Book Review: Lansdowne

Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig, by Simon Kerry, is a meticulously researched biography of Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne. Born into a life of wealth and privilege in 1845, Lansdowne would witness immense social and political change at home and abroad. He was amongst the last hereditary aristocrats to wield power by birth. Over a fifty year career he served as Governor-General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Lords.

The book is more of a political than a social history and offers an insight into the work required of gentlemen diplomats and politicians in Victorian times and beyond. By the time Lansdowne’s influence waned, towards the end of the First World War, the rarefied world he had tried so hard to preserve faced extinction. He resisted many changes that most would now regard as progress, advocating caution and protecting the rights of landowners by attempting to maintain the status quo.

The author first knew Lansdowne as his great-great-grandfather. Kerry was brought up at Bowood, the family’s country estate in Wiltshire. He holidayed at Meiklour, one of their Scottish properties. He did his PhD in History on Lansdowne’s period in the War Office. His background and connections undoubtedly helped in granting him access to many of the documents from which his research for this book is drawn.

Although Kerry states his wish to be objective in presenting the facts of Lansdowne’s life he admits to feeling quite possessive and ready to defend. This comes across in the narrative which can appear partisan in places. Nevertheless, what emerges is a fascinating account of a life and time. Kerry’s own privileged upbringing will have coloured his views, just as my working class, Irish background will affect how I review the presented facts.

Lansdowne’s paternal forebears settled in Ireland during the twelfth century where they married into native families. In 1658 Thomas, the 21st Lord of Kerry, was paid:

“to produce the Down Survey, the basis of land title for over half of Ireland. As one of the committee allocating land, he bought claims at a quarter of their true value and amassed 270,000 acres in south Kerry alone. He was accused in Parliament of dishonesty, but no vote was taken and charges were never pressed.”

Thomas’s younger son, John, inherited these estates, moved to England and purchased Bowood. He was made Earl of Shelburne in 1753. John’s eldest son, William, became Prime Minister, negotiating peace with the United States after American Independence. He was created the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784.

Lansdowne’s maternal forebears were of Scottish and French origin. The family owned large estates in Scotland. How they were acquired is not disclosed.

Through the ages the Lansdownes have benefited from attendance at top public schools and universities, many then embarking on successful political careers. The subject of this book became Marquess in his early twenties, inheriting debts that he spent his life struggling to repay. Despite this he lived in a manner he felt was required for a man in his position, throwing open the doors of Bowood and his grand London property in Berkeley Square for magnificent dinners. His extensive staff were kitted out in a wide variety of uniforms to suit each occasion. Lansdowne and his family travelled regularly to their homes in Ireland and Scotland. Their lives were not stymied by frugality.

Early in the book, after a run of

“bad seasons, poor harvests, foreign competition and ‘unjust and foolish legislation’ irrevocably damaged farming. Lansdowne had disagreeable interviews with ‘despairing farmers’ and his agents were gloomy.”

Lansdowne managed his estates to pass them on, not for the benefit of those who kept them running. Later in the book he states his resistance to higher wages for workers as he believed this removed the incentive to work harder, and thereby reduced efficiency. The landed classes were paternalistic, providing schools and other community assets, but protected their right to charge rents they set and to evict as they saw fit. They complained of debts while owning vast assets. They appeared unperturbed by the poverty, hunger and inadequate housing suffered by many who lived on their lands.

The book is divided into four main sections covering the key roles Lansdowne played in his political career.

Section one, Home and Abroad, covers his early life and then his government postings to Canada and India. Lansdowne appears to have been well regarded by his peers in these roles. Railways were being built enabling British settlers to spread themselves throughout the foreign lands of empire. Appeasing indigenous populations was part of Lansdowne’s job – the arrogance of the British mind blowing to modern sensibilities. At a dinner in Victoria he stated

“When once it becomes known that an emigrant can arrive here in less than three weeks from the date of his departure from Liverpool, and find on his arrival such a climate as yours, you will I think have plenty of occupants for your vacant lands.”

This was after he had met some of the occupants of these ‘vacant lands’, Blackfoot Indians, of whose spokesman he noted

“behaved very well & I think my visit may have done good & helped to keep him straight.”

On moving to India

“Lansdowne missed the sweet simplicity of Ottawa and Quebec.”

