Harold COX (1859-1936)

(Much of the source paperwork for this article is in the Leigh Historical Society archive.  A photograph of Harold Cox can be found on Wikipedia, as well as with his obituary in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 2 May 1936)


Recently Garden Cottages have been discussed in the village and there is an item on the website which gives some of the history of this ‘model village’.  However, when talking of Garden Cottages, two names continually arise as being involved in the formation of the Kent Cottage Company Ltd -which built the cottages – that of Leigh residents Dr Frank Fraser and Alfred Paget Hedges, the liberal MP.

But one name is not mentioned but has been discovered when looking at local newspapers for the period – Mr Harold Cox – who lived at Kennards Cottage (now Old Kennards) in Leigh for over 30 years.  He was for a short time another Liberal MP in the village, but was better known in his time as an economist and journalist, who had some quite radical views in his day.

Harold Cox was born at Tonbridge in 1859 and went to Tonbridge School.  He was the son of Judge Homersham Cox, a County Court Judge, who was also an Old Tonbridgian.  His mother was Margaret (née Smith).  He was one of nine children.  One of his brothers, Cyril Cox, became a member of the Tonbridge Urban District Council.

Harold went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was President of the Union in 1881 and secured a BA degree and was appointed University Extension Lecturer on political economy at York and Hull in 1882.

He spent a year after leaving Cambridge working as a farm labourer in Kent and Surrey in order to gain a better understanding of the problems of agricultural employment and afterwards he started a communistic farm – “a bold experiment which quickly failed.” [i]   He had an interest in Fabianism and together with Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield), a member of the Society, wrote a book advocating the eight hour working day.”[ii]

From 1885 to 1887 he went to India and taught mathematics in the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College (now Aligarh Muslim University) at Aligarh and it is said that men in India who had attended his classes spoke 30 years afterwards with affection of the young man who had made mathematics a living thing.[iii]  He returned to England in 1887 to read for the Bar and became a student of Gray’s Inn, but instead moved into journalism and in the early 1890s served on the “Daily Graphic” and the “Westminster Gazette” as well as doing work for other papers.

In 1890 he married Helen Clegg in the City of London and in the 1911 census the couple were living at Gray’s Inn, but he must have also had a home at Leigh at that time.  They never had any children and Helen, who was an accountant, died in 1930.[iv]

Between 1899 and 1904 he was Secretary of the Cobden Club. In his obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser on 8 May 1936 it says that he “first came into the public eye when as secretary of the Cobden Club he engaged with Mr Joseph Chamberlain and other prominent Tariff Reformers in the controversy over Free Trade, of which Mr Cox was an ardent champion …” .[v]  The article goes on to say that “he was a very fine speaker and undoubtedly would have attained a high place in the Liberal movement had it not been that his sturdy independence of mind prevented him from fitting into the party framework.”[vi]  For in 1906 he had stood as a Liberal MP and been returned to “the House of Commons by Preston as a Free Trader but his individualism brought him into conflict with the various points of the programme of Mr Asquith and Mr Lloyd George …”.[vii]     He was not happy as a Liberal MP and campaigned against proposals for Tariff Reform – a continuation of those debates at the Cobden Club.  His Party was moving in a different direction, embracing a new liberalism during the passage of the Liberal welfare reforms and he fought against his party’s policies of old-age pensions, meals for poor schoolchildren and unemployment benefit.[viii]   The result was that at the 1910 election the Preston Liberal Association chose another candidate and Harold Cox, seeking re-election as a free trade candidate in opposition to the official Liberal Candidate, Sir John Gorst, lost.  He tried again as a free trade candidate at the Cambridge by-election in 1911 but failed to win the seat.

His contributions to parliamentary debate can be found in Hansards from 1906 – 1909 on the internet via http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/people/mr-harold-cox.  He spoke out on many issues – international as well as national – on education, where he did not believe children should be educated before seven years of age.[ix]  He spoke on the eight hour working day, elementary education, old age pensions – on topics which continue to be discussed today.

