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Northcote, Stafford Henry, first earl of Iddesleighlocked

  • W. D. Rubinstein

Stafford Henry Northcote, first earl of Iddesleigh (1818–1887)

by Elliott & Fry

Northcote, Stafford Henry, first earl of Iddesleigh (1818–1887), politician, was born at 23 Portland Place, London, on 27 October 1818, the eldest of three sons (there were also two daughters) of Henry Stafford Northcote (1792–1850), himself the eldest son of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote, seventh baronet (1762–1851), of The Pynes, Upton Pyne, Exeter, a descendant of Sir John Northcote. Stafford Northcote's mother was Agnes Mary, only daughter of Thomas Cockburn of the East India Company's service and then of Bedford Hill, Surrey. Through his mother, who died on 9 April 1840, Northcote inherited Scottish border ancestry. The Northcotes were a family of Devon landowners of great antiquity who could trace their lineage back to 1103. Nevertheless they were not particularly wealthy, owning an estate of only 5700 acres in Devon which yielded an annual income of about £6000 in 1883. Throughout his career Northcote was considerably poorer than many leading politicians of his time, and accepted a variety of professional and business positions (such as chairman of the Hudson's Bay Company) to improve his circumstances.


As a child Northcote displayed precocity, writing a supernatural romance for his brother and sister at the age of six. From his mother he absorbed considerable Anglican religious piety, as well as a lifelong love of reading, and what she described in her diary as 'a very strong imagination', the last, however, not being a quality for which he was renowned in public life. From 1826 to 1831 he was a pupil of the Revd Mr Roberts at a school in Mitcham which was subsequently transferred to Brighton, where he wrote much precocious verse. In 1831 he was sent to Eton College, to the house of the Revd Edward Coleridge. At Eton he was nicknamed Tab by his circle of friends, which included Arthur Hobhouse and Thomas Henry Farrer, both later his brothers-in-law. Although initially indolent (and frequently flogged), he acquired a reputation for versification and rowed for the Eton eight in 1835. In October 1836 he went into residence at Balliol College, Oxford, and was elected to a scholarship in the following month. Contemporaries noted his extraordinary feats of memory.

Northcote entered university life at the height of the crisis engendered by John Henry Newman and his circle. He appears to have been affected only marginally by the Oxford Movement; although he was sometimes labelled a Puseyite (a pejorative description in tory circles) he demonstrated sympathy with both the evangelical and high-church wings of Anglicanism. Northcote also found himself at this time in the midst of a family religious dispute between his mother, who had been attracted to the revivalism of Edward Irving, and his father's more conventional views; in letters to his parents he noted himself to be a critical but essentially orthodox supporter of the Church of England. In the late 1830s he felt that a protestant Englishman travelling in a Catholic country should attend Catholic services, a view he later abandoned. Northcote graduated BA in 1839 with a first class in classics and a third in mathematics. He proceeded MA in 1840, and in June 1863 was created DCL.

Early career and marriage

On deciding to read for the bar, Northcote took chambers at 58 Lincoln's Inn Fields, and entered the Inner Temple in 1840. This was a period of especial importance in Northcote's life, for in the early 1840s both his domestic and his career circumstances changed significantly. The death of his mother in 1840 led to an increase in his religious earnestness, and Northcote spoke in Exeter on behalf of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and other evangelical bodies. On 5 August 1843 he married, at Holy Trinity Church, Marylebone, Cecilia Frances (1823–1910), daughter of Thomas Farrer of Lincoln's Inn Fields, a solicitor, and his wife, Cecilia, daughter of Richard Willis of Halsnead, Lancashire. The Northcotes had seven sons, including Walter Stafford Northcote, second earl of Iddesleigh, Henry Stafford Northcote, Baron Northcote, John Stafford Northcote, chaplain to Queen Victoria, and Arthur Francis Northcote, a parish priest; they also had three daughters, the eldest of whom, Agnes Mary Cecilia, married Sir Reginald MacLeod and was mother of Dame Flora MacLeod (born in 11 Downing Street during her grandfather's chancellorship).

Gladstone's secretary

Meanwhile, in June 1842, while Northcote was engaged in a career at the bar, there occurred an event which was to alter his life. William E. Gladstone, then vice-president of the Board of Trade, wrote to Edward Coleridge, the Eton housemaster, asking him to recommend a private secretary from among his former pupils. Coleridge suggested Northcote and two others, and Gladstone chose Northcote. His duties included opening all letters addressed to Gladstone, making notes of their contents, and, after receiving instructions, responding to them, as well as accompanying Gladstone throughout the country. Gladstone was chiefly engaged in carrying out the policies of Sir Robert Peel of reducing tariffs. Although Gladstone resigned over the Maynooth grant in 1845, Northcote continued to serve as his private secretary until about 1850, assisting Gladstone in his election for Oxford University in 1847 and in 1852 (he declined to help in 1859). He also held the position of legal assistant at the Board of Trade from February 1845 until August 1850, despite the fact that he was not called to the bar until 19 November 1847. In January 1850 he was appointed one of the secretaries of the Great Exhibition, a position requiring much application and one which frequently brought him into contact with Prince Albert. Gladstone specifically denied that this appointment was made on his recommendation, noting that Northcote's reputation stood high with whig leaders such as Lord Taunton and Lord Granville. Prince Albert greatly admired Northcote, dissuading him from resigning following his succession to the baronetcy on his grandfather's death in March 1851. On 17 October 1851 Northcote was created a CB for his efforts on behalf of the Great Exhibition, and he also demonstrated the first signs of the chronic heart ailment to which he was prone until his death.

