The honourable member for Lambeth North, I presume? Henry Morton Stanley’s parliamentary career

On the anniversary of his birth on 28 January 1841, Dr. Kathryn Rix examines the lesser-known parliamentary career of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

The journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley is famously associated with the phrase, ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume?’, which he allegedly said upon finding the Scottish missionary and explorer near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. After tracking down Livingstone, Stanley continued his explorations in Africa, notably along the Congo River, and published several accounts of his travels.

What is less well-known is that Stanley served for five years as a Member of Parliament, representing Lambeth North as a Liberal Unionist from 1895 until 1900. He was a reluctant parliamentarian. It was under pressure from his wife, Dorothy, that he contested Lambeth North at the 1892 general election. She had a ‘haunting fear of his returning to the Congo’ and hoped that he could be ‘safely anchored’ in Parliament. Stanley was ‘greatly disgusted’ by his first experiences of the hurly-burly of late Victorian electioneering. He and Dorothy were forced to retreat from one particularly unruly meeting, and the door of their carriage was torn off as they fled.

Defeated by 130 votes in 1892, Stanley stood again at the 1895 general election at his wife’s insistence. He confided to a friend that he hoped for a ‘crushing enough’ defeat to put an end to his wife’s vicarious parliamentary aspirations. However, despite his refusal to ‘do any silly personal canvassing’, Stanley was victorious. He gained a majority of 400 votes, reflecting a national upsurge of support for the Unionist party.

Stanley took his seat at Westminster in August 1895. As he left the chamber after taking the oath as a member, the doorkeeper greeted him with the words, ‘Mr. Stanley, I presume?’ Stanley disliked the cramped physical environment of the Commons, with its ‘simply poisonous’ atmosphere which he thought was worse than a swamp. He also protested that ‘we are herded in the lobbies like so many sheep in a fold’ and wondered how ‘such a number of eminent men could consent voluntarily to such a servitude’. Although he was scornful of much of the ‘dreary twaddle’ and ‘verbiage’ which MPs had to endure, there were some colleagues whose speeches impressed him, in particular the Liberal Unionist leader Joseph Chamberlain, whose imperial vision he shared.

His own maiden speech, during a discussion on African affairs, 21 Aug. 1895, had a mixed reception. The Leicester Chronicle believed that the Commons would welcome ‘a man who will talk to it instead of make speeches at it’ and noted that Stanley’s ‘good voice… filled the House without much effort’. The Glasgow Herald reported that Stanley had ‘commanded the deep attention of the House’, but thought he had spoken in ‘a somewhat florid and nervously energetic manner’, with gestures which were ‘a little too abundant and pronounced’. Stanley’s own account of his debut admitted his ‘Parliamentary imperfections’, and he was relieved to have got through without ‘saying anything foolish or silly’.

Stanley did not grow any fonder of parliamentary life, complaining that ‘my late hours… simply torture me’ and that the business of the Commons was ‘conducted in a shilly-shally manner, which makes one groan at the waste of life’. He suffered intermittently from attacks of gastritis and malaria, which left him unable to attend to his parliamentary duties. He also spent much time abroad, visiting Spain in 1896, southern Africa in 1897 and France in 1898. He attended the House for the last time on 26 July 1900, after which he paired with another member for the rest of the session. He did not seek re-election at that year’s general election, writing that ‘I am glad at the prospect of retiring, and being quit of it all’. He died on 10 May 1904, with his parliamentary service having been a disappointing interlude in his highly eventful career.

Suggested further reading:

D. Stanley (ed.), The autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley (1909)

B. Farwell, The man who presumed. A biography of Henry M. Stanley (1958)

T. Jeal, Stanley. The impossible life of Africa’s greatest explorer (2007)

A. Windscheffel, ‘“In Darkest Lambeth”; Henry Morton Stanley and the imperial politics of London Unionism’, in M. Cragoe & A. Taylor (eds.), London politics, 1760-1914 (2005), 191-210.

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