An Englishman in Latvia

On Sir Stephen Tallents

March 31, 2024 Alan Anstead Season 2 Episode 3
On Sir Stephen Tallents
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On Sir Stephen Tallents
Mar 31, 2024 Season 2 Episode 3
Alan Anstead

Sir Stephen Tallents was a distinguished British civil servant and a trailblazer in public relations. I focus on his work in Latvia between 1919 - 1920.   Due to his skill and determination, he assisted Latvia and the other newly independent Baltic States to achieve peace and prosperity for 20 years. His story is fascinating. 
Join me as we learn more about the man and how he operated, like how he created the Tallents Line border between Latvia and Estonia. We will even visit the town that Tallents divided, Valka/Valga.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Sir Stephen Tallents was a distinguished British civil servant and a trailblazer in public relations. I focus on his work in Latvia between 1919 - 1920.   Due to his skill and determination, he assisted Latvia and the other newly independent Baltic States to achieve peace and prosperity for 20 years. His story is fascinating. 
Join me as we learn more about the man and how he operated, like how he created the Tallents Line border between Latvia and Estonia. We will even visit the town that Tallents divided, Valka/Valga.

Thanks for listening!

On Sir Stephen Tallents

Sir Stephen Tallents was a distinguished British civil servant and a trailblazer in public relations. I want to focus on his work in Latvia. He was appointed the British Commissioner for the Baltic Provinces to the Paris Peace Conference following the First World War. Armed conflict on the eastern front continued long after the Armistice. Tallents decided to help stop this conflict by going to the Baltics, learning, listening and talking to the people who held power. Due to his skill and determination, he assisted Latvia and the other newly independent Baltic States in achieving peace and enjoying prosperity for 20 years until the Second World War. His story is fascinating. Join me as we learn more about the man and how he operated, like how he created the Tallents Line border between Latvia and Estonia. We will even visit the town that Tallents divided.

A short biography

Born in London on 20 October 1884, Sir Stephen Tallents left an indelible mark on various aspects of British governance and communication. Tallents received his education at Harrow and Balliol College, Oxford. His career began as a civil servant at the Board of Trade in 1909, but his subsequent roles defined his legacy.

During the First World War, Tallents served as an officer in the Irish Guards until he was severely wounded. His commitment to public service continued as he worked at the Ministry of Munitions and later transferred to the Ministry of Food. In 1918, he became the chief delegate for the relief supply to Poland.

In February 1919, Tallents assumed the role of British Commissioner for the Baltic Provinces during the British intervention in that region. His responsibilities included stopping the invasion by Russian Bolshevik forces and supporting the newly independent countries of Estonia and Latvia. He even adjudicated the borderline between these two nations, which involved dividing the town of Valga / Valka. More on that later.

Tallents held significant positions in the British administration. He served as the secretary to the last Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord FitzAlan, and later became the Imperial Secretary for Northern Ireland from 1922 to 1926. However, he is best known for his work as the secretary of the Empire Marketing Board from 1926 to 1933.

At the Empire Marketing Board, Tallents collaborated with the renowned British documentary filmmaker John Grierson and commissioned artists like Clive Gardiner, E. McKnight Kauffer, and Frank Newbould. Together, they produced a series of posters promoting British and Empire products. Following the Empire Marketing Board’s demise in 1933, Tallents transitioned to the General Post Office, taking the Empire Marketing Board’s film unit. This move led to the creation of classic documentaries such as “Night Mail” by the Film Unit.

Tallents continued his impactful career by joining the BBC as its first Controller of Public Relations and Deputy Director General under Lord Reith. During World War II, his expertise was utilised at the Ministry of Information. In 1948, he became the founder President of the Institute of Public Relations.

His contributions were recognised with several honours, culminating in his knighthood as Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George. Beyond his professional achievements, Tallents shared his passion for music on Desert Island Discs and generously donated his home, St John’s Jerusalem in Sutton-at-Hone, Kent, to the National Trust in 1943. He died in 1958.

During a pivotal era, Sir Stephen Tallents left an indelible legacy, shaping Britain's communication, culture, and governance.

Man and Boy

In my initial research into Sir Stephen Tallents’ work in Latvia, I discovered that he had written an autobiography in 1943 called ‘Man and Boy’. I couldn’t find any excerpt from the book online, so conversing with Maz at the CIPR (remember that Tallents founded the institute), I asked what had become of its library when it became a virtual organisation a few years ago. I thought that the CIPR would probably have the book written by its founder. Sadly, the contents of the library had been given away. However, Maz found a secondhand copy online. I bought it. The pages are turning yellow, and the dust cover is worn, but it is otherwise in good condition.

In the preface to the book, Tallents wrote that “in the confused and perplexing Baltic events in 1919 and 1920, England did more than any other outside country to set their ultimate course, yet they have never been recorded as English eyes saw them at the time”.