Northcote's own political views now began to move in a more Conservative direction. In 1849 he had published a pamphlet on the navigation laws which showed him to be a convinced free-trader. In April 1851, however, he noted in a letter to his wife that he was moving 'towards the Protectionist side', and it is known that Northcote's increasingly orthodox views on the Church of England precluded him from joining the whig party, which was anxious to have his support. Gladstone was, of course, moving in the opposite direction, but relations between the two were still excellent, to the extent that Gladstone was godfather to Northcote's son John Stafford in 1850, and in April 1852 asked Northcote to be an executor of his will (Northcote did not live long enough to discharge this obligation). In 1850–52 Northcote had thought of standing for parliament as a Conservative in the seats of Totnes, Taunton, and Exeter, issuing an address to the last place in May 1852, although he eventually declined to stand. At this time he stated that he was 'a warm supporter of Lord Derby's Government'. In December 1852, when Gladstone entered the Aberdeen coalition as chancellor of the exchequer, Northcote wrote to him to say that 'I am rather a stiff Conservative, and do not feel at all sure that the next Administration will be one that I can work under', but also was careful to point out that 'though you form a leading element in it I can scarcely imagine my having any doubts'.

The NorthcoteTrevelyan report

It was at this time that Northcote became associated with the matter for which, perhaps, his name is now best remembered. In conjunction with Sir Charles Trevelyan, Northcote was invited to serve on eight commissions inquiring into various aspects of civil service department reform. One of these was on the Treasury. By a Treasury minute of 12 April 1853 Northcote and Trevelyan were instructed to draw up a general report on the civil service with especial reference to its means of selection and promotion. The NorthcoteTrevelyan report (with an approving appendix by Benjamin Jowett), dated 23 November 1853 and published in the parliamentary papers in 1854 (Parl. papers, 1854, 27), is one of the most famous and typical of mid-Victorian reforms, recommending the widespread use of the examination system and recruitment on merit in place of patronage and 'old corruption'. These proposals anticipated the movement for administrative reform which was so striking a consequence of the Crimean War and affected the rising importance of the middle classes and the 'career open to talent'. It is perhaps superficially somewhat ironic that Northcote should have been the co-author of this report at a time when he was moving from Peelism to 'stiff Conservatism', but the Conservative Party which emerged some decades later, usually electorally victorious, was one which was increasingly preferred by the middle classes. In 1854 Northcote published a paper in a volume entitled Suggestions under which university education may be made available for clerks in government offices, for barristers, for solicitors for the Oxford Tutors' Association, in which he pointed out the suitability of a classical education as a preparation for senior positions in the civil service.

Early years in the House of Commons

On 9 March 1855 Northcote was returned as a member of parliament at a by-election in the seat of Dudley. He is recorded in McCalmont's Poll Book as a 'Liberal Conservative', and the seat was largely owned by Lord Ward, a strong Peelite, who agreed to Northcote's standing upon Gladstone's recommendation. Northcote took his seat on 16 March, and delivered his maiden speech, on civil service reform, only a week later, on 23 March. He noted in a letter that the speech was 'very well received, especially considering that … the subject of Civil Service reform, and particularly of the competition system, is exceedingly unpopular in the House', and pointedly noted that 'Dizzy did me the honour to turn round and look very attentive' (Lang, 1.116). Northcote spoke in the following session on civil service superannuation, but he was chiefly occupied, somewhat curiously, on the question of reformatory schools. From about 1850 the question of the establishment of reformatory schools, to be used for delinquents in place of prison terms, became much debated (drawing on long previous discussion). In 1854 an act was passed authorizing judges and magistrates to commit children under sixteen years to schools duly licensed for this purpose. This act led to the foundation of many such schools, one of which, at Brampford Wood, near Pynes, was established by Northcote in April 1855. This school operated on the model of Barwick Baker's farm schools in Gloucestershire and continued to be one of Northcote's foremost interests. It was established against the wishes of the local inhabitants, who feared the escape of youthful criminals, but proved to be a considerable success. Northcote took a personal interest in the welfare of reformatory students which often persisted long after they were adults. He read a paper on this subject to the first meeting of the Reformatory Union at Bristol in August 1856. In December 1855 Northcote drafted a bill, enacted in 1856, providing for the establishment of industrial schools, to which vagrant and truant children might be sent.

On 3 March 1857, when Palmerston's government was defeated, Northcote voted with the opposition, to Lord Ward's chagrin. Northcote was anxious to be free of his Dudley connections. On 6 April 1857 he stood as a liberal conservative for the seat of North Devonshire, but came in third for the two-member seat, incurring very great expenses. The costs of the election were such that Northcote and his family were forced to live in France for purposes of economy until the middle of 1858.

In June 1858 Northcote received a letter from Ralph Earle, Disraeli's private secretary, suggesting a meeting, at which it was proposed, on Disraeli's suggestion, that Northcote contest Stamford as a Conservative, with the strong possibility of his securing a ministerial position in the Conservative government formed in February 1858, as financial secretary to the Treasury. Northcote was genuinely vexed in knowing how to deal with this offer, for, as he wrote to his wife, he would 'mark myself as Dizzy's man' (Lang, 1.152), while 'I fear it would be disagreeable to Gladstone. I would much rather give up all thoughts of Parliament and office than do anything that would give him the impressions I was deserting him'. Nevertheless, by 6 July Northcote had written to his wife 'three cheers to Dizzy!', and that 'Dizzy talked as if he had always had my interests in the centre of his heart'. Not surprisingly Northcote also wrote that 'I feel as if I were reading a novel about myself, the whole thing is so queer' (Lang, 1.153).

For the next twenty-three years Northcote served as Disraeli's most loyal and trusted deputy on financial matters, a relationship which worked to the advantage of Disraeli no less than to Northcote. The close association between the Devon baronet and the London-born Jewish intellectual, though superficially curious, is best explained by the fact that each respected and needed the other. Disraeli relied upon Northcote for his utter respectability, soundness, and competence in debate; Northcote admired Disraeli's brilliance and the fact that Disraeli had plucked him out of near obscurity to be his lieutenant. That Northcote had been Gladstone's private secretary gave their relationship an especially piquant flavour. Disraeli referred to Northcote as 'my right hand', and promoted him to the most senior of cabinet positions, arguably beyond his objective merits. Additionally, Disraeli's own fiscal policies, as recent research has revealed, were surprisingly moderate and orthodox, differing from Gladstone's chiefly in eschewing a doctrinaire notion of ‘retrenchment’ and in much greater sympathy for the landed interest; Northcote's views, admired by Gladstone, served equally well for Disraeli.

