William Ewart Gladstone, the fourth son of Sir John Gladstone, was born in Liverpool on 29th December, 1809. Gladstone was a MP and a successful merchant. William was educated at Eton and Christ College. At the Oxford Union Debating Society Gladstone developed a reputation as a fine orator. At university Gladstone was a Tory and denounced Whig proposals for parliamentary reform.
In 1832, the Duke of Newcastle was looking for a Conservative Party candidate for his Newark constituency. Although a nomination borough, Newark had been spared in the 1832 Reform Act. Sir John Gladstone was a friend of the Duke and suggested his son would make a good MP.
Two years after entering the House of Commons as MP for Newark, Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, appointed William Gladstone as his junior lord of the Treasury. The following year he was promoted to under-secretary for the colonies. Gladstone lost office when Peel resigned in 1835 but returned to the government when the Whigs were forced out of power in August, 1841. Gladstone now became vice-president of the board of trade and in 1843 was promoted to the post of president. In 1844 Gladstone was responsible for the Railway Bill that introduced what became known as parliamentary trains. As a result of this legislation railway companies had to transport third-class travellers for fares that did not exceed a penny a mile. These parliamentary trains had to stop at every station and had to travel at not less than 12 miles an hour.
In 1845 the Duke of Newcastle refused to support Gladstone candidature for Newark. Newcastle was a protectionists and had been upset by Gladstone's conversion to the reform of the Corn Laws. Although no longer an MP, Gladstone remained in Peel's cabinet until Lord John Russell, the leader of the Whig Party, became Prime Minister in July 1847.
In the 1847 General Election that followed, Gladstone was elected the Conservative MP for Oxford University. He remained on the opposition benches until Lord Aberdeen formed a coalition government with Lord Palmerston as Home Secretary, Lord John Russell as Foreign Secretary and Gladstone as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Aberdeen's government survived until March 1857.
When Lord Palmerston, the leader of the Whigs, became Prime Minister in June, 1859, he offered Gladstone the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. One of his most important reforms was the abolition of the paper duty which enabled publishers to produce cheap newspapers. Gladstone had always opposed parliamentary reform but when Edward Baines introduced a reform bill he spoke in favour of the measure. In his speech Gladstone pointed out that only one fiftieth of the working classes had the vote. He argued that this was unfair and that the law should be changed to increase this number. However, this was very much a minority view and Baines's proposal was defeated by 272 votes to 56.
In the general election of July 1865, the voters at Oxford University had been upset by Gladstone's move from the Conservative Party and he lost his seat. Gladstone now moved to the constituency of South Lancashire. The new Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, asked Gladstone to become leader of the House of Commons as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer. On 12th March 1866, Gladstone introduced the government's new reform bill. In the debate Gladstone admitted that he was a recent convert to parliamentary reform. With Conservative opposition to the measure, Russell's government found it impossible to get the bill passed by the House of Commons. On 19th June 1866, Russell's administration resigned.
Lord Derby, leader of the Conservatives, now became Prime Minister. The Conservatives knew that if the Liberals returned to power, Russell and Gladstone was certain to try again. Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the House of Commons, argued that the Conservatives were in danger of being seen as an anti-reform party. in 1867 Disraeli proposed a new Reform Act. Lord Cranborne (later Marquis of Salisbury) resigned in protest against this extension of democracy. In the House of Commons, Disraeli's proposals were supported by Gladstone and his followers and the measure was passed.
The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms were also granted the vote. This gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. The Reform Act also dealt with constituencies and boroughs with less than 10,000 inhabitants lost one of their MPs. The forty-five seats left available were distributed by: (i) giving fifteen to towns which had never had an MP; (ii) giving one extra seat to some larger towns - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds; (iii) creating a seat for the University of London; (iv) giving twenty-five seats to counties whose population had increased since 1832.
In the general election of December 1868, the Conservatives were defeated and Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party, became Prime Minister. In 1870 Gladstone and his education minister, William Forster, managed to persuade Parliament to pass the government's Education Act that established school boards in Britain.
