Who's Who in the Armstrong & Burton Series
Note - No plot spoilers, just a bit of background on the characters;
Featured Character Profiles
Norman Armstrong (Born in London, 1920)
From a long family line of prominent military and political leaders, Norman Armstrong was an only child, upper middle class and privileged; educated at Winchester. His father, Richard, had been a Conservative MP and close confidant of Winston Churchill, serving as Minister Without Portfolio in the wartime coalition cabinet, having previously been Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the pre-war Baldwin National Government.
Norman joined the RAF upon the outbreak of war, and flew in the Battle of Britain, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He subsequently transferred to Bomber Command, achieving the rank of Flight Lieutenant. In 1944 he married a pilot from the Air Transport Auxiliary, Eileen Hawkins, and their only son, Rick, was born in 1946.
For forty-two years Norman held the safest Tory constituency in the country, Stonebridge Southeast, having taken over from his popular father at the General Election of 1950. A strong, committed and highly visible local MP, his majority increased at each election until it reached close to 30 000 after the Thatcher landslide of 1983.
Norman was a stalwart of the right wing of the Conservative Party, and was appointed Assistant Economic Secretary to the Treasury under Chancellor R.A (Rab) Butler after the 1951 election. His early promotion was generally seen as having as much to do with his father’s friendship with Winston Churchill than from any abilities he had thus far demonstrated, but he proved to be an effective junior minister, and his career path seemed assured. He continued in the Treasury under Harold Macmillan, then followed Macmillan to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS). Norman then held the senior Cabinet post of Home Secretary during the brief administration of Alec Douglas-Home. Following the Conservative election loss in 1964, his enmity with new Opposition Leader Edward Heath consigned his political career to the wilderness for ten years leading up to Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to the party leadership, an event in which Norman played a key role.
A ferocious Thatcherite and senior Tory strategist, Norman was heavily involved in political machinations that sought to undermine the government of Jim Callaghan, and ran the campaigns that resulted in the Conservative election victory of 1979, and their crushing second and third mandates in 1983 and 1987. He served as Chief Whip during the Thatcher Government's first term, during which time his friend and lobby correspondent, Alf Burton, described him as the ”almost acceptable face of Thatcherism." He returned to the Home Office in late 1983 for what would become a long and often highly controversial tenure, coinciding with uncertain times in his own constituency.
Knighted in the New Year Honours of 1984, Sir Norman continued to serve as Home Secretary until 1990, when he unsuccessfully ran the Prime Minister’s leadership defense. He resigned after insulting remarks he made privately about John Major were reported in the tabloid press, and served as a backbencher until 1992, when he was elevated to the Lords as the First Viscount Armstrong of Stonebridge.
Alfred (Alf) Burton (Born in Jarrow, 1918)
From a family of shipyard workers, Alf became politically active in his teens as the ravages of 1930s industrial closures, poverty, unemployment and disease tore through his community. He became a committed socialist, spoke at public rallies in support of local MP Ellen Wilkinson, and took a leading role the Jarrow March in 1936.
He fought with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, then, upon the outbreak of the Second World War, joined the Merchant Navy as a wireless telegraphist, serving on freighters and tankers under the Speers Line banner. He spent the war on convoy duty in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and in the Arctic, narrowly escaping death on several occasions as his ships were torpedoed out from under him. He met Dora Hedges, known as Dolly, while home on leave in 1943, and they married not long after VE Day.
In 1947 Alf and Dolly Burton moved to Pimlico, as Alf had secured employment as London correspondent for the Tyne-Tees Ledger. Alf began cementing his reputation as a crusading lobby correspondent, author and political commentator, vociferously supporting Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan, and Labour’s Welfare State and full employment initiatives. His provocative, anti-Tory articles were soon appearing in a number of high-circulation newspapers and magazines.
By 1977 he was seen as arguably the best informed and most influential political commentator and author in Britain, with a number of bestselling political histories and biographies to his name. He was appointed national political editor for the nationwide network of newspapers, radio stations and regional ITV franchises controlled by Donoghue Publishing and Broadcasting, where he became even more widely known and respected for his regular newspaper column, Westminster Watch and his weekly radio programme, City Roundup. In his mature years he became much less partisan in his commentary, but his work surrounding the Miners’ Strike of 1984 attracted vicious criticism and aggressive retaliation from the government, nearly ending his career and endangering the organisation for which he worked.
Thanks largely to the influence of his close, if unlikely friend, Norman Armstrong, he was anointed official biographer of the Thatcher Government, and was granted unique access over several years. His series of books, Thatcher and the End of Consensus, volumes one to four, were published to great acclaim in the 1990s, and became the biggest sellers of all his books. In 1997 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and declined a Knighthood the following year.
Charlotte Georgiana Victoria Morris (1850-1919)
Charlotte Morris (nee Speers) was born in Calcutta, to Horatio and Emily Speers. She was the granddaughter of Post Captain Sir Charles Speers, veteran of Trafalgar, and founder of the Speers shipping line, associated Tyneside shipyard and colonial trading companies. Her mother died in childbirth, and with her father travelling constantly for business, her upbringing, and that of her older brother Nelson, was supervised by her grandmother, Lady Georgiana.
In 1872 she married Lieutenant Reginald Morris, recently commissioned in the Queens Own Natal Rifles, and followed him to Fort Napier, Pietermaritzburg, where she soon became popular in colonial society. Lieutenant Morris was a drunkard, a gambler, and a violently abusive husband, intensely disliked by many of his fellow officers, including Captain Fforbes Armstrong. Morris died in unexplained circumstances, although it was widely believed that he had been killed in a duel, having been called out in dramatic circumstances in the officers’ mess.
