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Cooper, Anthony Ashley-, seventh earl of Shaftesburylocked

  • John Wolffe

Anthony Ashley- Cooper, seventh earl of Shaftesbury (1801–1885)

by George Frederic Watts, 1862

Cooper, Anthony Ashley-, seventh earl of Shaftesbury (1801–1885), philanthropist and politician, was born on 28 April 1801 at 24 Grosvenor Square, London, the fourth child and eldest son of Cropley Ashley-Cooper, sixth earl of Shaftesbury (1768–1851) from 1811 and chairman of committees in the House of Lords from 1814, and his wife, Lady Anne Spencer-Churchill (1773–1865), daughter of the fourth duke of Marlborough. He had an unhappy childhood, with parents who were distant and severe, and he also found his first school, Manor House, Chiswick, which he attended from 1809 to 1813, to be uncongenial. He flourished more at Harrow School, where he was educated from 1813 to 1816, and at Christ Church, Oxford, where he matriculated in 1819 after a period of two years boarding with a clergyman at Eckington in Derbyshire. He gained a first-class degree in classics in 1822, took his MA in 1832, and was made DCL in 1841.

Election to parliament and marriage

Lord Ashley, as he was styled in his father's lifetime, was a handsome, serious-minded, and ambitious young man. In later life he was to trace his religious convictions back to the childhood influence of a family servant, Maria Millis, and his philanthropic zeal to his teenage encounter with a pauper funeral on Harrow Hill. Nevertheless in the 1820s his character and beliefs were by no means fully formed. At Oxford he became a close friend of George Howard, later Viscount Morpeth, an association which gave him, despite his own tory family loyalties, a strong link to the whig circles of Castle Howard and Devonshire House, to whose cultivated and worldly tone he appears to have conformed. He was abroad on an extended grand tour from 1823 to 1825.

Ashley was first elected to parliament in 1826 as MP for Woodstock, a pocket borough controlled by his uncle, the duke of Marlborough, and he initially identified himself strongly with the duke of Wellington, whom he greatly admired. He accordingly turned down the offer of office from Canning in April 1827, but early in 1828 he accepted from Wellington a commissionership at the India Board of Control. He sought to promote humanitarian and administrative reform in India, and also in 1828 took a leading part in securing legislation to protect lunatics. He was subsequently appointed to the metropolitan commission in lunacy and became its chairman in 1833.

On 10 June 1830 at St George's, Hanover Square, Ashley married Lady Emily (Minny) Cowper (1810–1872), daughter of Emily, Countess Cowper, an alliance which strengthened his personal ties with the whigs, although it did not subvert his own tory convictions. It is very probable that Minny's natural father was not Earl Cowper but Lord Palmerston, and indeed, after Earl Cowper's death in 1837, her mother married Palmerston in 1839. Ashley's own marriage was a stable and devoted one, and he and Minny had six sons, including (Anthony) Evelyn Melbourne Ashley, politician and biographer, and four daughters, born between 1831 and 1849.

In the general election of 1830 Ashley was returned for Dorchester. The subsequent fall of the Wellington administration left him out of office, and he turned down the offer from Palmerston of an under-secretaryship in the Foreign Office. He took a prominent part in the opposition to parliamentary reform, most notably through successfully contesting the Dorset by-election in the autumn of 1831. He was to represent the county until 1846.

In January 1833 Ashley was persuaded to take over from Michael Sadler, who had lost his seat in the general election of 1832, the parliamentary leadership of the campaign for factory reform and shorter hours of work. Ashley proposed to limit to ten hours a day the time worked in factories by children and young people. He met with strong opposition, but, following investigations by a royal commission, the Factory Act of 1833 was passed as a government measure. It provided for higher limits on hours, and a lesser measure of regulation, however, than Ashley and the Ten Hours Movement had advocated.

In the short-lived Peel administration of 1834–5 Ashley served as a civil lord of the Admiralty. His career, however, was already setting a course towards a stance independent of the expectation of office. This was to enable him to pursue his religious, moral, and social concerns without restriction. In the event, although he accepted a post in the royal household in 1839 when Peel unsuccessfully attempted to form a government, Ashley turned down the offer when it was renewed in 1841, and was never to hold government office again.

Evangelical crusader in politics, 1835–1846

Ashley's growing sense of himself as a lone crusader was undergirded in the course of the 1830s by a deepening of his religious commitment. He had always been a sincere and pious Christian, but his beliefs now assumed an unambiguously evangelical character, sustained in particular by his friendship from 1835 with the leading divine Edward Bickersteth. Ashley became convinced of the imminence of the premillennial second advent of Christ, an expectation which for him engendered a sense not of fatalism, but rather of the urgency of saving souls and of reforming national life so as to mitigate the impact of the coming divine judgment. This conviction remained fundamental to the intensity and passion with which he pursued his numerous concerns.

Accordingly from the later 1830s Ashley came to take a prominent role in relation to distinctively religious matters, both inside and outside parliament. He supported measures for Sunday observance, and in February 1836 took the chair at the inaugural meeting of the Church Pastoral Aid Society. He was to remain its president for the rest of his life. Meanwhile he became preoccupied with the spiritual condition of the Jews, central as they were to the unfolding of his apocalyptic vision, and he took a leading part in the movement that led to the creation of a protestant bishopric of Jerusalem in 1841. This development, which appalled John Henry Newman, confirmed Ashley's position as a conspicuous opponent of the Oxford Movement, and in 1841–2 he was chairman of the committee that successfully promoted the election to the professorship of poetry of James Garbett against the Tractarian Isaac Williams. He continued to campaign against high-church tendencies within the Church of England, and in 1845 deplored the passing of the Maynooth Act which he perceived as disastrously compromising the nation by committing it to the indefinite support of a Roman Catholic institution.

Ashley's spiritual fervour reinforced his endeavours for national social and moral improvement. He was concerned to sustain the probity of British policy overseas, being critical of military conduct in Afghanistan, and of the opium trade with China. He opposed the annexation of Sind in 1843 and in the same year regretted government inaction when the French forcibly annexed Tahiti. Meanwhile, in 1840 he strenuously supported legislation to protect children employed as chimney sweeps, and in 1842 he secured the passing of the Mines Act. A further government measure of factory reform was enacted in 1844, although it did not satisfy Ashley, who had unsuccessfully endeavoured to extend its provisions. He took more satisfaction from securing legislation in 1845 to control the employment of children in cotton printworks. Also in 1845 he was responsible for further significant legislation on lunacy, which greatly improved the regulation of treatment. Ashley was subsequently elected permanent chairman of the lunacy commission, which acquired powers covering the whole of England and Wales, and held the office until his death.

Ashley's sympathy with the oppressed increasingly set him at variance with his constituents, especially following a speech at Sturminster Newton in November 1843 in which he criticized landowners as well as manufacturers for their treatment of their labourers, tenants, and other dependants. His remarks on this occasion also led to a permanent estrangement from his father, with whom his relations had never been easy. In early 1846 his political position in Dorset became untenable when, in full agreement with Sir Robert Peel, he was convinced of the necessity for the repeal of the corn laws. He accordingly resigned his seat.


The enforced break in Ashley's parliamentary career lasted some eighteen months and reinforced him in a shift of emphasis from political to voluntary philanthropic activity. He became a leading figure in an extensive range of societies. Some, such as the Irish church missions to Roman Catholics and the British and Foreign Bible Society, stemmed from specifically evangelical spiritual imperatives; others, such as the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, reflected a broader social conscience, but for Ashley all were expressions of his Christian zeal to proclaim the gospel and to prepare the ground for it by advances in living and working conditions. He was increasingly concerned with education, primarily for moral and spiritual reasons, and one of his main motives for seeking to limit the hours worked by children was to provide them with more time to receive instruction. He had accordingly been disappointed at the failure in 1843 of an attempt to legislate for the provision of education in factories, but committed himself to voluntary efforts in this sphere, notably from 1844 through his presidency of the Ragged School Union. From the late 1840s he actively promoted schemes for supporting the emigration of young people whose prospects in Britain were poor.

