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Reference group
Founders of the Primrose League (act. 1883–c.1918), first came together as an extra-parliamentary support group for the Fourth Party, a gathering of Conservative back-benchers initially intent on impeding Gladstone's legislative programme but increasingly opposed to its own front bench and promoting the ideals of ‘tory democracy’. Over the next two decades the Primrose League became a mass organization—‘the largest voluntary mass movement in British political history’ (Roberts, 276)—central to the electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party at a time when its own structure of constituency associations was unequal to the challenges created by an expanding electorate.

The Primrose League was founded by Lord Randolph Churchill at the Carlton Club, London, on 17 November 1883. Churchill thought it would be of some limited use to him in his ruthless campaign, begun three years earlier, to secure a position at the forefront of the Conservative Party. The detailed work was done by Churchill's close parliamentary associates in the Fourth Party, his chief springboard to power. John Eldon Gorst, the leading expert on party organization, drew up the league's statutes, which included a declaration to maintain ‘Religion … the Estates of the Realm, and … the Imperial Ascendancy of Great Britain’ (Cooke, 24–5). Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, the league's most vigorous publicist, devised the remarkable Primrose honours system, providing for the creation of its legendary knights and dames in very large numbers. Wolff was also responsible for the rich profusion of regalia—the Primrose badges, clasps, stars, and banners—for which the organization is chiefly remembered today. The final member of the original founding group was Sir Alfred Frederic Adolphus Slade, third baronet (1834–1890), a slavish follower of Churchill and from 1875 receiver-general of the Inland Revenue.

More of Churchill's most trusted supporters joined shortly afterwards. They included Benjamin Stone, Sir Algernon Borthwick (from 1895 Baron Glenesk), owner of the principal tory daily newspaper, the Morning Post (where the league secured lavish publicity), and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, Britain's most famous imperial knight-errant after General Gordon, and a combative parliamentary candidate in Birmingham in 1880. One other eager collaborator, who subsequently claimed a substantial share of the credit, was the hostess and horticulturist Lady Dorothy Nevill, who had been a close friend of Disraeli. The pioneers met regularly at her lunch table at 45 Charles Street, London, where they hatched their plans. Her presence provided the first indication of the remarkable contribution that women would make to the league.

It was agreed that the league should seek to ‘embrace all classes and creeds except atheists and enemies of the British Empire’ (Primrose League papers, MS 1, fol. 1)—high-sounding sentiments to dignify Churchillian self-interest. Initially the leaders of the Conservative Party were not impressed. ‘I doubt the Primrose League coming to anything’, Lord Salisbury wrote on 23 December 1883 to his Commons counterpart, Sir Stafford Northcote, against whom Churchill waged a campaign of remorseless denigration (Feuchtwanger, 189). The tory frondeur set his sights on capturing control of the entire party in the country, as represented by the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations, which Gorst had established in 1867. When that, the boldest of all Churchill's self-serving initiatives, failed in July 1884, he fell back on the Primrose League, whose growth now began in earnest. In April 1885, when 11,000 members had been recruited, Churchill extolled the league for ‘gathering into the net of the Constitution hundreds of able and zealous workers whom ordinary political organisations might never have touched’ (Speeches, 209). These members worked first and foremost in his interests, with the advancement of the Conservative Party as a subordinate consideration.

Churchill promoted the league as an enduring memorial to Benjamin Disraeli, who had died on 19 April 1881. This was his masterstroke. In life Disraeli had often divided opinion sharply within his party; in death he united it in reverence and devotion. The primrose became the symbol of an extraordinary cult, unique in British political history. Was it Disraeli's favourite flower? There were many doubters, but Queen Victoria, who had supplied him with regular consignments of primroses since 1868, would brook no argument on the point; and the tory press dutifully followed the royal lead. ‘Primroses were worn generally’, The Times reported on 20 April 1910 in its account of proceedings on Primrose day, as 19 April had become. The custom persisted for some fifty years. One of Disraeli's official biographers, G. E. Buckle, writing in the late 1920s, recorded that ‘still a considerable proportion of the population, male and female, appear in the streets on April 19 wearing bunches or buttonholes of primroses’ (Monypenny and Buckle, 1503). The league always ensured that there were abundant supplies to commemorate the primrose hero, whom it depicted above all as an ardent champion of empire. Imperium et libertas was the league's famous motto, of which members' principal concern was the progress of imperium. The group's official publication, the Primrose League Gazette, proclaimed that it sought ‘the greatness of the Empire and the welfare of the people’ (6 May 1909)—in that order.