Between 1910 and 1912 – whilst still trying to get back into Parliament – Harold Cox also spent time as an Alderman of the London County Council.  At the same time, he served on a number of committees – Bryce Commission on German Outrages in 1915, the Committee on Public Retrenchment in 1916 and the Royal Commission on Decimal Currency in 1919.  But he would eventually go on to devote himself almost entirely to journalism, becoming editor of the “Edinburgh Review”, a role he continued until 1929, and he also “wrote a weekly signed article for the “Sunday Times” for over 20 years, which had considerable influence on public opinion.”[x]   He would write on many subjects – and “was the author of several books dealing with such subjects as land nationalization and the problem of population”[xi]  – as well as on aging, labour and the labouring poor, and on socialism.  He exclaimed in his work ‘Socialism in the House of Commons 1907’ that he was against weakening individual and group responsibility.  He clung to the doctrines of laissez-faire in their unadulterated form – and – according to GP Gooch, Liberal MP – “dreaded the slackening of moral fibre as a result of getting “something for nothing”.”[xii]

Harold Cox’s writings also strongly advocated that the franchise should be altered so that only direct taxpayers should be electors.  “A man has no natural right to govern his neighbours or to vote away public funds to which he does not contribute,” he once declared and he maintained that whereas in earlier centuries political candidates paid for votes with their own money, today they paid for their votes with public money.  “The cause of public extravagance,” he said, “is the adoption by all political parties of a policy of spending money to provide the individual with things which he should buy for himself.”[xiii]

As already mentioned, Harold Cox lived in Leigh for 30 years – until his death – although we do not know how much time he spent there, but one letter in the Sevenoaks Chronicle & Kentish Advertiser of 8 May 1836 – following his death – intimates he spent many weekends there and what his other interests were outside of politics and journalism.  Entitled ‘An Appreciation’, Mr D H Brooksbank of Tunbridge Wells writes:

“Last week Mr Harold Cox, for many years a resident in Kent, died from pneumonia.  Much has been written of him in his literary work, as economist, journalists and editor, also of his genial, kindly character.  But I have seen no reference to his intense love of the country and the flowers.  Saturdays and Sundays were spent working in the garden that he loved, and the flowers repaid the care he gave.  His were the first to bloom and the last to fade, and no friend called and left without a gift of flowers.  All through the summer on Monday mornings when returning to London he was invariably laden with big bundles of flowers destined for friends and hospitals.  He kept the hedges round his garden low so that passers-by could enjoy looking at his flowers.”[xiv]

His obituary in the Sevenoaks Chronicle of the same date, which, when referring to his years at Leigh, states that “owing to his varied activities further afield he was unable to take an active interest in local affairs”[xv].  Yet we know that, in the question of rural cottages at low rents, this was not the case, for he was involved in the establishment of the Kent Cottage Company around 1906 and in the building of Garden Cottages.  The evidence for this comes from the local newspapers of the time.  His interest was probably prompted by his earlier interest in Fabianism and socialism and his time spent as a farm labourer, referred to above, which brought him directly into contact with the rural poor and his role in the Kent Cottage Company meant he was able to put into practice some of these interests in a positive way – in helping to provide what we today would call affordable homes for the less well off, for the rural poor of Leigh and its environs.

Perhaps another influence in this area was a fellow journalist, John St Loe Strachey (1860-1927) who was proprietor and editor of The Spectator and The Country Gentleman and became involved with the Garden City Movement which had been started in 1898 by Sir Ebenezer Howard.[xvi]  Strachey proposed a Cheap Cottages Exhibition with the intention of producing a cottage of a quality at a price that was affordable.  This exhibition took place at Letchworth in 1905.[xvii]  The shortage of housing for agricultural workers had been a problem for some time, with few cottages being built and the cost of building making it prohibitive.  Perhaps it was this exhibition in 1905 that prompted Harold Cox, a fellow journalist, and his colleagues to draw up similar plans for Leigh.