On 17 July 1858 Northcote was returned unopposed for Stamford at a by-election, McCalmont now denoting him as a 'Conservative' pure and simple. He was again returned, on 29 April 1859, at the general election, standing unopposed in this two-member seat with Lord Robert Cecil (afterwards third marquess of Salisbury and prime minister). True to Disraeli's promise, Northcote was appointed to office shortly after his election at Stamford, holding the position of financial secretary to the Treasury (under Disraeli's chancellorship) from 21 January 1859 until the fall of the government later that year. At Disraeli's request Northcote wrote a long note on the reform question, advocating a moderate extension of the franchise but without the redistribution of parliamentary seats. In his advice on foreign and defence policy Northcote consistently advocated caution and economy in military expenditure.

In opposition for the next seven years, Northcote now found himself a leading spokesman for the Conservative Party, although attracting some criticism, even then, that his attacks upon the government were never full-spirited. On 21 February 1860 he spoke on the commercial treaty with France, approving the bill as a whole while voicing criticism of some details. On 8 May 1860 he moved an amendment, defeated by only nine votes, to Gladstone's motion for the repeal of the paper duties. His reputation in the financial area was enhanced by a number of fine parliamentary speeches on taxation in 1861, one of which (delivered on 2 May 1861) was considered by Disraeli to be 'one of the finest he ever heard', and was deemed by Lord Stanley to be 'the most complete parliamentary success' he had heard in twelve years. Stanley also wrote to Northcote, prophetically, 'you are marked out for a Chancellor of The Exchequer' (Lang, 1.177). In 1862 Northcote produced a book, Twenty Years of Financial Policy, dedicated to his old friend Edward Coleridge, which criticized the government's excessive reliance on the income tax coupled with excessive government expenditure. At this time he also spoke again on reformatory schools and on civil service reform. Northcote, an opponent of slavery, also did much to keep Conservative sentiment from overtly supporting the South in the American Civil War, and hence to keep Britain neutral. Throughout this period Northcote was also heavily concerned with financial policy, advocating retrenchment and a broadening of the tax base.

Educational royal commissions in the 1860s and further political career

In 1862–4 Northcote served on the important Clarendon commission on the future of the public schools, named for its head, the fourth earl of Clarendon. This commission visited the nine old public schools and met 127 times. Here Northcote was no radical reformer, claiming that 'the English mind did not want lycées and gymnasia, but schools for the moral, physical, and intellectual training of boys between twelve and eighteen, which should make of these boys young men,—men in every sense of the word', and recommended that such schools 'accommodate the new studies … to the old learning' (Lang, 1.205–6)—in other words, advocating much the same regime which actually emerged in Britain's public schools over the next fifty years. He did, however, advocate as proper the reform of school endowments, the restructuring of governing bodies, and the removal of restrictions. Northcote also served, in 1864, on the School of Art committee, and in December 1865 was appointed to the royal commission on endowed schools. During these years Northcote was a frequent and lengthy correspondent to Disraeli (whom he continued to address as Mr Disraeli) on many political matters, again consistently advocating the avoidance of foreign entanglements, as well as retrenchment and fiscal moderation.

After debating and rejecting, out of residual deference to Gladstone, one of its sitting members, the idea of standing for Oxford University at the 1865 general election, Northcote again stood for Stamford, where he was again returned unopposed with Lord Robert Cecil (now Viscount Cranborne). On 9 May 1866, after the sitting member, the Hon. C. H. R. Trefusis, succeeded to the Clinton peerage, Northcote was elected unopposed as member for North Devonshire, his local seat. Northcote retained his place in this two-member constituency until he accepted a peerage, and was unopposed at all subsequent elections except that of 1868, when he finished first ahead of the Liberal candidate, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, bt, and the sitting Conservative member for Tiverton, J. W. Walrond, who also contested the seat.

At the Board of Trade and the India Office, 1866–1868

Upon the formation of Lord Derby's third government, in 1866, Northcote entered the cabinet for the first time, taking office as president of the Board of Trade on 6 July 1866. At the same time he was sworn of the privy council, together with five other new ministers, at Windsor Castle. Disraeli had made Northcote's appointment to this position a condition of his own assumption of office as chancellor of the exchequer. Little is recorded of Northcote's tenure of this post, although he made a speech at Liverpool on 30 August to celebrate the departure of the Great Eastern to lay the Atlantic telegraph cable. When, in March 1867, Lord Cranborne resigned as secretary of state for India, Northcote was appointed in his place, officially taking up the position on 6 March 1867.

As Indian secretary Northcote entered a world of the greatest importance to a tory government, but one which required knowledge, tact, and wisdom. Of these virtues Northcote possessed the first in least measure, for he had no previous experience whatever in Indian affairs. Northcote agreed with Lord Lawrence on the wisdom of non-intervention in Afghanistan, and opposed the annexation of Mysore. He advocated a large measure of financial decentralization for the subcontinent, and also a separate government for Bengal, eventually carried out by Lord Mayo. On 23 April 1868 he introduced the Government of India Amendment Bill (which was eventually withdrawn), and on 12 August 1868 an Indian budget. Northcote was an advocate of the Abyssinian expedition, on which he spoke on 27 November 1867, but could not convince Lord Lawrence, the governor-general, that India ought to pay for its contingent. He was also concerned with a wide variety of other issues, such as the status of missionaries, the question of the place of Indians in the Indian Civil Service, and the question of Indian public works. Northcote's tenure of the Indian office generally received praise, although after he had left office (on 8 June 1869) he was challenged for the fact that costs exceeded the original budget by £3.3 million. Just before leaving office, and although not a rich man, he gave £1000 to hospitals and other useful institutions in India, the only Indian secretary to that point to have made so large a contribution to Indian charities.

