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Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawnylocked

  • Michael Freeden

Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse (1864–1929)

by Elliott & Fry

British Library of Political and Economic Science

Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawny (1864–1929), social philosopher and journalist, was born on 8 September 1864 at St Ive, near Liskeard, Cornwall, the youngest of the seven children of the Revd Reginald Hobhouse (1818–1895), rector of St Ive for fifty years and archdeacon of Bodmin from 1877 to 1892, and his wife, Caroline (1820–1880), daughter of Sir William Lewis Salusbury-Trelawny, eighth baronet, of Trelawny, Cornwall.

Early life

Hobhouse's parents influenced him in very different ways. His vivacious and witty mother treated him as a 'first-rate companion' and introduced him to Latin and literature. His father was a more distant figure, 'an incarnation of justice and iron rectitude' (Hobson and Ginsberg, 15–16). The death of two siblings cast a morbid shadow over the family. As a child Hobhouse was sent to a preparatory school at Exmouth and then proceeded in January 1877 to Marlborough College, where he remained until 1883. When Hobhouse's mother died in 1880, the ensuing affectionate relationship he then forged with his father was undoubtedly abetted by the boy's long absences. His sister Emily Hobhouse, who was to make her name as a reformer on South African issues, painted a far more depressing picture of home life with a narrow-minded and taciturn valetudinarian. The setting in which Hobhouse grew up was further complicated not only by his father's religious orthodoxy but by his political Conservatism, against a backdrop of a highly politicized family. Hobhouse's grandfather Henry Hobhouse was for many years keeper of the state papers, and his uncle Sir Arthur Hobhouse was a lawyer and moderate Liberal reformer who managed at times to convey the impression of a dangerous radical. While Hobhouse struck out politically on his own innovative path, and could have pursued a political career in his own right, he did not contemplate such a role seriously. The blend of warm emotion and cold reason he experienced in his youth had a profound impact on shaping his approach both to politics and to philosophy, and it was also indicated in a continual nervous disposition, in which physical ailments merged with psychological mood swings, insomnia, and breakdowns, throughout most of his life.

At Marlborough, Hobhouse initially made little impression but began to blossom in the sixth form, as he used its library to strike an acquaintance with the works of Herbert Spencer, Mazzini's Essays, and in particular J. S. Mill, who remained a steady source of inspiration. Encouraged by liberal masters and a tradition of public debate, especially on current politics, he demonstrated early signs of his future radicalism on questions of democracy and even republicanism, while also displaying a propensity to fit badly into institutional frameworks. He was judged rather childish and immature for his years, and his headmaster prevailed in 1882 upon Hobhouse's father to keep the youth another year at Marlborough before entering him for an Oxford scholarship.

Oxford: the synthesis of theory and practice

In 1883 Hobhouse went up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, with a classical scholarship. As an undergraduate he continued to engage in radical activities, attempting to organize agricultural labourers, and touring nearby towns and villages in a temperance campaign (close to the heart of T. H. Green, one of Hobhouse's scholarly inspirations) together with Gilbert Murray and Charles Roberts, the future Liberal MP. He joined societies in which practical matters of economic and social reform were firmly on the agenda. By then an agnostic, he was drawn towards the study of philosophy, developing the curious compound of holism and empiricism that was to characterize his more technical scholarship. He obtained a first in classical moderations in 1884 and a first in literae humaniores in 1887, and in the same year won a prize fellowship at Merton College. Hobhouse was an active university society debater and was elected president of the radical Russell Club. In 1890 he was appointed assistant tutor in Corpus, before being elected a fellow in 1894. As a tutor he was conscientious and demanding, occasionally stimulating and even brilliant, cultivating the originality and enthusiasm of his students, yet often keeping his distance through asperity and sarcasm. With his colleagues he could be argumentative and sometimes quick-tempered, though immediately placable. Hobhouse was uncomfortable in the senior common rooms of Oxford, and hostile to their reactionary atmosphere. Among the few close friends he made there were Hubert Llewellyn Smith, the future senior civil servant, Arthur Sidgwick, fellow of Corpus, and Sidney Ball, fellow of St John's and magnet for aspiring social reformers. With the last he shared not only political views as a member of Ball's social science club but also amateur dramatics: he played Hastings to Ball's Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer. Hobhouse had a strong comic streak, verging on buffoonery, and frequently entertained family and friends with Cornish songs. Graham Wallas was later to recall his special gift for mimicry.

