First, a few notes on the mechanics of forming a new government in nineteenth-century England, since practice has changed. If a government lost a vote of confidence in the Commons, especially earlier in the century, there was a real choice: they could resign and leave the Queen to invite their opponents to form a government with the same House, or they could ask for a dissolution and a general election. Dissolution, the normal course in modern practice, was generally avoided, both because of the expense of elections and because it was not always necessary. A viable new ministry might well be formed of the opposition and various factions who were not pledged to a particular party. If an election was held, the government that had been in power generally remained so until after the new parliament met, even if they had been defeated at the polls. They would then lose a vote of confidence and resign, in keeping with the convention that Parliament was the proper arbiter of power, not the electorate.1 If a party had taken over during a session, they would often call an election subsequently to confirm their legitimacy. But with the increase of voters after the Second Reform Act in 1867, party organization became more rigid. “Parliamentary government” gave way to the supremacy of the electorate, and parties defeated in a Commons vote were more likely to call an election, and to resign without meeting Parliament if they lost it.2

Ministers of an outgoing government were required to surrender their seals and tokens of office personally to the Queen, taking a train journey to Windsor, or an even longer ferry crossing to Osborne, Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight. New cabinet ministers also appeared before her to kiss her hand, so an outgoing politician might study the train timetable in order to avoid a meeting. All had to be members of the Privy Council, so they were sworn in if necessary—probably by Sir Charles Greville, famous diarist and longtime Clerk of Council—and became “The Rt. Hon.” MPs who took ministerial office were required to resign their seats and stand for re-election, though often their election would not be opposed. Ministers received a modest salary, whereas ordinary MPs were unpaid.

A Victorian cabinet usually consisted of 12 to 15 members. At their head was the Prime Minister; however, until 1905 this was only an informal title, and his post was usually First Lord of the Treasury. Then came the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or finance minister, followed by the two principal Secretaries of State: Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary. Next was the Secretary for War and the Colonies—to be distinguished from the less prestigious Secretary at War, who looked after disbursements. In 1854 these two departments were reorganized as the Secretary for War, and Secretary for the Colonies. The fifth important Secretary of State was that for India (called President of the Board of Control until 1858). There were three posts almost always filled by peers: Lord Chancellor, Lord President of the Council, and Lord Privy Seal. Other important appointments were First Lord of the Admiralty, and Chief Secretary for Ireland (especially 1859 on). The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was an optional post for a minister without portfolio.

The cabinet is not the same as “the ministry,” the larger body of all temporary office-holders who formed “the government.” These officials ranged from junior lords of the treasury (not real lords) and parliamentary under-secretaries to the Postmaster-General, plus officials of the royal household and lords and ladies in waiting. Some of these individuals might be given a seat in cabinet--very often the President of the Board of Trade, but sometimes also the President of the Poor Law Board, the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests (of Works after 1851), and others.

The difficulties and advantages of a cabinet minister in the Lords were similar to those facing a Lords prime minister: chiefly, distance from the centre of political action and partisan strife, versus freedom from the demands of constituency business and time to lay out policy. Thus Salisbury as prime minister was also in charge of the Foreign Office, his area of special expertise—something he would never have been able to do “without freedom as a peer from the protracted demands of a seat in the Commons.”3 Peers in cabinet were often experienced administrators who had begun their political life early in a family borough. Even Walter Bagehot, no fan of the House of Lords, recognized that one of its useful functions was to be “a reservoir of cabinet ministers.” He noted that “the leisured members of the Cabinet speak in the Lords with authority and power . . . they are the equals of those they speak to; they speak as they like, and reply as they choose; they address the House, not with the ‘bated breath’ of subordinates, but the force and dignity of sure rank.”4

In the early, post-1832 period, cabinet posts were fairly evenly divided between lords and commoners, with a slight bias towards lords. But cabinet was no place for “the common man.” Those I refer to as “commoners” should more accurately be called “members of the House of Commons,” in that they often included Irish peers representing an English constituency, titled individuals such as courtesy peers, baronets, or knights, or relatives of aristocratic families. When Charles Poulett Thomson was made Vice President of the Board of Trade (minister not in cabinet) in 1830, he was “exposed to mortifying sneers when—a plain merchant—he took his seat on the Treasury Bench.”5 Nevertheless, under Melville he became President of the Board with a seat in cabinet, and his situation became less anomalous as the century advanced.