In Leigh, the Parish Council had been discussing the need for extra cottages for some time[xviii] but the building of a model village was undertaken independently of the parish council with the formation of the Kent Cottage Company.  The project to build Garden Cottages lasted from 1906 until 1914,[xix] the scheme was to provide affordable housing for the people of the village and to build to what was then a high standard.  According to one source[xx], Mr Alfred Paget Hedges[xxi] (who lived at Upper Kennards in Leigh and a fellow Liberal) and Dr Frank Fraser of Park House in Leigh had formed the company in around 1908.  However, sources differ.  Another source said that on 2 August 1905 the Kent Cottage Company Ltd signed a building agreement with Lord de Lisle and took a Lease on the land – a field of a little over two acres – down Powder Mill Lane[xxii].  Harold Cox’s involvement[xxiii] is not mentioned in these sources.  The Kent Cottage Company would eventually appoint architects Stanley-Barrett and Driver (of York Place, Baker Street, W.) to design the model Village.[xxiv]  They had exhibited at the Letchworth, Garden City, Cheap Cottages Exhibition in 1905[xxv] but were not so well known as other Arts and Crafts architects.  The plans are in the Leigh Archive, along with details of the proposed homes.  More details are in our item on Garden Cottages.

The building of Garden Cottages at Leigh raised debate in the local press and also some unwarranted correspondence.[xxvi]

J.S.T. wrote to the Kent & Sussex Courier, letter printed on 21 September 1906, criticizing the Kent Cottage Company:

To the Editor

The Kent Cottage Co. Ltd – Is a General Election Imminent?

Being in want of a country cottage, and hearing of the above Company’s enterprise in Leigh, I went over last Saturday to view same.  I found extremely suitable cottages, with drainage and water supply complete, and, best of all, phenomenal low rents.

I had no difficulty in making up my mind but, on enquiry, was informed that no Tory need apply.  On further enquiry, I learn that Mr A P Hedges is Chairman of the Company and Mr Harold Cox a director.

May I ask whether the above gentlemen consider the letting of 8s a week cottages at 3s6d as practical politics, or as useful philanthropy in view of forthcoming disaster?

Your obedient servant, J.S.T.


This raised responses in the 28 September 1906 edition from Harold Cox and another correspondent.

Attack on the Kent Cottage Company

To the Editor

Sir, I am glad to see that your correspondent “J.S.T.” is of the opinion that the cottages built at Leigh by the Kent Cottage Company, and now being let at 3/6 a week are well worth 8/- a week.  If, however, he really wanted a cottage for himself, it is a pity that he should have been deterred from applying in the proper quarter by the absurd fiction that the cottages are only let to Liberals.  It is true that my friend Mr Hedges (who is not in America) and myself are both directors of the Company, and it is true that we are both Liberals; but it is not true that either of us is such a fool as to allow a business enterprise to be ruined by the introduction of politics.  As a matter of fact, the actual work of letting the cottages is managed by our co-director, Dr Fraser, who happens to be a Unionist.  He has never dreamt of asking what politics any applicant for a cottage professed.  His only concern is to secure respectable tenants who will pay their rents and rates regularly and conduct themselves courteously towards their neighbours.

If “J.S.T.” can produce satisfactory references on these points, and if he is willing to become a shareholder of the Company to the extent of at least £1, his application for a cottage will be as favourably considered as an other (sic).  But the application must be prompt, for there is only one cottage at 3/6 still unlet.  Others at slightly higher rentals are being built, and more will be built as fresh capital comes in.

Let me add that “J.S.T.” is mistaken in supposing that the scheme is, or is intended to be, charitable.  On the contrary the object of the directors is to show that comfortable cottages, with good gardens, can be built to let at low rents, and yet to return 5 per cent on the capital invested.  For the pleasure of proving this, and for the pleasure of supplying a felt want in this neighbourhood, the directors have given their personal service to the Company without fee.  That is the only philanthropy that enters into the scheme.