Invitations from Lady Rosalind Howard to vacation parties at Castle Howard issued in new friendships, including one with her daughter Mary—the future wife of Gilbert Murray—with whom Hobhouse corresponded frequently. The letters adumbrated the two linchpins of the young Hobhouse's academic method, which were to change but little in the years to come. On the one hand was a belief in evolution as the scientific validation of a teleological development of human consciousness and interaction. That, however, required also philosophical support which Hobhouse now pledged to seek. On the other was a reading of Mazzini that discovered in the Italian patriot a unity of thought and action, and the notion of synthesis reflected in a deft blending of rights and duties as an ethical principle, and of individual and social life as a political principle.

In 1891 Hobhouse married Nora Hadwen (1862–1924), daughter of George Burgess Hadwen, a mill owner of Sowerby Bridge who lived at Kelroyde; they had a son, Oliver (1892–1963), and two daughters, Leonora (1896–1944) and Marjorie Berta (1898–1951). A strongly supportive family life had far more to offer than institutional Oxford. Nora was a spirited companion, who shared in her husband's political activities and served as unpaid secretary. Hobhouse's son recalled scientifically fought military battles on the drawing-room floor and a shared passion for railway trains. Outside his small circle of friends, however, Hobhouse showed limited interest in people, while remaining passionate about humanity.

From the late 1880s Hobhouse had developed a keen interest in trade union affairs. He supported the cause of the dock strike in 1889, and came into contact with labour leaders such as Tom Mann and Ben Tillett. He also visited Toynbee Hall, and exchanged views with Sidney Webb and other Fabians. These concerns culminated in a book, The Labour Movement, first published in 1893, in which Hobhouse presented the aims of trade unionism, the co-operative movement, and state socialism as directed towards a common organic good, based on a recognition of mutual dependence. He adopted the claim of a minimum wage as a first charge on industry from current Fabian arguments, and employed Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics for demanding that the surplus—after accounting for labour, rent, and interest—should go not to employers' pockets but to its real creators, the community.

Hobhouse's first major scholarly work was A Theory of Knowledge (1896). In it he attempted to redirect the idealism still dominant in Oxford philosophy towards a more empirical and realist foundation. He saw knowledge as a mutually interdependent structure, in that truth reflected the orderly coherence and harmony of its components, and reality was an interconnected whole. Nevertheless, he rejected the unity of knowledge as universal spiritual consciousness; instead he raised the possibility of mind developing empirically on an evolutionary curve, and the consistency of its components as subject to experiential testing. The book attested to the ambivalent position Hobhouse occupied between the idealist holism of T. H. Green and the scientific lessons to be learned from biology and evolution. Significantly, Hobhouse had also studied physiology and biochemistry under the direction of J. S. Haldane in the late 1880s. Hobhouse's social philosophy has frequently been interpreted as an offshoot of Green's early form of social liberalism, but his intellectual development was far more diverse and wide-ranging, and his scientific organicism—broadly shared with his future colleague and intellectual comrade-in-arms J. A. Hobson—became the hallmark of the new liberal thinking. Hobhouse was satisfied neither by Green's metaphysics, which he believed had to be tempered by the questioning explorations of science, nor by Green's fledgeling theory of the relationship between liberty and communitarianism. A Theory of Knowledge may have been written before its time; certainly, it met with little success—Hobhouse's friend F. W. Hirst later described it as 'caviare to the general' (F. W. Hirst, In the Golden Days, 1947, 142)—and was disappointingly dismissed by F. H. Bradley, whose approval Hobhouse was eager to secure.