In opposition and in North America

Northcote found himself again in opposition with the resignation of Disraeli's government on 1 December 1868. In January 1869 he was elected to the rather improbable position of chairman of the Hudson's Bay Company. Northcote had previously declined a number of lucrative City directorships but accepted the Hudson's Bay position at a time when, generally viewed as an anachronism, it was engaged in transferring its huge estate in Rupert's Land to Canada, just after the formation of the dominion of Canada in 1867. On 24 March 1869 he persuaded the company to transfer this land to the Canadian government for £200,000. In April–May 1870 he visited Canada and the United States on behalf of the company, touring Montreal, Ottawa, New York, and Niagara Falls, seeing at first hand the operation of the ballot in American politics and the operations of the Fenians against Britain in Canada. Northcote saw the necessity for attracting new, permanent settlers to Canada in place of the voyageurs and for a more enlightened attitude by the company. In November 1869 Northcote visited Egypt, and he was present at the opening of the Suez Canal, a guest on Sir George Stucley's yacht the Deerhound.

Rather unexpectedly, on 13 February 1871, Northcote was asked by Lord Granville, the foreign secretary, to join the commission which had already been dispatched to Washington to arrange a number of outstanding disputes between the two countries, especially the Alabama claims, Canadian fisheries, and the San Juan boundaries. After the signing of the treaty of Washington on 8 May 1871, a dispute arose over interpretation of a clause in the treaty concerning the indirect claims arising from the negotiated settlement, and in 1872 and 1873 Northcote was forced to defend the British commissioners from charges that they failed to do justice to Canadian interests. Shortly before leaving for America, on 14 January 1871, Northcote had been appointed by H. A. Bruce, the home secretary, to chair the commission which was to inquire into the workings of the friendly societies. Both of these appointments, made by senior Liberals of a leading Conservative politician, indicated the esteem in which Northcote was held, as well as suggesting, perhaps, some residual hope of wooing him back; the expertise gained in this area was useful to Northcote, and to the Conservative Party generally, when Disraeli's government came to legislate on friendly societies four years later. The commission found that many friendly societies were fraudulently or incompetently managed, a conclusion reached after taking evidence throughout the country.

In January 1872 a group of leading Conservatives, including Gathorne Hardy, Lord Cairns, Sir John Pakington, and Northcote, met at Lord Exeter's Burghley House to discuss the possibility of replacing Disraeli with the fifteenth earl of Derby as leader of the Conservative Party. Northcote and Lord John Manners were, apparently, the only Disraeli loyalists present, although the proposal was never acted upon.

Chancellor of the exchequer, 1874–1880

Northcote's life was comparatively quiet until the formation of the second Disraeli government on 20 February 1874, when he was appointed chancellor of the exchequer, a position he held during the whole period of this government until it resigned on 21 April 1880. Northcote's position in this famous administration will be discussed with respect first to his stance on social questions and second to his financial policies. The relatively active policy on social reform of the government of 1874–80 has long been viewed as founding the modern Conservative Party's commitment to ‘one nation’ toryism, embodying a rapprochement with the working classes, a view which has, however, been questioned by some recent historians who view its growing alliance with the urban middle classes as a more salient feature of this period. Northcote's attitude illustrates the difficulties of coming to any firm opinion on this question. Although it is clear that he was no radical reformer, Northcote was one of the few leading Conservatives who had sat for an industrial seat—Dudley, in 1855–7—and he had a long record of interest in the welfare of the poor. Yet he was also a former disciple of Gladstone and an orthodox financier who was, if anything, less likely to embrace extravagant notions of costly social reform than a romantic like Disraeli. In a letter to G. J. Holyoake, written on 30 October 1875, Northcote stated:

the three things to which I attach importance in efforts to assist the working classes [are] to get a clear insight into their wants and feelings from their own point of view, … to assist them to obtain an equally clear insight into … other classes, … [and] … to get them to work out their own improvement for themselves.

Smith, 205

These principles, emphasizing both sympathy and self-help, animated Northcote's attitude toward social questions. Northcote was the author of the Friendly Societies Bill, introduced on 8 June 1874 then withdrawn on 22 July after passing its second reading. Brought in again, it passed its second reading without division (25 February 1875) and became law on 11 August. The aim of this bill was moderate, providing model actuarial tables to the societies and offering such information to the public as to enable them to judge their soundness. The revised bill of 1875 actually lessened the powers granted to the registrar of friendly societies in the 1874 bill, although it did limit infant insurance, often seen as an invitation to child murder. Northcote's bill was criticized as inadequately weak by some Conservatives, but also as improperly increasing the powers of the state by others. Northcote's attitude—a perceptible, but minimal, acquiescence in the extension of state powers in the interest of social reform—was evident in his stance on the other social legislation of Disraeli's government, such as that regulating merchant shipping and artisans' dwellings. In a speech at Manchester on 8 December 1875 Northcote noted that fuller government control was inexpedient in such cases.

Northcote's first budget was introduced on 16 April 1874. In it he abolished sugar duties (worth £2 million) and a tax on horses, took a penny off the income tax, applied £500,000 to the reduction of the national debt by terminable annuities, and applied another £500,000 to the relief of local taxation. He thus much reduced the surplus of £5.5 million bequeathed to him by Gladstone. One Liberal described Northcote's first budget as 'the Liberal budget watered down to the standard of Conservative finance' (Lang, 2.62), and in his budget speech Northcote both congratulated and defended the previous Gladstone government's finance. On 25 January 1877 at Liverpool he defended his whittling down of the surplus by claiming that it was 'got up to a certain extent by putting off a great many claims and charges which would ultimately have to be met' (Lang, 2.63).