The letter signed by SENEX (old man)

Dear Sir, I have read J.S.T.’s letter with great interest and amusement.

We have always understood that our present member is a very astute man; but surely, even he, will fail in his undertaking if his object in building these cottages is to import a sufficient number of faggot voters to stem the tide at the next election.  If my memory does not deceive me, the late W. H. Gladstone initiated this political plan of procedure in his first great campaign in Midlothian.

I have nothing to say against the cottages themselves, which I have seen and greatly admired, not only for their artistic appearance, but their many little contrivances adapted for the comfort and elevation of their future occupants.  Apart from those on private estates, they are quite the best I have seen, and if the scheme could be extended to other less favoured districts than Leigh, and run on proper business lines, other than as Radical refuges, they would certainly go a long way in solving the housing problem in our rural district. 

I do not quite agree with J.S.T.’s assessments.  I noticed at the later exhibition of the Garden City cottages at Lichfield, several types of cottages similar to those Leigh ones, the builder’s estimate for which ran about £200 per cottage; so if land was procured on an equitable basis, there is no reason why they could not be let at say 5/- to 6/- per week, and give 5 per cent return on the outlay.

Apologising for so great an encroachment on your space.

Yours faithfully SENEX


However, on 5 October 1906 J.S.T. of The Slade, Tonbridge writes an apology to the Kent Cottage Company and that his source who had claimed “no Tory need apply”  had been spoofing him.  And he regrets that he is the victim:

“I find that all the 3s6d cottages are now let, so I am a victim of the spoof; but I hope the Company will soon build some more, as they are just what’s wanted, and look so snug and clean.  My wife said anyone would be proud to live in such cottages, and I quite agree.”


The question of “The rural cottage problem” continues.  In the Spectator on 18 January 1913 there is a letter from Guy Ewing of Edenbridge[xxvii] in response to something that Mr Cox had written in the Spectator, but I have been unable to find this original article in the Spectator Archives.  A couple of paragraphs follow:

Sir,—Mr. Harold Cox may have solved the problem at Leigh. I hope he has, but I doubt it. As chairman of a Rural District Council Housing Committee for the very district of which Leigh is part, I have had to deal directly with the problem, and my Council is about to erect cottages, if the Local Government Board approves, in the next parish to Leigh, which at rentals of 4s. to 4s. 6d. a week will show an almost exact balance at the start if they are all let, as they will be, but no margin. So far, perhaps, so good, but the exact balance allows too little for repairs after the cottages cease to be new, and most of the calculations that I have seen fail to realize that after the first ten years of the life of even a well-built cottage—and I am not dealing with the others—the necessary periodical repairs absorb a very large proportion of the annual income    …  I do not know what provision is made for repairs at Leigh, but Mr. Cox is too good an economist to have fallen into the almost universal error of under-estimating this burden. It is, however, not quite safe, I fear, to take Leigh as a typical rural parish, as it lies too near to the considerable town of Tonbridge to be accepted as a standard, and agricultural wages are higher in that part of Kent than in many other parts of the county, to say nothing of Essex, Hampshire, Dorset, and, doubtless, other counties of which I have no personal or professional knowledge.

And what Harold Cox wrote in the Spectator is also mentioned in the Tunbridge Wells Kent & Sussex Courier on 3 January 1913.

“Mr Harold Cox contributes an interesting letter to the “Spectator” on the solution of the rural cottage problem and describes the working of the Kent Cottage Company, Limited in the neighbouring village of Leigh.  Mr Cox remarks that the results are so satisfactory that similar companies might be formed in other parishes and more shares taken up in the Kent Company to extend its work.  One satisfactory feature is that every tenant is expected to take up at least one £1 share and can attend the annual meeting and discuss points with the directors for promoting the comfort of the tenants.  At present 20 cottages have been built at Leigh and there are six more to be built.  Rents at 4s to 5s 6d show a return of four per cent”.


