With the holiday season well and truly upon us, it seems fitting to consider how the protagonists of the Victorian Commons spent their vacations. The reasons why nineteenth-century MPs holidayed were as diverse as the locations they visited, and often provide an insight into how Victorian politicians perceived their parliamentary duties.
Even though the decade following the 1832 Reform Act witnessed a rise in the scrutiny of MPs’ political activity, many still held rather casual attitudes towards attending the Commons once summer had begun. Robert Heron, Whig MP for Peterborough, felt that the time of the reformed House was ‘eternally wasted in the most futile and idle manner’ and usually retired in early June to his Lincolnshire estates to attend to his menagerie of exotic animals. The existence of a ministry with a secure majority also encouraged MPs to holiday when Parliament was in session. In September 1841 Richard Monckton Milnes, recently re-elected for Pontefract, unashamedly informed the new premier Robert Peel that he would be spending a good deal of time on the Continent, on account ‘of the liberty the security of your political position now gives to your friends’.
Many Victorian MPs used holidays to pursue their favourite recreations and pastimes. Frederick Milbank, Liberal Member for the North Riding, spent much of his vacations shooting in Scotland and Yorkshire, bagging a record 190 grouse in 25 minutes on Wemmergill Moor in August 1872. Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, who sat as a Liberal for Berwick on Tweed, passed his summers at his Scottish estate at Guisachan, where he developed a new breed of dog, the golden retriever, after breeding a golden-coated retriever with one of his Tweed water spaniels.
The state of a politician’s health and his choice of holiday destination were frequently intertwined. Suffering from gout in the summer of 1856, Disraeli retired to Spa, Belgium, where, in his own words, he could ‘enjoy a little society without mingling in the world of dissipation’. Following his election for Aberdeenshire in August 1854, Lord Haddo, the chronically ill heir of the Prime Minister Aberdeen, took a lengthy holiday in Egypt to recuperate. His father was less than sanguine about his chances of a recovery, writing to Haddo’s brother that ‘it will be nothing less than a miracle if you ever see him again after he leaves England’. Defying his father’s grave expectations, Haddo’s health improved slightly as a result of his Egyptian sojourn. Robert Bateson, MP for County Londonderry, was less fortunate. While holidaying in Jerusalem at Christmas in 1843, he was fatally struck down by an attack of ‘low typhus fever’. He has the distinction of being the first person to be buried in the city’s Protestant cemetery.
Victorian MPs also used their holidays for self-improvement. After a particularly bruising parliamentary session in 1866 which had witnessed the collapse of the Liberal ministry, Gladstone traveled to Rome, devoting himself to the city’s culture. According to one of his visitors, Lord Clarendon, ‘Italian art, archaeology and literature are G’s sole occupations. Every morning at 8 he lectures his wife and daughters upon Dante, and requires them to parse and give the root of every verb. He runs about all day to shops, galleries and persons’. Artistic pursuits abroad could also have unexpected consequences. Whilst on holiday in Italy in October 1833, William Fox Talbot, Whig MP for Chippenham, became frustrated at his inability to sketch a landscape and thus conceived the idea of making the image projected by a camera obscura permanent. This revolutionary idea led to his invention of the photograph.
By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the growing demands made by government upon MPs gave greater significance to the role of the party whips, who became increasingly less tolerant of non-attendance. The age of MPs whiling away parts of the parliamentary session abroad was slowly passing away. The coterminous rise of the railways, though, provided Victorian MPs with quick getaways to their favourite parts of the British Isles without necessarily jeopardizing their political commitments. In 1872, for example, Gladstone, after paddling in a remote Scottish loch, was able to take charge of a cabinet meeting in London the next afternoon, a transformation that would have been unthinkable to Earl Grey in 1832.
The rise of cheap rail travel also meant that it was not just the political elite who could take short holidays in the British Isles, with the general public now able to travel widely, and enjoy the vicissitudes of the British weather in summertime.
Roy Jenkins, Gladstone (1995)