Harcourt, Lewis Vernon, first Viscount Harcourt (1863–1922), politician
by Patrick Jackson

Harcourt, Lewis Vernon, first Viscount Harcourt (1863–1922), politician, was born in Pont Street, London, on 31 January 1863, the younger and only surviving son of and his first wife, Marie Therese (1835–1863), daughter of the novelist and playwright of Armytage Park, Staffordshire. Lewis Harcourt's mother died when he was born, and this resulted in an exceptionally close and protective relationship between father and son. Behind his exuberant manner Sir William Harcourt was a deeply emotional man to whom the precocious and delicate boy (known to everyone throughout his life as Loulou) was ‘both a trust and a consoler’ (Gardiner, 1.292). The two were constant companions throughout Loulou's childhood, and even Sir William Harcourt's second marriage in December 1876 did not significantly affect the relationship. The thirteen-year-old boy acted as best man at the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, and he was included as a matter of course on the Paris honeymoon. Loulou got on well with his young American stepmother, and in due course became very fond of his half-brother Bobby.

Early life: political partnership with his father

Harcourt went to a private school in Eastbourne and then, after some hesitation on his father's part, to Eton College where, in spite of recurrent ill health, he was popular and happy. But in 1881 it was decided that he was not robust enough to go to Cambridge, and he gradually settled into the position of confidential private secretary to his father, who was then home secretary in Gladstone's second government. This was to remain Lewis Harcourt's career for over twenty years, until his father's death in 1904. His surviving journals convey a fascinating picture of the unique working relationship, and also of the social and political world of the 1880s and 1890s. The Harcourts were wealthy and well connected, and Loulou knew everyone who mattered in society, and was able to claim universal entrée to London drawing-rooms and country house parties. One might have expected the father's over-indulgent upbringing to produce an intolerably self-important son, but Loulou seems generally to have been a welcome guest, especially to older women (like Mrs Gladstone) who mothered him. He was interested in everybody's affairs, was a good listener, and loved gossip. The journals also describe some of Harcourt's enthusiastic leisure pursuits—photography (he captured many of his political contemporaries on film), rare books, theatre-going, and grouse shooting.

The political partnership between father and son grew closer over the years, and in spite of the emotional intensity of the relationship, and Sir William Harcourt's fiery temper, there seem to have been no quarrels or estrangements. The physical contrast between the Falstaffian proportions of the father and those of his tall, thin son was matched by corresponding differences in temperament. Whereas Sir William Harcourt was impulsive and sometimes insensitive to his colleagues' feelings, Loulou grew up to be self-controlled and quietly determined. Although totally dedicated to his father's political interests he was not uncritical: every speech was shrewdly and expertly assessed, and gradually the father came to rely on his son's judgement.

Occasionally Lewis Harcourt realized that his career might suffer from being so closely linked to that of his father: in October 1884 he was briefly tempted by the prospect of succeeding his friend Reginald Brett as private secretary to Lord Hartington. But Sir William Harcourt was reluctant to allow his son to launch himself into the tough world of politics, and in 1892 he declined Gladstone's offer to appoint Loulou as one of the junior whips in his fourth government. Although over the years Lewis Harcourt received invitations from several constituencies to stand for parliament, he preferred to work behind the scenes as long as his father needed him. However, he acted as secretary to the Home Counties Liberal Federation from its foundation in 1887, and was a founder committee member of the National Liberal Club. In September 1893 Sir William Harcourt, then chancellor of the exchequer, asked Gladstone to consider his son for appointment as commissioner of woods and forests (‘the first thing I ever asked for in my life’ (BL, Add. MS 44203, fol. 96). But Loulou felt that he could not desert his father, and he later declined posts at the Royal Mint and the National Debt Office.

In 1894 Lewis Harcourt played a controversial role at the climax of his father's political career. When Gladstone retired in March 1894, the chief rival candidates for the premiership were Sir William Harcourt and Lord Rosebery. It was widely believed that the queen would send for Rosebery, and many of Sir William Harcourt's colleagues, bruised by his insensitivity over the years, would have endorsed this choice if they had been consulted. But Lewis Harcourt was determined to fight every inch of the way to secure the succession. He first tried to induce Gladstone to stay on, by seeking to persuade Lord Spencer to moderate the bid for increased naval expenditure which had caused the cabinet crisis. He also tried unsuccessfully to persuade his father to make Rosebery's premiership impossible by refusing to serve under him as leader of the House of Commons. When these attempts failed he sought to undermine the preference of John Morley for Rosebery, and to stimulate back-bench radical objections to the prospect of a party leader in the House of Lords.