Journalism: the Manchester Guardian and radical Liberalism

Hobhouse's disillusionment with Oxford was now complete. Sidgwick recommended him as a strong progressive Liberal to C. P. Scott, the formidable editor of the Manchester Guardian, and in 1897 Hobhouse moved to Manchester as a part-time journalist, working in the evenings, with the leisure to pursue his academic studies in the mornings. The empirical and the practical intermingled with the speculative and philosophical, setting an occupational pattern for the rest of his life. His family joined him later that year, and they lived in Manchester until 1902. During this phase of his life Hobhouse proved to be a prodigious writer of long and short leaders and of book reviews, and through the latter activity became acquainted with most of the major British works on political and social theory written at the time. Scott described him as 'writing very rapidly … In less than half the time that most men would take, his tall figure would stalk into the room and deliver the goods' (Hobson and Ginsberg, 7). Hobson estimated that in his final year in Manchester Hobhouse wrote 322 articles for the Guardian. This extraordinary gift, combined with an ability to clarify the most abstruse issues, served him well throughout his journalistic career and provided him with a podium for political influence though, unsurprisingly, such facility laid him open to the criticism that his academic work was diffuse and at times impetuous, mirroring its author's temperament. But among the staff of the newspaper, as J. L. Hammond recalled, Hobhouse 'was unrivalled when the hour demanded close and exact argument' (J. L. Hammond, C. P. Scott, 1934, 81).

Hobhouse's initial employment by the Manchester Guardian coincided with the South African War, and he became an outspoken, even crusading, castigator of the government's imperialist policy, condemning the use of concentration camps and the suspension of the Cape constitution. He was also an opinion-former on other foreign affairs—an arena which in those years provided him with the most pronounced instances for gauging moral principle. Concurrently he intensified his involvement in questions of social reform, education, free trade, and taxation. On the 1897 engineering dispute for shorter hours he wrote forty-five articles. He was a close confidant of Scott on most political as well as managerial issues, and engaged with him in frequent correspondence, though Scott insisted on toning down the criticism Hobhouse occasionally reserved for the Liberal Party. The culmination of many of Hobhouse's views at the time, based on articles published in the Liberal weekly The Speaker, was a trenchant book entitled Democracy and Reaction (1904). In it he argued for a reorganization, on which advanced Liberals and moderate socialists could agree, of the modern democratic state not as a military concern but as an enterprise directed at the moralization of industrial life and the development of human faculty. In line with other theorists of human welfare such as D. G. Ritchie and Hobson, Hobhouse effected a reconciliation between utility and rights by contending that though social welfare was the supreme end, it always had to include the upholding of those rights without which both individual and community could not develop, and which could be advanced through selected collective measures. The crucial role he was to play in the formulation of the new liberalism was already taking shape. In those years he also moved in Liberal Party circles, in particular making the acquaintance of John Morley, no new liberal himself, but like Hobhouse a staunch anti-imperialist.

Professional sociologist

In 1902 Hobhouse resigned his Guardian post and moved to Wimbledon in London, intending to find more time for his academic work, while continuing to write occasionally for the paper. In 1901 he had published Mind in Evolution, the first of a trilogy which began to establish his name as a synthesizer of philosophical and empirical sociology. The distance he had travelled from Oxford idealism was signalled in his reliance on animal psychology, and some of the study's conclusions were based on observations in Manchester's Belle Vue Zoological Gardens. Hobhouse's work began to attract interest from new directions. He became involved in the establishing of the new Sociological Society in 1903 and was an active member of the committee to formulate its aims and to draft its constitution. In that year Hobhouse gave a course of lectures at Birmingham University, and in 1904 he lectured at the University of London on comparative ethics. In 1905 he was approached by the University of Wisconsin about the possibility of a professorship. But two factors temporarily intervened to postpone this potential re-entry into academic life. Financial difficulties experienced by his family induced him to accept in 1903 the paid post of secretary of the Free Trade Union, formed to counter the protectionism of Joseph Chamberlain, which he held until early 1905. And in late 1905 he embarked upon a new journalistic venture, becoming political editor of Tribune under the proprietorship of Franklin Thomasson, an old liberal of the Manchester school. Predictably, it was an enterprise doomed to failure, and Hobhouse soon clashed with his employer and the managing director, S. J. Pryor, both over policy and presentation, resisting pressures to play to the popular gallery.

