History and Tour

William Ewart Gladstone

William Gladstone Born: 29 December 1809 in Rodney Street, Liverpool

First entered Parliament: 14 December 1832

Age he became PM: 58 years, 340 days; 70 years, 116 days; 76 years, 34 days; 82 years, 230 days

Maiden speech: 3 June 1833 defending his father’s interests in West Indies sugar plantations

Total time as PM: 12 years, 126 days

Died: 19 May 1898 at Hawarden Castle, Flint

Gladstone speaks!

Hear the only known recording of the great prime minister from 1888.

Facts and figures

Nicknames: “Grand Old Man” and “The People’s William”

Education: Eton and Christ Church, Oxford

Family: Gladstone was the fourth son and fifth of six children. He was married to Catherine Glynne and had four sons and four daughters

Interests: Reading, singing, collecting paintings and porcelain, chopping down trees

Biography

Another great reformer

Queen Victoria described him as a “half-mad firebrand” whilst to a large part of the British working classes he was the “Grand Old Man”. Four times prime minister, Gladstone provoked strong reactions.

Today it is impossible to ignore his achievements as a Liberal father figure and a passionate campaigner for reform, Irish Home Rule and ethical foreign policy.

Acting on that advice, Gladstone was elected Tory MP for Newark in December 1832, aged 23, with ultra-conservative views.

In Parliament he spoke out against the abolition of slavery, because his family used slaves on their West Indian plantation. He also opposed the recent democratic electoral reforms.

Gladstone’s talent for public speaking caught the attention of Peel, then PM, who made him a Junior Lord of the Treasury and later Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office. He followed Peel in resigning in 1835, and spent the following six years in Opposition.

In 1840 Gladstone began his rescue and rehabilitation of London prostitutes. He would walk the London streets, even while serving as PM in later years, trying to convince prostitutes to change their ways. He spent a large amount of his own money on his rescue work.

Puzzling the voters

In 1845 he resigned over Robert Peel’s decision to make a grant to a Roman Catholic seminary in Ireland. This caused some puzzlement, as he was known to favour the policy himself. He rejoined Peel’s Government later that year as Colonial Secretary.

When the Tory party broke apart in 1846, Gladstone followed Peel in becoming a Liberal-Conservative, now believing strongly in free trade. In 1847 he returned to Parliament as MP for Oxford University, having lost his Newark seat.

In 1858, Gladstone declined a position in the Earl of Derby’s Conservative government, because he no longer believed in protectionism and did not want to work with Disraeli.

Earl of Aberdeen Instead he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Aberdeen’s coalition of Whigs, Peelites and radicals in 1863, where he proved himself to be an outstanding minister.

Gladstone was Chancellor again under Palmerston between 1859 and 1865, though their relationship was an uncomfortable one, and yet again under Russell (1865-6).

During these years he became persuaded of the case for a wider franchise, saying: “Every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution.”

Individual liberty

In 1867, Gladstone became leader of the Liberal party following Palmerston’s resignation, and became prime minister for the first time the following year. His policies were intended to improve individual liberty while loosening political and economic restraints.

Ireland was another area of Gladstone’s concern. He successfully passed an Act to disestablish the Church of Ireland and an Irish Land Act to tackle unfair landlords, but was defeated on an Irish University Bill proposing a new university in Dublin open to Catholics and Protestants.

But in 1874 a heavy defeat at the General Election led to Gladstone’s arch-rival Disraeli becoming prime minister. Gladstone retired as leader of the Liberal Party, but remained a formidable opponent, attacking the government fiercely over their weak response to Turkish brutality in the Balkans, known as the Eastern Crisis.

In 1880 Gladstone became PM for a second time, much against Queen Victoria’s will. Her dislike of him was strong, complaining that he “addresses me as though I were a public meeting”. For two years he combined the offices of PM and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But trouble overseas created problems. He failed to rescue General Gordon from Khartoum, leading to the loss of British control in Sudan, and a dent in Gladstone’s popularity. Critics reversed his “G.O.M.” nickname (for “Grand Old Man”) to “M.O.G.” (”Murderer of Gordon”).

In 1885 the government’s Budget was defeated, prompting Gladstone to resign, with Lord Salisbury becoming PM. Gladstone declined an earldom offered by Queen Victoria, preferring to remain in office.

Third stint in charge

In February 1886, aged 76, Gladstone became prime minister for the third time. Working in alliance with the Irish Nationalists, he immediately introduced an Irish Home Rule Bill, proposing a parliament for Ireland.

It was defeated, and Gladstone lost the General Election held in July 1886. He devoted the next six years to convincing the British electorate to grant Home Rule.

Campaigning on the issue, the Liberals won the 1892 election, and Gladstone returned for a fourth administration.

He once more introduced the Irish Home Rule Bill, but it was rejected by the Lords. He resigned in March 1894, having failed to retain the support of his Cabinet. He died from a cancer which started behind the cheekbone and spread across his body.

Quote unquote

“The love of freedom itself is hardly stronger in England than the love of aristocracy.”

Read the transcript of one of Gladstone’s speeches

“(The duty of government is) not to set up false phantoms of glory which are to delude them into calamity, not to flatter their infirmities by leading them to believe that they are better than the rest of the world; but to proceed upon a principle that recognizes the sisterhood and equality of nations.”

Did you know?

Liverpool’s Crest Hotel was renamed The Gladstone Hotel in honour of Gladstone in the early 1990s.

Wife

Catherine Gladstone nee Glynne  - copyright: National Portrait Gallery Catherine Glynne was born at Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, in 1812, the daughter of an historic Whig family. Catherine’s mother was closely related to four different prime ministers.

Having married Gladstone in 1839, Catherine went on to have eight children, and her life was focused on her family. Gladstone told her everything about his political life, and wrote to her frequently when they were apart.

In contrast to Gladstone, Catherine was relaxed and untidy. Often unconventional, she was oblivious to public opinion, especially in the help she gave her husband in his work helping prostitutes.

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