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William Ewart Gladstone

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The Rt Hon. William Ewart Gladstone
Periods in Office December, 1868February, 1874
April, 1880June, 1885
February, 1886August, 1886
August, 1892February, 1894
PM Predecessors The Earl of Beaconsfield
The Marquess of Salisbury
PM Successors The Earl of Beaconsfield
The Marquess of Salisbury
The Earl of Rosebery
Date of Birth 29 December 1809
Place of Birth Liverpool
Political Party Liberal

William Ewart Gladstone (29 December 180919 May 1898) was a British Liberal politician and Prime Minister (18681874, 18801885, 1886 and 18921894). He was a notable political reformer, known for his populist speeches, and was for many years the main political rival of Benjamin Disraeli.

Gladstone was famously at odds with Queen Victoria for much of his career. She once complained, "He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting." Gladstone was known affectionately by his supporters as the "Grand Old Man" or "The People's William."


Early Life

Born in Liverpool in 1809, William Ewart Gladstone was the fourth son of merchant Sir John Gladstones (the final "s" was dropped from the family name to make it easier to pronounce). Although Gladstone was born and brought up in Liverpool, and always retained a touch of Lancashire accent, he was of Scottish descent on both of his parents' sides. William was educated at Eton College, and in 1828 matriculated at Christ Church College, Oxford where he studied classics and mathematics (he took the latter subject so that he would receive a double first). Gladstone was a President of the Oxford Union debating society where he developed a reputation as a fine orator, a reputation that followed him into the House of Commons. At university Gladstone was a Tory and denounced Whig proposals for parliamentary reform.

He was first elected to Parliament in 1832 as Conservative MP for Newark. Initially he was extremely reactionary (High Toryism ), opposing the abolition of slavery and factory legislation. In 1838 he published a book The State in its Relations with the Church. In 1839 he married Catherine Glynne.

In 1840 Gladstone began his rescue and rehabilitation of London prostitutes. He would walk the London streets and try to convince prostitutes to change their ways.

Minister under Peel

Gladstone was re-elected in 1841. In the second ministry of Robert Peel he served as President of the Board of Trade (18431844). He resigned in 1845 on a matter of conscience — the Maynooth Seminary issue — but returned to a position of Colonial Secretary in December. The following year the government fell over Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws and Gladstone followed his leader into detachment from the mainstream bulk of the Conservatives. After Peel's death in 1850, Gladstone would emerge as the leader of the Peelites in the House of Commons.

As Chancellor he pushed to extend the free trade liberalisations in the 1840s and worked to reduce public expenditure. He also took his moral and religious ideals into politics (he was a Nonconformist), but in a progressive manner later called Gladstonian Liberalism. He was re-elected for the University of Oxford in 1847 and became a constant critic of Lord Palmerston.

In 1848 he also founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women. In May 1849 he began his most active "rescue work" with "fallen women" and met prostitutes late at night either on the street, in his house or in their houses. He wrote their names in his 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. His wife was aware of these activities. There is no evidence he ever actually used their services, although shortly afterwards his diary would sometimes be marked with the small drawing of a whip. It is believed this means he felt tempted, and he is known to have actually whipped himself as a means of repentance.

Chancellor of the Exchequer

During his visit to Naples in 1850 he began to support Neapolitan opponents of the Bourbon rulers. In 1852, when Lord Aberdeen became premier, at the head of a coalition of Whigs and Peelites, Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer till 1855 and unsuccessfully tried to abolish the income tax. Instead he ended up raising it because of the Crimean War. Lord Stanley became Prime Minister in 1858 but Gladstone declined a position in his government because he did not want to work with Benjamin Disraeli, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. Lord Palmerston formed a new mixed government with Radicals added in 1859 and Gladstone joined again as Chancellor of the Exchequer, left the Conservatives and joined the newly formed Liberal Party. As Chancellor, he made a controversial speech which seemed to support the independence of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War. Great Britain was officially neutral at the time, and Gladstone later regretted giving the speech. In 1864 he begun to support a Bill to lower the franchise qualification and angered both Palmerston and Queen Victoria. Because of this, in the general election of 1865 he lost his seat in Oxford, but was narrowly elected for South Lancashire .

