Alistair Lexden is the Conservative Party’s historian.
This article is the transcript of a lecture delivered yesterday as part of a series entitled ‘Parliamentarians on Parliamentarians’, held in Speaker’s House.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was born on 28 April 1801. He died, aged 84, on I October 1885. His birth stirred no emotion in his grim, disagreeable parents. His death by contrast aroused immense feeling, particularly amongst those living in dire social conditions. The “people’s earl”, as he had become known, was widely mourned at the end of a life lived, as he had so frequently put it, in the service of the loving, redeeming Christ – the kind of life that, in his view, could only be led properly by ardent Protestant evangelicals, of whom he had been the leading representative in public affairs. A vast outpouring of grief took place on the day of his memorial service when the poor and the destitute packed the London streets, from his large town house in Grosvenor Square to Westminster Abbey. They were also well represented that day within its walls where a statue was subsequently erected.
His other London memorial, the Eros monument in Piccadilly, was for long a place of respectful pilgrimage for his numerous admirers at the very bottom of the social order for whom he had laboured mightily . Gladstone composed an inscription which expressed what so many felt about his work: “During a public life of half a century/he devoted the influence of his station/ the strong sympathies of his heart/and the great powers of his mind/ to honouring God/by serving his fellow-men/an example to his order/a blessing to this people / and a name to be by them/gratefully remembered”. It came as a great shock to the Grand Old Man to discover subsequently that Shaftesbury had made many malicious comments about him in the privacy of his voluminous diaries. Some of them were revealed to all the world when an indiscreet best-selling three-volume biography was published in 1886. Charitable judgement on his fellow men and women (he found Queen Victoria hopelessly misguided and frivolous) occupied no high place in Shaftesbury’s list of Christian virtues.
Nothing in his family background suggested that he would become one of the most famous Christian philanthropists in history (which, as it happened, he hated being called). His forebears gave no thought to the welfare of others. The tone was set by the first Earl, the only one of them to achieve prominence in public affairs. This clever Machiavellian Ashley was the second ‘ A’ of the notorious Cabal, the set of cynical ministers who served that merry monarch, Charles II, during the late 1660s. In that brief period he masqueraded as a royalist; earlier he had been first a parliamentarian and then a republican; later he was to become an anti-Catholic rabble-rouser and a founding father of the Whig party. Dryden famously denounced him as having “a name to all succeeding ages curst”. Unsurprisingly, the devout, humanitarian seventh Earl never referred to him. This was not a Shaftesbury of whom God-fearing people should be reminded, except on harmless matters. When the Queen prorogued Parliament in person in 1852, he noted that he had “enraptured the Chancellor and law lords by wearing the robes of the first Lord Shaftesbury” made nearly two centuries earlier.
He also remained silent about the careers of the insignificant Shaftesburys of the eighteenth century who harmed the family’s interests by mismanaging its estates in Dorset, Hampshire and Yorkshire, a practice which the seventh Earl was unfortunately to emulate. Throughout his life he was heavily in debt. It was the one thing he had in common with Disraeli whom he was to denounce even more fiercely than Gladstone in his candid diaries.
It was also the one respect in which he resembled his father. Shaftesbury had much to say about this unfortunate man, all of it vituperative. He “vented malignity and horror” on his children, Shaftesbury wrote. Time brought no improvement. “Not a year has passed”, Shaftesbury noted in 1829, “in which I have not conferred some favour on him and not a year has passed in which I have not received an insult open or implied”. His father barred him from visiting the principal family estate of some 17,000 acres at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset (not spectacular in size by ninteenth century standards). There was, however, one place where the sixth Earl displayed real usefulness: the House of Lords, where he became Chairman of Committees in 1811. A post that in later generations was to be the object of considerable competition was conferred on him for the remainder of his life which lasted until 1851. Walter Bagehot, the great constitutional authority of Victorian England, did not have a high opinion of the Lords ,where attendance was poor (three was a quorum), but he praised its committees. The sixth Earl, a disaster as a father, rendered conspicuous service to his fellow peers.
