Webpage created: September 27, 2019
Webpage updated: September 27, 2019
WALDORF ASTOR (1879-1952) - VISCOUNT ASTOR
Waldorf Astor was born in New York, United States of America, on May 19th 1879. He was the son of Mr William Waldorf Astor and great-great-grandson of Mr John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), a German who emigrated to America in 1784 and made a vast fortune out of fur trading which he later used to purchase land upon which was built New York. Waldorf's great-grandfather, Mr William Backhouse Astor (1792-1875), was known as 'The Landlord of New York'.
On the one hand it is claimed that Waldorf Astor settled in England in 1889 but it is also claimed that his father did not bring the family to England until late in 1890, following the death in America of his own father, Mr John Jacob Astor III, from whom he inherited the family fortune estimated at $100,000 million. Whichever date is correct, in 1892 his father bought the "Pall Mall Gazette" newspaper. The following year he bought Cliveden House, near Marlow, in Buckinghamshire. In 1899 he became a naturalized Englishman.
Waldorf was educated at Eton College and then at Oxford University. He gained only a fourth-class degree in modern history but became a distinguished sportsman and socialite. On May 3rd 1906 he married an American divorcee by the name of Mrs Nancy Witcher Shaw (formerly Langhorne). The couple received Cliveden House as a wedding present from his father.
Having decided to make a career out of politics, he succeeded in getting elected to represent Plymouth in December 1910. Between 1918 and 1919 he served as Conservative MP for the Sutton Division of Plymouth. However, his political ambitions were cut short when his father, who had been created Viscount Astor in 1917, died on October 18th 1919 and Waldorf was suddenly elevated to the House of Lords. With great reluctance he resigned his seat in the House of Commons and was succeeded shortly afterwards by his wife, Viscountess Nancy Astor, who in doing so became England's first ever female Member of Parliament. Plymouth thus had representatives in both Houses of Parliament.
After 1922, when the Lloyd George government fell, he left politics behind and concentrated on supporting his wife and her work in and for Plymouth and developing an extremely successful stud of race horses. He worked very much in the background and on one occasion was said to have commented that he was usually introduced as 'The husband of Lady Astor MP' rather than as a Lord in his own right.
In 1925 they founded the Virginia House Settlement in Looe Street, Plymouth, which Lord Astor later endowed with the sum of £40,000.
Viscount Lord Astor was granted the Freedom of the City of Plymouth on July 2nd 1936.
During the late 1930s both he and Lady Astor became well-known for their support of the policy to appease Hitler and hopefully avoid another war. However, that policy failed and when the Second World War began, he was elected to the office of Lord Mayor of Plymouth, only the second non-councillor in the City's history ever to be appointed to that office. He continued to serve until 1944.
When the new Lord Mayor was appointed in 1944, Lord Astor was too unwell to attend and his end-of office speech was read for him. In it he disclosed that during Plymouth's hour of trial, when the Luftwaffe was showering death and destruction on the City, he had faced the possibility of becoming a casualty in a raid, and had so much felt a communication of soul with the people of Plymouth that he had left instructions that in case of disaster he desired to share a communal burial with his fellow citizens. 'I could think of no more honourable ending' he is reported as saying.
He was offered election as an Alderman, for which Alderman F C Roach offered to resign in his favour, but he declined the offer as he did not wish to be seen as the nominee of any political party. However, he did agree to serve under Alderman Sir Clifford Tozer on the Reconstruction Committee.
Waldorf Lord Astor died at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, on September 30th 1952. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Mr William Waldorf Astor, who died in 1966.
During his life he had always been a keen puritan, teetotal, and a great benefactor to the people of Plymouth. He purchased what had been the Plymouth Rugby Club ground alongside Embankment Road and gave it to the local authority as playing fields for organised games for the local elementary school children. They are now known as the Astor Playing Fields, even though the sign on the gate does not quite agree. After the Great War the Astors established the Astor Housing Estate at Mount Gould, to which they contributed £20,000, and followed that with the erection of the Astor Institute. The Astor Hall, for the accommodation of students, was another Astor project as well as the East End Assembly Rooms ands the public open space by the remains of Plymouth Castle. When the vicarage of the Church of the Holy Trinity became vacant the Astors bought it to provide a secure, enclosed location for a nursery school.
The Astors had bought in Elliot Terrace on The Hoe as their Plymouth residence. There they entertained their Majesties, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to tea on March 20th 1941, just before the start of the German blitz of Plymouth. The property, now number 3 Elliot Terrace, was bequeathed to the City by his widow and has ever since been used as the Lord Mayor's official residence. It is normally used to accommodate visiting dignitaries and the circuit judges.