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  Edward Henry Stanley (1826–1893), by Herbert Watkins, 1858 Edward Henry Stanley (1826–1893), by Herbert Watkins, 1858
Stanley, Edward Henry, fifteenth earl of Derby (1826–1893), politician and diarist, was born on 21 July 1826 at Knowsley, the family seat in Lancashire, the eldest son of , from 1851 the fourteenth earl of Derby, and his wife, Emma Caroline Bootle-Wilbraham (1805–1876), daughter of the first Lord Skelmersdale. Sent to his father's old school, he did not fare well in the schoolboy republic that Eton College then was. Removed to a very different regime at Rugby under Arnold and Tait, he expressed his lasting gratitude by a bequest of £2000 to fund a scholarship or exhibition there. He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1844, graduating in 1848 with a first in the classical tripos and junior optime in the mathematical tripos. He belonged to the Apostles, the select undergraduate society that was a formative influence on a number of liberal-minded intellectuals in the Victorian age and afterwards.

A reluctant tory, 1848–1858

The Stanleys were a whig family, but Edward Henry's father, who changed sides after sitting in the cabinet that passed the Great Reform Bill, had emerged as the leader of the protectionist majority when the tories split over the corn laws in 1846. It was as a protectionist that the younger Stanley first stood for parliament in March 1848, narrowly losing a by-election at Lancaster before being returned, in his absence, for King's Lynn in December, a seat he retained until he went to the Lords in 1869. At this stage of his career the protectionist case convinced him. After visiting the West Indies in 1848–9 and again in 1849–50 he spoke and wrote in favour of the embattled sugar planters of the British Caribbean against the free trade that was slowly ruining them and their colonies to the advantage of foreign competitors employing slave labour. Sympathy with British settlers and businessmen was to characterize his brand of liberal imperialism at the India and colonial offices. The travels which had taken Stanley to North and South America as well as the West Indies took him to northern India in 1851–2; few Victorian politicians saw as much of the world beyond Europe.

Deputed by his formidable father to address a protectionist rally at Edinburgh in April 1851, he ‘thought it unwise to refuse but at the last moment took to my bed on the plea of illness’ (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 62, 24 April 1851). Only a little ahead of his party in deciding that protection was a lost cause, he soon found himself ‘extremely unpopular’ with them, yet widely seen, at the same time, as their future leader (ibid., 108, 30 June 1853). Brought home from India to be parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office in his father's ministry of February–December 1852, he confirmed the perception of him as an able man in a party woefully lacking in ability after the Peelites' departure. The promise and the hereditary position of Lord Stanley, as he was styled from 1851, did not blind tories to his feeling of kinship with the more progressive elements among their Liberal opponents. He confided to his diary that, while he intended to remain on the tory benches as long as his father was politically active, Derby's death or retirement would set him free to review his allegiance. His close friendship, personal and political, with Disraeli added to tory distrust. Stanley was a regular contributor to Disraeli's journal of those years, The Press, which voiced their criticism of the Aberdeen and Palmerston ministries for taking Britain into the Crimean War and keeping her there. Notwithstanding his attitude to the war, Palmerston offered him a cabinet place in the autumn of 1855, which Stanley declined, giving as his reasons loyalty to his father and unresolved doubts about Palmerstonian diplomacy. In his diary the youthful tory reflected that Palmerston was too old and his government's prospects still too uncertain for the offer to be tempting: acceptance might mean ‘a sacrifice of permanent results for temporary distinction’ (ibid., 139, memorandum on public affairs, Nov 1855). The comment is revealing, as is the whole episode.

Meanwhile Stanley, with Disraeli and others, tried to broaden toryism's appeal by demonstrating its willingness to back the sort of reforms, in several fields, that would commend it to intelligent middle-class opinion. Stanley himself identified such opinion particularly with the northern capitalists, whose achievements he admired: ‘no class that I know in English life equals them’. A visit to Bury in 1853, where the employers were among the best of their kind, determined his aim in public life, ‘shaping my political course so as not to lose their support, if it can … be gained—and I think it can’. The house of Stanley's old influence in Lancashire was perpetuated and strengthened by his intelligent courtship, from this time, of the urban patriciates neglected by his father. As a result, no doubt, he hesitated to join Derby's second cabinet in February 1858: he saw the numerous reactionaries in his party as ‘the worst section of the political world’ and, despite their continuing friendship, shared the widespread view of Disraeli as someone who would do anything for office. But these were views which, it seems, he kept to himself, and he joined. A hint from Derby that the governor-generalship of India might shortly be his for the asking helped to overcome Stanley's reluctance (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 112, 22 Nov 1853; 156, 21 Feb 1858).