The Lord Chancellor had to be a peer (and was made one if he wasn’t already), since he presided over the House of Lords. As head of the judiciary and of the Court of Chancery, he had a duty of strict impartiality, which sat rather oddly with his being a partisan member of government. He stepped aside from the woolsack when he was promoting government business or speaking in debates. As Lord Longford remarked, “No one would recommend [this arrangement] to a young country setting up a new constitution.”6 The Lord President of the Council was a peer who was the head of the Privy Council, and for some years administered the educational grants through a committee of that council. The Lord Privy Seal did not have a particular portfolio, but could be given duties as needed. One of this trio might well be the leader of the party in the Lords, when the prime minister was in the Commons.

Very often the Foreign Secretary was a peer. Diplomacy had long been a particular sphere of the aristocracy—owing to their “flair for the theatrical” according to Bagehot, or as a form of outdoor relief for them according to Bright’s more jaundiced view.7 An aristocrat also had more freedom to travel, might well be French-speaking and cosmopolitan, and was at home in the palaces and drawing-rooms where diplomats tended to congregate. The Foreign Secretary was often the right-hand man to the Prime Minister, working on policy with him, as was the case with Gladstone and Lord Clarendon.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer had to be a commoner, as the House of Commons had long ago won control over supply and financial measures. Trollope’s Plantaganet Palliser spent his happiest days as Chancellor of the Exchequer, working on his pet scheme of decimal currency, and was bitterly disappointed when he inherited his uncle’s title as Duke of Omnium and had to resign that post. The Chancellor of the Exchequer would usually be the Commons leader if the prime minister was in the House of Lords.

The Home Secretary, in charge of policing, prisons, the militia, factory inspection and the like, was usually a member of the House of Commons. And it was helpful if the Secretary for War and the First Lord of the Admiralty (again, not necessarily a real lord) were in the Commons, where they could defend the large amount of money spent on the army and navy. But a Prime Minister might have a variety of reasons for favouring a peer for such positions, such as his ability or expertise, or the need for his help in pushing government business through the Lords. Thus Gladstone’s successor Lord Rosebery risked the ire of his Commons leader Harcourt by insisting on having Lord Kimberley as Foreign Secretary, partly to increase his government’s strength in the House of Lords.

Departments needed spokesmen in both Houses. If a minister was in the Lords, very often a parliamentary undersecretary or other junior minister would be his spokesman in the Commons. For instance, Gladstone got his start in office in 1841 when Peel made him Vice President of the Board of Trade. He conducted its business in the House of Commons (and apparently did most of the work) while Lord Ripon was President. He became President of the Board, with a seat in cabinet, in 1843 when Ripon went to the Board of Control. Then the Earl of Dalhousie became Vice President and represented the Board of Trade in the House of Lords. As the Foreign Secretary was usually in the Lords, the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs was the most important of the Commons deputies.

Looking back to pre-Victorian foundations, Lord Grey’s initial cabinet of 1830, though assembled to bring in parliamentary reform, was surprisingly aristocratic. All but four were members of the House of Lords. Of the four Commons members, one was an Irish peer (Palmerston), and two later became peers (Althorp, the heir of Lord Spencer, and Charles Grant, who was ennobled)—leaving but Sir James Graham. As this makes evident, Grey saw the First Reform Act as correcting and thus strengthening the aristocratic constitution of Britain, rather than as opening the gates to the multitude.

