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Sir Ralph Claremont Skrine Stevenson

Title: Sir

Epithet: Soldier, diplomat, MLC, CP (1895-1977)

Record type: Biographies

Biography: From ‘New Manx Worthies’ (2006):

Often called 'the oldest family in the Isle of Man', the Stevensons lived at Balladoole, Arbory, from, at the latest, the early fourteenth century. Their ancestors, originally the Fitzstephens, came from Ireland but by the time the Manorial Roll for Arbory was compiled in 1511, the family name appeared as Stevenson.

Family lore has it that a Fitzstephens married the heiress to Balladoole farm, thus establishing an unbroken farming link with the Isle of Man which lasted until Sir Ralph, who was born in India on 16th May 1895, sold Balladoole in 1973. He had returned to the Isle of Man at the end of his diplomatic career in 1955 and in 1972 built a new house on the outskirts of Castletown.

Educated at Wellington College and University College, Oxford, where he read foreign languages, Ralph Stevenson joined the Rifle Brigade where he was a captain in the 12th Battalion. He was captured at Passchendaele but was well treated by his captors, receiving treatment for pneumonia and a knee complaint whilst in captivity.

He then left the army and after passing the Foreign Office examination his first posting was to Copenhagen in 1919, then to Berlin, where he noted that a box of matches cost 50 million marks. He next served in Sofia, The Hague and Cairo. After this, he was sent to Geneva and then to Spain.

In 1941 came a unique posting as Private Secretary to Anthony Eden, as he toured the Mediterranean area from February to April. During this tour, Ralph met many of the significant figures of that time, including Tito, General Smuts and Sir Stafford Cripps, about whom he wrote one-line character assessments in a pocket notebook. He describes one of the Egyptian Pashas he knew as 'an engaging old rascal and though I never admired him, I can't help liking him'.

The conditions on these flights, to stiffen the resistance of the smaller nations in Germany's sights, were exhausting. The endurance of the party, including the pilots, was tested to the limit. On one flight on a beleaguered Sunderland flying boat, Ralph recalled that they had slept 'head to tail like sardines on a strip of toast'.

Remarkably, no fewer than four of his postings (Spain, Yugoslavia, China and Egypt) involved him in civil war, revolution and even led to the Evening Standard or Post printing an article about him headlined 'Lucky Little Mascot', noting that heads of state should beware of his being sent to their countries as they were often toppled during his postings!

In 1960 he gave the John Snow Lecture in London and his notes for it, which are still with the family, reveal an eye for detail as he recollects the 'unnatural quietness of the children even in the playgrounds' during 1938 when the Spanish Civil War was in its third year. In 1939 Barcelona fell to the fascist forces and the notes tell that he had to decide 'when to run away'. When he eventually did escape on HMS Devonshire, he took with him all the British subjects who wished to leave plus some Spaniards including a Supreme High Court Judge who, he remarked, had managed to upset both sides because he exhibited a humane streak.

Following this, Ralph spent some time at the Foreign Office and then in Uruguay. He was next appointed ambassador to the Yugoslav government in exile, headed by King Peter, who set up house in Cairo in 1943. In Yugoslavia itself, the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnian were fighting amongst themselves and the Partisans and Chetniks were resisting the Italo-German occupation as best they could. The overriding force in this chaos was Tito who had no intention of sharing power with anyone, in spite of the fact that he made use of the British, King Peter and Moscow to effect a stable government in Yugoslavia. Tito was established as Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1945 and Ralph then reopened the British Embassy in Belgrade.

In 1946, he was transferred to China, an appointment which, the John Snow notes state, delighted him because he felt he would be left in peace to get on with his job and because of a longstanding attraction towards that country.

He remarked that China had been in a state of revolution since 1911, which eventually led to the triumph of Mao Tse Tung and his communist followers in 1949 and once again the 'when to run away' problem arose.

He was based in Nanking when communist forces fired on HMS Amethyst as she sailed up forces fired on HMS Amethyst as she sailed up the Yangtse to find out what the situation was. This triggered the `Yangtse Incident' famous in British naval history. The Kuo Min Tang troops and police left Nanking and although looting broke out, foreign nationals were not harmed. When the communists arrived, they did enter the embassy compound but when told that they could not search the building, they simply went away. Late in October, the staff were able to leave and the Central People's Government had been established in Peking. Thus the third regime associated with Ralph Stevenson's postings had been toppled.

After leaving China, Ralph was again appointed to Egypt, this time as ambassador. He had previously served there, not only as ambassador to King Farouk's court but also as Head of Chancery during the 'somewhat paternalistic era of British control there'.

Sir Ralph - as he by then was - wrote that the Egyptians, whilst acknowledging the British-driven improvements in public health and irrigation, saw that Egypt could become a rich, independent country. Relations between King Farouk and his government and people were deteriorating and rioting and arson were rife. Nevertheless, he decided not to bring in British forces to intervene; Farouk himself brought troops into Cairo and the situation was quickly brought under control.

However, by July Farouk was in exile and Sir Ralph left Egypt in 1955 on his retirement from the diplomatic service, a year before the Suez crisis. So ended the fourth regime of which he had witnessed the demise.

There is no doubt that Ralph Stevenson was a man with powers of cool appraisal in chaotic situations, and that he had the ability to assess accurately the strengths and weaknesses of the prominent men he encountered and had to work with as British Representative.

Although he says at the end of his notebook, 'I cannot say how glad I am to be home', there is a feeling that he was always eager for his next posting and was not greatly attracted to a hearth-and-home lifestyle. He did, however, have a surprisingly keen interest in, and knowledge of, garden plants.

When he came back to the Isle of Man in 1955, he played a leading part in the reorganisation of the Manx Civil Service and served as chairman of the Electricity Board, captain at Castletown Golf Club and Captain of the Parish until 1975. He also served as an MLC in the late 1950s.

During the 1960s, having enjoyed good health almost all his life, Sir Ralph had to take things more easily because of the condition of his heart. He had been a witness to, and participant in, some of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century and he was an articulate writer. The two strongest threads in his character, his fearlessness and shrewdness, echo both his Irish adventurer ancestry and the Manx farming tradition of patience and the long-term perspective on events.

Sir Ralph Stevenson died in the Isle of Man on 23rd June 1977. His ashes rest in the family grave in Arbory Churchyard.

Biography written by Mary Simkiss.

(With thanks to Culture Vannin as publishers of the book: Kelly, Dollin (general editor), ‘New Manx Worthies’, Manx Heritage Foundation/Culture Vannin, 2006, pp.429-31.)

Culture Vannin


Nationality: `

Gender: Male

Date of birth: 16 May 1895

Date of death: 23 June 1977

Name Variant: Stevenson, Sir Ralph Claremont Skrine


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