After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act working class males now formed the majority in most borough constituencies. However, employers were still able to use their influence in some constituencies because of the open system of voting. In parliamentary elections people still had to mount a platform and announce their choice of candidate to the officer who then recorded it in the poll book. Employers and local landlords therefore knew how people voted and could punish them if they did not support their preferred candidate. In 1872 Gladstone's removed this intimidation when his government brought in the Ballot Act which introduced a secret system of voting.
In the 1874 General Election the Conservative Party won with a majority of forty-six. Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister and Gladstone led the Liberal Party opposition. For the next couple of years Gladstone concentrated on writing his book An Inquiry into the Time and Place of Homer in History (1876). However, he was stirred into action when he read about the massacres and tortures inflicted upon the inhabitants of Bulgaria by their Turkish rulers. This resulted in him writing a pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876). Parliament was dissolved in 1880, and the general election resulted in a overwhelming Liberal victory.
Gladestone's wife found the duties associated with managing a political household onerous and uninteresting and his daughter, Mary Gladstone, now aged 33 years old, played the main role as the hostess at the family residences. Susan K. Harris, the author of The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess (2004) has pointed out: "Once Gladstone resumed office his daughter's influence would be a major attraction for many people, who saw her as a way to reach her powerful father."
Mary was extremely interested in political ideas. In August 1883 she began reading Progress and Poverty, a book by Henry George. Mary wrote in her diary that the book is "supposed to be the most upsetting, revolutionary book of the age. At present Maggie and I both agree with it, and most brilliantly written it is. We had long discussions. He (her father) is reading it too." Gladstone later remarked "it is well-written but a wild book".
Gladstone did introduced three new measures concerning parliamentary reform. The Corrupt Practices Act specified how much money candidates could spend during election time and banned such activities as the buying of food or drink for voters. The act even stated the number of conveyances that could be used for bringing voters to the polls.
In 1884 Gladstone introduced his proposals that would give working class males the same voting rights as those living in the boroughs. Although the bill was passed in the House of Commons it was rejected by the Conservative dominated House of Lords. Gladstone refused to accept defeat and reintroduced the measure. This time the Conservative members of the Lords agreed to pass Gladstone's proposals in return for the promise that it would be followed by a Redistribution Bill. Gladstone accepted their terms and the 1884 Reform Act was allowed to become law. This measure gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs - adult male householders and £10 lodgers - and added about six million to the total number who could vote in parliamentary elections.
Some members of the Liberal Party wanted Gladstone to introduce women's suffrage. This included James Stuart, the MP for Cambridge University. In March, 1884, Stuart wrote to Mary Gladstone and suggested that female franchisement should follow lines already established by those municipalities that did allow women to vote: "To make women more independent of men is, I am convinced, one of the great fundamental means of bringing about justice, morality, and happiness both for married and unmarried men and women. If all Parliament were like the three men you mention, would there be no need for women's votes? Yes, I think there would. There is only one perfectly just, perfectly understanding Being - and that is God." He added: "No man is all-wise enough to select rightly - it is the people's voice thrust upon us, not elicited by us, that guides us rightly." Mary passed this information onto her father but he refused to change his policy.
Mary Gladstone married Harry Drew, the curate of Hawarden in Westminster Abbey on 2nd February 1886. In August 1886 she miscarried a son and was dangerously ill for five months. Mary now became involved in a debate with her father on the subject of birth-control. Mary discovered that her father had been sent a copy of The Ethics of Marriage by Hiram Sterling Pomeroy. She wrote to her father about the book on 27th October, 1887: "Dearest Father: I saw that a book called Ethics of Marriage was sent to you, & I am writing this to ask you to lend it me. You may think it an unfitting book to lend, but perhaps you do not know of the great battle we of this generation have to fight, on behalf of morality in marriage. If I did not know that this book deals with what I am referring to, I should not open the subject at all, as I think it sad & useless for any one to know of these horrors unless the, are obliged to try & counteract them. For when one once knows of an evil in our midst, one is partly responsible for it. I do not wish to speak to Mama about it, because when I did, she in her innocence, thought that by ignoring it, the evil would cease to exist."
