & Fall of Lloyd George (Collins,1963). Robert Blake, The Unknown Prime Minister: The Life and Times of Andrew Bonar Law 1858-1923(Eyre & Spottiswoode,1955). David Brooks (ed.), The Destruction of Lord Rosebery: From the Diary of Sir Edward Hamilton 1894-1895 (Historians’ Press,1986). Paul H. Emden, Behind the Throne (Hodder & Stoughton, 1934). John S. Galbraith, Crown and Charter: The Early Years of the British South Africa Company (University of California Press,1974). John Grigg, Lloyd George: War Leader 1916-1918 (Penguin, 2002). Marquis of Huntly, Milestones(Hutchinson,1926). H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love: An Historical and Contemporary Survey of Homosexuality in Britain ( Heinemann, 1970). T.A. Jackson, “ The Funding of the Liberal Unionist Party and the Honours System” in The English Historical Review, Vol.105 (October 1990). James Lees-Milne, The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald,2nd Viscount Esher ( Sidgwick & Jackson, 1986). John Ramsden, A History of the Conservative Party: The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 ( Longman,1978). Jane Ridley, Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto & Windus, 2012). Andrew Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1999). Kenneth Rose, King George V (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983) and Kings, Queens & Courtiers (Weidenfeld & Nicolson,1985). Judy Slinn,, “ Farquhar[formerly Townsend-Farquhar], Horace Brand, Earl Farquhar” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (May 2007). G.R.Searle, Corruption in British Politics 1895-1930 (Clarendon Press, 1987). Hugo Vickers, Elizabeth The Queen Mother ( Hutchinson,2005). John Vincent (ed.), The Crawford Papers: The journals of David Lindsay twenty-seventh Earl of Crawford and tenth Earl of Balcarres 1871-1940 during the years 1892 to 1940 (Manchester University Press, 1984). Who Was Who 1916-1928.