From Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949). Added by Marjie Bloy, Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore

Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, philanthropist, was the eldest son of the sixth earl, and of Anne, fourth daughter of the third Duke of Marlborough. He was born on 28 April 1801 at 24 Grosvenor Square, London, his father being then a younger brother of the family, but when his father succeeded to the title and estates in 1811 his home was at St. Giles in Dorsetshire, the family seat. He was educated at Harrow, and at Christ Church, Oxford, and obtained a first class in classics in 1822. In 1832 he took his degree of M.A., and in 1841 he was made D.C.L.

He entered parliament as Lord Ashley in 1826 as member for Woodstock, the pocket borough of the Marlborough family, and gave a general support to the governments of Liverpool and Canning. He was returned for Dorchester in 1830 and 1831, and sat for Dorset from 1831 to 1846. His first speech was an earnest pleading in favour of a proposed grant to the family of Mr. Canning, after his sudden death. In 1828, under the Duke of Wellington, he obtained the post of a commissioner of the board of control, and in 1834 Sir Robert Peel made him a lord of the admiralty. If he had chosen a political career, his rank, connections, and high abilities and character might have placed the highest offices of the state within his grasp. But he was early fascinated by another object of pursuit — the promotion of philanthropic reform; and in the ardour of his enthusiasm for this line of action he deemed it best to maintain a somewhat independent position in relation to politics.

In 1830 he married Lady Emily Cowper, daughter of Earl and Lady Cowper, and by the subsequent marriage of Lady Cowper to Lord Palmerston he became stepson-in-law to the future premier. In 1851, on the death of his father, he succeeded to the earldom. Lady Shaftesbury died in 1872, to the deep grief of her much-attached husband. Their children consisted of six sons and four daughters.

The first social abuse that roused the interest of Ashley was the treatment of lunatics. In 1828, Mr. Gordon, a benevolent member of parliament, obtained a committee to inquire into the subject; Ashley's interest was awakened, and he was himself named a member of the committee. Not content with official inquiries, he did much by personal visitation to ascertain the real condition of lunatics in confinement, and saw such distressing evidence of ill-treatment that next year he brought in a bill to amend the law in one particular. All the rest of his life he continued, as one of the commissioners in lunacy, to interest himself in the subject, and before his death he had secured a complete reform of the Lunacy Acts, and effected an untold improvement in the condition of the unfortunate class who had formerly been treated with so much severity and cruelty. This may be ranked as the first of his services to philanthropy.

His next effort was to reform the law relating to the employment of workers in mills and factories. About the time when he entered parliament the condition of the workers in factories, and especially the children, had begun to attract the earnest attention of some. In parliament Mr. M. T. Sadler and Mr. Oastler took up the matter warmly; Mr. Sadler, in particular, as Shaftesbury afterwards said with much generosity, ‘maintained the cause in parliament with unrivalled eloquence and energy.’ Mr. Sadler having lost his seat at the election in 1833 the charge of the movement was entrusted to Ashley. His proposal that the period of labour should be limited to ten hours a day met at first with the fiercest opposition. A bill which he introduced was so emasculated by the government that he threw it over on them; it was ultimately carried, but was not satisfactory. A deep impression was produced by Ashley in describing visits paid by him to hospitals in Lancashire, where he found many workers who had been crippled and mutilated under the conditions of their work; they presented every variety of distorted form, ‘just like a crooked alphabet.’ Returning afterwards to the subject, he showed the enormous evils and miseries which the existing system was producing; but the government would not move. So late as 1844 his proposal for a limit of ten hours was rejected. It was not till 1847, when Ashley was out of parliament, that the bill was carried. The operation of the act has proved most satisfactory, and many who at first were most vehement opponents afterwards came to acknowledge the magnitude of the improvement. At many times in the subsequent part of Ashley's life he got the factory acts amended and extended. New industries were brought within their scope. He always maintained that he would never rest till the protection of the law should be extended to the whole mass of workers.

During this struggle collieries and mines engaged his attention. Here, too, the evils brought to light, especially with respect to women and children, were appalling. Many women were found to be working in dismal underground situations, in such a way as tended to degrade them to the level of brutes. Children, sometimes not over four or five years of age, were found toiling in the dark, in some cases so long as eighteen hours a day, dragged from bed at four in the morning, and so utterly wearied out that instruction, either on week days or Sundays, was utterly out of the question. Often they were attached by chain and girdle to trucks which they had to drag on all-fours through the workings to the shaft. The opposition were struck dumb by these revelations. An act was passed in 1842 under Ashley's care abolishing the system of apprenticeship, which had led to fearful abuses, and excluding women and boys under thirteen from employment underground.
The treatment of ‘climbing boys,’ as the apprentices of chimney-sweepers were called, was another of the abuses which he set himself to remedy. If the evil here was not so glaring as in the factories and pits, it was only because the occupation was more limited. Ashley obtained an act for the protection of the apprentices, and many years afterwards, when some laxity in the administration was discovered, took steps to have it more rigidly enforced.

