William Ewart Gladstone FRS FSS (/ˈɡlædˌstən/; 29 December 1809 – 19 May 1898) was a British statesman of the Liberal Party. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served for twelve years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, spread over four terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer four times.

Gladstone was born in Liverpool to Scottish parents. He first entered the House of Commons in 1832, beginning his political career in the Conservative Party as a High Tory. Gladstone served as a minister in both of Robert Peel's governments, and in 1846 joined the breakaway Peelite faction, which eventually merged into the new Liberal Party in 1859. He was Chancellor under Lord Aberdeen (1852–55), Lord Palmerston (1859–65), and Lord Russell (1865–66). Gladstone's own political doctrine – which emphasised equality of opportunity, free trade, and laissez-faire economic policies – came to be known as Gladstonian liberalism. His popularity amongst the working-class earned him the sobriquet "The People's William".

In 1868, Gladstone became Prime Minister for the first time. His first ministry saw many reforms, including the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland and the introduction of secret voting. After electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party, but from 1876; began a comeback based on opposition to Turkey's reaction to the Bulgarian April Uprising. His Midlothian Campaign of 1879–80 was an early example of many modern political campaigning techniques.[1][2] After the 1880 general election, Gladstone formed his second ministry (1880–85), which saw the passage of the Third Reform Act as well as crises in Egypt (culminating in the Fall of Khartoum) and Ireland, where the government passed repressive measures but also improved the legal rights of Irish tenant farmers.

Back in office in early 1886, Gladstone proposed home rule for Ireland but was defeated in the House of Commons. The resulting split in the Liberal Party helped keep them out of office – with one short break – for twenty years. Gladstone formed his last government in 1892, at the age of 82. The Second Home Rule Bill passed through the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords in 1893. Gladstone left office in March 1894, aged 84, as both the oldest person to serve as Prime Minister and the only Prime Minister to have served four terms. He left parliament in 1895 and died three years later. Gladstone was known affectionately by his supporters as "The People's William" or the "G.O.M." ("Grand Old Man," or, according to Disraeli, "God's Only Mistake").[3] He is consistently ranked as one of Britain's greatest prime ministers.

Early life

Born in 1809 in Liverpool, at 62 Rodney Street, William Ewart Gladstone was the fourth son of the merchant John Gladstones, and his second wife, Anne MacKenzie Robertson. In 1835, the family name was changed from Gladstones to Gladstone by royal licence. His father was made a baronet, of Fasque and Balfour, in 1846.[4]

Although born and brought up in Liverpool, William Gladstone was of purely Scottish ancestry.[5] His grandfather Thomas Gladstones (1732–1762) was a prominent merchant from Leith, and his maternal grandfather, Andrew Robertson, was Provost of Dingwall and a Sheriff-Substitute of Ross-shire.[4] His biographer John Morley described him as: "a highlander in the custody of a lowlander," and an adversary as: "an ardent Italian in the custody of a Scotsman." One of his earliest childhood memories was being made to stand on a table and say "Ladies and gentlemen" to the assembled audience, probably at a gathering to promote the election of George Canning as MP for Liverpool in 1812. In 1814, young "Willy" visited Scotland for the first time, as he and his brother John travelled with their father to Edinburgh, Biggar and Dingwall to visit their relatives. Willy and his brother were both made freemen of the burgh of Dingwall.[6] In 1815, Gladstone also travelled to London and Cambridge for the first time with his parents. Whilst in London, he attended a service of thanksgiving with his family at St Paul's Cathedral following the Battle of Waterloo, where he saw the Prince Regent.[7]

William Gladstone was educated from 1816-1821 at a preparatory school at the vicarage of St. Thomas' Church at Seaforth, close to his family's residence, Seaforth House.[5] In 1821, William followed in the footsteps of his elder brothers and attended Eton College before matriculating in 1828 at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Classics and Mathematics, although he had no great interest in the latter subject. In December 1831, he achieved the double first-class degree he had long desired. Gladstone served as President of the Oxford Union, where he developed a reputation as an orator, which followed him into the House of Commons. At university, Gladstone was a Tory and denounced Whig proposals for parliamentary reform.

Gladstone in the 1830s

Following the success of his double first, William travelled with his brother John on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. Upon his return to England, William was elected to Parliament in 1832 as a Tory Member of Parliament (MP) for Newark, partly through the influence of the local patron, the Duke of Newcastle. Although Gladstone entered Lincoln's Inn in 1833, with intentions of becoming a barrister, by 1839 he had requested that his name should be removed from the list because he no longer intended to be called to the Bar.[5]

In the House of Commons, Gladstone was initially a disciple of High Toryism and, as a scion of one of the largest slave-holding families in the world,[8] he opposed both the abolition of slavery[9] and factory legislation. Gladstone's father was a slave owner; in 1834, when slavery was abolished, he helped his father obtain £106,769 (equivalent to £83,000,000 relative to average salary, £9,000,000 in purchasing power terms, in 2013): in official reimbursement by the government for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations in the Caribbean.[10]

In December 1834, he was appointed as a Junior Lord of the Treasury in Sir Robert Peel's first ministry. The following month he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies; a position he held until the government's resignation just five months later, in April 1835.

Marriage and family

Gladstone c. 1835, painted by William Cubley.

Gladstone's early attempts to find a wife proved unsuccessful, with his being rejected by Caroline Eliza Farquhar (daughter of Sir Thomas Harvie Farquhar, 2nd Baronet) in 1835, and by Lady Frances Harriet Douglas (daughter of George Douglas, 17th Earl of Morton) in 1837.[11] Gladstone published his first book, The State in its Relations with the Church, in 1838, in which he argued that the goal of the state should be to promote and defend the interests of the Church of England.

The following year, having met her in 1834 at the London home of Old Etonian friend and then fellow-Conservative MP James Milnes Gaskell,[12] he married Catherine Glynne, to whom he remained married until his death 59 years later. They had eight children together:

  • William Henry Gladstone MP (3 June 1840-4 July 1891) he married Hon. Gertrude Stuart (daughter of Charles Stuart, 12th Lord Blantyre) on 30 September 1875. They had three children.
  • Agnes Gladstone (18 October 1842-9 May 1931) she married Very Rev. Edward Wickham on 27 December 1873. They had three children.
  • The Rev. Stephen Edward Gladstone (4 April 1844-23 April 1920) he married Annie Wilson on 29 January 1885. They had five children and were ancestors of the Gladstone baronets after 1945.
  • Catherine Jessy Gladstone (27 July 1845-9 April 1850)
  • Mary Gladstone (23 November 1847-1 January 1927) she married Reverend Harry Drew on 2 February 1886. They had two daughters.
  • Helen Gladstone (28 August 1849-19 August 1925), Vice-Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge
  • Henry Neville Gladstone (2 April 1852-28 April 1935) he married Hon. Maud Rendel on 30 January 1890.
  • Herbert John Gladstone MP (7 January 1854-6 March 1930) he married Dorothy Paget on 2 November 1901

Gladstone's eldest son William (known as "Willy" to distinguish him from his father), and youngest, Herbert, both became Members of Parliament. William Henry predeceased his father by seven years. Gladstone's private secretary was his nephew Spencer Lyttelton.[13]

In 1840, Gladstone began to rescue and rehabilitate London prostitutes, walking the streets of London himself and encouraging the women he encountered to change their ways. Much to the criticism of his peers, he continued this practice decades later, even after he was elected Prime Minister.

Opposition to the Opium Wars

The opium trade faced intense opposition from Gladstone.[14] Gladstone called it "most infamous and atrocious" referring to the opium trade between China and British India in particular.[15] Gladstone was fiercely against both of the Opium Wars Britain waged in China, in the First Opium War initiated in 1840 and the Second Opium War initiated in 1857, denouncing British violence against Chinese, and was ardently opposed to the British trade of opium in China.[16] Gladstone lambasted it as "Palmerston's Opium War" and said that he felt "in dread of the judgements of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China" in May 1840.[17] A famous speech was made by Gladstone in Parliament against the First Opium War.[18][19] Gladstone criticised it as "a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace."[20] His hostility to opium stemmed from the effects of opium upon his sister Helen.[21] Due to the First Opium war brought on by Palmerston, there was initial reluctance to join the government of Peel on the part of Gladstone before 1841.[22]

Minister under Peel (1841–1846)

Gladstone was re-elected in 1841. In September 1842 he lost the forefinger of his left hand in an accident while reloading a gun; thereafter he wore a glove or finger sheath (stall). In the second ministry of Robert Peel he served as President of the Board of Trade (1843–45).

