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William Gladstone

four-time Prime Minister

William Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, on December 29, 1809, the fourth son and fifth child of a family of six born to Sir John Gladstone and his wife Anne Mackenzie Robertson. Sir John Gladstone was a wealthy merchant and owner of sugar plantations in the West Indies, and was a member of Parliament from 1818 to 1827. He attended a preparatory school at Seaforth Vicarage near Liverpool before attending Eton College (1821-1827) and then Christ Church, Oxford University (1828-1831), receiving degreees in classics and mathematics from the latter. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1833, but never pursued a law career.

Early Political Career

Gladstone in the 1830's
William Gladstone in the 1830's

In 1831 Gladstone spoke at the Oxford Union against the Reform Act, saying that any electoral reform would lead to revolution.

In December 1832 Gladstone was elected as Tory (Conservative) Member of Parliament for Newark-on-Trent. He gave his maiden speech on June 3, 1833, during the Committee debate on the Bill for Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, which he opposed. After the bill passed in 1834, he secured government reimbursement to his father for the 2,508 slaves his sugar plantations "employed."

In December 1834 Gladstone was named Junior Lord of the Treasury in Sir Robert Peel's first ministry, and it was while in this position that he first met, and developed a dislike of, Benjamin Disraeli. On January 27, 1835, he was made Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, a position he held until Peel's government resigned, in April 1835.

Although he was out of the government, Gladstone retained his seat in the House of Commons, where he was a very vocal critic of the First Opium War in China.

In 1838, he published The State in its Relations to the Church, in which he said that "... the State possessed a conscience and had a duty to distinguish between truth and error in religion ..." and attacked the annual grant of £9,000 that was given to the Maynooth Seminary in Ireland, saying that giving money for the training of Roman Catholic priests was inappropriate for a Protestant nation and would lead to mortal danger.

In July 1839 he married Catherine Glynne, the daughter of Sir Stephen Glynne of Hawarden Castle, with whom he had four boys and four girls.

Charity Work

In 1840, Gladstone began walking the streets of London on a mission to convince prostitutes to give up their "line of work," an act he continued even while serving as Prime Minister. In 1848 he founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women.

Peel's Second Ministry

Peel returned as Prime Minister after the Conservatives regained the majority in 1841, and Gladstone joined his Cabinet as Vice-President of the Board of Trade. He became President of the Board in May 1843, and in that capacity was was responsible for the passing of the Parliamentary Train Act of 1844 that provided for one train each way, each day, carrying third class passengers at no more than 1d. per mile at not less than 12 miles per hour.

In February 1845 Peel proposed to increase and make permanent the Maynooth grant from £9,000 to £30,000 a year. Although Gladstone voted for the increase in the House of Commons he still publicly held the views that he had stated in his book and chose to resign from the Cabinet rather than face charges that he had compromised his principles in order to stay in office. He rejoined Peel's government in December as Colonial Secretary. That return meant that Gladstone had to stand for re-election, but since the Newcastle seat was technically unavailable and no other seat was open he served as Colonial Secretary without having a seat in either house of Parliament.


Peel's government fell over Parliament's repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and the Conservative Party found itself deeply divided. In 1847 Gladstone was returned to the Commons as MP for Oxford University, and that year he voted for Lord John Russell's motion to allow Jews to take the oath on becoming a member of the House of Commons (making him a brief ally of Benjamin Disraeli). He became leader of the "Peelites" in the Commons upon Peel's death in July 1850.

First Term as Chancellor of the Exchequer

Following the January 30, 1852, appointment of Lord Aberdeen as Prime Minister, Gladstone was named Chancellor of the Exchequer. His first budget, which he presented to Parliament on April 18, abolished 123 duties and reduced 133 tariffs. He offset those revenue losses by proposing an extension of the income tax for seven years. He also ordered the Foreign Office to stop using large thick sheets of double notepaper when single, thinner sheets would do and "invented" the postcard as a means of saving money on postal services.

Britain entered the Crimean War in 1854, forcing Gladstone to present a budget on March 6 that included an increase in income taxes to pay for the troops sent to the East. The tax increase proved insufficient, however, so on May 8 he raised the income tax income, and added taxes on sugar, malt, and spirits.

