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  Arthur John Bigge (1849–1931), by Rudolph Swoboda, 1889 Arthur John Bigge (1849–1931), by Rudolph Swoboda, 1889
Bigge, Arthur John, Baron Stamfordham (1849–1931), courtier, was born on 18 June 1849 at Linden Hall, near Morpeth, Northumberland, the son of John Frederick Bigge (1814–1885), vicar of Stamfordham, Northumberland, and his wife, Caroline Mary (d. 1901), only daughter of Nathaniel Ellison, a barrister and bankruptcy commissioner in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Bigge attended Rossall School in the 1860s, and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1869 after training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He became friends with the prince imperial, a fellow officer in the artillery, the son and heir of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie of France, who were then living in exile in England. The prince wanted to see military action and, against the wishes of Disraeli, the prime minister, the queen secured him an attachment to a unit sent to South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. He was killed by Zulus in a surprise attack; Bigge, who served both in the Zulu and Cape Frontier wars, and was mentioned in dispatches after the battle of Kambala (29 March), was asked to Scotland by Eugénie and the queen to give his account of the ambush (though he had not actually witnessed it).

Bigge impressed the queen, who found him ‘clever, amiable and agreeable’ (DNB), at a time when her private office was in transition. Her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, was carrying an extra burden owing to the death of the keeper of the privy purse, Sir Thomas Biddulph. Ponsonby accepted the queen's insistence that young Bigge, who had no administrative experience or knowledge of the court, should be hired as his assistant; as a Liberal, Ponsonby was suspicious of Bigge's toryism, but was surprised to find him a congenial companion. Bigge was not as quick-witted as his chief: one later observer described him as ‘sound and painstaking; simplicity and honesty, good sense, loyalty and keenness were all his life the chief features of his character’ (Gore, 39). His political imagination was limited, but he was a conscientious assistant to Ponsonby, and when the latter died in 1895 he was the obvious replacement. Queen Victoria expressed complete confidence in him, and he was made a KCB, which he had declined two years earlier (Emden, 204); he had been made CB in 1885 and CMG in 1887. He had married, on 10 February 1881, Constance Neville (d. 1922), the daughter of the Revd William Frederick Neville and his wife, Fanny Grace, née Blackwood. They had a son and two daughters.

Bigge's first spell as private secretary to the sovereign lasted from May 1895 until the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901. They were trying years, as the queen was growing old and she was seeing fewer people. What work she accomplished was often channelled through her ladies-in-waiting or Indian servants, and Bigge saw her more rarely than had Ponsonby. It fell to him early in his tenure of the post to smooth the resignation of the queen's cousin, the elderly duke of Cambridge, as commander-in-chief of the army, and he helped to manage the diamond jubilee celebrations in 1897. Edward VII, on his accession in 1901, kept his existing private secretary, Sir Francis Knollys, and Bigge spent his reign filling the same role for George, duke of York, who shortly became prince of Wales. Once the pupil of Ponsonby, he now became the teacher of a young sailor of somewhat limited education as he travelled around the British empire. Bigge wrote his speeches, becoming ‘accepted as one of the first of his age in the composition of speeches and memoranda’ (Gore, 41), and gave the young man lessons in deportment. He was not successful, however, in persuading Prince George and Princess May (later Queen Mary) to move from York House on the Sandringham estate to a place where they might more easily cultivate a wider range of contacts. Bigge once told the prince to smile more during public appearances, to which he received the reply that sailors never smiled on duty: Bigge's rejoinder—that ‘the duties of a sailor and those of the heir to the throne were not identical’—earned the young man's respect (Nicolson, 64–5). Several heartfelt letters from the prince to Bigge, thanking him for his guidance and friendship, have survived; after Bigge died, George V, as he became, said of him: ‘he taught me how to be a King’ (ibid., 452).

The constant crowds of cheering colonials on his travels with the prince entrenched Bigge's enthusiasm for empire. On the former's accession as George V in May 1910 Bigge became a privy councillor and, for the second time, private secretary to the sovereign, a position he held jointly with Knollys. A clash between them was not long in coming. Bigge advised the king against giving the Liberal government pre-election ‘contingent guarantees’ as to his future conduct in enabling the passage of legislation to restrict the power of the House of Lords (the Parliament Act); Knollys, a Liberal, took the opposite view, to which the king eventually acceded. Subsequent events led the monarch to lose confidence in Knollys, who resigned in March 1913, leaving Bigge—ennobled as Baron Stamfordham (23 June 1911), though the king continued to address him by his surname—as principal private secretary. Bigge travelled with George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911, where he advised against the monarch's going on a tiger shoot lest it appear frivolous; he was appointed GCIE that year, and GCB in 1916. He had, however, earned the enduring mistrust of the Liberal government by his earlier actions; the marquess of Lincolnshire observed that he was a ‘very strong Tory and does not hesitate to show his colours’ (Rose, King George V, 141), while Asquith, the prime minister, complained of the tone and content of some of his communications (ibid.). On this rock foundered his attempt to help the king broker a compromise over Irish home rule; both men feared a civil war if this measure were pushed through. A subsequent indicator of ministerial alienation came when Lloyd George's secretaries made Stamfordham wait on a hard wooden chair when he came to call. Following the controversy over the Parliament Act he behaved with greater caution—to the degree that he earned the sobriquet of ‘Better-not’ (ibid., 122).

