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 Issues | Church History | Lord Shaftesbury


Great Churchman (No. 18)

Lord Shaftesbury (1801-1885)

by Gordon Hewitt, M. A.

Published by Church Book Room Press


II. Grand Seigneur —Good Samaritan

“What hast thou that thou didst not receive?”

ANTHONY ASHLEY-COOPER was not, strictly speaking, a child of the eighteenth century, for his birthday was April 28, 1801; but two contrary aspects of the eighteenth century met together in the house where he was born and struggled for his soul. One aspect was personified in his parents. His father, the sixth Earl of Shaftesbury,(1) was to make a considerable name for efficiency as Chairman of Committees in the House of Lords. His mother was a daughter of the Duke of Marlborough. They appear to have been somewhat feckless parents, alternating long periods of indifference to their children with short bouts of severity or affection.

Anthony as a little boy was left much to his own devices at home. He often went hungry to bed and suffered keenly from a neglect which appears to have been almost a parental principle. Starved of his parents’ love and guidance, he found what he needed in Maria Millis, the housekeeper who had been brought by his mother from Blenheim Palace. Maria personified the other aspect of the eighteenth century—Evangelical piety. Though she died soon after Anthony was sent to his first school, she seems to have imbued him with those Evangelical principles which were to last his lifetime. From her he learnt the openness of God to prayer at all times, the utter trustworthiness of the Bible, the comfort of the Cross. Without Maria Millis to mother him, his spirit might well have been broken by his parents’ cold indifference and by the miseries of his early schooldays in Chiswick. But, because of what she taught him, his own sufferings bore fruit in a compassion unique in his generation and rare enough in any age. By the time he went to Harrow he had decided for—or, we ought rather to say, he had been chosen for—the compassion of Christ, and it grew to be the ruling motive of his life. Two incidents at Harrow may be briefly recorded as an indication of the way he was going to take.

Once, at the foot of Harrow Hill, he was the horrified witness of a pauper’s funeral. The drunken pall-bearers, stumbling along with a crudely-made coffin and shouting snatches of bawdy songs, brought home to him the existence of a whole empire of callousness which put his own childhood miseries in their context. The second incident was his unusual choice of a subject for a Latin poem. In the school grounds there was an unsavoury mosquito-breeding pond called the Duck Puddle. He chose it as his subject because he was urgently concerned that the school authorities should do something about it, and this appeared to be the simplest way of bringing it to their attention. Soon afterwards the Duck Puddle was inspected, condemned and filled in. This little triumph was a useful fillip to his self-confidence, but it was more than that. It was a foretaste of his skill in getting people to act decisively in face of sloth or immediate self-interest. This was to prove one of his greatest assets in Parliament.

Two further formative incidents in Lord Shaftesbury’s early life must be mentioned. Against all expectation, at least as far as he himself was concerned, he was accorded a “first” in classics at Oxford. His success in Schools was important for his development. He never quite lost the habit of self-depreciation which was the natural outcome of his early upbringing, but this unexpected achievement at least suggested the possibility of success in the harder tests that lay ahead. He might so easily have persuaded himself that he was good for nothing. Then a few years later, to everyone’s surprise, he fell in love with Lady Emily Cowper. At first she refused him, but he persisted in his courtship and on June 10, 1830, they were married. It was no mean achievement for one so mistrustful of himself. Emily was a reigning beauty. She was, moreover, jealously guarded from inferior suitors by influential uncles. But she knew her own mind, and once Anthony had won certainty through prayer he was not easily dissuaded. The marriage brought him forty-two years of such happiness as growing debts, an enormous weight of public business, and the early deaths of three children could not destroy. It brought him also into close contact with the great Whig families, the Cowpers and Lambs; and eventually into a friendship, as satisfying as it was unexpected, with Lord Palmerston, who became second husband to his wife’s mother.

By the time of his marriage, Shaftesbury was already in Parliament. He contested the “pocket borough” of Woodstock in 1826, defeating the Duke of Marlborough’s son and two other candidates. Himself the grandson of a previous Duke of Marlborough, his way into politics was made easy, but from the first he took his political duties very seriously.

Entries in his diary for the years 1826 and 1827 make interesting reading. The conflict was sharp and bitter between ambition and self-distrust, between a desire to make a name and “to be useful to my generation”. He was worried because he had not yet made a speech in the Commons, worried because Scipio was consul at twenty-four and Pitt became Prime Minister at twenty-three while he himself had “not done one thing, nor acquired the power of doing one thing which might be serviceable to my country or an honour to myself”. This conflict seems to have produced, or to have been part of, the only serious religious crisis in his life. By the end of 1827 it was nearly resolved. In his diary for December 17th he wrote:

“The country is in danger of its existence. Its honour is already tarnished, and who shall defend her? He whom God shall think fit, and perhaps, I may be he. I have had much encouragement from old and young; but encouragement falls short of courage, and I despair. But there is no just means of escape. I must make an essay, not merely for party’s sake and earthly power and place, but for the resuscitation of honour and British principle, with their handmaids, dignity, and virtue; and if I fall I shall fall in no ignoble cause; but may I, as I have endeavoured to do, begin in God, and, having throughout desired nothing but His glory and the consummation of His word, conclude in the same, to the advancement of religion and the increase of human happiness.”

