Catholic Life

Lord Acton, anti-apartheid campaigner, dies aged 69

Lord Acton

The 4th Lord Acton was a hereditary and life peer who campaigned against injustice in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

He was the consummate behind-the-scenes, self-effacing figure who was fascinated by politics
but wary of politicians. “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” remarked his great grandfather, the first Baron.

Richard Acton fought brave battles on the political front in Britain and Africa. With a wicked wit plus an ability to prick pomposity, he was able to inspire trust in some of the hardest hearts.

In 2003 he courageously opposed British support for the American invasion of Iraq.

His other great moments were two successful campaigns separated by an ocean and three decades: lobbying to get Judith Todd and her father, Garfield Todd, released from house arrest after Ian Smith’s UDI in Rhodesia in 1965 and during the Pearce Commission in 1972, and acting as Helene Hayman’s unofficial campaign manager in the election to be first speaker of the Lords.

Richard Gerald Lyon-Dalberg-Acton was born in Shropshire, the eldest of 10 children by John Emerich Henry Lyon-Acton and Daphne Strutt.

He was baptised by Mgr Ronald Knox in the family chapel at Aldenham Park. Aged six, he moved to southern Rhodesia. In 1949 he was sent to St George’s School in Salisbury which was run by Jesuit Fathers who waved the cane as often as they preached the Gospel.

He read history at Trinity College, Oxford, from 1960 to 1963 and emerged with a third class degree. In Rhodesia, he worked as a manager at Amalgamated Packaging Industries and in 1965 married Hilary Cookson whom he had met at an anti-Smith rally at the University of Rhodesia. Their son, Johnny, was born in August 1966.

Later the couple moved to South Africa, where Richard was declared a prohibited immigrant because of his opposition to apartheid, and then on to London where in 1970 he worked for Coutts Bank. In 1972 Richard formed a close friendship with Judith Todd, daughter of Garfield Todd, who was prime minister of Southern Rhodesia from 1953 to 1958. Hilary Acton died in October 1973 and on January 1 1974 Judith and Richard were married at the English Sanctuary in Rome. The service was conducted by Richard’s younger brother, Canon Charles Acton.

The Actons lived at 95 Ebury Street in west London and their home became a meeting place for anti-apartheid activists.

In 1974 Richard trained to become a barrister and two years later was called to the Bar. He practised as a barrister at the chambers of Peter Rawlinson in the Inner Temple. After five years at the Bar, he accompanied Judith to Zimbabwe where he assumed a senior legal position in the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

He at first admired Robert Mugabe. But a mix of political and personal problems ended his stay there and in 1987 Richard and Judith were divorced. In 1987 in London Richard Acton met an American lawyer, Patricia Nassif. After their marriage in 1988 Richard Acton divided his time between Cedar Rapids, Iowa and London. In America, he began writing legal and light books about life in America. He became the 4th Baron Acton, as well as the 11th Baronet of Aldenham, in 1989 having succeeded to the title when his father died in January 1989. In 2000 he was made a life peer as Lord Bridgnoth.

In 2005 he was diagnosed with cancer. In 2006 he was a key figure in the campaign to make Helene Hayman Lord Speaker of the House of Lords. Towards the end of his life, Richard Acton seemed to be gently bemused by death.

A Requiem Mass will be celebrated at Westminster Cathedral on November 30 at 10.30am.