Ashley by no means abandoned the parliamentary sphere, however. In the spring of 1847 he had the satisfaction of seeing the enactment of a Ten Hours measure, through the agency of John Fielden and others, and at the general election in July he was himself returned to the Commons, as MP for Bath. Factory reform continued to engage his energies, as the implementation of the 1847 act proved problematic, and in 1850 he conceded a compromise which in effect allowed ten and a half hours. Meanwhile in 1848 he was appointed a commissioner of the newly formed Board of Health, in which role he laboured strenuously during the cholera epidemic of 1849. He campaigned for the closure of overcrowded city burial-grounds and for the improvement of water supplies to the metropolis.

Evangelical peer

On the death of his father on 2 June 1851 Ashley succeeded to the title, as seventh earl of Shaftesbury, and to the family estates, amounting to over 20,000 acres in Dorset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire. Although he initially felt that the House of Lords was a complete political backwater, Shaftesbury took an active part in its proceedings and used his position there to further his religious and social objectives. He continued to hold himself aloof from government office, although in 1855, under intense personal as well as political pressure, he came close to accepting the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster from Palmerston. However, while in the event he did not join the cabinet, his father-in-law's accession to the premiership gave Shaftesbury a significant informal role as an adviser on ecclesiastical appointments, and he obtained a noticeable increase in the proportion of evangelicals on the bench of bishops. In 1861 Palmerston honoured his wider public services with the conferment of the Order of the Garter.

Despite such recognition and achievement, these were years of painful struggle for Shaftesbury. On a personal level the death of his beloved second son, Francis, in 1849 cast a long shadow over the succeeding decades, and three further children were to predecease their father. The family estates at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset were heavily encumbered with debt and much in need of improvement. Shaftesbury failed for a long time adequately to gain control of the problems he inherited. Eventually he achieved a substantial improvement in the social condition of his tenants and dependants, but his own financial position remained insecure.

Shaftesbury's evangelical convictions continued to permeate his public life. He was alarmed by the advance of Catholicism in England, and took a prominent role in condemnation of the episcopal hierarchy set up by the pope in 1850, and supported the subsequent activities of the Protestant Alliance. He was also hostile to modern biblical scholarship as promoted by the broad-church party and in 1866 was, notoriously, to condemn J. R. Seeley's Ecce homo as 'the most pestilential book ever vomited from the jaws of Hell' (Hodder, 3.164). More positively, he enjoyed some satisfaction in the later 1850s from the partial success of his efforts to facilitate and promote informal religious services to attract the working classes. His strong sense of national accountability to God led him to be a passionately engaged observer of the Crimean War and the Indian mutiny, on which some of his pronouncements appeared extreme and ill-considered. His protestant sympathies predisposed him to a strong and active identification with the cause of Italian unification. He was a staunch opponent of slavery and accordingly a supporter of the north in the American Civil War. Meanwhile he maintained his strenuous but not always successful efforts to improve social conditions in Britain, seeking to extend the regulation of child labour to other areas of employment, and to improve the conditions of lunatics.

Palmerston's death in 1865 removed not only Shaftesbury's personal link to real political influence, but also a weighty check to the forces of constitutional change which he feared so much. In 1866 he was again offered the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, this time by Lord Derby, but again refused: although anxious to 'stem the tide of Democracy', he wished to do this in his own way without the constraints of office. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869 particularly depressed him, and, while he recognized the necessity for the Education Act of 1870, he was disappointed to feel that the ragged schools he had done so much to build up were being superseded.