These are moving and prophetic words. Some of the phrases have worn thin now, but they were fresh and meaningful as he wrote them. They record a decision and suggest a plan of action. Like Wilberforce before him, Shaftesbury chose to be a cross-bench politician: it was not a choice thrust upon him, and it meant real sacrifice of personal ambition. He continued to hope that some Prime Minister would offer him high office and yet allow him freedom to pursue his “causes”: but when Peel on two occasions made it clear that he could not expect both, he chose the “causes”. When, in 1866, Lord Derby offered him the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster, he replied that there were still fourteen hundred thousand children and young persons outside the shelter of the factory acts. By then he was a national figure, and the ache of refusal was less severe, but it is well to remember that the essential choice was made when he was a young man of twenty-six, and all his patrician upbringing revolted against it. Yet he was determined to begin and continue “in God”, as he understood His leading.

Soon after this he was, in fact, in office as one of the Commissioners of the India Board of Control with a salary of a thousand a year. Wellington thought well enough of him to offer this post and he threw himself into the work with an energy and attention to detail which must have been tiresome to his fellow commissioners. He drew their attention to the scandal of Sutteeism and lectured them on the merits of the potato as providing an alternative staple diet for India in years when the rice failed. His first speech in the Commons, however, was not about Indian affairs but about the care of the insane. On February 19, 1828, he seconded a bill introduced by Mr. Robert Gordon to amend the law for the regulation of Lunatic Asylums. Hansard reported that “he spoke in so low a tone that he was nearly inaudible in the gallery”, but added that in the course of his speech “he cited several cases that had come within his own knowledge which clearly proved that the existing system was greatly defective”.

Shaftesbury was getting into his stride. The entry in his diary for his twenty-seventh birthday was more cheerful and confident than on the two previous anniversaries. Priorities were becoming clearer. “The first principle,” he wrote, “God’s honour: the second, man’s happiness: the means, prayer and unremitting diligence.” The outcome of his support for Gordon’s lunacy bill was his appointment by the Home Secretary as one of fifteen Metropolitan Commissioners of Lunacy. A year later he became chairman of that commission and he remained chairman for fifty-seven years. As an example of “unremitting diligence” it could hardly be bettered. It meant repeated visits to asylums in London and the provinces, and much detailed business on individual cases. It also marked him out as a man who would be useful in pleading the cause of other unfortunates. He was beginning to be known outside Parliament as a man who could put a case effectively.

He had not yet ruined his reputation as a good party man. He voted with Wellington(2) for Catholic emancipation in 1829, though he hoped like Wellington that the measure would delay parliamentary reform, and loyalty to his chief was a very strong motive with him at this time. “I love the Duke,” he wrote, “and will serve the Government.” But the Duke, and the Government, were soon to disappoint him sadly. In 1831 he was persuaded to contest the County of Dorset in the Anti-Reform interest on the distinct understanding that expenses would be borne by the party. These expenses, amounting to a sum of over £15,000, were not paid by the party in spite of repeated appeals to the Duke of Wellington. Shaftesbury felt the rebuff very keenly. He was returned, however, and voted obediently against the Reform Bill of 1832 though he refused in later years(3) to own that he had said “the sun of England has set for ever”. Perhaps not, but it was the kind of phrase he was apt to use, and he was never convinced of the rightness of the household suffrage and the secret ballot.

This persistent blindness to the needs of electoral reform must be accounted a fault in him, but it was not due to unthinking conservatism. He regarded the vote as a privilege for the thrifty and industrious, not as the right of every citizen, proved or unproved. He never doubted that the hereditary peerage was a good thing, and much as he dreaded the House of Lords as a personal destiny he wished to see it unadulterated and untrammelled in its liberties. “He was always the Grand Seigneur driven by his conscience to be the solitary Good Samaritan”—there is undoubtedly some truth in Balleine’s verdict.(4) “Grand Seigneur” is a trifle strong. He had little use for the rights of patrician families apart from the exercise of the duties appropriate to their station. The taunts of Cobden and others about the depressed conditions of farm workers in Dorset hurt him keenly, because he knew that his father’s estate was no better than the rest. But the remedy as he saw it was that he should succeed his father when the time was ripe, not that he should never succeed him at all. Meanwhile, and for many years to come, his father was still alive and there was misery enough in the mines and cotton mills to call forth all the energies of his compassion. The farm-labourers would have to wait, but their turn would come.

>>Chapter 3 - Guardian of the Public Conscience



(1) His father succeeded to the title in 1811 and lived until 1851. Although the subject of this sketch did not become Lord Shaftesbury until 1851, it has seemed convenient to call him “Shaftesbury” throughout, and not to use his earlier courtesy title, Lord Ashley.

(2) The leading Evangelicals both in the Lords and Commons voted the same way, to their abiding honour. See A History of the Evangelical Party, G. R. Balleine, Longmans, New Edition, 1933, p. 210.

(3) The Times, June 6, 1882.

(4) A History of the Evangelical Party, p. 190.




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