The Duke of Albermale’s will

Today, another post inspired by our recently-published volumes on the House of Lords. In this blog the editor, Dr Ruth Paley, discusses the hotly-contested will of the 2nd Duke of Albermale…

Christopher Monck, 2nd duke of Albemarle, was an alcoholic who had been warned by his doctor, Hans Sloane, to take care of his diseased liver.  He didn’t listen. In 1688, shortly after he arrived in Jamaica to take up the post of governor, news arrived of the birth of a son to James II.  Albemarle celebrated rather too well. He was only 35 when he died on 6 October 1688, having literally drunk himself to death.

A year earlier, in anticipation of his voyage to the Caribbean, the childless Albemarle had made a new will.  It was a long and complex document which made generous provision for his widow during her lifetime and directed the bulk of his enormous fortune to his namesake, an Irish teenager whom he believed to be a distant cousin.

Closer relatives were understandably annoyed and disappointed. The care of the Albemarle estate, and the considerable political interest that went with it, had long been entrusted to John Granville, earl of Bath, who was first cousin to Albemarle’s father, General George Monck.  Granville had been named as principal legatee in an earlier will. Shocked to discover that the new will effectively cut him out, he challenged its validity by advancing the somewhat bizarre assertion that Albemarle had drawn it up as an elaborate bluff to keep his mentally unstable wife happy. When he failed to have the 1687 will overturned in the church courts, Bath took his case to chancery instead.

An even closer relative was Thomas Pride, descendant and namesake of the regicide.  Albemarle was intensely proud of his father’s reputation as the architect of the Restoration, and either did not know or chose to ignore that his father had once not only supported Olivier Cromwell but had allied his family with that of a regicide.  He was horrified by the prospect of his fortune falling into the hands of the Prides. Thomas Pride however now claimed that he was George Monck’s common law heir.  He alleged that George Monck’s marriage was bigamous, that Albemarle was therefore illegitimate and should never have inherited his father’s fortune and honours.  The Prides too sought the assistance of the courts.

Matters got even more complicated when the unscrupulous and chronically indebted Ralph Montagu, earl (later duke) of Montagu, persuaded Albemarle’s widow to marry him – allegedly pandering to her delusions of grandeur by courting her disguised as the emperor of China.  He now claimed the Albemarle fortune in right of his wife.  Whether the duchess of Albemarle was sufficiently mentally competent to enter into a valid marriage remains a subject for speculation.  After the marriage she disappeared from sight, reappearing only after Montagu’s death, when all those who saw her agreed that she was insane.

The various legal actions continued for some 20 years. The actions brought by the Prides had considerable nuisance value, but the major protagonists were Bath and Montagu. Allegations of fraud and perjury abounded. Members of the House of Lords, where several appeals were debated, were so horrified by the costs and associated acrimony of the dispute that in 1698 they attempted to introduce a bill to limit ‘the exorbitant fees of the lawyers’ – as though it were the lawyers rather than the litigants who had caused the problem.

The clear loser in the dispute was the young Irishman, Christopher Monck and, after his death, his younger brother and heir, Henry Monck.  Neither had the money, knowledge or contacts with which to defend their rights.  Both were courted, and probably defrauded, by Bath and Montagu.

Bath died in August 1701; his son and heir committed suicide a month later, apparently horrified by the legacy of debt and deceit engendered by the dispute. Montagu’s death in 1704 then opened the way for their heirs to agree a compromise – one that could not be fully implemented until the death of the duchess.  The estate was finally wound up at her death in 1734 at the age of 80.


The History of Parliament has recently published our first set of volumes focusing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is available from Cambridge University Press.

Click here for other blogposts inspired by our House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

Posted in 18th Century history, Early modern history, House of Lords 1660-1715, religious history, social history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Parliamentary timetabling

Back to Westminster for MPs this week! Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the history of the parliamentary timetable…

It may be a warm October, but with the nights drawing in, the party conferences over and Parliament back, there’s still the feeling of the beginning of the autumn term. The October start of the political term is a routine that is part of the British political landscape, one of those elements of our mental calendar that seems almost immutable: it provides structure to political life.