Shaftesbury did not allow that success to mitigate his intense dislike of his father. His comments on his mother, a daughter of the fourth Duke of Marlborough, were even more severe. “Away with her memory!” he wrote in 1826. “ The idea of such a fiend-warmed heart is bad for a Christian soul”. Looking back at the age of 27 on his wretched childhood as a whole, he passed damning judgement: “Most earnestly do I pray that no family hereafter endure from its parents what we endured”. What angered him most was that they were totally indifferent to his spiritual needs, which quickly became for him pre-eminent. He found his own way to an intense, all-consuming Protestant evangelical faith, inspired by the example of a pious housekeeper.
The school in Chiswick to which he was sent offered only misery in new forms. They always remained vividly in his memory: “Nothing could have surpassed it for filth, bullying, neglect, and hard treatment of every sort…It was very similar to Dotheboys Hall”. He gained perhaps some early intimation of the conditions in which so many people throughout the country lived their lives: “it may have given me an early horror of oppression and cruelty”, he recorded. Harrow, to which he moved on, was better, but it was hopeless in nurturing his academic abilities. It was at Christ Church, Oxford, wearing the gold-tasselled cap of an aristocratic undergraduate, that he showed that he was indeed a clever man, achieving a First in Greats in 1822.
He was convinced that a brilliant career now awaited him as a Tory MP to whom Cabinet office would surely come. “ The country is in danger of its existence”, he wrote with all the brash assurance of youth, “and who shall defend her? He whom God shall think fit, and perhaps I may be he”. He confessed “no man had ever more ambition”, and at this point he did not mean ambition to alleviate the hardship and suffering of the poor. If England were not corrupted by her new industrial wealth and empire, he saw in her a chosen vessel for God’s good purpose for the world and he wanted to be at the vessel’s helm. Woodstock, a pocket borough controlled by his uncle the Duke of Marlborough, was put at his disposal in 1826. Two years later he was appointed to junior office at the India Board of Control in the government formed by the Duke of Wellington whom he hero-worshipped. He dreamed of rejuvenating the ancient East through a Christian Church militant here on earth.
In 1830 this stern, unbending Tory married into one of the greatest Whig families. One of his many female admirers described him as “the handsomest young man I ever saw” and several Whig mothers were prepared to allow that his magnificent good looks, marble white and aquiline, went a considerable way towards offsetting his unfortunate political views. But there was much surprise that this fierce Christian witness should be accepted into the family of Countess Cowper, sister of the languid Lord Melbourne who captivated the young Queen Victoria; neither sister or brother ever troubled to open a Bible.
However, the bride Emily, always known as Minny, swiftly decided that she liked a life devoted to prayer and to praise of the glory of God. Shaftesbury was enchanted by this “sincere, sunny and gentle follower of our Lord”. It was a blissfully happy marriage which produced ten children, though some of them unsurprisingly rebelled against the enormously high expectations of piety with which he inevitably burdened them. Other people, too, felt the oppressive force of his religious zeal. Dining with him at Windsor in the mid-1840s, Queen Victoria was not amused to be asked her view of the character of St Paul even before the first course had been served. There is no record of his ever having made a joke.
Shaftesbury’s marriage was also of immense importance to his progress in public life. It brought him the undeviating support and affection of a famous father-in-law. On her birth certificate, the delightful Minny appeared as the daughter of Earl Cowper; in reality her father was Viscount Palmerston who married her mother after Cowper’s death in 1837. He loved his daughter deeply and formed a high regard for her husband. Palmerston was no more interested in religion than his mistress turned wife, and yet, when he later became the most successful and influential politician of his generation, he was to do more than anyone else to advance many of the great causes which Shaftesbury took up at home and abroad in the belief that God required them. The Tories’ formidable Christian warrior worked in the closest harmony with the most worldly of Victorian statesmen. It was one of the great ironies of mid-nineteenth century British politics. “It is very curious to see me an ardent supporter of Palmerston”, Shaftesbury wrote in November 1840. He came to like and trust his father-in-law as he liked and trusted no other politician.
Shortly after acquiring valuable connections in the highest Whig circles, Shaftesbury’s relations with his own party began to deteriorate. In 1831, at the height of the crisis over the first Reform Bill, he was asked to contest a by-election in the Dorset county constituency. The party believed that his victory would undermine the cause of reform by stimulating a widespread upsurge of support for the existing “admired and inimitable constitution”, as Shaftesbury himself put it. Though this proved to be a complete misreading of the state of opinion in the country at large, Shaftesbury won the seat and looked to wealthy Tory donors to redeem the promises they had made to cover his enormous election expenses which amounted to some £28,000 (equivalent to over £200,000 today); the electors had proved remarkably hungry and thirsty.
