William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone.

William Ewart Gladstone.

William Ewart Gladstone served as Prime Minister four times — from 3 December 1868 to 17 February 1874; from 23 April 1880 to 9 June 1885; from 1 February to 20 July 1886; and from 15 August 1892 to 2 March 1894.

Gladstone, who was born on 29 December 1809 at Rodney Street, Liverpool, was 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 made his fortune in trade especially with America and the West Indies: it was there that he owned sugar plantations. William Gladstone was educated at a preparatory school at Seaforth Vicarage near Liverpool before attending Etonbetween 1821 and 1827. From there he went to Christ Church, Oxford, between 1828 and 1831. In 1831 he spoke at the Oxford Union against the Reform Act, saying that any electoral reform would lead to revolution. His Degree was in Classics but he also studied Mathematics and in 1831 was awarded a Double First in the subjects. In the 1832 election following the passing of the Reform Act he was elected as the Tory MP for Newark-on-Trent, on the influence of the Duke of Newcastle; he took the seat of Michael Sadler, the factory reformer. He then went on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France and various centres in Italy. On his return in 1833 he entered Lincoln’s Inn, but by 1839 he had requested that his name should be removed from the list because he no longer intended to be called to the Bar.

Gladstone’s maiden speech was made on 3 June 1833 during the Committee stage of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in the British empire. His father was a West Indian slave-owner and Gladstone defended him against allegations of maltreating his slaves. The following year Gladstone was appointed as a junior Lord of the Treasure by Sir Robert Peel who had just formed his first ministry. Two weeks later Disraeli and Gladstone met for the first time: Gladstone was appalled by Disraeli’s “foppish” attire. Later in life the two would become great parliamentary rivals; there was no friendship between them throughout their long political lives. On 27 January Gladstone was made Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies but his appointment lasted only until April when Peel resigned.

In June 1839 Gladstone became engaged to Catherine Glynne, the daughter of Sir Stephen Glynne of Hawarden Castle. The Glynnes were an old Whig family and Catherine was related through the maternal line to the Grenville family. The couple were married the following month and had a family of four boys and four girls. In January 1840 Gladstone began his work of rescuing and rehabilitating London prostitutes, and in 1848 he founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women.

Following the defeat of Lord Melbourne’s government in 1841, Sir Robert Peel formed his second ministry and Gladstone was appointed to the post of Vice-President of the Board of Trade; he accepted reluctantly on the grounds that his lack of knowledge of trade made him unfit for the appointment. It was in his official capacity that he first dined with Queen Victoria at Buckingham palace and was appalled to find that there was no chaplain present and that grace was not said prior to the meal. In May 1843 Gladstone was made President of the Board of Trade and a Cabinet member; he was responsible for the passing of the ‘parliamentary train Act’ in 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 1838 Gladstone had published his book The Church and 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. Doctrinal differences were, therefore, matters of great importance. The Established Church was the conscience of the English state, and that State was bound to give an active , informed, consistent, and exclusive financial and general support to the Anglican religion which was of the purest and most direct Apostolic descent. [Magnus, p. 35.]

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Past Prime Ministers