Aretas Akers-Douglas (1851-1926) 
1st Viscount Chilston 

Aretas DouglasAretas Akers-Douglas, 1st Viscount Chilston, GBE (October 21, 1851) - (January 15, 1926), politician, was born at St Leonards. He was born Aretas Akers, son of the Revd Aretas Akers (1824–1856), of Malling Abbey, Kent, and Frances Maria (d. 1900), daughter of Francis Holles Brandram of Underriver, Kent. He had two younger sisters. His father was a ‘squarson’, but the Akers family had only recently settled in Kent; on his father's side, he was descended from six generations of West Indies sugar planters and slave owners. He was educated at Eton College and at University College, Oxford, and was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1875.

In the same year Akers inherited the estates of his kinsman James Douglas of Baads, Midlothian, consisting of 6629 acres in Dumfries, 3106 in Midlothian, and 2190 in Lanark, as well as Chilston Park and 3753 acres in Kent. He assumed the additional surname of Douglas, and soon afterwards (10 June 1875) married Adeline Mary (d. 1929), daughter of Horatio Austen-Smith of Hayes, Kent. They settled at Chilston Park (Malling Abbey, the family home, belonged to his grandmother for life), and had seven children—two boys and five girls—but the marriage was not a happy one. Adeline was gifted but deeply eccentric, making impossible the social life normal for that time and class.

As a young Kentish landowner and an excellent shot, Akers-Douglas came under the eye of Lord Abergavenny of Eridge Castle, Disraeli's unofficial adviser and chief of the ‘Kentish gang’ of Conservative Party managers. Encouraged by Abergavenny, he stood and was elected as a Conservative for East Kent in 1880. The constituency was reshaped as the St Augustine's division in 1885, and Akers-Douglas represented it until his retirement in 1911. In parliament he spoke rarely, but his sympathies were with the tory democratic wing of the party: he may have met Disraeli at Eridge, and he was friendly with Lord Randolph Churchill and the Fourth Party. Any signs of independence were checked, however, by his appointment as an opposition whip in 1883. In 1884 he was promoted second whip, and in June 1885, at the age of thirty-three, he became chief whip and patronage secretary to the Treasury in Salisbury's minority government (June 1885 – January 1886). He returned to the Treasury in July 1886, continuing as government chief whip in Salisbury's second ministry until 1892.

Effective whipping was at a premium in the parliament of 1886–92. Not only was the government paralysed by obstruction from the Irish party in the house, making necessary the use of the closure and guillotine to force through government business, but the government's seventy-five Liberal Unionist allies, led by Hartington and Chamberlain, required diplomatic handling in the house and brought friction with Conservatives in the constituencies. As chief whip Akers-Douglas was responsible for a dramatic tightening in party discipline. Voting against party lines virtually disappeared after 1886, and conformity became in practice total. He managed the parliamentary party in tandem with central office and the constituencies, working through Richard Middleton (the ‘Skipper’), whom he had recommended as chief party agent in 1885, and who remained at central office until 1903. In the house, Akers-Douglas formed a close partnership with W. H. Smith, leader of the house in 1887–91, with whom he dined nightly; the intelligence he collected from the party he regularly transmitted to Salisbury. He was sworn of the privy council in 1891.

Smith was succeeded as leader of the house by A. J. Balfour in 1891, and in opposition to the Liberal government of 1892–5 Akers-Douglas continued as Conservative chief whip. He was the perfect foil to Balfour, playing tortoise to Balfour's hare; where Balfour was dexterous, agile in debate but languid and aloof, Akers-Douglas was assiduous, a natural conciliator and manager of men. ‘No one knew better the changing mood of the lobby, the exact value of the frondeur, or the extent of an intrigue’, wrote J. S. Sandars (DNB). For Akers-Douglas the whips' room provided the utterly absorbing escape from an unhappy marriage. ‘The Room’, with its clubbishness, its talk of ‘old boy’ and ‘pal’, played a crucial part in cementing party loyalty—a function of key importance after 1886 as the Conservative Party lost its socially homogeneous character and the ranks of country gentlemen were swollen by recruits from newly won seats in the big towns.

