William Ewart Gladstone served as Prime Minister four times — from 3 December 1868 to 17 February 1874; from 23 April 1880 to 9 June 1885; from 1 February to 20 July 1886; and from 15 August 1892 to 2 March 1894.

Gladstone, who was born on 29 December 1809 at Rodney Street, Liverpool, was the fourth son and fifth child of a family of six born to Sir John Gladstone and his wife Anne Mackenzie Robertson. Sir John Gladstone made his fortune in trade especially with America and the West Indies: it was there that he owned sugar plantations. William Gladstone was educated at a preparatory school at Seaforth Vicarage near Liverpool before attending Eton between 1821 and 1827. From there he went to Christ Church, Oxford, between 1828 and 1831. In 1831 he spoke at the Oxford Union against the Reform Act, saying that any electoral reform would lead to revolution. His Degree was in Classics but he also studied Mathematics and in 1831 was awarded a Double First in the subjects. In the 1832 election following the passing of the Reform Act he was elected as the Tory MP for Newark-on-Trent, on the influence of the Duke of Newcastle; he took the seat of Michael Sadler, the factory reformer. He then went on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France and various centres in Italy. On his return in 1833 he entered Lincoln's Inn, but 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.

Gladstone's maiden speech was made on 3 June 1833 during the Committee stage of the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in the British empire. His father was a West Indian slave-owner and Gladstone defended him against allegations of maltreating his slaves. The following year Gladstone was appointed as a junior Lord of the Treasure by Sir Robert Peel who had just formed his first ministry. Two weeks later Disraeli and Gladstone met for the first time: Gladstone was appalled by Disraeli's "foppish" attire. Later in life the two would become great parliamentary rivals; there was no friendship between them throughout their long political lives. On 27 January Gladstone was made Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies but his appointment lasted only until April when Peel resigned.

In June 1839 Gladstone became engaged to Catherine Glynne, the daughter of Sir Stephen Glynne of Hawarden Castle. The Glynnes were an old Whig family and Catherine was related through the maternal line to the Grenville family. The couple were married the following month and had a family of four boys and four girls. In January 1840 Gladstone began his work of rescuing and rehabilitating London prostitutes, and in 1848 he founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women.

Following the defeat of Lord Melbourne's government in 1841, Sir Robert Peel formed his second ministry and Gladstone was appointed to the post of Vice-President of the Board of Trade; he accepted reluctantly on the grounds that his lack of knowledge of trade made him unfit for the appointment. It was in his official capacity that he first dined with Queen Victoria at Buckingham palace and was appalled to find that there was no chaplain present and that grace was not said prior to the meal. In May 1843 Gladstone was made President of the Board of Trade and a Cabinet member; he was responsible for the passing of the 'parliamentary train Act' in 1844 that provided for one train each way, each day, carrying third class passengers at no more than 1d. per mile at not less than 12 miles per hour.

In 1838 Gladstone had published his book The Church and its Relations to the Church, in which he said that

the State possessed a conscience and had a duty to distinguish between truth and error in religion. Doctrinal differences were, therefore, matters of great importance. The Established Church was the conscience of the English state, and that State was bound to give an active , informed, consistent, and exclusive financial and general support to the Anglican religion which was of the purest and most direct Apostolic descent. [Magnus, p. 35.]

He had also attacked the annual grant of £9,000 that was given to the Maynooth Seminary in Ireland, saying that giving money for the training of Roman Catholic priests was inappropriate for a Protestant nation and would lead to mortal danger. However, in 1844 Peel was attempting to pursue a policy of conciliation in Ireland. A perpetual grievance of the Catholic Church in Ireland was the disparity in finances between the wealth of the Anglican establishment that ministered to about a twelfth of the people and the poverty of the Catholic Church, that ministered to the vast majority of the population. Peel had no intention of changing the privileges of the Anglican Church but did enter into indirect communication with the Vatican about how to conciliate Catholic opinion. In February 1845 Peel proposed to increase — and make permanent — the Maynooth grant from £9,000 to £30,000 p.a. Although in the interim, Gladstone had changed his mind about the value of the grant, he had not repudiated his book: he wanted to vote for the increase but felt that he could not do so as a Minister in the government. He tendered his resignation rather than compromise his integrity. Peel's reaction was, 'I really have great difficulty sometimes in comprehending what Gladstone means'.