On 15 April 1875 Northcote introduced his second budget, which was remarkable for the creation of a ‘new’ sinking fund based upon the concept of a permanent annual charge of £28 million which would cover both the servicing of the national debt and debt redemption; under this scheme, as the size of the debt became smaller, a proportionately higher amount of the fixed sum could be applied each year to debt redemption. During his term as chancellor Northcote came under pressure to direct the sinking fund to other purposes, especially at the time of the Anglo-Zulu War in July 1879, when the cabinet attempted to get him to suspend the fund (which he refused to do). In 1880 he was forced to make a small raid on the fund in order to keep a pledge that there would be no new taxation in an election year. Successive late Victorian chancellors, even orthodox ones, were compelled to whittle down the sum set aside for debt redemption, G. J. Goschen decreasing it to £25 million. As the size of the British budget grew through ever-increasing imperial, military, and social commitments, both the sinking fund and its aim of eliminating the national debt became increasingly irrelevant. Northcote's sinking fund would seem to have been an example of Gladstonian finance par excellence, but it was attacked by Gladstone as having 'taken a flight into the empyrean' (Lang, 2.71). The proposal for a sinking fund was, however, passed by a majority of 189 to 122. Northcote's second budget also showed a much smaller surplus than his first, of only £497,000.

In 1875 Northcote also carried a Savings Bank Bill, which he was forced to defend against Liberal charges that he had made such deposits less secure. A series of blunders over the handling of the Merchant Shipping Bill led to an offer (25 July 1875) by Northcote to Disraeli to take up a lesser position, which was, of course, declined. At this time, in fact, Northcote's stocks were higher than ever and many now saw him as Disraeli's successor in the leadership of the House of Commons. Northcote was also privately opposed to the purchase of the Suez Canal shares on the grounds that 'suspicion will be excited that we mean quietly to buy ourselves into a preponderating position, and then turn the whole thing into an English property' (Lang, 2.84). He also stated to Disraeli 'I know so little of the actual state of our foreign policy'. Disraeli's strategy toward the recalcitrant chancellor was sometimes guileful. In November 1877, just before Northcote was due to have an audience with Queen Victoria, Disraeli wrote to Victoria that 'it would be as well to intimate that our military and naval preparations should be adequate for emergencies'. This strategy evidently worked, for Disraeli wrote a month later that he was now 'pleased' with Northcote's 'tone'.

In 1876 Northcote encountered a different situation from the previous years, for he was faced with an estimated budget deficit of £774,000. Northcote's solution in his budget speech of 3 April was to place an extra penny on the income tax, but he also raised the lower limit on liability to taxation from £100 to £150 and added a deduction of £80 on incomes of up to £300. The extra penny on the income tax, however, compensated for this, producing what Northcote estimated as a surplus of £368,000. Northcote's 1877 budget (introduced on 12 April 1877) was more routine, but showed that the amount applied by the sinking fund to the reduction of the national debt was £176,000 greater than had been foreseen. In April 1878 Northcote was again faced with a less than rosy financial position due to an extraordinary supplement of £6 million for military preparations against Russia, met by issuing exchequer bonds for £2.75 million. His 1878 budget (introduced on 4 April) acknowledged a deficit of £2.6 million, causing income tax to be raised to 5d. in the pound and other new taxes to be added. In 1879 Northcote was faced by another deficit of £2.3 million, brought about by commercial depression and the Anglo-Zulu War. In his budget (introduced on 3 April 1879) Northcote chose to extend the repayment of the debt over an additional year rather than raise taxes again. The deteriorating financial situation in 1879 gave rise to an unusual volume of Liberal criticism. Northcote's last budget, introduced on 10 March 1880, saw yet another deficit of £2 million, chiefly occasioned by the £5 million cost of the Anglo-Zulu War. The floating debt stood at £8 million, which Northcote proposed to deal with by the creation of a terminal annuity, lasting until 1885, which would extinguish £6 million of this sum. He was also compelled to appropriate £600,000 of his new sinking fund to this annuity, leading to Gladstone's charge that he was 'immolating' his creation.

There is general agreement that Northcote was an able and innovative chancellor, one whose policies, while similar to those of a Liberal treasurer, were more flexible and less orthodox. He was not without his critics, Lord Carlingford observing in his journal that Gurdon, the Treasury civil servant and another of Gladstone's former secretaries, described Northcote and H. C. E. Childers, chancellor from 1882 to 1885, as 'weak'. Sir Reginald Welby, later under-secretary at the Treasury, believed that Northcote 'left great discretion' to his financial secretaries (successively W. H. Smith, F. A. Stanley, and Sir Henry Selwin-Ibbetson), while Northcote once admitted to Lord Salisbury that 'I am terribly soft-hearted about money, and your note comes at a time when the two vigilant guardians of the public purse, Smith [financial secretary] and Lingen [permanent secretary] are both away'. Yet Lord Esher's summary of Northcote, made in 1876 in his journal, that 'there is no genius in him, but much capacity for sheer hard work' (Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, ed. M. V. Brett, 4 vols., 1934–8, 1.37), while just, probably understated the novelty of Northcote's position as the first Conservative chancellor with a parliamentary majority since Peel's time, and hence one bound to adopt a course which was both politically original and yet, of necessity, financially orthodox.

Northcote was involved in other matters at this time. On 16 March 1876 he vigorously defended the Royal Titles Bill, obtaining the defeat of Lord Hartington's amendment by a majority of 105 votes. On the Eastern question, which arose at this time, Northcote believed that the British government, in refusing to accept the Berlin memorandum of 18 May 1876, should have put forward an alternative policy, and implicitly criticized the flippancy of Disraeli's response to the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’. In late 1876 he also set out, in two speeches, the government's principles on the Eastern question: strict neutrality, provided the route to India was neither blocked nor stopped. On 31 March 1879 he accepted full responsibility, on behalf of the government, for Sir Bartle Frere's activities in Zululand, which led to war.