Cabinet and opposition, 1858–1868: India, parliamentary reform, and the Foreign Office

Stanley never governed India, or Canada, another imperial opportunity that attracted him. Briefly colonial secretary in the 1858–9 government, he moved to the India board in June 1858, on Lord Ellenborough's enforced resignation, and became the first secretary of state for India under the act ending company rule in the subcontinent. Prudence restrained him from publicly condemning the atrocities, ‘painful, even disgusting’, that marked the repression of the Indian mutiny in 1857–9: ‘over opinion I have little power’ (Stanley to Delane, 14 Oct 1858, A. I. Dasent, John Thadeus Delane, 1908, 1.298–9). He accepted that, as John Lawrence, among others, urged, the situation in India called for a generous amnesty and guarantees of respect for Indian religions and established rights. His original draft of the resulting proclamation of November 1858, sent round the cabinet, was criticized as reading ‘too much like a respectable magistrate's advice after a parochial row’ (Malmesbury to Stanley, 15 Aug 1858, Steele, 155). Stanley disliked rhetoric, and generally eschewed it: but the revised text, given a Burkean ring, answered its purpose. He made an enemy of the queen, however, by obstructing the royal wish for a unified British and Indian army; both he and his father threatened Victoria with their resignations. In the more important controversy over the future of tenant right in British Indian land legislation he leant towards those who wanted to weaken it with a view to attaching the native aristocracy more firmly to alien rule. British businessmen and planters, and the Lancashire cotton lobby, also had a cautious friend in him. On the other hand he congratulated himself on having offered a seat on the new Council of India in London to J. S. Mill, whose authority upheld tenant right in India against its assorted critics.

Within the cabinet and party Stanley was bolder in domestic politics, working closely with Disraeli. The outline of the tory Reform Bill they drew up in August 1858 was inspired, so far as Stanley was concerned, by the desire for ‘a reconciliation and almost fusion of the landed with the town interest’. He talked of resigning when Disraeli abandoned the substantial redistribution of seats they had prepared. ‘I neither think it can succeed, nor that it ought to’, wrote Stanley of their diminished bill. As the one decided reformer in the government, he predicted that failure on reform would offset gains for the ‘liberal spirit’ displayed in other areas of policy (Stanley to Disraeli, 26 Oct 1858 and 10 Feb 1859, Steele, 138–9). He argued in cabinet for submitting to the Liberation Society's demand for the abolition of church rates: the dissenters were too influential to be resisted indefinitely. He voted with Disraeli, and against several of their cabinet colleagues, for the admission of Jews to parliament; a step which, like parliamentary reform, was deeply distasteful to many tories. Yet the experiment in liberalization left the party in better shape to begin another long spell in opposition. Although Stanley was on good terms with some leading radicals he thought ‘the masses’ were not ready, if they ever would be, for an extension of the franchise, and tried to capitalize on the dislike of the rich businessmen he knew for the household suffrage of Bright and Cobden (ibid., 140–41, Stanley at Liverpool, 29 Oct 1859).

In opposition Stanley was both important to his party and independent of it. An odd tribute to the standing he enjoyed was the Greek suggestion that he should be a candidate for the country's vacant throne in 1863; he did not take it seriously. His sympathies, unlike those of most tories, were with the north in the American Civil War. At the 1865 general election he contradicted Disraeli on the hustings when his old friend raised the time honoured cry of ‘the Church in danger’: ‘I do not believe that the Establishment … in England is in any danger whatsoever’ (Stanley at King's Lynn, 19 July 1865, Steele, 279). He sounded more like a distinctively progressive whig than any kind of tory. Even before Palmerston's death in October 1865 his name was mentioned as the possible premier of a coalition, uniting the moderate men of both parties, which might be trusted to carry a safe reform bill. After the Liberals fell out over reform in 1866 Stanley passed up his chance, such as it was. Self-knowledge had taught him that he was ‘only too apt to leave in other hands … the responsibility of deciding on the questions of the day’ (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 179, 30 Nov 1861). As a leading member of his father's last government, formed in June that year, he found reasons for supporting household suffrage when Derby and Disraeli introduced it; although he suggested, as a compromise, the £6 borough franchise in their ten-minute bill, quickly dropped, of February 1867. As far back as 1859 he had offered himself, unsuccessfully, for Marylebone, one of the largest urban constituencies. He now summed up the supposedly democratic Hyde Park riots of July 1866 as devoid of ‘malice … mere larking … only love of destruction, noise, and fighting’ (ibid., 261, 24–5 July 1866). Since they were as yet impervious to radicalization, household suffrage was not going ‘to effect a real transfer of power to the working class … equally opposed to our interests and ideas’ (ibid., 293, 5 March 1867). Pessimistic, initially, about the government's hopes of carrying household suffrage, he was not tempted to emulate Cranborne, the future Lord Salisbury, and the other cabinet ministers who resigned in protest.