To his intense disappointment, many Tory moneybags remained closed and the party’s leaders – Wellington and Sir Robert Peel – refused to intervene. He had to borrow heavily to pay the £11, 000 that remained outstanding; many years later he was still struggling with these debts. The experience did not diminish his political ambition, but it weakened his confidence in his party and its leaders. His faith was to be shaken still further during the famous campaign on which he now embarked to turn northern textile mill owners into model employers. The events that now unfolded shaped the rest of career.
They began quite by accident. As a young man, Shaftesbury took no interest whatsoever in the social effects of the industrial revolution. He did not go near a factory. He knew nothing of the movement that had been gathering momentum in Yorkshire and Lancashire since the end of the Napoleonic wars, with strong Tory support, to regulate working conditions in textile factories. The campaign highlighted cruelty and abuse in the starkest terms, making no distinction between bad employers, of whom there were many, and highly responsible ones, of whom there were also many, as the great Liberal John Bright constantly pointed out in his vigorous attacks on this Tory-dominated movement.
When at the start of 1833 its leaders needed a new parliamentary spokesman to “take up the question of our white slave trade” as they described it, Shaftesbury was the last on the list of possible candidates and hopes were not high when he began his duties. To everyone’s surprise, he took up the cause with all the zeal of the convert, adopting the extreme language in which its adherents delighted. “West Indian slavery”, he said in February 1833 with extravagant hyperbole, “was a Paradise compared with this accursed system” blighting our factories. He cast himself boldly – some said impertinently – as Britain’s new William Wilberforce. The many visits which he made to the factory districts over the next decade became triumphal tours.
All effective political campaigns need simple slogans. Shaftesbury held firmly to two words: ten hours. The factory reform movement had from the start proclaimed them as the maximum period that young people should be allowed to work between the ages of nine (below which employment was banned) and eighteen. That entirely reasonable proposition represented the limit of the movement’s demands, Shaftesbury insisted. It was a classic piece of political dissimulation. The real aim was a ten-hour day for all (though for Shaftesbury personally it was true that the interests of young people took priority on religious grounds: their immortal souls would be imperilled if they were not educated – and the saving of souls was always his principal preoccupation).
Year after year, Shaftesbury pressed the case for ten hours. He made significant progress, not least because he realised the power of factual evidence amassed through Commons Select Committees and Royal Commissions of inquiry. In the 1830s and 1840s a succession of these all-party bodies equipped Parliament for the first time with detailed knowledge of conditions in industrial Britain. Shaftesbury had discovered one of the keys to success which he used again and again as his Christian mission in Victorian England expanded. The scandal of climbing chimney boys, appalling conditions in the mines, destitution in rural areas: these and many other grave social ills were carefully documented in blue books laid before Parliament as a result of work done in committees and commissions set up largely on Shaftesbury’s initiative.
No one deserves greater credit for the expansion of Parliament’s activity in spheres where social reform was badly needed, activity based on full information about what was actually happening in the country. It was his use of detailed evidence in weighty parliamentary reports, allied to great eloquence and mastery of Commons procedures, that made Shaftesbury so formidable. Successive Speakers had great respect for him, and readily turned an eye towards him in debates on the many subjects, foreign as well as domestic, where he had trenchant, well-informed views to offer, all of them reflecting his ardent Christian faith.
Here he is in August 1840 moving successfully for the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Children’s Employment in general, deploying the circumlocutory rhetoric that Victorians adored: “ Sir, I hardly know whether any argument is necessary to prove that the future hopes of a country must, under God, be laid in the character and condition of its children; …whatever may be done or proposed in time to come, we have, I think, a right to know the state of our juvenile population; the House has a right, the country has a right… The first step towards a cure is knowledge of the disorder. We have asserted these truths in our factory legislation; and I have on my side the authority of all civilised nations of modern times; the practice of this House; the common sense of the thing; and the justice of the principle… It is right, Sir, that the country should know at what cost its pre-eminence is purchased. ‘ Petty rogues submit to fate, that great ones may enjoy their state’. The number I cannot give with any degree of accuracy, though I may venture to place them as many-fold the number of those engaged in the factories; the suffering I can exhibit, to a certain degree, in the documents before me. I now venture to entreat the countenance of this House, and the co-operation of her Majesty’s ministers, first to investigate, and ultimately to remove, these sad evils, which press so deeply and so extensively on such a large and such an interesting portion of the human race”.
