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Reference group
Cave of Adullam [Adullamites] (act. 1866–1867) was a small group of Liberal politicians who, during the debates on parliamentary reform in 1866 and 1867, acted in opposition to the rest of their own party in order to uphold a constitution founded upon ‘property’ and ‘intelligence’. They resisted any extension of the franchise whose effect was, in their view, liable to herald the ‘rule of numbers’, by which they meant democratic forms of government—though none of the proposals which they opposed would have resulted, or were intended to result, in a democratic constitution in Britain. They owed their collective name to the radical politician John Bright, who derided them as counterparts to the inhabitants of the biblical Cave of Adullam (I Samuel 22: 1–2), a gathering of ‘every one that was in distress and every one that was discontented’ (Hansard 3, 182.219, 13 March 1866). Members of the ‘Cave’ were labelled Adullamites, a term which some of them adopted as one of self-description.

Although their assumptions about the proper distribution of political power were shared by most members of parliament, and held widely in the country, the Adullamites are reckoned to have numbered only about twelve MPs (Cowling, 10). At the height of their influence in 1866, they mobilized up to forty dissident Liberal members, and they also had adherents in the House of Lords. They belonged to the coalition of interests which had formed the Liberal Party under the leadership of Palmerston until his death in 1865, but they distrusted his successors, the prime minister, Earl Russell, and the leader of the House of Commons, Gladstone. The most distinguished among them was Robert Lowe, later Viscount Sherbrooke, who supplied much of their intellectual force through his speeches and writings against popular government. His arguments against enfranchising the propertyless were couched in such virulent terms that he was reviled by radicals outside parliament and was popularly and in retrospect regarded as the leader of the Cave, though he never held that role and ceased to act with the Adullamites in 1867. Their organizer and driving force was a former Peelite, Lord Elcho [see Douglas, Francis Wemyss-Charteris-, eighth earl of Wemyss and sixth earl of March], ‘a man of booming, crude, unsubtle energy’ (Cowling, 290), whose London house was the base for the Cave's activities. Elcho enlisted Earl Grosvenor [see Grosvenor, Hugh Lupus, first duke of Westminster], the MP for Chester, and not previously noted for his political activity, as formal leader of the rebels. Their supporters in the House of Lords included Henry Thomas Petty-Fitzmaurice, fourth marquess of Lansdowne, one of the Cave's original promoters and patron of Lowe's parliamentary seat of Calne; Henry Grey, third Earl Grey, whose father had carried the first Reform Act (1832); and Thomas George Anson, second earl of Lichfield (1825–1892).

Bright's jibe about the ‘Cave’ was originally directed at Lowe's collaborator Edward Horsman, and referred to the disaffection of those Liberal opponents of the franchise proposals, such as Horsman himself, who had held office under Palmerston's administrations, but who had been overlooked by Russell. Other disappointed former office-holders among the Adullamites included Lowe as well as Sir Robert Peel, third baronet, and Samuel Laing. Another group of malcontents who joined the Adullamite ranks were MPs with Irish landowning connections, notably William Henry Gregory and Lord Dunkellin [Burgh, Ulick Canning de, under Burgh, Ulick John de], who feared that an enlarged electorate would promote land legislation unfavourable to them and who resented the bill which Gladstone introduced on the subject. Other back-benchers who belonged to or who were accounted on the fringes of the Cave included Lichfield's brother Augustus Anson (1835–1877), Sir George Bowyer, seventh baronet, Sir Richard Williams-Bulkeley, tenth baronet (1801–1875), Charles Carington, Frederick Doulton (1824–1868), Edward Ellice (1810–1880), Gilbert Henry Heathcote, later earl of Ancaster (1830–1910), Jonathan Pim, and Matthew Marsh (1810–1881) who, like Lowe, drew upon his experiences in New South Wales politics to discredit lowering of the franchise.

