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  Robert Offley Ashburton  Crewe-Milnes (1858–1945), by Walter Frederick Osborne Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes (1858–1945), by Walter Frederick Osborne
Milnes, Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-, marquess of Crewe (1858–1945), politician, was born at 16 Upper Brook Street, London, on 12 January 1858, the only son of , and Annabella Hungerford (d. 1874), daughter of the second Baron Crewe. He was educated at Winton House, near Winchester, Harrow School, and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1880. In that year he was engaged to Sybil Marcia (1857–1887), daughter of Sir Frederick Graham, third baronet, of Netherby, and they married on 3 June. Milnes shared his father's Liberalism and was appointed assistant private secretary to Lord Granville, foreign secretary in Gladstone's second ministry, in April 1883. In 1884 he was adopted as Liberal candidate for Barnsley, but he never contested the seat, as the death of his father in August 1885 consigned him to the House of Lords as Baron Houghton. He was made a Liberal whip in the Lords and lord-in-waiting to Queen Victoria when Gladstone formed his third ministry in January 1886. He apparently inherited his father's view that England was responsible for Ireland's misfortune, and his loyalty to his party during the Irish home-rule crisis left him one of the few Gladstonian peers after 1886, ensuring his subsequent political influence. The death of his wife in September 1887, though, led him to seek to leave politics. He resigned as Liberal whip in order to study agriculture at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, only to be prevented by illness from taking up the course. Instead he devoted himself to travel (he visited Egypt in 1889) and to his literary interests: a volume of poems entitled Stray Verses, 1889–90 was written on the journey to Egypt and he produced a translation, The Songs of Béranger, in 1889. Further family tragedy struck in March 1890, with the death of Houghton's eight-year-old son Richard Charles Rodes (1882–1890).

On the Liberals' return to office in 1892 Houghton, who had emphasized in print his commitment to home rule since the 1886 crisis, was appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland and given the difficult task of conveying Gladstonian Irish policy to the unsympathetic Queen Victoria. He remained in office after Rosebery succeeded Gladstone in 1894. In that year Houghton's uncle the third Baron Crewe died; Houghton succeeded to the Crewe estates and, by royal licence, took the name of Crewe as a prefix to that of Milnes (8 June 1894). When the Liberals fell from power in 1895, he was created earl of Crewe (17 July).

On 20 April 1899 Crewe married the eighteen-year-old Lady Margaret Etienne Hannah (Peggy) Primrose, daughter of the fifth earl of Rosebery. He was less critical than his father-in-law, though, of radical opposition to British involvement in the South African War: he acted as conciliator and healer of Liberal divisions and never joined Rosebery's Liberal League. As Rosebery distanced himself from the Liberals during the last months of the long Unionist ascendancy in 1905, Crewe was credited with devising the ‘step-by-step’ Irish policy which would limit the liability represented by the Liberals' commitment to home rule, and he became lord president of the council in the government formed by Campbell-Bannerman in December 1905. This appointment launched a long period of continuous cabinet office during which Crewe became a pivotal figure in the Liberal governments from 1905 to 1916, less because of his skills in policy making or public oratory, which were minimal, than because he won the trust of those who did lead. Campbell-Bannerman thought none of his cabinet colleagues straighter, wiser, or more helpful than Crewe, while Asquith considered him to have the best political judgement in the cabinet. Crewe would become the principal political aide and confidant to Asquith during the eight years of his premiership and a virtually automatic appointee to the many ad hoc committees set up to handle specific crises before and during the First World War.

When Asquith became prime minister in 1908 Crewe succeeded Lord Elgin at the Colonial Office, but his appointment in succession to Lord Ripon as Liberal leader in the House of Lords in the same year did more to secure his public prominence, by making him the principal defender of Liberal policy in a Unionist upper house which was becoming feverishly hostile to the Liberal government and increasingly ready to sabotage its measures. Crewe had resented the peers' wrecking of the 1906 Education Bill, in which he took a strong personal interest, and which he had attempted to save by convening a cross-party conference of peers. He had been unable to prevent the damage done to subsequent education, licensing, and land bills by the Unionist majority in the Lords. The naturally conciliatory Crewe was thrust into the front line of constitutional conflict during the crisis prompted by Lloyd George's radical budget of 1909. Crewe was generally unsympathetic to the budget itself and privately resented the chancellor's demagogic language in his Limehouse speech of 1909, but he had no time for the nihilism of the Unionist peers. When the Liberals' qualified victory in the election of January 1910 led to the passage of the budget and shifted attention to the blocking powers of the Lords themselves, Crewe participated in the constitutional conference which sat for five months in 1910; characteristically, he was said to have sympathized with Lloyd George's proposals for a cross-party government to handle the crisis. When the conference collapsed, however, Crewe (who had earlier in the year been one of those on the right wing of the cabinet arguing for reform of the Lords' composition) participated, with Asquith, in the controversial meeting with the new king, George V, at which the monarch was persuaded to promise the creation of new Liberal peers, if necessary, to approve the curtailment of the Lords' right of veto should the Liberals win a second election. George V remained suspicious of Crewe thereafter, believing that advantage had been taken of his inexperience. Crewe none the less led the negotiations with Lord Cromer and the archbishop of Canterbury to secure sufficient Unionist support to pass the 1911 Parliament Bill, which limited the Lords' veto powers.