Grey’s Lord Privy Seal, Lord Durham, is an example of a radical peer appointed to a cabinet post. According to W.L Guttsman, Whig leaders such as Grey preferred to have this segment of reformers represented by “men of the same mould as the majority group; aristocrats who identified themselves with the radical cause, or were at least sympathetic with it,” rather than by crusading commoners like Cobden.8 Durham was only a newly-minted peer (Baron Durham, 1828), but he was of a wealthy landowning family, his mother was a peer’s daughter, and besides, his second wife was Lord Grey’s daughter. But his tenure was brief. He struggled in cabinet, urging unpopular reforms that went beyond the First Reform Act, and alienating his colleagues by his “haughty and disdainful demeanour” and an aspect that was “sullen, silent, and sulky.”9 In 1833 he resigned.

When Melbourne came to form his administration in 1834, taking over from Grey, Lord Lansdowne declared he would not enter a government which included Lord Durham10, and so Radical Jack was not reappointed. This probably suited Melbourne’s post-Reform Act stance very well, as his cabinet had an unprecedented nine members of the House of Commons—a number not to be equalled until 1859. However, Durham’s reformist collaborator in the House of Commons, Lord Duncannon (an Irish peer), had just been given a UK peerage and provided a substitute radical peer in cabinet, as Home Secretary.

In 1841 the conservative Sir Robert Peel put together a cabinet of whom eight of fourteen were in the House of Lords. Henry Goulburn as Chancellor of the Exchequer was the sole member without a title of some sort (including “Sir”). And since Peel was in the Commons himself--a financial expert, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and obvious fountainhead of measures such as the income tax and repeal of the Corn Laws--Goulburn did not have a chance to shine.

Lord John Russell’s attempt to form a government in December 1845 illustrates the importance of the Lords ministers—though perhaps what it chiefly illustrates is the difficulties associated with Palmerston. Peel, exasperated by Corn Law troubles, had suddenly resigned on December 5—perhaps hoping that repeal would be more easily passed by a Whig ministry. The Queen sent for Russell to take over. After some hesitation he agreed to serve, and began to canvass possible ministers. The sticking point was that Palmerston would accept nothing but going back to the Foreign Office. The 3rd Earl Grey, having first agreed to be Colonial Secretary, changed his mind when he found Palmerston would be Foreign Secretary – he was just too much disliked abroad. Russell decided he could not manage a government without Grey as a minister in the Lords. The Whig peers themselves “had counted upon [Grey] as their principal speaker in the House of Lords,” and were not inclined to form a government without him.11 So Russell journeyed back to Windsor to withdraw his acceptance, and Peel took up the government again. Oddly enough, Grey did accept Palmerston in the Foreign Office in Lord John’s 1846 ministry.

The Aberdeen coalition of Whigs and Peelites in 1852 was similar to Peel’s in one respect: though only six of the original thirteen cabinet members were in the House of Lords, Gladstone claimed that he was the only one of these “noblemen and gentlemen” who could not be said to belong to the aristocratic class.12 He and Sidney Herbert were the only members without a “handle” to their name, and Herbert was a son of the Earl of Pembroke. Nevertheless, this was the cabinet that commissioned and approved of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the civil service, which led to the replacement of aristocratic patronage by competitive examinations.

Palmerston in his second cabinet of 1859 provides another example of an aristocratic cabinet, as he appointed three dukes and two earls. Of the nine commoners, Lord John Russell as Foreign Secretary (already a duke’s brother) and Sidney Herbert as Secretary for War were ennobled in the next couple of years, as was Sir Charles Wood the Secretary for India later. This top-heavy cabinet is said to have reassured the conservatives, dismayed at the defeat of the Derby ministry, who had actually won the most seats in the June election.13

