Lady Palmerston (Emily Mary Lamb), 1787-1869

Born on 21 April 1787 in the family’s Piccadilly home, Emily Mary Lamb was the 5th surviving child of Elisabeth Lamb née Milbanke, the wife of the first Viscount Melbourne, but the identity of her natural father is unclear. Emily’s brother, William, the second Viscount Melbourne, described their mother as an ‘excellent wife but not […]

Richard Cobden, 1804-1865

Richard Cobden is most famous for his advocacy of free trade and as a leader of the Anti-Corn Law League. He has been described as clothing free trade with a moral cloak. The repeal of the Corn Laws, and the subsequent embedding of the cause of free trade and cheap food in working-class beliefs, were […]

Viscount Palmerston (Henry John Temple), 1784-1865

If we date the modern Liberal Party from the 1859 meeting in Willis’ Tea Rooms, we must accord Palmerston the honour of being the first Liberal Prime Minister, though he would have thought himself the Queen’s minister and the nation’s leader rather than a party’s. In truth, he was more the last of the old […]

Earl of Aberdeen (George Hamilton-Gordon), 1784-1860

Lord Aberdeen was the Prime Minister who first brought together the coalition of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals which later became the Liberal Party. He is perhaps best known for being premier at the time of the Crimean War. After his death several copies of a text were found which seemed to indicate that he felt […]

Earl Granville (Granville George Leveson Gower), 1815-1891

For more than thirty years, at the height of its strength in the country, Lord Granville led the Victorian Liberal Party in the House of Lords, where it was in a perpetual minority. His diplomatic skills contributed significantly to its legislative achievements and to preserving the unity of a party always threatening to splinter. Granville […]

Lord John Russell (Earl Russell), 1792-1878

The leading Liberal politician from the mid-1830s to the mid-1850s, Russell was twice Prime Minister; he was associated particularly with the issues of parliamentary, educational and Irish reform. He was a Foxite Whig who updated Fox’s attitudes to make them more relevant to the second quarter of the nineteenth century, and added to them a […]

Viscount Melbourne (William Lamb), 1779-1848

Right from his London birth on 15 March 1779, at Melbourne House in Piccadilly, William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, was at the centre of Whig social circles. The second son of Peniston Lamb, first Viscount Melbourne, he followed a normal early life for sons of Whig magnates Eton, Cambridge University, and education for a legal […]

Earl Grey (Charles Grey), 1764-1845

Charles Grey, second Earl Grey, Viscount Howick and Baron Grey, was the Prime Minister who oversaw the Great Reform Act of 1832, which overhauled the country’s parliamentary electoral system and was the culmination of two years of intense political crisis. Born on 13 March 1764, at Fallodon in Northumberland, his youth was spent in a […]

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 […]

Jeremy Bentham, 1745-1832

Jeremy Bentham, the English moral philosopher, jurist, social reformer, political economist and founding father of modern utilitarianism was born in London on 15 February 1748. His ambitious father, also a lawyer, had plans for young Jeremy to become Lord Chancellor of England, not only making his name but also his fortune in the process. Despite […]

John Bright, 1811-1889

John Bright has been described as one of the great Victorian moralists, standing at the confluence of the mid-nineteenth century working class movement and of the political wing of nonconformist dissent. By providing leadership to these two movements he made a major contribution to the creed of Liberalism, and a major legacy to William Gladstone, […]

Joseph Hume, 1777-1855

Joseph Hume was a Scottish radical who devoted his political career to championing the principles of retrenchment. He was born near Montrose, Forfarshire in January 1777, the first son of James Hume. Hume’s father, master of a small fishing ship, died when he was nine and the family was forced to fall back on the […]

John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873

John Stuart Mill, philosopher, economist, journalist, political writer, social reformer, and, briefly, Liberal MP, is one of the most famous figures in the pantheon of Liberal theorists, and the greatest of the Victorian Liberal thinkers. Yet his relevance is not restricted to the nineteenth century; as L. T. Hobhouse wrote in 1911, in his single […]

William Edward Forster, 1818-1886

W. E. Forster was a typical nineteenth century Radical: a successful self-made businessman of nonconformist origins who was driven by his conscience to work for the less well-off in the community. His great achievement was the successful creation of the framework for a state education system which is still recognisable today. His ill fortune was […]

Free Trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws

Belief in free trade became an enduring characteristic of British liberalism in the 19th century but its roots were complex. In part it stemmed from popular Radical hostility to monopoly in all its forms, in part from the diffusion of Smithian and Ricardian political economy and in part from the administrative pragmatism, reinforced by evangelical religion, of the liberal Tories in the 1820s.

The Anti-Corn Law League

The second Corn Law of 1828 sparked a wave of radical protest amongst Britain’s urban classes by introducing a sliding scale of duties on foreign wheat, thus causing bread prices to fluctuate excessively during a period that was plagued by high unemployment and poor harvests. The Corn Laws were seen to safeguard the interests of Britain’s traditional country landowners, at the expense of her new and growing industrial class and urban dwellers soon took exception to the resulting rise in food prices.

