MP of the Month: George Augustus Constantine Phipps, Earl of Mulgrave (1819-1890), MP and colonial governor

George Phipps, Earl of Mulgrave, later 2nd Marquess of Normanby [by Edward Mason (1845–1923) after Eugene Montagu Scott (1835–1909)]

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of our MP of the Month, George Augustus Constantine Phipps, who, after a short stint in the army, served in the Commons as Liberal MP for Scarborough, 1847-51 and 1852-57, under his courtesy title, the Earl of Mulgrave. This constituency had previously been represented by his father and grandfather, both of whom enjoyed distinguished ministerial careers. His grandfather had received an earldom in 1812, and his father was created Marquess of Normanby in 1838. A leading Whig, Normanby held a succession of offices, notably as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1835-9, and Home Secretary, 1839-41, followed by diplomatic appointments after 1846.

Mulgrave therefore had an impressive political pedigree, but the records of parliamentary debate in Hansard would suggest that he made little impression at Westminster, since he never spoke in the Commons chamber. However, as many of the biographies in our 1832-68 project reveal, being a silent member did not necessarily mean that an MP failed to contribute to parliamentary business. Mulgrave provides an excellent example of this. As a Liberal whip – briefly in 1851 and again from 1852-7 – he often acted as a teller in divisions. This meant that he became one of the House’s most assiduous members in the division lobbies, present for 207 out of 257 divisions in the 1853 session, and missing only 15 out of 198 divisions in 1856. By contrast, in 1849, before his appointment as a whip, he voted in 93 out of 219 divisions. Among the key votes where he acted as teller for the ministries of Lord Aberdeen and then Lord Palmerston were the divisions on William Gladstone’s first budget, 2 May 1853; the hostile motions of John Roebuck and Benjamin Disraeli on the government’s handling of the Crimean War; and Richard Cobden’s critical motion on the Palmerston ministry’s policy towards China, 3 Mar. 1857.

Mulgrave as teller in the division on Richard Cobden’s motion on the Canton bombardment

Alongside this role, Mulgrave held positions in the royal household. His mother had served as a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Victoria, and he therefore had experience of life at court long before his own appointment as comptroller of the household in July 1851. His acceptance of office meant that he had to seek re-election at Scarborough. He faced a challenge from George Frederick Young, a shipowner whose staunch support for protectionism won him the support of the local shipping interest. In contrast Mulgrave favoured free trade, although he had bowed to his constituents’ concerns by voting in 1849 against the repeal of the navigation laws, which gave protection to British shipping. Despite this, he was ousted by Young at the July 1851 by-election. He had his revenge at the 1852 general election when he won the second seat ahead of Young. In December 1852 Mulgrave was appointed as treasurer of the household by the Aberdeen ministry, and canvassed actively at Scarborough in case a last-minute opponent challenged his re-election. However, he was unopposed at the by-election held in January 1853.

Mulgrave was elected again for Scarborough at the 1857 general election, but that December he entered a new phase of his political career, when he was appointed as lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. This was not Mulgrave’s first experience overseas, as he had served in Canada during his time in the army, acting as an aide-de-camp to the commander of the British forces, Lieutenant-General Sir Richard Downes Jackson, 1840-3. These earlier travels included a buffalo-shooting expedition near Hudson’s Bay in 1842.

Marquess of Normanby depicted in Vanity Fair (1871). (C) NPG

After almost six years as governor of Nova Scotia, where he needed a great deal of patience to handle the highly factional politics of the colony, Mulgrave resigned and returned to Britain following his father’s death in 1863. He succeeded his father as 2nd Marquess of Normanby, but did not make his maiden speech in the House of Lords until 1866. He received further appointments in the royal household, serving as a lord in waiting from May 1866 until the Russell ministry fell from office in July. Gladstone gave him the same post in December 1868, and in 1869 he was promoted to become captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (the monarch’s ceremonial bodyguard).

Normanby was not, however, a wealthy peer, and told Gladstone that he would prefer another overseas appointment, attracted by the large salary given to colonial governors. Gladstone obliged in 1871, when Normanby became governor of Queensland, where the Mulgrave and Normanby rivers were named after him. In 1874 he was appointed as governor of New Zealand, where he often clashed with the premier, Sir George Grey, over the extent of the governor’s prerogative powers. When faced with difficult decisions, Normanby drew on his experience of the Westminster Parliament, and apparently used to ask himself, ‘What would they think upon this question in the House of Commons?’ One history of New Zealand described him as ‘one of the most formidable colonial administrators to serve Britain in the nineteenth century’.

In 1879 he was appointed to what was then regarded as ‘the blue ribbon of the colonial service’, the governorship of Victoria. Although it was suggested that he might become governor of South Australia when his term in Victoria ended in 1884, a protest from the colony put paid to this. Normanby returned to Britain, where Lord Kimberley praised his ‘statesmanlike qualities’ at a dinner in his honour, suggesting that it was a measure of his success that ‘his name had not been constantly before the public’ and that ‘his action had not called for the production of any gigantic blue-book’ (i.e. a parliamentary inquiry into his conduct). Another contemporary considered that ‘though not a man of great ability, he had sound judgement, robust common sense, and an imperturbable temper’, which served him well during a long career of public service.

Normanby continued his interest in colonial affairs and made a return visit to Australia in 1887-8. He was among the Liberal peers who joined the Liberal Unionist party in opposition to Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule for Ireland. He died at Brighton in 1890 after a lengthy illness.

On Normanby and other MPs who served as colonial governors, see also our earlier blog on Victorian MPs and Colonial Governance.

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