On 12 August 1876 Disraeli was created earl of Beaconsfield and Northcote succeeded him as leader of the House of Commons, at the time an unofficial position but indicative of his standing in the government. It carried with it the duty of writing the daily letter to the queen on the progress of business in the house. He officially became leader with the resumption of parliament on February 1877 and remained in this position until his elevation to the Lords in July 1885. Northcote's term as leader coincided with the beginning of the policy of parliamentary obstruction, led by C. S. Parnell and J. G. Biggar, in the debates on the South African Confederation Bill. Northcote was instrumental in adopting several rules to deal with obstruction. Two resolutions adopted on 27 July 1877 altered the rules of the house in matters of ‘naming’ and suspending a disorderly member and in the suppression of delaying motions. His motion of 24 February 1879 prohibited preliminary debate upon going into committee of supply, while his proviso of 28 February 1880 permitted a member to be summarily suspended after being named by the chair. None of these measures, however, materially checked the problem of obstruction. As his last measure as leader of the house Northcote also carried the Irish Relief of Distress Bill, which became law on 18 March 1880.

Conservative leader in the Commons, 1880–1885

The Conservative government was soundly defeated in the general election held in April 1880. Upon the reassembling of parliament on 20 May 1880 the Conservatives numbered only 243 as against 349 Liberals and 60 home-rulers; Northcote himself had been returned unopposed. In this period Northcote led the opposition, first as Beaconsfield's lieutenant and, after his death in April 1881, as joint leader of the party with Lord Salisbury. As opposition leader in the House of Commons, however, Northcote's position was, in the words of Robert Rhodes James, 'invidious and unenviable'. The Liberal front bench contained at least six men of the highest parliamentary talent while the Conservatives were dispirited and bewildered. Northcote, now sixty-two, showed signs of the chronic heart ailment which brought about his sudden death seven years later. His failure to treat Gladstone as an opponent, rather than his former master, so marked a feature of Northcote's parliamentary career, now became even more widely noted than before; Northcote was one of several reputed to have coined the term 'GOM' (Grand Old Man). Even so, Gladstone formed a contempt for his former secretary and colleague so powerful that, most unusually, he openly commented on what he saw as Northcote's 'flabby weakness'. Even more seriously, however, Northcote was faced with the articulate and memorable animosity of some of the brightest younger members of his own back benches, especially Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, John Gorst, and, occasionally, Arthur James Balfour, who were studiously impatient with Northcote's lack of vigour in attacking the government. Over the next few years the ‘Fourth Party’, as it quickly became known, achieved national renown as much for its daily sallies aimed at the courteous but helpless Northcote as for its baiting of the government. Northcote emerged from this experience widely perceived as the butt of a particularly talented group of ‘young Turks’, and his modern reputation for what might be termed pompous incompetence, obviously unfair, largely grew out of these events. At this time Northcote gained his nickname, ‘the Goat’, and was identified as one of the ‘Old Gang’, whom Churchill hoped to displace. He was also paired by Churchill with W. H. Smith, the wholesale newsagent turned tory cabinet minister, as ‘Marshall and Snelgrove’, a most inappropriate description of Northcote, whatever his Hudson's Bay Company connections, whose family had been landowners far longer than even Churchill's. Nevertheless, this description has become one of the memorable catch-phrases of late Victorian politics.

That the reputation Northcote acquired was unfair is shown by the damaging defeats he was able to inflict on the government in connection with the claim made by Charles Bradlaugh to affirm the oath, notably on 4 May 1883, when the Affirmation Bill was rejected by a majority of three. Northcote also resisted Gladstone's closure resolution of 20 February 1882, and the twelve resolutions for the curtailment of debate were postponed until the autumn session of 1882. Northcote also spoke on the Irish question at this time, in a speech at Brecon on 19 May 1881 describing 'the three Fs' in the Irish Land Bill a 'force, fraud, and folly', and recommending 'the confidence which produces capital' as the solution to what 'Ireland requires' (Lang, 2.191). He supported the Prevention of Crime Bill introduced by the Liberals after the murder of T. H. Burke and Lord Frederick Cavendish in Dublin, and in other respects moved to join the Conservative mood of opposition to home rule, presaging a policy which became central to tory philosophy from 1886 on. He also attacked the Liberals over their lack of a 'stable, and far-sighted, and consistent policy' towards the empire, predicting (25 June 1881) that if the Liberals were in power for twenty years 'at the end of that period there will be very little of the British Empire left for them to govern' (Lang, 2.198). In this, too, he reflected the growing place of the empire in post-Disraelian tory thought. On the other hand, he discouraged the fair-trade movement, describing protection (at Newcastle on 12 October 1881) as a 'pious opinion'. Northcote was closely involved in the inter-party discussions on the 1884 Representation of the People Bill, speaking frequently during the campaign which followed the measure's initial rejection by the House of Lords. In conjunction with Lord Norton (Sir Charles Adderley) he helped to arrange the compromise by which the measure extending the franchise would be passed if the government agreed to produce the Redistribution Bill and communicate their details to the opposition. Together with Lord Salisbury, Northcote represented the Conservative Party in a series of conferences in November 1884 with Gladstone and Sir Charles Dilke.

Northcote also spoke frequently on foreign affairs, discussing the Transvaal (25 June 1881), Egypt (27 June 1882), and the Sudan (12 February 1884). Over the last issue he moved a vote of censure against the government, lost by a vote of 311 to 262. Another vote of censure, moved by Northcote on 23 February 1885, was defeated by only fourteen votes, 302 to 288. Its terms, however, were considered too mild by the majority of Conservatives.

Earl of Iddesleigh

By the time Gladstone's government fell in June 1885 much dissatisfaction was manifested throughout the Conservative Party in Northcote's leadership, the almost inevitable result of his decades at the top but unquestionably increased by the impatience of the Fourth Party and Northcote's own lack of vigorous partisanship. On the formation of Lord Salisbury's first government, which took office on 23 June 1885, Northcote was offered the office, high in seniority but lacking in real power, of first lord of the Treasury, but with a peerage. On 6 July 1885 Northcote took his seat in the House of Lords as earl of Iddesleigh and Viscount St Cyres, titles taken from places on Northcote's Devon estate. His appointment as first lord of the Treasury was a curious one. While W. H. Smith and Arthur Balfour later also held this position separately from the premiership when Lord Salisbury, the prime minister, sat in the Lords, Iddesleigh anomalously occupied this office only after he had been elevated to the upper house. On 29 August Iddesleigh was made president of the royal commission to inquire into the trade depression, issuing a series of reports, the last dated 21 December 1886. This commission was notable for being one of the first to acknowledge Britain's disadvantages as the earliest industrial country at a time of intense foreign competition. Its recommendations were moderate, and Iddesleigh's chairmanship ensured that it did not stray from free-trade orthodoxy despite the growing calls for protection from many tories.