The only result of all this frantic activity was to increase Sir William Harcourt's ultimate humiliation, and to sour relations between the rival candidates. They were barely on speaking terms during Rosebery's brief premiership, and during the following years in opposition the ill feeling persisted. The highly sensitive Rosebery never forgave Lewis Harcourt for the part he had played in 1894, and the dislike was mutual. When Sir William Harcourt resigned the leadership in 1898, with carefully orchestrated press publicity designed to embarrass Rosebery's supporters, he assured his son that he owed the success of this ‘torpedo’ to ‘your devotion and capacity’ (Gardiner, 2.478). However, Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, left to pick up the pieces, were not impressed by conduct which they considered more appropriate to the nursery (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Asquith, vol. 9, fol. 139). Like his father Lewis Harcourt strongly opposed the South African War, which divided the Liberal Party, and in 1903 he helped to set up the Free Trade Union in opposition to Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform proposals.

In parliament and cabinet, 1905–1917

In March 1904, shortly before his death, Sir William Harcourt proudly introduced his son to the House of Commons, following Loulou's unopposed return at a by-election in Rossendale, Lord Hartington's old Lancashire constituency. After spending nearly twenty-five years in partnership with his father Lewis Harcourt now embarked on a political career of his own. It lasted only twelve years, but for nearly all this time the Liberal Party was in power and Harcourt was in office. This suited him very well. He was not by temperament a back-bencher or a public speaker, but someone at home in the corridors of power: he waited two years, until he was a minister, before making his maiden speech. When Campbell-Bannerman formed his government in December 1905 Harcourt became first commissioner of works, and a privy councillor. He was promoted to the cabinet, while remaining in the same post, in March 1907.

In January 1907 Harcourt declined an offer of the education department: he was in his element at the office of works, with responsibility for the royal parks and palaces and for the facilities in the houses of parliament. Remembering his long years as a political adviser he arranged for the officials' box to be moved to a more convenient position near the government front bench in the House of Commons, and he devised improved procedures for parliamentary divisions.

When Asquith became prime minister in April 1908 Harcourt was retained in his existing post, but in November 1910 he unexpectedly succeeded Lord Crewe as colonial secretary. He was particularly interested in economic development, and during his period of office important new railway links were established in Nigeria (where Port Harcourt was named after him) and east Africa. In addition to his departmental duties Harcourt was responsible for steering several bills through the House of Commons: in 1906 a bill, subsequently rejected by the House of Lords, designed to end the abuse of plural voting by electors with property in different constituencies; in 1907 a Small Holdings and Allotments Bill; and in 1909 a London Elections Bill.

Not all of Harcourt's colleagues found his love of manipulative intrigue congenial. Charles Hobhouse, for instance, described him as ‘subtle, secretive, adroit, and not very reliable or au fond courageous’ (Inside Asquith's Cabinet, 229). In cabinet he sat next to Asquith and liked to chat to him in undertones rather than intervening openly in the discussion. The pair got on well: Asquith respected Harcourt's administrative competence and shared many of his social interests, and with his wife was a regular guest at Harcourt's country house at Nuneham Courtenay. The two men also shared the hostility aroused by their opposition to women's suffrage, a reform supported by several members of the cabinet. Harcourt played a leading role in the anti-suffrage campaign, and in January 1910 he was unsuccessfully opposed in the general election at Rossendale by an independent Labour candidate who campaigned on a platform of votes for women. In January 1912 a Punch cartoon showed Lloyd George and Harcourt as the two main government spokesmen arguing respectively for and against women's suffrage. Harcourt voted against both the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill in March 1912 and the Representation of the People (Women) Bill in May 1913. His stance made him a bête noire for the militant suffragists, and in 1912 his home became a target for them, when an attempt was made to set fire to the children's quarters at Nuneham.

