Men arrived in the House of Lords by all sorts of ways—inheritance, hard work, merit, courting of the powerful, brewing beer—but by far the most-travelled path was from the House of Commons. One could divide these upwardly-borne individuals in various ways: those who longed to be a peer, and those who resisted it; those who inherited their position willy-nilly, those who applied for it, and those who had it thrust upon them; those who were happy to leave the Commons and those who were not; those who admired and cherished the House of Lords and those who considered it the next thing to a dungeon.

In spite of the prestige and influence of the House of Lords, the House of Commons became increasingly the centre of the nation’s political life during the century. In comparison the Lords could seem somewhat of a backwater. On a slow day, the noble lords met at five and were gone by seven. Tending to be elderly, they could often be observed slumbering peacefully on their benches. Or the benches might be empty: the quorum for ordinary business was three. Even Lord Salisbury, at home in its refined ambience, advised Disraeli that he might regret going to this “dullest assembly in the world.”1 To Robert Lowe, ennobled in 1880 as Viscount Sherbrooke, speaking there was like “addressing dead men by torchlight.”2

For this reason eldest sons involved in politics might lament their natural succession to the peerage. Among the unhappy heirs was Lord Shaftesbury, who had been active in the House of Commons as Lord Ashley, improving conditions for such unfortunates as labourers in mines and factories, or those imprisoned in lunatic asylums. On his succession in 1851 he wrote in his diary that “It seems no place for me; a ‘statue gallery,’ some say a ‘dormitory’ . . . Shall I ever be able to do anything?”3 The second Earl Grey was apparently extremely annoyed that his father had sought and obtained a title, thus dooming him to leave the Commons when he inherited it.4 After his first speech in the Lords in 1808 he told his wife “It is impossible I should ever do anything there worth thinking of”5 —an overly pessimistic prediction, since he directed the First Reform Bill from that chamber. Parliamentary reporter Henry Lucy tells of one newly-made “reluctant peer”—forerunner to Tony Benn—who jumped defiantly and illegally over the bar of the House of Commons in a vain attempt to reclaim his old seat.6

Other successful but untitled MPs, unlike their social-climbing contemporaries, resisted being ennobled. Gladstone declined all entreaties from Queen Victoria herself, who would have liked nothing better than to see this “half-mad fire-brand” and “dangerous old fanatic” put away safely in the upper house. He smoothly insisted to her that “any service that he can render, if small, will, however, be greater in the House of Commons”7 —while later warning Rosebery that “the Queen alone is enough to kill any man.”8 In fact making a politician a peer was often seen as the solution to a political problem. Promoting Palmerston to the Lords had been proposed as a way out of the cabinet-making dilemma of 1845 mentioned in the last section. But Palmerston would not hear of it, as he was already a peer, though not a United Kingdom one, and he thrived in the House of Commons.

Other politicians were not so lucky, and found themselves catapulted unwillingly into the Lords by the manoeuvrings of their party. Thus Gathorne Hardy had a good claim to becoming government Commons leader when Disraeli went to the Lords, but as the party leadership preferred Sir Stafford Northcote, he meekly took the title of Viscount Cranbrook and a Lords seat as compensation. Sir Richard Cross, who had been notably successful as Home Secretary to Disraeli and Salisbury, fell victim to Lord Randolph Churchill’s violent dislike when the latter became Conservative Commons leader, and was demoted to Secretary for India and shuffled off to the Lords as Viscount Cross.

Yet others, however, went with relief, as to a tranquil haven, or felt their ennoblement was a fitting reward for their service in the House of Commons. Sir John Cam Hobhouse accepted the title of Baron Broughton in 1851 in order to stay in Parliament, convinced that his political views would make it impossible for him to be elected in any Commons constituency.9 Disraeli too was eventually forced to take refuge there. He loved the House of Commons, and as age and ill-health made it difficult for him to function, he was tempted to retire from politics completely. However, the Queen and his party persuaded him to stay on in the Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield (1876). As the last years of his mandate were equally lack-lustre in both Houses, no conclusions regarding the location of a prime minister can be drawn. But he did provide a telling description of the Lords as a refuge. When asked how he liked it, he told the questioner that “I am dead; dead but in the Elysian fields.”10 There follow a few more detailed examples of these Elysians.

Lord Althorp is a famous example of a loss to the House of Commons through natural succession. He was Grey’s and then Melbourne’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Commons leader of the Whigs, and respected by the whole House. On November 10, 1834, his father Lord Spencer died and he became the 3rd Earl, so was no longer eligible to be Chancellor. The ministry was so bereft that Melbourne felt they could hardly carry on. For him Althorp was “the tortoise on whom the world rests.”11 Without much enthusiasm he offered to proceed with Russell as a replacement for Althorp. But King William IV, perhaps scenting a whiff of Radicalism, claimed that the Whig ministry was now so weak as to be unworthy of public confidence. He seized the opportunity to dismiss them and call upon the Tories. (Peel, however, did not last long, and this was the last time a monarch acted quite so independently.)

