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William Ewart Gladstone

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The Right Honourable

William Ewart Gladstone

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
15 August 1892 – 2 March 1894
Monarch Victoria
Preceded by The Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded by The Earl of Rosebery
In office
1 February – 20 July 1886
Preceded by The Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded by The Marquess of Salisbury
In office
23 April 1880 – 9 June 1885
Preceded by Benjamin Disraeli
Succeeded by The Marquess of Salisbury
In office
3 December 1868 – 17 February 1874
Preceded by Benjamin Disraeli
Succeeded by Benjamin Disraeli
Leader of the Opposition
In office
20 July 1886 – 11 August 1892
Preceded by The Marquess of Salisbury
Succeeded by The Marquess of Salisbury
In office
9 June 1885 – 28 January 1886
Preceded by The Earl of Beaconsfield
Succeeded by The Marquess of Salisbury
In office
17 February 1874 – 21 April 1880
Preceded by Benjamin Disraeli
Succeeded by The Earl of Beaconsfield
Chancellor of the Exchequer
In office
28 April 1880 – 16 December 1882
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Stafford Northcote
Succeeded by Hugh Childers
In office
11 August 1873 – 17 February 1874
Prime Minister Himself
Preceded by Robert Lowe
Succeeded by Stafford Northcote
In office
18 June 1859 – 26 June 1866
Prime Minister The Viscount Palmerston
The Earl Russell
Preceded by Benjamin Disraeli
Succeeded by Benjamin Disraeli
In office
28 December 1852 – 28 February 1855
Prime Minister The Earl of Aberdeen
The Viscount Palmerston
Preceded by Benjamin Disraeli
Succeeded by George Cornewall Lewis
Personal details
Born Liverpool, Lancashire, England
Died Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, Wales
Political party Conservative, Peelite and Liberal
Alma mater Christ Church, Oxford
Religion Church of England ( High church)
Signature Cursive signature in ink

William Ewart Gladstone FRS FSS (29 December 1809 – 19 May 1898) was a British Liberal statesman. In a career lasting over sixty years, he served as Prime Minister four times (1868–1874, 1880–1885, February–July 1886 and 1892–1894), more than any other person. Gladstone was 84 years old - still physically vigorous albeit with failing hearing and eyesight - when he resigned for the last time, making him Britain's oldest Prime Minister. He also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer four times (1853–1855, 1859–1866, 1873–1874, and 1880–1882).

Gladstone first entered Parliament in 1832. Beginning his career as a High Tory, Gladstone served in the Cabinet of Sir Robert Peel, during which time he became more liberal. In 1846 he supported Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws, which led to the split of the Conservatives - Gladstone was a Peelite and never again served with the main body of the Conservative Party; in 1859 the Peelites merged with the Whigs and the Radicals to form the Liberals who were in power for much of the years up to 1915.

As a Peelite, Gladstone served in Lord Aberdeen's government as a notably efficient Chancellor. After that government fell in 1855 he refused to serve under Lord Derby or Lord Palmerston, a Whig, and went into opposition. In 1859, however, when Palmerston succeeded Lord Derby's brief second government, Gladstone accepted the office of Chancellor and held a position of great influence. During this time he opposed Palmerston's aggressive foreign policy (begrudging financing his fortifications), and became committed to electoral reform, earning him the sobriquet "The People's William". He was noted for his support of classical liberalism, and his intense opposition to socialism.

Gladstone's first ministry saw the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, the introduction of secret voting, and Britain's refusal to intervene in the Franco-Prussian War. After his electoral defeat in 1874, Gladstone resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, but from 1876 began a comeback based on opposition to Turkey's Bulgarian atrocities. The Midlothian Campaign of 1879-1880 was based around Gladstone and was the birthplace of many modern political campaigning techniques. Despite not being the official Liberal leader when they won the 1880 election, he was nonetheless appointed Prime Minister again. His second ministry saw crises in Egypt (culminating in the death of General Gordon in 1885), in Ireland, where the government passed repressive measures, and in mainland Britain, where socialist and Communist violence took place. The government did however pass the Third Reform Act. Lord Salisbury defeated the Gladstone government and formed a Conservative government in 1885 but the election held a few months later resulted in a Liberal victory. Back in office in early 1886, Gladstone decided that Home Rule was the only way to solve the mounting chaos in Ireland; however, this was defeated in the House of Commons in July and Salisbury re-entered Downing Street and called and won an election. In 1892 Gladstone formed his last government at the age of 82. The Irish Home Rule Bill was defeated in the Lords in 1893 and effectively ended Gladstone's last crusade. The Liberal Party was moving to the left and adopting measures of state welfare provision while also containing an imperialist wing. Due to his opposition to increased naval expenditure, Gladstone resigned in March 1894 and was succeeded by his Foreign Secretary, Lord Rosebery. He left Parliament in 1895 and died three years later aged 88.

Gladstone is famous for his intense rivalry with the Conservative Party Leader Benjamin Disraeli. The rivalry was not only political, but also personal. When Disraeli died, Gladstone proposed a state funeral, but Disraeli's will asked for him to be buried next to his wife, to which Gladstone replied, "As Disraeli lived, so he died — all display, without reality or genuineness." Gladstone was also famously at odds with Queen Victoria for much of his career. She once complained, "He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting."

Gladstone was known affectionately by his supporters as "The People's William" or the "G.O.M." ("Grand Old Man", or, according to Disraeli, "God's Only Mistake"). Winston Churchill and others cited Gladstone as their inspiration.

Early life (1809-1840)

Born in 1809 in Liverpool, England, at 62 Rodney Street, William Ewart Gladstone was the fourth son of the merchant Sir John Gladstone and his second wife, Anne MacKenzie Robertson. Gladstone was born and brought up in Liverpool and was of Scottish ancestry. One of his earliest childhood memories was being made to stand on a table and say "Ladies and gentlemen" to the assembled audience, probably at a gathering to promote the election of George Canning as MP for Liverpool in 1812.

William Gladstone was educated from 1816 to 1821 at a preparatory school at the vicarage of St Thomas's Church at Seaforth, close to his family's residence, Seaforth House. In 1821 William followed in the footsteps of his older brothers and attended Eton College before matriculating in 1828 at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Classics and Mathematics, although he had no great interest in mathematics. In December 1831 he achieved the double first class degree he had long desired. Gladstone served as President of the Oxford Union debating society, where he developed a reputation as an orator, which followed him into the House of Commons. At university Gladstone was a Tory and denounced Whig proposals for parliamentary reform.

Gladstone in the 1830s.

Following the success of his double first, William travelled with his brother John on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. On his return to England, William was elected to Parliament in 1832 as Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Newark, partly through the influence of the local patron, the Duke of Newcastle. Although Gladstone entered Lincoln's Inn in 1833, with a view to becoming a barrister, 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.

In the House of Commons, Gladstone was initially a disciple of High Toryism, opposing the abolition of slavery and factory legislation. In December 1834 he was appointed as a Junior Lord of the Treasury in Sir Robert Peel's first ministry. The following month he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, an office he held until the government's resignation in April 1835.

Gladstone published his first book, The State in its Relations with the Church, in 1838, in which he argued that the goal of the state should be to promote and defend the interests of the Church of England. The following year he married Catherine Glynne, to whom he remained married until his death 59 years later. They had eight children together, including Herbert John Gladstone and Henry Neville Gladstone. Gladstone's eldest son William (known as "Willy" to distinguish him from his father) became a Member of Parliament but pre-deceased his father, dying in the early 1890s.

In 1840 Gladstone began to rescue and rehabilitate London prostitutes, walking the streets of London himself and encouraging the women he encountered to change their ways. Much to the criticism of his peers, he continued this practice decades later, even after he was elected Prime Minister.

Minister under Peel (1841-1846)

Gladstone was re-elected in 1841. In September 1842 he lost the forefinger of his left hand in an accident while reloading a gun; thereafter he wore a glove or finger sheath (stall). In the second ministry of Robert Peel he served as President of the Board of Trade (1843–44).