Foreign secretary, 1886–1887

Salisbury's government fell at the end of January 1886, and was replaced by Gladstone's ill-fated third government, which took office on 1 February 1886 and itself fell, in momentous circumstances, on 20 July. On 8 March 1886 Iddesleigh's political friends from both parties entertained him at Willis's Rooms, where he was presented with a handsome testimonial. On the formation of Salisbury's second government in July 1886, to Queen Victoria's regret but with Gladstone's support, Iddesleigh was appointed foreign minister, a post for which he was obviously well suited; he took office on 3 August 1886. He had to deal with the complications in the Balkans of the kidnapping of Prince Alexander of Bulgaria on 21 August, and was outspoken in his remarks to the Russian ambassador to Britain. His stance was amplified on 17 December when he expressed strong objections to the candidature of Prince Nicholas of Mingrelia for the vacant Bulgarian throne, terming him 'a vassal, or rather a subject, of Russia' (quoted in DNB). In the dispute which arose between Canada and the United States over the rights of American fishermen in Canadian waters he advocated (30 November) a settlement based on mutual concessions.

In retirement

Iddesleigh's period as foreign minister proved to be his final office. On 23 December 1886 Lord Randolph Churchill suddenly resigned as chancellor of the exchequer, and when Salisbury then entered into negotiations with Lord Hartington and the Liberal Unionists Iddesleigh unselfishly, but unwisely, placed his seat in the cabinet at the premier's disposal. On 4 January 1887 he learned, by reading a morning newspaper, that his offer had been accepted, a telegram in cipher from Lord Salisbury not reaching him in Devon until that afternoon. Salisbury appointed himself to the Foreign Office and W. H. Smith to the post of first lord of the Treasury. Salisbury made no proposal of another position to Iddesleigh, and he accepted the arrangement as final with his usual good grace. Some days later Salisbury offered him, by telegram, the position of lord president of the council, which he declined as he was anxious not 'to have more political bother' (Lang, 2.280). He reiterated his refusal to accept this position after a second letter from Salisbury. Iddesleigh seems to have decided, at the age of sixty-eight, that his active years were behind him, although the view widely put at the time, that he was conscious of failing health, is inaccurate.

Character and non-political activities

In mature life Iddesleigh had a white beard, was rather overweight, and was avuncular in appearance. He was never a narrow politician. He was elected lord rector of Edinburgh University in November 1883, defeating G. O. Trevelyan and Professor J. S. Blackie. He delivered his address on 29 January 1884, deploring the tendency of men of letters to abstain from political life. On 16 April 1884 he spoke at the celebration of the tercentenary of the university as a civic institution, and on 3 November 1885 he again lectured to students, his subject being 'The pleasures, the dangers, and the uses of desultory reading'; the lecture was subsequently published. His reprint for the Roxburghe Club of The Triumphes of Petrarch appeared after his death in 1887, as did Lectures and Essays, edited the same year by his widow. He wrote humorous poetry and plays for his family, and was also the author of several articles published in journals of the times, including 'Schools of design' (Edinburgh Review, July 1883), 'Conservative and liberal finance' (ibid., Jan 1884), and others noted in this entry. Iddesleigh was a diarist, and his journals for the years 1869–71, 1875, and 1882 were privately printed in 1907. Anthony Trollope cast him as Sir Warwick West End in The Three Clerks (3 vols., 1858).

An unusual death

After retiring from political life Iddesleigh remained extremely active in a variety of national and local projects, especially in the post of lord lieutenant of Devonshire, a position he held from January 1886, and in speaking on behalf of the prince of Wales's scheme for an imperial institute. On 11 January 1887 he returned to London from his estate at Pynes, where he was to speak at the Mansion House on the prince of Wales's scheme. On the morning of 12 January he visited the Foreign Office, where he had a long talk with Sir James Fergusson MP, the under-secretary for foreign affairs, and then walked across the street to 10 Downing Street to visit Lord Salisbury. On reaching the anteroom he suffered a heart attack, and was found by two secretaries of the prime minister to be very ill and breathing with great difficulty. He never spoke again, and died at 3.05 p.m. in the presence of two doctors, Lord Salisbury, and his secretary, Henry Manners. Iddesleigh's sudden and dramatic death, coming closely upon his resignation and the reconstruction of the government, naturally caused a national sensation, and there was universal regret at the passing of a figure who had held so many high offices without rancorous partisanship. On 18 January he was buried, at his request, at Upton Pyne, Exeter, while memorial services were simultaneously conducted at Westminster Abbey, Exeter Cathedral, and St Giles's Cathedral, Edinburgh. Statues of him by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm were placed after his death in the vestibule of the House of Commons and at Northernhay, Exeter.

Reputation and assessment

Stafford Northcote is not an easy figure with whom to come to terms, even after more than a century. As Lang astutely noted in 1890, when Northcote first entered parliament he was both a Conservative and a free-trader, and was one of the few Conservative free-traders who ultimately failed to join the Liberal Party. Additionally he was a country gentleman of the old school. Northcote's uncommon position but undoubted competence helped him to rise high during the mid-Victorian period, when party politics was relatively fluid; indeed, the very rareness of his stance helped him to do so. With the coming of mass democratic politics in the 1880s, founded in very real ideological differences between the parties and constantly observed by a popular press, Northcote appeared increasingly antiquated; to younger partisans he seemed a ridiculous figure, easily mocked. The qualities remarked upon most often by observers—his caution, virtual non-partisanship, and incapability of long resenting an injury—were similarly regarded as increasingly reminiscent of a bygone age. Northcote 'carried conviction by force of his character' rather than by oratorical skills. Yet his competence as a financier and an administrator was acknowledged by virtually all.