Parliament’s meeting times used to be part of the structure of aristocratic London life, too, built in to the ‘London season’, the time into which key London social events were squeezed simply because the rhythm of Parliament’s meetings tended to determine the presence in London not only of the royal court, but a large proportion of the aristocracy and gentry, and, generally, their wives too. A journalist observed in 1844 that:

As a general rule, we may mention that the commencement of the London year is determined by the meeting of Parliament; that Parliament meets when the minister thinks proper; and the minister thinks proper as soon, and no sooner than he can safely postpone the meeting aforesaid. Grouse-shooting, in like manner, terminates Parliament and the season; the surplus talk of both Houses is bottled up for another session; as much business as can be huddled through both Houses is “lumped,” and “read a third time,” and “passed,” with astonishing rapidity; Parliamentary clerks, and gun-makers, are much hurried; and, about the beginning of August, the collective wisdom, their dogs, guns, and gamekeepers, set out together for the moors. [J. Fisher Murray, ‘The Physiology of London Life’, Bentley’s Miscellany xv (1844), 507]

As Fisher Murray wrote, the date of the assembly of Parliament after the summer could fluctuate considerably: it was a date of consuming interest to all of those involved, who would have to tailor their continental visits, local business and perhaps their London rentals accordingly. When it happened, it would usually mean a formal opening of Parliament, with all of the flummery of soldiers and heraldry, and a speech from the throne. In the days of Walpole, in the 1720s and 1730s, the King’s speech would normally be in January or early February, with the session brought to an early close in May or June – so a brief session of only around 5 months was normal. By forty years or so later, in the 1774 Parliament, the King’s speech had been brought forward, normally taking place in very late October or November, with the session drawing to a close in late May or early June, though occasionally extending to July. Fluctuating particularly wildly during the war years in the 1790s and early part of the nineteenth century, it settled in the 1820s into the routine that would last a century: a King’s or Queen’s speech in late January or early February, with a session lasting usually until early August.

Squeezing all the business in to that time was clearly getting more and more difficult: in the 1880s the date of prorogation – the end of the session – was creeping into late August, well beyond the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of the beginning of the shooting season. In 1893 and 1895 Parliament was still meeting in September. Occasional emergencies – such as the extra session squeezed into late 1899 as a result of the beginning of the South African War, or the sittings required after the death of Queen Victoria – would disturb the pattern, as would general election dates; but it remained broadly consistent until the early twentieth century. Arthur Balfour’s decision to require the House to sit in the autumn of 1902 in order to complete the Education bill produced considerable dismay. There would be ‘spillover’ sessions in 1906, and 1908, and in 1909, the crisis year of the ‘People’s Budget’, there was no month except January in which Parliament did not meet. Meeting in the late autumn to finish off business before prorogation over Christmas and a state opening in January/February would thereafter become the normal pattern.

At least, that was the case until Stanley Baldwin, in his speech on the King’s speech on 8 February 1927, announced a change to the parliamentary year, telling the House that ‘it has for a long time past been borne in upon me that by far the best way of dividing the Parliamentary year is to begin the new Session in the late Autumn’. With growing demands for legislation, it was becoming impossible to squeeze all of the legislation in before the summer. Instead, by opening Parliament in the autumn he planned to get the Second Reading of the big Bills in the Government programme over before Christmas so they could be got into Committee in February, and for all of the main legislation to be passed by about the end of July or early August. In fact, it was not long before the House was back to having a short spillover session in the autumn before the opening of the new session – an indication that Baldwin’s hope that all the bills could be finished before the summer recess was already impractical.

With the addition of a short recall period in the middle of the party conference season in September there the annual timetable stood until 2010, when the government announced a shift from a late October or early November Queen’s Speech. Part of the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act set the date of general elections henceforward, making it much more complicated than before (as we frequently hear these days) to hold a general election sooner than the statutory 5 years. The government introduced fixed-term sessions to complement it; to bring greater certainty to the parliamentary timetable, and to avoid a short final session in the run up to the May 2015 election.

So now, the connection between the autumn and a new political year, as well as a new school year, has been broken. Perhaps it goes with a greater sense of all year-round politics than there was in the past, and it’s been easy to feel this year with the narrowly averted leadership election for the Conservatives and the actual election for the Labour party, as well as the aftermath of the referendum, that politics has this year been with us all the time. But if the back-to-school feeling is no longer quite so acute as it was, there still persists that sense that politics is back on full power. Not long to Christmas!


Posted in 18th Century history, 19th Century history, 20th century history, Politics, Post-1945 history, social history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Jane Campbell: Parliamentary divorce pioneer

On 23 June 1801, a woman called Jane Campbell divorced her husband Edward Addison by Act of Parliament, and became the first woman to obtain a Parliamentary divorce.  Dr Mari Takayanagi, Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives and joint Project Manager for Vote 100, discusses how this came about, the significance of the case, and investigates who Jane Campbell was.

In 1801 Jane Campbell won the first Parliamentary divorce by a woman, one of only four in history. She obtained her divorce on grounds of ‘incestuous adultery’ committed by her husband Edward Addison with her sister Jessy, and also won custody of her children. Meanwhile Jessy’s husband also divorced her by Act of Parliament, and she was forbidden from ever marrying Edward Addison. This fascinating case involved a tangle of family relationships which were sensationally described in evidence to the House of Lords by servants.