The Adullamites began to coalesce in 1865, in opposition to the bill to lower the borough franchise introduced as a private member by the Leeds radical Edward Baines. They became rebels when, on 12 March 1866, Gladstone introduced on behalf of the government a bill to reduce the franchise in boroughs to those paying rental of £7 a year. Gladstone's calculation was that this would enfranchise ‘respectable’ working men, without making men of no property a majority of the electorate. The Adullamites believed that this went too far towards placing working men in a position of political dominance, not least because such a measure would never represent a permanent settlement. Attacks on the bill mounted by the Liberal dissidents were supported by the Conservative opposition, whose leaders were content to see it attacked from within the Liberal Party. A concern of the bill's opponents was the need to accompany any lowering of the franchise qualification with a redistribution of parliamentary seats, which they regarded as essential to preserve the balance of interests represented in the House of Commons. An amendment introduced by the Adullamite Grosvenor, calling on the government to set out its plans for redistribution, reduced the government's majority to five on 27 April 1866. Dunkellin then introduced an amendment to replace the £7 rental qualification with one requiring the payment of £7 a year in rates: the latter would have the effect of considerably reducing the number of working men who would be able to vote. On 18 June 1866 Dunkellin's amendment was carried, forty dissident Liberals joining with the Conservative opposition to defeat the government. Having few contacts with the whig politicians in Russell's cabinet, the Adullamites felt little inhibition about bringing down his government. Their success in doing so was the Adullamites' principal achievement: on 25 June Russell resigned.

The leading Adullamites aspired to be an independent third party, who could oversee a disinterested reform of the constitution. They sought to revive the Palmerstonian coalition by allying with the Conservatives, under the leadership of a whig peer such as the earl of Clarendon. Their calculation that the Conservative leaders, the earl of Derby and Disraeli, would stand down, and that the Conservative Party would submit to leadership by figures acceptable to the Adullamites, proved hopelessly unrealistic. Instead, their rebellion enabled Derby to form a minority Conservative government in which Disraeli—whom the Adullamites distrusted as much as Russell and Gladstone—was a leading force. Lowe and Horsman refused to serve in such an administration, and the Adullamite leadership merely offered Derby and Disraeli the Cave's informal support.

Early in 1867 Grosvenor and Elcho headed a diminished Adullamite rump: Lansdowne's death in July 1866 weakened them; Lowe, Horsman, and Gregory gradually returned to the Liberal fold; and other lesser figures retreated from their rebellious stance in the face of constituency pressures during the parliamentary recess. The Adullamites briefly (March–May 1867) owned a newspaper, The Day, which propagated their views. Still able to muster the support of about twenty Liberal MPs, Grosvenor and Elcho kept the Conservative government in office, believing this to be the most viable means of achieving an enduring settlement of the franchise question which would put an end to the reform agitation for the foreseeable future. Paradoxically ‘Grosvenor's men’, as the Liberal whip Henry Brand categorized them (Smith, 182), formed the largest element of the Liberal defectors who, in a division in the early hours of 13 April 1867, brought about the defeat of Gladstone's motion to place carefully defined limits upon the extent of enfranchisement proposed by the Conservatives. In subsequent divisions the Adullamites helped to carry a measure which extended the suffrage to four times as many new voters as the measure which they had defeated in 1866, and one which definitely did make working men a majority of the electorate in many borough constituencies.

As a group the Adullamites ceased to function after the beginning of the Easter parliamentary recess in 1867. While Elcho gravitated back towards his Conservative origins, Grosvenor declined office in Derby's government and was later reconciled to Gladstone. In 1868 Lowe became chancellor of the exchequer in Gladstone's first ministry, the prime minister valuing Lowe's ability to resist the potentially extravagant budgetary expectations of an electorate which had been enlarged far more widely than either man had wished.

M. C. Curthoys


M. Cowling, 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution (1967) · J. Winter, ‘The Cave of Adullam and parliamentary reform’, EngHR, 81 (1966), 38–55 · F. B. Smith, The making of the second Reform Bill (1966) · D. F. Sheppard, ‘The Cave of Adullam, household suffrage, and the passage of the second Reform Act’, Parliamentary History, 14 (1995), 149–72 · Debrett's Illustrated House of Commons and the Judicial Bench (1867) · Gladstone, Diaries · A. Briggs, Victorian people: a reassessment of persons and themes, 1851–67 (1954) · Disraeli, Derby and the conservative party: journals and memoirs of Edward Henry, Lord Stanley, 1849–1869, ed. J. R. Vincent (1978) · E. D. Steele, Irish land and British politics: tenant-right and nationality, 1865–1870 (1974) · J. Parry, The rise and fall of liberal government in Victorian Britain (1993) · C. Hall, K. McClelland, and J. Rendall, Defining the Victorian nation: class, race, gender and the British Reform Act of 1867 (2000) · K. Zimmerman, ‘Liberal speech, Palmerstonian delay, and the passage of the second Reform Act’, EngHR, 118 (2003), 1176–1207 · ‘Adullam’, Encylopedia Britannica, 11th edn