Charlotte subsequently returned to England, and through an acquaintance with Jennie, Lady Randolph Churchill, joined the social circle of the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. Independently wealthy thanks to her family’s business interests, she achieved success in her own right as a writer of essays, magazine articles, historical works and penny-dreadfuls. She travelled extensively, wrote a biography of her grandfather, Nelson’s Own, as well as an ongoing, popular series of travel guides, Postcards from Empire, which were later combined in a best-selling omnibus volume.
In 1899, having inherited control of the Speers business empire following the death of her brother, she returned to southern Africa to report on the Boer War, and there renewed her friendship with Fforbes Armstrong, now Colonel of the Queen's Own Natal Rifles, with whom she had kept up a regular correspondence since her departure from Natal, and had visited on several occasions during her extensive travels. In the latter part of the war, her activism against the use of internment camps as part of the British scorched earth policy made her a number of enemies within the military hierarchy, including Kitchener himself, Commander of the British Forces. Facing a spurious prosecution, she was able to return to England following direct intervention from Colonel Armstrong, where she was placed under the new King’s protection, and became His Majesty’s special adviser on colonial affairs.
In subsequent years she worked toward the reform of her family companies’ business practices, and during the Great War established a hospital for shell-shocked officers at Trafalgar Hall, her family estate in Cornwall, for which she was honoured by Prime Minister Lloyd George. With the support of her companion, editor and secretary, Dorothy Keppel, she achieved lasting literary fame thanks to a series of murder-mystery novels, featuring a colonial soldier and amateur sleuth, Captain Richard Fforbes, the hero inspired largely by her old friend, Colonel Fforbes Armstrong, and named after the Colonel's young son. She also wrote a much-admired history of Armstrong’s regiment, a text-book on the humane treatment of shell-shock, and a controversial biography of Kitchener that remained unpublished for several years.
She died of influenza in the New Year of 1919.
Rt Hon Sir Dick Billings MP (1904-1990)
Dick Billings was born on the Sandringham Estate. Following the death of his father, a Doctor with the Sandringham Company (Norfolk Regiment) during the Dardanelles Campaign in 1915, the ambitious teenager was mentored by his late father's senior partner, Doctor Sir Cedric Knollys, Physician in Ordinary to the Royal Family, and Dick was encouraged to complete his education rather that go to work on the Estate.
As a young man, Dick developed an interest in Conservative politics and, after some years on the fringes of the Party, was elected to the safe Tory constituency of Uxbridge-Ruislip in a 1934 by-election. He soon gained the reputation as a fierce and effective campaigner, and master strategist.
He was befriended by powerful press baron Padraig Donoghue, and the young MP's social and career prospects were enhanced further by his marriage to widely admired socialite, the Honourable Celia Pakenham. His public profile was raised in 1936, when he came out strongly in support of the campaign to prevent the abdication of King Edward VIII. During this period he also nurtured a friendship and professional alliance with then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Richard Armstrong. Donoghue, Billings and Armstrong led a faction of the King's supporters in an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to allow a morganatic marriage; whereby the King's wife would not be Queen Consort, and any children would fall outside of the succession.
Dick strongly denounced Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, and supported Winston Churchill's ascendancy to the leadership of the wartime Coalition Government. He initially headed the Ministry of Information, but was demoted following a spy scandal within his department. Increasingly angry and embittered, and consumed with grief following the death of his wife, and then his best friend Padraig Donoghue during the Blitz, Dick spent the remainder of the war in a number of increasingly obscure government departments, including the Department of Economic Warfare.
He became a highly controversial figure in the post-war years. He fought bitterly with Aneurin Bevan and socialist lobby correspondent Alf Burton, and served as Secretary of State for Transport and Maritime Affairs under Macmillan and Douglas-Home. During this time he facilitated a major privatisation; the sale of British Speers Maritime Industries, formerly the Chas R Speers and Company shipyard on Tyneside, to the ambitious, Tory supporting media and construction tycoon Eddie Donoghue, only son and heir of Padraig.
Billings was Knighted for services to government-industry co-partnership, but his close personal and professional relationship with Eddie Donoghue would later give rise to rumours of corruption and ongoing allegations of conflicts of interest.
His part in Britain's initially vetoed attempts to join the EEC, at which time he berated and insulted the French President, placed him at odds with Edward Heath, so when Heath was elected Tory leader in 1965, it was generally seen as the end of Sir Dick's career.
A strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher, he played a pivotal role, along with opposition backbencher Norman Armstrong, in her rise to the Party leadership in 1975. It seemed very likely that Sir Dick would return to Cabinet in the event of a Tory victory at the 1979 election, however racially charged comments made while campaigning in Toxteth, Liverpool, precipitated a riot leading to extensive property damage and a number of police and civilian injuries, ending any hopes of a career resurgence.
Sir Dick later served as Secretary of State for Environment, then as Chief Whip and Conservative Party Chairman. He was actively involved in formulating the successful strategies for the 1979, 1983 and 1987 election campaigns, but his power waned during the Thatcher Government's final term, and his health declined dramatically after a fall in 1989. He died at Stonebridge House, an exclusive aged care home in Sir Norman Armstrong's constituency, in 1990.
Surprisingly, he bequeathed his voluminous papers, memoirs and secret diaries to Alf Burton.
See more background to the stories on the author's note and in context pages .