The new Lord Spencer, meanwhile, lost his appetite for politics and devoted himself to restoring the family fortunes and farming, co-founding the Royal Agricultural Society. He called the Lords “that hospital for incurables,”12 and apparently seldom went there. Greville uses his possible attendance as a sign of the extremities provoked by Lord Ellenborough’s India Proclamation in 1842: “The Duke of Bedford tells me that Lord Spencer’s political apathy has been excited very highly, and that he is so full of indignation that he talks of coming down to the House of Lords to attack it.”13 How much was lost to the Lords by his usual absence is suggested by the moving speech he made there shortly before his death, recommending the financing of Maynooth College as a gesture of “conciliation and liberality” to Ireland.14

Just for balance, Lord Stanley (the future 14th Earl of Derby) was an heir so eager to go to the Lords that he did so even before inheriting his title. He had entered the House of Commons in 1820 as plain Edward Geoffrey Stanley, supporting the Whigs. He gained the courtesy title of Lord Stanley in October 1834 when his father became 13th Earl of Derby. At about the same time he became the Commons leader of a somewhat independent group, the Stanleyites, aka the Derby Dilly, delightfully named after a coach carrying six (though the group numbered about 50). Eventually the Dillies cantered towards the Tories. Derby family biographer J.J. Bagley recounts that Stanley, now a Tory, would answer the old riddle “Why is heaven like a bald head?” with his own personally-invented reply: “in neither place is a Whig in sight.”15 He would often joke in this fashion, leaving colleagues in despair over his frivolity.

Stanley was known as the finest orator in the House of Commons, though also found unreliable; but in 1844 he chose to be called up to the House of Lords, while his father was still there, in his father’s barony Stanley of Bickerstaffe, as was allowed. Thus it was under the title of (The) Baron Stanley (now a real Lord Stanley) that the future 14th Earl entered the House of Lords.

Several explanations have been given for this transposition. Officially, says his Oxford DNB entry, he went because Peel’s Tories needed more debating strength in the House of Lords, and because of his ill health. But he had not been seeing eye to eye with Peel lately (and was shortly to split with him completely) and perhaps wanted to distance himself. Peel wrote privately that he left “because he had not enough work to do, so dominant were his colleagues.”16 Greville, agreeing that the government was weak in the House of Lords as Wellington became ever deafer, suggested that he had been sent to curb Lord Brougham’s tendency to act as the sole mouthpiece of the government in that House.17 At any rate he thrived there when his ill-health allowed, and after becoming Earl of Derby in 1851, led three administrations as described in Part 2.

Lord Brougham was certainly in need of taming. Ironically, he had been translated to the Lords with just that object. In the Commons he had been an active proponent of liberal causes such as education, law reform, and the abolition of slavery. But even then his overweening self-importance and usurping of the leadership had been hard to bear. When Grey was assembling his reform ministry in 1830, the indispensable Althorp refused to become leader of the House unless the irritant that was Henry Brougham was removed. Brougham was too influential to be simply passed over; so, unwillingly, he was prevailed upon to become Lord Chancellor (for which post he would be ennobled). At this point he wrote that he would “drop on the Woolsack as on his political deathbed,” and bitterly lamented being doomed to that “odious house.”18

When the Whigs left office in November 1834, he lost even his perch on the Woolsack. On their return in April 1835 he was not reappointed. As Melbourne explained, “You domineered too much, you interfered too much with other departments, you encroached upon the province of the Prime Minister . . . .”19 Thereafter he became increasingly eccentric. Wearing tartan trousers is not bizarre in itself, especially for a Scotsman like Brougham, but buying enough material to last the rest of one’s life probably is. To many, his removal to the Lords ended his political career. Greville considered him a noble wreck, one who had fallen “from the loftiest summit of influence, power, and fame to the lowest abyss of political degradation.” He flits through Greville’s memoirs as an “impure and degraded buffoon,” taking over Lord Lyndhurst’s rightful place on the Woolsack when he could, and compulsively making speeches that were too often “violent, tedious, and verbose.”20

But this is not the last word on Brougham in the Lords. Exasperating as he was, he achieved valuable legal reforms after his translation. His call for making the law cheaper and more accessible had been made in the House of Commons in a famous six-hour speech of 1828, but it was as Chancellor that he was able to establish the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and the Central Criminal Court, and to attack the backlog in his own notorious Court of Chancery. In the 1840s and 1850s he constantly introduced bills for legal reform into the Lords. In an article studying his law reforms Michael Lobban concludes that, though his measures were often flawed and inadequate, Brougham had a real influence “as a ceaseless activist, an irritant in legislation,” who kept the idea of reform constantly in the public eye.21 Given the lack of a Department of Justice, government apathy, and the peculiarities of Brougham’s character, he deserves credit for his continued efforts.