Gladstone became concerned with the situation of "coal whippers". These were the men who worked on London docks, "whipping" in baskets from ships to barges or wharves all incoming coal from the sea. They were called up and relieved through public-houses and therefore a man could not get this job unless he possessed the favourable opinion of the publican, who looked upon most favourably those who drank. The man's name was written down and the "score" followed. Publicans issued employment solely on the capacity of the man to pay, and men often left the pub to work drunk. They spent their savings on drink to secure the favourable opinion of publicans and therefore further employment. Gladstone passed the Coal Vendors Act 1843 to set up a central office for employment. When this Act expired in 1856 a Select Committee was appointed by the Lords in 1857 to look into the question. Gladstone gave evidence to the Committee: "I approached the subject in the first instance as I think everyone in Parliament of necessity did, with the strongest possible prejudice against the proposal [to interfere]; but the facts stated were of so extraordinary and deplorable a character, that it was impossible to withhold attention from them. Then the question being whether legislative interference was required I was at length induced to look at a remedy of an extraordinary character as the only one I thought applicable to the case...it was a great innovation".[23] Looking back in 1883, Gladstone wrote that "In principle, perhaps my Coalwhippers Act of 1843 was the most Socialistic measure of the last half century".[24]

He resigned in 1845 over the Maynooth Grant issue, a matter of conscience for him. To improve relations with the Catholic Church, Peel's government proposed increasing the annual grant paid to Maynooth Seminary for training Catholic priests in Ireland. Gladstone, who had previously argued in a book that a Protestant country should not pay money to other churches, nevertheless supported the increase in the Maynooth grant and voted for it in Commons – but resigned rather than face charges that he had compromised his principles to remain in office. After accepting Gladstone's resignation, Peel confessed to a friend, "I really have great difficulty sometimes in exactly comprehending what he means."[25] Gladstone returned to Peel's government as Colonial Secretary in December 1845. "As such, he had to stand for re-election, but the strong protectionism of the Duke of Newcastle, his patron in Newark, meant that he could not stand there and no other seat was available. Throughout the corn law crisis of 1846, therefore, Gladstone was in the highly anomalous and possibly unique position of being a secretary of state without a seat in either house and thus unanswerable to parliament."[26]

Opposition MP (1846–1851)

The following year Peel's government fell over the MPs' repeal of the Corn Laws and Gladstone followed his leader into a course of separation from mainstream Conservatives. After Peel's death in 1850 Gladstone emerged as the leader of the Peelites in the House of Commons. He was re-elected for the University of Oxford (i.e. representing the MA graduates of the University) at the General Election in 1847 – Peel had once held this seat but had lost it because of his espousal of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Gladstone became a constant critic of Lord Palmerston.[clarification needed]

In 1847 Gladstone helped to establish Glenalmond College, then The Holy and Undivided Trinity College at Glenalmond. The school was set up as an episcopal foundation to spread the ideas of Anglicanism in Scotland, and to educate the sons of the gentry.

As a young man Gladstone had treated his father's estate, Fasque, in Forfarshire, southwest of Aberdeen, as home, but as a younger son he would not inherit it. Instead, from the time of his marriage, he lived at his wife's family's estate at Hawarden in Flintshire, Wales. He never actually owned Hawarden, which belonged first to his brother-in-law Sir Stephen Glynne, and was then inherited by Gladstone's eldest son in 1874. During the late 1840s, when he was out of office, he worked extensively to turn Hawarden into a viable business.

In 1848 he founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women. In May 1849 he began his most active "rescue work" and met prostitutes late at night on the street, in his house or in their houses, writing their names in a private notebook. He aided the House of Mercy at Clewer near Windsor (which exercised extreme in-house discipline) and spent much time arranging employment for ex-prostitutes. In a "Declaration" signed on 7 December 1896 and only to be opened after his death by his son Stephen, Gladstone wrote:

With reference to rumours which I believe were at one time afloat, though I know not with what degree of currency: and also with reference to the times when I shall not be here to answer for myself, I desire to record my solemn declaration and assurance, as in the sight of God and before His Judgement Seat, that at no period of my life have I been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed.[27]

In 1927, during a court case over published claims that he had had improper relationships with some of these women, the jury unanimously found that the evidence "completely vindicated the high moral character of the late Mr. W. E. Gladstone".[28]

In 1850/51 Gladstone visited Naples for the benefit of his daughter Mary's eyesight.[29] Giacomo Lacaita, legal adviser to the British embassy, was at the time imprisoned by the Neapolitan government, as were other political dissidents. Gladstone became concerned at the political situation in Naples and the arrest and imprisonment of Neapolitan liberals. In February 1851 Gladstone visited the prisons where they were held and in April and July he published two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen against the Neapolitan government and responded to his critics in An Examination of the Official Reply of the Neapolitan Government in 1852. Gladstone's first letter described what he saw in Naples as "the negation of God erected into a system of government".[30] Giustino Fortunato, prime minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, knew of the letters from Paolo Ruffo, Neapolitan ambassador in London, but he didn't inform the king Ferdinand II. After his unfulfilment, Fortunato was dismissed by the sovereign.[31]

Chancellor of the Exchequer (1852–1855)

A pensive Gladstone, from the book Great Britain and Her Queen, by Anne E. Keeling

In 1852, following the appointment of Lord Aberdeen as Prime Minister, head of a coalition of Whigs and Peelites, Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Whig Sir Charles Wood and the Tory Disraeli had both been perceived to have failed in the office and so this provided Gladstone with a great political opportunity.

His first budget in 1853 almost completed the work begun by Peel eleven years before in simplifying Britain's tariff of duties and customs.[32] 123 duties were abolished and 133 duties were reduced.[33] The income tax had legally expired but Gladstone proposed to extend it for seven years to fund tariff reductions:

We propose, then, to re-enact it for two years, from April, 1853, to April, 1855, at the rate of 7d. in the £; from April, 1855, to enact it for two more years at 6d. in the £; and then for three years more ... from April, 1857, at 5d. Under this proposal, on 5 April 1860, the income-tax will by law expire.[34]

Gladstone wanted to maintain a balance between direct and indirect taxation and to abolish income tax. He knew that its abolition depended on a considerable retrenchment in government expenditure. He therefore increased the number of people eligible to pay it by lowering the threshold from £150 to £100. The more people that paid income tax, Gladstone believed, the more the public would pressure the government into abolishing it.[35] Gladstone argued that the £100 line was "the dividing line ... between the educated and the labouring part of the community" and that therefore the income tax payers and the electorate were to be the same people, who would then vote to cut government expenditure.[35]

The budget speech (delivered on 18 April), at nearly five hours length, raised Gladstone "at once to the front rank of financiers as of orators".[36] H. C. G. Matthew has written that Gladstone "made finance and figures exciting, and succeeded in constructing budget speeches epic in form and performance, often with lyrical interludes to vary the tension in the Commons as the careful exposition of figures and argument was brought to a climax".[37] The contemporary diarist Charles Greville wrote of Gladstone's speech:

... by universal consent it was one of the grandest displays and most able financial statement that ever was heard in the House of Commons; a great scheme, boldly, skilfully, and honestly devised, disdaining popular clamour and pressure from without, and the execution of it absolute perfection. Even those who do not admire the Budget, or who are injured by it, admit the merit of the performance. It has raised Gladstone to a great political elevation, and, what is of far greater consequence than the measure itself, has given the country assurance of a man equal to great political necessities, and fit to lead parties and direct governments.[38]

Britain entered the Crimean War in February 1854, and Gladstone introduced his second budget on 6 March. Gladstone had to increase expenditure on the military and a vote of credit of £1,250,000 was taken to send a force of 25,000 to the East. The deficit for the year would be £2,840,000 (estimated revenue £56,680,000; estimated expenditure £59,420,000).[39] Gladstone refused to borrow the money needed to rectify this deficit and instead increased income tax by half, from sevenpence to tenpence-halfpenny in the pound (From ≈2.92% to ≈4.38%). He proclaimed that "the expenses of a war are the moral check which it has pleased the Almighty to impose on the ambition and the lust of conquest that are inherent in so many nations".[40] By May £6,870,000 was needed to finance the war and introducing another budget on 8 May, Gladstone raised income tax from tenpence halfpenny to fourteen pence in the pound to raise £3,250,000. Spirits, malt, and sugar were taxed to raise the rest of the money needed.[41]

He served until 1855, a few weeks into Lord Palmerston's first premiership, and resigned along with the rest of the Peelites after a motion was passed to appoint a committee of inquiry into the conduct of the war.

Opposition (1855–1859)

Gladstone in 1859, painted by George Frederic Watts.

The Conservative Leader Lord Derby became Prime Minister in 1858, but Gladstone – who like the other Peelites was still nominally a Conservative – declined a position in his government, opting not to sacrifice his free trade principles.