Tallents tells the story that when he first visited the Baltic coast in 1919, next to nothing was known in the UK about the Baltic States outside of the Foreign Office, and that hadn’t changed much by the time he left in 1920. The Baltics had been under Russian rule for two centuries, yet Tallents found very few inhabitants of Russian origin. How massively did that change during the later Soviet occupation. The outcome of the First World War changed the Russian provinces of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Vilna, which had, in reality, been run on feudal lines by German nobility, not Russians, into the new states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

Whereas the November 1918  armistice ceasefire stopped all fighting on the Western Front, battles continued in the East in a multi-layered conflict. The Russian Bolsheviks took Riga but were beaten back by the Baltic-German army, who also tried to overthrow the newly independent Baltic States’ governments. The wars ended officially with peace treaties negotiated with Soviet Russia in 1920. In this chaos, Tallents was sent from February 1919 for 18 months, meeting political and military leaders and often putting himself at significant personal risk while visiting the front of the fighting. At the same time, the Foreign Office in London did not believe his reports of continued fighting or did not care. To them, the war was over. That was not the case in the Baltics.

Tallents spent a lot of time travelling on military trains in Latvia. Walk, now known as Valga and Valka, was often his base as it had the only railway line linking Latvia with Estonia. He tells of going to the front on a special train with a car on a railway trailer behind his saloon. The car had both a Union Jack and a white sheet suspended on poles from it. Tallents had a draft armistice, which he did get signed by all the military parties. During a coup d’etat in Liberia in the late 1980s, I did something similar - Union Jack and white peace flags flying from the Embassy Land Rover to negotiate the freedom of a British businessman held by troops for assisting the enemy. Back to Latvia and 1919. Tallents became Civil Governor of Riga for five days in the critical time between the signing of his armistice and the Latvian government returning from exile in Liepaja. He set about restoring public confidence in the city, restoring Riga City Council, getting essential utilities like water working again, and despatching the German military from the city. Not bad for five days of work in a war-torn country! At this time, Tallents learnt that his wife had given birth to their first child. Tallents joked with President Ulmanis that he might give the boy a Latvian name. Ulmanis suggested a few names, of which only ‘Wiswaldis’ meaning ‘ruling over all’, was liked by Tallents. Therefore, Sir Stephen’s eldest son acquired a rather unusual Christian name for an Englishman!

The Tallents Line

The newly established Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had a problem. They did not have delineated national boundaries. Border Committees were established in 1919 but could not agree on the border lines. One particular problem was Walk, the town now known as Valga or Valka. Estonian forces were advancing to take Walk. Who do you call in such a situation? Sir Stephen Tallents, of course! The Foreign Office wanted to recall Tallents’ mission and replace it with more boring but orthodox diplomacy. Tallents was asked to see the UK Prime Minister, Mr Lloyd George, who, while walking up and down the garden of No10 Downing Street with Tallents, showed a greater understanding of the situation in the Baltics than the Foreign Office. Mr. Lloyd George asked if he could prevent the impending conflict between Estonia and Latvia over Walk and the border disagreement. “Of course”, Tallents said, it was very likely he could. Tallents was off, back to Latvia.

The two armies were “facing each other at short range and in an irritated temper”, to quote Tallents. He invited the Foreign Ministers and Commanders in Chief of both countries to a conference in Walk to discuss the issue with him. The two countries had already appointed a Border Commission. This had undertaken a census of the national identities of all people living near the frontier. Walk was a problem. The town was originally more Latvian than Estonian. However, in recent years the Estonian population had increased. The Estonian army had recently won it back from the Bolsheviks and was in control. In addition, the Estonians claimed it was strategically important to Estonia because of the railway junction.

On the other hand, the considerable farming population in northern Latvia used Walk as their market. As part of the Russian Empire, borders had not been important to Latvia or Estonia for the two previous centuries. The media in both countries were inflaming the situation with nationalistic reporting. "Estonia must understand that Latvia is stronger than Estonia”, read a bellicose column in the June 1920 issue of the Latvijas Sargs newspaper. Similar articles could be found in almost every Latvian newspaper then, and the Estonian press followed suit. The Commission had agreed that Walk had to be divided. It could not be given in full to Estonia or Latvia. 

Tallents decided to run the conference from noon until 7.30 pm without a break for food to try to force agreement. But this tactic was not succeeding. Tallents, therefore, drafted an agreement that the British Government would decide the border and that Tallents would act as the Commission’s President in determining where the border would lie. This was accepted. Tallents then assigned the detailed mapping to the military staff assigned to him. For Walk, two scenarios were devised. One split the town precisely in half. The other gave the Estonians the old town and the larger, eastern part of the town, leaving a smaller western part with a market, school, shops and a smaller railway station.