Gladstone became concerned with the situation of "coal whippers". These were the men who worked on London docks, "whipping" in baskets from ships to barges or wharves all incoming coal from the sea. They were called up and relieved through public-houses and therefore a man could not get this job unless he possessed the favourable opinion of the publican, who looked upon most favourably those who drank. The man's name was written down and the "score" followed. Publicans issued employment solely on the capacity of the man to pay, and men often left the pub to work drunk. They spent their savings on drink to secure the favourable opinion of publicans and therefore further employment. Gladstone passed the Coal Vendors Act 1843 to set up a central office for employment. When this Act expired in 1856 a Select Committee was appointed by the Lords in 1857 to look into the question. Gladstone gave evidence to the Committee: "I approached the subject in the first instance as I think everyone in Parliament of necessity did, with the strongest possible prejudice against the proposal [to interfere]; but the facts stated were of so extraordinary and deplorable a character, that it was impossible to withhold attention from them. Then the question being whether legislative interference was required I was at length induced to look at a remedy of an extraordinary character as the only one I thought applicable to the was a great innovation". Looking back in 1883, Gladstone wrote that "In principle, perhaps my Coalwhippers Act of 1843 was the most Socialistic measure of the last half century".

He resigned in 1845 over the Maynooth Seminary issue, a matter of conscience for him. In order to improve relations with Irish Catholics, Peel's government proposed increasing the annual grant paid to the Seminary for training Catholic priests. Gladstone, who previously argued in a book that a Protestant country should not pay money to other churches, supported the increase in the Maynooth grant and voted for it in Commons, but resigned rather than face charges that he had compromised his principles to remain in office. After accepting Gladstone's resignation, Peel confessed to a friend, "I really have great difficulty sometimes in exactly comprehending what he means". Gladstone returned to Peel's government as Colonial Secretary in December.

Opposition MP (1846-1851)

The following year Peel's government fell over the MPs' repeal of the Corn Laws and Gladstone followed his leader into a course of separation from mainstream Conservatives. After Peel's death in 1850 Gladstone emerged as the leader of the Peelites in the House of Commons. He was re-elected for the University of Oxford in 1847 and became a constant critic of Lord Palmerston.

As a young man Gladstone had treated his father's estate, Fasque, west of Aberdeen, as home, but as a younger son he would not inherit it. Instead, from the time of his marriage, he lived at his wife's family's estate, Hawarden, in North Wales. He never actually owned Hawarden, which belonged first to his brother-in-law Sir Stephen Glynne, and was then inherited by Gladstone's eldest son in 1874. During the late 1840s, when he was out of office, he worked extensively to turn Hawarden into a viable business.

In 1848 he also founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women. In May 1849 he began his most active "rescue work" with "fallen women" and met prostitutes late at night on the street, in his house or in their houses, writing their names in a private notebook. He aided the House of Mercy at Clewer near Windsor (which exercised extreme in-house discipline) and spent much time arranging employment for ex-prostitutes. In a 'Declaration' signed on 7 December 1896 and only to be opened after his death by his son Stephen, Gladstone wrote:

With reference to rumours which I believe were at one time afloat, though I know not with what degree of currency: and also with reference to the times when I shall not be here to answer for myself, I desire to record my solemn declaration and assurance, as in the sight of God and before His Judgment Seat, that at no period of my life have I been guilty of the act which is known as that of infidelity to the marriage bed.

In 1927, during a court case over published claims that he had had improper relationships with some of these women, the jury unanimously found that the evidence "completely vindicated the high moral character of the late Mr. W. E. Gladstone".

In 1850/51 Gladstone visited Naples for the benefit of his daughter Mary's eyesight. Giacomo Lacaita, legal adviser to the British embassy, was imprisoned by the Neapolitan government, as were other political dissidents. Gladstone became concerned at the political situation in Naples and the arrest and imprisonment of Neapolitan liberals. In February 1851 the government allowed Gladstone to visit the prisons where they were held and he deplored their condition. In April and July he published two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen against the Neapolitan government and responded to his critics in An Examination of the Official Reply of the Neapolitan Government in 1852. Gladstone's first letter described what he saw in Naples as "the negation of God erected into a system of government".

Chancellor of the Exchequer (1852–1855)

A pensive Gladstone.

In 1852, following the appointment of Lord Aberdeen as Prime Minister, head of a coalition of Whigs and Peelites, Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Whig Sir Charles Wood and the Tory Disraeli had both been perceived to have failed in the office and so this provided Gladstone with a great political opportunity.

His first budget in 1853 almost completed the work begun by Peel eleven years before in simplifying Britain's tariff of duties and customs. 123 duties were abolished and 133 duties were reduced. The income tax had legally expired but Gladstone proposed to extend it for seven years to fund tariff reductions:

We propose, then, to re-enact it for two years, from April, 1853, to April, 1855, at the rate of 7d. in the £; from April, 1855, to enact it for two more years at 6d. in the £; and then for three years more...from April, 1857, at 5d. Under this proposal, on the 5th of April, 1860, the income-tax will by law expire.

Gladstone wanted to maintain a balance between direct and indirect taxation. He also wished to abolish the income tax. He knew that its abolition depended on a considerable retrenchment in government expenditure. He therefore increased the number of people eligible to pay it by lowering the threshold from £150 to £100. The more people who paid income tax, Gladstone believed, the more the public would pressure the government into abolishing it. Gladstone argued that the £100 line was "the dividing line...between the educated and the labouring part of the community" and that therefore the income tax payers and the electorate were to be the same people, who would then vote to cut government expenditure.

The budget speech (delivered on 18 April), at nearly five hours length, raised Gladstone "at once to the front rank of financiers as of orators". H. C. G. Matthew has written that Gladstone "made finance and figures exciting, and succeeded in constructing budget speeches epic in form and performance, often with lyrical interludes to vary the tension in the Commons as the careful exposition of figures and argument was brought to a climax". The contemporary diarist Charles Greville wrote of Gladstone's speech: universal consent it was one of the grandest displays and most able financial statement that ever was heard in the House of Commons; a great scheme, boldly, skilfully, and honestly devised, disdaining popular clamour and pressure from without, and the execution of it absolute perfection. Even those who do not admire the Budget, or who are injured by it, admit the merit of the performance. It has raised Gladstone to a great political elevation, and, what is of far greater consequence than the measure itself, has given the country assurance of a man equal to great political necessities, and fit to lead parties and direct governments.

However with Britain entering the Crimean War in February 1854, Gladstone introduced his second budget on 6 March. Gladstone had to increase expenditure on the Services and a vote of credit of £1,250,000 was taken to send a 25,000 strong force to the East. The deficit for the year would be £2,840,000 (estimated revenue £56,680,000; estimated expenditure £59,420,000). Gladstone refused to borrow the money needed to rectify this deficit and instead increased the income tax by one half from sevenpence to tenpence-halfpenny in the pound. Gladstone proclaimed that "the expenses of a war are the moral check which it has pleased the Almighty to impose on the ambition and the lust of conquest that are inherent in so many nations". By May £6,870,000 was needed to finance the war and so Gladstone introduced another budget on 8 May. Gladstone raised the income tax from 10 and a half d. to 14d. in order to raise £3,250,000 and spirits, malt, and sugar were taxed in order to raise the rest of the money needed.

He served until 1855, a few weeks into Lord Palmerston's first premiership, whereupon he resigned along with the rest of the Peelites after a motion was passed to appoint a committee of inquiry into the conduct of the war.

Opposition (1855–1859)

The Conservative Leader Lord Derby became Prime Minister in 1858, but Gladstone - who like the other Peelites was still nominally a Conservative - declined a position in his government, opting not to sacrifice his free trade principles.