In the letter Mary pointed out that it was becoming clear that society was changing. "What is called the American sin is now almost universally practised in the upper classes; one sign of it easily seen is the Peerage, where you will see that among those married in the last 15 years, the children of the large majority are under 5 in number, & it is spreading even among the clergy, & from them to the poorer classes. The Church of England Purity Society has been driven to take up the question, & it was openly dealt with at tile Church Congress. As a clergyman's wife, I have been a good deal consulted, & have found myself almost alone amongst my friends & contemporaries, in the line I have taken ... everything that hacks up this line strengthens this line, is of inestimable value to me, & therefore this book will be a help to me ... It is almost impossible to make people see it is a sin against nature as well as against God."
Gladstone and his party won the 1886 General Election. Gladstone now attempted to convince Parliament to accept Irish Home Rule. The proposal split the party and Parliament rejected the measure. Gladstone was defeated in the polls in the 1886 General Election but was once again elected to office in 1892. The following year the Irish Home Rule Bill was passed in the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords.
William Stead wrote in 1892: "Mr. Gladstone is old enough to be the grandfather of the younger race of politicians, but his courage, his faith, and his versatility, put the youngest of them to shame. It is this ebullience of youthful energy, this inexhaustible vitality, which is the admiration and the despair of his contemporaries. Surely when a schoolboy at Eton he must somewhere have discovered the elixir of life or have been bathed by some beneficent fairy in the well of perpetual youth. Gladly would many a man of fifty exchange physique with this hale and hearty octogenarian. Only in one respect does he show any trace of advancing years. His hearing is not quite so good as it was, but still it is far better than that of Cardinal Manning, who became very deaf in the closing years. Otherwise Mr. Gladstone is hale and hearty. His eye is not dim, neither is his natural force abated. A splendid physical frame, carefully preserved, gives every promise of a continuance of his green old age."
Gladstone was still coming under pressure from the left-wing of his party to introduce the vote for women. In 1892 he read the book, The Emancipation of Women and Its Probable Consequences, that had been published in Leipzig. Written by Adele Crepaz it was a strong attack on those calling for reform. Susan K. Harris has pointed out: "If women take the jobs, Crepaz argues, men won't be able to support wives and families. Hence marriage rates will decrease. And if marriage rates decrease, culture will fail. Additionally, women who work won't be able to serve their husbands as they should, with the consequence that woman's nature will be prevented. Even women doctors ultimately undermine women's sacred role. Rather than trying to serve in more than one capacity, women should remember that the greatest civic role is to bring up their children well, and that the highest moral role is to serve their husbands."
Gladstone read the book in German and urged Crepaz to have it published in English. He wrote to Crepaz to say that "it seems to me by far the most comprehensive, luminous, and penetrating work on this question that I have yet met with." In 1893 it was translated into English and published in London. It included the letter that Gladstone had sent Crepaz. Ellis Wright, who did the translation has suggested: "Whilst.... acknowledging most fully the benefit accruing to the women of Great Britain from increased facilities for self-support, it is against their claim to equal political and social right with men that Frau Crepaz would earnestly protest, convinced that therein lies much danger to the welfare of humanity. The recognition accorded to her views by England's Prime Minister is some indication that they are not without supporters in this country."
Gladstone sent copies of the book to female members of the Liberal Party who supported women being given the vote. Margaret Cowell Stepney was one of those who sent her comments on the book to the prime-minister: "I feel fearfully presumptuous in venturing, in any way, to criticize a book which you have commended - but as you were good enough to tell me to say what I thought, I must answer truly.... I cannot believe, that there is more danger in mothers making their daughters self-supporting, than in mothers who look upon marriage as the only aim of existence - and, there seems to me to be possibly some weak point in the suggestion that when the husband dies, the widow who cannot work, may always look for help, with confidence, from relations, friends, and charitable institutions - surely in their cases at least - widows - girls who cannot marry - or who can only marry, as a means of livelihood - there may be reason for wishing that women should have independence of a profession?"
William Gladstone resigned from office in March 1894 and died after suffering a heart-attack at Hawarden Castle on 19th May, 1898.