By January 1907 Hobhouse had left Tribune, which soon after folded up. Scott then attempted to lure him back to Manchester, but Hobhouse preferred to restore a looser relationship with the Guardian, pursuing his journalistic work from London, and becoming a director of the company in 1911. Concurrently, Hobhouse joined H. W. Massingham's team on The Nation, writing frequently and participating in the famous Nation lunches, though H. W. Nevinson, his colleague in that radical discussion forum, felt Hobhouse was by then prey to too many conflicting interests. On the political front, Hobhouse supported women's suffrage after the Liberals came to power in 1906, and in his academic writings there are intermittent references to women's emancipation and to a reassessment of the structure of the family.

Meanwhile Hobhouse had published part two of his trilogy, entitled Morals in Evolution, in 1906. The book secured his academic reputation and marked his growing detachment from Spencer's individualistic evolutionism and Auguste Comte's crude positivist historicism. Hobhouse offered a comparative cultural investigation of the progress of morality, reflected in the social institutions of developing and developed societies, as a historical unfolding of social co-operation and individual freedom. This process was also one towards increasing universalism, as obligations were directed at humanity as a whole; indeed, the double meaning of humanity played here a crucial role. The breadth of Hobhouse's scholarship caught the attention of Victor Branford, who put forward Hobhouse's name as a candidate for the first chair in sociology, newly endowed by Martin White, at the London School of Economics. Hobhouse was duly elected in 1907 and occupied the chair until his death. In 1908 he became the editor of the relaunched journal of the Sociological Society, the Sociological Review, but he stepped down in 1910 owing to a combination of overwork and disagreements over the strong editorial path the journal was pursuing within the fragmented field of sociology. He was always loath to yield to pressures to change his position.

With the final volume of his trilogy, Development and Purpose (1913), in which the organic view of social life was more clearly revealed as the product of a purposive rational evolution, Hobhouse completed his most substantial work of scholarship, but not the one which has had the most extensive impact. His interpretation of sociology constituted an epilogue to a grand nineteenth-century intellectual movement, but it was already being replaced by a plethora of empirical, functional, and specialized approaches, increasingly severed from philosophy. The central message of Hobhouse's sociological work, one taken up also by his specific brand of liberalism, was the affirmation of orthogenic evolution: progress was a corollary of the development of mind and reason, it was teleological in its nature, and the measure of its success was ethical. Evolution had produced one species capable of controlling through consciousness the evolutionary process itself, replacing struggle and competition with co-operation. Though the terminology changed over time, the guiding principle of interpreting evolution as the improvement of the human mind had already been formed during Hobhouse's Oxford days. Both his sociology and philosophy served that end; both were intended—through the master concept of purposive evolution—to bridge the gap between science and ethics or, more specifically in the light of Hobhouse's earlier intellectual origins, between positivism and idealism. A book co-authored in 1915 with G. C. Wheeler and Hobhouse's pupil and successor Morris Ginsberg, The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples, transposed that enterprise to the domain of comparative anthropology.

Liberalism before and during the war

In 1910 Hobhouse was commissioned by the Home University Library to write what became his most enduring work, Liberalism (1911). In conjunction with Hobson, he emerged in this brilliant and lucid book as the prime theorist and standard-bearer of the new liberalism, combining the traditional allure of mutual forbearance with the newer ethical imperative of mutual aid under the aegis of a guiding social intelligence, co-ordinated by the democratic state. Because mind evolved in the direction of increased rationality and ethicality, and these in turn revealed the unity of purpose and the organic interdependence of social life, a collectivist liberalism was emerging out of its earlier individualist manifestations. Consequently, the community, as well as its members, had rights that required protection, in the form of common property for the common good. Yet the community was never more than the sum of its parts, and could thrive only when individual personality was allowed optimal expression; hence Hobhouse's rejection of stronger versions of socialism and his espousal of an over-optimistic harmony between individual and social ends. Nevertheless, a full civil efficiency was central to individual responsibility and to the full conception of inclusionary citizenship that Hobhouse upheld. State compulsion was thus permitted to constrain coercive conduct—physical, economic, and ethical—that violated individual or social rights, in order to secure a radical reinterpretation of liberty as human growth. Liberalism was a vital, animating principle that encompassed the flowering of civilization itself.