In 1846 Gladstone's sister Helen had been restrained by the Lunacy Commission; she had a long history of instability and opium addiction; she also had had a series of lovers but the final straw for Gladstone was her conversion to Roman Catholicism. He could tolerate her other failings but not her apostasy. However, Gladstone was happy to join with Disraeli in 1847 in voting for Lord John Russell's motion to allow Jews to take the oath on becoming a member of the House of Commons. Gladstone's high moral stance was a source of irritation to his colleagues. As Henry Labouchere said: while he had no objection to Gladstone's habit of concealing the ace of trumps up his sleeve, he did object to his reiterated claim that it had been put there by Almighty God.

In 1848 the third Chartist petition was presented; Gladstone served as a Special Constable, as did Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, soon to be the Emperor Napoleon III of France. Gladstone did not return to office until 1852 when the Earl of Aberdeen formed his ministry; Gladstone was appointed as Chancellor of the Exchequer and based his first Budget on public expenditure economies. One of his first acts was to order the Foreign Office to stop using large thick sheets of double notepaper when single, thinner sheets would do. Gladstone also 'invented' the postcard on grounds of economy. He also decided to maintain income tax as an equitable means of collecting revenue for the government. Soon it became necessary to increase the levels of tax because Aberdeen allowed Britain to drift into the Crimean War in 1854; Gladstone increased taxation from 7d in the £1 to 10½d in the £1. Aberdeen's handling of the war led to the ministry's downfall and in 1855 Palmerston formed his first ministry without Gladstone who resigned in protest at Palmerston's acceptance of a Committee of Inquiry into the conduct of the war. He did accept the post of Lord High Commissioner Extraordinarily to the Ionian Islands- a British protectorate-between November 1855 and June 1859 when he returned to take up the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer in Palmerston's second ministry; along with Palmerston, Gladstone was one of the founding members of the Liberal Party in 1859. However, their working relationship was not easy and Gladstone said later that he never attended a Cabinet meeting during this time, without ensuring that he carried a letter of resignation in his pocket.

Gladstone's second Budget followed the Cobden Treaty with France, a reciprocity agreement that called for another increase in income tax to cover the shortfall of revenue for the government. The treaty did bring about a decrease in the standard of living, however, since foodstuffs became cheaper. His introduction of the Post Office Savings Bank enables small savings to be made by ordinary people and gave an extra source of revenue for government purposes. As a result of this, he was able to reduce income tax in 1861; he also brought about the single Money Bill form of the Budget; this meant that henceforward, Budgets had to be accepted or rejected in their entirety. The Hon. Emily Eden commented to Lord Clarendon in 1860 that if Gladstone 'were soaked in boiling water and rinsed until he were twisted into rope, I do not suppose a drop of fun would ooze out'. Disraeli's assessment of Gladstone was that he 'had not one single redeeming defect'.

During the American Civil War (1861-65) Gladstone provided relief work on the Hawarden estates for workers in the Lancashire cotton industry who had been put out of work because of the blockade of the Confederate ports by the North, preventing the export of raw cotton. Nevertheless, in 1863 he attempted to tax the incomes of charities on the grounds that all money was a trust from God and should be taxed like everything else. His proposal was defeated in the Commons. He supported the second Reform Bill that was intended to lower the franchise qualification in towns, saying, 'I venture to say that every man who is not presumably incapacitated by some consideration of personal unfitness or of political danger is morally entitled to come within the pale of the Constitution'. This was seen by the radicals as a move towards universal suffrage, which horrified the Queen and also resulted in him losing his seat at Oxford. Following the death of Palmerston, Gladstone served in Lord John Russell's ministry as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was responsible for the first attempt to extend the franchise, in 1866; he also continued to reduce duties on imported goods.