Between November 1858 and February 1859 Gladstone, on behalf of Lord Derby's government, was made Extraordinary Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands embarking via Vienna and Trieste on a twelve week mission to the southern Adriatic entrusted with complex challenges that had arisen in connection with the future of the British Protectorate of the Ionian islands

In 1858 Gladstone took up the hobby of tree felling, mostly of oak trees, an exercise he continued with enthusiasm until he was 81 in 1891. Eventually, he became notorious for this activity, prompting Lord Randolph Churchill to snigger, "The forest laments in order that Mr. Gladstone may perspire." Less noticed at the time was his practice of replacing the trees he'd felled with newly planted saplings. Possibly related to this hobby is the fact that Gladstone was a lifelong bibliophile to the extent that it has been suggested that in his lifetime, he read around 20,000 books, and eventually came to own a Library of over 32,000.

Chancellor of the Exchequer (1859–1866)

In 1859, Lord Palmerston formed a new mixed government with Radicals included, and Gladstone again joined the government as Chancellor of the Exchequer (with most of the other remaining Peelites) to become part of the new Liberal Party.

Gladstone inherited an unpleasant financial situation, with a deficit of nearly five millions and the income tax at 5d. Like Peel, Gladstone dismissed the idea of borrowing to cover the deficit. Gladstone argued that "In time of peace nothing but dire necessity should induce us to borrow". Most of the money needed was acquired through raising the income tax to 9d. Usually not more than two-thirds of a tax imposed could be collected in a financial year so Gladstone therefore imposed the extra four pence at a rate of 8d. during the first half of the year so that he could obtain the additional revenue in one year. Gladstone's dividing line set up in 1853 had been abolished in 1858 but Gladstone revived it, with lower incomes to pay 6 and a half d. instead of 9d. For the first half of the year the lower incomes paid 8d. and the higher incomes paid 13d. in income tax.

On 12 September 1859 the businessman Richard Cobden visited Gladstone, with Gladstone recording in his diary: "...further conv. with Mr. Cobden on Tariffs & relations with France. We are closely & warmly agreed". Cobden was sent as Britain's representative to the negotiations with France's Michel Chevalier for a free trade treaty between the two countries. Gladstone wrote to Cobden: "...the great aim—the moral and political significance of the act, and its probable and desired fruit in binding the two countries together by interest and affection. Neither you nor I attach for the moment any superlative value to this Treaty for the sake of the extension of British trade...What I look to is the social good, the benefit to the relations of the two countries, and the effect on the peace of Europe".

Gladstone in 1861

Gladstone's budget of 1860 was introduced on 10 February along with the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty between Britain and France that would reduce tariffs between the two countries. This budget "marked the final adoption of the Free Trade principle, that taxation should be levied for Revenue purposes alone, and that every protective, differential, or discriminating duty...should be dislodged". At the beginning of 1859, there were 419 duties in existence. The 1860 budget reduced the number of duties to 48, with 15 duties constituting the majority of the revenue. To finance these reductions in indirect taxation, the income tax, instead of being abolished, was raised to 10d. for incomes above £150 and at 7d. for incomes above £100.

Some of the duties Gladstone intended to abolish in 1860 were the duties on paper, a controversial policy because the duties had traditionally inflated the costs of publishing and thus hindered the dissemination of radical working class ideas. Although Palmerston supported continuation of the duties, using them and income tax revenues to make armament purchases, a majority of his Cabinet supported Gladstone. The Bill to abolish duties on paper narrowly passed Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. As no money bill had been rejected by Lords for over two hundred years, a furore arose over this vote. The next year, Gladstone included the abolition of paper duties in a consolidated Finance Bill (the first ever) in order to force the Lords to accept it, and accept it they did.

Significantly, Gladstone succeeded in steadily reducing the income tax over the course of his tenure as Chancellor. In 1861 the tax was reduced to ninepence (£0-0s-9d); in 1863 to sevenpence; in 1864 to fivepence; and in 1865 to fourpence. Gladstone believed that government was extravagant and wasteful with taxpayers' money and so sought to let money "fructify in the pockets of the people" by keeping taxation levels down through "peace and retrenchment". Gladstone wrote in 1859 to his brother who was a member of the Financial Reform Association at Liverpool: "Economy is the first and great article (economy such as I understand it) in my financial creed. The controversy between direct and indirect taxation holds a minor, though important place". He wrote to his wife on 14 January 1860: "I am certain, from experience, of the immense advantage of strict account-keeping in early life. It is just like learning the grammar then, which when once learned need not be referred to afterwards".

The Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter, described Gladstonian finance in his History of Economic Analysis:

...there was one man who not only united high ability with unparalleled opportunity but also knew how to turn budgets into political triumphs and who stands in history as the greatest English financier of economic liberalism, Gladstone...The greatest feature of Gladstonian finance...was that it expressed with ideal adequacy both the whole civilization and the needs of the time, ex visu of the conditions of the country to which it was to apply; or, to put it slightly differently, that it translated a social, political, and economic vision, which was comprehensive as well as historically correct, into the clauses of a set of co-ordinated fiscal measures...Gladstonian finance was the finance of the system of 'natural liberty,' laissez-faire, and free trade...the most important thing was to remove fiscal obstructions to private activity. And for this, in turn, it was necessary to keep public expenditure low. Retrenchment was the victorious slogan of the means the reduction of the functions of the state to a minimum...retrenchment means rationalization of the remaining functions of the state, which among other things implies as small a military establishment as possible. The resulting economic development would in addition, so it was believed, make social expenditures largely superfluous...Equally important was raise the revenue that would still have to be raised in such a way as to deflect economic behaviour as little as possible from what it would have been in the absence of all taxation ('taxation for revenue only'). And since the profit motive and the propensity to save were considered of paramount importance for the economic progress of all classes, this meant in particular that taxation should as little as possible interfere with the net earnings of business...As regards indirect taxes, the principle of least interference was interpreted by Gladstone to mean that taxation should be concentrated on a few important articles, leaving the rest free...Last, but not least, we have the principle of the balanced budget.

Due to his actions as Chancellor, Gladstone earned the reputation as the liberator of British trade and the working man's breakfast table, the man responsible for the emancipation of the popular press from "taxes upon knowledge" and for placing a duty on the succession of the estates of the rich. Gladstone's popularity rested on his taxation policies which meant to his supporters balance, social equity and political justice. The most significant expression of working class opinion was at Northumberland in 1862 when Gladstone visited. George Holyoake recalled in 1865:

When Mr Gladstone visited the North, you well remember when word passed from the newspaper to the workman that it circulated through mines and mills, factories and workshops, and they came out to greet the only British minister who ever gave the English people a right because it was just they should have it...and when he went down the Tyne, all the country heard how twenty miles of banks were lined with people who came to greet him. Men stood in the blaze of chimneys; the roofs of factories were crowded; colliers came up from the mines; women held up their children on the banks that it might be said in after life that they had seen the Chancellor of the People go by. The river was covered like the land. Every man who could ply an oar pulled up to give Mr Gladstone a cheer. When Lord Palmerston went to Bradford the streets were still, and working men imposed silence upon themselves. When Mr Gladstone appeared on the Tyne he heard cheer no other English minister ever heard...the people were grateful to him, and rough pitmen who never approached a public man before, pressed round his carriage by thousands...and thousands of arms were stretched out at once, to shake hands with Mr Gladstone as one of themselves.

When Gladstone first joined Palmerston's government in 1859, he opposed further electoral reform, but he changed his position during Palmerston's last premiership, and by 1865 he was firmly in favour of enfranchising the working classes in towns. This latter policy created friction with Palmerston, who strongly opposed enfranchisement. At the beginning of each session, Gladstone would passionately urge the Cabinet to adopt new policies, while Palmerston would fixedly stare at a paper before him. At a lull in Gladstone's speech, Palmerston would smile, rap the table with his knuckles, and interject pointedly, "Now, my Lords and gentlemen, let us go to business".