Between November 1858 and February 1859, Gladstone, on behalf of Lord Derby's government, was made Extraordinary Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands embarking via Vienna and Trieste on a twelve-week mission to the southern Adriatic entrusted with complex challenges that had arisen in connection with the future of the British protectorate of the United States of the Ionian Islands.[42]

In 1858, Gladstone took up the hobby of tree felling, mostly of oak trees, an exercise he continued with enthusiasm until he was 81 in 1891. Eventually, he became notorious for this activity, prompting Lord Randolph Churchill to observe: "For the purposes of recreation he has selected the felling of trees; and we may usefully remark that his amusements, like his politics, are essentially destructive. Every afternoon the whole world is invited to assist at the crashing fall of some beech or elm or oak. The forest laments in order that Mr Gladstone may perspire."[43] Less noticed at the time was his practice of replacing the trees felled by planting new saplings. Gladstone was a lifelong bibliophile; it has been suggested that in his lifetime, he read around 20,000 books, and eventually owned a library of over 32,000.[44]

Chancellor of the Exchequer (1859–1866)

Gladstone in 1861, photographed by John Mayall.

In 1859, Lord Palmerston formed a new mixed government with Radicals included, and Gladstone again joined the government (with most of the other remaining Peelites) as Chancellor of the Exchequer, to become part of the new Liberal Party.

Gladstone inherited a deficit of nearly five million pounds, with income tax now set at 5d (fivepence). Like Peel, Gladstone dismissed the idea of borrowing to cover the deficit. Gladstone argued that "In time of peace nothing but dire necessity should induce us to borrow".[45] Most of the money needed was acquired through raising the income tax to 9d. Usually not more than two-thirds of a tax imposed could be collected in a financial year so Gladstone therefore imposed the extra four pence at a rate of 8d. during the first half of the year so that he could obtain the additional revenue in one year. Gladstone's dividing line set up in 1853 had been abolished in 1858 but Gladstone revived it, with lower incomes to pay 6½d. instead of 9d. For the first half of the year the lower incomes paid 8d. and the higher incomes paid 13d. in income tax.[46]

On 12 September 1859 the Radical MP Richard Cobden visited Gladstone, who recorded it in his diary: "... further conv. with Mr. Cobden on Tariffs & relations with France. We are closely & warmly agreed".[47] Cobden was sent as Britain's representative to the negotiations with France's Michel Chevalier for a free trade treaty between the two countries. Gladstone wrote to Cobden: "... the great aim—the moral and political significance of the act, and its probable and desired fruit in binding the two countries together by interest and affection. Neither you nor I attach for the moment any superlative value to this Treaty for the sake of the extension of British trade. ... What I look to is the social good, the benefit to the relations of the two countries, and the effect on the peace of Europe".[48]

Gladstone's budget of 1860 was introduced on 10 February along with the Cobden–Chevalier Treaty between Britain and France that would reduce tariffs between the two countries. This budget "marked the final adoption of the Free Trade principle, that taxation should be levied for Revenue purposes alone, and that every protective, differential, or discriminating duty ... should be dislodged".[49] At the beginning of 1859, there were 419 duties in existence. The 1860 budget reduced the number of duties to 48, with 15 duties constituting the majority of the revenue. To finance these reductions in indirect taxation, the income tax, instead of being abolished, was raised to 10d. for incomes above £150 and at 7d. for incomes above £100.[50]

In 1860 Gladstone intended to abolish the duty on paper – a controversial policy, because the duty traditionally inflated the cost of publishing and hindered the dissemination of radical working-class ideas. Although Palmerston supported continuation of the duty, using it and income tax revenue to buy arms, a majority of his Cabinet supported Gladstone. The Bill to abolish duties on paper narrowly passed Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. No money bill had been rejected by Lords for over 200 years, and a furore arose over this vote. The next year, Gladstone included the abolition of paper duty in a consolidated Finance Bill (the first ever) to force the Lords to accept it, and accept it they did. The proposal in the Commons of one bill only per session for the national finances was a precedent uniformly followed from that date until 1910, and it has been ever since the rule.[51]

Gladstone steadily reduced Income tax over the course of his tenure as Chancellor. In 1861 the tax was reduced to ninepence (£0–0s–9d), in 1863 to sevenpence, in 1864 to fivepence and in 1865 to fourpence.[52] Gladstone believed that government was extravagant and wasteful with taxpayers' money and so sought to let money "fructify in the pockets of the people" by keeping taxation levels down through "peace and retrenchment". In 1859 he wrote to his brother, who was a member of the Financial Reform Association at Liverpool: "Economy is the first and great article (economy such as I understand it) in my financial creed. The controversy between direct and indirect taxation holds a minor, though important place".[53] He wrote to his wife on 14 January 1860: "I am certain, from experience, of the immense advantage of strict account-keeping in early life. It is just like learning the grammar then, which when once learned need not be referred to afterwards".[54] [a]

Due to his actions as Chancellor, Gladstone earned the reputation as the liberator of British trade and the working man's breakfast table, the man responsible for the emancipation of the popular press from "taxes upon knowledge" and for placing a duty on the succession of the estates of the rich.[56] Gladstone's popularity rested on his taxation policies which meant to his supporters balance, social equity and political justice.[57] The most significant expression of working-class opinion was at Northumberland in 1862 when Gladstone visited. George Holyoake recalled in 1865:

When Mr Gladstone visited the North, you well remember when word passed from the newspaper to the workman that it circulated through mines and mills, factories and workshops, and they came out to greet the only British minister who ever gave the English people a right because it was just they should have it ... and when he went down the Tyne, all the country heard how twenty miles of banks were lined with people who came to greet him. Men stood in the blaze of chimneys; the roofs of factories were crowded; colliers came up from the mines; women held up their children on the banks that it might be said in after life that they had seen the Chancellor of the People go by. The river was covered like the land. Every man who could ply an oar pulled up to give Mr Gladstone a cheer. When Lord Palmerston went to Bradford the streets were still, and working men imposed silence upon themselves. When Mr Gladstone appeared on the Tyne he heard cheer no other English minister ever heard ... the people were grateful to him, and rough pitmen who never approached a public man before, pressed round his carriage by thousands ... and thousands of arms were stretched out at once, to shake hands with Mr Gladstone as one of themselves.[58]

When Gladstone first joined Palmerston's government in 1859, he had opposed further electoral reform, but he changed his position during Palmerston's last premiership, and by 1865 he was firmly in favour of enfranchising the working classes in towns; the policy caused friction with Palmerston, who strongly opposed enfranchisement. At the beginning of each session, Gladstone would passionately urge the Cabinet to adopt new policies, while Palmerston would fixedly stare at a paper before him. At a lull in Gladstone's speech, Palmerston would smile, rap the table with his knuckles, and interject pointedly, "Now, my Lords and gentlemen, let us go to business".[59]

American Civil War

As Chancellor, Gladstone made a speech at Newcastle on 7 October 1862 in which he supported the independence of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War, claiming that Jefferson Davis had "made a nation". He did not consider slavery a problem; when Gladstone was first elected to Parliament his father owned over two and a half thousand slaves, and the young man helped his father to obtain full payment for them. Great Britain was officially neutral at the time. Gladstone later regretted the Newcastle speech.[60]

Electoral reform

In May 1864 Gladstone said that he saw no reason in principle why all mentally able men could not be enfranchised, but admitted that this would only come about once the working classes themselves showed more interest in the subject. Queen Victoria was not pleased with this statement, and an outraged Palmerston considered it seditious incitement to agitation.[61]

Gladstone's support for electoral reform and disestablishment of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland alienated him from constituents in his Oxford University seat, and he lost it in the 1865 general election. A month later, however, he stood as a candidate in South Lancashire, where he was elected third MP (South Lancashire at this time elected three MPs). Palmerston campaigned for Gladstone in Oxford because he believed that his constituents would keep him "partially muzzled"; many Oxford graduates were Anglican clergymen at that time. A victorious Gladstone told his new constituency, "At last, my friends, I am come among you; and I am come—to use an expression which has become very famous and is not likely to be forgotten—I am come 'unmuzzled'."

On Palmerston's death in October, Earl Russell formed his second ministry. Russell & Gladstone (now the senior Liberal in the House of Commons) attempted to pass a reform bill, which was defeated in the Commons because the "Adullamite" Whigs, led by Robert Lowe, refused to support it. The Conservatives then formed a ministry, in which after long Parliamentary debate Disraeli passed the Second Reform Act of 1867; Gladstone's proposed bill had been totally outmanoeuvred; he stormed into the Chamber, but too late to see his arch-enemy pass the bill. Gladstone was furious; his animus commenced a long rivalry that would only end on Disraeli's death and Gladstone's encomium in the Commons in 1881.

Leader of the Liberal Party, from 1867

Lord Russell retired in 1867 and Gladstone became leader of the Liberal Party. In 1868 the Irish Church Resolutions was proposed as a measure to reunite the Liberal Party in government (on the issue of disestablishment of the Church of Ireland – this would be done during Gladstone's First Government in 1869 and meant that Irish Roman Catholics did not need to pay their tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland).[62] When it was passed Disraeli took the hint and called a General Election.

