In the third of our guest blogs, Stephen Lees, one of our leading external contributors and co-editor of the well-known ‘Who’s Who of British Members of Parliament’ volumes, celebrates the career of Lord Elcho, who died one hundred years ago today.
On 30 June 1914, two days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, a Scottish aristocrat died in his London home aged 95. Francis Charteris, 10th earl of Wemyss and March, known for 30 years as Lord Elcho, had been born in 1818, in the reign of George III, and his life spanned almost the entire period between the Battle of Waterloo and the outbreak of the First World War. The last survivor from Peel’s premiership and the repeal of the corn laws, he became an MP in 1841 and lived for almost another 73 years, a record which has not been equalled since. Apart from a short break in 1846-47, he was an active parliamentarian throughout this period, for the last 30 years of his life in the House of Lords where he spoke regularly until 1910.
Francis Charteris first entered the Commons as a Protectionist MP for East Gloucestershire, where his grandfather the 8th earl possessed land and influence. Following Peel, however, by 1845 he had come to the conclusion that the corn laws should be repealed, putting him at odds with his agricultural constituents. Shortly before the critical votes on the issue in 1846, he resigned his seat. Eighteen months later he returned to the House as the Member for Haddingtonshire (East Lothian), where his family’s principal estates were situated. He continued to represent the seat until 1883, for the last 30 years, during his father’s tenure of the earldom, being known by the courtesy title of Lord Elcho. He served as one of the lords of the treasury in the Aberdeen ministry from 1853, but in 1855 left office with the other leading Peelites in the fallout over the Crimean war.
An independent spirit with strongly libertarian views, Elcho was not a natural party man and never held office again, being described as ‘the embodiment of the crossbench mind’. He played a leading part in the notorious ‘Adullamite’ rebellion of 1866-7, which led to the defeat of the Liberal ministry’s reform bill and their resignation. Members of the ‘Adullamite cave’ met at his house to plan their tactics and supporters of reform stoned his windows. Later, he was the prime mover in the foundation of the ‘Liberty and Property Defence League’ (1882), a cross-party pressure group formed in the wake of Gladstone’s domestic and land reforms to oppose state interference and promote laissez-faire individualism.
Elcho also left his mark in other areas. An accomplished sculptor and watercolourist, he was instrumental in preventing the removal of the National Gallery to South Kensington in 1856. He played a key role in the formation of the General Medical Council (1858), and maintained a lifelong interest in homoeopathy, to which he attributed his longevity in old age. In 1859 he supported the foundation of the rifle volunteer movement, taking command of the London Scottish regiment, and the National Rifle Association. A regular contributor to parliamentary debates on military matters, he was deeply critical of successive secretaries of state for war, opposing the army reforms of both Cardwell in the early 1870s and Haldane 35 years later. Reflecting his wide-ranging expertise, he was an active member of no less than four royal commissions of inquiry, into the volunteer corps, the Royal Academy, trade unions, and the sanitary laws. Tributes at his death referred to his zest for life and undiminished vigour right to the end, as well as his charm of manner and sweetness of temper.
R. Saunders, Democracy and the vote in British politics, 1848-1867 (2011).
M. Cowling, 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution; the passing of the second Reform Bill (1967).