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Edward Walter Hamilton kept a diary between 1880, when he went to work for Gladstone as Prime Minister, and 1906, when he was still a joint permanent secretary of the Treasury but ill health was making his handwriting virtually illegible. There were fifty-four volumes in all. The first twelve volumes covering 1880 to the summer of 1885 were published in 1972 by Oxford in two volumes. They were edited by Dudley W. R. Bahlman who also edited this selection from the remaining forty-two volumes which was published in 1993. Bahlman also wrote the entry on Hamilton in the ODNB.

When Hamilton moved back to the Treasury in 1885 to head its Finance Division he doubted whether the effort of keeping a diary would still be worthwhile. Bahlman observes in his brief introduction that, contrary to Hamilton's expectation, this book is in many ways more valuable than the previous two volumes. The earlier volumes, written when Hamilton was a younger and more junior figure, included copies of documents that passed across Hamilton's desk and are available elsewhere. The subsequent twenty-one years contain material which is otherwise unavailable, in particular an immediate record of conversations with leading politicians about the issues of the day.

"Sir Edward Hamilton." Source: West, facing p. 146.

Hamilton was born in 1847 and educated at Eton, where he was a contemporary and friend of Rosebery, and Christ Church, Oxford, where he took a BMus but did not complete a conventional degree. His father was Bishop of Salisbury and a friend of Gladstone through whose influence he entered the Treasury in 1870. Hamilton never married and lived modestly in central London, apparently on his salary as a civil servant. Late in his relatively short life — he died at 61 about a year after leaving the Treasury — his failing health led to increasing social isolation but until then he was a regular guest of many rich and powerful men at their London homes, in their country houses and, in a few cases, on board their yachts for long summer cruises. For example, he records in 1905 that he is at Chatsworth for Christmas for the fourteenth time and after Christmas he often went on to Sandringham. He also stayed once or twice at Balmoral and Windsor. His clubs, where he often had conversations which he judged to be worth recording, were Brooks's, Marlborough and the Turf. Hamilton's values reflected the time and his upbringing, illustrated by this passage from July 1900 when he expected Hicks Beach might leave the Treasury:

I can see no successor, unless it were Arthur Balfour. Chamberlain can hardly leave the Colonial Office; George Hamilton hardly carries enough weight and was mixed up in shady City affairs; Ritchie (who is the other man mentioned) is much too second-class. The first qualifications of a Chancellor of the Exchequer are character and being a gentleman. Then come influence and financial aptitude. [390]

He served Ritchie in due course and concluded that this analysis had been harsh. The diaries are always generous about serving Chancellors which probably reflected his own need to work closely with them and his strong view that the first duty of a civil servant was loyalty to his Minister. His more nuanced appraisals of his own political masters come after they have moved on when he compares them with their successors. The diaries have next to no humour so one appreciates all the more his entry about the response to a book he published following up some complex work with Goschen restructuring debt: "My book on Conversion and Redemption, the title of which is exciting the curiosity of the evangelical world, has made its appearance; and the Economist has devoted an article to it today in complimentary terms..." (111). The humour in the following entry, which is highly unusual in concerning something beyond politics, is certainly not intentional:

[Mentmore] Came down yesterday afternoon. Only Henry James (Americanus) here — the nicest type of American man I know — pleasant and accomplished. I am ashamed to say that I have never read any of his books.... The society of men of letters like H. James is I believe the society which in his heart of hearts Rosebery most enjoys." [48]

The tone of the book becomes progressively darker as Gladstone, his great hero, retires and then dies, Rosebery, his great friend, disappoints him and his own life is marked by an illness which reduced his mobility and made him feel years older than he was.

Left: Gladstone's funeral, which Hamilton arranged: "The Cortege Passing along the Nave of Westminster Abbey," with the most important personages labelled. These include several mentioned here: the Prince of Wales, and Rosebery, Harcourt, Balfour and Salisbury. Cook, Ch. XXI. Right: Hamilton's monograph on Gladstone, his "hero."

The book is bound to be appreciated by anyone interested in the politics of 1885 to 1906. Hamilton was in regular contact with Gladstone in and out of office right up to the end of his life and helped to organise his state funeral. Rosebery was his closest friend though the relationship fell away as Rosebery became a more independent political figure and was probably exasperated by Hamilton's repeated and unsuccessful appeals to him to be more ambitious and to shape his conduct to realise Hamilton's ambitions for him. Hamilton was devoted to Lady Rosebery until her premature death. There is no sign of a comparably close relationship with any other women. The diaries are a rich source on those he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer: Hicks Beach, Harcourt, Randolph Churchill, Goschen, Ritchie, Austen Chamberlain and Asquith. He was also in occasional or regular contact with other leading politicians including John Morley, Balfour, Salisbury, Joe Chamberlain, Hartington/Devonshire, Herbert Gladstone, Loulou Harcourt and, towards the end, a young but rapidly rising Winston Churchill. Hamilton's duties gave him contact with the Private Secretaries of Queen Victoria and her son both as Prince of Wales and as King. For some time he successfully coached the Duke of York (later George V) on the constitution of the country and how it worked. He had several direct conversations with Edward VII about the Civil List and, not long after the King had given him the KCVO [Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order], he was asked to host a small dinner party for the King in his flat in Whitehall Court which went on to 1.30 am, perhaps because Mrs Keppel was amongst the eight people present. Hamilton's chief concern was that no-one should notice the King coming or going. Diary entries can be misleading but are more likely to be accurate on fact and on emotions than later recollections.

Whitehall Court, where Hamilton once entertained the King till the early hours, is seen here across the Thames, appropriately enough in an evening scene. [Click on the image for more information as well as a larger picture.]