As Chancellor, Gladstone made a speech at Newcastle on 7 October 1862 in which he supported the independence of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War, claiming that Jefferson Davis had "made a nation". Great Britain was officially neutral at the time, and Gladstone later regretted the Newcastle speech. In May 1864 Gladstone said that he saw no reason in principle why all mentally able men could not be enfranchised, but admitted that this would only come about once the working-classes themselves showed more interest in the subject. Queen Victoria was not pleased with this statement, and an outraged Palmerston considered it seditious incitement to agitation.

Gladstone's support for electoral reform and disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland had alienated him from his constituents in his Oxford University seat, and he lost it in the 1865 general election. A month later, however, he stood as a candidate in South Lancashire, where he was elected third MP (South Lancashire at this time elected three MPs). Palmerston campaigned for Gladstone in Oxford because he believed that his constituents would keep him "partially muzzled". A victorious Gladstone told his new constituency, "At last, my friends, I am come among you; and I am come—to use an expression which has become very famous and is not likely to be forgotten—I am come 'unmuzzled'."

First Premiership (1868–1874)

Gladstone - Prime Minister Use your cursor to explore (or Click icon to enlarge)
Gladstone's Cabinet of 1868, painted by Lowes Cato Dickinson. Use a cursor to see who is who.

Lord Russell retired in 1867 and Gladstone became a leader of the Liberal Party. In the next general election in 1868, the South Lancashire constituency had been broken-up by the Second Reform Act into two: South East Lancashire and South West Lancashire. Gladstone stood for South West Lancashire and for Greenwich, it being quite common then for candidates to stand in two constituencies simultaneously. He was defeated in Lancashire and won in Greenwich. He became Prime Minister for the first time and remained in the office until 1874. Evelyn Ashley famously described the scene in the grounds of Hawarden Castle on 1 December 1868, though getting the date wrong:

One afternoon of November, 1868, in the Park at Hawarden, I was standing by Mr. Gladstone holding his coat on my arm while he, in his shirt sleeves, was wielding an axe to cut down a tree. Up came a telegraph messenger. He took the telegram, opened it and read it, then handed it to me, speaking only two words, namely, ‘Very significant’, and at once resumed his work. The message merely stated that General Grey would arrive that evening from Windsor. This, of course, implied that a mandate was coming from the Queen charging Mr. Gladstone with the formation of his first Government. I said nothing, but waited while the well-directed blows resounded in regular cadence. After a few minutes the blows ceased and Mr. Gladstone, resting on the handle of his axe, looked up, and with deep earnestness in his voice, and great intensity in his face, exclaimed: ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland.’ He then resumed his task, and never said another word till the tree was down.

In the 1860s and 1870s, Gladstonian Liberalism was characterised by a number of policies intended to improve individual liberty and loosen political and economic restraints. First was the minimisation of public expenditure on the premise that the economy and society were best helped by allowing people to spend as they saw fit. Secondly, his foreign policy aimed at promoting peace to help reduce expenditures and taxation and enhance trade. Thirdly, laws that prevented people from acting freely to improve themselves were reformed. When an unemployed miner (Daniel Jones) wrote to him to complain of his unemployment and low wages, Gladstone gave what H. C. G. Matthew has called "the classic mid-Victorian reply" on 20 October 1869:

The only means which have been placed in my power of ‘raising the wages of colliers’ has been by endeavouring to beat down all those restrictions upon trade which tend to reduce the price to be obtained for the product of their labour, & to lower as much as may be the taxes on the commodities which they may require for use or for consumption. Beyond this I look to the forethought not yet so widely diffused in this country as in Scotland, & in some foreign lands; & I need not remind you that in order to facilitate its exercise the Government have been empowered by Legislation to become through the Dept. of the P.O. the receivers & guardians of savings.

Gladstone's first premiership instituted reforms in the British Army, Civil Service, and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. The Local Governmant Board Act 1871 put the supervision of the Poor Law under the Local Government Board (headed by G. J. Goschen) and Gladstone's "administration could claim spectacular success in enforcing a dramatic reduction in supposedly sentimental and unsystematic outdoor poor relief, and in making, in co-operation with the Charity Organization Society (1869), the most sustained attempt of the century to impose upon the working classes the Victorian values of providence, self-reliance, foresight, and self-discipline". Gladstone was associated with the Charity Organization Society's first annual report in 1870. At a speech at Blackheath on 28 October 1871, Gladstone warned his constituents against social reformers:

...they are not your friends, but they are your enemies in fact, though not in intention, who teach you to look to the Legislature for the radical removal of the evils that afflict human life...It is the individual mind and conscience, it is the individual character, on which mainly human happiness or misery depends. (Cheers.) The social problems that confront us are many and formidable. Let the Government labour to its utmost, let the Legislature labour days and nights in your service; but, after the very best has been attained and achieved, the question whether the English father is to be the father of a happy family and the centre of a united home is a question which must depend mainly upon himself. (Cheers.) And those who...promise to the dwellers in towns that every one of them shall have a house and garden in free air, with ample space; those who tell you that there shall be markets for selling at wholesale prices retail quantities—I won't say are imposters, because I have no doubt they are sincere; but I will say they are quacks (cheers); they are deluded and beguiled by a spurious philanthropy, and when they ought to give you substantial, even if they are humble and modest boons, they are endeavouring, perhaps without their own consciousness, to delude you with fanaticism, and offering to you a fruit which, when you attempt to taste it, will prove to be but ashes in your mouths. (Cheers.)

He instituted abolition of the sale of commissions in the army as well as court reorganisation. In foreign affairs his overriding aim was to promote peace and understanding, characterised by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans. The issue of disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was used by Gladstone to unite the Liberal Party for government in 1868. The Act was passed in 1869 and meant that Irish Roman Catholics did not need to pay their tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland. He also instituted the Cardwell Reforms in 1869 that made peacetime flogging illegal and, in 1870, the Irish Land Act and the Forster's Education Act. In 1871, he instituted the Universities Tests Act. In 1872, he secured passage of the Ballot Act for secret voting ballots. In 1873, his leadership led to the passage of laws restructuring the High Courts. He also passed the 1872 licensing act.

Gladstone unexpectedly dissolved Parliament in January 1874 and called a general election. In his election address to his constituents on 23 January, Gladstone said:

Upon a review of the finance of the last five years, we are enabled to state that, notwithstanding the purchase of the telegraphs for a sum exceeding 9,000,000l., the aggregate amount of the national debt has been reduced by more than 20,000,000l.; that taxes have been lowered or abolished (over and above any amount imposed) to the extent of 12,500,000l.; that during the present year the Alabama Indemnity has been paid, and the charge of the Ashantee War will be met out of revenue; and that in estimating, as we can now venture to do, the income of the coming year (and, for the moment assuming the general scale of charge to continue as it was fixed during the last Session), we do not fear to anticipate as the probable balance a surplus exceeding rather than falling short of 5,000,000l...The first item...which I have to set down in the financial arrangements proper for the first year is relief, but relief coupled with reform, of local taxation...It has...been the happy fortune of Mr. Lowe to bring it [the income tax] down, first from 6d. to 4d., and then from 4d. to 3d., in the pound. The proceeds of the Income Tax for the present year are expected to be between 5,000,000l. and 6,000,000l., and at a sacrifice for the financial year of something less than 5,500,000l. the country may enjoy the advantage and relief of its total repeal. I do not hesitate to affirm that an effort should now be made to attain this advantage, nor to declare that, according to my judgment, it is in present circumstances practicable...we ought not to aid the rates, and remove the Income Tax, without giving to the general consumer, and giving him simultaneously, some marked relief in the class of articles of popular consumption...I for one could not belong to a Government which did not on every occasion seek to enlarge its resources by a wise economy.

Gladstone's proposals went some way to meet working-class demands, such as the realisation of the free breakfast table through repealing the duties on tea and sugar, and reform of local taxation which was increasing for the poorer ratepayers. According to the working-class financial reformer Thomas Briggs, writing in the trade unionist newspaper The Bee-Hive, the manifesto relied on "a much higher authority than Mr. Gladstone...viz., the late Richard Cobden".

