Isaac Foot in 1901
Extraordinary life of Apostle of England
The life of a puritan who spawned a political dynasty is uncovered by his son in a captivating biography, writes Illtyd Harrington
Isaac Foot by Michael Foot and Alison Highet, Politico’s, £25 order this book
MICHAEL Foot wrote about his redoubtable solicitor father Isaac in Debts of Honour and now with his niece he presents in anthology form a record of this unusual patriarch.
He was a joyful puritan and one of the country’s leading collectors of books – at one stage he had almost 60,000 crowded into his home. He paid three grandchildren to count them. A preacher in constant demand, he splatter-gunned sermons, speeches and letters with rare quotations.
Often to the dismay of his son Hugh, Isaac and his wife Eva Macintosh were pillars of the temperance movement.
Born in 1880 and dying in 1960, Isaac was a staunch Wesleyan Methodists, west country Liberal and a constant champion of the republicans Oliver Cromwell and John Pym.
His father, also Isaac, was a carpenter and undertaker in Plymouth who heartily embraced religious non-conformity. And Isaac the younger was a great champion of Plymouth. It was his public sanctuary and citadel with Cornwall, Devon and Dorset as his hinterland. Even the fierce Tory Nancy Astor, the first woman MP, who represented Plymouth, admired his stance.
In Eva he found his soul mate and their five sons and two daughters were their loved progeny. But Michael abandoned the Liberals and joined the socialist party before eventually to leave that too. His apostasy was not the source of any personal rancour. Young Isaac’s letters to Eva are tender, now and then stiffened by the religious propriety but his restrained passion sometimes burst out. What lover today would quote Euripides to the object of his desire? “Love is a mixture of the sweetest joys, and torments most severe.”
Serving his early legal apprenticeship after a spell in London he relishes a feast of Sunday sermons. He rode on the splendour of two sermons: the Miracle Cana, where water was turned into wine; and the Dignity of Jesus. But he also watched football, cricket, opera and orchestral concerts.
Later, as his father and grandfather had done, he preached throughout Cornwall and beyond and pulled in the faithful carrying the flag of west country liberalism. He stood for Parliament for Bodmin four times and won in 1922 and 1929 and he briefly served as an efficient minister for mines. Concurrently he championed the literary genius of Robert Louis Stephenson, William Wordsworth and Joseph Conrad.
He paused to savage the brewers as an early advocate of don’t drink and drive and the political rights of women remained high on his political agenda.
During the gathering storm of the 1930s and the fascist take over of Spain he foresaw that the blitz by German and Italian bombers on the small northern Spanish town of Guernica in 1937 would be repeated in Plymouth in a future war – a tragic and accurate prophecy.
The personal respect accorded to him resulted in a request from Churchill’s government to tour the USA.
Between May and September 1943 he visited 31 states, made 81 speeches to thousands and was credited with achieving a major propaganda success. And all on a meagre allowance of $12 a day.
Irrepressible and bubbling with energy, he was honoured to become Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1945 – inspiring fellow citizens to rebuild their wrecked city.
His rock Eva died in May 1946. What a family they produced.
In 1945 four stood for Parliament: Isaac in Tavistock; John in Bodmin; and Dingle, who later became a Labour solicitor general. But it was Michael in Devonport who produced the only success. Hugh entered the diplomatic service and became Lord Caradon, representing the UK in Cyprus and Jamaica.
Perhaps a straightforward biography would have been easier but Isaac gets out of these pages bold, brave and incorruptible striding along on a pilgrim’s progress, a very perfect English gentleman and more accurately a proud son of the west country.