Edward Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby by Frederick Richard Say. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Click on images to enlarge them.

Edward Stanley served as Prime Minister three times — from 23 February to 17 December 1852, 20 February 1858 to 1 June 1859, and 28 June 1866 to 25 February 1868. Stanley, the 14th Earl of Derby, was born at Knowsley Hall, Prescot, Lancashire on 29 March 1799. He was the eldest son and first of seven children born to Edward Smith Stanley, 13th Earl of Derby, and his wife Charlotte Margaret Hornby. The family was able to date its noble ancestry from the elevation of the second Baron Stanley to an earldom in return for his belated support for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485 when Stanley and his brother failed to fight for the rightful king, Richard III, to whom they owed their allegiance.

The fourteenth Earl (hereafter, Stanley) was educated at Eton between 1811 and 1817; then he was admitted to Christ Church College, Oxford. In 1819 he was awarded the Chancellor's Latin verse prize for his poem Syracuse. Stanley did not take his Degree but in 1824 travelled to Canada and the United States of America where he visited several of the east coast states.

In July 1822, Stanley, who saw himself as a 'constitutional Whig' at that point in his political career, took his seat in parliament as the MP for Stockbridge, a seat bought for him by his grandfather, the 12th Earl of Derby. He finally made his maiden speech, on the Manchester Gas Light Bill, in March 1824: the speech was noted for its clarity and Derby for his oratorical abilities. Soon after the speech, he travelled to North America; he married Emma Caroline Bootle-Wilbraham on 31 May 1825 after his return to England and they had two sons and one daughter. He held minor office in the ministries of Canning and Goderich and in 1828 he supported the unsuccessful attempt to transfer the East Retford seat to Birmingham in opposition to the government; he voted for Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and spoke briefly in favour of parliamentary reform in 1830. At the general election on the death of George IV he was re-elected for Preston, but having accepted office as Grey's Chief Secretary for Ireland, he was defeated at the by-election by Henry 'Orator' Hunt. A vacancy was made for him at Windsor in February 1831.

Earl of Derby

Knowsley Hall, Lancashire: country home of the Earls of Derby

One of his measures as Chief Secretary of Ireland was to introduce the Irish Education Act, which created the Irish Board of National Education. Under the auspices of this Board, children of all denominations were admitted to schools receiving government grants; religious education was to be of an 'uncontroversial' nature. The Act was unusual in that it had the approval of the Catholic Church in Ireland. This legislation was introduced some sixty years before anything comparable was to be found in England. In 1833 Stanley introduced a Coercion Act for Ireland to replace the Insurrection Acts, even though his efforts in this area brought him into direct conflict with Daniel O'Connell. Althorp, the Home Secretary, wanted to resign rather than be responsible for such a radical proposal but Stanley insisted that the legislation had to be passed so that order could be restored to Ireland. It was apparent that the resignation of either man would break up the ministry, so Althorp gave way. However, he introduced it so poorly that a defeat became highly likely. Stanley then decided to take responsibility for the legislation and made a brilliant speech that was so hostile to the Irish party that he silenced O'Connell and ensuring the passing of the Bill by huge majorities. His powers of oratory were famous and he was labelled the 'Rupert of Debate' by Bulwer-Lytton. In April, Stanley was moved from his post to that of Colonial Secretary.

During this time the debates on the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery were proceeding and Stanley introduced five motions calling for the emancipation of all slaves in the British colonies within one year. He also presented the final Bill to parliament which gave slaves their freedom on 1 August 1834. He was also responsible for the introduction of a series of measures intended to reform the system of tithes in Ireland and for dealing with the revenues of the Irish Church. Stanley opposed the alienation of Church property but Lord John Russell was determined to reduce the amount of land owned by the Anglican Church in Ireland. Stanley resigned his post as Colonial Secretary before the seriousness of government splits became too obvious. He then led a small group of MPs that became known as the 'Derby Dilly': Sir James Graham and the Duke of Richmond were among his colleagues; eventually, they joined Peel's group in parliament.