The dissolution was reported in The Times on 24 January and on 30 January the names of the first fourteen MPs for uncontested seats were published; by 9 February a Conservative victory was apparent. In contrast to 1868 and 1880 when the Liberal campaign lasted several months, only three weeks separated the news of the dissolution and the election. The working-class newspapers were taken by surprise at the news and had little time to express an opinion on Gladstone's manifesto before the election was over. Unlike the efforts of the Conservatives, the organisation of the Liberal Party had declined since 1868 and they had also failed to retain Liberal voters on the electoral register. George Howell wrote to Gladstone on 12 February: "There is one lesson to be learned from this Election, that is Organization...We have lost not by a change of sentiment so much as by want of organized power". The Liberals received a majority of the vote in each of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom and 189,000 more votes nationally than the Conservatives. However they obtained a minority of seats in the House of Commons.

Opposition (1874–1880)

In the wake of Benjamin Disraeli's victory, Gladstone retired from the leadership of the Liberal party, although he retained his seat in the House.

In November 1874, Gladstone published the pamphlet The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance, directed at the First Vatican Council's dogmatising Papal Infallibility in 1870, which had outraged him. Gladstone claimed that this decree had placed British Catholics in a dilemma over their loyalty to the Crown and their loyalty to the Pope. Gladstone urged British Catholics to reject papal infallibility as they had opposed the Spanish Armada of 1588. The pamphlet sold 150,000 copies by the end of 1874. In February 1875 Gladstone published a second pamphlet that was a defence of his earlier pamphlet and a reply to his critics, entitled Vaticanism: an Answer to Reproofs and Replies. He described the Catholic Church as "an Asian monarchy: nothing but one giddy height of despotism, and one dead level of religious subservience". He further claimed that the Pope wanted to destroy the rule of law and replace it with arbitrary tyranny, and then to hide these "crimes against liberty beneath a suffocating cloud of incense".

In a speech to the Hawarden Amateur Horticultural Society on 17 August 1876, Gladstone said that "I am delighted to see how many young boys and girls have come forward to obtain honourable marks of recognition on this occasion,—if any effectual good is to be done to them, it must be done by teaching and encouraging them and helping them to help themselves. All the people who pretend to take your own concerns out of your own hands and to do everything for you, I won't say they are imposters; I won't even say they are quacks; but I do say they are mistaken people. The only sound, healthy description of countenancing and assisting these institutions is that which teaches independence and self-exertion". Lord Kilbracken, one of Gladstone's secretaries, said:

It will be borne in mind that the Liberal doctrines of that time, with their violent anti-socialist spirit and their strong insistence on the gospel of thrift, self-help, settlement of wages by the higgling of the market, and non-interference by the State...I think that Mr. Gladstone was the strongest anti-socialist that I have ever known among persons who gave any serious thought to social and political questions. It is quite true, as has been often said, that “we are all socialists up to a certain point”; but Mr. Gladstone fixed that point lower, and was more vehement against those who went above it, than any other politician or official of my acquaintance. I remember his speaking indignantly to me of the budget of 1874 as “That socialistic budget of Northcote's,” merely because of the special relief which it gave to the poorer class of income-tax payers. His strong belief in Free Trade was only one of the results of his deep-rooted conviction that the Government's interference with the free action of the individual, whether by taxation or otherwise, should be kept at an irreducible minimum. It is, indeed, not too much to say that his conception of Liberalism was the negation of Socialism.

A pamphlet he published in September 1876, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, attacked the Disraeli government for its indifference to the Ottoman Empire's violent repression of the Bulgarian April uprising. An often-quoted excerpt illustrates his formidable rhetorical powers:

Let the Turks now carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to those heaps and heaps of dead, the violated purity alike of matron and of maiden and of child; to the civilization which has been affronted and shamed; to the laws of God, or, if you like, of Allah; to the moral sense of mankind at large. There is not a criminal in a European jail, there is not a criminal in the South Sea Islands, whose indignation would not rise and over-boil at the recital of that which has been done, which has too late been examined, but which remains unavenged, which has left behind all the foul and all the fierce passions which produced it and which may again spring up in another murderous harvest from the soil soaked and reeking with blood and in the air tainted with every imaginable deed of crime and shame. That such things should be done once is a damning disgrace to the portion of our race which did them; that the door should be left open to their ever so barely possible repetition would spread that shame over the world!

Let me endeavor, very briefly to sketch, in the rudest outline what the Turkish race was and what it is. It is not a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race. They are not the mild Mohammedans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization vanished from view. They represented everywhere government by force as opposed to government by law. — Yet a government by force can not be maintained without the aid of an intellectual element. — Hence there grew up, what has been rare in the history of the world, a kind of tolerance in the midst of cruelty, tyranny and rapine. Much of Christian life was contemptuously left alone and a race of Greeks was attracted to Constantinople which has all along made up, in some degree, the deficiencies of Turkish Islam in the element of mind!

During the 1879 election campaign, also called Midlothian campaign, he rousingly spoke against Disraeli's foreign policies during the ongoing Second Anglo-Afghan War in Afghanistan. (See Great Game). He saw the war as "great dishonour" and also criticised British conduct in the Zulu War. Gladstone also (on 29 November) criticised what he saw as the Conservative government's profligate spending:

...the Chancellor of the Exchequer shall boldly uphold economy in detail; and it is the mark ... of ... a chicken-hearted Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he shrinks from upholding economy in detail, when, because it is a question of only £2000 or £3000, he says that is no matter. He is ridiculed, no doubt, for what is called saving candle-ends and cheese-parings. No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worth his salt who is not ready to save what are meant by candle-ends and cheese-parings in the cause of his country. No Chancellor of the Exchequer is worth his salt who makes his own popularity either his first consideration, or any consideration at all, in administrating the public purse. You would not like to have a housekeeper or steward who made her or his popularity with the tradesmen the measure of the payments that were to be delivered to them. In my opinion the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the trusted and confidential steward of the public. He is under a sacred obligation with regard to all that he consents to spend...I am bound to say hardly ever in the six years that Sir Stafford Northcote has been in office have I heard him speak a resolute word on behalf of economy.

Second Premiership (1880–1885)

Gladstone in relaxed mood

In 1880, the Liberals won again and the Liberal leaders, Lord Hartington (leader in the House of Commons) and Lord Granville, retired in Gladstone's favour. Gladstone won his constituency election in Midlothian and also in Leeds, where he had also been adopted as a candidate. As he could lawfully only serve as MP for one constituency, Leeds was passed to his son Herbert. One of his other sons, Henry, was also elected as an MP.

Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington to form a ministry, but he persuaded her to send for Gladstone. Gladstone's second administration — both as Prime Minister and again as Chancellor of the Exchequer till 1882 — lasted from June 1880 to June 1885. He originally intended to retire at the end of 1882, the fiftieth anniversary of his entry into politics, but in the event did not do so. Gladstone had opposed himself to the " colonial lobby" pushing for the scramble for Africa. He thus saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, First Boer War and the war against the Mahdi in Sudan.

On July 11, 1882, Gladstone ordered the bombardment of Alexandria, starting the Anglo-Egyptian War, which resulted in the occupation of Egypt. Gladstone's role in the decision to invade was described as relatively hands-off, and that the decision to invade was made by certain members of his cabinet such as Spencer Cavendish, Secretary of State for India, Thomas Baring, 1st Earl of Northbrook, First Lord of the Admiralty, Hugh Childers, Secretary of State for War, and Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Granville, the Foreign Secretary. The reasons for this war are the subject of a historiographical debate. Some historians argue that the invasion was to protect the Suez Canal and to prevent anarchy in the wake of the Urabi Revolt and the riots in Alexandria in June 1882. Other historians argue that the invasion occurred to protect the interests of British investors with assets in Egypt and also to boost the political popularity of the Liberal Party.

Gladstone by Rupert William Potter, 28 July 1884.

In 1881 he established the Irish Coercion Act, which permitted the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland to detain people for as "long as was thought necessary". He also extended the franchise to agricultural labourers and others in the 1884 Reform Act, which 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. Parliamentary reform continued with the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885.