The Marquis of Clanricarde affords an example of a Lords cabinet minister who apparently contributed to the fall of a government, not by his actions but by his very presence. Though a popular representative of Irish interests, and an active member of the House of Lords, he was also a notorious libertine. A reminiscence in the newspaper United Ireland noted that he had “left his present dutiful son a vast number of brothers and sisters whose names are not to be found in the peerage, and left besides quite a miscellaneous assortment of stepmothers.”14 In December 1857, Palmerston needed a new Lord Privy Seal to replace the Earl of Harrowby, and rather inadvisedly invited Clanricarde. To the Saturday Review, “Lord Clanricarde unites every possible disqualification,”15 while the choice caused Lord Lansdowne to ask Palmerston “if he was out of his mind.”16

The Times blamed the fall of Palmerston’s government a few weeks later on this appointment, “a public scandal universally condemned, an outrage on public feeling.”17 Oddly, Clanricarde had already served as Postmaster-General in Russell’s cabinet of 1846-52 without provoking undue outrage. But since then his scandalous behaviour had been widely publicized in the Handcock vs. Delacour court case of 1855, which alleged that he had intrigued to get an inheritance for his illegitimate son by improper influence over his mistress’ daughters. Of course, Palmerston ostensibly resigned over the Orsini affair. But the public, and perhaps also the eighty Liberal MPs who voted against him, were more exercised over the Lord Privy Seal’s aristocratic debauchery. In fact notice of a motion to abolish his office had been given just before the defeat of the government made it unnecessary.

When Palmerston died in 1865 and the now Earl Russell carried on, he added yet another couple of earls (the Earl of Clarendon, and Earl de Grey in 1866). Surprisingly for a reformer, his nine lords were balanced by only six commoners. This caused Gladstone, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, to complain of “the lop-sided condition of the government, with the strain and stress of administration in the H. of Commons, and nearly all the offices about which the H. of Commons cares, represented by heads in the H. of Lords.” “No such thing has ever been known,” he wrote to his wife, “as an administration with the first lord [of the treasury – Russell himself], foreign secretary, secretary for war, and the first lord of the admiralty in the House of Lords.”18 Since Russell now faced Lord Derby, leader of the Conservatives, in the House of Lords, debates there were particularly noteworthy, though Liberal deputies or parliamentary secretaries were also vital to carry the policies through the House of Commons.

Cabinets so far have been slightly in favour of giving positions to peers—thus showing the way the aristocracy perpetuated their influence in government as it waned in the House of Commons. These peers had the advantages of birth, wealth, upbringing in a political atmosphere, and experience through easy election as an MP and holding of junior offices.19 But cabinets opened up more to non-aristocrats of talent as the century wore on. Peers were perhaps less eager to serve, as they already had a high status, and were preoccupied with their extensive properties, their company chairmanships, or partridges. MPs, on the other hand, might well have entered politics fired with ambition to win cabinet rank. They were willing to undertake the harder work of debating in the bear-pit of the House of Commons, and they were often grateful for the salary of a minister. And more importantly, the Second Reform Act provided a larger, middle-class electorate whose concerns demanded to be reflected In cabinet.

The Earl of Derby illustrates this progression. His first administration (Feb. to Dec. 1852) has the distinction of being known as the “Who, who?” ministry, owing to the deaf Duke of Wellington’s asking loudly who all these relatively unknown people were. In fact seven were the Duke’s colleagues in the House of Lords, while six were from the House of Commons. Derby’s second ministry (1858-59) had six lords to seven commoners, though one of the latter was his son and heir Lord Stanley. His third ministry (1866-68), at the start, had only five peers and a record ten commoners, though again one was his son and one was Lord Cranborne, the future Lord Salisbury. Even more significantly, nearly all the important posts—Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty, and the secretaries for Home, War, India, and Ireland, were drawn from the House of Commons. This was the ministry that passed the Second Reform Act.