The diary must be of intense interest to anyone specifically interested in how the Treasury and the Bank of England worked in the late 19th century, in the relationship between the Chancellor and spending Ministers, in the inexorable rise in spending on the army and even more on the navy, in the funding of the Boer War, in how budgets came to be constructed and delivered, in Treasury contact with the bankers and in crises such as the near collapse of Baring's in 1890. Hamilton was unduly modest about his own intellect. His briefs on the background to the budget and on the available options over twenty years were praised for their great clarity by successive Chancellors. He claimed that, unless he made it all seem pretty simple, he couldn't understand it himself which is not entirely convincing given the inherent complexity of the material. His preferred model for the budget speech was for the Chancellor to write a full draft based on Hamilton's brief, for Hamilton to comment and for the Chancellor to prepare notes from the final full draft and to deliver the speech from the notes rather than to read from a text. When this worked well, which it didn't always, the Chancellor was the master of the material and, whatever the controversial nature of the proposals, impressed the Commons by being seen and heard to know what he was talking about. In keeping with the views of Treasury Ministers and civil servants in the following hundred years he preferred there to be very little discussion about the budget by other Ministers before it was delivered. Towards the end of his career he sometimes had to put up with more influence by other Ministers than he would have liked.

The diaries are fascinating for anyone interested in the role of the civil service in the British system and how that role developed in the 19th century. Hamilton may not have secured a place in the civil service by competitive examination but, if he had been put to the test, he deserved to have succeeded. He was keenly aware of the respective roles of Ministers and the civil service and summarised the classic doctrine in his own way:

I have told [Austen Chamberlain] that what I conceived to be the duty of those who have to advise the Government about a proposed change is to point out strongly what appear to them to be the objections, difficulties and dangers; and that, if the Government notwithstanding the warning, determine to proceed it is our duty to do our utmost to remove the objections, solve the difficulties, and minimise the dangers. [442]

This remains the theory and it was no doubt true in the nineteenth as in the twenty-first century that delivering honest and unwelcome advice before the decision and giving effect to what is judged to be a poor decision once it has been taken is harder in practice than in theory. Hamilton was driven to articulate the theory by the prospect of serving a protectionist Chancellor when he was himself a convinced free trader. The diaries leave a strong impression that Hamilton lived by the doctrine but it is also apparent that he was adept at giving his advice persuasively and he was rarely faced with the need to implement a decision that he found distasteful. In an entry for 9 February 1887 he carried his commitment to political neutrality to a point that would surprise a modern civil servant: "Goschen has been returned by an overwhelming majority for St George's, Hanover Square — my constituency, but I am not on the register, and if I were I should probably not have recorded my vote. Servants of the Crown should keep clear of active politics" (55).

It may be that he was so scrupulous because after 1885 he remained close to the leadership of the Liberal Party when he was earning his living mostly by serving Conservative governments. He slipped into the first private meeting of Liberal MPs after Rosebery had become the leader because he felt so close to his friend and wanted to enjoy his reception. His KCB came in the first Honours List after Rosebery had taken over as Prime Minister. They were both aware that this might be criticised but were happy to take the risk. Rosebery claimed at least to have checked that Hamilton's senior colleagues reckoned that he was not jumping over the head of a deserving colleague but it was less than ideal timing for Hamilton to be knighted just then. The picture that emerges gradually from the diaries is that some initial suspicion on the part of a Conservative Chancellor was gradually replaced by trust and respect based on experience of Hamilton's professional service to his Minister. There was never any sign of his passing information to the Opposition from inside the Treasury. It may have helped that he was far from radical and generally arguing for a relatively conservative approach. He was never a great enthusiast for Home Rule.

A facsimile edition of Hamilton's Conversion and Redemption issued by Kessinger Publishing in 2010.

The brief review in the Economist when the book was published described it as a most judicious selection. Without reading forty-two handwritten volumes, which must have been challenging to transcribe even before the handwriting deteriorated, it is hard to be sure about that but it is highly probable that the Economist's reviewer was right. For scholars there can be few reservations about Bahlman's work. The index could have been fuller; for example, it has no entry for the many houses that Hamilton visited, or for his book on restructuring debt (which must have been such a disappointment to those evangelical Christians who had been misled by its title!). At the end there is a helpful list of the houses Hamilton visited and their owners but it doesn't include Chatsworth and does include Sandringham but not Balmoral or Windsor. More seriously for the reader who is not a scholar there is almost a complete absence of footnotes. It is hard to see why it was decided not to include brief information about some of the less celebrated individuals who are mentioned in these nearly 500 pages. For anyone wanting to find about late Victorian political history for the first time this book is not the place to start. For anyone whose idea of diaries is the colour and humour of James Lees-Milne or Alan Clark, Hamilton might be better avoided. But for others, interested enough in the politics, finance and public service of the late 19th century to put up with the unremitting earnestness, nothing else will fill the gap left by deciding not to read these diaries, and the reader who persists will come to respect the man who conscientiously wrote them after a full day's work — and to be grateful to Dudley Bahlman whose work has made them available.

Book under Review

Hamilton, Sir Edward Walter. The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton 1885-1906. Ed. Dudley W. R. Bahlman. Hull: University of Hull Press, 1993. 480pp. ISBN 978-0859586122 (out of print but available in the British Library and other major libraries).

Illustration Sources

Cook, Richard B. The Grand Old Man, or The Life and Public Services of the Right Honourable William Ewart Gladstone, Four Times Prime Minister of England. Project Gutenberg, from the US archive. Web. 15 November 2015.

West, Sir Algernon. Contemporary Portraits: Men of My Day in Public Life. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1920. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of California Libraries. Web. 15 November 2015.

Created 15 Novemnber 2015