How unusual was a divorce by Act of Parliament?

An Act of Parliament was the only way of ending a marriage and allowing re-marriage during the lifetime of a spouse before 1858, and required proof of adultery or life-threatening cruelty.  Instances of Parliamentary divorce can be traced back to the 1540s, but they became more frequent from the 18th century, with around 320 private divorce Acts passed between 1700 and 1857 (for example, see ‘House of Lords 1660-1715…and divorce‘).  In 1798 the House of Lords set out regulations for divorce bills in its Standing Orders, and these were followed in Jane Campbell’s case. It was expected that before petitioning for a divorce Act, the petitioner would already have obtained a legal separation (‘a mensa et thoro’) from an ecclesiastical court, and damages for adultery (‘a suit for criminal conversation’) from a civil court, wherever this was possible.

It might be assumed that Parliamentary divorce was only available to the aristocracy and the very rich. Undoubtedly many of the cases did involve men and women from the peerage or baronetage. However research has shown that many husbands bringing divorce bills also had middle-class occupations including clergy, merchant and surgeon, and a few might even be considered lower class. In this case, Jane’s father was a baronet, and she married a merchant, while her sister Jessy married a surgeon. Estimates of the cost of proceedings through the various courts also vary.  A Royal Commission in 1853 put the total cost of divorce at about £700 (equivalent to c. £22,500 today) of which the Parliamentary process cost about £200.

The Campbells of Inverneil

Born in 1771, Jane Campbell was one of twelve children of Sir James Campbell (1737-1805) of Killean and his wife Jane (also called Jean), from Inverneil in the county of Argyll. The Campbells of Inverneil traced their lineage back to the 16th century. Perhaps significantly for the success of her case, Jane had Parliamentary connections. Her father was MP for Stirling 1780-1789, but he was only keeping the seat warm while her uncle, Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell (1739-1791) was abroad serving as governor of Jamaica and commander-in-chief of Madras.  Wealthy from previous service in the army and the East India Company, Archibald Campbell was MP for Stirling 1774-1780 and 1789-1791, and knighted in 1782. He also purchased the role of hereditary Usher of the White Rod for Scotland in 1790. This office then passed to Jane’s father James on Archibald’s death in March 1791 as he had no children.

Archibald Campbell was buried in Westminster Abbey on 5 April 1791, at which time his nieces Jane and Jessy were both married with families of their own.  Jane married Edward Addison, merchant of London, in the church of St Clement Danes, Middlesex, on 29 April 1788. They lived together in Surrey Street in the Strand and in Blackheath, and had a son and a daughter.

Her older sister Jessy (also spelled Jesse and Jessie) had married a cousin, Dr James Campbell from Edinburgh, a Surgeon and a Doctor of Physic, in December 1785. She was 18 years old and he was 29. The following year they went to live in Calcutta, India, where they had four children. Jessy returned to England in 1791 and, some time over the next few years, had an affair with Edward Addison. As the husband of her sister, this was deemed to be an incestuous relationship at this time even though he was not a blood relative, so strong was the taboo.  Marriage with a deceased wife’s sister was voidable in this period, and illegal between 1835 and 1907.

‘An Act so atrocious, so infamous’

The news broke in 1798 when Dr Campbell successfully brought King’s Bench proceedings for ‘criminal conversation’ against Edward and was awarded £5,000 in damages. The news was broken to Jane in a letter from her father.  As described by Jane’s brother-in-law, James Henry Cassmajor (also called Casamayor, husband of her sister Elizabeth) in evidence to the Lords:

She at first would not receive it; and I read the Contents of the Letter; she said her Husband could not be guilty of an Act so atrocious, so infamous; and that she would not believe the Fact till he was convicted: In consequence of speaking more on the Subject, she said she had not made up her mind to leaving her Husband; but would probably determine very soon: this, I conceive, she said from being informed that her Brother was coming from her Father’s to accompany her to Scotland. (House of Lords Journal)

Jane’s response was important because it showed she had no previous knowledge of the adultery. The Lords were always very alert to any sign of a collusion between husband and wife in divorce cases.  They pressed Cassmajor on this point:

Q: Did any Thing occur in the Course of the Conversation you had with Mrs Addison that gave you any Reason to believe she even suspected such an Intercourse before you delivered the Letter?