Though the greater vision was naïve in its ironing out of conflict, in practical terms Hobhouse was at the cutting edge of social reform thinking, advocating the right to work and to a living wage, the redistribution of resources, unemployment and health insurance, and taxation that would identify socially created wealth and put it at the disposal of the community. He was also an early enthusiast for universal old-age pensions. In 1911 he helped to form the short-lived Foreign Policy Committee, whose role was to raise parliamentary awareness, and foster parliamentary control, of foreign affairs, and served as its chairman. An invitation to lecture at Columbia University in April 1911 resulted in the publication of the talks under the title Social Evolution and Political Theory, notable among others for the critical stance it adopted vis-à-vis eugenics, versions of which were attracting progressive thinkers.

When the First World War broke out Hobhouse initially joined the British Neutrality Committee, but the growing German threat made him change his mind, causing a clash with his pacifist sister Emily. His association of Prussianism and Hegelianism as a menace to liberal civilization was famously expressed in his preface to The Metaphysical Theory of the State (1918), dedicated to his son, then serving in the RAF. An air raid had interrupted Hobhouse's examination of Hegel's theory of freedom: 'In the bombing of London I had just witnessed the visible and tangible outcome of a false and wicked doctrine, the foundation of which lay, as I believe, in the book before me' (p. 6). This also signalled Hobhouse's final break with idealism, which he had increasingly seen as a vehicle for the pernicious infiltration of an alien statist mysticism into British universities. The book, a mirror-image attack on Bernard Bosanquet's The Philosophical Theory of the State (1899) and its confounding of state with society, reiterated the new liberal discovery of self-determination as a developmental liberty, but proclaimed also the war-induced cautiousness of new liberals, now wedded to the absence of unjustifiable constraints on individuals and resistant to the notion of state compulsion, even with regard to conscription. Hobhouse's anti-Germanism was not a retreat to a cultural Little Englandism. He praised the democratic humanitarianism of the French and Dutch, as well as the English, traditions, and hailed the March 1917 Russian revolution in a Guardian editorial as an example to Britain of how freedom and democracy should be promoted.

Post-war years: consolidation and decline

In parallel with his theoretical interest in labour relations, Hobhouse became involved in trade boards, which engaged among others in establishing minimum wage rates. This involvement offered a forum for the application of his social theories. Immediately after the war he chaired nine boards on their establishment at the invitation of the Ministry of Labour and defended trade boards when they came under ministerial and public attack. As a chairman, he was a commanding personality: eager to get at the facts, purposive and impartial, discouraging verbosity, and insistent on uncovering the underlying moral principles of each settlement. Hobhouse also served as chairman of the sub-committee on wages and hours of the national industrial conference in 1919. In that year he received an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, having already collected one from the University of Durham in 1913.

The post-war years were marked both by a continued prolificity in writing and by an increase in the bouts of pessimism with which Hobhouse had contended for most of his life. A search for a conception of common humanity was now stimulated by the awareness that 'history forbids the cheap optimism which assumes that everything will always go forward' (The World in Conflict, 1915, 96). The result was another trilogy of books: The Rational Good (1921), The Elements of Social Justice (1922), and Social Development (1924). In them he developed a theory of rights based on the reciprocal claims of individual personality, differentiated from socialism by protecting private interests, yet—in tandem with R. H. Tawney—also insisting on the importance of social service as the basis of economic reward, while reiterating the ultimate harmony between the individual and the communal. He employed a psychological account of the growth of sociability and rationality from impulse, but disparagingly dismissed the newer psychoanalytical thinking of Freud as a passing fashion. In these last major works Hobhouse was involved in reworking and honing the project he had pursued throughout the last twenty-five years of his life, and whose intellectual conception now seemed increasingly out of touch with post-war culture. Though his sharpness and lucidity continued unabated, his creativity had become muted. A student observed that Hobhouse's 'very intellectual honesty stood in his way … for he could remain so long with suspended judgment that he was regarded as unable to make up his own mind' (Manchester Guardian, 26 June 1929).

