With many thanks to Nick Gammage for this week’s article.

Striking photographs in a newly discovered Edwardian album bring to light a previously unrecorded friendship between the families of Labour Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald and his wife Margaret and their Chesham Bois neighbours, social campaigners Francis and Sophie Colenso of Elangeni.

The album, which once belonged to the Colenso family, has now been acquired by Amersham Museum through a generous gift from the Amersham Society.


The Colensos of St John’s Wood built Elangeni on farmland in 1901 as a country home and in March 1905, the MacDonalds’ rented Linfield Cottage, close-by on Bois Lane - also as a weekend retreat. From the photos it is apparent that these influential neighbours were also good friends.

Research in the family archives, prompted by the album, uncovered many letters which reveal that this was a warm friendship which spanned more than 30 years. One of these letters was signed, “Your old (very old!) friend, Sophie J Colenso”. Sophie and Margaret were childhood friends as their fathers, Sir Edward Frankland and John Hall Gladstone, were eminent scientists and colleagues who socialised together. Sophie first met Frank Colenso at Margaret’s house, and her sister Florence was one of Sophie’s bridesmaids. It is therefore possible that the Colensos were behind the MacDonalds’ choice of Chesham Bois for a weekend retreat.

Radical beliefs

The families shared radical beliefs and campaigned on pressing social issues such as women’s suffrage and the treatment of native tribesmen in Britain’s African colonies. Frank Colenso was the son of the controversial Bishop John Colenso, the first Anglican Bishop of Natal who opposed ruthless British colonial rule. Frank, working in London, lobbied Parliament and the British Government tirelessly on the Zulus’ behalf. In March 1906 the Natal government declared martial law after a native revolt against a harsh new poll tax. They arrested the Zulu rebels, tried them without jury and sentenced 12 to death.

Frank channelled his efforts for the condemned Zulus through Ramsay MacDonald, who was the newly elected MP for Leicester, and a rising star in the fledging Labour Party. There can be no doubt that the MacDonalds shared the Colensos’ concern about what was happening in Africa. In 1902 Ramsay and Margaret had visited South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and were appalled by what they saw. MacDonald’s vivid account of that journey carries harrowing accounts of the indiscriminate revenge-burnings of Boer farms by British troops. This forged his life-long belief in the futility of war.

MacDonald’s initial refusal to support Britain’s decision to declare war against Germany in 1914 brought him vitriolic criticism. The war raised complex issues, too, for Sophie Colenso, a life-long pacifist. Her mother was German, she and her children were bi-lingual, and they made regular visits to German relatives and friends. Census returns show that the Colensos also employed German servants at Elangeni.

From the outbreak of war Sophie urged MacDonald to take up the plight of German Prisoners of War. He explained that while he was sympathetic, he could not do this publicly without him appearing even more pro-German than he was already being painted. In a reply to Sophie from November 1914 about conditions in internment camps he refers to picking up her letter at Chesham Bois. This indicates he was still renting Linfield Cottage at the outbreak of the Great War, a decade after first leasing it.


The MacDonalds and Colensos were also bound together by the shared experience of a series of devastating family tragedies. The album contains two intimate photographs of four of the MacDonalds’ six children. These are Alister (born in 1898), Malcolm (1901), Ishbel (1903) and David (1904). Joan was to arrive later (in 1908) and their sixth child, Sheila, in 1910.

In February 1910 the MacDonalds suffered the devastating loss of their five-year-old son David from diphtheria. Frank and Sophie knew all too well what it was to lose a young child: in July 1882, their first-born Esmond had suddenly taken ill and died aged just seven months. Sophie and her daughter Irma both sent messages of sympathy to the MacDonalds, with Irma (then aged 24) recalling the MacDonalds’ happy family visits to Elangeni with their children:

“Much as I love all your dear children, little David always held the biggest place in my heart and we shall never forget his sweet loveable ways. The hours we have spent with your dear little ones are among the happiest in our lives and we shall miss his dear little face from among them more than I can possibly say.”

More tragedy was to come. Four months later in June 1910, Frank died at Elangeni, aged just 58. In September the following year Ramsay MacDonald, too, was suddenly widowed, when his wife Margaret died aged just 40 after contracting blood poisoning.

Two years after that, in 1913, Sophie Colenso lost another child prematurely in tragic circumstances when her only surviving son Nigel, aged 23, was killed in a shooting accident in South Russia while working as a mining engineer. There are striking portraits in this album showing Nigel in his later teens, astride an early motorcycle and on horseback. He was the image of his father.

MacDonald and Sophie Colenso died within a few months of each other in 1937. MacDonald never lost his love of Elangeni and Chesham Bois. Writing to Sophie shortly before his – and her – death he describes fondly catching sight of Elangeni as he walked down the road near Chesham Bois, passing under the railway bridge and walking beside watercress beds on his way to Chenies.

The photographs in this album provide us with a clearer picture of the Colensos and their long-demolished home, Elangeni. They also bring to life an enduring relationship between “very old friends” in two remarkable families.

A longer version of this article can be found on amershammuseum.org