Harold Cox had an extraordinary brilliant career as an economist and journalist and as a champion of individual liberty.  At a banquet the Earl of Roseberry described him as “embodying the very spirit of liberty.”[xxviii] The Labour politician Philip Snowden said of him, “Mr Cox was a very polished speaker and stated the case with which he was dealing with great intellectual force … [he was an] incorrigible individualist”.[xxix]

But at Leigh he should be remembered for his involvement with the Kent Cottage Company and the building of Garden Cottages – affordable homes for the rural poor – and now that his name in this connection has been rediscovered, perhaps he will.

Joyce Field (January 2017)



Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser
Kent and Sussex Courier
Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail
Spectator Archives
Various Other Websites, including:  Wikipedia; Findmypast; Ancestry.com; Letchworthgardencity.com/heritage


[i] Obituary:  Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Kent and Sussex Courier, 21 November 1930
[v] Obituary:  Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Wikipedia
[ix] On education he did not believe that a child should start school until aged seven – see Hansard  Commons Debate July 16 1906: vol 160 c1344 “I beg to ask the President of the Board of Education whether his attention has been called to the fact that compulsory education begins at a lower age in England than in any other civilised country; and whether he will consider the desirability, either of amending the existing Law or of recommending to local education authorities that no parent should be prosecuted for keeping his child away from school until the child has attained seven years of age.
[x] Obituary: Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1836
[xi] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 2 May 1936.  There is also a photograph.
[xii] Wikipedia
[xiii] Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail 2 May 1936.
[xiv] “An Appreciation”:  Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936
[xv] Obituary: Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936
[xvi] See Wikipedia entry.
[xvii] See http://letchworthgardencity.com/heritage and the Letchworth Garden City Exhibition of 1905
[xviii] See Leigh Parish Council Minutes
[xix] Kent & Sussex Courier (Tunbridge Wells) 3 January 1913 refers to twenty cottages having been built and another six to be built; in addition, the project seems to have finished by 30 April 1914 when the company took a conveyance of the freehold of the twenty-six cottages from Lord de Lisle.
[xx] Chris Rowley “We Had Everything …” p. 68
[xxi] Alfred Paget Hedges 1867-1929 – a Methodist; married Florence Hicks; ran family tobacco business (Benson & Hedges Ltd).  Liberal MP for Tunbridge 1906-1910 (source: Wikipedia)
[xxii] Ibid. p.291
[xxiii] Mr Harold Cox’s involvement with the Kent Cottage Company Ltd found in press articles: see 3 Jan 1913 Kent & Sussex Courier; Spectator 18 January 1913; Hartlepool Northern Daily mail 2 May 1936; Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936.
[xxiv] The architects appointed initially appointed to design Garden Cottages was Smith and Brewer, of Richmond (see Lawrence Biddle “Leigh in Kent 1550-1900).  However, copies of the Smith and Brewer plans clearly have the words ‘cancelled’ written on them.
[xxv] The Garden City Movement referred to earlier in the text. The shortage of housing for agricultural workers had been a problem for some time, with few cottages being built, the cost of building making it prohibitive.  (Source: Wikipedia).   Another architect involved in the Cheap Cottages Movement was Clough Williams-Ellis who was designing cheap cottages for labourers in North Wales using local materials.  He later married Sir John Loe Strachey’s daughter.  Williams-Ellis went on to design two of the principal buildings at the Princess Christian Hospital in Hildenborough.
[xxvi] Kent & Sussex Courier: 21 September 1906; 28 September 1906; 5 October 1906; 3 January 1913
[xxvii] A transcript is in our archive but can be found at the Spectator Archives website
[xxviii] Obituary: Sevenoaks Chronicle and Kentish Advertiser 8 May 1936
[xxix] Quote taken from Wikipedia Harold Cox ‘Legacy’