Old age and death

Shaftesbury's wife's death in 1872 reinforced his self-image as a lonely old man left behind by the tide of history. Nevertheless, life and a measure of energy still remained to him, and he laboured on for the causes to which he had committed himself. Through his presidencies of numerous societies he was a central figure in the fabric of evangelical philanthropy and religious life. From the late 1860s he took up the cause of mission to the costermongers (street traders) of London, and also promoted the use of ships for housing and training homeless boys. The legislative initiative in matters of social reform had now passed to others, but he took a keen interest in developments in the regulation of employment, lunacy, and housing. His role was more central in continuing evangelical resistance to the advance of ritualism and rationalism and he was a leading promoter of the Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874. His firm stand against biblical criticism was sustained and he opposed the ecclesiastical and academic preferment of its exponents, but reacted more positively to the increase of scientific knowledge. Even in his seventies he was capable of taking new initiatives, notably in relation to the control of vivisection.

Shaftesbury suffered from various recurrent minor ailments, but his general health remained good, allowing him to continue a high level of public activity almost to the end of his life. His final illness began in the summer of 1885 and culminated with inflammation of the lungs leading to his death at 12 Clifton Gardens, Folkestone, Kent, on 1 October. His death was followed by widespread expressions of public grief. The funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 8 October and the large crowds present in the streets and the numerous philanthropic and religious organizations represented were testimony to the esteem with which the ‘poor man's earl’ had come to be regarded by all social classes and a wide range of interest groups. He was interred on 9 October in the parish church on his estate at Wimborne St Giles in Dorset.

Shaftesbury was commemorated by J. E. Boehm's statue in Westminster Abbey (1886) and by the Eros monument (Alfred Gilbert, 1893) in Piccadilly Circus. His life and achievements attracted widespread interest, as indicated by the remarkable sales of Edwin Hodder's three-volume memoir (1887). The years following his death also saw the publication of numerous popular and pious biographies confirming his image as a heroic crusader for improving the conditions of the downtrodden and for the proclamation of the Christian gospel. Shaftesbury was held up to late Victorian and Edwardian manhood as a role model of noble Christian endeavour. Twentieth-century accounts of his life, notably that of the Hammonds (1923), by contrast adopted a more secular tone, recognizing his substantial contribution as a social reformer, but playing down his religious motivation.

Shaftesbury, whose portrait by Watts is in the National Portrait Gallery, had a tall, graceful figure, with blue eyes and dark curly hair, which he retained into old age. In the 1830s he was described as a 'complete beau idéal of aristocracy'. This comment on his appearance might also be applied to his whole outlook and career. He was deeply conscious of rank, and his social engagement was of a fundamentally paternalist kind. He was motivated on the one hand by Christian zeal for human dignity, the salvation of lost souls, and preparation for the millennium, and on the other by an awareness that only through mitigating the worst extremes of oppression and injustice could the class he represented sustain its social and political position. His deepest commitments were to Conservatism in politics and to evangelicalism in religion, but he was too rugged an individualist ever to be a true partisan or the successful leader of a coherent movement. His character was flawed by tendencies to impetuosity and anger and to self-pity and depression, but his outstanding qualities were tremendous integrity, courage, and persistence, and a passionate concern for the welfare of his fellow human beings. He had the ability on occasions to stir the conscience of the nation, and the dedication to back up high-profile public action with unremitting conscientious labour, notably in the spheres of lunacy, education, and public health. Even if his achievements fell short of his own exacting standards, they were very substantial and became a source of enduring inspiration to others.


