Sue Young Histories

William Ewert Gladstone 1809 - 1898

July 15, 2008

William Ewert Gladstone 1809 – 1898 William Ewert Gladstone 1809 – 1898 was a British Liberal Politician, statesman and Prime Minister.

Gladstone was a patient of homeopath James Manby Gully and Joseph Kidd.

Gladstone was a friend of John Stuart Blackie, whose father in law James Wyld (father of homeopath George Wyld) was a close neighbour of Gladstone’s uncle Thomas. The Wylds and the Gladstones were intermarried,

Benjamin Disraeli wrote On the day of Disraeli’s first visit to see Joseph Kidd (November 7, 1877), he wrote in his journal, ”Today I saw Dr Kidd who cured the Chancellor…”

Gladstone was married to Catherine Glynne who was born at Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, in 1812, the daughter of an historic Whig family. Catherine’s mother was closely related to four different prime ministers.

Having married Gladstone in 1839, Catherine went on to have eight children, and her life was focused on her family. Gladstone told her everything about his political life, and wrote to her frequently when they were apart.

Gladstone started out a staunch fundamentalist, espousing the ideas of his day, including supporting slavery. However, by 1840:

he began to rescue and rehabilitate London prostitutes, actually walking the streets of London himself and encouraging the women he encountered to change their ways. He continued this practice decades later, even after he was elected Prime Minister

Gladstone ‘rescued’ courtesan Laura Bell Thistlethwayte and remained her friend for thirty years. It is possible that this is the time that William Gladston became acquainted with ‘alternative’ ideas, especially about homeopathy.

One of Laura’s first ‘conquests was William Wilde, the father of Oscar Wilde. William Wilde was favourably impressed with his tour of homeopathic hospitals in 1912.

Also with his work amongst prostitutes, Gladstone may well have met James Hinton and become an early advocate of slumming, which became most fashionable about this time, and attracted advocates such as Arnold Toynbee who was also heavily influenced by James Hinton.

James Hinton was a friend of homeopath Thomas Roupell Everest and his daughter Mary Everest Boole, the wife of George Boole. Victorian reformers drew inspiration from many sources, but it was James Hinton who most deeply and explicitly articulated how the problems of slum life and the attractions of slumming were enmeshed in a complex matrix of sexual and social politics.

Gladstone would also have known about Henry Mayhew and his groundbreaking work London Labour and the London Poor; a groundbreaking and influential survey of the poor of London, and also the work of Catherine and William Booth, who were firm advocates of homeopathy.

In America at this time, ground breaking revolutions in social pioneering were spearheaded by homeopaths and social reformers such as the Beecher family, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and so very many others, and notably women preachers broke many old taboos. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte certainly followed the American examples in her life.

Spencer Compton Cavendish, Lord Hartington, a member of Gladstone’s first government and he was ’familiar’ with courtesan Catherine “Skittles” Walters, who studied Laura Bell Thistlethwayte’s career and benefited from it. Catherine “Skittles” Walters was also the mistress of Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales.

It is now that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of Britain, enters our story. Just what he got up to in his associations with the prostitutes of London of the street walker class is not easy to say.

Those who were his political enemies interpreted it in its worst light; those who were his admirers and followers accepted what he himself said of it - it was an effort to win them away from immoral ways to a nobler and Christian fife.

To achieve this he did not even deign to leave 10 Downing Street of an evening and wander amongst these denizens of the streets, talking to them, pleading with them, and even bringing them home to tea.

He often maintained that even the prostitute was only waiting to be saved, a belief which was fully justified in the case of Laura Bell Thistlethwayte. The reformation of this well-known courtesan was as sensational as anything she had ever accomplished in her life before. There were those who forecast that it would not last; that soon she would be back to her old ways, but they were wrong.

How she came to meet Gladstone is not recorded, but it was probably in one of London’s drawing rooms because after her marriage despite her past, Laura Bell Thistlethwayte moved in high society circles. Thereafter there developed a friendship between these two which was to last until Laura Bell Thistlethwayte’s death, a friendship in which the gracious Mrs. Gladstone was joined…

Lady St. Helier also tells us of the sensation caused throughout the countryside when it was announced that Mrs. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte would conduct a revival service in the little Free Church building near the home of the Ashburtons. At first the meetings were not well attended but curiosity eventually got the upper hand and the crowds started to flock to hear this woman evangelist.

Here is Lady St. Helier’s picturesque description of Laura Bell Thistlethwayte as a preacher.

“The internal surroundings of the church did not lend themselves to any emotional effect, but Mrs. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte beautifully dressed, and standing at the end of the building so that all the light which entered through the small windows was thrown on her, illuminating the spot where she stood, poured out an impassioned address, eloquent and effective.

“She spoke with great facility, and with a good deal of emotion in her voice, and with an evident air of sincerity and personal conviction. This added to the remains of very great beauty, an influence largely increased by her great generosity to the poor people, made a vast impression in her congregation, and after the first meetings she succeeded in producing all the effects of other revival preachers, and many conversions were supposed to have been the result of her ministrations”…

Laura Bell Thistlethwayte’s intellectual capacity was almost phenomenal and to this was added a very poetical imagination. Her appearance on the platform of the Polytechnic was a realisation of beauty and art. Mrs. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte was not much inferior to Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Mrs. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte made her home in Grosvenor Square the headquarters of her mission and to her evangelical tea parties, which became famous in London society circles, came many godly men and women, including Gladstone and his wife.