He was outraged when what he regarded as conclusive evidence failed to convince others. It took him 14 years to get his Ten Hours Bill on to the statute, book despite strong support among both Tory and Liberal MPs, though in the Lords the bishops were, to his deep sorrow, often against him. Victory was finally secured under a Whig, not Tory, government. Robert Peel, the leader of his party and prime minister for five years with a tightly controlled majority for most of that time, resolutely opposed the bill for reasons made clear by Douglas Hurd in his brilliant biography of that commanding statesman: “he could not agree to a measure which would have disrupted the way in which mills were run for adult as well as child labour and (so Peel feared) made them dangerously uncompetitive”.
Shaftesbury, the Christian warrior, simply could not comprehend a cast of mind so utterly different from his own, infused with a set of values he despised. The following passage from Shaftesbury’s diary, written on 24 July 1841, shows the gulf between the two men. There was, Shaftesbury felt, “an awful probability that it may not please God to render Peel an instrument of good in this nation…He has abundance of human honesty, and not much of Divine faith; he will never do a dishonourable thing, he will be ashamed of doing a religious one” – and to Shaftesbury the religious thing was all-important. If the upright, high-minded Peel could not win Shaftesbury’s approval, there was of course no hope at all for Disraeli who led the party during his final years in the Commons. Dizzy, he noted in his diary, was a man “without principle, without feeling, without regard to anything, human or divine, beyond his own personal ambition. He has dragged, and will continue to drag, everything that is good, safe, venerable and solid through the dust and dirt”. As for the great Lord Salisbury, who succeeded Disraeli as Tory leader in the 1880s, Shaftesbury regarded him as “ a blackguard without any heart”.
The handsome young man who had set out to make a name for himself as a great Tory politician found it impossible to reconcile his service to God with his powerful party political ambitions – and by 1851 when he left the Commons for the Lords his hopes of being able to accept a Tory Cabinet post had long been set aside though, as his diary makes clear, his hands continued to itch for a red box. He nearly became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Whig government of his father-in-law, Palmerston, in 1855. When the plan finally fell through, he blessed the Lord for delivering him from temptation. “It was, to my mind, as distinctly an act of special providence as when the hand of Abraham was stayed and Isaac escaped”.
Despite his criticisms of his party and its leaders, he never left the Tory benches. His political convictions always remained of the deepest Tory hue. He sought to destroy the first Reform Bill; he strongly disliked the second ; he thought the device of vote by ballot “ mean and cowardly”. He told Disraeli that “in proportion as a man is a deep, sincere, and consistent lover of social, civil, and religious liberty, he will be a deep, sincere, and consistent hater of democracy”. Shaftesbury dedicated himself to elevating the social condition of the people in obedience to what he believed to be God’s wishes and requirements; he saw no role for the people in government. He condemned Socialism and Chartism, movements dedicated to advancing the political interests of the working classes, as “the two great demons in morals and politics”.
This hater of democracy never learned to love the House of Lords. He did not regard it as a mighty pillar of the established order to which he was so strongly committed. On 23 June 1851, the day of his introduction, he wrote in his diary, “it seems no place for me; a ‘ Statue-gallery’, some say a ‘Dormitory.’ Full half-a-dozen Peers said to me, within as many minutes, ‘ You’ll find this very different from the House of Commons,’ ‘we have no order, ‘no rules,’ ‘no sympathies to be stirred.’ Shall I ever be able to do anything? They are cold, short, and impatient.” Four days later his unhappiness had deepened: “The difficulties of the House of Lords seem to thicken as I survey them. Everything must be done between five and half-past six, or you will have no auditory”. He suggested that the House might meet at 4pm to increase the period of serious business before most of those attending scurried off to their dinners. It was not a popular proposal. He grieved at the lack of support for his reforms in the quarter where in his view it ought to have been especially prominent: “ Of what use are the Bishops in the House of Lords?”, he asked himself when he put the case against vivisection in 1876 without gaining a flicker of episcopal interest.