Another politician tactically promoted was Sir Stafford Northcote, a Conservative who became leader of the party in the Commons when Disraeli went to the Lords in 1876. For a while, after Disraeli’s death in 1881, he shared the overall leadership with Salisbury. He was a decent and affable man, but unfortunately not a scintillating politician. Lord Randolph Churchill and his companions were merciless towards him, calling him the Grand Old Woman in distinction to the Grand Old Man, Gladstone, whose private secretary he had been when Gladstone was a Tory. Even Gladstone himself came to perceive his “flabby weakness.”22 When Salisbury came to power in June 1885 and offered Churchill the post of Secretary of State for India, Churchill would serve only if Northcote were removed from the Commons—whether because of his ineffectiveness, or to leave himself pre-eminent there, is not clear.

Perhaps grateful for Churchill’s demolishing Northcote as a rival leader, Salisbury complied by making Northcote Earl of Iddesleigh. He also offered him the cabinet position of First Lord of the Treasury; Salisbury was one of the few Prime Ministers who did not hold this position himself. The long-suffering Iddesleigh did not demur. From the Lords he also served briefly as Foreign Secretary in Salisbury’s next administration. But further indignity succeeded: in the political upheaval after the resignation of Churchill in January 1887, George Goschen in replacing him as Chancellor of the Exchequer stipulated that Iddesleigh should be removed even from this post.23 At least he was vouchsafed a dramatic exit: upset to have learned of his demotion from a newspaper report, he later walked from the Foreign Office to Downing Street to hand over the seals of office, collapsed in the waiting room, and died before Salisbury’s eyes.24

Sidney Herbert is one who saw the Lords as a refuge and sanctuary. Already exhausted by the Crimean War (1854-56), which had begun while he was in Aberdeen’s cabinet, he agreed to become Secretary for War in Palmerston’s second cabinet of June 1859, “on the condition that I should go to the Lords if I found the [ministerial] work too much, together with the House of Commons.” “I even offered to go there now if convenient to the Government,” he added; but Palmerston said it was highly inconvenient, as he was needed to battle in the House of Commons.25 Herbert did battle on, working on army reforms, the defences of England, and a war with China, but in addition to all his work and his nearly two hundred parliamentary speeches he was suffering from Bright’s disease, and after eighteen months had to call on Palmerston to keep the bargain. He was made Lord Herbert of Lea in early 1861. Since he remained Secretary for War, this necessitated dislodging Lord de Grey, who as Undersecretary of State for War had been representing the department in the Lords, and appointing a member of the Commons as undersecretary. In a letter welcoming him to the House of Lords, Lord Granville wrote that “you will find our parliamentary work perfect child’s play after the Commons.”26 Unfortunately, even this more tranquil environment was not enough, and Herbert died in August.

A transition to the Lords, though offering a less stressful way to be a politician, did involve a burden of expense upon the family. This was a stumbling-block to Hugh Cairns, an Irish lawyer and MP, who served Derby as Solicitor-General and then Attorney-General. In 1866 he found his official and parliamentary duties too much and resigned. His colleagues, feeling his absence, pointed out that he could very well go on in the House of Lords. Having previously declined a peerage because he lacked the means to uphold it, he was saved by help from “one of the rich men in his extended family,”27 and entered the Lords as Baron Cairns in February 1867. With his distinguished career there, as a reforming Lord Chancellor and sometime Conservative leader, he may serve as an example of a happy and successful transition, thanks to his altruistic benefactor.

Another way around the money problem was mooted by Lord John Russell. In 1849 his government was shaky and the hard work in the Commons was wearing him down. But according to Greville, party members opposed his resignation and suggested he take a peerage and carry on in the more peaceful ambiance of the House of Lords. His brother the Duke of Bedford, owner of the family acreage at Woburn, agreed to transfer some property to facilitate this. Lord John, however, felt that the gift was insufficient to support an hereditary peerage. (Perhaps he was right: Greville comments on how the Duke in his “passion of avarice and the pleasure of accumulation” kept his brother on a short leash financially, in spite of his “colossal fortune.”28 ) Lord John therefore proposed taking a peerage with a special remainder to his brother and his line.29

This arrangement, verging on a life peerage, did not happen, and Russell stayed in the Commons until 1861, when he was created hereditary Earl Russell without apparent financial stress. His grandson, Bertrand Russell, the third earl, had little use for the House of Lords: he seldom attended, spoke only six times in 39 years, and did not use his title as he considered it elitist. No doubt he heartily wished the remainder scheme had worked.