By 1924 Hobhouse's health had seriously deteriorated as a consequence of phlebitis, causing him to abandon the second part of a two-year Muirhead lectureship at Birmingham University begun in 1923. Notwithstanding, his London duties intensified from 1925, when the Martin White chair was converted from a part-time to a full-time basis. Other activities continued. He became chairman of the council of the British Institute of Philosophical Studies, formed in 1925, and in the same year was elected a fellow of the British Academy. Hobhouse continued to follow politics, but from a distance. He collaborated with Gilbert Murray and others in advocating internationalism. The plight of the Liberal Party depressed him, but like his friend Hobson, he remained ill at ease with the rising Labour Party. He played a small role in the Liberal industrial inquiry which produced the famous ‘Yellow book’ of 1928, but mainly sat on the sidelines of Liberalism. Instead, he hoped for a break-up of the British party system so that an ideological realignment between 'ordinary labour' and 'good liberals' would emerge which would reduce the impact of trade unionism.

Hobhouse was a tall, bulky, and shaggy man. He was gentle and courteous, yet could be 'blastingly frigid' in curtailing useless discussion. He lectured without notes, possessed an astonishing memory, and commanded great respect from his occasionally intimidated students. Yet his intellectual gravitas was punctuated by a childlike sense of humour, often involving the exploits of a jackdaw apparently encouraged to disperse his papers at his home. Both his private and public persona were forever blowing hot and cold. In his declining years Hobhouse's students were often transfixed by his trembling hand as he relit his pipe. In search of medical treatment, he spent a part of his last summers in Bagnôles de l'Orne in Normandy under the care of a specialist. He was due to retire from the London School of Economics in 1929 but had accepted a year's extension at the request of the director, William Beveridge. That was not to be. Hobhouse died suddenly in hospital in Alençon, France, on 21 June 1929 as a consequence of a duodenal ulcer and was buried a week later at St Mary's churchyard in Wimbledon.


  • J. A. Hobson and M. Ginsberg, L. T. Hobhouse: his life and work (1931)
  • S. Collini, Liberalism and sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and political argument in England, 1880–1914 (1979)
  • Manchester Guardian (24 June 1929)
  • The Nation (29 June 1929)
  • Nation and the Athenaeum (29 June 1929)
  • V. Branford, ‘The sociological work of Leonard Hobhouse’, Sociological Review, 21 (1929), 273–80
  • The Times (24 June 1929)
  • J. Owen, L. T. Hobhouse, sociologist (1974)
  • M. Freeden, The new liberalism (1978)
  • M. Freeden, Liberalism divided (1986)
  • E. Barker, ‘Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, 1864–1929’, PBA, 15 (1931), 536–54
  • P. Clarke, Liberals and social democrats (1978)
  • A. R. Fry, Emily Hobhouse: a memoir (1929)


  • BLPES, corresp. and MSS
  • priv. coll., MSS
  • BL, C. P. Scott MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Francis Marvin
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray
  • Castle Howard, Yorkshire, letters to Rosalind, countess of Carlisle
  • JRL, corresp. with C. P. Scott
  • Keele University Library, LePlay collection, corresp. and minute book entries as member of Sociological Society committees


  • Elliott & Fry, photograph, BLPES [see illus.]
  • photograph, repro. in Hobson and Ginsberg, L. T. Hobhouse, frontispiece

Wealth at Death

£19,422 15s. 4d.: resworn probate, 27 July 1929, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Proceedings of the British Academy