While the cabinet were discussing reform and getting it through, Stanley was occupied with the Foreign Office, which he held (July 1866–December 1868) under his father and Disraeli, who took over as premier in February 1868. Then and later, he cast Britain in Europe as ‘simply a spectator of events’ (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 262, 30 July 1866). Nevertheless, he approved and actively seconded the efforts of Lord Cowley, the ambassador in Paris, to defuse the Luxembourg crisis which menaced France and Prussia with an unwanted war in 1867. Stanley presided at the London conference where a settlement was agreed: ‘for years no subject has caused me so much uneasiness as this’ (ibid., 308, 4 May 1867). Yet, sharing the general distrust of Bismarck, he did not think the outcome of the Austro-Prussian War and the approach of German unity were necessarily harmful to British interests. He gave priority to the troubled Anglo-American relationship. His preference for the north during the civil war helped with the Alabama question, where he noted how public opinion had registered the awesome increase of American strength demonstrated in the war. He exploited the changed British attitude in consenting to arbitration on the Alabama claims: to compensation for losses inflicted by the Confederacy's commerce raider and her sister ships, built and fitted out, like her, in Britain in breach of international law. It was imperative to heal this running sore in the relations between Britain and America: ‘If I accomplish this’, he reflected, ‘my tenure of office … will not have been useless’ (ibid., 288, 10 Feb 1867). His decision to go to arbitration started a long and difficult negotiating process concluded by the treaty of Washington in 1871.

Stanley was not, as he has sometimes been called, a Cobdenite in any real sense, but someone who well understood that aristocratic primacy and landed property were the safer for the avoidance of hostilities with the United States or continental great powers. Without any of Cobden's feelings for the Celtic and Catholic Irish, he realized how strongly they wished for separation from Britain and for restitution of the land so largely owned by aliens in race and religion. His family were Irish landlords until he sold their 7000 acres in Munster not long after succeeding his father. He was one of those more than willing to sacrifice the established church in Ireland for the sake of the Union and the landlords. He had thought an Anglican establishment in Catholic Ireland hard to justify from his first years in parliament. When, in the mid-1860s, the resurgence of Irish unrest forced British political parties to balance coercion with some concessions, he went further than any of his colleagues in hinting at disestablishment; the time was ripe ‘to get rid of the thing altogether’ (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 331, 15 July 1868). Stanley looked, and felt, less like a tory than ever. After Gladstone's victory in the 1868 election, the passing of the Irish Church Bill, and Derby's death in October 1869 (when he succeeded as fifteenth earl) he sought to distance himself from the tories, once again relegated to opposition.

A sort of political monk

That was how a worldly whig described Derby in his thirties (Clarendon to the duchess of Manchester, 7 Aug 1860, A. L. Kennedy, ‘My Dear Duchess’, 1956, 112). The personable heir to a great fortune spent only half his annual income of £2000 on himself, set aside a third for good causes, prominent among which were those in his East Anglian constituency, and invested whatever was left in companies trading in the empire. Books, travel, and shooting were his pleasures. When he came into his inheritance he set himself to clear the estates of debt and sold off his father's racing stable. Twenty years after his succession the unencumbered income stood at nearly £250,000 p.a., up by a third, while continuing purchases took the acreage, he noted with satisfaction, to ‘just 1/1000th part of the area of the British islands’ (Derby diaries, 1889, Lpool RO). About half this vast property, five-sixths of it in the industrial county of Lancashire, consisted of urban leaseholds. No one was more aware of the political danger from agitation against the overwhelming concentration of land ownership revealed by the ‘New Domesday’ of 1873. Derby had been instrumental in securing that census of landed property in the mistaken belief that it would prove to be more widely dispersed than radicals alleged. For all his admiration of J. S. Mill—whose On Liberty he called ‘one of the wisest books … of our times’ (Stanley, 2.81, 6 June 1881)—he was disturbed by the sage's mild proposals for land reform in 1871: ‘If he succeeds, it will be time to think of a new home in Australia’ (Derby diaries, 16 May 1871). His own shrewd judgement of people and economic trends reassured him. A good and improving landlord, he was convinced that his class must demonstrate its political and social usefulness by leadership and example, local and national. To be found wanting in those respects would be ‘fatal to the existence of a governing class’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 527, 18 March 1878). Generous with his time and purse, he was a chairman of quarter sessions for over thirty years and a benefactor in Liverpool, where he was the largest private landowner, and in other towns.