In 1837, Stanley joined the Tory party and was appointed as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in Peel's second ministry. He took over the responsibility for the conduct and conclusion of the Opium Wars with China and concluded the Treaty of Nanking in August 1842. Britain was ceded Hong Kong as part of this settlement. Stanley worked towards it being a free port. In November 1844 he was elevated at his own request to the House of Lords as Lord Stanley of Bickerstaff. . He said that he was tired of the House of Commons and that his health was breaking down but the change was probably due to the fact that he did not get on well with Peel. At any rate dissensions between them became visible. Stanley opposed immediate free trade and though he eventually agreed to the suspension of the corn laws but resigned when Peel demanded their complete and immediate repeal. When Peel resigned in December 1845 and Russell failed to form a ministry, Stanley was invited to take over. He declined to even attempt to carry on the government as a protectionist.

Although Derby maintained a parliamentary role, he was more interested in his racehorses and gambling. He played whist and billiards and kept a stud. He had a reputation for following the 'gentlemanly sports' of hunting, shooting and fishing; he was also a member of the Jockey Club.

Stanley's father died on 30 June 1851 and Stanley inherited the title of 14th Earl of Derby. He headed his first administration as such from 23 February 1852. The ministry has gone down in history as the '"Who? Who" ministry' thanks to the Duke of Wellington. Derby was forced to rely on loyal but totally inexperienced men for his ministers and when the list was read out in the House of Lords, Wellington - who was deaf, but did not recognise any of the names - kept calling out, 'Who?', 'Who?'. Derby called a general election in July and won about twenty-five more supporters but was still dependent on the Peelites. He appointed Disraeli as his Chancellor of the Exchequer; the budget was defeated by a combination of Whigs, Peelites, radicals and Irish MPs. Derby was obliged to resign and the Earl of Aberdeen formed a ministry that fell over the mis-handling of the Crimean War. Palmerston's first ministry ended in 1858 at which point Derby formed his second ministry.

The main work of Derby's second ministry were the passing of the India Act that transferred control of India from the East India Company to the British government; the ministry also passed the Jews Relief Act that ended the exclusion of Jews from taking their seats in Parliament. Derby lost a vote of 'no confidence' in June 1859 and resigned, to be replaced by Palmerston. During the American Civil War, in which Britain took a neutral stance, Derby was chairman of the Central Executive Committee that worked to alleviate the distress being experienced by the Lancashire textile workers because of the cotton famine.

A Parian Bust of Lord Derby, c. 1867. Click on thumbnail for larger image and additional information

In 1866 Derby formed his third ministry on the resignation of Lord John Russell; in February 1867, Disraeli introduced his Reform Bill. He had amended it to remove the proposal for household suffrage in the face of opposition from the rest of the Cabinet but in the Commons he found MPs demanding a more radical measure. Derby returned to Disraeli's original proposals and the legislation was passed on 9 August 1867. In his speech following the third reading of the Bill in the House of Lords, Derby said:

No doubt we are making a great experiment and taking 'a leap in the dark' but I have the greatest confidence in the sound sense of my fellow-countrymen, and I entertain a strong hope that the extended franchise which we are now conferring upon them will be the means of placing the institutions of this country on a firmer basis, and that the passing of this measure will tend to increase the loyalty and contentment of a great proportion of Her Majesty's subjects

However, he resigned soon afterwards because of ill-health. In his late 30s, he had been by stricken by gout. As a means of obtaining relief from the pain, he took opium; there were suggestions that the illness and treatment had also affected his mental state. . His final speech to the House of Lords was against the disestablishment of the Irish Church, in which he said:

My Lords, I am now an old man, and like many of your Lordships, I have already passed the three score years and ten. My official life is entirely closed; my political life is nearly so; and, in the course of nature, my natural life cannot now be long. That natural life commenced with the bloody suppression of a formidable rebellion in Ireland, which immediately preceded the Union between the two countries. Any may God grant that its close may not witness a renewal of the one and the dissolution of the other!

Derby continued to attend the House of Lords until his death on 23 October 1869. He died at Knowsley and was buried in St. Mary's church there. He was 70 years old.

Related Material: Two Late-Victorian Assessments

Recommended reading

Kebbel, T.E. Life of the Earl of Derby, KG London, 1893.

Saintsbury, G. The Earl of Derby. London, 1892.

Text last modified 12 March 2002; image added 17 March 2006; link added 3 May 2007