First premiership (1868–1874)

Robert Lowe – Chancellor John Bright – Board of Trade George Campbell, Duke of Argyll – India George Villiers, Earl of Clarendon – Foreign Affairs Henry Bruce, Baron Aberdare – Home Secretary William Wood, Baron Hatherley – Lord Chancellor George Robinson, Earl de Grey and Ripon – Lord President of the Council Granville Leveson-Gower, Earl Granville – Colonies John Wodehouse, Earl of Kimberley – Privy Seal George Goschen – Poor Law William Ewart Gladstone – Prime Minister Spencer Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington – Postmaster General Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, Baron Carlingford – Ireland Edward Cardwell – Secretary for War Hugh Childers – First Lord of the Admiralty Use your cursor to explore (or click icon to enlarge)
Gladstone's Cabinet of 1868, painted by Lowes Cato Dickinson.[63] Use a cursor to see who is who.[64]

In the next general election in 1868, the South Lancashire constituency had been broken-up by the Second Reform Act into two: South East Lancashire and South West Lancashire. Gladstone stood for South West Lancashire and for Greenwich, it being quite common then for candidates to stand in two constituencies simultaneously.[65] To his great surprise he was defeated in South Lancashire but winning in Greenwich was able to remain in Parliament. He became Prime Minister for the first time and remained in the office until 1874. Evelyn Ashley famously described the scene in the grounds of Hawarden Castle on 1 December 1868, though getting the date wrong:

One afternoon of November, 1868, in the Park at Hawarden, I was standing by Mr. Gladstone holding his coat on my arm while he, in his shirt sleeves, was wielding an axe to cut down a tree. Up came a telegraph messenger. He took the telegram, opened it and read it, then handed it to me, speaking only two words, namely, 'Very significant', and at once resumed his work. The message merely stated that General Grey would arrive that evening from Windsor. This, of course, implied that a mandate was coming from the Queen charging Mr. Gladstone with the formation of his first Government. I said nothing, but waited while the well-directed blows resounded in regular cadence. After a few minutes the blows ceased and Mr. Gladstone, resting on the handle of his axe, looked up, and with deep earnestness in his voice, and great intensity in his face, exclaimed: 'My mission is to pacify Ireland.' He then resumed his task, and never said another word till the tree was down.[66]

In the 1860s and 1870s, Gladstonian Liberalism was characterised by a number of policies intended to improve individual liberty and loosen political and economic restraints. First was the minimisation of public expenditure on the premise that the economy and society were best helped by allowing people to spend as they saw fit. Secondly, his foreign policy aimed at promoting peace to help reduce expenditures and taxation and enhance trade. Thirdly, laws that prevented people from acting freely to improve themselves were reformed. When an unemployed miner (Daniel Jones) wrote to him to complain of his unemployment and low wages, Gladstone gave what H. C. G. Matthew has called "the classic mid-Victorian reply" on 20 October 1869:

The only means which have been placed in my power of 'raising the wages of colliers' has been by endeavouring to beat down all those restrictions upon trade which tend to reduce the price to be obtained for the product of their labour, & to lower as much as may be the taxes on the commodities which they may require for use or for consumption. Beyond this I look to the forethought not yet so widely diffused in this country as in Scotland, & in some foreign lands; & I need not remind you that in order to facilitate its exercise the Government have been empowered by Legislation to become through the Dept. of the P.O. the receivers & guardians of savings.[67]

Gladstone's first premiership instituted reforms in the British Army, civil service, and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. The Local Government Board Act 1871 put the supervision of the Poor Law under the Local Government Board (headed by G. J. Goschen) and Gladstone's "administration could claim spectacular success in enforcing a dramatic reduction in supposedly sentimental and unsystematic outdoor poor relief, and in making, in co-operation with the Charity Organization Society (1869), the most sustained attempt of the century to impose upon the working classes the Victorian values of providence, self-reliance, foresight, and self-discipline".[68] Gladstone was associated with the Charity Organization Society's first annual report in 1870.[69] Some leading Conservatives at this time were contemplating an alliance between the aristocracy and the working class against the capitalist class, an idea called the New Social Alliance.[70] At a speech at Blackheath on 28 October 1871, he warned his constituents against these social reformers:

... they are not your friends, but they are your enemies in fact, though not in intention, who teach you to look to the Legislature for the radical removal of the evils that afflict human life. ... It is the individual mind and conscience, it is the individual character, on which mainly human happiness or misery depends. (Cheers.) The social problems that confront us are many and formidable. Let the Government labour to its utmost, let the Legislature labour days and nights in your service; but, after the very best has been attained and achieved, the question whether the English father is to be the father of a happy family and the centre of a united home is a question which must depend mainly upon himself. (Cheers.) And those who ... promise to the dwellers in towns that every one of them shall have a house and garden in free air, with ample space; those who tell you that there shall be markets for selling at wholesale prices retail quantities—I won't say are impostors, because I have no doubt they are sincere; but I will say they are quacks (cheers); they are deluded and beguiled by a spurious philanthropy, and when they ought to give you substantial, even if they are humble and modest boons, they are endeavouring, perhaps without their own consciousness, to delude you with fanaticism, and offering to you a fruit which, when you attempt to taste it, will prove to be but ashes in your mouths. (Cheers.)[71]

Gladstone as caricatured by Vanity Fair in 1869.

He instituted abolition of the sale of commissions in the army: he also instituted the Cardwell Reforms in 1869 that made peacetime flogging illegal. As well as court reorganisation: he secured passage of the Ballot Act for secret ballots, and the Licensing Act 1872. In 1873, his leadership led to the passage of laws restructuring the High Courts. In 1870, the Irish Land Act and Forster's Education Act. In 1871, he instituted the Universities Tests Act. In foreign affairs his over-riding aim was to promote peace and understanding, characterised by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans.

Gladstone unexpectedly dissolved Parliament in January 1874 and called a general election. [b]

Gladstone's proposals went some way to meet working-class demands, such as the realisation of the free breakfast table through repealing duties on tea and sugar, and reform of local taxation which was increasing for the poorer ratepayers.[73] According to the working-class financial reformer Thomas Briggs, writing in the trade unionist newspaper The Bee-Hive, the manifesto relied on "a much higher authority than Mr. Gladstone...viz., the late Richard Cobden".[74] The dissolution itself was reported in The Times on 24 January on 30 January, the names of the first fourteen MPs for uncontested seats were published; by 9 February a Conservative victory was apparent. In contrast to 1868 and 1880 when the Liberal campaign lasted several months, only three weeks separated the news of the dissolution and the election. The working-class newspapers were so taken by surprise they had little time to express an opinion on Gladstone's manifesto before the election was over.[75] Unlike the efforts of the Conservatives, the organisation of the Liberal Party had declined since 1868 and they had also failed to retain Liberal voters on the electoral register. George Howell wrote to Gladstone on 12 February: "There is one lesson to be learned from this Election, that is Organization. ... We have lost not by a change of sentiment so much as by want of organised power".[76] The Liberals received a majority of the vote in each of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom and 189,000 more votes nationally than the Conservatives. However, they obtained a minority of seats in the House of Commons.[77]

Opposition (1874–1880)

Gladstone in 1874, painted by Franz von Lenbach.

In the wake of Benjamin Disraeli's victory, Gladstone retired from the leadership of the Liberal party, although he retained his seat in the House. In November 1874, he published the pamphlet The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, directed at the First Vatican Council's dogmatising Papal Infallibility in 1870, which had outraged him.[78] Gladstone claimed that this decree had placed British Catholics in a dilemma over conflicts of loyalty to the Crown. He urged them to reject papal infallibility as they had opposed the Spanish Armada of 1588. The pamphlet sold 150,000 copies by the end of 1874. A second pamphlet followed in Feb 1875, a defence of the earlier pamphlet and a reply to his critics, entitled Vaticanism: an Answer to Reproofs and Replies.[79] He described the Catholic Church as "an Asian monarchy: nothing but one giddy height of despotism, and one dead level of religious subservience". He further claimed that the Pope wanted to destroy the rule of law and replace it with arbitrary tyranny, and then to hide these "crimes against liberty beneath a suffocating cloud of incense".[80]

In a speech to the Hawarden Amateur Horticultural Society on 17 August 1876, Gladstone remarked "I am delighted to see how many young boys and girls have come forward to obtain honourable marks of recognition on this occasion,—if any effectual good is to be done to them, it must be done by teaching and encouraging them and helping them to help themselves. All the people who pretend to take your own concerns out of your own hands and to do everything for you, I won't say they are impostors; I won't even say they are quacks; but I do say they are mistaken people. The only sound, healthy description of countenancing and assisting these institutions is that which teaches independence and self-exertion".[81] Lord Kilbracken, one of Gladstone's secretaries added:

It will be borne in mind that the Liberal doctrines of that time, with their violent anti-socialist spirit and their strong insistence on the gospel of thrift, self-help, settlement of wages by the higgling of the market, and non-interference by the State.... I think that Mr. Gladstone was the strongest anti-socialist that I have ever known among persons who gave any serious thought to social and political questions. It is quite true, as has been often said, that “we are all socialists up to a certain point”; but Mr. Gladstone fixed that point lower, and was more vehement against those who went above it, than any other politician or official of my acquaintance. I remember his speaking indignantly to me of the budget of 1874 as “That socialistic budget of Northcote's,” merely because of the special relief which it gave to the poorer class of income-tax payers. His strong belief in Free Trade was only one of the results of his deep-rooted conviction that the Government's interference with the free action of the individual, whether by taxation or otherwise, should be kept at an irreducible minimum. It is, indeed, not too much to say that his conception of Liberalism was the negation of Socialism.[82]