Even as a young man Derby felt a compulsion to busy himself with politics for fear of ‘probable mental deterioration’ (Journals and Memoirs … 1849–1869, 157, 21 Feb 1858) if his days were not full. Years afterwards, contemplating the unwanted prospect of the premiership if Disraeli's health broke down, he shrank from retirement and ‘the loss of a kind of employment which habit has made not uncongenial and which, if sometimes disagreeable, keeps off mere vacancy and weariness’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 369, 21 Jan 1877). As such remarks hint, Derby lacked a faith. In later life he seldom went to church. The contemporary religious thinker who most influenced him was the Unitarian W. R. Greg, whose book, The Creed of Christendom: its Foundations and Superstructure (1851), ‘I read again and again … it fastened itself on my mind’ (Derby diaries, 19 Nov 1881); a mind prepared, he added, by D. F. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu. Derby was a sceptic who remained a seeker after truth, rejecting uncomfortable seers like Tolstoy for preaching, in My Religion, ‘a kind of Quaker Communism’ (Derby diaries, 30 Sept 1888). The certainties to which this troubled intellectual clung were social: property and the laws of the market. Nothing alarmed him so much as the recurrent talk of a graduated income tax, ‘the most revolutionary of all schemes’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 286, 25 March 1876). In other ways he thought of himself, and perhaps was, a radical, ‘not an ultra-radical’ (Derby diaries, 30 Nov 1882). The monarchy struck him as an ‘anomaly’ (ibid., 16 Dec 1882). High tories and high-churchmen, particularly the latter, were anathema to him; in his diary he alluded to the ‘parti prêtre’ like some Gallic anti-clerical (Diaries … 1869–1878, 387, 30 March 1877). He disliked both Gladstone and Salisbury for their high-churchmanship and its political expression. In the speeches which he felt it was incumbent upon him to make to a wide variety of institutions and organizations he promoted a utilitarian, and wholly secular, understanding of social mechanisms. ‘All capital is accumulated labour’ (Stanley, 1.81, 1 April 1869), he reminded employers and workmen; ‘if class differences widen instead of narrow … how long will you be able to avert an explosion?’ (ibid., 2.88, 6 June 1881).

The emotional life of a cerebral politician centred from his thirties on the great lady, with a powerful attraction for clever men, whose second husband Derby became on 5 July 1870. Lady Mary Catherine Sackville (1824–1900), daughter of the fifth Earl De La Warr, was married in 1847 to the widowed second marquess of Salisbury, James Gascoyne-Cecil, with whom she had five children [see ]. She encouraged Derby's devoted attachment during her husband's lifetime, when he was a regular visitor to Hatfield. If her desire to see Derby succeed helped to keep him in politics, her love of intrigue and gossip seriously damaged his reputation at a critical juncture. Nevertheless, their childless union brought him as much personal happiness as he was capable of feeling, and his devotion endured.

Derby, Disraeli, and Salisbury, 1868–1878

Derby's relations with his wife's stepson, the third marquess of Salisbury, affected their careers. After Disraeli led the tories to defeat in the 1868 election a discontented party was inclined to think of Derby as the natural replacement, not least because of the importance of the north-west to tory electoral prospects. He gave Disraeli's critics no encouragement when, in the absence of both men, the change was mooted at a party conclave in 1872. He had previously refused the leadership in the Lords, to which he was elected in February 1870: ‘my habit of mind is not that of a partisan … By accepting … leadership of one political party, I lose all hold over members of the other’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 51, 20 Feb 1870). Although Salisbury had strongly supported his election to the Lords' post, Derby deplored the combativeness which characterized him in opposition. He acquiesced, however, in his wife's successful mediation between her stepson and Disraeli when a tory ministry was being formed in March 1874. Derby himself went back to the Foreign Office. Prompted by his wife, he was to suggest Salisbury, who had proved himself at the India Office, as the British plenipotentiary to the fruitless Constantinople conference of the powers on the Eastern question in 1876. For rather different reasons neither wanted to involve Britain in another war to save the Ottoman empire from Russian aggression. Derby was quite unsympathetic to Salisbury's—and Gladstone's—high-church solicitude for the sultan's Christian and Orthodox subjects. He had as little sympathy with Disraeli's desire for a diplomacy that maintained and enhanced British prestige at the risk of war in the run up to the predicted disintegration of Turkey's empire.

Positioning Britain for her share of the spoils, and getting in first at the places that mattered to her, seemed to Derby ‘mere buccaneering … giving the signal for a general scramble’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 392, 21 April 1877). He fought a long rear-guard action in cabinet against such proposals. It was a policy that Salisbury eventually joined Beaconsfield (as Disraeli had become) in adopting, even though it meant preparing to fight Russia—the champion of Ottoman Christians and at war with Turkey from 1877. Derby believed Salisbury was ambitious to be foreign secretary himself: they disagreed about the extent to which Britain could avoid being drawn into the great power politics of the continent. ‘To me it is not very … intelligible’, wrote Derby in August 1877, while ministers continued to debate their response if Russian invaders, held up in the Balkans, overcame Turkish resistance, ‘as long as our … interests are not touched, why should not foreigners settle their own differences in their own way?’ (ibid., 427, 2 Aug 1877). He was unwilling to do more than warn Russia against occupying Constantinople itself, which would have been too much for the British public, and defined Britain's essential interests in the Middle East.