On other issues Harcourt remained a traditional nineteenth-century radical. He distrusted Lloyd George, who described him as the most implacable of the cabinet critics of the 1909 budget (Stevenson, 322). He regarded some of the budget proposals as extravagant, and blamed Lloyd George's speeches for the Liberal losses in southern England in the general election of January 1910 (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Asquith, vol. 12, fol. 77). But Harcourt strongly supported Asquith's determination to restrict the veto powers of the House of Lords (MSS Asquith, vol. 12, fol. 114; vol. 23, fols. 79 and 96), and during the 1913 home rule crisis he made bluntly clear to the king the consequences for the monarchy of not accepting the decisions of parliament (Journals and Letters of … Esher, 3.131). Above all Harcourt remained totally opposed, as his father had been, to the inexorable rise in naval and military expenditure, and to the assumption of diplomatic obligations in mainland Europe. In February 1908 he was deputed by the cabinet, together with Lloyd George and Reginald McKenna, to negotiate with Sir John Fisher a reduction in the naval estimates. He took an uncharacteristically blunt line, but the attempt failed. Again in 1909 Harcourt was one of a group of cabinet ministers who tried unsuccessfully to resist the increase in the naval estimates.

It was only in 1911 that Harcourt, together with most of his cabinet colleagues, learned of the military and naval conversations with the French which had begun early in 1906. Harcourt resisted any suggestion that there was either a legal or a moral obligation to support France in the event of war, and he co-operated with Haldane in his attempts to reassure Germany and to negotiate peaceful solutions to outstanding sources of disagreement, particularly those involving the African colonies. When the crux came at the end of July 1914 Harcourt was one of the group of cabinet ministers who initially argued the case for neutrality, but unlike John Morley he was persuaded to remain in office by the German invasion of Belgium and by Asquith's appeal to his colleagues to save the country from the alternative of a Conservative or coalition government.

At the beginning of the war Harcourt shared a widespread inability to grasp its likely extent and character, particularly since he was concerned mainly with the colonial aspects of the conflict. In a speech to the Victoria League on 26 January 1915 he referred to ‘the thrills and the romance of thinly defended frontiers … [and] gallantly captured posts’ (Hazelhurst, 167). As always Harcourt worked hard behind the scenes on the administration of the war effort, and began to show signs of exhaustion and overstrain. During 1915 he was one of the cabinet ministers most strongly opposed to conscription, having in 1913 resisted compulsory territorial training, and he became a target, together with Haldane, Simon, and McKenna, for press criticisms of the government's conduct of the war. In May 1915 Asquith yielded to the pressure to form a coalition government. Haldane was dropped, but Harcourt survived the reshuffle, being moved back to the office of works to make way for Bonar Law, whose rough manners contrasted strikingly with Harcourt's social smoothness: as Lord Esher commented, in any other country ‘Loulou would be the Tory and Bonar Law the democrat’ (Journals and Letters of … Esher, 3.137). In the summer of 1916 Harcourt was placed temporarily in charge of the Board of Trade, but his health was failing and at the end of the year he left office when Asquith resigned.

House of Lords: last years

Harcourt was pleased when the king agreed in January 1917 to revive for him the old family viscountcy which had been held by Queen Anne's lord chancellor. At the age of only fifty-four his active political career was almost over, although he became chairman of the army agricultural committee, which dealt with food supplies in England, France, and Mesopotamia, and of the empire oil resources committee. He was also associated with the Imperial Institute. During 1917 Harcourt made an attempt, with Margot Asquith's enthusiastic encouragement (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Harcourt, dep. 421, fols. 212–17), to improve the efficiency of the party organization of the Asquith Liberals, and he was active in the House of Lords in January 1918, during the consideration of the Representation of the People Bill. He had finally become reconciled to women's suffrage, although he remained critical of newfangled notions such as proportional representation, which he described as ‘the apotheosis of the crank, the frondeur, and the mugwump’ (Hansard 5L, 27, 21 Jan 1918, 845).

In subsequent sessions Viscount Harcourt rarely appeared in the House of Lords, although he maintained his personal links with Asquith, who consulted him on party management (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Harcourt, dep. 421, fol. 218). In February 1920 Harcourt congratulated Asquith on the ‘glorious news’ of his victory in the Paisley by-election (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Asquith, vol. 33, fol. 194), and only a few weeks before his death Harcourt was urged by Asquith to lend his support to a Liberal demonstration in Central Hall, Westminster, on 21 January 1922 (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Harcourt, dep. 421, fol. 223).