A: I think not, because whatever she said expressed an Unbelief that her Husband could be guilty of so atrocious a Crime. (House of Lords Journal)

Jane then left her husband and went to stay with her father in Scotland. She successfully brought divorce proceedings against Edward in the consistory court, then petitioned Parliament for a full divorce.  As was usual with divorce bills, Jane Campbell’s case was considered by a committee of the whole House of Lords, and testimony was heard about the state of the marriage from servants and family members, although not from either Jane or Edward in person. Jane’s agent, Mr George Bedford, was tasked with finding Edward Addison to give him a copy of the bill and notice of its upcoming second reading, but failed, petitioning the House of Lords to explain he had:

…made diligent Search after the said Edward Addison, but has not been able after the Strictest Enquiries to discover the said Edward Addison: that the Petitioner has discovered that the last or usual Place of Abode of the said Edward Addison was at Number 27 in Leicester Square, and the Counting house of the said Edward Addison, where he carried on or transacted his mercantile Business, at Number 24 in Cornhill, in the City of London, at neither of which Places however the Petitioner was able to get any other Intelligence of the said Edward Addison, but that he was gone Abroad, in consequence of the Verdict with Five Thousand Pounds Damages and Costs which had been recovered against him… (House of Lords Journal)

No counsel appeared for Edward Addison during proceedings in the House of Lords. The House of Lords called a number of witnesses. Among these were John Brions (also called Brims), a waiter at an inn, who testified how he looked through a hole in the door and saw Jessy and Edward in a posture ‘as Man and Wife’; John Rosser, a servant of Mr Addison’s, who testified how he found clothes laid out after a night, as if his master had never been to bed; and Jessy’s maid, Amelia Laugher, who told of various trips when Edward and Jessy were found in locked rooms together. She also spoke of how the servants in Surrey Street talked about a ‘Ghost’ in the house, and how she had gotten up to see it when it walked one night, only to see Mr Addison entering her mistresses’ room and departing half an hour later. As examined by the Lords:

Q: When the Ghost passed was he dressed or undressed?

A: He had only his Night-gown and Slippers on. (House of Lords Journal)

During debates in the Lords, the Duke of Clarence opposed the measure on grounds of the sex of the petitioner. However Lord Thurlow supported it, on the grounds that this was not just adultery, but the aggravated ground of an incestuous adultery:

Were Mrs Addison ever so much inclined to forgive her husband, a reconciliation could not legally take place, because a future connection between them as man and wife would be tainted with incest… Could their lordships, after what they had heard upon oath at the bar, refuse the request? Did they see nothing immoral in compelling Mrs Addison, after what had passed, to remain connected and under the power of her husband?  (Cobbett’s Parliamentary History)

He also argued that Mr Addison was ‘unfit to be entrusted with the education of an innocent and virtuous daughter’. Thurlow’s argument convinced the Lord Chancellor (Lord Eldon) and others, and even the Duke of Clarence ‘owned that his opinion was much altered.’

What happened next?

Jane’s petition was successful and the Act was passed, giving her a full divorce. Very unusually for the time, she was given custody of her daughter, and her son and daughter were both made Wards of Chancery – a clear indication of how outrageous Edward Addison’s ‘incestuous adultery’ was deemed to have been. Custody of children was normally assumed to go to the father in this period, a situation which did not start to change until Caroline Norton’s Custody of Infants Act 1839.

Jessy’s husband Dr James Campbell also divorced Jessy by Act of Parliament. As he was living in Calcutta, his brothers John and Archibald Campbell had power of attorney to bring the case to the House of Lords on his behalf. His counsel was Mr Adam, who had also acted for Jane Campbell; no counsel appeared for Jessy, and some of the same witnesses appeared including Amelia Laugher who again told the tale of the ‘Ghost’, and waiter John Brims who confessed to spying:

Q: What did you do?

A: I cut a Hole in the Door.

…Q: What did you observe?

A: That she was on the Carpet on her Back, and the Gentleman above her.

Q: Had you any Doubt about the Situation they were in?

A: I certainly thought what I heard was right. (House of Lords Journal)

A rider to the bill declared that it would not be lawful for Jessy to marry again in the lifetime of Dr James Campbell, and a second rider added that any marriage to Edward Addison would be void at any time. The Lords could not have made their censure any stronger! Jessy’s divorce Act received Royal Assent on 27 June 1801, a few days after Jane’s. It is not known what happened to Jessy or Edward Addison; Dr James Campbell died in Bengal in 1817.