The Age of Russell and Palmerston, 1846-1868

The collapse of Sir Robert Peel's Conservative government, following the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, began a complex re-arrangement of British political parties; one that took more than a decade to complete. Paradoxically, by rejecting Peel, the remaining Tories held the advantage of unity in their desire to protect agricultural interests and the established Anglican Church while their foes were divided. Could the more liberal MPs, a majority in the House of Commons, form a cohesive party?

Journal articles


The 1847 Financial Crisis and the Irish Famine

The Irish famine of the 1840s remains the worst humanitarian crisis in the United Kingdom’s history. Within six years of the arrival of the potato blight in Ireland in 1845, more than a quarter of its people had died or emigrated.

Despite this, Lord John Russell’s Whig government decided in spring 1847 – long before the famine ended – to cut Treasury spending on public relief efforts. The move is generally attributed by economic historians to the pervasive influence of ‘laissez-faire’ ideas on Russell and his colleagues. But they also faced a deepening financial crisis, which severely limited the government’s options. The Bank Charter Act of 1844 required all bank notes issued by the Bank of England to be fully backed by gold. A major harvest failure in Ireland and England the previous year had led to large price increases and trade deficits, which had in turn caused a sharp drain of gold reserves from the Bank of England in March and April 1847. The Bank responded by lifting the discount rate at which it would lend money to other banks. This led to a drastic curtailment of available commercial credit and contributed to the collapse of numerous businesses in the autumn.

By October 1847, Russell and his cabinet faced a choice: between suspending the Bank Charter Act to permit the Bank of England to discount more freely and to issue banknotes in greater volume, or sticking to economic orthodoxy. They also had to tread carefully through the two crises because the government lacked a parliamentary majority.

Dr Charles Read (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and author of The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis (2022)) and Liam Kennedy (Emeritus Professor of History at Queen’s University, Belfast) discuss the Russell government’s response to the 1847 financial crisis and the Irish Famine.

The Day Parliament Burned Down

In the early evening of 16 October 1834, a huge ball of fire exploded through the roof of the Houses of Parliament, creating a blaze so enormous that it could be seen by the King and Queen at Windsor, and from stagecoaches on top of the South Downs. In front of hundreds of thousands of witnesses the great conflagration destroyed Parliament’s glorious old buildings and their contents. No one who witnessed the disaster would ever forget it.

In a joint meeting between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative History Groups, Dr Caroline Shenton, Clerk of the Records from the Parliamentary Archives, will give a talk on her new book about the 1834 fire, ‘The Day Parliament Burned Down’.

(Note: this meeting is advertised in the latest Journal as taking place on Tuesday 20th October. Our apologies for the error.)

The strange birth of Liberal England

One hundred and fifty years ago, on the 6 June 1859, at Willis Rooms in St James, Westminster, Radical, Peelite and Whig Members of Parliament met to formalise their Parliamentary coalition to oust the Conservative government and finally brought about the formation of the Liberal Party.

To commemorate the compact made at Willis Rooms in 1859 and the consequent founding of the Liberal Party, the Liberal Democrat History Group and the National Liberal Cub are organising a joint event at the Club on the evening of 20 July 2009. There will be a reception at 7.00pm, followed by dinner at 7.30. The evening will be chaired by Lord Wallace of Saltaire (William Wallace), the President of the Liberal Democrat History Group.

After dinner, Ros Scott, President of the Liberal Democrats, and Professor Anthony Howe of the University of East Anglia and author of the books, Free Trade and Liberal England, 1846-1946 and Rethinking Nineteenth-Century Liberalism: Richard Cobden Bicentenary Essays, will give talks.

The National Liberal Club has invited the former leaders of the Liberal Party, Liberal Democrats and the pre-merger SDP and other guests to attend the evening. We are hoping that one or more of these distinguished guests may say a few words on the legacy of the Liberal tradition established in 1859 on the Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats.

Admission to the event will include wine at the reception and dinner at a cost of £40. If you would like to celebrate 150 years of Liberalism with us, please contact: The Club Secretary, National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE, 020 7930 9871, fax 020 7839 4768, email secretary@nlc.org.uk.

UPDATE: A podcast of Anthony Howe’s speech is available at ||http://www.libdemvoice.org/podcast-professor-anthony-howe-foundation-liberal-party-15937.html||Liberal Democrat Voice||.

The Great Reform Act of 1832: its legacy and influence on the Coalition’s reform agenda

Soon after becoming Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg promised “the most significant programmes of reform by a British government since the 19th century…. the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832.” But how do the Coalition governments constitutional changes actually compare to the changes brought in by the Great Reform Bill of 1832?

Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament Trust will talk about the background to the passing of the Great Reform Bill and the impact of 1832 on British political history. Dr Mark Pack, co-editor of Lib Dem Voice and former Head of Innovations at Cowley Street, will draw comparisons between 1832 and the Coalition reform agenda.

Chair: William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire, government whip in the Lords).