In December 1868 Gladstone was appointed as PM for the first time following the Liberal victory in the General Election that followed the passing of the second Reform Act and Gladstone announced that his 'mission was to pacify Ireland'. The ministry (1868-74) passed a whole spate of reforms but lost the 1874 general election at which Disraeli's Tory party won a majority. In 1876 Gladstone published The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, attacking the government's policy towards the Ottoman Empire. During this period, Gladstone constantly attacked the PM and ultimately launched his Midlothian Campaign prior to the next general election on 1880. He was able to discredit Disraeli and the Liberals won the election; Gladstone had offended Queen Victoria in 1866 when he refused to support the purchase of gun metal for a memorial to Prince Albert that was to be erected in Kensington Gardens, and relations between the two were always difficult. Gladstone formed his second ministry even though Queen Victoria attempted to appoint Lord Hartington instead. The queen was widely reported to have commented that, 'He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting'. Just before she appointed Gladstone, Victoria wrote to Sir Henry Ponsonby that she would 'sooner abdicate than send for or have anything to do with that half-mad fire-brand who would soon ruin everything and be a dictator'.

The second ministry was taken up mainly with Irish affairs. Gladstone was obliged to increase income tax from 5d to 6d in the £ and he also increased the duty on beer. A Coercion Act for Ireland was passed in an attempt to deal with increasing violence and Gladstone was able to pass the second Irish Land Act that introduced the 'three Fs"-fixity of tenure, fair rents, and free sale of land. Just after the Bill went through parliament, Disraeli died; not surprisingly, Gladstone did not attend the funeral.

Although Gladstone was a committed Anglican, in 1881 he introduced a Bill that would enable non-believers to affirm their allegiance to the Crown. Jews and Quakers were already able to do that, but not atheists. Charles Bradlaugh had been expelled from the House of Commons on four occasions because of his atheism. Eventually Bradlaugh moved his own Affirmation Bill in 1888 but in the attempt to secure fair treatment for Bradlaugh, Gladstone brought down a great deal of criticism on his own head. The following year, Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke were murdered in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Cavendish — Gladstone's nephew-by-marriage-was the Chief Secretary for Ireland; Burke was his Undersecretary Gladstone introduced an even more severe Coercion Act as a result of the murders.

Gladstone's foreign policy was less successful than his domestic policies. The British army was involved in actions in the Sudan and Afghanistan. General Gordon disobeyed orders to evacuate Khartoum in 1884 and Gladstone was blamed for his death when the town fell to the Mahdi and his troops. In the same year, Gladstone's ministry passed the third Reform Act and also the Redistribution Act that provided for alterations being made to constituency boundaries. However, the Conservatives and Irish Nationalists worked together to remove Gladstone's ministry; he resigned on 9 June 1885 and was replaced by the Marquess of Salisbury. On 17 December 1885, Gladstone's son Herbert revealed to the press that his father was dedicated to achieving Home Rule for Ireland: the incident has become known as the 'Hawarden Kite'. Herbert Gladstone's announcement did nothing to endear his father to the Liberals or the Irish and gave the Conservatives another stick with which to beat the elderly statesman. The Irish saw an opportunity to wring concessions from the British government and joined the Liberals to defeat the Conservatives: this political seesaw continued for many years.

In January 1886 Gladstone formed his third ministry at the age of 76; by that time the Liberal Party was divided over his Irish policies and he failed to have the legislation passed. Gladstone called an election but found himself attacked from all directions; the Conservatives won and he resigned. In 1890 the Liberal-Irish alliance ended with the Parnell scandal and in 1891 Gladstone announced the 'Newcastle Programme' that included a battery of reforms as well as Home Rule for Ireland. The Liberals won a majority at the 1892 election and Gladstone formed his fourth and last ministry. Soon afterwards he introduced another Home Rule Bill that failed in the House of Lords; almost concurrently he refused to accept the increased Naval estimates and resigned on 2 March 1894. His last speech was delivered in Liverpool; it was a protest against the Armenian massacres in Turkey. On 19 May 1898 Gladstone died at Hawarden and he was later buried in Westminster Abbey. He was 88 years old.

Recommended reading

Feuchtwanger, E.J. Gladstone. London, 1989.

Magnus, P. Gladstone: A Biography. London, John Murray, 1954

Matthew, H.C.G. Gladstone 1809-1898. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996.

Last modified 18 March 2002