In January 1878 Derby thought it provocative to send British warships into the Sea of Marmora, with or without the permission of the Turks, and resigned. He withdrew his resignation when the order to the Mediterranean Fleet was countermanded, and later consented to the naval presence off Constantinople. He did not leave the government until it seemed to decide in March on seizing a strategic point in the Levant as Britain dominated international negotiation of the peace terms imposed upon the Turks. He saw in this ‘an absolute violation of international law and right’ (Diaries … 1869–1878, 518, 2 March 1878), and resigned on 27 March 1878. In the event Britain obtained Cyprus by agreement with the sultan before the congress in Berlin distributed other portions of his empire. Derby's stand against the acquisition of Ottoman territory without regard to legality had apparently had an effect. ‘I have gained’, he said to himself, ‘the reputation of independence and moral courage’ (Derby diaries, 14 April 1878). That was true of his political opponents. His own party never forgave him for holding them back from the brink of war.

Derby had not neglected to brief the editors he was used to seeing about his preferred policy in the developing crisis. In newspapers given over to the ‘jingo’ excitement of the moment in London society and at court he was attacked with increasing violence as calls for British intervention against Russia grew louder. Those cabinet colleagues who wanted Britain to assert herself—virtually all of them in the end—put his reluctance to act down to a paralysing fear of responsibility. During the last weeks before his resignation Salisbury and Cairns, the lord chancellor, were chosen to share the drafting of critical diplomatic exchanges with him. This gave rise to the legend, reproduced by Salisbury's daughter and biographer, that Derby was by then foreign secretary only in name. He was also said to have taken refuge in drink. Worst of all, he and his wife were alleged to have leaked cabinet secrets to the Russian ambassador, Count Pyotr Shuvalov, whose mistress she was supposed to be. A good deal of this criticism has been perpetuated by historians. Little use has been made, so far, of Derby's diaries, most of which were not rediscovered before the 1970s. They do not leave the impression of someone who had lost control of himself and his department. The doggedness with which he fought his corner in cabinet, with little help from others after Lord Carnarvon's resignation in January 1878, is persuasive evidence on the other side.

The relationship of husband and wife to Shuvalov was close because the Russian was working against the war party in St Petersburg. In that context Lady Derby's indiscretions probably did more good than harm. As Derby's successor Salisbury benefited from the delay in Britain's confrontation with Russia until the latter was exhausted by her hard-won victory over Turkey. Yet he was unsparing in his condemnation of Derby who, he held, might have organized Europe to restrain Russia at an early stage of the crisis. When Derby revealed in the Lords (18 July 1878) that the cabinet had considered seizing the equivalent of Cyprus without the sultan's consent, Salisbury likened him to the odious figure of Titus Oates, divulging imaginary secrets to discredit his opponents. If the cabinet took no such decision, as the premier and Salisbury contended, they had certainly approved the idea (Millman, 412–13). Derby still retained his old affection for Beaconsfield, while knowing him to be ‘utterly without scruple’. He could never excuse Salisbury's desertion to the premier (Derby diaries, 4 April 1878, 14 April 1878).

The Colonial Office, 1882–1885: the problems of Africa and the Pacific

Nothing in Derby's subsequent career quite equals in importance his handling of the Eastern crisis. He determined to make up to the Liberals without leaving the tories, but soon formally changed his party. Gladstone, who had prophesied a great future for the young Stanley (Later Derby Diaries, 164, n. 1), sought to bring him into his second government of 1880 from the start. Derby did not, at any time, reciprocate Gladstone's esteem for him. The Liberal leader was ‘uncongenial to me’, he observed in 1881, ‘as a … “dévot”, and as an ardent democrat’ (Derby diaries, 30 Nov 1882). When he finally yielded to Gladstone's overtures in December 1882, he gave way because ‘bound to do what I can … to prevent the two sections of Whigs and Democrats from quarrelling’. The queen's vehement objections to ‘a most disagreeable, irresolute and timid minister’ (Victoria to Gladstone, 14 Dec 1882, Letters of Queen Victoria, 2nd ser., 3.378) diverted him from the India Office to the colonies, his actual preference.