The country was greatly agitated at this time on the subject of the corn laws. Hitherto Ashley had acted generally with the conservative party, but believing that a change in the corn laws was necessary, he resigned his seat for Dorset in January 1846, and for a time was out of parliament. In the next parliament he was returned (30 July 1817) for the city of Bath. The leisure which he obtained by retiring from parliament was turned by him to account in visiting the slums of London and acquiring a more full acquaintance with the condition of the working classes. A statement of some of his experiences in this field was given in an article in the Quarterly Review for December 1846. His interest was especially intensified in two movements: the education of the neglected poor, and the improvement of the dwellings of the people.

The movement for ‘ragged schools,’ as they were now called, or ‘industrial feeding schools,’ as Mr. Sheriff Watson of Aberdeen had proposed to call them, had already been inaugurated in Scotland. Ashley became the champion of the cause in parliament. In 1848 he told the House of Commons that ten thousand children had been got into ragged schools, who, there was every reason to hope, would be reclaimed. For thirty-nine years he held the office of chairman of the Ragged School Union, and during that time as many as three hundred thousand children were brought under the influence of the society. The Shoeblack Brigade was the result of another effort for the same class. At one time it numbered 306 members, and its earnings in one year were £12,000. The Refuge and Reformatory Union was a kindred movement; ultimately it came to have 589 homes, accommodating fifty thousand children. Lord Palmerston's bill for the care and reformation of juvenile offenders, which has had so beneficial an influence, was a fruit of Shaftesbury's influence.

Very early in his career he had become profoundly impressed with the important influence of the dwellings of the people on their habits and character. To the miserable condition of their homes he attributed two-thirds of the disorders that prevailed in the community. In 1851 he drew attention to the subject in the House of Lords. The Lodging House Act was passed, which Dickens described as the best piece of legislation that ever proceeded from the English parliament. This, however, represented but a small portion of his labours for the improvement of houses. The views which he so clearly and forcibly proclaimed led many to take practical steps to reform the abuse. The Peabody scheme was at least indirectly the fruit of his representations. On 3 August 1872 he laid the foundation-stone of buildings at Battersea, called the Shaftesbury Park Estate, containing twelve hundred houses, accommodating eight thousand people. On his own estate at Wimborne St. Giles he built a model village, where the cottages were furnished with all the appliances of civilised life, and each had its allotment of a quarter of an acre, the rent being only a shilling a week. As chairman of the central board of public health he effected many reforms, especially during the visitation of cholera in 1849. He was also chairman of a sanitary commission for the Crimea, in regard to which Miss Nightingale wrote that ‘it saved the British army.’

Besides originating and actively promoting to the very end of his life the social reforms now enumerated, Shaftesbury took an active interest in the Bible, Missionary, and other religious societies, and was very closely identified with some of the most important of them. Of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he was president for a great many years. The London City Mission, pursuing its labours among the London poor, deeply interested him. The Church Missionary Society, as well as the missionary societies of the nonconformists, found in him a most ardent friend. He had great pleasure in the Young Men's Christian Association. He was the chief originator of a movement for holding religious services in theatres and music halls — a movement which he had to defend in the House of Lords from the charge of lowering religion by associating its services with scenes of frivolity.

Of the variety and comprehensiveness of the objects to which his life had been directed an idea may be formed from the enumeration of the city chamberlain when the freedom of the city of London was conferred upon him. The chamberlain referred to his labours in connection with the Climbing Boys Act, the Factory and Ten Hours Acts, Mines and Collieries Regulation Acts, the establishment of ragged schools, training ships, and refuges for boys and girls, his share in the abolition of slavery, the protection of lunatics, the promotion of the City Mission and the Bible Society, and likewise his efforts for the protection of wronged and tortured dumb animals.