Tories throughout Britain flocked to join the league and to become votaries of the extraordinary Disraeli cult. Membership reached 200,000 in the spring of 1886; it then leapt to over half a million in the next twelve months and to double that number by March 1891. It was a truly spectacular record of growth, and most of it came from the working classes. After this first, fevered rush the ranks of the league continued to swell, though at a less exuberant rate. In 1910 it was boasted that there were two million under its Primrose banners (at a time when the electorate numbered 7.7 million), but membership had almost certainly peaked at a slightly lower level a few years earlier. The league's central office—located first on Essex Street, off the Strand, and subsequently in Victoria Street—was at this time larger than the Conservative central office, and showed a marked disinclination to note resignations and deaths properly. The habit of keeping accurate membership records in politics had not yet been established in Britain. However, the league was generally regarded as the largest political organization in Britain before the First World War.

The Primrose League developed a nationwide network of branches—known as habitations—which eclipsed the official Conservative Party constituency associations in size and efficiency. Formal overall responsibility rested with the league's largely appointed fifty-one-member grand council, packed with tory grandees, whose most important tasks were to approve awards of the multifarious Primrose honours and ensure that rank-and-file members were supplied with abundant stocks of election propaganda (two million leaflets were sent out to habitations in 1891, a typical year). Primrose League grandees, who were frequently second-rate political figures, included the London county council member and later MP for Greenwich Sir George Hopwood Hume; his fellow London county council member Walter Haweis James; the former Liberal turned tory MP Sir William Thackeray Marriott; and Sir Howard Vincent, a Metropolitan Police administrator and Conservative member for Sheffield Central.

By the late 1880s the league's original incarnation in the entourage of Randolph Churchill, the tory rebel, had been left behind. Now its members served the official party hierarchy with unwavering devotion, transferring to Robert Gascoyne Cecil, third marquess of Salisbury, the undivided loyalty in which its founder had schooled it. Salisbury, party leader to 1902, likewise embraced a movement of which he had been initially sceptical. As grand master, the league's titular head, Salisbury aroused immense enthusiasm at its mass rallies, which he addressed with unfailing regularity. The simplicity of the league's unchanging principles—the maintenance of monarchy, religion, and empire—ensured perfect harmony. Everything that Conservative governments did was predictably in happy conformity with them. The league defended ‘the policies of the Conservative Party with a blind regularity which at times tried even the patience of the Morning Post’, the newspaper that daily hailed the party's successes and concealed its blemishes (Robb, 50).

The official Conservative constituency associations, by contrast, showed an increasing restiveness. Their collective body, the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional (later Unionist) Associations, sought to influence official policy, calling, among other things, for immigration controls and housing subsidies. The party leadership infinitely preferred the ever pliant league. The favour that it enjoyed was strengthened further by its zeal in putting all the resources of its network of habitations at the party's disposal. Without them Salisbury would have had much greater difficulty in achieving his decisive election victories after 1886, despite the advantage he received from the Liberal split over home rule. With their pretensions to help shape policy the Conservative constituency associations had by and large failed to put themselves on a basis to conduct vigorous campaigning. ‘Few had a genuinely mass membership and many remained purely nominal … Not until the 1920s did the party move towards a formal system of membership and a low entrance fee’ (Pugh, 9, 16).

The Primrose League made up for the deficiencies of the constituency associations, much to the relief of the party leadership. A severe clampdown on election expenditure under the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act, followed by the widespread introduction of single-member constituencies and the extension of the franchise by two million in 1884–5, made the dedicated work of voluntary activists the key to election victory for the first time in British history. The league provided the Conservative Party with an army of volunteers prepared to work, not just at election times but throughout the year, with commitment and constancy. The statutes of the league, issued in February 1886, spelt out the obligations of membership:
Every Member of the Habitation, unless engaged at the time in other Conservative duties, shall be willing to place himself, as far as possible, at the disposal of the Council [of his habitation], for the execution of political work, especially in actively and energetically canvassing any sub-district to which he may be appointed, so as to acquaint himself perfectly with the social position, influence and political views of every elector within the said district; he shall also keep himself well informed of all political movements within the district, and shall at all times be especially watchful of the organisation and proceedings of the opposite party … Every Member shall endeavour to see that all adherents in his district are placed on the Register of Voters … During the progress of a contested Election, it shall be the duty of Members to use the most urgent efforts to bring voters to the poll. (Primrose League papers, MS 1, fol. 92)
This was not an organization for the half-hearted. The small annual subscriptions (a few pence) paid by the ordinary members (known as associates), and the larger sums contributed by the grander knights and dames (typically half a crown), sustained a nationwide operation that kept its adherents hard at work, rewarding them with a substantial programme of social events, of which the Primrose summer fête, often held in the grounds of stately homes opened for the first time for this purpose, provided the grand annual climax. It was the boast of Algernon Borthwick that ‘I could name counties, such as Suffolk and Hampshire, where the network of Habitations is so complete that every vote in every house in the various electoral divisions is accounted for’ (Fortnightly Review, 37). Nowhere, however, was the league more valuable to the tories than in such industrial working-class seats as Bolton, where membership rose from 1800 in 1888 to over 6000 in the 1890s and where the ‘Conservatives took at least one and often both the seats’ (Pugh, 123). Much of the credit for success here lay with Lucy Mary, née Birley (d. 1891), and Patty Penelope, née Hortor, the wives of the Bolton-born businessman Herbert Shepherd Cross, who respectively established and supported the town's habitation. The same story of unrelenting and triumphant league campaigning was repeated in many urban seats throughout the north of England.

