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Earle, Ralph Anstrutherlocked

(1835–1879)
  • Mary S. Millar

Earle, Ralph Anstruther (1835–1879), civil servant, was born at Edinburgh, second son of Charles Earle (1798–1880) of Everton, Lancashire, and his wife, Emily, daughter of Primrose Maxwell of Tuppendence, Kent. He was educated at Harrow School (1849–54), but instead of continuing to Cambridge in 1854 he became, through his Liberal connections, unpaid attaché to the British embassy in Paris.

In 1855 or 1856 Earle met Benjamin Disraeli. He scented personal opportunity in Disraeli's plans to bring down the Liberal government, and turned coat to become his ‘mole’ at the embassy. Until the Conservative return to power in 1858, Earle fed confidential government information, anonymously and via other undercover agents, to Disraeli (‘Aunty’) in London. Disraeli used this inside knowledge to attack Palmerston's foreign policy, and it contributed to his decision to oppose the 1858 Conspiracy Bill which defeated Palmerston.

Earle then became Disraeli's private secretary (1858–66), 'only 23, but a man in matured thought and power of observation' (Disraeli to Mrs Brydges Willyams, 20 May 1859, Disraeli, vol. 7). Handsome and clever, he managed correspondence, interviews, and patronage; drafted speeches and memoranda; maintained newspaper liaison; and advised on parliamentary tactics—all despite absences at German spas for his health. As confidential clerk, he undertook secret missions to Napoleon III in 1858 and 1860, the second a highly unpatriotic incitement to defy the British government. He was snobbish and vindictive, particularly towards his former chief, Cowley: 'if we cannot reward friends, it is something … to punish enemies' (Earle to Disraeli, 1 June 1857). His shady financial affairs included dealings with railways and short-lived companies. A brief period as Conservative MP for Berwick (May–August 1859) ended abruptly in his resignation, and led to charges of collusion that also implicated Disraeli and prompted the resignation of the Conservative Party election manager, Philip Rose.

Earle was Conservative MP for Maldon (1865–8), but his most substantial political contribution was as negotiator in 1866 with Liberals disaffected over political reform; they eventually assisted the Conservative return to power. Possibly, however, he overreached in his promises, and the Liberals' expectations of coalition temporarily jeopardized Disraeli's position as house leader in Derby's new government in 1866. Disraeli appointed him secretary of the poor-law board, but withdrew from their former confidential association. After a bitter quarrel (probably over further promotion) in March 1867, Earle resigned, and in April foolishly made a speech sniping at Disraeli. 'I am not', Disraeli remarked, 'so much surprised at Ralph's want of political morality, but I am surprised at his want of political sagacity' (Disraeli to Lord Spencer, Henderson, 286). Earle's display of disloyalty ended his political career, and he retired to profiteering in Turkish Railways. In 1877 he attempted to convert to Roman Catholicism but was prevented by his brother Charles; he successfully converted two days before his death, which took place on 10 June 1879 at Soden, Nassau, Germany, where he was buried. Earle's activities do not reflect well on either him or Disraeli, but they give an insight into the hidden infrastructure of Victorian politics and into Disraeli's unofficial intelligence network.

Sources

  • R. Earle, letter to Benjamin Disraeli, Bodl. Oxf., Hughenden MSS B/XX/E, fols. 1–422
  • G. B. Henderson, ‘Disraeli and Palmerston’, Crimean War diplomacy, and other historical essays (1947), 249–66
  • G. B. Henderson, ‘Ralph Anstruther Earle’, Crimean War diplomacy, and other historical essays (1947), 267–89
  • Benjamin Disraeli letters, ed. J. A. W. Gunn and M. G. Wiebe (1982–), vols. 6–7
  • G. E. Buckle, The life of Benjamin Disraeli, 4 (1916)
  • R. Blake, Disraeli (1966)
  • M. Cowling, ‘Disraeli, Derby and fusion, 1865–1866’, HJ, 8 (1965), 31–71
  • W. Fraser, Disraeli and his day (1891)
  • ILN (28 June 1879)
  • The Times (13 June 1879)
  • The Times (14 June 1879)
  • Annual Register (1879)
  • The diary of Gathorne Hardy, later Lord Cranbrook, 1866–1892: political selections, ed. N. E. Johnson (1981)
  • H. D. Wolff, Rambling recollections, 1 (1908)
  • S. Bradford, Disraeli (1982)

Archives

  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Benjamin Disraeli
  • Bodl. Oxf., Hughenden MSS, B/XX/E, fols. 1–422
  • Som. ARS, letters to Sir William Jolliffe

Wealth at Death

under £50,000: resworn probate, Oct 1879, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
Illustrated London News
Historical Journal
Bodleian Library, Oxford
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)