William Ewart Gladstone, 1809-1898

As Roy Jenkins concluded in his masterly biography, ‘Mr Gladstone was almost as much the epitome of the Victorian age as the great Queen herself’. He was the political giant of his lifetime and even at the end of the twentieth century the principles and aspirations he brought to public life are still inherent in the objectives of all the main political parties.

To what personal qualities can the great achievements of his life be attributed? First, he was a man of exceptional physical energy, although he was subject to bouts of serious illness throughout his mature life. He was a keen horseman and, when visiting stately homes, he would often choose to walk the last ten miles; where Lloyd George left walking sticks as relics, Gladstone left the axes with which he had hewn down forest trees. After an arduous day of Cabinet meetings and parliamentary work, followed by a formal dinner, it was quite usual for him to venture on to the streets to rescue ladies of the night. The motive for this activity will always be a matter for debate, but there is clear evidence that its origins were genuinely humanitarian and the fact that he was not unmoved by the allures of these women does not contradict his desire to lead them to new lives.

Secondly, his physical prowess was matched by his mental energy and he recorded his life in great detail, not just day by day, but hour by hour. He was a prodigious reader and Jenkins estimates that he read nearly 20,000 works, including light literature, in the course of his life. He enjoyed the theatre, though he is recorded as having slept through Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. He was not a great author but he produced a number of serious and controversial works, mostly on religious and classical issues. His lifelong commitment to the Anglican Church and his fascination with Greek civilisation made reconciling the fundamentals of Christianity and the classical world a recurring preoccupation. Even as he waited at Windsor to relinquish his fourth premiership, he was working on his translation of the Odes of Horace.

The extent to which religion played the central role in his life may be difficult for later generations fully to envisage. He was an ardent Anglo-Catholic and in earlier years a strong advocate of a close and powerful relationship between church and state to the extent of strengthening the privileges enjoyed by Anglicans and maintaining the disadvantages of Roman Catholics, dissenters and Jews.

William Ewart Gladstone was born in Rodney Street, Liverpool on 29 December 1809, the fourth son of John Gladstone, who had moved south from Leith some years earlier. Gladstone senior was a successful merchant, trading in corn with the United States and cotton with Brazil and owning extensive plantations in the West Indies, which were operated by slaves, although he was not a slave trader himself. John Gladstone’s wealth expanded greatly and by 1850 was reckoned to be £750,000, enabling his sons to be active in public life with financial independence. In his old age Sir John was briefly an MP, having previously been several times rejected on petitions of corrupt practice.

Gladstone went to Eton in 1821, having previously been educated in a small school established by his father. In October 1828 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, which was still the dominant college of the University. He took a double first in classics and mathematics and still found time to be President of the Union. His connection with the University proved life-long, although sometimes tempestuous. He was one of the University’s MPs from 1847 to 1865, when he moved to South Lancashire.

Gladstone was first elected in 1832 as Tory MP for Newark, which was effectively in the gift of the Duke of Newcastle. His maiden speech was in opposition to the immediate abolition of the slave trade. He remained MP for that seat until 1845 when he lost it on appointment to Peel’s Cabinet. In 1839 Gladstone married Catherine Glynn, whose family seat was Hawarden Castle in Flintshire, which Gladstone later acquired. The castle and an associated college has remained in the Gladstone family ever since. The marriage lasted for fifty-nine years and Catherine, a very remarkable woman in her own right, died in 1900. They had four sons and four daughters, including Herbert Gladstone, later Liberal Chief Whip.

After a brief spell as junior Lord of the Treasury, Gladstone’s first government appointment was in 1835 as Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies. This was a major responsibility, especially as the Secretary of State was in the Lords. Later that year Peel’s administration was defeated and Gladstone was then out of office until appointed President of the Board of Trade when Peel returned to power in 1841. The intervening years gave him more opportunity to attend to his personal life and travels abroad. His reputation as a speaker, both inside and outside the Commons, grew year by year, focusing especially on the church and colonial affairs. These years gave him the freedom to speak on a great range of issues and throughout his life he was rarely constrained by holding a particular office from speaking out on any subject about which he felt passionately. For example, he denounced the Anglo-China war in 1840 and the opium trade which was its primary cause.

In the late 1830s the anti-Corn Law League was the major target in his speeches but in the early 1840s, much influenced by a long walk with Richard Cobden, he progressively espoused the cause of free trade. This was in tune with Peel’s own thinking and Gladstone played a major part in leading the government towards the repeal of the Corn Laws. This policy was bitterly opposed by land-owning interests and led to a lasting split in the Tory party and Gladstone’s eventual adherence to what came to be called the Liberal Party.

In 1845, Gladstone’s recurrent concern with ecclesiastical matters and especially his desire to defend the Anglican tradition against the resurgent power of Rome, led to his resigning when Peel proposed to treble the annual grant to the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in Ireland. He returned to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Colonies later in 1845 but decided not to seek re-election at Newark and was consequently out of Parliament, though still in the Cabinet, at the time of the crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws which led, in turn, to the fall of Peel’s government.

The rivalry between Disraeli and Gladstone developed while they were still members of the same party, reaching a high point in Gladstone’s famous destruction of Disraeli’s budget in 1852. This led to his succeeding as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Whig/Peelite coalition under Aberdeen in 1853. He presented the first of thirteen budgets, notable for the reintroduction of income tax and sweeping reductions and abolitions of customs and excise duties. At the Exchequer Gladstone was renowned for his war on waste and unnecessary extravagance. He preferred raising revenue to increasing public borrowing or public spending, and believed that the public was best served by a prosperous economy and expanding production, stimulated by international free trade.

Gladstone’s first term as Chancellor came to an end when the Whig/Peelite coalition dissolved and Palmerston replaced Aberdeen as Prime Minister. Such was his reputation on Treasury affairs and as a devastating orator that Gladstone might well have been offered the Treasury by either of the parties contesting the general election of 1859. In the event he returned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a new coalition led by the Whig Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, and continued when Lord John Russell became Prime Minister in 1865. There was then a brief period of Derby/Disraeli-led Tory government during which time the Liberal Party came into being in its more modern form. The seeds were sown in 1859, and Gladstone became leader of the party in 1867, following the death of Palmerston and the retirement of Russell. The newly formed party inevitably remained a coalition of diverse interests and these differences greatly inhibited the work of all Gladstone’s administrations.

In the following year the new Liberal Party won a resounding victory at the polls. Gladstone himself was defeated at South-West Lancashire but was elected for Greenwich, a seat which he would then retain until 1880. In December 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time for what, in terms of its reforming programme, was the greatest as well as the longest of his administrations. In common with his three later periods in office, Gladstone’s first government was greatly concerned with the problem of Ireland. Measures to ameliorate the situation included the Irish Church Bill, which shared ancient endowments between the Church of Ireland, the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterians. The Irish Land Bill gave peasants some protection against eviction without notice or compensation. Throughout the United Kingdom, the secret ballot was introduced, the purchase of military commissions abolished and steps taken to improve general education. Internationally, Britain was in danger of becoming embroiled in the American Civil War and Gladstone’s agreement to allow the Alabama case to be resolved by international arbitration was a major step forward in the replacement of military action by diplomacy.

By 1873 the government was in a period of unpopularity made worse by several ministerial embarrassments, one of which led to Gladstone’s resuming the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, a double act matched previously only by Pitt and Peel. The Irish University Bill floundered, being attacked as too godless from one side and too favourable to Roman Catholics on the other. Meanwhile, Gladstone himself, whose character always aroused bitter personal animosity in some of his acquaintances, was subject to rumours – for example, that he was a crypto-Catholic and practised phrenology.

At the general election of 1874 Disraeli succeeded as Prime Minister and Gladstone retired as leader of the Liberal Party in 1875. The subsequent five years offered him a degree of respite, but he remained active in Parliament, especially on Irish affairs and over his growing concern at the treatment of the Balkan peoples by the Turks (the Bulgarian horrors). By the end of the decade he was ready for his astonishing Midlothian campaign which focused upon these moral issues and culminated in his election for that Edinburgh seat on 5 April 1880. He was greeted by vast crowds on his journey back to London and, having insisted that he was in the hands of the party leaders Granville and Hartington he was prevailed upon to form his second administration. This government was notable for many reforms, including the extension of the franchise. In foreign affairs he was concerned about worsening relations with the Boers following the annexation of the Transvaal. But Egypt and the Sudan were the greatest cause of trouble and the government was much wounded by the death of Gordon at Khartoum.

The general election of 1885 was dominated by the Irish Question and led to a brief Salisbury-led government without an effective majority. In 1886 Gladstone formed his third administration in which he introduced the Government of Ireland Home Rule Bill, urging his supporters to ‘think well, think wisely, think not for the moment but for the years that are to come, before you reject this Bill.’ However the Bill was defeated with ninety-three Liberals voting against, including Joseph Chamberlain.

Gladstone remained fully active in political affairs but there was once more time for a period of reflection. He was able to indulge his delight in European travel and it was from Biarritz that he returned for his final campaign for Midlothian in 1892. The wisdom of his resuming office at the age of eighty-two can be debated, but it was for a single purpose: to pass the Home Rule Bill into law. For Gladstone, Ireland had increasingly become the issue on which he relied to distract the Liberal Party from the growing Radical pressure for state intervention, or constructionism, in social policy, an approach which, although it was eventually to underpin the New Liberal achievements of Campbell-Bannerman’s and Asquith’s governments, was anathema to Gladstonian individualism. Once more he took personal charge of the Bill, but it was blocked in the Lords, and with hearing and eyesight failing, Gladstone resigned for the last time in 1894. He lived for a further four years after his resignation and, until the months of his painful, final illness, remained extraordinarily active for a man in his late eighties.

Amongst the number of outstanding statesmen in Victorian Britain, Gladstone was unquestionably the greatest. He brought to his public life an exceptional physical, mental and spiritual vitality. He was a man of independent but by no means unchanging mind. His combination of moral zeal and the willingness to think on and on, no doubt explains how the opponent of the end to the slave trade became the great champion of liberty for the oppressed peoples of the Austrian and Turkish empires. Likewise, the ardent opponent of the 1832 Reform Bill became responsible for the secret ballot and the great expansion of the franchise. The rather priggish right-wing Tory who won Newark in 1832 became not a Whig but ‘The Peoples William’, as leader of the first recognisably Liberal government. Having refused all honours for himself, he died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden, plain Mr Gladstone.

Gladstone’s main political papers are in the British Library, while his family and some minor political documents are at St Deiniol’s Library at Hawarden. His diaries are in Lambeth Palace Library but they have also been jointly edited by Professor H. C. G. Matthew and M. R. D. Foot in fourteen volumes. The most accessible recent biography is Roy Jenkins’ Gladstone (Macmillan Press, 1995). Professor Colin Matthews’ Gladstone 1809-1898 (1997), consolidates his previously published two-volume work. Both these works have extensive bibliographies. A recent collection of essays by leading academics on aspects of Gladstone’s career, also entitled Gladstone, is edited by Peter Jagger, published by Hambledon Press, 1998.


Roger Pincham was Chairman of the National Executive of the Liberal Party 1979-82. He founded the Gladstone Club in 1974 and remains its Chairman. He is a trustee of the John Stuart Mill Institute and President of the Lloyd George Society.