In religion Shaftesbury was a very cordial and earnest supporter of evangelical views. Ritualism and rationalism were alike abhorrent to him. While attached to the Church of England his sympathies were with evangelicalism wherever he found it. Sometimes he expressed himself against opponents with an excessive severity of language, inconsistent with his usual moderation. All movements in parliament and elsewhere in harmony with evangelical views, such as Sir Andrew Agnew's for the protection of the Lord's day, the union of religion and education, and opposition to the Church of Rome, found in him a cordial advocate. But his heart was especially moved by whatever concerned the true welfare of the people. Though the reverse of a demagogue, retaining always a certain aristocratic bearing as one who valued his social rank, he was as profoundly interested in the people as the most ardent democrat. Hating socialism and all schemes of revolutionary violence, he most earnestly desired to see the multitude enjoying a larger share of the comforts of life. He had thorough confidence in the power of christianity to effect the needed improvements, provided its principles were accepted and acted on, and its spirit diffused among high and low.

At various times, and especially after he became connected with Lord Palmerston, Shaftesbury was invited to join the cabinet. At one time he was offered the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster, but as he made it a condition that he should be at liberty to oppose the Maynooth endowment the post was refused. The first time the ribbon of the Garter was offered to him he declined it, though he accepted it some years later (21 May 1862). Beginning life as a conservative, his interest in the people and very genuine love for civil and religious liberty drew him towards the popular side. His freedom from party ties sometimes enabled him to act as mediator when an understanding between parties was indispensable. In many confidential matters he was the adviser of Lord Palmerston, and especially in the filling up of vacant bishoprics and other important offices in the church of England. His great influence with the people was recognised in times of peril and turned to useful account. He was oftener than once consulted by the queen and the prince consort on trying emergencies. In 1848, when the mob of London was believed to be meditating serious riots, Ashley was requested to use his influence to prevent the outbreak. He summoned to his aid the City Mission, and for weeks together very earnest efforts were made to restrain the multitude, with the result that when the panic was over, Sir George Grey, home secretary, wrote to him and thanked him and the City Mission for their valuable aid. On one occasion he received a memorial from forty notorious London thieves asking him to meet with them. He complied with the request, and addressed a meeting of 450, whom he besought to abandon their evil ways, and with such success that the greater part, availing themselves of an emigration scheme, were rescued from a life of crime.

In appearance Shaftesbury was tall and handsome, with a graceful figure and well-cut regular features. He spoke with neatness, force, and precision, and was highly effective without being much of an orator. From time to time he received valuable testimonials from the class to whose benefit his labours were directed. One of these, which he valued very highly, was a colossal bust presented to Lady Shaftesbury in 1859 by four thousand Lancashire operatives. Another was a donkey given to him by the London costermongers. His eightieth birthday was celebrated by a great public meeting in the Guildhall, presided over by the lord mayor, and represented on the part of the government by the late Mr. W. E. Forster, who not only rehearsed Shaftesbury's achievements, but referred to his own obligations to his example. In 1884 he received the freedom of the city of London. In May 1885 he was presented with an address from old scholars of the ragged schools. In reply he declared that he would rather be president of the ragged schools than of the Royal Academy; but for himself he would only say that the feeling in his heart was, ‘What hast thou that thou hast not received?’

Shaftesbury retained a great part of the vigour both of his mind and body to very near the end of his life. The infirmities of old age showed themselves chiefly in gout and deafness. In the autumn of 1885 he went to Folkestone, but died of congestion of the lungs, 1 October 1885. He was lord-lieutenant of Dorset from 1856 till death.

The lives of Howard, Mrs. Fry, Wilberforce, and other great philanthropists are associated mainly with a single cause — Shaftesbury's with half a score. They opened out to him one after another in a kind of natural succession, and while at the very outset he had to contend with vehement opposition, during the latter part of his career he was borne along by the applause of the community, found willing coadjutors in all ranks of society, and had no more serious opponent than the vis inertiæ of a slumbering public. He was indeed the impersonation of the philanthropic spirit of the nineteenth century. Mr. Carlyle, in his ‘Latter-Day Pamphlets,’ has written severely enough against ‘this universal syllabub of philanthropic twaddle,’ but his sarcasm does not hit Shaftesbury. What horrified Carlyle was the coddling of criminals and increasing the burdens of honest labourers in the interest of scoundrels. Carlyle wrote in the name of justice. In the same name Shaftesbury worked. To redress wrong was the object of his first undertakings. He carried the same principle with him throughout. His mind did not greatly appreciate political changes which sought to elevate the social position of the workman, nor did he favour these much when others brought them forward. To promote industry, self-control, and useful labour, to make men faithful to the obligations of home and country and religion, were his constant aims. It would not be easy to tell how much the life of Shaftesbury has availed in warding off revolution from England, and in softening the bitter spirit between rich and poor.

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Last modified 8 October 2002