  • E. Hodder, The life and work of the seventh earl of Shaftesbury, 3 vols. (1887)
  • U. Southampton L., Shaftesbury MSS
  • G. B. A. M. Finlayson, The seventh earl of Shaftesbury (1981)
  • G. Battiscombe, Shaftesbury: a biography of the seventh earl, 1801–1885 (1974)
  • J. L. Hammond and B. Hammond, Lord Shaftesbury (1923)
  • Random recollections of Exeter Hall in 1834–1837, by one of the protestant party (1838)
  • The Times (2 Oct 1885)
  • The Times (9 Oct 1885)
  • The Times (10 Oct 1885)


  • Duke U., Perkins L., corresp.
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. and papers
  • St Giles House, Dorset
  • U. Southampton L., diaries, corresp., and papers
  • Bishopsgate Institute, London, letters to George Howell
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Aberdeen, Add. MSS 43242–43254, passim
  • BL, corresp. with Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 37184–37200, passim
  • BL, letters to Francis Bonham, Add. MS 40617
  • BL, letters to Stanley Lees Giffard, Add. MS 56368
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MS 44300
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MS 40483
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to earl of Clarendon
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Benjamin Disraeli
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir William Napier
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Samuel Wilberforce
  • CKS, letters to Edward Stanhope
  • Devon RO, letters to Sir Thomas Dyke Acland
  • Herts. ALS, corresp. with Lord Lytton
  • HMC, corresp. and MSS
  • Hunt. L., letters to Lord Aberdare
  • Hunt. L., letters to Frances Cobbe
  • LPL, corresp. with Lord Selborne
  • LPL, corresp. with A. C. Tait
  • priv. coll., letters to Lord Harrowby
  • Pusey Oxf., corresp. with E. B. Pusey
  • TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Cairns, PRO30/51
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord John Russell, PRO30/22
  • U. Durham L., archives and special collections, corresp. with the third Earl Grey
  • U. Southampton L., letters to Lord Palmerston
  • U. Southampton L., letters to duke of Wellington
  • UCL, corresp. with Sir Edwin Chadwick
  • University of Dundee, archives, corresp. with Lord Kinnaird
  • University of Sheffield Library, letters to A. J. Mundella
  • W. Yorks AS, Leeds, letters to Matthew Balme
  • Worcs. RO, corresp. with Lord Lyttelton


  • attrib. F. Grant, oils, 1840–1850, Palace of Westminster, London
  • M. Noble, marble bust, 1859, Wimborne St Giles parish church, Dorset
  • G. F. Watts, oils, 1862, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. E. Boehm, plaster bust, 1875, NPG
  • J. Collier, oils, 1877, NPG
  • J. E. Millais, oils, 1877, British and Foreign Bible Society, London
  • Annan & Swan, photogravure (after a photograph by Bassano), NPG
  • Ape [C. Pellegrini], caricature, chromolithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (13 Nov 1869)
  • Ashford Bros & Co., carte-de-visite, NPG
  • J. Doyle, caricatures, drawings, BM
  • W. J. Edwards, stipple (after F. Sandys; Grillion's Club series, 1855), BM, NPG
  • G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG
  • H. Hering, carte-de-visite, NPG
  • F. C. Lewis, stipple (after J. Slater; Grillion's Club series), BM, NPG
  • Lock & Whitfield, woodburytype photograph, NPG; repro. in T. Cooper, Men of mark: a gallery of contemporary portraits (1876)
  • Maull & Co., carte-de-visite, NPG
  • attrib. Maull & Polyblank, photograph, NPG
  • W. Merrett, plaster bust, Guildhall Art Gallery, London
  • H. Robinson, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM, NPG
  • T. Rodwell, oils, Broadlands, Hampshire
  • F. Sargent, pencil drawing, NPG
  • J. Thomson, stipple (after W. C. Ross), BM; repro. in H. T. Ryall, Portraits of eminent conservatives and statesmen [in pts, 1836–46]
  • carte-de-visite, NPG
  • prints (after photographs), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

£32,352 1s 4d.; in 1883 had estates of 17,317 acres in Dorset; 3250 in Hampshire, 1218 in Wiltshire worth £16,083 p.a. or £16,440 inclusive of copyholds: probate, 11 Dec 1885, Burke, Peerage; CGPLA Eng. & Wales

University of Southampton Library
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)