Amid the constitutional crisis, in September 1910, Crewe was appointed secretary of state for India; he was thus responsible for the Delhi durbar of 1911, when George V became the first reigning monarch actually to visit India and Crewe the first India secretary to travel through the country. In recognition of his work in preparing this masterpiece of imperial pageantry Crewe was made a marquess in 1911, with the additional title of earl of Madeley. This became the courtesy title of his short-lived second son, Richard George Archibald John Lucian Hungerford, known as Jack (1911–1922). Crewe also presided over the transfer of the raj capital from Calcutta to Delhi, and was responsible for the successful appointment of Lutyens to design New Delhi.

In 1914 Crewe worked with Lloyd George in the negotiations with the Bank of England over currency and exchange arrangements in wartime which calmed the financial panic stimulated by the outbreak of war. He placed his London home, Crewe House, in Curzon Street, at the disposal of the government, and it became the centre for the production of war propaganda. On the formation of the Asquith coalition in May 1915 he became lord president of the council once again, before moving to become president of the Board of Education in 1916. Education interested him, and it is interesting to speculate what role he would have played in post-war educational reconstruction, but the break-up of the coalition and the Liberal split in December 1916 denied him the chance. Crewe, who had been loyal to his party leadership over Irish home rule, the South African War, and the constitutional crisis, remained loyal to Asquith when the prime minister fell victim to the coup promoted by Lloyd George and Bonar Law. Asquith's departure from office ended eleven years of continuous cabinet office for Crewe, and virtually ended his career as a national politician. His decision in 1917 to become chairman of the London county council (LCC)—far more of an honorific post than when his father-in-law had held it in 1889—amounted to a recognition of the fact. So, more strikingly, did his acceptance of the post of ambassador to France in October 1922; he served for almost six years. He could not, of course, have anticipated the circumstances which led to his return to cabinet office for a ten-week stint as secretary for war in Ramsay MacDonald's first National Government in August 1931. Without a parliamentary constituency to defend, he did not, unlike his Liberal colleagues, feel trapped in the national coalition, and held no government post after the general election of November 1931. He supported the decision of the Samuelite Liberals to withdraw from the National Government over the issue of free trade in 1932, and from 1936 to the end of 1944 he led the independent Liberals in the House of Lords.

The fourth marquess of Salisbury described Crewe in 1945 as ‘perhaps the last of the Whig statesmen’; his biographer considered him more radical than whig (Pope-Hennessy, 54). Crewe's whiggishness was more temperamental than ideological. Disposed by nature and training to conceal all emotion, he recoiled from the fanaticism of Edwardian politics, involving himself in the attempts to resolve both the 1906 Education Bill dispute and the crisis over the House of Lords by mediation. In 1912 he sought to resolve the embittered party dispute over the future of Ulster over a round of golf at Deeside with the Unionist leader Bonar Law. He despised the platform demagogy of Lloyd George, whom he neither liked nor admired—an attitude which perhaps reflected his own unease as a public speaker (Pope-Hennessy, 150). ‘Slow of thought and slower of speech’ (David, 120–21), according to Charles Hobhouse, Crewe was an uncomfortable orator, whose speeches were punctuated, as his biographer recalled, by ‘prolonged moments—almost minutes—of hesitation while he fastidiously chose the correct word’ (Pope-Hennessy, x). His cabinet colleague Edwin Montagu claimed to have a constituent whose wife had lost her sanity listening to Crewe speak for an hour and a half on the land question. It is questionable whether his radicalism amounted to much more than a loyalty to the touchstone policy of Irish home rule, though Hobhouse considered him, like Sir Edward Grey, to be more radical than was widely believed. But he was not whig enough to contemplate crossing the floor. In fact he remained a partisan, loyal to the Liberal Party in its moments of tension and division—in 1886, in 1900–01, in 1909–11, and in 1916. Before 1914 his position as a patient and clear-sighted Liberal in a hostile House of Lords gave him political significance and influence, but the collapse of the Liberal Party as a party of government during the First World War made his supple skills otiose. ‘War smothers all the aspirations of Liberalism’, he wrote in 1940, and war certainly smothered his active political career (Crewe-Milnes, 481). After 1916 his public role became that of the elder statesman and ‘safe pair of hands’: he guided the London county council, filled the Paris embassy during a tense period in Anglo-French relations (without apparently doing much to shape policy), served in the first National Government during the emergency of 1931, and joined a group of ‘half a dozen old stagers’, in Austen Chamberlain's words (Austen Chamberlain Diary, 518), to advise Baldwin on the handling of the abdication crisis in 1936.