The significance of the case

The Addison-Campbell divorce was a milestone in allowing a woman to divorce her husband for the first time. However, it did not lead to a rush of similar cases. On the contrary, the Lord Chancellor concluded that:

The divorce, in the present instance, from the specialities of the case, stood manifestly contradistinguished from any other application by a wife for a divorce, that was likely to be brought before the House, and that the bill might pass without operating as a dangerous precedent. (Cobbett’s Parliamentary History)

As a woman, Jane’s petition would not have succeeded on the grounds of adultery alone; it was the additional fact the adultery had been committed with her sister that made it ‘incestuous’ and persuaded Parliament that a divorce was justified. There were just three other Parliamentary divorce cases successfully brought by women before the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 finally allowed divorce by legal process.  These were Louisa Turton (in 1831), whose husband, like Jane Campbell’s, had committed adultery with her sister; and Mrs Battersby (1840) and Georgina Hall (1850), whose husbands had committed bigamy. Inequality between men and women in areas of family law such as divorce, custody of children and property ownership, persisted for many decades to come.

Of most immediate significance was that Jane Campbell was now free to marry again, and start a new family.  Less than a year after her divorce, on 2 February 1802, she married Roger Pocklington junior (1775-1847) of Carlton Hall, Nottingham. Roger Pocklington senior was an architect, and the Pocklingtons were a wealthy family when Jane married into it. They ran into money problems a few years afterwards, however; Roger senior went bankrupt, and Roger junior and Jane moved to Leamington.

Roger and Jane Pocklington had a number of children, including Roger (later the Reverend Roger Pocklington), who was born as early as 15 November 1802; Joseph Pocklington, who later married into the eminent family of Senhouse and assumed the surname Pocklington-Senhouse by royal licence; and Jane Augusta Pocklington, who married a James Archibald Campbell (some distant relation of her mother, one can only assume) and had another family of Campbells before dying, possibly in childbirth or soon after, in 1842.  As for their mother; divorce pioneer Jane Pocklington nee Campbell died on 27 February 1851 aged 80, and was buried alongside her husband Roger at All Saints’ Church, Winthorpe.



This blogpost originated in research done initially for Parliament’s Living Heritage website, and expanded upon in the Petition of the Month May 2016. Many thanks to Paul Seaward for subsequent discussion.

Further reading

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MPs in World War I: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot (1872-1916)

100 years ago yesterday the Somme claimed another MP: Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot. Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, blogs on his life…

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster - Own work, Public Domain

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot by Kittybrewster – Own work, Public Domain

Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot was killed in action on 25 September 1916 while serving with the Grenadier Guards during the Battle of the Somme. Like Guy Baring, whose death we marked two weeks ago, he is buried at the Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt.

Arbuthnot’s parliamentary career had been a brief one. After unsuccessfully contesting the Lancashire borough of Burnley for the Conservative party in 1906, he worked hard to improve his position in the constituency. As well as making himself familiar with the town’s mining and cotton industries, he took a keen interest in party organisation. He initiated a Junior Unionist Association, while his wife began a Women’s Unionist Association, and together they started a Children’s Unionist Association. The Burnley Express later paid tribute to ‘his wonderful organising abilities, his genuine interest in the constituency, his charming manner and sincerity of purpose’. Arbuthnot’s efforts paid off, and at the January 1910 election he defeated the Labour incumbent, Fred Maddison. However, having spent just nine months as an MP, he was defeated at the December 1910 general election by the Liberal Philip Morrell, who was a noted pacifist during the First World War.

In contrast with his short stint in Parliament, Arbuthnot’s political career was a lengthier one. After serving as a midshipman in the navy from 1886 until 1891, he had studied at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but did not take a degree. He then spent a decade as private secretary to the Conservative Cabinet minister Walter Long, who served as President of the Board of Agriculture from 1895, President of the Local Government Board from 1900, and briefly as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1905. Long described Arbuthnot as ‘an ideal private secretary’, who also ‘possessed a remarkable power as a public speaker’. He used his talents on the platform as vice-chairman of the Budget Protest League, which campaigned against Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’, and was a prominent speaker against Irish Home Rule.


Primrose League badges, via Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Henrygb CC-BY-SA-3.0

In 1912 Arbuthnot told Burnley’s Conservatives that he would not stand again for that constituency. However, he continued to devote himself to Conservative organisational work, and in 1912 became vice-chancellor of the Primrose League, of which Long was chancellor. The Primrose League, which sought to attract men, women and children as members through its lively programme of social activities, was the largest political organisation of its day, with over two million people having enrolled by March 1910. The number of current members was, however, rather less, at around 656,000 in 1912. Arbuthnot took a leading role in efforts to galvanise the League into renewed activity as the rise of the Labour party presented fresh challenges for the established political parties.

Having previously served in the navy, Arbuthnot joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on the outbreak of war in 1914. He spent around 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea. Wishing to play a more direct role in fighting the enemy, he secured a commission in the Grenadier Guards, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in January 1916, and went to the front in France that May. Killed at the age of forty-four, he was survived by his wife and three daughters. He was the fifth MP or former MP to die on military service in September 1916.


You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here. The series will return next year.