Derby’s successor Disraeli apparently had a specific policy of keeping a balance between peers and commoners in his cabinets. According to his biographer Lord Blake, after Lord Malmesbury had resigned as Lord Privy Seal in 1876, he took on the office himself (being now Lord Beaconsfield) to avoid adding another peer. But when the Earl of Carnarvon resigned as Colonial Secretary in 1878, he replaced him with Sir Michael Hicks Beach and thus had another Lords spot available. He then vacated the post of Lord Privy Seal and assigned it to the Duke of Northumberland, who actually had few qualifications besides his being a lord.20

The next Conservative chief, the Marquis of Salisbury, continued this practice, which seems to have become an accepted one.21 Peter Marsh even maintains that Salisbury would have promoted more talented peers to his cabinets if he had not wanted equal numbers.22 But he would have had to be careful. In 1900, his fourth cabinet was widely derided for the number of members of his own family, the Cecils, who were appointed to office. (In fact the expression “Bob’s your uncle” may well be traced to a nephew’s appointment.)23 In cabinet, besides Salisbury himself, was his nephew Arthur Balfour, his close ally as First Lord of the Treasury; another nephew, Gerald Balfour, as President of the Board of Trade; and his son-in-law the Earl of Selborne as First Lord of the Admiralty (equalling one-fifth of the cabinet). His son Lord Cranborne, though not in cabinet, was appointed Undersecretary to the Foreign Office, and spoke for that department in the House of Commons. According to the Oxford DNB, a third, unspecified nephew also held office. In his motion deploring this plethora, Conservative MP Sir George Trout Bartley complained that the government had become known as “the Hotel Cecil, Unlimited,” while in the House of Lords Rosebery congratulated Salisbury on being the head of a family with such an unprecedented genius for administration.24 Of course these appointees were not all peers, but they do demonstrate the continued dominance of aristocratic families.

On the Liberal side, the fact that Gladstone’s four cabinets (1878-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94) had a preponderance of commoners is probably owing to a shortage of lords rather than to democratic urges. Gladstone was no egalitarian, confessing to a fondness for “an austere duke of large fortune and Liberal principles.”25 The initial slates of his first three cabinets each had a respectable six members from the House of Lords. The Liberal party still had the support of old Whig aristocratic families such as Spencer, Russell, Petty-Fitzmaurice (Marquesses of Lansdowne), and Cavendish (Dukes of Devonshire). In fact Gladstone’s biographer John Morley notes how in the 1880 cabinet “the greatest posts had gone to patrician Whigs just as if Mr. Gladstone had been a Grey or a Russell.”26

But these patricians were awkwardly matched with a more radical wing of commoners in cabinet. John Bright, W. E. Forster, and Joseph Chamberlain were all included in 1880; when the first two resigned, Sir Charles Dilke joined. The resignation of the Duke of Argyll in 1881, and the refusal of Hartington to serve in Gladstone’s third cabinet of 1886, could be taken as a token of the gradual withdrawal of the aristocratic class from the Liberal party.27 Many became Liberal Unionists, opposed to home rule for Ireland, and eventually joined the Conservatives; thus both Hartington, now Duke of Devonshire, and the 5th Marquis of Lansdowne, grandson of the prominent Whig, joined Salisbury’s third cabinet in 1895. In 1892, in a note to the Queen, Gladstone estimated that he had the support of, at most, one-tenth of the peers; this alienation had pushed the Liberal party in a more radical and democratic direction28.

His fourth cabinet, in this year, contained only five members of the House of Lords to ten commoners. The Earl of Kimberley doubled as Secretary for India and President of Council, while Gladstone himself took on the office of Lord Privy Seal, normally reserved for a peer, as he had in his third cabinet. After this, under one-third of the next three Liberal cabinets would be peers.29 At least Gladstone was in the van of history, as today peers, apart from the Leader of the House of Lords and sometimes the Lord Privy Seal, are seldom appointed to cabinet – and they may well be life peers rather than aristocrats of ancient family.