The first ministry, 1868–1874

Lord Russell retired in 1867 and Gladstone became a leader of the Liberal party. In the next general election in 1868 he was defeated in Lancashire but elected as MP for Greenwich. He became Prime Minister for the first time, and remained in the office until 1874.

Gladstonian Liberalism was characterised, in the 1860s and 1870s, by a number of policies intended to improve individual liberty and loosen political and economic restraints. First was the minimization of public expenditure, on the basis that the economy and society were best helped by allowing people to spend as they saw fit. Secondly, a foreign policy aimed at promoting peace helped reduced expenditure and taxation as well as help trade. Thirdly, there was the reform of government institutions or laws that prevented people from acting freely to improve themselves.

Gladstone's first premiership instituted reforms in the Army, Civil Service and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. He instituted the abolition of the sale of commissions in the army and court reorganization. In foreign affairs his over-riding aim was peace and understanding, characterized by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans.

He transformed the Liberal party during his first premiership (following the enlarged electorate created by the Reform Act of 1867). The 1867 Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying 10 for (unfurnished) rooms also received the vote. This gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. The Reform Act also changed the electoral map; constituencies and boroughs with less than 10,000 inhabitants lost one of their MPs. The forty-five seats left available through the re-organization were distributed by:

  1. giving fifteen to towns which had never had an MP;
  2. giving one extra seat to some larger towns — Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds;
  3. creating a seat for the University of London;
  4. giving twenty-five seats to counties whose population had increased since 1832.

The later 1884 Reform Act gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs — adult male householders and 10 lodgers — and added about six million to the total number who could vote in parliamentary elections.

In 1869 he arranged the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in an attempt to bring peace. That meant that Irish Catholics did not need to pay their tithes to the Anglican Church of England. He also instituted Cardwell's Army reform that made peacetime flogging illegal in 1869, and the Irish Land Act and Forster's Education Act in 1870. In 1871 he instituted University Test Act . In 1872 he instituted the Ballot Act for secret voting ballots. In 1873 he passed laws restructuring the High Courts. He failed to prevent Franco-German War.

Out of Office and the Midlothian Campaign

In 1874 the Liberals lost the election. After the success of Benjamin Disraeli he temporarily retired from the political scene and the leadership of the Liberal party, although he retained his seat in the House. In 1876 he published a pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East where he attacked the Disraeli government for its indifference to the violent repression of the Bulgarian rebellion in Ottoman Empire. During his election campaign (the so-called Midlothian campaign) in 1879 he spoke against 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.

The second ministry, 1880-1885

In 1880 the Liberals won again, and the new Liberal leader Lord Hartington retired in Gladstone's favour. Gladstone's two sons were also elected as MPs. Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington to form a ministry but he persuaded her to send for Gladstone. His second administration — both as PM and again as Chancellor of the Exchequer till 1882 — lasted from June 1880 to June 1885. He saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, first Boer War and British war against the Mahdi in Sudan. He also extended the franchise to agricultural labourers and others. In 1881 he also established the Irish Coercion Act that let the Viceroy detain people for as "long as was thought necessary." Parliamentary reform continued, however, and in 1884 Gladstone instituted the Redistribution of Seats Act .

The fall of General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan in 1885 was a major blow to Gladstone's popularity. Critics inverted his "G.O.M." nickname (for "Grand Old Man") to "M.O.G." (for "Murderer of Gordon"). Gladstone resigned as Prime Minister in 1885, and declined Victoria's offer of an Earldom.

The third ministry, 1886

In 1886 his party was allied with Irish Nationalists to defeat Lord Salisbury's government; Gladstone regained his position as PM and combined the office with that of Lord Privy Seal. During this administration he introduced his Home Rule Bill for Ireland for the first time. The issue split the Liberal Party and the bill was thrown out on the second reading. The result was the end of his government after a few months and another government headed by Lord Salisbury.

