History

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 Kimberley (John Wodehouse), 1826-1902

When Lord Kimberley died on 8 April 1902, he was commonly remembered as Gladstone’s loyal lieutenant: competent, hard-working, and high-minded. By praising these very civilian virtues in the context of war-charged, turn-of-the-century high politics, his twentieth-century eulogists were politely wondering exactly why Kimberley had mattered. After all, as one journalist wrote, he was as far […]

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 […]

Earl of Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose), 1847-1929

Rosebery is perhaps the least well-known of the Liberal Prime Ministers, having the misfortune to serve in the office for only a short period, immediately after the extended career of the charismatic Gladstone. He had a difficult relationship with the radicals of his parliamentary party, not because of his social policy attitudes (he was a […]

Marquess of Hartington (Duke of Devonshire), 1833-1908

The birth of the modern Liberal Party in 1859 brought together three disparate elements, Whigs, Peelites and Radicals. Hartington, as he was known for most of his political life, epitomised the Whig contribution to government – rich, aristocratic but driven by noblesse oblige to take public office. When he broke with Gladstone in the 1880s it […]

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 […]

Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1836-1908

There have been four Liberals at the head of clearly Liberal governments – Gladstone, Rosebery, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Three of them are well-known names. Yet of the four, ‘CB’ was far and away the best party leader. Only Grimond, in very different circumstances, can compare with him. Had Campbell-Bannerman not become leader in […]

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 […]

Sir William Harcourt, 1827-1904

William George Granville Venables Vernon Harcourt was born at York on 14 October 1827, of a land-owning and clerical family which traced its ancestry to the Plantagenet kings. His elder brother, Edward Harcourt, was a staunch Conservative and for eight years an MP. William Harcourt’s views, however, began to take a Liberal turn in the […]

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, […]

Thomas Hill Green, 1836-1882

Thomas Hill Green was that rare combination, a high-powered philosopher and political theorist who also contributed effectively to practical politics. His friend, the Cambridge philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, said that while he could hold his own with Green in metaphysics and epistemology, when it came to politics, ‘I always felt the chances were that before long […]

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 […]

Charles Bradlaugh, 1833-1891

Charles Bradlaugh was born on 26 September 1833 in Hoxton, London, the eldest of the seven children of a poor solicitor’s clerk, and he received only an elementary education. Though brought up in the Church of England, he came to doubt the doctrines of Christianity. Pressure to conform drove him from home in 1850 and […]

Joseph Chamberlain, 1836-1914

In a picture postcard (Tuck & Sons Ltd, c. 1905) Radical Joseph was pictured wearing a coat of many colours. Each segment was labelled with different stages in his political career: socialist, extreme radical, Gladstonian, Liberal Unionist, Conservative and protectionist and food taxer. Inconsistent was one of the more favourable epithets used of Chamberlain. To […]

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 […]

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?

Times report on the meeting in Willis Rooms

The following report from The Times describes the meeting that took place at Willis' Rooms in St James Street, London on the 6th June 1859, when the Liberal Party was finally formed.

Personal account of the meeting in Willis’ Rooms

The following letter from Sidney Herbert to his wife is a personal account of the meeting that took place at Willis' Rooms in St James Street, London on the 6th June 1859, when the Liberal Party was finally formed.

Gladstonian Liberalism

Few statesmen left a deeper and more permanent mark on British Liberalism than William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898). What secured a unique place for him in the history of Liberalism was not simply the fact that he was Prime Minister four times (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94), having previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of the years between 1853 and 1866. It was especially his ability to speak to the hearts and minds of successive generations of Liberals both men and women motivating them to political action as a matter of moral obligation.

Gladstone’’s Parliamentary Record 1868-1900

William Gladstone led the Liberal Party in four governments over a quarter of a century (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94) bringing to fruition a wide range of reforms and almost coming to define Liberalism.

Gladstone’s first government

After an apprenticeship in government under the Conservative Robert Peel, Gladstone served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Aberdeen’s coalition and Palmerston’s Government of 1859-1865. His energy, administrative and oratorical skills marked him as the Liberal Party’s future leader.

A torrent of gin and beer: the election defeat in 1874

In January 1874, the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, approached Queen Victoria to dissolve parliament, surprising both the opposition and his own party. In his election manifesto, Gladstone promised to reduce local taxes, to cut taxes on consumer products and to repeal the income tax. When the campaign was over, the Liberal landslide of 1868 had been washed away and Benjamin Disraeli presided over a Conservative majority of 52, the first since 1841.