Aberdeen's mishandling of the war led to his downfall on January 30, 1855. Gladstone initially stayed on as Exchequer under Lord Palmerston, but resigned along with the rest of the "Peelites" after Parliament passed a motion to appoint a committee of inquiry into conduct of the war.

Back in Opposition

Conservative Leader Lord Derby became Prime Minister in 1858, but Gladstone refused a post in his Cabinet because he no longer believed in protectionism and did not want to work with Disraeli. He did, however, accept the post of Lord High Commissioner Extraordinarily to the Ionian Islands, a British protectorate, a post he held from November 1858 to February 1859.

Second Term as Exchequer

Gladstone in 1859
William Gladstone in 1859

When Lord Palmerston formed a new government on June 11, 1859, and Gladstone again became Chancellor of the Exchequer, they did so as founding members of the new Liberal Party.

Gladstone inherited a deficit of nearly five million pounds, much of which he erased by raising the income tax. His second budget was presented along with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty between Britain and France on February 10, 1860. The treaty reduced tariffs between the two countries, and Gladstone's budget reduced the number of duties to 48, with 15 duties constituting the majority ofthe revenue. As with his previous budgets, Gladstone relied on an increase in income taxes to finance budget shortfalls, as he truly believed that direct taxation was always better than indirect taxation. Fortunately for the British people, and for Gladstone, the treaty helped lower the cost of food and some consumer goods in Britain. This, combined with his introduction of the Post Office Savings Bank enabled small savings to be made by ordinary people and gave an extra source of revenue for government purposes.

William Gladstone in 1861
William Gladstone in 1861

The budget Gladstone presented in 1861 was his first to reduce income taxes, and he continued to lower the income tax throughout his tenure. The budget also included a repeal of the duty on paper, an action which the House of Lords had vetoed (as a second Money Bill) the previous year. The Lords were forced to either accept the repeal and, therefore, the budget, or reject both; they accepted the budget. he proposal in the Commons of one bill only per session for the national finances was a precedent uniformly followed from that date until 1910, when it became the rule.

During the American Civil War Gladstone provided relief work on his Hawarden estates for workers in the Lancashire cotton industry who had been put out of work because of the blockade of the Confederate ports by the North, preventing the export of raw cotton. On October 7, 1862, he made a speech at Newcastle in which he supported the independence of the Confederate States of America.

In 1863 Gladstone attempted to tax the incomes of charities on the grounds that all money was a trust from God and should be taxed like everything else. His proposal was defeated in the Commons. In 1864 he supported a reform bill that was intended to lower the franchise qualification in towns. That support cost him his Oxford seat in the October 1865 general election, but he was elected by South Lancashire a month later.

Palmerstone died on October 18, 1865, and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Lord John Russell. Gladstone remained Chancellor of the Exchequer, and also became leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons. Russell's government fell after Parliament refused to pass a Reform Bill extending the franchise in national elections, on June 28, 1866.

Again in Opposition

The only major issue before Parliament during the Earl of Derby's administration was the Second Reform Act of 1867, which was passed after long debate. The passage of the act during a Conservative administration did not set well with Gladstone, but he was glad that an amendment introduced by him doubled the number of those able to vote in national elections.

First Term as Prime Minister

Lord Russell retired from politics in 1867 and Gladstone became overall leader of the Liberal Party. Derby resigned for health reasons in February 1868 and was succeeded by Benjamin Disraeli. Gladstone lost his Lancashire seat in the 1868 general election, but was returned for Greenwich. The Liberal Party won a strong majority in that election, and Gladstone became Prime Minister on December 3, 1868.

Gladstone's 1868 Cabinet
Gladstone's 1868 Cabinet

As Prime Minister Gladstone instituted a number of reforms. Cardwell's Army Reform of 1868 made peacetime flogging illegal. In 1869 he made the Church of England in Ireland a voluntary organization and took about half of its wealth away. He also pushed through legislation that made it harder to evict Irish tenants from the lands they rented (Irish Land Act of 1870). The Forester's Education Act of 1870 established public elementary schools across England. The Ballot Act of 1872 instituted secret ballots for local and general elections. In 1873 a series of laws were passed restricting the high courts.