As information about these two solutions leaked out, the Estonian media went into overdrive with disinformation about Tallents. Tallents went to see the Estonian Prime Minister, who told him to speak to the Estonian Foreign Minister. The Foreign Minister saw Tallents arrive at his office and fled down a back exit. So Tallents returned to the Prime Minister. Tallents told the Prime Minister that unless Estonia took this border problem seriously, he would advise the British government to sever relations with Estonia. It worked. The next day, the Estonian Prime Minister agreed to a conference of the Border Commission in ten days. And he reassured Tallents that his Foreign Minister hadn’t tried to run away from him! The Commission met and, after a day of long speeches and entrenched positions, was adjourned for two days. Tallents had decided that the second solution was the best for Walk, giving the greater part to Estonia. This time, it was the Latvian media who wrote disinformation articles about Tallents that he had got drunk with Estonians and had decided to give them Walk. The Latvian government resigned for a few days. Soon, the Estonian government did the same. But Tallents insisted his Commission should complete its work. He had decided to give Latvia the border town of Ainaži as a concession. Tallents says that at its final meeting, he unfurled the map he had drawn and immediately walked away to his car and Riga. No goodbyes! The two sides were pouring over the map as he left Walk. The storm soon blew over. Although public statements from both governments criticised the border decision, they privately thanked Tallents for resolving what was seen as an impossible problem. 

He had stopped wearing military uniform, dropped the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel, and observed Riga come to life. On 19 October 1920, the border treaty was signed using the Tallents Line. Tallents left Latvia for the UK in October 1920, biding no farewells as he wasn’t sure whether he would return soon after. However, the Foreign Office decided that a professional diplomat should replace him. He never returned to the Baltics. 

In his book, Tallents says he sometimes boasted about being the only living Englishman with a European frontier to his credit. 

The Tallents Line through Walk, now dividing Valga and Valka, is still there. No one complains.

The trip to Valka/Valga

We caught the 11 am train from Riga Central Station to Valga, and I was armed with my copy of Tallent’s autobiography, ‘Man and Boy.’ 

There is a Latvian song about this train by the Latvian band Bumerangs:

There is a train from Riga to Valka,

I am standing alone on the platform,

Here I see a fine girl,

Her cheeks are like honey and milk.

I say, today is a wonderful time,

And a smile appears on her lips,

Oh, girl May, pretty as a fairy,

Why are we destined to meet on this train?

When we both get off at Cēsis,

I say: Shall we meet again?

It's good to dream here in the castle ruins,

There I will wait tonight.

Under the birch trees I walk alone in the evening,

The night is past, but no one comes.

How sad summer is, tears shine in my eyes,

I can't forget you.

Valga is on the Estonian side of the town that Tallents split in two. Although it was an old train, it was very comfortable and trundled along perfectly on time. At 2 pm, we arrived in Valga. The massive station building looks out of place in a small border town with its classical style. But it looked much better than some stations we passed on the Latvian side. As expected, street signs, shop displays and car number plates were primarily Estonian. I had taken my passport, but there was no need to show any identity when crossing the border, which we did many times over two days. The actual border is quite clear. A small river flows along it, and the grass banks and sides are clear. There are black and white border marking poles and some signs by the road telling you that you are entering a new country. There was the typical sign for drivers with speed limits, which are precisely the same in both countries, and the bridges over the river had nice stainless steel emblems with Estonia and Latvia or Valga and Valka. My favourite was the black and white striped border pole with ‘Latvia’ written on one side and Estonia on the other. You can also walk alongside the river border. Not a single border guard is to be seen.

Interestingly, the number plates did change on the Latvian side, with Latvian ones predominating. And, of course, street signs and shop advertising were in Latvian. Valka, the Latvian side where we stayed overnight, and Valga, the larger Estonian side with the grander buildings, is a very pleasant town. On our second day, we went to the Valga museum. I found one small reference to Sir Stephen on an information board. I know that 1919 and 1920 were turbulent for the Baltic States, with war still going on. The ‘1918 Armistice’ only applied to the Western Front. However, it would be good for the museum to recognise the role played by an Englishman - Sir Stephen Tallents, in getting agreement to a border, even though it divided the town, without conflict. I may write to the museum to suggest this.

Then we caught the 4 pm train back to Riga. 

This was a small adventure that anyone could make and was very enjoyable. Finding somewhere to eat in Valga or Valka, especially at the weekend, is difficult. Head to Walk Cafe in Valka, Latvia—just 100 m from the rather nice-looking border point. They serve big portions of lovely food at a very reasonable price every day of the week.

Few people, even those living in Valka/Valga, know Sir Stephen Tallents’ connection to the town. There were no monuments to Sir Stephen Tallents to be found. If I see the British Ambassador to Latvia in the near future, I will suggest erecting a memorial to Sir Stephen and the peace and social cohesion that he helped to create that lasted from 1920 until 1939. Maybe we can persuade CIPR members to crowdfund for such a memorial.

In conclusion, Sir Stephen Tallents is best known in the UK for his role in public relations. Founding the Institute of Public Relations, doing PR for the Empire Marketing Board, and his time as Deputy Director General at the BBC. As a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for 14 years, I am familiar with his name. What I wasn’t aware of was his heroic role in helping to bring an end to hostilities in the Baltic States. Work undertaken at great personal risk should, I believe, be better known. He really did help these newly formed countries enjoy peace and prosperity for nearly 20 years until the start of the Second World War. The description of his work in Latvia and Estonia occupies a substantial part of his autobiography, so I guess it was also important to Sir Stephen. 

Thank you for listening.

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