In July 1895, when Salisbury formed his third government, Akers-Douglas was appointed first commissioner of works with a seat in the cabinet. Adjusting from the whip's role, at the centre of the party's nervous system, to a junior department was not easy. He had no direct experience of government administration, but his running of his own estates helped him at the office of works, where his responsibilities included building new government offices, as well as acting as a kind of estates' bursar to the royal family. Ably assisted by his permanent secretary, Lord Esher, he presided over the preparations for the coronation of King Edward VII. But he owed his influence in cabinet not to his departmental work but to the sagacity of his advice, to his knowledge of men, and to his intuitive understanding of the party and the country. At Salisbury's request, he acted as adviser to Sir William Walrond, his successor as chief whip, and he continued to control party funds. He predicted the result of the 1900 election with remarkable accuracy. In 1900 he was used by Balfour to persuade the ageing Salisbury to give up the Foreign Office when he resumed office as prime minister; it was, wrote Akers-Douglas, ‘a difficult and unpleasant mission’. In 1901–2 he chaired the committee on military education and officers' training, which published a report condemning officers' education at Woolwich and Sandhurst. When Balfour succeeded as prime minister in 1902, he rewarded the faithful Akers-Douglas by promoting him to home secretary (1902–5).

As home secretary Akers-Douglas was responsible for the Aliens Bill, tightening the restrictions on immigration. The bill as originally introduced in 1904 was dropped, and a milder bill passed in 1905. After 1902 Akers-Douglas remained close to Balfour and his party managers; he was deeply involved with the government reshuffle of 1903 which followed the resignations of Joseph Chamberlain and the Unionist free-traders. In the house, he acted as deputy to Balfour, who combined the office of leader of the house with the premiership. To Akers-Douglas fell the duty of writing the nightly parliamentary letter to the king, and when Balfour was away Akers-Douglas took his place. In February 1904, he wound up a crucial debate on the fiscal question with an inept appeal for party unity—an episode which appeared to epitomize his shortcomings as a politician. ‘He is a most skilful wirepuller, and his methods of organization are wonderful’, wrote Balcarres, then a junior whip: ‘but as a speaker and debater his abilities are nil.’ However, as the seasoned parliamentary journalist Henry Lucy perceived, Akers-Douglas's low-calibre performance was in fact a deliberate ploy:
With fine art, the greater because it is concealed, the Home Secretary, questioned by unreasonable members opposite, absolutely looks as if he knew nothing on the particular subject submitted, or indeed on any other … Mr Akers-Douglas, surveying the inquisitive members opposite as if they were a field of buttercups and daisies, with childlike blandness says he doesn't know. And there the matter ends.
Akers-Douglas was returned for St Augustine's with an increased majority in the 1906 election, but he let it be known that he was no longer a contender for cabinet. Nevertheless, he continued to sit on the Unionist front bench, and behind the scenes he acted as adviser to the party leadership. In 1911 Balfour appointed him chairman of the Unionist Organization Committee, which was appointed to inquire into the party machine in the light of the double election defeat of 1910. When the committee called for the heads of both the chief whip, Acland-Hood, and the principal agent, Percival Hughes, Akers-Douglas refused to sign the report. None the less, he agreed to convey the committee's criticisms privately to Balfour; and Acland-Hood resigned shortly afterwards. It was an exercise in damage limitation characteristic of Akers-Douglas, for whom loyalty to the party came before all else. In the coronation honours of 1911 he received a peerage, becoming Baron Douglas, of Baads, and Viscount Chilston, of Boughton Malherbe, Kent.

After 1911 Akers-Douglas retired completely from public life. His last years were spent at Chilston Park, surrounded by his collections of butterflies and birds' eggs. He wrote no memoirs, and he destroyed many of his papers, including fifty-three letters from Queen Victoria and over sixty from Lord Salisbury. The wealth of papers remaining provided the material for the illuminating biography, Chief Whip, published by his grandson in 1961.

Akers-Douglas was a tall man, who developed an abundant Edwardian figure in middle age. Though a poor speaker, his smiling manner masked a quick mind; the soul of discretion, he could be secretive but was never duplicitous. He disliked women, especially fashionable women who meddled in politics. His world was the man's world of the lobby and the house: his loyalty to the party was absolute. He died at 34 Lower Belgrave Street, London, on 15 January 1926.

Married 1875 Adeline, dau of Horatio Austen Smith

Succeeded by his eldest son:         Who was succeeded by his son:
  •         Eric Alexander Akers-Douglas, 3rd Viscount Chilston (1910-1982)
Alastair George Akers-Douglas, 4th Viscount Chilston (b. 1946)

See also: Douglas of Baads