Gladstone in Love

Even Prime Ministers were young once – even Gladstone, the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Victorian politics.

In 1835, William Gladstone was 25 years old, and just starting his political career. That year he fell in love with Caroline Farquhar, the 19-year-old daughter of Sir Thomas Farquhar, 2nd Baronet (and a cousin of my Walter Davidson). I’ve recently been working my way through a collection of letters in the Gladstone Library that document Gladstone’s affair.

In mid-1835, Gladstone asked Caroline’s parents for permission to address her – that is, to propose marriage. He also let his father know his plans – he was a younger son, and would need his father’s financial support if he got married. Backbench MPs were not paid, and his career was unlikely to take off while the Tory Party (which he currently supported) was out of power.

His father, John Gladstone, was a wealthy businessman, who had been paid £106,769 in compensation when his slaves in the Caribbean were freed the previous year. (According to Wikipedia, this is equivalent to £83m.) So money was no object, and John Gladstone willingly agreed to support his son appropriately if he married.

Sir Thomas Farquhar talked over the matter with his wife Sybella, who in turn talked to Caroline. Lady Farquhar told Gladstone that

She expressed extreme surprise at the communication, not having the smallest idea you entertained any preference for her – She told me she considered the acquaintance of so short a duration, it was impossible to form any decision as to the future, or whether on more intimate acquaintance, a congeniality of tastes & opinions might lead to any warmer sentiment than at present exists. [Lady F to WEG, 27 August 1835]

At present, then, Caroline’s ‘affections at present are entirely free’, and she was happy to cultivate the acquaintance and see where it led, but Caroline’s relatives all seem to have been dubious about whether the two young ones were really all that compatible. Caroline’s brother Walter questioned how far your ideas on the subject of Religion might be of a stricter kind than she feels it right to embrace.’ [WRF to WEG, 31 August 1835]

It is impossible to know just what lies behind this implication. They shared a common religious background, for Walter Rockcliffe Farquhar and William Gladstone had been at Christ Church, Oxford together, where they were both deeply committed Christians who joined the Essay Club, the Oxford equivalent of the Cambridge Apostles. Another member of the group was Walter’s cousin, Walter Kerr Hamilton, who later became Bishop of Salisbury.

Caroline Farquhar was a lively girl, with a reputation as a beauty – tall, dark and with a fine figure, according to her cousin Patrick Leslie. She had enjoyed a very successful season, but she also was conventionally religious. Perhaps she and the family were hanging out for a title; perhaps Caroline found Gladstone’s intense religiosity a bit overwhelming – or perhaps she just found him a little dull.

Amongst the most fascinating letters in the Gladstone Library collection is the draft of a letter Gladstone sent to Sir Thomas Farquhar in August 1835. It’s fascinating, because all the changes, scratches, deletions and insertions, show Gladstone’s state of mind in all its raw intensity, even though all the re-workings make it almost impossible to transcribe accurately:

The blinding influence of self love is sufficiently known to me, to make me believe it quite possible that by this letter I may, unconsciously, but with [?], have rendered myself with justice liable to your displeasure: but it will be very painful to me if in forming such a conception as that which has now prompted me I shall seem to have abused a favour which I do not value the less highly from knowing that I had never any claim to it.

Although I have been led to write at so much length I am well aware that I much may have been left unexpressed stated much which ought to have been said: but I did do not feel that I have a right to indulge before you the strength of my feelings which it seems an imperative duty to restrain controul as long as it is possible or likely that their expression may give pain to those whom they refer who are the objects of them. [draft of WEG to Sir THF, 25 August 1835]

Some of Caroline’s relatives supported Gladstone’s suit, including her cousin Walter Kerr Hamilton, and her father’s cousin, my Walter Davidson, but the decision was up to Caroline – perhaps with a little nudging from her mother.

In any case, the romance – such as it was – soon fizzled out. Both parties were preoccupied by the death of parents – Gladstone’s mother died in late 1835, Caroline’s father the following January. Gladstone had another knockback, before he finally married Catherine Glynne in 1839. Meanwhile in July 1836, Caroline married Lord Charles Grey, another backbench MP and younger son, but a titled one, the son of the Whig Prime Minister Earl Grey. Both seem to have had successful marriages, so far as any outsider can judge.

To our eyes, Caroline Farquhar chose the titled nobody over one of the political giants of the Victorian age – but I suspect that from Caroline’s perspective, it was the right choice. Lord Charles Grey became an equerry to the new Queen, then Private Secretary to Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, and the couple joined the Royal Household. Caroline Grey became one of the Ladies of the Bedchamber. Queen Victoria’s court wasn’t a particularly lively affair, but it was a prestigious position, and a very different proposition from marriage to William Gladstone. There is absolutely no indication that at any stage, Charles Grey attempted to reform prostitutes.

Ref: The letters between William Gladstone and the Farquhar family appear in the Gladstone-Glynne Correspondence, GG/705-707, in the Gladstone Library. My thanks to the librarian Gary Butler for his help in finding and scanning them.
See also Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (2006)
Gladstone in the 1830s, by William Henry Mote,

10 responses to “Gladstone in Love

  1. Babette Smith

    Absolutely fascinating Marian – you are far and away the most interesting blogger I follow. And your mention of the Gladstone Library as a place for research raises possibilities for me to follow-up. So, thank you. Who knows I might find some correspondence that enlarges our understanding of Gladstone’s role in the start of the anti-transportation campaign.