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Labour Unrest: Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour party, 1931

Our series this summer has taken a look at historical cases of division within political parties.  In our last post of the series, this week we discuss the Labour party of the 1930s, and how Ramsay MacDonald came to be reviled by the party he led for many years…

Ramsay Macdonald, via Wikimedia

Ramsay Macdonald, via Wikimedia

The wartime split in the Liberal party and the increase in suffrage in 1918 and 1928 created an opportunity for the Labour party to emerge as the new opposition to Conservatism. After the war the party ended their electoral arrangements with the Liberals, and twice formed minority governments (in 1924 and 1929-31), both led by Ramsay MacDonald. Yet in a dramatic reversal in 1931 Labour’s first Prime Minister was expelled from the party, and after the October election fewer Labour MPs were returned to Westminster than in 1918.

MacDonald had risen from humble beginnings to become Labour leader: an illegitimate son from a Scottish fishing village who established himself in a middle-class lifestyle with a deep commitment to Labour politics. He ‘looked the part’ in Commons, with great charisma, but he was also ‘prone to alternate feeling[s] of superiority with a self-pitying sense of martyrdom to duty.’ [Wrigley, ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ in Jeffreys (ed.), Leading Labour]. A moderate with few ties to the Trade Unions, his chief aim as the head of minority Labour administrations was to prove that the country need not be afraid of a Labour government.

When Labour returned to power in 1929 the chief issue was unemployment, especially in Labour’s industrial heartlands. Structural problems including an aging industry and high employment costs had already made British manufacturing uncompetitive. The government’s decision to return sterling to the Gold Standard in 1925 tied the pound to the value of gold at what many believe was too high a rate, making British goods even more expensive abroad. Labour entered government hoping to reduce unemployment through public works schemes inspired by the economist J.M. Keynes, but these had little impact after the Wall Street Crash began a period of global depression.

The immediate problem for the government was the growing cost of unemployment insurance – a vital lifeline to many, but considered at the time hugely expensive. The Labour party grew increasingly divided on how to respond to the crisis: Chancellor Philip Snowden favoured economic ‘orthodoxy’ – free trade, remaining on the Gold Standard, and balanced books – whereas others could not countenance a cut in unemployment benefits. Facing criticism in the Commons the government established a commission to investigate the state of the government’s finances. Its report in July 1931 that the government was £120 million in deficit (although today’s accounting standards would consider this figure greatly exaggerated) came at the worst possible time, following a European banking crisis. Confidence in sterling plummeted, and the Bank of England began to use up its reserves to keep the pound on the Gold Standard. Something had to be done: either large cuts were needed to balance the books and restore confidence, or Britain would be forced to leave the Gold Standard and devalue the pound.

The cabinet was divided. Cutting expenditure would mean cutting unemployment benefits, but leaving the Gold Standard would be seen by many (although not all) as a dramatic failure. MacDonald worked hard for a compromise. Believing that the credibility of the Labour party was at stake, he attempted to find a package that would satisfy the bankers, the opposition parties, and his cabinet. On 23 August MacDonald won a cabinet majority for cuts of £76 million, including 10% of unemployment insurance payments, by eleven votes to nine. However, those opposed, including former leader Arthur Henderson, supported by the Unions, indicated that they would resign from cabinet rather than stay to implement the cuts. MacDonald went to the King and offered his resignation and that of the whole cabinet.

What happened next destroyed MacDonald’s reputation in the Labour movement and proved fatal for the party for the next decade. MacDonald was persuaded to stay on as the head of a ‘National Government’ to implement the government cuts and restore confidence. His biographer David Marquand has argued he only did so ‘very reluctantly’, yet it was taken to be little short of treachery by Labour MPs [Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay’, ODNB].  Now MacDonald’s ability to ‘look the part’ as Prime Minister now appeared to be little more than vain social climbing, and for years many believed he had plotted to bring about this outcome. Sidney Webb called him the ‘author, producer and principal actor’ of the crisis. More recently historians have dismissed the theory of a deliberate plot, arguing that MacDonald acted for what he perceived to be the country’s best interest.

The consequences were dramatic. MacDonald led a ‘National Government’ comprised of the Conservatives, some Liberals and very few Labour MPs; all members or associates of the National Government were expelled by the Labour party. Despite government cuts Britain was forced off the Gold Standard anyway before the end of September.

The real damage to Labour, however, was the decision to hold an election in 1931, and for MacDonald to fight it on behalf of the National Government (although with the personal support of only a few MPs he had little other choice). In many constituencies Labour faced a single National Government candidate as the parties arranged pacts against them, and their former Chancellor Snowden called the party’s 1931 manifesto ‘Bolshevism run mad’ on a BBC broadcast. Labour’s vote share fell from 37.1% to 30.6%, but the real cost was in the number of seats: only 52 Labour or Independent Labour MPs were returned. New leader Arthur Henderson lost his seat. MacDonald returned to lead a government with a huge majority, but 470 of the 554 National Government MPs were Conservatives.

Macdonald remained Prime Minister until 1935, but was increasingly isolated. In December 1932 he wrote in his diary: ‘Was I wise? Perhaps not, but it seemed as though anything else was impossible.’ [Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay’, ODNB] MacDonald’s reputation has since been revised, but never fully rehabilitated.


Further reading:

  • Chris Wrigley, ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ in Kevin Jeffreys (ed.), Leading Labour (1999)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: David Marquand, ‘MacDonald, Ramsay
  • ODNB: Chris Wrigley, ‘Henderson, Arthur

You can read the other blogs in our ‘party split’ series here.

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MPs in World War I: Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham (1879-1916)

Yesterday we marked the death of Hon. Guy Victor Baring, who died on 15 September 1916. Another former occupant of the Conservative benches in the Commons was killed in action on the same day, as Dr. Kathryn Rix records…

Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham

Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham

Of the MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War, Charles William Reginald Duncombe was the only one to have been a member of both Houses of Parliament. He died on the same day as Guy Baring, being shot in the head as he led his men on 15 September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme offensive. At the time of his death, he was a member of the House of Lords, having succeeded his grandfather as second Earl of Feversham in January 1915. Before this, he had spent almost a decade in the Commons as Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, where he was known by his courtesy title, Viscount Helmsley.

The Duncombe family, of Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire, had a long tradition of parliamentary service. Feversham’s father, William Reginald Duncombe (1852-1881), was Conservative MP for the North Riding of Yorkshire from 1874 until his death. Feversham’s grandfather, William Ernest Duncombe (1829-1915), had represented East Retford, 1852-57, and the North Riding, 1859-67, before succeeding as 3rd Baron Feversham in 1867. He was created Earl of Feversham in July 1868. The first earl’s father, William, 2nd Baron Feversham (1798-1867), and grandfather Charles (1764-1841), 1st Baron Feversham, had also sat in the Commons, with the latter representing four different constituencies before he was rewarded by the Tory prime minister, Lord Liverpool, with a peerage in 1826.

As Viscount Helmsley, Charles William Reginald Duncombe was singled out as a man of promise by the County Gentleman magazine in its ‘Portrait of the Month’ feature in 1901. It described him as ‘one of the most popular as well as most prominent of rising sportsmen in England’, noting his prowess at hunting, riding, shooting and polo. It also recorded that he was ‘a fluent and ready speaker on the platform and in debate’. Educated at Eton and Oxford University, from 1902 until 1905 Helmsley served as assistant private secretary to Lord Selborne, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

In 1906 Helmsley was elected for Thirsk and Malton, and soon ‘fulfilled his early promise’, proving ‘an excellent speaker’. He was remembered as ‘in every sense of the word a real man, as straight as a die, and without the slightest suspicion of priggishness’. He made over 1,000 interventions in the chamber – including numerous questions to ministers – during his decade in the Commons. His fluent oratory ‘brought him speedily into the front rank amongst the younger Conservative element in the House’. Criticising the Liberal ministry for attempting to curtail debate on their 1912 bill for the disestablishment of the Welsh church, Helmsley reflected that ‘in the old days a great number of Members were content to be silent Members’, but that with ‘the increasing interest taken by the democracy in political matters’, there was a greater expectation from their constituents that MPs should speak in the chamber.

Despite entering the Commons almost four decades after his grandfather had left it, Helmsley had much in common with him. They shared a deep-rooted commitment to the landed and agricultural interests. Helmsley’s maiden speech on 9 March 1906 was in opposition to the land tenure bill, which he moved to reject as he believed it would be ‘injurious to the real interests of all classes connected with agriculture’. One contemporary recorded that ‘what he did not know about horses or about farming was not worth knowing’, a passion he shared with his grandfather, who had served as president of both the Yorkshire Agricultural Society and the Royal Agricultural Society, and was a renowned breeder of horses and shorthorn cattle. Helmsley himself was involved with a government scheme to improve standards of horse-breeding in Britain.

Like his grandfather, who had objected to the parliamentary reform bill brought forward by William Gladstone and Lord Russell in 1866 as a measure ‘which nobody wanted’, Helmsley was reluctant to see further reforms to the electoral system. Early in his parliamentary career, he raised objections to women being allowed to sit as borough and county councillors, fearing that it ‘would be one of the first steps in the downward path to female suffrage’. He was also an opponent of the introduction of the payment of salaries to MPs in 1911. In an article on the subject, he argued that in order to equalise conditions between rich and poor candidates, it would be better to reduce the costs of elections, at which candidates were still obliged to pay the expenses of the returning officer in conducting the election and the poll.

