“How could you do it?”


HCG Matthew writes in his biography, Gladstone (1997):

“…Anxiety about his political work, his friends’ religion, the Oak Farm finances, and his personal problems, aggravated Gladstone’s feelings. At first, during the 1840s, he relieved them by reading what he regarded as pornography – mostly Restoration poems, classical authors such as Petronius, and fabliaux (French verse fables, some of them extremely bawdy). These were all readily available in bookshops and in the libraries of friends such as Thomas Grenville. To pornography he later added conversations with prostitutes, some of whom he found beautiful and physically attractive.

At first the ‘rescue work’ (as he called it) was an act of conventional charity done within the context of the ‘engagement’. The ‘engagement’ was a lay Tractarian brotherhood organised by the Acland brothers on advice from Keble. It had a thoroughly Tractarian ethos. Gladstone was associated with its planning in 1844 and began to attend it early in 1845… Its membership of fifteen … was subject to twelve rules, of which the first was to perform ‘some regular work of charity’. Gladstone fulfilled this rule in the early days of ‘the engagement’ by work with destitutes, male and female, who were in or dependent on the House of St. Barnabas in Rose Street, Soho. But by 1848 he found this work ‘less suitable than it was’ and told Acland it was too time-consuming.

In May 1849 under stress from Oak Farm affairs and the Clergy Relief Bill, he began meeting prostitutes on the streets late at night (there had been some rescue work done earlier, but not systematically). In the Session, he was often in the Commons till midnight. In July 1850, following the Pacifico debate and the death of Peel, when his wife was away at Hagley, and perhaps prompted by an article in the Westminster Review, he began regular meetings with prostitutes in the vicinity of the notorious Argyll Rooms, and the names of individual prostitutes start to be regularly noted in the diary.

The rescue work was at one level exactly that – the attempt to rescue prostitutes from the streets and rehabilitate them in suitable employment, or by marriage, or by emigration, after a time of training. This was done at the House of Mercy at Clewer, by Windsor, where the keeper in the early 1850s was Mariquita Tennant whom Gladstone had known since 1843. Much time was spent in persuasion and in arranging transport and subsequent employment. Catherine Gladstone was well informed about these activities and prostitute were, almost from the start, invited to the Gladstones’ house. But it is also clear that for Gladstone rescue work became not merely a duty but a craving; it was an exposure to sexual stimulation which Gladstone felt he must both undergo and overcome. As he admitted to himself, he deliberately ‘courted evil’.

…By January 1854 he had spoken, ‘indoors or out’, to between eighty and ninety prostitutes but ‘among these there is but one of whom I know that the miserable life has been abandoned and that I can fairly join that fact with influence of mine’. The lack of success was not surprising, for the discipline during rehabilitation at the Houses of Mercy at Clewer and Rose Street, Soho, was stronger than that of any Victorian boarding school. Jane Bywater, a partially rescued prostitute, wrote to Gladstone in 1854 after a short spell in the House of Mercy: ‘I have no doubt that you wished to do me some service, but I did not fancy being shut up in such a place as that for perhaps twelve months. I should have committed suicide.’ …

…Gladstone’s involvement with prostitutes was therefore in no way casual, nor was it merely charitable work which might equally have taken another form… The time spent on it, the obvious intensity of many of the encounters, the courting of evil, show how at the centre of a Victorian family and religious life was a sexual situation of great tension. It is tempting to see Gladstone, because of his religious and political prominence, as exceptional in these matters, but perhaps if more middle-class Victorians had recorded their secret lives so assiduously and honestly he would not seem so; indeed he might seem, rather than a curiosity, predominantly an abstainant.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in The Guardian of 28.12.09:

“…everything recedes alongside his achievements, and his towering personality. It’s easy to play laudator temporis acti – or in English, grumpy old man – lamenting past glories. But can anyone read about political life then without feeling that it was an age of giants compared to the puny figures of today? How many MPs now have read, let alone written, a fraction of what Gladstone did?

And there was a very generous side to this driven man. The great drama of 1890-91 was the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish leader, when he was exposed as the lover of another man’s wife. Although Gladstone, as we know from his Diaries, was a little kinky about sex, he could be self-righteous and sometimes priggish. “But he was not,” as Jenkins says, “a hypocrite.” His verdict on the Parnell case – “What, because a man is called leader of a party, does that constitute him a censor and a judge of faith and morals? I will not accept it. It would make life intolerable” – might usefully be remembered when the next political sex scandal breaks.

In 1886 Gladstone’s first home rule bill had failed, splitting the old Liberal party, with Liberal Unionists defecting to join the Tories. When Gladstone returned to Downing Street for the last time in 1892, he was determined to bring justice to Ireland. His second home rule bill did pass in the Commons (something Irish nationalists tend to forget) before the Lords threw it out.

Outside the Commons chamber one evening during the passage of that second bill, and after another great performance by Gladstone, the sulphurous Tory Lord Randolph stopped a Liberal Unionist. “And that is the man you deserted,” Churchill said. “How could you do it?” When did we last have a leader who could inspire that kind of awed admiration, from foe or friend?”

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