A pamphlet he published in September 1876, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East,[83][84] attacked the Disraeli government for its indifference to the Ottoman Empire's violent repression of the Bulgarian April uprising. Gladstone made clear his hostility focused on the Turkish people, rather than on the Muslim religion. The Turks he said:

were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went, a broad line of blood marked the track behind them; and as far as their dominion reached, civilisation disappeared from view. They represented everywhere government by force, as opposed to government by law. For the guide of this life they had a relentless fatalism: for its reward hereafter, a sensual paradise.[85]

The historian Geoffrey Alderman has described Gladstone as 'unleashing the full fury of his oratorical powers against Jews and Jewish influence' during the Bulgarian Crisis (1885–88), telling a journalist in 1876 that: "I deeply deplore the manner in which, what I may call Judaic sympathies, beyond as well as within the circle of professed Judaism, are now acting on the question of the East'.[86] Gladstone similarly refused to speak out against the persecution of Romanian Jews in the 1870s and Russian Jews in the early 1880s.[86] In response, the Jewish Chronicle attacked Gladstone in 1888, arguing that 'Are we, because there was once a Liberal Party, to bow down and worship Gladstone – the great Minister who was too Christian in his charity, too Russian in his proclivities, to raise voice or finger' to defend Russian Jews...[87] Alderman attributes these developments, along with other factors, to the collapse of the previously strong ties between British Jews and Liberalism.[86]

During the 1879 election campaign, called the Midlothian campaign, he rousingly denounced Disraeli's foreign policies during the ongoing Second Anglo-Afghan War in Afghanistan. (See Great Game). He saw the war as "great dishonour" and also criticised British conduct in the Zulu War. Gladstone also (on 29 November) condemned what he saw as the Conservative government's profligate spending:

...the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall boldly uphold economy in detail; and it is the mark ... of ... a chicken-hearted Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he shrinks from upholding economy in detail, when, because it is a question of only £2,000 or £3,000, he says that is no matter. He is ridiculed, no doubt, for what is called saving candle-ends and cheese-parings. No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worth his salt who is not ready to save what are meant by candle-ends and cheese-parings in the cause of his country. No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worth his salt who makes his own popularity either his first consideration, or any consideration at all, in administrating the public purse. You would not like to have a housekeeper or steward who made her or his popularity with the tradesmen the measure of the payments that were to be delivered to them. In my opinion the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the trusted and confidential steward of the public. He is under a sacred obligation with regard to all that he consents to spend.... I am bound to say hardly ever in the six years that Sir Stafford Northcote has been in office have I heard him speak a resolute word on behalf of economy.[88]

Second premiership (1880–1885)

Gladstone in 1879, painted by John Everett Millais.

In 1880, the Liberals won again and the Liberal leaders, Lord Hartington (leader in the House of Commons) and Lord Granville, retired in Gladstone's favour. Gladstone won his constituency election in Midlothian and also in Leeds, where he had also been adopted as a candidate. As he could lawfully only serve as MP for one constituency, Leeds was passed to his son Herbert. One of his other sons, Henry, was also elected as an MP.

Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington to form a ministry, but he persuaded her to send for Gladstone. Gladstone's second administration – both as Prime Minister and again as Chancellor of the Exchequer till 1882 – lasted from June 1880 to June 1885. He originally intended to retire at the end of 1882, the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into politics, but in the event did not do so.

Foreign policy

Historians[who?] have been sharply critical of Gladstone's foreign-policy during his second ministry. Paul Hayes says it "provides one of the most intriguing and perplexing tales of mobile and incompetence in foreign affairs, unsurpassed in modern political history until the days of Grey and, later, Neville Chamberlain."[89][verification needed] Gladstone opposed himself to the "colonial lobby" pushing for the scramble for Africa. His term saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, First Boer War and the war against the Mahdi in Sudan.

On 11 July 1882, Gladstone ordered the bombardment of Alexandria, starting the Anglo-Egyptian War, which resulted in the occupation of Egypt. Gladstone's role in the decision to invade was described as relatively hands-off, and the ultimate responsibility was borne by certain members of his cabinet such as Lord Hartington, Secretary of State for India, Thomas Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook, First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers, Secretary of State for War, and Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, the Foreign Secretary.[90] The reasons for this war are the subject of a historiographical debate. Some historians argue that the invasion was to protect the Suez Canal and to prevent anarchy in the wake of the Urabi Revolt and the riots in Alexandria in June 1882. Other historians argue that the invasion occurred to protect the interests of British investors with assets in Egypt and also to boost the political popularity of the Liberal Party.[90]


In 1881 he established the Irish Coercion Act, which permitted the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to detain people for as "long as was thought necessary", as there was rural disturbance in Ireland between landlords and tenants and Cavendish, the Irish Secretary, had been assassinated by Irish rebels in Dublin.[91] He also passed the Second Land Act (the First, in 1870, had entitled Irish tenants, if evicted, to compensation for improvements which they had made on their property, but had had little effect) which gave Irish tenants the "3Fs" – fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale.[92] He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1881.[93]


Gladstone in 1884, photographed by Rupert Potter.

Gladstone extended the vote to agricultural labourers and others in the 1884 Reform Act, which gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs— adult male householders and £10 lodgers—and added six million to the total number of people who could vote in parliamentary elections. Parliamentary reform continued with the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885.[94]

Gladstone was increasingly uneasy about the direction in which British politics was moving. In a letter to Lord Acton on 11 February 1885, Gladstone criticised Tory Democracy as "demagogism" that "put down pacific, law-respecting, economic elements that ennobled the old Conservatism" but "still, in secret, as obstinately attached as ever to the evil principle of class interests". He found contemporary Liberalism better, "but far from being good". Gladstone claimed that this Liberalism's "pet idea is what they call construction, – that is to say, taking into the hands of the state the business of the individual man". Both Tory Democracy and this new Liberalism, Gladstone wrote, had done "much to estrange me, and had for many, many years".[95]


Historian Sneh Mahajan has concluded "Gladstone's second ministry remained barren of any achievement in the domestic sphere."[96] His downfall came in Africa, where the failed attempt to rescue General Gordon's force in Sudan in January 1885 proved a major blow to Gladstone's popularity. Queen Victoria sent him a telegram of rebuke which found its way into the press. Critics said Gladstone had neglected military affairs and had not acted promptly enough to save the besieged Gordon. Critics inverted his acronym, "G.O.M." (for "Grand Old Man"), to "M.O.G." (for "Murderer of Gordon"). He resigned as Prime Minister in June 1885 and declined Queen Victoria's offer of an earldom.

Third premiership (1886)

A political cartoon depicting Gladstone "kicked out of office" in 1886.

Gladstone espoused the policy of Home Rule in late 1885 (the "Hawarden Kite"), which resulted in the fall of Lord Salisbury's Government. Irish Nationalists, led by Charles Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party, voted against the Tories on a land Bill. The Irish Nationalists held the balance of power in Parliament at this time. Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule convinced them to support the Liberal government using the 86 seats in Parliament they controlled. The main purpose of this administration was to deliver Ireland a reform which would give it a devolved assembly, similar to those now in place in Scotland and Wales.[timeframe?] In 1886 Gladstone's party allied with Irish Nationalists to defeat Lord Salisbury's government. Gladstone regained his position as Prime Minister and combined the office with that of Lord Privy Seal. During this administration he first introduced his Home Rule Bill for Ireland. The issue split the Liberal Party (a breakaway group went on to create the Liberal Unionist party) and the bill was thrown out on the second reading, ending his government after only a few months and inaugurating another headed by Lord Salisbury.

Gladstone, says his biographer, "totally rejected the widespread English view that the Irish had no taste for justice, common sense, moderation or national prosperity and looked only to perpetual strife and dissension".[97] The problem for Gladstone was that his rural English supporters would not support home rule for Ireland. A large faction of Liberals, led by Joseph Chamberlain, formed a Unionist faction that supported the Conservative party. Whenever the Liberals were out of power, home rule proposals languished.

Opposition (1886–1892)

Gladstone in 1886, as painted by Franz von Lenbach.

Gladstone supported the London dockers in their strike of 1889. After their victory he gave a speech at Hawarden on 23 September in which he said: "In the common interests of humanity, this remarkable strike and the results of this strike, which have tended somewhat to strengthen the condition of labour in the face of capital, is the record of what we ought to regard as satisfactory, as a real social advance [that] tends to a fair principle of division of the fruits of industry".[98] This speech has been described by Eugenio Biagini as having "no parallel in the rest of Europe except in the rhetoric of the toughest socialist leaders".[99] Visitors at Hawarden in October were "shocked...by some rather wild language on the Dock labourers question".[100] Gladstone was impressed with workers unconnected with the dockers' dispute who "intended to make common cause" in the interests of justice.