Gladstone was becoming increasingly uneasy about the direction in which British politics was moving. In a letter to Lord Acton on 11 February 1885, Gladstone criticised Tory Democracy as "demagogism" that "put down pacific, law-respecting, economic elements that ennobled the old Conservatism" but "still, in secret, as obstinately attached as ever to the evil principle of class interests". He found contemporary Liberalism better, "but far from being good". Gladstone claimed that this Liberalism's "pet idea is what they call construction, — that is to say, taking into the hands of the state the business of the individual man". Both Tory Democracy and this new Liberalism, Gladstone wrote, had done "much to estrange me, and had for many, many years".

The fall of General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1885 was a major blow to Gladstone's popularity. Many believed Gladstone had neglected military affairs and had not acted promptly enough to save the besieged Gordon. Critics inverted his acronym, "G.O.M." (for "Grand Old Man"), to "M.O.G." (for "Murderer of Gordon"). He resigned as Prime Minister in 1885 and declined Queen Victoria's offer of an Earldom.

Third Premiership (1886)

In 1886 Gladstone's party was allied with Irish Nationalists to defeat Lord Salisbury's government. Gladstone regained his position as Prime Minister and combined the office with that of Lord Privy Seal. During this administration he first introduced his Home Rule Bill for Ireland. The issue split the Liberal Party (a breakaway group went on to create the Liberal Unionist party) and the bill was thrown out on the second reading, ending his government after only a few months and inaugurating another headed by Lord Salisbury.

Opposition (1886–1892)

Gladstone supported the London dockers in their strike of 1889. After their victory he gave a speech at Hawarden on 23 September in which he said: "In the common interests of humanity, this remarkable strike and the results of this strike, which have tended somewhat to strengthen the condition of labour in the face of capital, is the record of what we ought to regard as satisfactory, as a real social advance [that] tends to a fair principle of division of the fruits of industry". This speech has been described by Eugenio Biagini as having "no parallel in the rest of Europe except in the rhetoric of the toughest socialist leaders". Visitors at Hawarden in October were " some rather wild language on the Dock labourers question". Gladstone was impressed with workers unconnected with the dockers' dispute who "intended to make common cause" in the interests of justice. On 23 October at Southport Gladstone delivered a speech where he claimed that the right to combination, which in London was "innocent and lawful, in Ireland would be penal and...punished by imprisonment with hard labour". Gladstone believed that the right to combination used by British workers was in jeopardy when it could be denied to Irish workers. In October 1890 Gladstone at Midlothian claimed that competition between capital and labour, "where it has gone to sharp issues, where there have been strikes on one side and lock-outs on the other, I believe that in the main and as a general rule, the labouring man has been in the right".

On 11 December 1891 Gladstone said that: "It is a lamentable fact if, in the midst of our civilization, and at the close of the nineteenth century, the workhouse is all that can be offered to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and honourable life. I do not enter into the question now in detail. I do not say it is an easy one; I do not say that it will be solved in a moment; but I do say this, that until society is able to offer to the industrious labourer at the end of a long and blameless life something better than the workhouse, society will not have discharged its duties to its poorer members". On 24 March 1892 Gladstone said that the Liberals had:

...come the conclusion that there is something painful in the condition of the rural labourer in this great respect, that it is hard even for the industrious and sober man, under ordinary conditions, to secure a provision for his own old age. Very large propositions, involving, some of them, very novel and very wide principles, have been submitted to the public, for the purpose of securing such a provision by means independent of the labourer himself. Sir, I am not going to criticise these proposals, and I am only referring to them as signs that there is much to be done—that their condition is far from satisfactory; and it is eminently, as I think, our duty to develop in the first instance, every means that we may possibly devise whereby, if possible, the labourer may be able to make this provision for himself, or to approximate towards making such provision far more efficaciously and much more closely than he can now do.

Gladstone wrote on 16 July 1892 in his autobiographica that "In 1834 the Government...did themselves high honour by the new Poor Law Act, which rescued the English peasantry from the total loss of their independence".

Gladstone wrote to Herbert Spencer, who contributed the introduction to a collection of anti-socialist essays (A Plea for Liberty, 1891), that "I ask to make reserves, and of one passage, which will be easily guessed, I am unable even to perceive the relevancy. But speaking generally, I have read this masterly argument with warm admiration and with the earnest hope that it may attract all the attention which it so well deserves". The passage Gladstone alluded to was one where Spencer spoke of "the behaviour of the so-called Liberal party".

Fourth Premiership (1892–1894)

The general election of 1892 resulted in a minority Liberal government under Gladstone as Prime Minister.

Gladstone's electoral address had promised Home Rule and the disestablishment of the Scottish and Welsh Churches. In February 1893 he introduced the Second Home Rule Bill. The Bill was passed in the Commons at second reading on 21 April by 43 votes and third reading on 1 September by 34 votes. However the House of Lords killed the Bill by voting against by 419 votes to 41 on 8 September.

When questioned in the Commons on what his government would do about unemployment by the Conservative MP Colonel Howard Vincent on 1 September 1893, Gladstone replied:

I cannot help regretting that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has felt it his duty to put the question. It is put under circumstances that naturally belong to one of those fluctuations in the condition of trade which, however unfortunate and lamentable they may be, recur from time to time. Undoubtedly I think that questions of this kind, whatever be the intention of the questioner, have a tendency to produce in the minds of people, or to suggest to the people, that these fluctuations can be corrected by the action of the Executive Government. Anything that contributes to such an impression inflicts an injury upon the labouring population.

In December 1893 an Opposition motion proposed by Lord George Hamilton called for an expansion of the Royal Navy. Gladstone opposed increasing public expenditure on the naval estimates, in the tradition of free trade liberalism of his earlier political career as Chancellor. All his Cabinet colleagues, however, believed in some expansion of the Royal Navy. He declared in the Commons on 19 December that naval rearmament would commit the government to expenditure over a number of years and thus would subvert "the principle of annual account, annual proposition, annual approval by the House of Commons, the only way of maintaining regularity, and that regularity is the only talisman which will secure Parliamentary control". In January 1894 Gladstone wrote that he would not "break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher" by supporting naval rearmament. Gladstone also opposed Chancellor Sir William Harcourt's proposal to implement a graduated death duty. In a fragment of autobiography dated 25 July 1894, Gladstone denounced the tax as far the most Radical measure of my lifetime. I do not object to the principle of graduated taxation: for the just principle of ability to pay is not determined simply by the amount of income...But, so far as I understand the present measure of finance from the partial reports I have received, I find it too violent. It involves a great departure from the methods of political action established in this country, where reforms, and especially financial reforms, have always been considerate and even tender...I do not yet see the ground on which it can be justly held that any one description of property should be more heavily burdened than others, unless moral and social grounds can be shown first: but in this case the reasons drawn from those sources seem rather to verge in the opposite direction, for real property has more of presumptive connection with the discharge of duty that that which is ranked as personal...the aspect of the measure is not satisfactory to a man of my traditions (and these traditions lie near the roots of my being)...For the sudden introduction of such change there is I think no precedent in the history of this country. And the severity of the blow is greatly aggravated in moral effect by the fact that it is dealt only to a handful of individuals.

Gladstone had his last audience with the Queen on 28 February and chaired his last Cabinet on 1 March, the last of 556 he had chaired. Also on that day he gave his last speech to the House of Commons. Gladstone said that the government would withdraw opposition to the Lords' amendments to the Local Government Bill "under protest" and that it was "a controversy which, when once raised, must go forward to an issue". He resigned the Premiership on 2 March. The Queen did not ask Gladstone who should succeed him but sent for Lord Rosebery (Gladstone would have advised on Lord Spencer). He retained his seat in the Commons until 1895; he was not offered a peerage, having declined an earldom on earlier occasions.

Gladstone is both the oldest ever person to form a government - aged 82 at his appointment - and the oldest person ever to occupy the Premiership - being aged 84 at his resignation.

Final years (1894-1898)

Gladstone's grave in Westminster Abbey

A few days after he relinquished the premiership, Gladstone wrote to George William Erskine Russell on 6 March 1894:

I am thankful to have borne a part in the emancipating labours of the last sixty years; but entirely uncertain how, had I now to begin my life, I could face the very different problems of the next sixty years. Of one thing I am, and always have been, convinced—it is not by the State that man can be regenerated, and the terrible woes of this darkened world effectually dealt with. In some, and some very important, respects, I yearn for the impossible revival of the men and the ideas of my first twenty years, which immediately followed the first Reform Act.

In 1895, at the age of 85, Gladstone bequeathed £40,000 (equivalent to approximately £3.42 million today) and much of his library to found St Deiniol's Library in Hawarden, Wales, the only residential library in Britain. Despite his advanced age, he himself hauled most of his 32,000 books a quarter of a mile to their new home, using his wheelbarrow.

On 8 January 1896, in conversation with L. A. Tollemache, Gladstone was asked whether he opposed vaccination and gave the answer: "No; but I dislike the idea of its being compulsory. I don't like the notion of the State stepping in between parent and child when it is not absolutely necessary. The State is generally a very bad nurse". On the same occasion he exclaimed that: "I am not so much afraid of Democracy or of Science as of the love of money. This seems to me to be a growing evil. Also, there is a danger from the growth of that dreadful military spirit". On 13 January Gladstone claimed he had strong Conservative instincts and that "In all matters of custom and tradition, even the Tories look upon me as the chief Conservative that is". On 15 January Gladstone wrote to James Bryce, describing himself as "a dead man, one fundamentally a Peel–Cobden man". In 1896, in his last noteworthy speech, he denounced Armenian massacres by Ottomans in a talk delivered at Liverpool. On 2 January 1897 Gladstone wrote to Francis Hirst on being unable to write a preface to a book on liberalism: "I venture on assuring you that I regard the design formed by you and your friends with sincere interest, and in particular wish well to all the efforts you may make on behalf of individual freedom and independence as opposed to what is termed Collectivism".

In the early months of 1897 Gladstone and his wife stayed in Cannes. Gladstone met the Queen, where (Gladstone believed) she shook hands with him for the first time in the fifty years he had known her. One of the Gladstones neighbours observed that "He and his devoted wife never missed the morning service on Sunday...One Sunday, returning from the altar rail, the old, partially blind man stumbled at the chancel step. One of the clergy sprang involuntarily to his assistance, but retreated with haste, so withering was the fire which flashed from those failing eyes". The Gladstones returned to Hawarden Castle at the end of March and he received the Colonial Premiers in their visit for the Queen's Jubilee. Upon the advice of his doctor Samuel Habershon in the aftermath of an attack of facial neuralgia, Gladstone stayed at Cannes from the end of November 1897 to mid-February 1898. He gave an interview for The Daily Telegraph (published on 5 January 1898 as 'Personal Recollections of Arthur H. Hallam'). Gladstone then went to Bournemouth, and a swelling on the palate was diagnosed as cancer by the leading cancer surgeon, Sir Thomas Smith on 18 March. On 22 March he retired to Hawarden Castle. Despite being in pain he received visitors and quoted hymns, especially Cardinal Newman's ' Praise to the Holiest in the Height'. His last public statement was dictated to his daughter Helen in reply to receiving the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford's "sorrow and affection": "There is no expression of Christian sympathy that I value more than that of the ancient University of Oxford, the God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford. I served her perhaps mistakenly, but to the best of my ability. My most earnest prayers are hers to the uttermost and to the last". He left the house for the last time on 9 April and after 18 April he did not come down to the ground floor but still came out of bed to lie on the sofa. The Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld and Dunblane George Wilkinson recorded when he ministered to him along with Stephen Gladstone:

Shall I ever forget the last Friday in Passion Week, when I gave him the last Holy Communion that I was allowed to administer to him? It was early in the morning. He was obliged to be in bed, and he was ordered to remain there, but the time had come for the confession of sin and the receiving of absolution. Out of his bed he came. Alone he knelt in the presence of his God till the absolution has been spoken, and the sacred elements received.

Gladstone died on 19 May 1898 at Hawarden Castle, Hawarden, aged 88. The death of William Ewart Gladstone was registered by Helen Gladstone, his daughter, "present at the death", on 23 May 1898. The cause of death is officially recorded as "Syncope, Senility, certified by Herbert. E. S. Biss M.D" and not metastatic cancer, as is frequently reported. "Syncope" means failure of the heart and "senility" in the nineteenth-century meant the infirmity of advanced old-age rather than a loss in the mental faculties.

The House of Commons adjourned on the afternoon of Gladstone's death, with A. J. Balfour giving notice for an Address to the Queen praying for a public funeral and a public memorial in Westminster Abbey. The day after, both Houses of Parliament approved of the Address and Herbert Gladstone accepted a public funeral on behalf of the Gladstone family. His coffin was transported on the London Underground before his state funeral at Westminster Abbey, at which the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and the Duke of York (the future George V) acted as pallbearers. Two years after Gladstone's burial in Westminster Abbey, his wife, Catherine Gladstone (née Glynne), was laid to rest with him (see image at right).


Lord Acton wrote in 1880 that he considered Gladstone as one "of the three greatest Liberals" (along with Edmund Burke and Lord Macaulay).

In 1909 the Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George introduced his " People's Budget", the first budget which aimed to redistribute wealth. The Liberal statesman Lord Rosebery commented on what Gladstone would make of this budget:

This Budget is introduced as a Liberal measure. If so, all I can say is, it is a new Liberalism, and not the one that I have known and practised under more illustrious auspices than these, under one who was not merely the greatest Liberal but the greatest financier that this country has ever known — I mean Mr. Gladstone... Gladstone ranks as the great financial authority of our country... Mr. Gladstone would be 100 in December if he were alive, but, centenarian as he would be, I am inclined to think that he would make very short work of the deputation of the Cabinet that waited on him with this measure, and that they would soon find themselves on the stairs, if not in the street. Because in his eyes, and in my eyes, too, as his humble disciple, Liberalism and Liberty were cognate terms; they were twin-sisters.

David Lloyd George had written in 1913 that the Liberals were "carving the last few columns out of the Gladstonian quarry".

In 1914 Britain declared war on Germany due to its violation of Belgian neutrality. In December 1916 on unveiling a statue of Gladstone, Lord Rosebery speculated that Gladstone's view of British involvement in the Great War would not have been favourable. In 1916 Lord Kilbracken wrote that "I have often been asked during the present war (1916) what I thought Mr. Gladstone's attitude would have been if he had been alive at this day. I can answer the question without hesitation, bearing in mind the fact he had, as will easily be believed, the strongest possible feeling about the sanctity of treaties and international engagements, and the moral obligation to observe them...from the moment when the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium, he would...have been for immediate war".