‘Sweet simplicity’ is not how most would describe the manner in which Lansdowne lived anywhere. In each role he would host functions for visiting foreign dignitaries which strained his finances but he regarded as necessary. Even his day to day living required a staff of helpers. It is noted that one year he took no holiday and became quite weary. I pondered if he ever considered those to whom a holiday of any kind was an unimaginable luxury.

The second section, In Office, covers the period leading up to the First World War. Lansdowne’s roles in the War Office, Foreign Office and as leader of the Lords provoked more criticism from his peers than his foreign posts had garnered, although his detractors appeared similar in their approach to governance. The Boer War brought to light how ill prepared the country was for modern conflict. There appeared to be more concern about the monetary cost of rectifying this than loss of life.

With a growing thirst for improvement in the rights of workers throughout the world there followed attempts to reform the House of Lords which Lansdowne opposed. He was described as

“a man who may be efficient in his way and a good diplomatist, but he runs between blinkers, has no broad views.”

The author states that

“Such a view quite overlooked Lansdowne’s ability to see ahead.”

I didn’t recognise such an ability in anything presented. At a time of worldwide social and political change, he appeared intent on protecting his privilege and retaining the status quo. While the country suffered strikes and the threat of war

“The King’s anxiety was so great that he decided not to attend Goodwood Races.”

They truly appeared to live in a rarefied cocoon.

The third section, War and Peace, leads to Lansdowne’s downfall when he writes what became known as his Peace Letter. He was known to be against socialism, woman’s suffrage, and Irish Home Rule. That he advocated peace was at least a progressive move, a recognition of the appalling human cost of war, but not one that the country supported in this form at the time. When the armistice came the author voices regret that Lansdowne was not invited to the peace talks. He was by now politically obsolete.

The final section, Legacy, covers Lansdowne’s final years and summarises his achievements. He is described at this time as miserable and struggling to economise that he may preserve his estates for his successors. He could no longer afford to maintain his opulent London home. Woman had achieved the vote. Ireland had become a Free State. Derreen, his beloved home in Ireland was looted and set alight by insurgents.

“The war altered Lansdowne’s world. He lost a son and his political reputation. His perception of the world and its hierarchy was undone.”

His obituary was typically complementary and he was then largely forgotten, something that the author now wishes to rectify.

The criticisms I make of Lansdowne’s views and actions are because I look at them through a modern lens. He was a product of his time and I am aware that this portrayal should be interpreted in that light.

“With the rise of the British middle class, nationalism and competitive global economies, Lansdowne found his own way of life and class under attack.”

Over a long career he was at the forefront of governance, a statesman widely respected by his peers. He was also a family man although there are only brief mentions of this aspect of his life within these pages. He was moderate, loyal and quietly determined to fight for what he believed was best for his country.

The book includes a detailed bibliography, notes and credits, and an extensive index. There are also two collections of photographs that I found particularly fascinating, offering a flavour of the times in which Lansdowne lived. One omission that I would have welcomed is the inclusion of a family tree. The Lansdownes had links through marriage to many of the major aristocratic families of the day.

The detail provided of the various legislative changes Lansdowne worked on will be of interest to political historians. This is a factual biography more than a personal story. Putting these details in the context of the changing world in which he lived assists in understanding how influential these gentlemen politicians were. Lansdowne believed that the landed classes were best placed to make the British Empire’s big decisions, and that their position and assets should be protected. He failed to grasp that the wider population no longer revered those who wished to keep them in their place, and that they would demand to have a say themselves, perhaps sooner than he was ready for.

I found this a very interesting book to read offering as it did a window into the world of government, much of which I suspect may not be so very different today. The aristocrats may have been replaced by businessmen (many of whom still bear inherited titles and wealth, which they too complain is being eroded) but the factional in-fighting and self-interest remains.

A well researched and presented slice of history. Lansdowne was of his time and did not wish those times to change. He believed power should remain with the asset owning white men who he felt were best able to make decisions for the good of the country, by which he meant to sustain people like him. I suspect there are too many in our current government who would be of the same opinion.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unicorn.


Simon Kerry will be talking about Lansdowne: The Last Great Whig at an author lunch in the Shelburne Restaurant, Bowood Hotel, which is situated on the western edge of Lord Lansdowne’s country estate, on 19th February 2018. Tickets may be booked here.

The 2018 season at Bowood House opens on 28th March and will include an exhibition within the Orangery – A Patriotic Peace: The 5th Marquis and WWI

For full disclosure, my interest in this book was piqued by the fact that the village I have lived in for the past twenty-five years is adjacent to the Bowood estate.


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