When an Irish University Bill failed to pass the Commons in March 1873, Gladstone resigned but was forced back into office by Disraeli’s refusal to form a government. In August he reshuffled his Cabinet and took on the Chancellorship of the Exchequer in addition to his duties as Prime Minister. In January 1874 he unexpectedly dissolved Parliament and called for new elections. The Liberals lost their majority in the Commons as a result of those elections, and on February 17, 1874, Gladstone was succeeded by Disraeli.

Opposition Again

Believing himself responsible for the Liberal defeat, Gladstone resigned as party leader, but kept his Greenwich seat in Parliament, where he was a very active and vocal critic of Disraeli's policies.

In 1876 Gladstone published The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, in which he attacked the government's policy towards the Ottoman Empire. In that same year he gave up his Greenwich seat and stood for the Scottish county of Midlothian.

During his 1879 "Midlothian Campaign," Gladstone attacked Disraeli's foreign policies, with emphasis on the British disasters in Afghanistan and South Africa. The campaign played a big part in the Liberals regaining the majority in the 1880 general election, in which he was elected by both Midlothian and Leeds; since he could only hold one seat, he passed the Leeds seat to his son Herbert.

Second Term as Prime Minister

Following the elections Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington, Liberal leader in the House of Commons, to form a new government, but he persuaded her to send for Gladstone. Although she personally disliked Gladstone, the Queen did as Hartington asked and Gladstone began his second term as Prime Minister on April 23, 1880. He also held the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer for the first two years of administration.

The only major changes in domestic policy during Gladstone's second term were the expansion of male suffrage via the 1884 Representation of the People Act and the 1884 Redistribution Act that provided for alterations being made to constituency boundaries, as foreign policies dominated the headlines and his administration. Unfortunately for Gladstone, most of the headlines regarding those foreign policies were bad. A bombardment of Alexandria on July 11, 1882, began a war that ended with the British occupation of Egypt, and in 1884, General Charles George Gordon was killed while trying to evacuate Egyptian forces trapped in Khartoum, Sudan, by the "Mahdi's Revolt."

The only other major area of concern during Gladstone's second term was Ireland, which was in the midst of a violent protest against British rule. In 1881 Gladstone pushed the Irish Coercion Act, which permitted the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to detain people for "as long as was thought necessary." He also pushed the Second Irish Land Act, which introduced the 'three Fs" -- fixity of tenure, fair rents, and free sale of land.

Gladstone's foreign policy failures "earned" him a letter of rebuke from the Queen which was leaked to the press. The public criticism which followed led Gladstone to resign on June 9, 1885. He declined an earldom offered by Queen Victoria, preferring to remain in the House of Commons. He was succeeded by Lord Salisbury.

Third Term as Prime Minister

The general election of November-December 1885 returned a Parliament in which the Liberal members exactly equalled the total of Conservatives plus Irish. One of those Liberals was Gladstone (again for Midlothian), and he became Prime Minister for the third time on February 1, 1886.

Gladstone took office determined to win self-government for Ireland, but that determination ended up making his third term one of the shortest in history. Despite having a 190-member majority, Gladstone's Irish Home Rule Bill faced major opposition in the House of Commons, and even caused a permanent split in the Liberal Party. The bill was soundly defeated, and Gladstone resigned on July 20, 1886.

Gladstone presenting his Irish Home Rule Bill
William Gladstone presenting his Irish Home Rule Bill

Final Opposition and Fourth Term as Prime Minister

Gladstone devoted the next 6 years to convincing the British electorate to grant Home Rule to Ireland. Campaigning on the issue, the Liberals won the 1892 election, and Gladstone returned for a fourth administration on August 15, 1892. The Irish Home Rule Bill he introduced that year passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords 419-41. Although he continued to advocate for Home Rule, Gladstone never again introduced an enabling bill before Parliament and finally chose to retire on March 2, 1894.

William Gladstone spent his retirement years fairly peacefully, and died of cancer at Hawarden Castle in Flintshire on May 19, 1898; he is buried in Westminster Abbey. To date he remains the oldest person ever to form a British government (being 82 upon taking office for his fourth term), and the only Prime Minister to serve four separate terms.


Encyclopędia Britannica
The Victorian Web

See Also

Benjamin Disraeli
American Civil War
Queen Victoria
Westminster Abbey

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This page was last updated on December 29, 2018.