During the Great War the Liberal Party split into those led by former Premier Herbert Henry Asquith and the new Premier David Lloyd George. Lloyd George said of Gladstone in 1915: "What a man he was! Head and shoulders above anyone else I have ever seen in the House of Commons. I did not like him much. He hated Nonconformists and Welsh Nonconformists in particular, and he had no real sympathy with the working-classes. But he was far and away the best Parliamentary speaker I have ever heard. He was not so good in exposition". Asquithian Liberals continued to advocate traditional Gladstonian policies of sound finance, peaceful foreign relations and the better treatment of Ireland. They often compared Lloyd George unfavourably with Gladstone. In his first major speech after he had lost his seat in the 1918 general election, Asquith said: "That is the purpose and the spirit of Liberalism, as I learned it as a student in my young days, as I was taught it both by the precept and the example of the great Liberal statesman Mr Gladstone...that remains the same today. Do not forsake for temporary expediencies, for short-lived compromises, for brittle and precarious bridges – do not forsake the great heritage of the Liberal tradition of the past. It is not superstition; it is not a legend; it is founded upon faith and experience, and justified at every stage in our political history". Speaking in November 1920 Asquith quoted Gladstone to show "the only way to escape from the financial morass towards which the government are heading". Lloyd George would invoke Gladstone in March 1920 when speaking out against socialism at " Red Clydeside": "The doctrine of Liberalism is a doctrine that believes that private property, as an incentive, as a means, as a reward, is the most potent agency not merely for the wealth, but for the well-being of the community. That is the doctrine not merely of Peel, of Disraeli, of Salisbury, and Chamberlain; it is the doctrine of Gladstone; it is the doctrine of Cobden; it is the doctrine of Bright; and it is the doctrine of Campbell Bannerman...It is the doctrine of all the great Liberal leaders of the past and present". Asquith replied to this speech at the National Liberal Club: "...keep faithful to your old traditions...Think, in a situation such as this, and with appeals such as those which have been made to our fellow Liberals outside, what would have been the attitude of Mr Gladstone. Do you think they would have allowed themselves to be scared by the bogey of Bolshevism, to furl the old flag and march with bowed heads and reversed arms, horse, foot and artillery, into the camp of the enemy?" In July 1922 Asquith said of Gladstone:

Amid all the seeming inconsistencies of his public career, which exposed him to the shallow charge of time-serving and even of hypocrisy, history will discern a steady process of evolution, guided always by certain governing principles. He was the most faithful and enlightened steward there has ever been of our national finance. He abhorred waste. He preferred the remission of burdensome taxation even to the diminution of the public debt. His great aim was that the resources of the country, in the phraseology of those days, should "fructify in the pockets of the people", not to be wasted in public or private extravagance, but to replenish the reservoir from which both capital and industry are fed. He never faltered in his allegiance to the cause of setting free the smaller nationalities, crushed between the upper and the nether millstone of arrogant and militant autocracies. He was the pioneer in the long, arduous, still uncompleted struggle, in the international sphere, of right against might, of freedom against force.

Writing in 1944, the liberal Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek said of the change in political attitudes that had occurred since the Great War: "Perhaps nothing shows this change more clearly than that, while there is no lack of sympathetic treatment of Bismarck in contemporary English literature, the name of Gladstone is rarely mentioned by the younger generation without a sneer over his Victorian morality and naive utopianism".

However Gladstone remained a potent symbol of the Liberal Party and Liberalism for some grassroots Liberal voters. In the 1955 general election an old lady left her house in Shetland to vote Conservative but on returning to her house for her purse saw her father's photograph of Gladstone and instead went to the vote for the Liberal candidate, Jo Grimond. A Liberal activist in Lowdham, Nottinghamshire during the 1966 general election canvassed a gardener in his seventies and was brusquely informed: "I'm a Gladstone [Liberal] and a Primitive Methodist".

In the latter half of the twentieth-century Gladstone's economic policies came to be admired by Thatcherite Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher proclaimed in 1983: "We have a duty to make sure that every penny piece we raise in taxation is spent wisely and well. For it is our party which is dedicated to good housekeeping—indeed, I would not mind betting that if Mr. Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party". In 1996 she said in the Keith Joseph memorial lecture: "The kind of Conservatism which he and I...favoured would be best described as "liberal", in the old-fashioned sense. And I mean the liberalism of Mr Gladstone not of the latter day collectivists". Nigel Lawson, one of Thatcher's Chancellors, believed Gladstone to be the "greatest Chancellor of all time".

Thomas Edison's European agent, Colonel Gouraud, recorded Gladstone's voice several times on phonograph. The accent on one of the recordings is North Welsh. When on 15 March 1938 relatives and people who knew Gladstone were gathered at Broadcasting House none were able to voice any certainty on the veracity of the four recordings played. Those present were Lady Gladstone of Hawarden (Gladstone's daughter-in-law), Sir George Leveson-Gower (Gladstone's secretary), William Wickham (Gladstone's eldest grandson), and Canon Edward Lyttleton.


Statue of Gladstone at Aldwych, London, nearby to the Royal Courts of Justice and opposite Australia House.
  • The first statue erected in Gladstone's honour after his death was in Blackburn in 1899.
  • A statue of Gladstone by Albert Bruce-Joy and erected in 1882, stands near the front gate of St. Marys Church in Bow, London. Paid for by the industrialist Theodore Bryant, it is viewed as a symbol of the later 1888 match girls strike, which took place at the nearby Bryant & May Match Factory. Lead by the socialist Annie Besant, hundreds of working girls from the factory had gone on strike to demand improved working conditions and pay, eventually winning their cause. In recent years, the statue of Gladstone has been repeatedly daubed with red paint, suggesting that it was paid for with the 'blood of the match girls'.
  • A statue of Gladstone, erected in 1872, stands in the Great Hall of St. George's Hall, Liverpool. Another, in bronze by Sir Thomas Brock, erected in 1904, stands outside in St John's Gardens.
Statue in Albert Square, Manchester.
  • A Grade II listed statue of Gladstone stands in Albert Square, Manchester.
  • A monument to Gladstone, Member of Parliament for Midlothian 1880–1895 was unveiled in Edinburgh in 1917 (and moved to its present location in 1955). It stands in Coates Crescent Gardens. The sculptor was James Pittendrigh McGillvray.
  • A statue to Gladstone, who was Rector of the University of Glasgow 1877–1880 was unveiled in Glasgow in 1902. It stands in George Square. The sculptor was Sir William Hamo Thornycroft.
Dollis House, Gladstone Park, as seen from the gardens
  • Gladstone Park in the Municipal Borough of Willesden, London was named after him in 1899. Dollis Hill House, within what later became the park, was occupied by Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, who subsequently became Lord Tweedmouth. In 1881 Lord Tweedmouth's daughter and her husband, Lord Aberdeen, took up residence. They often had Gladstone to stay as a guest. In 1897 Lord Aberdeen was appointed Governor-General of Canada and the Aberdeens moved out. When Willesden acquired the house and land in 1899, they named the park Gladstone Park after the old Prime Minister.
  • Near to Hawarden in the town of Mancot, there is a small hospital named after Catherine Gladstone. A statue of her husband also stands near the High School in Hawarden.
  • Gladstone Rock—a large boulder about 12 ft high in Cwm Llan on the Watkin Path on the south side of Snowdon where Gladstone made a speech in 1892. A plaque on the rock states that he 'addressed the people of Eryri upon justice to Wales.'
  • Liverpool's Crest Hotel was renamed The Gladstone Hotel in his honour in the early 1990s, but in 2006 was renamed again as The Liner Hotel.
  • Gladstone, Manitoba is a town in central Canada that was named after him in 1882.
  • Gladstone, New Jersey is a town in the northeastern United States named after him.
  • Gladstone, Queensland, Australia was named after him and has a 19th century marble statue on display in its town museum.
  • A school and a street in Bulgaria's capital Sofia are named in his honour, as is a street in the city of Plovdiv, and in Limassol, Cyprus.
  • A street in the neighbourhood of Geduld Extension in the Gauteng town of Springs, South Africa is named after Gladstone
  • William Gladstone Primary School (Formerly St. Thomas' and recently renamed as Rimrose Hope) is a Primary School located in Seaforth, in which he was raised and educated.
  • There is a Gladstone Road in Newark-on-Trent where Gladstone was a Member of Parliament
  • There is a Gladstone Street in Waterford City and also Clonmel in Ireland.
  • There is a Gladstone Street in the BD3 postcode area of Bradford, West Yorkshire.

In popular culture

A Gladstone bag, a light travelling bag, is called after him.

In fiction, Gladstone features prominently in the history of the fantasy Bartimaeus trilogy, in which the British government is run by magicians. Gladstone is said to have been the most powerful magician to ever become Prime Minister, and though he is not included as a character, several objects of his are central plot points. The book provides an alternate history of Gladstone, in which he killed Disraeli in a duel and assisted British forces in colonial expansion.

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