Harcourt had many interests outside politics. On 1 July 1899 he had married Mary Ethel, the wealthy daughter of an American banker, Walter Hayes Burns, and they had a son and three daughters. The Harcourts entertained extensively at their town house at 69 Brook Street (later the Savile Club) and at the family seat Nuneham Courtenay, where Harcourt devoted much time and effort to the improvement of the estate and the gardens. He enjoyed country life, especially shooting and fishing, and he was conscientious in his many public appointments. With Lord Esher he had helped to found the London Museum in 1911, and he was a member of the advisory committee of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and of the council and executive of the British School at Rome. He was also an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a trustee of the Wallace Collection, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum. The latter gave him great pleasure: he told Asquith in February 1913, when he accepted the appointment, that it was ‘the only ambition which I have ever permitted myself in life’ (Bodl. Oxf., MSS Harcourt, dep. 421, fol. 193). He was a competent photographer and a number of his photographs of politicians are held by the National Portrait Gallery.

On 24 February 1922 Harcourt was found dead in his bedroom at 69 Brook Street, Mayfair. He had taken an overdose of a sleeping draught, and there were widespread rumours of suicide, following accusations of sexual impropriety by Edward James, a young Etonian (Lees-Milne, 337). Similar allegations had been made before, but at the inquest a verdict of misadventure was returned, on the basis of post-mortem medical evidence that the heart was extensively diseased and that the overdose would not have been harmful in other circumstances. The coroner rejected as ‘grotesque’ the idea of suicide, for which there was ‘not the slightest motive’ (The Times, 1 March 1922). It is perhaps significant that Harcourt spent the last evening of his life checking draft chapters of the biography of Sir William Harcourt which he had commissioned from A. G. Gardiner. He was due to meet Gardiner on the following day to discuss the book and it seems hard to believe that Harcourt would not have wished to see through to completion an enterprise over which he had exercised tight control, and which recalled for him the glorious days of political partnership with his father. Harcourt was buried on 1 March 1922 at the old church, Nuneham Park. He was succeeded as the second and last viscount by his son, .



A. G. Gardiner, The life of Sir William Harcourt, 2 vols. (1923) · Hansard · Journals and letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher, ed. M. V. Brett and Oliver, Viscount Esher, 4 vols. (1934–8) · J. A. Spender and C. Asquith, Life of Herbert Henry Asquith, Lord Oxford and Asquith, 2 vols. [1932] · P. Stansky, Ambitions and strategies (1964) · Inside Asquith’s cabinet: from the diaries of Charles Hobhouse, ed. E. David (1977) · M. Pugh, Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906–18 (1978) · C. Hazlehurst, Politicians at war, July 1914 to May 1915 (1971) · F. Stevenson, Lloyd George: a diary, ed. A. J. P. Taylor (1971) · Lord Ullswater, A speaker's commentaries (1925) · J. Lees-Milne, The enigmatic Edwardian: the life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher (1986) · A. Birrell, Things past redress (1937) · d. cert. · BL, Add. MS 44203, fol. 96 · Bodl. Oxf., MSS Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., MS Harcourt dep. 421


Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and papers; corresp. relating to women's suffrage; MSS, incl. journals · U. Birm. L., corresp. |  BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49716, passim · BL, letters to Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Add. MSS 41214–41220 · BL, letters to Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MSS 43910–43911, 43916–43920 · BL, corresp. with Viscount Gladstone, Add. MSS 45997–46002 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MSS 43636–43640 · BLPES, letters to A. G. Gardiner · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Lord Lugard · Glos. RO, corresp. with Sir Michael Hicks-Brady · King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning · NL Aus., corresp. with Viscount Novar · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Emmott · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with J. E. B. Seeley · Parl. Arch., letters to H. Samuel · Surrey HC, corresp. with Lord Onslow · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Kitchener, PRO 30/57, WO 159 · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Edmund Gosse · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman


Campbell-Gray, photograph, c.1906–1908, NPG [see illus.] · W. Stoneman, three photographs, c.1917, NPG · S. J. Solomon, oils, 1922–3, London Museum · B. Partridge, ink caricature, NPG; repro. in Punch, 134 (1908), 291 · Spy [L. Ward], cartoon, repro. in VF (8 Sept 1895) · photograph (after L. Dicksee), NPG

Wealth at death  

£199,290 12s. 11d.: probate, 1 April 1922, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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Lewis Vernon Harcourt (1863–1922): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33692