During the First World War Stamfordham lost his only son, John Neville (1887–1915). He demonstrated the political acumen he had acquired in his service under Victoria and Ponsonby when, in response to widespread anti-German sentiment, he suggested that Windsor should replace Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as the royal family name. He also advised that the king's civil list be cut down and money refunded to the exchequer so that the royal family might share some of the wartime hardships of ordinary people. At the time of the Russian Revolution Stamfordham wrote:
We must endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, Socialist and others, to regard the crown, not as a mere figure-head … but as a living power for good, with receptive faculties welcoming information affecting the interests and social well-being of all classes. (Nicolson, 308)
He helped the king to face down the levelling temper of demobilized troops by stepping up the royal family's charitable works, and kept him informed about the growth of republicanism; George V had previously written to him, in gratitude ‘I know you always tell me the truth however unpleasant it may be’ (29 Dec 1913; Gore, 148). Stamfordham supported G. E. Buckle, the former editor of The Times, in continuing the publication, begun by Lord Esher, of Queen Victoria's papers. Such activities undoubtedly helped to bolster the monarchy's standing as a cultural icon, if they did little to recover direct political influence over ministers of the crown.

After his wife died in 1922 Stamfordham lived with his unmarried daughter Margaret at St James's Palace and at Windsor. It was his duty, in 1923, to tell Lord Curzon that his membership of the House of Lords effectively precluded him from becoming prime minister. His kindness when the first Labour government took office the following year was later recalled by Ramsay MacDonald. Stamfordham died in post at St James's Palace on 31 March 1931, following an operation two weeks earlier from which he never recovered, and was buried at Brompton cemetery on 4 April. His title became extinct with his death. The king wrote in his diary ‘I shall miss him terribly. His loss is irreparable’ (Pope-Hennessy, 549). Owen Morshead, a royal librarian who knew both men, wrote of Stamfordham's ‘absence of self-esteem which responded to a like quality in his master, establishing between them more than a merely professional relationship throughout the thirty years of their association’ (DNB).

Stamfordham was ‘slight of build and unassuming in manner’ (Rose, King George V, 49). His memoranda were invariably delivered hand-written in a large script—a habit originating in Queen Victoria's poor sight and prejudice against typewriters. His period of service covered a time of enormous change and upheaval; his awareness of public opinion and the innovations he fostered helped to ensure the survival of the monarchy into a new era. Unusual among courtiers in coming from a non-aristocratic background, he might be said to have founded a dynasty himself—his grandson Michael Adeane served as private secretary to Elizabeth II from 1954 to 1972.

William M. Kuhn


DNB · V. Bogdanor, The monarchy and the constitution (1995) · H. Nicolson, King George the fifth (1952) · K. Rose, King George V, pbk edn (1984) · K. Rose, Kings, queens and courtiers (1985) · F. Prochaska, Royal bounty: the making of a welfare monarchy (1995) · W. M. Kuhn, Henry and Mary Ponsonby (2002) · The Times (1 April 1931) · The Times (19 May 1931) · The Times (12–31 March 1931) · The Times (6 April 1931) · L. G. Pine, The new extinct peerage (1973) · J. Gore, George V: a personal memoir (1949) · P. H. Emden, Behind the throne (1934) · J. Pope-Hennessy, Queen Mary (1959) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1931)


BL, corresp., Add. MSS 48599, 48371, 48378, 48922, 48931 |  BL, corresp. with Lord Bertie, Add. MS 63012 · BL, corresp. with John Burns, Add. MS 46281 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MSS 41206, 41208 · BL, letters to Sir Edward Walter Hamilton, Add. MS 48599 · BL, corresp. with Viscount Long, Add. MS 62405 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62155 · BL, corresp. with Lord Selborne, Add. MS 46003 · BL OIOC, letters to Sir Harcourt Butler, MSS Eur. F 116 · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MSS Eur. E 238, F 118 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Viscount Addison · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Robert Bridges · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Henry Burdett · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Geoffrey Dawson · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir William Harcourt and Lewis Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Arthur Ponsonby · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Horace Rumbold · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir W. L. Worthington-Evans · CKS, letters to Akers-Douglas · CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · Lambton Park, Chester-le-Street, co. Durham, corresp. with third earl of Durham · NA Scot., corresp. with A. J. Balfour · NL Aus., corresp. with Viscount Novar · NL Aus., corresp. with first Viscount Stonehaven · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., corresp. with fourth earl of Minto · NL Scot., corresp. mainly with Lord Rosebery · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Mottistone · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · PRONI, corresp. with Edward Carson · Royal Arch. · TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Midleton, PRO 30/67 · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Austen Chamberlain · U. Durham L., corresp. with Sir Reginald Wingate · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman


R. Swoboda, portrait, 1889, Royal Collection [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1917, NPG · F. Dicksee, print, 1919, NPG · H. A. Oliver, oils, 1927, priv. coll. · F. Dodd, charcoal drawing, 1931, Royal Collection · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (6 Sept 1900) · black and white photograph, repro. in The Times (1 April 1931)

Wealth at death  

£143,767 17s. 3d.—unsettled property of gross value: probate, 14 May 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · net personalty £140,947: Times (19 May 1931)