  2. Thank you, Babette. I would love to work in the Gladstone Library, which sounds a marvelous experience, but unfortunately I only ordered the material from Australia. But Gary Butler, the librarian, was very helpful. They uploaded TIFF copies of the documents to Dropbox for me to download, and it all went off like clockwork.

  3. Don’t you love their prose: “whether … a congeniality of tastes & opinions might lead to any warmer sentiment”. I wish I could write like that!

  4. What a great piece of research and insight into the times.

  5. Dr Neville Buch

    As always, I am very impressed. Although British history of religion, high culture, and the intellectual milieu, is not my area of expertise, what strikes me is the background of English Romanticism in the decades before this ‘love-affair’ of 1835 from someone who became “The People’s William”, a reformer in the very different era of the late nineteenth century.

    Gladstone is a difficult character to comprehend, particularly in terms of the later 20th century political and religious alignments which has shaped our own thinking. His Established Church passions, arguably a form of romanticism, is so at odd with his liberal policies, and being the person who was oversaw the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland.

    Certainly, Gladstone’s liberalism was of a different ilk to the Mills family and the older Jeremy Benham. The British empiricists and utilitarians greatly distrusted the romanticism of the age which affirmed the conservative political order in many ways, even as it celebrated passionate individualism. Hence, it is interesting to see the formalism in Gladstone’s 1835 affairs of the heart. Contrast Caroline and William story of 1835 to that of the premarital relationship between Harriet and John Stuart in these same years (1833-1851), that is, the love affair between Harriet Taylor (nee Hardy) and John Stuart Mills. Gladstone married the other Caroline, Catherine Glynne, in 1839. Taylor and Mill waited two years after the death of Harriet’s husband, John Taylor, before marrying in 1851. Sadly, Harriet died unexpectedly on 3 November 1858, but not before the partnership had created the foundational works of English liberalism.

    • Hi Neville – WEG was still a Conservative in the 1830s. I think John Stuart Mill’s relationship with Harriet Taylor was much more ‘modern’ than anything WEG had in mind, with either Caroline F or Catherine G. JSM and HT seem to have had a more equal, respectful relationship – JSM’s support for women’s suffrage was influenced by HT – whereas I’m sure WEG expected his future wife to defer to him in all things. I didn’t include a very long and boring letter he wrote to CF’s mother, outlining his religious expectations of the marriage, and it was not just conventional but pretty dictatorial.

  6. A fascinating post and a wonderful story – thank you for sharing. At least Caroline was given the option to say no to chap she barely knew. Frightening to wonder how many were (and indeed still are) not so lucky.

  7. Thanks Michelle. Yes, the Farquhars were kind and generous parents towards both their daughters. I’m not sure whether many upper class women in the 1830s were still being bullied into arranged marriages – but without financial independence they were potentially very vulnerable.

  8. Dr Neville Buch

    Hello Marion, if you have that ‘very long and boring letter’ of the young ‘romantic’ Gladstone, as a digital file that can be easily sent, I would appreciate a copy (

    Although nineteenth century Britain is not my specialty, there is a forgetfulness within 20th century Protestant institutions, of their previous and long investment in rigid social formalism. In the early to mid-20th century romanticism finally re-shapes various theological attitudes, via Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. We see the outlook of “we’re not religious, but spiritual”, as in Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity.

    There is also a reaching back to J.S. Mill’s (and Harriet Taylor’s) ‘Ethical Christianity’, the casting-out of the formality of doctrines and social mores for the spirit of the religion, that is, the moral practice of the ethical Jesus. The intellectual contradictions are inescapable to my view. Protestant institutions never embraced the full logic of a full-blown secular theology (John A. T. Robinson and Harvey Cox) and reverted back to dogma (Barth), and in the late 20th century adopted a ‘other-worldliness’, supposedly to keep the secular sphere from intruding into the realm of the ‘Church’. We see the same outcome on the Catholic side in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Nonoverlapping Magisteria,” (NOMA,1997), and adopted by many liberal secular adherents. The ‘Orthodox’ Christian traditions in Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, as well as Middle East and Northern Africa, have always ignored the challenges of modernity, and have never left the old political order of Church & State.

    The intellectual contradictions also exist in the secular sphere. Mill’s utilitarianism, the basis of modern politics, is far more locked into a heartless formalism than much of modern Christianity, and is, indeed, contrary to the Socratic and secularising ‘Ethical Christianity’. And, indeed, it is the reaction to utilitarianism which led to the rise of the romantic movements in the twentieth century, existentialism of the( mostly) left (Sartre, Camus), and medievalist-inspired nationalism of the (mostly) right (Heidegger, T. S. Eliot). Church and State flicked between the lot.

    So, from a very small incident of the hyper-formality in the younger and conservative Gladstone, and its firm hold on his romantic passion, in 1835, we can see a very large canvas which would be painted out in a contest between romanticism and classical formalism — movements of Church and State, often contradicting their own position, and often becoming entwined.

    For further information, see The School of Life video on “Are you Romantic or Classical ?” at

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