He yearned to be back in the Commons. “ Everything of importance revolves round the centre of the Commons’ House: unless you be there to see it, hear it, feel it, you get it at second hand, and then only half’. In the Lords “no one accords you a hair’s-breadth of political influence”. He was shocked by the unseemly way in which the oath was taken by peers at the start of the 1852 parliamentary session. “What a mode of administering a sacred office! What a hideous gabble!” He sometimes wondered if the Lords could survive. In 1866 he said that it stood “ like a candle flickering in its socket; if it be not snuffed out, it will go out of itself”. Shaftesbury’s experiences show why Bagehot and other sharp observers of the mid-Victorian political scene like Trollope found it hard to admire the upper house in their time.
The Lords was not totally indifferent to his good causes. Peers hastened his Lodging Houses Bill on to the statute book in 1851. It provided for the registration and inspection of “sinks of wretchedness and vice”, as Shaftesbury called them, that were homes to the poor and destitute. In just one room of a typical London lodging house that he knew there were “stowed, besides children, sixty adults, a goodly company of males and females of every profession of fraud and violence, with a very few poor and industrious labourers…upstairs, in a room twelve feet by ten feet, thirty-two persons in six beds…[and everywhere] dirt, confusion and obscenity”. The 1851 Act was enforced with considerable vigour by the police and local authorities, resulting in significant improvements. Charles Dickens called it “ the best law that was ever passed by an English Parliament”.
Shaftesbury was undoubtedly Parliament’s greatest authority on the widespread and deep-seated social problems of Victorian England. He brought first to the Commons and later to the Lords his own, vivid first-hand experiences of slums, sewers, schools and a myriad other matters to reinforce the often shocking conclusions of the parliamentary committees and commissions that he instigated. Few chose to follow him even as far as the “Devil’s Acre”, a ghastly slum close to the Houses of Parliament . “ What things there are within a walk of palaces, luxuries, comforts, wholly unknown, wholly unimagined”, he wrote. Christ’s warrior knew no rest. In 1852 he writes of being borne down by “letters, interviews, chairs, boards, speeches. I am worn, worn, worn by them all, surrendering all amusements and society, giving all the day and half of almost every night to business and meetings, and all this in the face of weak health and tottering nerves”.
A profusion of voluntary and charitable organisations enjoyed his active support: no fewer than 188 were represented at his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in October 1885. Many of them spoke for the same kind of religious, health, housing, or educational interests. He dissipated much energy and time among them. This, I think, was a serious mistake. Campaigns for great reforms need to be concentrated, not dispersed. Victorious in his factory reforms limiting children’s hours of work, Shaftesbury enjoyed more limited success as regards many of his other great social causes. But perhaps that was inevitable in any case since as a diehard Tory tied firmly to the old governing classes, he rejected any significant role for the state beyond providing protection and regulation to stamp out abuse. Could adequate housing, public health and education have been effectively provided without recourse to major state intervention? Great Tory social reformers of the next century like Neville Chamberlain and Rab Butler did not think so.
In the end everything comes back to religion. Already an ardent Protestant evangelical, in the mid-1830s he became convinced that the Second Coming – the physical return of Christ to earth – was imminent. Many entries in his diary end with some such phrase as “Even so come Lord Jesus”. How could people be expected to prepare themselves amidst circumstances of social deprivation unable to read a Bible (he never thought they needed to read much more)? How could those outside the Protestant churches be made aware of Christ’s truth? There was so much to be done, so little time to do it in. The life of this Tory Christian warrior was inevitably one of constant, restless activity. At the end of a long day he would find time to send a donation to the Tuam Diocesan Society “founded for the education of benighted papists in the most benighted district of Ireland”, as he put it. During his ten hours campaign, he was also preparing for the establishment of a bishopric in Jerusalem, so that Jews returning to the homeland that he envisaged for them could be converted to Christianity. Schemes teemed in his mind, all stemming from his belief in the Second Coming. “ All hopes are groundless, all legislation weak, all conservatism nonsense without this alpha and omega of policy”, he wrote. The seventh Earl of Shaftesbury was an eminent Victorian – and a most extraordinary one.