Some, like Captain Richard Middleton—the Conservative's celebrated chief agent under Salisbury—may have had reservations about the value of aspects of the league's work, but without its tireless endeavours central office would have faced serious difficulties in many constituencies. ‘Both numerically and in terms of social breadth the League represented the popular wing of Conservatism’ (Pugh, 16). Only in Scotland did it fail to make a significant impact, though there were pockets of strength, particularly in and around Glasgow, where Sir Archibald Campbell of Blythswood and his wife, Augusta Clementina (1841–1922), were dedicated standard-bearers. The strenuous efforts across the country of the Edinburgh publisher Robert Fitzroy Bell were, on the whole, less successful. Wales saw rather more intensive league activity, thanks to the commitment shown by the colliery owner George William Duff Assheton Smith in Caernarvonshire and his fellow tory magnates elsewhere.

The Primrose League was the first political organization to give women the same status and responsibilities as men. In the opinion of Salisbury, ‘its greatest achievement is that it has brought the influence of women to bear upon politics in a way it never bore before’ (The Times, 1 Dec 1888). Female league members had their own Ladies' Grand Council, which brought together such women of established social position as Randolph Churchill's wife, Jennie Churchill, and the wives of other tory MPs, like Louisa Mary Knightley, Lady Knightley of Fawsley. In the first phase of the league Churchill's mother, Frances, duchess of Marlborough (1822–1899), was another prominent supporter and promoter, as in time was Georgina, marchioness of Salisbury (d. 1899). Under its aegis ‘dames of the League became famous as intrepid commanders of canvassing shock troops, especially in hostile territory’ (Shannon, 117). Lady Dorothy Nevill's daughter, Meresia Nevill, always maintained that women made much better canvassers than men. Margaret Child-Villiers, countess of Jersey, was another who gave fifty years' devoted service as a rousing Primrose orator and an indefatigable canvasser. Full equality was evident in habitations across the country where women and men shared senior positions of responsibility and where, in some, women (known as dame presidents) had overall charge.

After the First World War the Primrose League quickly ceased to be the Conservative Party's vast popular wing. With the tripling of the electorate in 1918, the party decided that it must expand and modernize its own network of constituency associations. ‘A mass membership now seemed a necessary object if the Conservatives were to be on an equal footing with the mass battalions of the trade unions’ (Pugh, 178). A large-scale, modern party organization superseded the great voluntary movement that had served the Conservative hierarchy so faithfully for so long. With Lord Randolph's son, Winston, as its grand master from 1943 to his death in 1965, the league retained considerable self-esteem, but in its steadily dwindling habitations increasingly little activity of real political significance took place. The Primrose League survived as a relic from the past with a Disraelian ‘one nation’ aura until 2004, when it was formally dissolved.

Alistair Cooke


A. Cooke, A gift from the Churchills: the Primrose League, 1883–2004 (2010) · M. Pugh, The tories and the people, 1880–1935 (1985) · A. Borthwick, ‘The Primrose League’, Fortnightly Review, 20 (1886) · E. J. Feuchtwanger, Disraeli, democracy and the tory party: Conservative leadership and organization after the second Reform Bill (1968) · R. Shannon, The age of Salisbury, 1881–1902: unionism and empire (1996) · A. Roberts, Salisbury: Victorian titan (1999) · W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle, The life of Benjamin Disraeli, rev. G. E. Buckle, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1929) · The speeches of the Right Honourable Lord Randolph Churchill, MP, 1880–1888, ed. L. J. Jennings, 2 vols. (1889) · Primrose League Gazette · Primrose League papers, Bodl. Oxf.


Bodl. Oxf., Primrose League papers