As colonial secretary from December 1882 Derby negotiated with the Transvaal the London convention of 1884, which enlarged the independence of the republic, victorious in the Anglo-Transvaal War of 1880–81. His predecessor, Lord Kimberley, responsible for the Pretoria convention in 1881, which had explicitly retained British suzerainty over the Transvaal in conceding self-rule, believed the African majority there and in South Africa as a whole was predestined to go the way of the Aborigines in Australia and the Maori in New Zealand. Derby was not convinced: ‘the negro of South Africa is a tougher and more improveable being, up to a certain point’. Nor did he think British opinion would stand an Antipodean solution to the native problem (Derby diaries, 14 March 1882). Nevertheless, he accepted the advice of Sir Hercules Robinson, the high commissioner in South Africa, that suzerainty inspired ‘false hopes’ in the Transvaal's African population when the British government was not prepared to enforce its theoretical control of the republic's native policy (ibid., 16 May 1883). Derby was, however, unwilling to renounce suzerainty explicitly in the London convention, in which the word was not mentioned. He claimed afterwards that ‘whatever suzerainty meant … the condition of things which it implies remains’ (Schreuder, 430). The Transvaal interpreted the agreement differently, and the conflicting interpretations fed the continuing tension that eventually resulted in the South African War. In return for omitting the contentious word from the treaty, surrendering control of native affairs, and extending the Transvaal's boundaries, Derby obtained the ‘North Road’, giving the self-governing Cape Colony access to the unclaimed regions of the interior without having to cross the republic's territory. He was also able to keep the Boers out of Bechuanaland and, later, Basutoland. The attitude of the British press strengthened his hand: ‘When the Daily News and Pall Mall Gazette join with the Standard and Morning Post the practical unanimity of opinion … is irresistible by any minister’ (Derby diaries, 11 Jan 1884).

Derby got the best settlement possible when the Gladstone cabinet was disinclined to resort to force again: he proved more than a match for the Transvaal president, Paul Kruger, who had counted on the secretary of state's supposed weakness (Schreuder, 417). The republic received what Derby had recommended for Basutoland: ‘give them “Home Rule” with a kind of protectorate, conducting their external relations but leave them free in regard of internal affairs’ (Derby to Gladstone, 25 April 1883, BL, Add. MS 44141). Though he ‘totally’ distrusted the Cape politicians, Boer and British, he worked with them to avert a republican ascendancy fatal to British influence in South Africa (Derby to Gladstone, 5 Jan 1884, BL, Add. MS 44142). The races, white and black, were to remain within an imperial framework that sought to reconcile their interests with Britain's strategic concerns in a pragmatic and liberal fashion. Striving to make Gladstone see that the encroaching Transvaal must be made to honour its treaty obligations in respect of the Bechuana chiefs and people, Derby told him that ‘there can hardly be a case where right is more plainly on our side’ (ibid., Derby to Gladstone, 21 Oct 1884). He argued for the territorial moves that checked the Boers from the Transvaal and the smaller Orange Free State, and also the advance of Germany—‘these predatory proceedings’—after she had established herself in South-West Africa (ibid., Derby to Gladstone, 27 Dec 1884).

In Africa and the Pacific, Derby did not move quickly enough for many contemporaries, including his own officials at the Colonial Office. The permanent under-secretary of state complained of his ‘constitutional feebleness … It was a cruelty to him and to the Empire to put him in his present post’ (Sir Robert Herbert to Lord Carnarvon, 1 Oct 1884, BL, Add. MS 60795). The tactics of delay and evasion came easily to Derby with his sceptical outlook, and he made deliberate use of them. Holding that the settler colonies were much too ready to call on Britain and the British taxpayer for assistance in realizing their schemes of local expansion, he confided his intentions to his diary: ‘They will be disappointed so far as I am concerned’ (Derby diaries, 15 May 1883). They were: when the representatives of five Australian governments waited on him to urge pre-empting rival powers in the race about to start for New Guinea, the New Hebrides, Samoa, and other island groups in the south Pacific, ‘I tried a little sarcasm, asking whether they did not want a whole planet to themselves’ (ibid., 28 June 1883). Yet it seemed clear to him that if Britain did not act on their demand for the annexation of New Guinea, at least, there was a danger that the Australians might sever their ties with the mother country. It was opposition in the cabinet that delayed Derby's intended proclamation of a protectorate over the coasts of New Guinea not occupied by the Dutch until Germany claimed the north-east, facing Australia.

The record shows that ‘Dawdling Derby’, as one civil servant described him (The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, ed. D. W. R. Bahlman, 1993, 2.768), was not the weak and indecisive minister depicted by his critics. They inspired the press attacks calling for bolder policies than he thought were sensible. A lifelong imperialist, he appreciated the changed mood among enthusiasts for empire that affected both political parties: ‘My personal sympathy with the new movement is not warm’, he remarked, ‘but I have no scruple in … accepting it’. His business was to moderate and direct the rising clamour for an ever bigger empire, reflecting that after all his country was ‘rich enough to afford the amusement’ (Derby diaries, 11 Jan 1884). Fond of saying ‘We don't want any more black men’, he was loath to countenance the expansion that took place in west Africa where, in his view, the liabilities far outweighed any possible advantages. His empire was the mid-Victorian one, principally composed of the settler colonies and India. The outcome of the Berlin conference on west Africa in 1884 owed little to him. As for Egypt, the future of which loomed large in the cabinet's deliberations, he advocated treating her like an Indian princely state under British protection, or obtaining an international guarantee of her continued existence, as an alternative to annexation (ibid., 22 Jan 1884, 23 May 1884).