On 23 October at Southport, Gladstone delivered a speech where he said that the right to combination, which in London was "innocent and lawful, in Ireland would be penal and...punished by imprisonment with hard labour". Gladstone believed that the right to combination used by British workers was in jeopardy when it could be denied to Irish workers.[101] In October 1890 Gladstone at Midlothian claimed that competition between capital and labour, "where it has gone to sharp issues, where there have been strikes on one side and lock-outs on the other, I believe that in the main and as a general rule, the labouring man has been in the right".[102]

On 11 December 1891 Gladstone said that: "It is a lamentable fact if, in the midst of our civilisation, and at the close of the nineteenth century, the workhouse is all that can be offered to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and honourable life. I do not enter into the question now in detail. I do not say it is an easy one; I do not say that it will be solved in a moment; but I do say this, that until society is able to offer to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and blameless life something better than the workhouse, society will not have discharged its duties to its poorer members".[103] On 24 March 1892 Gladstone said that the Liberals had:

...come generally...to the conclusion that there is something painful in the condition of the rural labourer in this great respect, that it is hard even for the industrious and sober man, under ordinary conditions, to secure a provision for his own old age. Very large propositions, involving, some of them, very novel and very wide principles, have been submitted to the public, for the purpose of securing such a provision by means independent of the labourer himself....our duty [is] to develop in the first instance, every means that we may possibly devise whereby, if possible, the labourer may be able to make this provision for himself, or to approximate towards making such provision far more efficaciously and much more closely than he can now do.[104][105]

Gladstone wrote on 16 July 1892 in autobiographica that "In 1834 the Government...did themselves high honour by the new Poor Law Act, which rescued the English peasantry from the total loss of their independence".[106] There were many who disagreed with him.

Gladstone wrote to Herbert Spencer, who contributed the introduction to a collection of anti-socialist essays (A Plea for Liberty, 1891), that "I ask to make reserves, and of one passage, which will be easily guessed, I am unable even to perceive the relevancy. But speaking generally, I have read this masterly argument with warm admiration and with the earnest hope that it may attract all the attention which it so well deserves".[107] The passage Gladstone alluded to was one where Spencer had spoken of "the behaviour of the so-called Liberal party".[108]

Fourth premiership (1892–1894)

A political cartoon depicting Gladstone as a radical bent on abolishing the House of Lords.

The general election of 1892 resulted in a minority Liberal government with Gladstone as Prime Minister. The electoral address had promised Irish Home Rule and the disestablishment of the Scottish and Welsh Churches.[109] In February 1893 he introduced the Second Home Rule Bill, which was passed in the Commons at second reading on 21 April by 43 votes and third reading on 1 September by 34 votes. The House of Lords defeated the bill by voting against by 419 votes to 41 on 8 September.

The Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act, passed in 1893, required local authorities to provide separate education for blind and deaf children.[110]

Conservative MP Colonel Howard Vincent questioned Gladstone in the Commons on what his government would do about unemployment on 1 September 1893. Gladstone replied:

I cannot help regretting that the honourable and gallant Gentleman has felt it his duty to put the question. It is put under circumstances that naturally belong to one of those fluctuations in the condition of trade which, however unfortunate and lamentable they may be, recur from time to time. Undoubtedly I think that questions of this kind, whatever be the intention of the questioner, have a tendency to produce in the minds of people, or to suggest to the people, that these fluctuations can be corrected by the action of the Executive Government. Anything that contributes to such an impression inflicts an injury upon the labouring population.[111][112]

In December 1893, an Opposition motion proposed by Lord George Hamilton called for an expansion of the Royal Navy. Gladstone opposed increasing public expenditure on the naval estimates, in the tradition of free trade liberalism of his earlier political career as Chancellor. All his Cabinet colleagues, however, believed in some expansion of the navy. He declared in the Commons on 19 December that naval rearmament would commit the government to expenditure over a number of years and would subvert "the principle of annual account, annual proposition, annual approval by the House of Commons, which...is the only way of maintaining regularity, and that regularity is the only talisman which will secure Parliamentary control".[113] In January 1894, Gladstone wrote that he would not "break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher" by supporting naval rearmament.[114] Gladstone also opposed Chancellor Sir William Harcourt's proposal to implement a graduated death duty. In a fragment of autobiography dated 25 July 1894, Gladstone denounced the tax as

...by far the most Radical measure of my lifetime. I do not object to the principle of graduated taxation: for the just principle of ability to pay is not determined simply by the amount of income.... But, so far as I understand the present measure of finance from the partial reports I have received, I find it too violent. It involves a great departure from the methods of political action established in this country, where reforms, and especially financial reforms, have always been considerate and even tender.... I do not yet see the ground on which it can be justly held that any one description of property should be more heavily burdened than others, unless moral and social grounds can be shown first: but in this case the reasons drawn from those sources seem rather to verge in the opposite direction, for real property has more of presumptive connection with the discharge of duty that that which is ranked as personal...the aspect of the measure is not satisfactory to a man of my traditions (and these traditions lie near the roots of my being).... For the sudden introduction of such change there is I think no precedent in the history of this country. And the severity of the blow is greatly aggravated in moral effect by the fact that it is dealt only to a handful of individuals.[115]

Gladstone had his last audience with Queen Victoria on 28 February 1894 and chaired his last Cabinet on 1 March—the last of 556 he had chaired. On that day he gave his last speech to the House of Commons, saying that the government would withdraw opposition to the Lords' amendments to the Local Government Bill "under protest" and that it was "a controversy which, when once raised, must go forward to an issue".[116] He resigned from the premiership on 2 March. The Queen did not ask Gladstone who should succeed him, but sent for Lord Rosebery (Gladstone would have advised on Lord Spencer).[117] He retained his seat in the House of Commons until 1895. He was not offered a peerage, having earlier declined an earldom.

Gladstone is both the oldest person to form a government – aged 82 at his appointment – and the oldest person to occupy the Premiership – being 84 at his resignation.[118] He resigned and handed over to Foreign Secretary, Lord Rosebery.

Final years (1894–1898)

Gladstone in old age

In 1895, at the age of 85, Gladstone bequeathed £40,000 (equivalent to approximately £4.24 million today)[119] and much of his 32,000 volume library to found St Deiniol's Library in Hawarden, Wales.[120] It had begun with just 5,000 items at his father's home Fasque, which were transferred to Hawarden for research in 1851.

On 8 January 1896, in conversation with L. A. Tollemache, Gladstone explained that: "I am not so much afraid of Democracy or of Science as of the love of money. This seems to me to be a growing evil. Also, there is a danger from the growth of that dreadful military spirit".[121] On 13 January, Gladstone claimed he had strong Conservative instincts and that "In all matters of custom and tradition, even the Tories look upon me as the chief Conservative that is".[122] On 15 January Gladstone wrote to James Bryce, describing himself as "a dead man, one fundamentally a Peel–Cobden man".[123] In 1896, in his last noteworthy speech, he denounced Armenian massacres by Ottomans in a talk delivered at Liverpool. On 2 January 1897, Gladstone wrote to Francis Hirst on being unable to draft a preface to a book on liberalism: "I venture on assuring you that I regard the design formed by you and your friends with sincere interest, and in particular wish well to all the efforts you may make on behalf of individual freedom and independence as opposed to what is termed Collectivism".[124][125]

In the early months of 1897, Gladstone and his wife stayed in Cannes. Gladstone met Queen Victoria, and she shook hands with him for (to his recollection) the first time in the fifty years he had known her.[126] One of the Gladstones' neighbours observed that "He and his devoted wife never missed the morning service on Sunday ... One Sunday, returning from the altar rail, the old, partially blind man stumbled at the chancel step. One of the clergy sprang involuntarily to his assistance, but retreated with haste, so withering was the fire which flashed from those failing eyes."[127] The Gladstones returned to Hawarden Castle at the end of March and he received the Colonial Premiers in their visit for the Queen's Jubilee. At a dinner in November with Edward Hamilton, his former private secretary, Hamilton noted that "What is now uppermost in his mind is what he calls the spirit of jingoism under the name of Imperialism which is now so prevalent". Gladstone riposted "It was enough to make Peel and Cobden turn in their graves".[128]

On the advice of his doctor Samuel Habershon in the aftermath of an attack of facial neuralgia, Gladstone stayed at Cannes from the end of November 1897 to mid-February 1898. He gave an interview for The Daily Telegraph[129] Gladstone then travelled to Bournemouth, where a swelling on his palate was diagnosed as cancer by the leading cancer surgeon Sir Thomas Smith on 18 March. On 22 March, he retired to Hawarden Castle. Despite being in pain he received visitors and quoted hymns, especially Cardinal Newman's "Praise to the Holiest in the Height".

