In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to Lord Rosebery
13 February, 2020 — By Neil Titley
Lord Rosebery as portrayed by Vanity Fair in 1901
“THE prime minister was hamstrung because of being forced to survive on a tiny majority, because the House of Lords blocked nearly all initiatives, and because of deep and divisive hostility within his own party.”
Oddly enough, this judgement was not written about events in 2019 but about the 1894-96 Liberal premiership.
As a youth, Archibald Primrose, Lord Rosebery (1847-1929) announced that his ambitions were to win the Derby, to become prime minister, and to marry an heiress. He was to achieve all three.
He gained his first objective in 1878 by marrying Hannah de Rothschild, heiress to the hugely opulent financial dynasty. A famous story recorded the Downton Abbey aspect of Rothschild domestic grandeur. During a stay at the family mansion, a visitor was asked by the butler whether he would like: “Tea, coffee or sherry, sir?”
The visitor replied: “Tea, please.”
The butler continued: “China, Indian, or Ceylon, sir?”
“Lemon, milk, or cream, sir?”
“Jersey, Ayrshire or Shorthorn, sir?”
His rise to political fame progressed more slowly but was helped considerably by becoming the first chairman of the London County Council. Rosebery Avenue (by Sadler’s Wells) was so named in recognition of his successful time in office.
Then, after Gladstone’s resignation in 1894, Rosebery achieved his second ambition of becoming prime minister. His selection was largely due to Queen Victoria, who disliked his Liberal rivals.
However, Rosebery’s unfathomable character led to problems. He was described as “a dark horse in a loose box” who was a mass of contradictions – a “flying Dutchman of politics”. Radical at one moment and arch conservative at another – a man who rejoiced in the nickname of “Citizen Rosebery”, yet who contemptuously dismissed democracy as “a Tom, Dick, and Harry business”.
His chronic insomnia also made him an uneasy occupant of the highest office – he admitted that sleeplessness had blurred his judgement. Even the dazzling oratory of his speeches was due partly to his intake of cocaine (then a standard prescription) after which he would collapse from nervous exhaustion.
The death of his wife Hannah in 1890 left Rosebery distraught and may well have precipitated an emotional and sexual crisis.
Rumours about homosexuality had dogged Lord Rosebery from his Eton schooldays when he was the pet boy of the notorious schoolmaster William Johnson. After they holidayed in Italy together in 1864, it was said that the friendship “could hardly have been wholesome”.
Johnson was sacked from Eton in 1872 after complaints by parents about his activities. Changing his name to Cory, he retired to live at 8 Pilgrim’s Lane in Hampstead where a present day plaque records him as the writer of the Eton Boating Song.
When Rosebery became foreign secretary, he appointed the handsome (if intellectually limited) eldest son of the Marquis of Queensberry, Viscount Drumlanrig, to be his private aide. Suspicion circulated that this was to facilitate a gay relationship between the two. Queensberry certainly believed this and in 1893 pursued Rosebery to Germany to force a confrontation.
Arriving at Rosebery’s Homberg hotel armed with a dog whip, he was only dissuaded from thrashing the foreign secretary by the intervention of the Prince of Wales, who was also at the hotel. The prince then induced the local police chief to run Queensberry out of town “by the 7am train to Paris”.
When Rosebery became prime minister in 1894, the situation curdled when Drumlanrig “accidentally” shot himself dead. Many people were convinced that he had taken his own life “in the shadow of a suppressed scandal”.
Queensberry, already a powder keg of resentment, then faced an additional provocation when his second son became the boyfriend of Oscar Wilde. After a campaign of harassment, he finally forced a prosecution against Wilde. The government feared that if the prime minister’s connection with the whole imbroglio became public it would cause a scandal that would dwarf the Wilde affair.
Queensberry piled on the pressure claiming that “Snob Queers like Rosebery” had corrupted his sons and threatened to reveal all unless Wilde was prosecuted with full rigour.
Rosebery asked his home secretary HH Asquith if they could do anything to help Wilde. Asquith replied grimly: “If you do, you will lose the election.” During Wilde’s final trial Rosebery, although still prime minister, disappeared on a sea voyage for health reasons.
The truth behind Rosebery’s proclivities remains murky; however, a well-connected gay contemporary (Charles Ives) claimed that the CID chief Dr McNaughten had ordered the Hyde Park police never to arrest Rosebery “because too big a fish often breaks the line”.
In 1896 he lost the election and then in 1898 he lost the leadership of the Liberal party. His state of mind could perhaps be judged by his diary entry: “Home to supper. What a relief!”
Becoming increasingly right-wing in the later years, Rosebery seemed happier staying at his Naples villa where, in his own words, he settled into becoming “a male dowager”.
He died in Epsom, Surrey, while listening to a gramophone recording of The Eton Boating Song.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For more go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk