The Commons and Cricket: Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922)

Being that time of the year when, to use Kipling’s less than charitable terms, the ‘muddied oafs at the goals’ begin to make way for ‘the flannelled fools at the wicket’, it seems apt for our MP of the Month to be one of the most accomplished cricketers to take his seat in the reformed Commons.

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton, Viscount Cobham (from Vanity Fair, 1904)

Charles George Lyttelton (1842-1922) was a scion of one of Worcestershire’s leading Whig families, the Lytteltons having held land in the Vale of Evesham since the beginning of the thirteenth century. Among his ancestors were scholarly judges, colonial governors, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. The family was, however, was not without its black sheep. The libertine 2nd Baron, Thomas Lyttelton (1744-79), known within the family as ‘Naughty Tom’, was – according to Horace Walpole – a ‘detestable character’ whose ‘ingratitude, profligacy, extravagance, and want of honour and decency’ were aimed at nothing but ‘shocking mankind, and disgracing himself’. On the other hand, Lyttelton’s father, George William Lyttelton (1817-76), was among the most brilliant scholars of Victorian England, and in 1846 served his brother-in-law, William Gladstone, as under-secretary for the colonies. He was one of the chief promoters of the colonisation of New Zealand.

A gilded youth, Charles Lyttelton stood well over six foot with ‘auburn hair and fine dark eyes’. A crack shot and ‘superb games player’, he quickly made his name at Eton as a cricketer. A ‘splendid bat, with a free, commanding style’, he subsequently played first-class cricket for Cambridge University, where he topped the batting averages for two years running, with a highest score of 81 at the Oval in 1864. He was not only an outstanding batsman but also an effective medium pace bowler and a good wicket keeper, and took part in 12 matches for Gentlemen against Players between 1861 and 1866.

Alfred Lyttelton

In fact, the Lytteltons were obsessed with cricket, and all seven of Lyttelton’s brothers played cricket for Eton. Like him, three of them captained the team, his brother Edward going on to represent England at football, while the youngest brother, Alfred, became one of the country’s finest tennis players. At their ancestral home, Hagley Hall, the brothers joined their father and two uncles to form a cricket XI, the highlight of the year being their annual game against Bromsgrove School.

Unlike his siblings, Lyttleton was deeply reserved and ‘had no natural social gifts’. He was nevertheless the only member of his family to sit in Parliament between 1820 and 1895, being elected as a Liberal for East Worcestershire at a by-election in June 1868. He sat until he was defeated at the 1874 general election, during which time he proved a loyal Gladstonian, although much to his uncle’s disgust he would break with the Liberals over the question of Irish Home Rule in 1886. Once in the Lords he served on royal commissions on agriculture and metropolitan traffic, and was a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

Lyttelton’s achievements as a commissioner for land, 1881-9, and for railways, 1891-1905, and as deputy chairman of the Great Western Railway, 1890-1, were in some ways overshadowed by the more illustrious careers of his brothers. Neville Gerard (1845-1931) became chief of the army general staff; George William Spencer (1847-1913) was a private secretary to Lord Granville, and to Gladstone when prime minister in 1880-5 and 1892-4; Arthur Temple (1852-1903) was Bishop of Southampton; Edward (1855-1942) was headmaster first of Haileybury College, then Eton; while Alfred (1857-1913) was a long-serving MP and secretary of state for the colonies, 1903-5.

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Hagley Hall, home of the Lyttelton family, in the 1820s

Although Lyttelton’s gifts were ‘of a less shining order’ than those of his brothers, he was well suited to the role of a patrician. After succeeding as 5th Baron Lyttelton following his father’s suicide in 1876, he inherited the title of 8th Viscount Cobham from a distant relative in 1889. As ‘the quietest and most modest of men’, his role as ‘the old-fashioned patriarchal head’ of his family was fulfilled ‘in everything except the desire to exercise authority’. His grandson, the jazz trumpeter and legendary broadcaster, Humphrey Lyttelton, remembered him only as ‘a disembodied head’ from a family portrait in which all the darker tints had turned pitch black.

Further reading:

  • B. Askwith, The Lyttletons. A Family Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (1975)
  • S. Fletcher, Victorian Girls. Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters (2004)

For another cricket-themed blog from us, see https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/mps-at-the-crease-a-victorian-commons-first-eleven/

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