Gladstone's grave in Westminster Abbey

His last public statement was dictated to his daughter Helen in reply to receiving the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford's "sorrow and affection": "There is no expression of Christian sympathy that I value more than that of the ancient University of Oxford, the God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford. I served her perhaps mistakenly, but to the best of my ability. My most earnest prayers are hers to the uttermost and to the last".[130] He left the house for the last time on 9 April. After 18 April he did not come down to the ground floor but still came out of bed to lie on the sofa. The Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane George Wilkinson recorded when he ministered to him along with Stephen Gladstone:

Shall I ever forget the last Friday in Passion Week, when I gave him the last Holy Communion that I was allowed to administer to him? It was early in the morning. He was obliged to be in bed, and he was ordered to remain there, but the time had come for the confession of sin and the receiving of absolution. Out of his bed he came. Alone he knelt in the presence of his God till the absolution has been spoken, and the sacred elements received.[131]

Gladstone died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden Castle, Hawarden, aged 88. He had been cared for by his daughter Helen who had resigned her job to care for her father and mother.[132] The cause of death is officially recorded as "Syncope, Senility". "Syncope" meant failure of the heart and "senility" in the nineteenth century was an infirmity of advanced old age, rather than a loss of mental faculties.[133] The House of Commons adjourned on the afternoon of Gladstone's death, with A. J. Balfour giving notice for an Address to the Queen praying for a public funeral and a public memorial in Westminster Abbey. The day after, both Houses of Parliament approved of the Address and Herbert Gladstone accepted a public funeral on behalf of the Gladstone family.[134] His coffin was transported on the London Underground before his state funeral at Westminster Abbey, at which the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) and the Duke of York (the future King George V) acted as pallbearers.[135] His wife, Catherine Gladstone (née Glynne), died two years later on 14 June 1900; and was buried next to him.


Gladstone's intensely religious mother was an evangelical of Scottish Episcopal origins,[136] and his father joined the Church of England, having been a Presbyterian when he first settled in Liverpool. As a boy William was baptised into the Church of England. He rejected a call to enter the ministry, and on this his conscience always tormented him. In compensation he aligned his politics with the evangelical faith in which he fervently believed.[137] In 1838 Gladstone nearly ruined his career when he tried to force a religious mission upon the Conservative Party. His book The State in its Relations with the Church argued that England had neglected its great duty to the Church of England. He announced that since that church possessed a monopoly of religious truth, nonconformists and Roman Catholics ought to be excluded from all government positions. The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and other critics ridiculed his weak arguments and tore them to shreds. Sir Robert Peel, Gladstone's chief, was outraged because this would upset the delicate political issue of Catholic Emancipation and anger the Nonconformists. Since Peel greatly admired his protégé, he redirected his focus from theology to finance.[138]

Gladstone altered his approach to religious problems, which always held first place in his mind. Before entering Parliament he had already substituted a high church Anglican attitude, with its dependence on authority and tradition, for the evangelical outlook of his boyhood, with its reliance upon the direct inspiration of the Bible. In middle life he decided that the individual conscience would have to replace authority as the inner citadel of the Church. That view of the individual conscience affected his political outlook and changed him gradually from a Conservative into a Liberal.[139]


The historian H. C. G. Matthew states that Gladstone's chief legacy lay in three areas: his financial policy; his support for Home Rule (devolution) that modified the view of the unitary state of the United Kingdom; and his idea of a progressive, reforming party broadly based and capable of accommodating and conciliating varying interests, along with his speeches at mass public meetings.[140]

Historian Walter L. Arnstein concludes:

Notable as the Gladstonian reforms had been, they had almost all remained within the nineteenth-century Liberal tradition of gradually removing the religious, economic, and political barriers that prevented men of varied creeds and classes from exercising their individual talents in order to improve themselves and their society. As the third quarter of the century drew to a close, the essential bastions of Victorianism still held firm: respectability; a government of aristocrats and gentlemen now influenced not only by middle-class merchants and manufacturers but also by industrious working people; a prosperity that seemed to rest largely on the tenets of laissez-faire economics; and a Britannia that ruled the waves and many a dominion beyond.[141]

Lord Acton wrote in 1880 that he considered Gladstone one "of the three greatest Liberals" (along with Edmund Burke and Lord Macaulay).[142]

In 1909 the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George introduced his "People's Budget", the first budget which aimed to redistribute wealth. The Liberal statesman Lord Rosebery ridiculed it by asserting Gladstone would reject it, "Because in his eyes, and in my eyes, too, as his humble disciple, Liberalism and Liberty were cognate terms; they were twin-sisters."[143]

David Lloyd George had written in 1913 that the Liberals were "carving the last few columns out of the Gladstonian quarry".[144]

David Lloyd George said of Gladstone in 1915: "What a man he was! Head and shoulders above anyone else I have ever seen in the House of Commons. I did not like him much. He hated Nonconformists and Welsh Nonconformists in particular, and he had no real sympathy with the working-classes. But he was far and away the best Parliamentary speaker I have ever heard. He was not so good in exposition."[145] Asquithian Liberals continued to advocate traditional Gladstonian policies of sound finance, peaceful foreign relations and the better treatment of Ireland. They often compared Lloyd George unfavourably with Gladstone.

Writing in 1944, the liberal economist Friedrich Hayek said of the change in political attitudes that had occurred since the Great War: "Perhaps nothing shows this change more clearly than that, while there is no lack of sympathetic treatment of Bismarck in contemporary English literature, the name of Gladstone is rarely mentioned by the younger generation without a sneer over his Victorian morality and naive utopianism".[146]

In the latter half of the twentieth-century Gladstone's economic policies came to be admired by Thatcherite Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1983: "We have a duty to make sure that every penny piece we raise in taxation is spent wisely and well. For it is our party which is dedicated to good housekeeping—indeed, I would not mind betting that if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party".[147] In 1996, she said: "The kind of Conservatism which he and I...favoured would be best described as 'liberal', in the old-fashioned sense. And I mean the liberalism of Mr Gladstone, not of the latter-day collectivists".[148] Nigel Lawson, one of Thatcher's Chancellors, believed Gladstone to be the "greatest Chancellor of all time".[149]

Rivalry with Disraeli

Historical writers have often played Disraeli and Gladstone against each other as great rivals.[150] Roland Quinault, however, cautions us not to exaggerate the confrontation:

they were not direct antagonists for most of their political careers. Indeed initially they were both loyal to the Tory party, the Church and the landed interest. Although their paths diverged over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and later over fiscal policy more generally, it was not until the later 1860s that their differences over parliamentary reform, Irish and Church policy assumed great partisan significance. Even then their personal relations remained fairly cordial until their dispute over the Eastern Question in the later 1870s.[151]


Gladstone at Hawarden with his grandchild Dorothy Drew, daughter of Mary Gladstone

Two of Gladstone's sons and a grandson, William Glynne Charles Gladstone, followed him into parliament, making for four generations of MPs in total. Another of his descendants, George Freeman, is a Conservative Member of Parliament for Mid Norfolk.[152]

Sir Albert Gladstone, 5th baronet and Sir Charles Gladstone, 6th baronet (from whom the 7th and 8th baronets are descended) were also grandsons.

Monuments and archives

Thomas Edison's European agent, Colonel Gouraud, recorded Gladstone's voice several times on phonograph. The accent on one of the recordings is North Welsh.[153]

The National Library of Wales holds many pamphlets that were sent to Gladstone during his political career. These pamphlets show the concerns of people from all strands of society and together form a historical resource of the social and economical conditions of mid to late nineteenth century Britain. Many of the pamphlets bear the handwriting of Gladstone, which provides direct evidence of Gladstone's interest in various topics.

