Baron Stevenson and the 1924/1925 Wembley Exhibitions.


Ken Harman


            On a recent visit to Ewhurst in Surrey I was looking in the churchyard for the grave of Edward Morton who had previously lived at Sanderstead Court, South Croydon but moved to the Ewhurst area in the mid-1920s. He had been co-owner with a brother of a large food-processing firm on the Isle of Dogs, London. Having succeeded in my task, I noticed a prominent grave for a Baron Stevenson (James Stevenson). Although I did not know then who he was, I have found that he had been a major figure in the planning and control of the 1924 and 1925 British Empire Exhibitions.

            James Stevenson was born in 1873 in Kilmarnock, the son of a warehouse manager at the John Walker whisky distilling firm, better known for Johnnie Walker whisky. He started work with another firm in Glasgow but later joined Walker's as a commercial traveller. It was expanding at that time and he soon rose to be a manager and then a director. He had remarkable powers of concentration, immense enthusiasm together with the ability to inspire others.

            However, World War 1 upset plans everywhere and Stevenson was recruited by Lloyd George to assist the government with organising war production. He held many appointments in the Ministry of Munitions where his skills were much appreciated and he certainly made a valuable contribution to the provision of war supplies. After the war ended, Walker's expected him to return but this did not happen immediately as he continued with further public service. He was created a baronet in 1917 which was also the year his wife died.

            In 1924 he was appointed Chairman of the Board of the Standing Committee of the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley. Unfortunately the work on this enormous undertaking was severely delayed by bad weather and also by a strike so that construction became an even more difficult task. It was largely due to Stevenson's efforts that it was possible to carry out the opening on time. Just before this took place on 23rd April 1924, King George V conferred honours on him by creating him Baron Stevenson of Holmbury. Stevenson's forceful personality ensured that the exhibition would run for a second year and after it closed in 1925 it was primarily due to him that the large stadium was preserved - to become "the home of English football".

            His connection with the Ewhurst area dates from the early 1920s when he moved to Holmbury House which was a large Victorian property on a hillside above Holmbury St. Mary on an estate of some 30 acres.

            On the commercial side, in 1925 there was an amalgamation of whisky distilling firms and Stevenson managed to secure generous financial provision for himself and the Walker family. Although he joined the newly-created enlarged firm (The Distillers Company) illness soon intruded and he died at Holmbury House on 10th June 1926. A memorial service was held on 14th June 1926 at St. Margaret's, Westminster attended by many people of repute.

            His second wife moved from Holmbury House afterwards, living until 1935. It remains today as the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, part of University College London. An inscription on Baron Stevenson's tomb in the southern extension of the churchyard at Ewhurst reads:






BORN APRIL 2nd 1873. DIED JUNE 10th 1926.


BORN APRIL 9th 1875. DIED JULY 7th 1935.



            A memorial west window can be seen inside the church. A fine tribute to Baron Stevenson was issued by Winston Churchill: (He had) exhausted in the service of the State the vital forces which by an easier and less disinterested career might have been carried to a long old age. He leaves behind an example of public spirit, of rectitude, and of flexible originative capacity, which those who aspire to be leaders of British industry may well emulate.

            Would that this could be said of some public people these days!


© Exhibition Study Group 2011