Victorian MPs and holidays

With the summer holiday season well under way, our blog today looks at how nineteenth-century MPs spent their vacations, and the role some of them played in the creation of Victorian seaside resorts. An earlier version of this post from Dr James Owen appeared on the Victorian Commons blog; it has been updated with additional material by the assistant editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1945 project, Dr Kathryn Rix.

Richard Monckton Milnes MP

The reasons why nineteenth-century MPs holidayed were as diverse as the locations they visited, and often provide an insight into how Victorian politicians perceived their parliamentary duties. Even though the decade following the 1832 Reform Act witnessed a rise in the scrutiny of MPs’ political activity, many still held rather casual attitudes towards attending the Commons once summer had begun. Sir Robert Heron, Whig MP for Peterborough, felt that the time of the reformed House was ‘eternally wasted in the most futile and idle manner’, and usually retired in early June to his Lincolnshire estates to tend to his menagerie of exotic animals. The existence of a ministry with a secure majority also encouraged MPs to holiday when Parliament was in session. In September 1841 Richard Monckton Milnes, recently re-elected for Pontefract, unashamedly informed the new premier Sir Robert Peel that he would be spending a good deal of time on the Continent, on account ‘of the liberty the security of your political position now gives to your friends’.

Many Victorian MPs used holidays to pursue their favourite recreations and pastimes. Frederick Milbank, Liberal Member for the North Riding, spent much of his vacations shooting in Scotland and Yorkshire, bagging a record 190 grouse in 25 minutes on Wemmergill Moor in August 1872. Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, who sat as a Liberal for Berwick-upon-Tweed, passed his summers at his Scottish estate at Guisachan, where he developed a new breed of dog, the golden retriever, after breeding a golden-coated retriever with one of his Tweed water spaniels.

The state of a politician’s health and his choice of holiday destination were frequently intertwined. Suffering from gout in the summer of 1856, Benjamin Disraeli retired to Spa, Belgium, where, in his own words, he could ‘enjoy a little society without mingling in the world of dissipation’. Following his election for Aberdeenshire in August 1854, Lord Haddo, the chronically ill heir of the Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen, took a lengthy holiday in Egypt to recuperate. His father was less than sanguine about his chances of a recovery, writing to Haddo’s brother that ‘it will be nothing less than a miracle if you ever see him again after he leaves England’. Defying his father’s grave expectations, Haddo’s health improved slightly as a result of his Egyptian travels. Robert Bateson, MP for County Londonderry, was less fortunate. While holidaying in Jerusalem at Christmas in 1843, he was fatally struck down by an attack of ‘low typhus fever’. He has the distinction of being the first person to be buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery.

Penry Williams; A Distant View of Saint Peter’s, Rome; Victoria Art Gallery;

Victorian MPs also used their holidays for self-improvement. After a particularly bruising parliamentary session in 1866 which had witnessed the collapse of the Liberal ministry, William Gladstone travelled to Rome, devoting himself to the city’s culture. According to one of his visitors, Lord Clarendon, ‘Italian art, archaeology and literature are G’s sole occupations. Every morning at 8 he lectures his wife and daughters upon Dante, and requires them to parse and give the root of every verb. He runs about all day to shops, galleries and persons’. Artistic pursuits abroad could also have unexpected consequences. Whilst on holiday in Italy in October 1833, William Henry Fox Talbot, Whig MP for Chippenham, became frustrated at his inability to sketch a landscape and came up with the idea of making the image projected by a camera obscura permanent. This revolutionary idea led to his pioneering experiments in photography.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the growing demands made by government upon MPs gave greater significance to the role of the party whips, who became increasingly less tolerant of non-attendance. The age of MPs whiling away parts of the parliamentary session abroad was slowly passing away. Yet at the same time, the rise of the railways provided Victorian MPs with quick getaways to their favourite parts of the British Isles without necessarily jeopardising their political commitments. In 1872, for example, Gladstone, after paddling in a remote Scottish loch, was able to take charge of a cabinet meeting in London the next afternoon, a transformation that would have been unthinkable to Earl Grey in 1832.

Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood by William Charles Ross (1826); image credit: V & A Museum

The rise of cheap rail travel also meant that it was not just the political elite who could take short holidays in the British Isles, with the general public now able to travel widely, and enjoy the vicissitudes of the British weather in summertime. Inspired by a stay at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, where he befriended the architect Decimus Burton, Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood (MP for Preston) decided in the early 1830s to create his own seaside resort for Lancashire’s working classes. He chose a site on his Rossall estate at the mouth of the river Wyre. Having initially toyed with calling the town New Liverpool or Wyreton, he instead gave it his own family name. Fleetwood, for which Burton was hired as architect, was one of the first towns to be planned around a railway.

Fleetwood was not the only seaside town to be developed by a Victorian MP. Henry Pease, Liberal MP for Durham South, whose Quaker family were leading industrialists and railway promoters, had ‘a prophetic vision’ while walking by the coast in summer 1859, seeing ‘on the cliff before him, a town arise’, according to his wife. This prompted him to create the resort of Saltburn-by-the-Sea, to which visitors came by railway. As discussed in one of our previous blogs, the railways were also crucial in plans to develop Whitby as ‘a first-rate watering place’, and rival candidates sought to exploit this issue at elections. Day trips to the seaside were facilitated not only by the expansion of Britain’s railway network, but also by an innovation from another Victorian MP, Sir John Lubbock: the Bank Holiday.

Francis English; View of Fleetwood (1842); Lancashire County Museum Service;


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