Dollis House, Gladstone Park, as seen from the gardens


In popular culture

A Gladstone bag, a light travelling bag, is named after him.[166]

Gladstone's burial in 1898 was commemorated in a poem by William McGonagall.[167]

There is a scene in the Turkish film Free Man about Islamic scholar Said Nursi who is deeply troubled by Gladstone. Nursi reads in a newspaper report of a speech made in the House of Commons by Gladstone:

"So long as the Muslims have the Qur'an, we shall be unable to dominate them. We must either take it from them, or make them lose their love of it." He was filled with zeal. It overturned his ideas and changed the direction of his interest. Thus, the explicit threats of Gladstone to the Qur'an and Islamic world caused a revolution in Nursi's ideas, clarifying them and setting him in the direction he would now follow. The threats caused him to declare: "I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Qur'an is an undying, inextinguishable Sun!"[168]

This is a fictionalised account and there is no evidence in Hansard to support that William Gladstone ever made these comments.[citation needed]

Gladstone and his wife appear as non-player characters in the 2015 video game Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. At the time the game is set, Gladstone is Chancellor of the Exchequer. In one in-game cutscene, he can be seen engaging in a heated argument with Disraeli.[citation needed]

Portrayal in film and television

Since 1937, Gladstone has been portrayed some 37 times in film and television.[169]

Portrayals include:



  1. ^ The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, described Gladstonian finance in his History of Economic Analysis:

    ... there was one man who not only united high ability with unparalleled opportunity but also knew how to turn budgets into political triumphs and who stands in history as the greatest English financier of economic liberalism, Gladstone. ... The greatest feature of Gladstonian finance ... was that it expressed with ideal adequacy both the whole civilisation and the needs of the time, ex visu of the conditions of the country to which it was to apply; or, to put it slightly differently, that it translated a social, political, and economic vision, which was comprehensive as well as historically correct, into the clauses of a set of co-ordinated fiscal measures. ... Gladstonian finance was the finance of the system of 'natural liberty,' laissez-faire, and free trade ... the most important thing was to remove fiscal obstructions to private activity. And for this, in turn, it was necessary to keep public expenditure low. Retrenchment was the victorious slogan of the day ... it means the reduction of the functions of the state to a minimum ... retrenchment means rationalisation of the remaining functions of the state, which among other things implies as small a military establishment as possible. The resulting economic development would in addition, so it was believed, make social expenditures largely superfluous. ... Equally important was it ... to raise the revenue that would still have to be raised in such a way as to deflect economic behaviour as little as possible from what it would have been in the absence of all taxation ('taxation for revenue only'). And since the profit motive and the propensity to save were considered of paramount importance for the economic progress of all classes, this meant in particular that taxation should as little as possible interfere with the net earnings of business. ... As regards indirect taxes, the principle of least interference was interpreted by Gladstone to mean that taxation should be concentrated on a few important articles, leaving the rest free. ... Last, but not least, we have the principle of the balanced budget.[55]

  2. ^ In his election address to his constituents on 23 January, Gladstone said:

    Upon a review of the finance of the last five years, we are enabled to state that, notwithstanding the purchase of the telegraphs for a sum exceeding 9,000,000l., the aggregate amount of the national debt has been reduced by more than 20,000,000l.; that taxes have been lowered or abolished (over and above any amount imposed) to the extent of 12,500,000l.; that during the present year the Alabama Indemnity has been paid, and the charge of the Ashantee War will be met out of revenue; and that in estimating, as we can now venture to do, the income of the coming year (and, for the moment assuming the general scale of charge to continue as it was fixed during the last Session), we do not fear to anticipate as the probable balance a surplus exceeding rather than falling short of 5,000,000l. ... The first item ... which I have to set down in the financial arrangements proper for the first year is relief, but relief coupled with reform, of local taxation. ... It has ... been the happy fortune of Mr. Lowe to bring it [the income tax] down, first from 6d. to 4d., and then from 4d. to 3d., in the pound. The proceeds of the Income Tax for the present year are expected to be between 5,000,000l. and 6,000,000l., and at a sacrifice for the financial year of something less than 5,500,000l. the country may enjoy the advantage and relief of its total repeal. I do not hesitate to affirm that an effort should now be made to attain this advantage, nor to declare that, according to my judgment, it is in present circumstances practicable ... we ought not to aid the rates, and remove the Income Tax, without giving to the general consumer, and giving him simultaneously, some marked relief in the class of articles of popular consumption. ... I for one could not belong to a Government which did not on every occasion seek to enlarge its resources by a wise economy.[72]



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  • Michael Barker, Gladstone and Radicalism. The Reconstruction of Liberal Policy in Britain. 1885–1894 (The Harvester Press, 1975).
  • David Bebbington and Roger Swift (eds.), Gladstone Centenary Essays (Liverpool University Press, 2000).
  • E. F. Biagini, Liberty, Retrenchment and Reform. Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone, 1860–1880 (Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Eugenio Biagini and Alastair Reid (eds.), Currents of Radicalism. Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain, 1850–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Sydney Buxton, Finance and Politics. An Historical Study. 1783–1885. Volume I (John Murray, 1888)
  • F. W. Hirst, Gladstone as Financier and Economist (1931).
  • F. W. Hirst, In the Golden Days (Frederick Muller, 1947).
  • Philip Magnus, Gladstone: A Biography (1954).
  • H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone. 1809–1874 (Oxford University Press, 1988); Gladstone. 1875–1898 (Oxford University Press, 1995).
  • Morley, John (1903). The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. London & New York: Macmillan and CO. Limited and The Macmillan Company.  volume I; volume II, volume III via Internet Archive.
  • Reid, Sir Wemyss, ed. (1899). The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. London, Paris, New York, Melbourne: Cassell and Company. Limited. Retrieved 13 October 2017. .
  • Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1954).
  • Richard Shannon, Gladstone: Peel's Inheritor, 1809–1865 (1985), ISBN 0-8078-1591-8; Gladstone: Heroic Minister, 1865–1898 (1999), ISBN 0-8078-2486-0.

Primary sources

  • W. E. Gladstone, Midlothian Speeches. 1879 (Leicester University Press, 1971).
  • Viscount Gladstone, After Thirty Years (1928).
  • Lord Kilbracken, Reminiscences of Lord Kilbracken (Macmillan, 1931).
  • Herbert Paul (ed.), Letters of Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone (George Allen, 1904).
  • Russell, G. W. E. (1911). One Look Back. London: Wells Gardner, Darton and Co., LTD. Retrieved 13 October 2017 – via Internet Archive. .
  • Tollemache, Lionel A. (1898). Talks with Mr. Gladstone (1 ed.). London: Edward Arnold. Retrieved 13 October 2017 – via Internet Archive. .
  • Matthew, H. C. G. and M. R. D. Foot, eds. Gladstone Diaries. With Cabinet Minutes & Prime-Ministerial Correspondence (13 vol; vol 14 is the index; 1968-1994); includes diaries, important selections from cabinet minutes and key political correspondence. online at Questia are vol 1, 4, 6, 7, and 11-14.; vol 14 pp 1–284 includes brief identification of the 20,000+ people mentioned by Gladstone.

Further reading


External video
Presentation by Roy Jenkins on Gladstone: A Biography at the Library of Congress, February 10, 1997, C-SPAN
Interview with Roy Jenkins on Gladstone: A Biography, March 20, 1997, C-SPAN

Special studies

  • Aldous, Richard. The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone vs Disraeli (2007).
  • Beales, Derek. From Castlereagh to Gladstone, 1815-1885 (1969), survey of political history online
  • Bebbington, D. W. The Mind of Gladstone: Religion, Homer and Politics (2004).
  • Boyce, D. George and Alan O'Day, eds. Gladstone and Ireland: Politics, Religion, and Nationality in the Victorian Age (Palgrave Macmillan; 2011), 307 pp.
  • Bright, J. Franck. A History Of England. Period 4: Growth Of Democracy: Victoria 1837-1880 (1893)online 608pp; highly detailed political narrative
  • Bright, J. Franck. A History of England: Period V. Imperial Reaction: Victoria 1880-1901 (vol 5, 1904); detailed political narrative; 295pp; online; also another copy
  • Butler, P. Gladstone, church, state, and Tractarianism: a study of his religious ideas and attitudes, 1809–1859 (1982).
  • Gopal, S. "Gladstone and the Italian Question." History 41#141 (1956): 113-121. in JSTOR
  • Guedalla, Philip. Queen and Mr. Gladstone (2 vols, 1933) online edition
  • Isba, Anne. Gladstone and Women (2006), London: Hambledon Continuum, ISBN 1-85285-471-5.
  • Hammond, J. L. Gladstone and the Irish nation (1938) online edition.
  • Jenkins, T. A. Gladstone, whiggery and the liberal party, 1874–1886 (1988).
  • Langer, William L. The Diplomacy of Imperialism: 1890–1902 (2nd ed. 1950), a standard diplomatic history of Europe
  • Loughlin, J. Gladstone, home rule and the Ulster question, 1882–1893 (1986). online
  • Parry, J. P. Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the liberal party, 1867–1875 (1986).
  • Quinault, Roland, et al. eds William Gladstone: New Studies and Perspectives (2012).
  • Quinault, Roland. "Chamberlain and Gladstone: An Overview of Their Relationship." in Joseph Chamberlain: International Statesman, National Leader, Local Icon ed. by I. Cawood, C. Upton, (Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016). 97-115.
  • Schreuder, D. M. Gladstone and Kruger: Liberal government and colonial ‘home rule’, 1880–85 (1969).
  • Schreuder, D. M. "Gladstone and Italian unification, 1848–70: the making of a Liberal?", The English historical review, (1970) vol. 85 (n. 336), pp. 475–501 . in JSTOR
  • Seton-Watson, R. W. Disraeli, Gladstone and the eastern question: a study in diplomacy and party politics (1935).
  • Shannon, Richard. The crisis of imperialism, 1865-1915 (1976), pp 76–100, 142–98.
  • Vincent, J. Gladstone and Ireland (1978).
  • Vincent, J. The Formation of the Liberal Party, 1857–1868 (1966).


  • St. John, Ian. The Historiography of Gladstone and Disraeli (Anthem Press, 2016) 402 pp excerpt

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