The Liberals in opposition 1875-1880

At the beginning of 1875, following his defeat by Disraeli in the 1874 general election, Gladstone resigned the leadership of the Liberal party, convincing himself that at the age of 65 he deeply desired an interval between parliament and the grave. But he did not resign his seat.

The Midlothian Campaign

A year after the defeat of his government in 1874, William Ewart Gladstone retired as leader of the Liberal Party. At 65, he deeply desired an interval between parliament and the grave to devote to religious affairs. Indeed, it was while engrossed in notes on Future Retribution that he was called away to write the pamphlet on the 1876 Bulgarian atrocities that marked his return to politics. At the beginning of 1879, he accepted an invitation to stand for Midlothian in the general election expected for 1880.

Gladstone’‘s second government

The Liberals won the 1880 election by a greater margin than anticipated, gaining 112 seats and, despite the strength of the Irish nationalist party, a majority of over 50 against all other parties. Despite significant achievements including the 1884 Reform Act the 1880-1885 Gladstonian administration has not been celebrated in the same way as its Liberal predecessor. Most commentary, coloured by hindsight of the schism in the party in 1886, has focussed on its difficulties.

Chamberlain’s Radical Programme

Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham manufacturer, took up full time politics in the 1870s. As mayor of Birmingham he built his reputation by successfully importing business methods into local government and the Radical Programme was his attempt to apply his techniques on a national stage.

The Home Rule crisis

Shortly after Gladstone’s second government had seen the third reform act safely onto the statute book in 1885, it suffered a defeat on the budget and resigned. Lord Salisbury formed a minority Conservative government that called an election when the new enlarged electoral register was ready.

Extract from Gladstone’s 3rd Midlothian speech on foreign policy

Following his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned the Liberal leadership and, in his sixties, hoped to spend the rest of his life in retirement. The Balkan Massacres of 1876 drew him back to politics in protest at what he saw as Disraeli’s (Lord Beaconsfield’s) cynical reaction and his own party’s supine response.

Remember The Rights of The Savage

Following his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned the Liberal leadership and, in his sixties, hoped to spend the rest of his life in retirement. The Balkan Massacres of 1876 drew him back to politics in protest at what he saw as Disraeli’s (Lord Beaconsfield’s) cynical reaction and his own party’s supine response.

The Hawarden Kite

In November 1885 the Irish Nationalist leader, Charles Stewart Parnell proposed an independent constitution for Ireland and although the Liberal leader, William Gladstone, believed in the necessity of Home Rule by this time, he was also convinced that he needed further time to persuade his Party of this.

Joseph Chamberlain and Municipal Liberalism

The reforms in municipal services that Joseph Chamberlain introduced during his three-year mayoralty of Birmingham in the mid-1870s marked a turning point for British Liberalism as well as in the governance of industrial cities.

Journal articles

The language of elections

Review of Luke Blaxill, The War of Words: The Language of British Elections, 1880–1914 (Royal Historical Society, Boydell Press, 2020).

Download available only for subscribers.

CB

Review of Alexander S. Waugh, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman: A Scottish Life and UK Politics 1836–1908 (Austin Macauley Publishers, 2019).

Download available only for subscribers.

Aristocratic Radical

Review of Roger Swift, Charles Pelham Villiers: Aristocratic Victorian Radical (Routledge, 2017).

Download available only for subscribers.

Press, politics and culture in Victorian Britain

A comparative review of W. Sydney Robinson, Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead – Britain’s first investigative journalist (Robson Press, 2012); P. Brighton, Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain (I.B. Tauris, 2016); and G. Cordery and J. S. Meisel (eds.), The Humours of Parliament: Harry Furniss’ View of Late Victorian Political Culture (Ohio State UP, 2014).

Events

Research in progress

Sir Robert Torrens (1812-84)

I am looking for the papers of Sir Robert Torrens, who was elected to Parliament for the Borough of Cambridge in 1868, representing the Liberal Party.  He lived for many years in South Australia, where he developed the land titles system that still bears his name. He moved to England in the 1860s, where he […]

Anarchism and Liberalism 1880-1980

Some anarchists were successfully influential in liberal networks, starting with many New Liberal networks around the beginning of the 20th Century. My thesis focuses on this earlier period but I am interested in anarchist influences on liberalism throughout the twentieth century. If any readers can help with informing me of their own personal experiences of […]