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire (photo credit: A. Rix)

Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire (photo credit: A. Rix)

Given his equestrian interests, it was unsurprising that Helmsley began his war service with the cavalry, joining the Yorkshire hussars – a voluntary cavalry regiment in which he had been an officer since 1898 – at Ypres in 1914. When his grandfather died in January 1915, he returned home on leave, but was then commissioned to raise a ‘farmers’ battalion’ in the North of England. This new infantry unit, part of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, trained in the grounds of his residence at Duncombe Park, before going to fight in France. Holding the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Feversham was killed while commanding the 21st battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps at Flers. He had taken his deerhound to the trenches with him; it too was killed and was buried alongside him. Originally buried in an isolated grave, Feversham’s remains were later relocated to the main A.I.F. burial ground at Flers. He was succeeded in the earldom by his young son, Charles William Slingsby Duncombe (1906-63).


Feversham’s death and his formation of a battalion of The King’s Royal Rifle Corps are discussed in this BBC Radio broadcast.

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MPs in World War I: Hon. Guy Victor Baring (1873-1916)

The Battle of the Somme claimed another two MPs one hundred years ago this week. Today Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons, continues our series with a short biography of Hon. Guy Baring, who died on the same  day as the former MP, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, second Earl of Feversham, who will feature on our blog tomorrow.


Lieutenant-Colonel the Honourable Guy Baring

With the Battle of the Somme entering a new phase in mid-September 1916, two parliamentarians were killed in battle on the same day, 15 September. Guy Baring was killed not far from where Thomas Kettle had died less than a week before. Serving with the Coldstream Guards with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, Baring was shot while advancing with his men along the Ginchy to Lesboeufs road to attack a German position.

In common with other MPs we have blogged about in our First World War series, Baring came from a family with a tradition of parliamentary service. His father, Alexander Hugh Baring (1835-1889), had sat for Thetford, 1857-1867, before succeeding as 4th Baron Ashburton in 1868. He had followed in the footsteps of Baring’s grandfather, Francis (1800-1868), who represented Thetford in the Commons from 1830-1, 1832-41 and 1848-57. In turn, Francis had effectively inherited his Thetford seat from his older brother, William Bingham Baring (1799-1864). William had been MP for Thetford, 1826-30, Callington 1830-31, Winchester, 1832-37, and Staffordshire North, 1837-41, before a final spell representing Thetford, 1841-48. The family was related to the Baring banking dynasty, but Guy’s branch of the family was not actively involved in the management of Baring Brothers, his father having resigned his nominal partnership in 1864.

It was for one of the constituencies previously represented by his great-uncle William that Baring was elected in 1906, when he became Conservative MP for Winchester. His family had a long connection with Hampshire, having their seat at The Grange, near Alresford. Baring was re-elected with an increased majority in January 1910, and retained his seat at the December 1910 contest.

Like Duncan Campbell, whose death we marked at the beginning of this month, Baring had served with distinction in the Boer War. A career soldier, he had trained at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and had been commissioned into the Coldstream Guards in 1893. During the South African campaign he took part in the advance on Kimberley, and was also present for the actions at Poplar Grove, Driefontein, Vet River and Zand River. Mentioned in dispatches, he received the Queen’s medal with three clasps. He was also involved in operations in British East Africa, and in 1901 was part of the Imperial Representative Force which attended the ceremony in Sydney marking the creation of the Australian Commonwealth.

As a speaker, Baring had ‘a fund of humour which was used freely and tellingly’, addressing audiences in an ‘outspoken and soldierly’ manner. In the Commons, he confined himself largely to interventions on military matters, drawing on his expertise. He did, however, raise matters of interests to his constituents, such as the impact of an outbreak of ‘Isle of Wight bee disease’ on Hampshire’s bee-keepers in 1911.

Baring had resigned his army commission in June 1913 and been placed on the army reserve list. He rejoined his former regiment at the start of the war, initially serving at Windsor with a training company, before leaving for France in the summer of 1915. After acting as second in command of the 4th (Pioneer) Battalion, he was given temporary command of the 1st Battalion in October 1915 after the Battle of Loos. In May 1916 he was put in temporary command of the Guards Brigade, and he was killed while commanding the 1st Battalion. Twice mentioned in dispatches, Baring was buried at the Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt. Press reports of his death noted that his name had also been inscribed on the roll of honour of the House of Commons, which was being kept at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster, ‘printed in a plain wooden frame’.


You can read the rest in our MPs in World War I series here

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