Posterity has not been particularly kind to Stafford Northcote. Though Andrew Lang's biography (1890) is surprisingly good, Northcote is almost alone among Victorian politicians of his stature in lacking a modern biography, and he normally appears in accounts of late Victorian politics as the hapless victim of the superior cleverness of Lord Randolph Churchill and others; he is almost always depicted by modern historians in terms of his inadequacies. To Lord Blake, Disraeli 'perceived Northcote's defects—a lack of vigour and an excessive respect for Gladstone' (Blake, The Conservative Party, 134). While noting that Northcote was 'an excellent financier' and 'the incarnation of common sense', Robert Rhodes James stated that he was 'without a spark of dangerous genius' (James, 73). To be sure, these recent verdicts build upon the judgement most often voiced by contemporaries, for example Lord Rosebery, who concluded, after enumerating Northcote's virtues, that 'where he failed was in manner. His voice, his diction, his delivery were all inadequate … he had not the spice of devil which is necessary to rouse an Opposition to zeal and elation' (Lord Randolph Churchill, 1906, 169). While there is much justice to these views, it is also the case that he was jointly responsible for one of the best-known and most typical social reforms of the century, was a financier of note, and loyally served two great tory leaders, being responsible in some measure for the success they enjoyed. Although no ‘tory democrat’ in social policy, he was a genuine philanthropist. In retrospect it is clear that the very solidity Northcote represented did much to facilitate the growth of the Conservative Party at that time and its evolution into the normal British party of government. As much as any well-known tory leader, Northcote personified the mainstream of the Conservative Party which, under leaders like Stanley Baldwin and Harold Macmillan, has regularly been preferred by the electorate. Another judgement of Lord Blake's, that Northcote 'was a born second in command' (Blake, Disraeli, 545), seems especially apt, although this may understate his true contribution to the success of his party.


  • A. Lang, Life, letters and diaries of Sir Stafford Northcote, 2 vols. (1890)
  • R. Shannon, The age of Disraeli, 1868–1881: the rise of tory democracy (1992)
  • P. Smith, Disraelian Conservatism and social reform (1967)
  • R. Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (1985)
  • S. Buxton, Finance and politics: an historical study, 1783–1885, 2 vols. (1888)
  • J. B. Conacher, The Aberdeen coalition, 1852–1855 (1968)
  • E. Hughes, ‘Civil service reform, 1853–1855’, Public Administration, 32 (1954)
  • H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone, 1875–1898 (1995)
  • Dod's Parliamentary Companion
  • D. Kynaston, The chancellor of the exchequer (1980)
  • The letters of Queen Victoria, ed. A. C. Benson, Lord Esher [R. B. Brett], and G. E. Buckle, 9 vols. (1907–32)
  • R. R. James, Lord Randolph Churchill (1977)
  • N. Gash and others, The Conservatives: a history from their origins to 1965, ed. Lord Butler [R. A. Butler] (1977)
  • M. Bentley, Politics without democracy (1984)


  • BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 50013–50064
  • Devon RO, corresp. and papers
  • Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, corresp. and papers
  • University of Exeter Library, letter-books and papers
  • Balliol Oxf., corresp. with Sir Robert Morier
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Carnarvon, Add. MS 60767
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Cross, Add. MS 51265
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MS 43893
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44216–44217
  • BL, corresp. with Florence Nightingale, Add. MS 45779
  • BL, corresp. with Augustus Paget, Add. MS 51230
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43519
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lord Kimberley
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with J. E. Thorold Rogers
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with Lord Randolph Churchill
  • CBS, letters to Lord Cottesloe
  • CKS, letters to Aretas Akers-Douglas
  • CKS, letters to Edward Stanhope
  • CUL, letters to Lord Hardinge
  • CUL, corresp. with Lord Mayo
  • Devon RO, letters to Sir Thomas Dyke Acland
  • Glos. RO, letters to Sir Michael Hicks Beach
  • ICL, letters to Sir Lyon Playfair
  • Lincs. Arch., corresp. with Edward Stanhope
  • LPL, corresp. with A. C. Tait
  • Lpool RO, letters to fourteenth earl of Derby
  • Lpool RO, corresp. with fifteenth earl of Derby
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir Richard Temple
  • Parl. Arch., letters to Lord Ashbourne
  • Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Hampden
  • PRONI, letters to Lord Crichton
  • PRONI, letters to Lord Erne
  • PRONI, letters to James Emerson Tennent
  • Suffolk RO, Ipswich, letters to Lord Cranbrook
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Sir Evelyn Baring, FO633
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Cairns, 30/51
  • UCL, corresp. with Sir Edwin Chadwick
  • W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, letters to Lord St Oswald


  • G. Richmond, portrait, 1836
  • M. Carpenter, oils, 1840, Eton
  • A. S. Lumley, oils, 1876, Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire
  • E. Long, oils, 1882, NPG
  • E. Long, oils, 1883, University of Exeter; replica, 1889, NPG
  • J. E. Boehm, statue, 1887, Palace of Westminster, London
  • J. E. Boehm, statue, 1887, Northernhay, Exeter
  • W. Tyler, marble bust, 1887, Royal Collection; related plaster bust, Balliol Oxf.
  • Ape [C. Pellegrini], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (8 Oct 1870)
  • A. Beau, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • H. Edwin, drawing, silhouette, NPG
  • Elliott & Fry, carte-de-visite, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. Furniss, caricature, pen-and-ink sketch, NPG
  • M. Gales, group portrait, watercolour drawing (The Derby cabinet of 1867), NPG
  • W. Hole, etching, NPG; repro. in Quasi cursores (1884)
  • W. Holl, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1877)
  • Maull & Polyblank, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • G. Pilotell, etching, BM
  • T [T. Chartran], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (5 July 1881)
  • lithograph, BM; repro. in Civil Service Review (Dec 1876)
  • prints, NPG
  • woodburytype photograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£24,717 16s. 9d.: resworn probate, July 1887, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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