Obituary - Simon Wingfield-Digby


Landowner and MP for West Dorset who was a Lord of the Admiralty under Churchill.

SIMON Wingfield Digby, who has died aged 88, was a Tory of the old school, combining the care of extensive family estates, notably at Sherborne Castle in Dorset, with a career of more than 30 years in the House of Commons.

First returned (unopposed) for West Dorset in 1941, Wingfield Digby was a Tory Whip from 1948 to 1951, and for the next six years Civil Lord of the Admiralty. It was a period when the frequent cancellation of shipping orders to British yards obliged him to emphasize the need to take foreign competition more seriously.

He was deeply involved in the negotiations under which Simonstown, after 143 years as a British base, was handed over to South Africa in 1957. He took great care to see that the interests of the Coloured employees were protected. 

Foreshadowing later controversies, Wingfield Digby was also obliged to field a suggestion from the Labour MP Emrys Hughes that the Royal Yacht Britannia should be turned into a hospital ship. Two years later, though, when Britannia was used for that very purpose during exercises in the Mediterranean, Emrys Hughes complained that this was a means of camouflaging expenditure on the yacht.

When Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister in 1957, Wingfield Digby's ministerial career ended. But his energies were very far from being dimmed. He had already shown himself an active backbencher in the period immediately after the war, when he was employed as a liaison officer in the Tory Reform Group's attempt to woo the Liberals into an alliance against the Labour Party. With Peter Thorneycroft, he co-wrote the anti-socialist manifesto, Design for Freedom.

Returning to the backbenches in 1957, he kept up his marine interests, serving as chairman of the Shipping and Shipbuilding Committee between 1964 and 1974, and as a member of the Coastal Pollution Select Committee from 1966 to 1968. He also became a member of the Public Accounts Committee.

Wingfield Digby was no less vigilant in scrutinizing government policy across a wide range of issues: the decline of the whale population, the fate of Gibraltar, the future of airlines and the need to tackle traffic snarl-ups.

As a great landowner, he was especially interested in country affairs, serving on the Conservative Forestry sub-committee from 1959 to 1967, and speaking in the House of Commons upon the menace of grey squirrels, the disappearance of village post offices and the upkeep of rivers.

In 1961, anticipating the contemporary debate, he pointed out how unfair an increase in petrol duty was to country dwellers. He also kept a concerned eye on betting law, and in 1968 proposed that the Government should run a sweepstake on racing, with 70 per cent of the profits going to charity.

In 1966 Wingfield Digby introduced a Private Member's Bill to facilitate abortion in cases where the mother's health might be endangered or the child deemed likely to suffer from abnormalities that would prevent the reasonable enjoyment of life. He considered the Bill as "one of the last steps in the emancipation of women". It was talked out, to cries of "Shame" from his supporters.

Always interested in foreign affairs, from 1972 to 1974 Wingfield Digby was leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe. Sir Julian Critchley has recalled how pleasant it was to serve under his leadership and that of his successor Sir John Rodgers. "The food, dear boy, is much better than in England," Critchley was told, "and the oratory largely incomprehensible."

Kenelm Simon Digby Wingfield Digby was born on February 13 1910. The double-barrelled surname had been formed in 1796, when his ancestor William Wingfield married the heiress of Earl Digby; their son, George Wingfield Digby, inherited the Digby estates at Sherborne and at Coleshill in Warwickshire.

Sherborne Castle was built by Sir Walter Raleigh. Legend has it that Sir Walter was out riding when his horse stumbled. "Where I fall, I stop," he pronounced, and began to build. The Digbys occupied the house from 1617, and much enlarged it. The park was designed by Capability Brown, and includes a 50-acre lake. In 1768 Robert Adam produced designs for a bridge, which the Digbys ignored.

Simon Wingfield Digby was educated at Harrow and Trinity, Cambridge. He was adopted as the Conservative candidate for West Dorset in 1937 and two years later called to the Bar by Inner Temple. In the Second World War he served as a major in the Royal Artillery, and was awarded the Territorial Decoration in 1946.

After the war, to avoid death duties, he was given Sherborne Castle, including some 14,000 acres, and two other country estates, one of 3,000 acres at Coleshill, the other, of 36,000, in Scotland. His father died in 1952, and two years later Simon Wingfield Digby vested his properties in Sherborne Castle Estates.

He himself lived in a house on the Sherborne estate, while the Castle remained unoccupied after his father's death. In 1969, after repairs, it was opened to the public, together with a collection of English, French and Italian furniture, and pictures by Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Lely.

For 30-odd years from 1952 Wingfield Digby made the grounds of Sherborne Castle available for horse trials. He himself bred bloodstock, notably Further Flight, which, trained by Derek Hills, carried off five Jockey Club Cup victories, and Feria, which won the Fred Darling States at Newbury in 1955 and finished third to Meld in the One Thousand Guineas that year. In 1964, when the National Stud moved to Newmarket, he bought its former property at Gillingham, in Dorset, and renamed it the Sandley Stud.

In January 1974, Wingfield Digby announced he would he would not again be standing for his West Dorset seat. Had he been returned at the election of February 1974 he would have been Father of the House. But he had no regrets. "I must say I do prefer the foals to politicians, and the stallions to Cabinet ministers," he reflected. And the mares? "I will not comment about the mares."

Simon Wingfield Digby married, in 1936, Kathleen Kingstone, from Toronto; they had a son and a daughter.