The fourth ministry, 1892–1894

In 1892 Gladstone was re-elected a prime minister for the fourth time. In February 1893 he re-introduced a Home Rule Bill. It was essentially to form a parliament for Ireland, or in modern terminology, a regional assembly of the type Northern Ireland gained from the Good Friday Agreement. The Home Rule Bill did not offer Ireland independence, something which was in any case was not the demand of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was passed by the House of Commons and then rejected by the House of Lords, on the grounds that it went too far. On March 1 1894, in his last speech in the House of Commons, he asked his allies to destroy the veto of the House of Lords. He resigned two days later, although he retained his seat in the Commons until 1895.

Final years

In 1896 he spoke in Liverpool, denouncing Armenian massacres by Ottomans.

Gladstone died of cancer at his country estate, Hawarden Castle, in 1898, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His coffin was transported on the London Underground.

Liverpool's Crest Hotel was renamed The Gladstone Hotel in honor of Gladstone in the early 1990s.

Gladstone's First Government, December 1868 – February 1874


  • July 1870 — On the death of Lord Clarendon, Lord Granville succeeds him as Foreign Secretary. Lord Kimberley succeeds Granville as Colonial Secretary, and Lord Halifax succeeds Kimberley as Lord Privy Seal. W.E. Forster enters the Cabinet as Vice President of the Council
  • January 1871 — Chichester Fortescue succeeds Bright at the Board of Trade. Lord Hartington succeeds Fortescue as Chief Secretary for Ireland. Hartington's successor as Postmaster-General is not in the Cabinet.
  • March, 1871 — G.J. Goschen succeeds Childers at the Admiralty. John Stansfield succeeds Goschen at the Poor Law Board (which becomes the Local Government Board later that year)
  • August 1872 — Hugh Childers returns to the Cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • October 1872Lord Selborne succeeds Lord Hatherley as Lord Chancellor
  • August 1873 — Lord Aberdare (formerly Henry Austin Bruce) succeeds Lord Ripon as Lord President. Robert Lowe succeeds Aberdare as Home Secretary. Gladstone himself takes over the Exchequer.
  • September 1873 — John Bright returns to the Cabinet, succeeding Childers at the Duchy of Lancaster

Gladstone's Second Government, April 1880 – June 1885


  • May 1881 — Lord Carlingford succeeds the Duke of Argyll as Lord Privy Seal
  • April 1882 — Lord Spencer becomes Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, but retains his seat in the cabinet and his position as Lord President
  • July 1882 — Lord Kimberley succeeds Bright as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster remaining also Colonial Secretary
  • December 1882 — H.C.E. Childers succeeds Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Hartington succeeds Childers as Secretary for War. Lord Kimberley succeeds Hartington as Secretary for India. Lord Derby succeeds Kimberley as Colonial Secretary, while J.G. Dodson succeeds Kimberley as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Sir Charles Dilke succeeds Dodson as President of the Local Government Board.
  • March 1883 — Lord Carlingford succeeds Lord Spencer as Lord President, remaining also Lord Privy Seal. Spencer remains in the Cabinet as Viceroy of Ireland
  • October 1884George Otto Trevelyan succeeds Dodson as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
  • March 1885Lord Rosebery succeeds Carlingford as Lord Privy Seal. Carlingford remains Lord President. George John Shaw-Lefevre enters the cabinet as Postmaster-General

Gladstone's Third Government, February – August 1886


  • April 1886James Stansfeld succeeds Chamberlain as President of the Local Government Board. John Ramsay succeeds Trevelyan as Secretary for Scotland.

Gladstone's Fourth Government, August 1892 – February 1894

Gladstone Biographies

  • D. W. Bebbington, William Ewart Gladstone
  • Eric Brad, William Gladstone
  • Philip Magnus, Gladstone: A Biography (1954)
  • HC Matthew, Gladstone: 1809-98
  • Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995) (ISBN 0333662091)

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