Crewe's hands were less safe in private than in public affairs. ‘Both extravagant and poorly advised’ (Crewe, 34), according to his grandson, he inherited 30,000 acres and died with 6000, having sold Crewe Hall in Cheshire and a family home in Yorkshire. He regarded money and business as ‘unmentionable topics’, and preferred reading (he inherited his father's library of 24,000 books, but disposed of the collection of ‘pornographic and sadic literature and manuscripts’ included in it), writing poetry—his A Harrow Grave in Flanders would find a place in several anthologies—and country pursuits, including racing and the breeding of shorthorn cattle (Crewe, 34; Pope-Hennessy, 24). He published a leaden official biography of his father-in-law Rosebery in 1931. He was lord lieutenant of the county of London (1912–44), an elder brother of Trinity House, and chancellor of Sheffield University (1918–44).

The tight self-control that made Crewe unfailingly courteous to strangers could also make him appear, according to his second wife, ‘rather formal and aloof’. Asquith considered dining at Crewe's ‘a great bore’ (Letters to Venetia Stanley, 51), while playing golf with him became a trial on account of ‘the extraordinary deliberation of his methods’ (ibid., 549). Conduct trying to his friends shaded into callousness towards his family: he embarked on a lengthy foreign tour in 1890, when his eight-year-old son, already motherless, was dying, and upstaged his first daughter on her ‘coming out’ by announcing his engagement to a woman a year her senior. His grandson remembered Crewe as ‘a man of few feelings’ (Crewe, 24).

Crewe died at West Horsley Place, the house near Leatherhead which he had acquired in 1931, on 20 June 1945. As his two sons had died before him, his peerages became extinct. He was survived by his second wife and four daughters, Annabel Hungerford (b. 1881), Celia Hermione (b. 1884), and (Helen) Cynthia [see ] by his first marriage and Mary Evelyn Hungerford (b. 1915) by his second.

John Davis

Sources  

J. Pope-Hennessy, Lord Crewe, 1858–1945: the likeness of a liberal (1955) · R. O. A. Crewe-Milnes, ‘The eclipse of liberalism’, The Fortnightly, 153 (1940) · Q. Crewe, Well I forget the rest (1991) · DNB · B. K. Murray, The people's budget, 1909/10: Lloyd George and liberal politics (1980) · N. Blewett, The peers, the parties and the people (1972) · E. O'Halpin, The decline of the union: British government in Ireland, 1892–1920 (1987) · The Austen Chamberlain diary letters: the correspondence of Sir Austen Chamberlain with his sisters Hilda and Ida, 1916–1937, ed. R. C. Self, CS, 5th ser., 5 (1995) · Inside Asquith’s cabinet: from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, ed. E. David (1977) · J. O. Fair, British inter party conferences: a study of the procedure of conciliation in British politics (1980) · GEC, Peerage · H. H. Asquith: letters to Venetia Stanley, ed. M. Brock and E. Brock (1982) · J. A. Spender, The life of the Right Hon. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 2 vols. (1923) · Burke, Peerage · WWW, 1941–50 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1947)

Archives  

CUL, corresp. and papers · CUL, corresp. and MSS relating to India · ICL, corresp. and papers relating to Imperial College · NL Scot., corresp. and MSS relating to Rosebery biography |  BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49739 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MS 41213 · BL, corresp. with Lord Gladstone, Add. MS 45996 · BL, letters to W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44499–44522 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43552 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Lord Curzon, Eur. MSS F 111–112 · BL OIOC, corresp. with Sir G. Fleetwood Wilson, MS Eur. E 224 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., letters to William Montgomery Cook · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lewis Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne · CAC Cam., letters to Austen Chamberlain · CAC Cam., letters to Lord Curzon · CAC Cam., letters to J. Ramsay MacDonald · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir Eric Phipps · CUL, letters to Lord Hardinge · JRL, letters to The Guardian · Lpool RO, corresp. with seventeenth earl of Derby · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Lothian · NL Aus., corresp. with Alfred Deakin · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., corresp. with earl of Minto · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Aberdeen relating to Ireland · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Emmott · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Mottistone · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · Royal Society of Literature, London, letters to Royal Society of Literature · Surrey HC, letters to earl of Onslow · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Cromer, FO633 · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Kitchener, 30/57; WO159 · U. Birm. L., corresp. with Austen Chamberlain · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Sir Edmund Gosse · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman · U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lady Galway


Likenesses  

W. Carter, oils, exh. RA 1893, University of Sheffield · Bassano, five photographs, 1895, NPG · A. McEvoy, oils, 1918, Great London Council · W. Rothenstein, pastel drawing, 1918, University of Sheffield · W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1918, NPG · M. Beerbohm, caricature, 1919, Savile Club, London · M. Beerbohm, caricature, 1924, AM Oxf. · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1925, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1938, NPG · H. Furniss, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG · W. F. Osborne, oils, NPG [see illus.] · J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (10 Dec 1892) · portraits, repro. in Pope-Hennessy, Lord Crewe

Wealth at death  

£122,494 14s. 8d.: probate, 8 Feb 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales