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History and Tour

Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli - copyright: National Portrait Gallery Born: 21 December 1804 in (Bedford Row, London

First entered Parliament: 27 July 1837

Age he became PM: 63 years, 68 days; 69 years, 61 days

Maiden speech: 7 December 1837 speaking on Irish elections

Total time as PM: Six years, 339 days

Died: 19 April 1881 at Curzon Street, London

Facts and figures

Nickname: "Dizzy"

Education: Higham Hall School in Walthamstow

Family: Disraeli was the eldest son and second of five children. He was married to Mary Ann Lewis but had no children.

Interests: Gourmet food, rare books, trees, writing novels

Biography

Only Jewish PM

Politician, novelist and bon viveur, Benjamin Disraeli was a man with many interests.

But it was as a Conservative politician that Disraeli achieved lasting fame. PM for almost seven years, he initiated a wide range of legislation to improve educational opportunities and the life of working people.

The son of Isaac, a Jewish Italian writer, Benjamin Disraeli had an Anglican upbringing after the age of twelve. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, this enabled Disraeli to follow a career that would otherwise have been denied him. He was Britain’s first, and so far only, Jewish Prime Minister

Disraeli's best-known novel Aged 20 he lost money by gambling on the Stock Exchange, and helped to launch The Representative , a newspaper intended to usurp The Times , but it soon failed.

He went on to produce an anonymously-written satirical novel, Vivian Grey , which caricatured a former business partner. Success, however, turned to vilification when his authorship was revealed.

The stress caused by this and by his continuing debts drove him to suffer a nervous breakdown. Disraeli was elected to represent Maidstone as a Peelite in 1837. Despite being ridiculed when he made his maiden speech, he defiantly pronounced "the time will come when you will hear me".

Repealing the Corn Laws

He was elected to represent Shrewsbury in 1841, and came to be regarded as witty and able. But Peel failed to offer Disraeli a place in the Cabinet, and Disraeli never forgot it.

After keeping his resentment private for a time, he attacked Peel bitterly over his decision to repeal Corn Laws, eventually forcing the resignation of Peel’s government in June 1846.

At last in 1852 the Prime Minister, Lord Derby, offered Disraeli a place in government as Leader of the Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The defeat of Disraeli’s December Budget, though, torn to pieces by Gladstone, caused the government’s downfall.

After Derby’s resignation in 1868, Queen Victoria invited Disraeli to become PM, and they soon struck up a remarkable rapport thanks to Disraeli’s charm and skilful flattery. He was later to tell a colleague who had asked for advice how to handle the Queen, "First of all, remember she is woman".

The ‘greasy pole’

On finally achieving his long ambition, Disraeli declared, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole". After defeat by the Liberals at the next election, Disraeli’s position as Conservative leader was in jeopardy.

His health was poor and his Wife died in 1872, prompting him to write: "I am totally unable to meet the catastrophe". Yet he persevered.

Disraeli now faced Gladstone across the Dispatch Box, and it became Britain’s most famous parliamentary rivalry. The contrast in their physical appearances and their styles was stark, and the animosity was strong. Disraeli became PM once again in 1874, aged 70. T

his was a successful premiership, though it has been said that the legislation of this time depended much less upon Dizzy himself than upon his Cabinet colleagues.

Child chimney sweeps were outlawed by Disraeli The premiership saw the passing of a large amount of social legislation. The 1875 Climbing Boys Act reinforced the prohibition on employing juvenile chimney sweeps. The 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act allowed local authorities to destroy slums, though this was voluntary, and provided housing for the poor.

In the same year the Public Health Act provided sanitation such as running water and refuse disposal.

On being made Earl of Beaconsfield by Victoria in 1879, Disraeli governed from the House of Lords. Foreign policy became increasingly important, especially the Eastern Question following Turkish atrocities against the Bulgarians.

The 1880 election was lost to the Liberals, a narrow loss in terms of votes cast. Disraeli threw himself into the job of Opposition, and was active until a month before his death from bronchitis in April 1881.

On his deathbed, he is reported to have said: ‘I had rather live but I am not afraid to die’.

Quote unquote

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics"

Did you know?

Protocol prevented Queen Victoria from attending Disraeli’s funeral, but she visited his grave and had a marble monument erected in Hughenden Church, Buckinghamshire.

Extract of Disraeli’s speech on the Reform Act to the House of Commons April 1866

"I say that in a country governed by a woman – where you allow women to form part of the other estate of the realm (peeresses for example) where you allow a woman not only to hold land, but to be lady of the manor and hold legal courts. Where a woman by law may be a churchwarden and overseer of the poor – I do not see, when she has so much to do with the state and the church, on what reasons she has not a right to vote."

Wife

Mary Ann Viney-Evans, 1st and last Viscountess Beaconsfield Disraeli’s Wife was born Mary Anne Evans in 1792.

Twelve years older than Disraeli, she was the 46-year-old widow of politician Wyndham Lewis when she married him. At the time of the wedding, there was much gossip that he had married her for her money.

But their devotion to each other was real. She was overwhelmingly anxious for Disraeli, and was a great help to him in editing his novels. He in turn relied on her support.

Mary Anne was renowned for her uninhibited remarks, which scandalised many staid Victorians. Even Queen Victoria was said to be amused when Mary Anne commented, in response to a remark about some lady’s pale complexion, "I wish you could see my Dizzy in his bath!"

As a reward for Disraeli’s services to the nation, Queen Victoria made Mary Anne a peeress in her own right, Viscountess Beaconsfield, years before Disraeli accepted the title.

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