Gladstone remained on very confidential terms with her and after his Government lost power and he was in opposition again, it was at Mrs. Laura Bell Thistlethwayte’s house that he and Mrs. Gladstone stayed while they were in London. She also placed at his disposal her carriage and pair and, indeed, she often in person drove the Liberal statesman to many of his meetings and returned for him when they were over.

No cloud overshadowed this friendship as it is evident from the fact that when the Old Man decided in 1892 that the time had come for him to retire from the Premiership she was told in confidence of his decision before even the Queen was informed.

Following the death of her husband in 1887, Laura Bell Thistlethwayte gave up the lease of the Grosvenor Square house and moved to a cottage in Hampstead where the Gladstones remained her faithful friends and visited her frequently as well as staying with her.

Right to the end she preached to large crowds, for she was always assured of an enthusiastic audience. She died in 1894 and she was buried in her husband’s family vault in Paddington Green Cemetery in London where her grave can still be inspected. She lies beside her husband and her mother-in-law, the Bishop’s daughter.

After Laura Bell Thistlethwayte’s death, amongst her possessions was found a large collection of letters written to her by Mr. Gladstone. Today these are housed in the Gladstone Library and Museum at Hawarden in North Wales, the country house of the Gladstone family.

So far as I know they have never been studied and so an interesting task awaits some historian for I am sure these letters will reveal to us something more of the character of this amazing woman who first shocked London with her lovely shoulders and her cascading golden hair and went on to rouse the capital to religious fervour with her evangelism and her eloquence.

Little wonder that Sir William Hardman, recalling her early life and conversion remarked, “But I have lived almost long enough to cease to wonder at anything, save great scientific discoveries”.

From As Chancellor William Gladstone pushed to extend the free trade liberalisations in the 1840s and worked to reduce public expenditures, policies that when combined with his moral and religious ideals became known as “Gladstonian Liberalism”. He was re-elected for the University of Oxford in 1847 and became a constant critic of Henry Palmerston.

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 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.”)…

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; 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“…

When Gladstone first joined Henry Palmerston’s government in 1859, he opposed further electoral reform, but he moved toward the Left during Henry 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 Henry Palmerston, who strongly opposed enfranchisement. At the beginning of each session, Gladstone would passionately urge the Cabinet to adopt new policies, while Henry Palmerston would fixedly stare at a paper before him. At a lull in Gladstone’s speech, Henry Palmerston would smile, rap the table with his knuckles, and interject pointedly, “Now, my Lords and gentlemen, let us go to business”…

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 Henry Palmerston considered it seditious incitement to agitation…

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

  1. Eventually, he became notorious for this activity, prompting Lord Randolph Churchill to snicker, “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…

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 minimization 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…

Gladstone’s first premiership instituted reforms in the British Army, Civil Service, and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. He instituted abolition of the sale of commissions in the army as well as court reorganization. In foreign affairs his overriding aim was to promote peace and understanding, characterized 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…

In 1880, he was Prime Minister again and 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. However, he could not respect his electoral promise to disengage from Egypt. June 1882 saw a riot in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, with about 300 people being killed as part of the Urabi Revolt. In Parliament an angry and retributive mood developed against Egypt, and the Cabinet approved the bombardment of Urabi’s gun emplacements by Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour and the subsequent landing of British troops to restore order to the city. Gladstone defended this in the Commons by exclaiming that Egypt was “in a state of military violence, without any law whatsoever”…

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…

In 1886 Gladstone’s party was allied with Irish Nationalists to defeat Lord Salisbury’s government; Gladstone regained his position as PM 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 breakway 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…

In 1892 Gladstone was re-elected Prime Minister for the fourth and final time. In February 1893 he re-introduced a Home Rule Bill. It provided for the formation of a parliament for Ireland, or in modern terminology, a regional assembly of the type Northern Ireland gained from the Good Friday Agreement.

The Home Rule Bill did not offer Ireland independence, but the Irish Parliamentary Party had not demanded independence in the first place. The Bill was passed by the Commons but rejected by the House of Lords on the grounds that it had gone too far.

On 1 March 1894, in his last speech to the House of Commons, Gladstone asked his allies to override this most recent veto. He resigned two days later, although he retained his seat in the Commons until 1895. Years later, as Irish independence loomed, King George V exclaimed to a friend, “What fools we were not to pass Mr. Gladstone’s bill when we had the chance!“…

In 1895, at the age of 85, Gladstone bequeathed £40,000 and much of his library to found St Deiniol’s Library, (founded with the help of his brother in law Stephen Richard Glynne) in law the only residential library in Britain. Despite his advanced age, he himself hauled most of his 32,000 books a quarter mile to their new home, using his wheelbarrow.

In 1896 in his last noteworthy speech, he denounced Armenian massacres by Ottomans in a talk delivered at Liverpool.

Gladstone never quite left his fundamentalist roots, but Gladstone was a man of his time who nevertheless had many humanistic tendencies enshrined in his Gladstonian Liberalism.


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