Liberal and Unionist, 1885–1893

Derby was his own man in the cabinet that fell in June 1885. More Liberal than whiggish, he came out for disestablishment, ‘ultimately’, before the 1885 general election (Stanley, 2.135, 10 Oct 1885). He had not been particularly worried by the sound and fury of the dispute between the houses over redistributing the constituencies in 1884: ‘the quarrel was not worth pushing to … extremities’. Nor was he frightened by Chamberlain's ‘radical programme’, which, he perceived, ‘has not gone down’ (Derby diaries, 19 Nov 1884, 2 Jan 1886). It was Ireland that drove him, as it did Chamberlain, into the Unionist camp in 1886, and made him a reluctant ally of Salisbury. For Derby there was ‘nothing arbitrary or despotic’ in continuing to overrule a ‘local majority’ in Ireland, if coercion was tempered by land purchase and a prudent extension of the elective principle to county or provincial government (Stanley, 2.98, 4 Jan 1882). Admitting in private that home rule, or independence, might have to be conceded at some future date, he was not ready to surrender the Union and the loyalist minority to Parnellite nationalism. But it was not only his ineradicable distrust of Salisbury that made him oppose a coalition between tories and Liberal Unionists. The semi-detached position of the Liberal Unionists, whom he led in the Lords until 1891, suited him very well. He was among those on that wing of the Unionists whose dislike for a binding continental, and especially a German, alliance would have prevented Salisbury from drawing nearer to Germany in his foreign policy. Above all Derby watched carefully for signs that the socialism advancing rapidly in Europe was making headway in Britain too. He understood the appeal of Henry George's ideas, but correctly forecast that they would take ‘a comparatively mild form’ in Britain. Fabian Essays, he was glad to find, were ‘in general temperately written and free from abusive language’ (Derby diaries, 10 Jan 1884, 24 April 1890). In 1889 alone he delivered nine speeches in London and Lancashire on social and political topics, including protection, land reform, and industrial relations. His themes were the classical Victorian ones of class co-operation and freedom, modified by recognition of the need for some judicious state intervention. Asked to chair the royal commission on labour in 1891, the last of the inquiries on which he served, he remarked of Tom Mann and the Welsh miners' leader, William Abraham (Mabon), that they were ‘not exactly the colleagues one would have chosen but it is necessary that the class … for which they speak should be represented’ (ibid., 10 April 1891).

Derby died at Knowsley, of influenza, on 21 April 1893 and was buried six days later in the parish church; his widow lived until 1900. He was succeeded by his brother , created Baron Stanley of Preston in 1886, a former Conservative minister and governor-general of Canada. They had not been on good terms since Frederick accepted promotion to the cabinet on Derby's resignation in 1878. Derby, who received the Garter from Gladstone in 1884, accumulated other distinctions that were probably more to his taste: he was lord rector of both Glasgow (1868–71) and Edinburgh (1874–7) universities, and chancellor of London University (1891–3). He was an active president of the Royal Literary Fund. His unending benefactions were a duty that he did not always relish: he subscribed to the new bishopric of Liverpool, ‘which I care nothing for and rather dislike than otherwise’ (Derby diaries, 26 April 1878). He was one of the founders of University College, Liverpool. Unpretentious in his manner, though reserved, he was more respected than popular in his native Lancashire; its accents, acquired in childhood, he never lost. In society unkind stories circulated about him: this immensely rich man was supposed to be afflicted with a mild form of kleptomania (Schreuder, 308). Unconstrained, and among social or intellectual equals, he was surprisingly good company for someone of his temperament, seldom labelled a bore. His lack of ambition for the premiership was misunderstood and misrepresented. When he ruled himself out as the obvious successor of the ailing Disraeli in 1876, a colleague wrote that he ‘withdraws more and more and feels his unfitness to lead men’ (Diary of Gathorne Hardy, 12 July 1876). Later, his reputation suffered from his having left the Conservatives and the Liberals in turn. Historians have not spared an innate caution that often resembled timidity, while they have tended to discount the effective defence he offered of his actions in debate and on the platform. He left his mark on colonial policy, where he demonstrated, as he did in his reaction to home rule, that he could act decisively when sure of himself. As foreign secretary he may well have ‘carried isolationism to its highest point’ (Taylor, 188), but his was a reasoned policy in 1866–8 and 1874–8. The publication of his diaries after nearly a century has furnished posterity with one of the richest sources for his age, and the opportunity of reassessing a remarkable figure.

David Steele


Lpool RO, Derby diaries and papers · Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury MSS · Disraeli, Derby and the conservative party: journals and memoirs of Edward Henry, Lord Stanley, 1849–1869, ed. J. R. Vincent (1978) · A selection from the diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th earl of Derby (1826–93), between March 1869 and September 1878, ed. J. R. Vincent, CS, 5th ser., 4 (1994) · The later Derby diaries … selected passages, ed. J. Vincent (privately printed, Bristol, 1981) · E. H. Stanley, Speeches and addresses of Edward Henry, XVth earl of Derby, and a prefatory memoir by W. E. H. Lecky, ed. T. H. Sanderson and T. H. Roscoe, 2 vols. (1894) · W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle, The life of Benjamin Disraeli, 6 vols. (1910–20) · R. Millman, Britain and the Eastern question, 1875–1878 (1979) · BL, Gladstone MSS · D. M. Schreuder, Gladstone and Kruger: liberal government and colonial ‘home rule’, 1880–85 (1969) · R. Robinson, J. Gallagher, and A. Denny, Africa and the Victorians (1961) · A. B. Cooke and J. Vincent, The governing passion: cabinet government and party politics in Britain, 1885–86 (1974) · Gladstone, Diaries · E. D. Steele, Palmerston and liberalism, 1855–1865 (1991) · T. A. Jenkins, Gladstone, whiggery and the liberal party, 1874–1886 (1988) · M. Cowling, 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution (1967) · R. Stewart, The foundation of the conservative party, 1830–1867 (1978) · A. J. P. Taylor, The struggle for mastery in Europe, 1848–1918 (1957) · The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 vols. (1907–32), 1st ser., vol. 8; 2nd ser., vols. 1–3 · The diary of Gathorne Hardy, later Lord Cranbrook, 1866–1892: political selections, ed. N. E. Johnson (1981) · BL, Carnarvon MSS · GEC, Peerage


Lpool RO, corresp., diaries, and papers |  Balliol Oxf., corresp. with Sir Robert Morier · BL, corresp. with Lord Carnarvon, Add. MSS 60765–60766 · BL, corresp. with Lord Cross, Add. MS 51266 · BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44141–44142 · BL, letters to Harriet Grote, Add. MS 46691 · BL, Harcourt MSS · BL, corresp. with A. H. Layard · BL, corresp. with Florence Nightingale, Add. MS 45781 · BL, corresp. with Sir Stafford Northcote, Add. MS 50022 · BL, corresp. with Sir A. B. Paget, Add. MSS 51220–51223 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir George Clerk, MS Eur. D 538 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Benjamin Disraeli · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir William Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Kimberley · Borth. Inst., corresp. with Lord Halifax · CKS, letters to Sir William Knollys · CKS, letters to Stanhope family · Duke U., Perkins L., letters to Lady Malet · Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury MSS · Herts. ALS, corresp. with Lord Lytton · LPL, corresp. with A. C. Tait · Lpool RO, letters to fourteenth earl of Derby · Lpool RO, letters to Robert Holt · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Henry Elliot · NL Scot., corresp., mainly with Lord Rosebery · NRA Scotland, Ewart MSS · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Sir John Ewart · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Joseph Levy · priv. coll., Walpole MSS · PRONI, letters to James Tennent · Som. ARS, letters to Sir William Jolliffe · TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Cairns, PRO 30/51 · TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Granville, PRO 30/29 · Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton · W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond · Worcs. RO, letters to Sir John Pakington


H. Watkins, photograph, 1858, NPG [see illus.] · M. Beerbohm, caricature, c.1890, Merton Oxf. · T. Brock, marble bust, 1896, Palace of Westminster, London · Ape [C. Pellegrini], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (26 June 1869) · J. Brown, stipple (after photograph), BM, NPG · Caldesi, Blanford & Co., cartes-de-visite, NPG · J. Cochran, stipple (after F. G. Hurlstone), BM; repro. in English Annual (1837) · W. & D. Downey, woodburytype, NPG; repro. in W. Downey and D. Downey, The cabinet portrait gallery, 2 (1891) · H. Furniss, caricature, NPG · H. Gales, group portrait, watercolour (The Derby cabinet of 1867), NPG · J. Hawkins, oils (after F. Grant, 1866), Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire · W. Holl, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM · W. Holl, stipple and line (after a photograph by Mayall), NPG · S. Laurence, chalk drawing, NPG · Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype, NPG; repro. in J. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1881) · L. Lowenstam, etching, BM · Maull & Polyblank, photograph, NPG · Mayall, cartes-de-visite, NPG · W. E. Miller, oils (after G. Richmond, 1864), Trinity Cam. · Pet, caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in Monetary Gazette (2 May 1877) · D. J. Pound, stipple and line (after photograph by Mayall), BM; repro. in Illustrated News of the World · G. J. Stodart, stipple and line (after photograph by Elliott & Fry), NPG · S. A. Walker & Co., cartes-de-visite, NPG · cartes-de-visite, NPG · photographs, NPG · prints, NPG

Wealth at death  

£1,935,554 8s. 10d.: resworn probate, July 1894, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1893)