Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Victorian government insider

Edward Walter Hamilton, or Eddy as he was always known, died one hundred years ago today. He was considered a pillar of the establishment, serving as a private secretary to William Gladstone during his second term as Prime Minister, and subsequently, as one of the country’s top civil servants, in the Treasury. He also wrote a diary which is said to give an excellent insight into the workings of government and its administration in the late Victorian period. Recently, Hamilton’s diaries provided a revelation as to why the government of the day took so long to bestow a knighthood on the great actor Henry Irving.

Hamilton was born in 1847, the eldest son of the bishop of Salisbury, Walter Kerr Hamilton, and Isabel Elizabeth, daughter of the dean of Salisbury. He studied at Eton and Oxford, and graduated with a music degree. Thanks to a friendship between his father and William Gladstone, Hamilton became a junior clerk at the Treasury in 1870, a department to which he would be attached for the rest of his life - apart from several years as private secretary to Gladstone himself. In spite of his close links with Gladstone and with Lord Rosebery, a close friend since their Eton days, Hamilton was a trusted adviser to a succession of Unionist as well as Liberal chancellors. Hamilton was made a knight in 1994, and reached the most senior position in the Treasury - financial secretary - in 1902.

Starting in the spring of 1880, when Hamilton joined the Downing Street staff, he kept a diary, detailing much of the political activity around him. He only stopped in 1906, because of ill-health. There are fifty-four volumes, all held by the British Library. According to an article by James Munson in Contemporary Review, the diaries give ‘an excellent insight into the actual working of late Victorian government and administration’. Indeed, Hamilton’s knowledge of these matters was so considerable. Munson adds, that he was asked to provide instruction on the British Constitution to the future King, George V. It is worth noting that Hamilton himself used to contribute to Contemporary Review - a magazine founded in 1866 ‘to promote intelligent and independent opinion about the great issues’ of the day - under the pseudonym Nemo.

Throughout the diary, according to Munson, Hamilton records intriguing political gossip gained during his frequent visits to Rosebery’s houses, and he reveals how he hoped Rosebery would carry on the progressive splendours of Victorian Liberalism. However, the diary also documents how Hamilton slowly became more and more disenchanted with the direction of government, his feelings ‘made all the more bitter by his personal devotion to Rosebery’. Moreover, the diary provides some ‘fascinating glimpses of Queen Victoria and King Edward’s relations with the Treasury’.

The diaries were published for the first time in 1972, by Clarendon Press (Oxford University Press), in two volumes: Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton (covering the period 1880-1885). In 1992, Hull University Press published The Diary of Sir Edward Walter Hamilton 1885-1906. Both editions were edited by Dudley W R Bahlman, and are available secondhand from sellers such as Abebooks.

There are not, however, any substantial extracts of Hamilton’s diaries to be found online (none that I can find any way). There are a couple of brief ones in a short biography of Hamilton, by Bahlman, for Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) (which requires a log in, but is accessible via public library membership). Hamilton, it says, was aware of the qualities that suited him well to be a private secretary and Treasury official - such as diligence, accuracy, tact, and an ability to write clear summaries of complex questions - but that he did not have unusual powers of intellect. He wrote in his diary, on 28 April 1891, ‘the reason why I am clear is that I must explain things clearly in order to make them intelligible to myself’.

Recently, Hamilton’s diary has been the source of a revelation about the great Victorian actor Henry Irving. John H B Irving, the actor’s great grandson, and one of the patrons of the Henry Irving Society (formed in 1996), has published several articles on the Society’s website about his search for some missing letters. Incidental to that search, John writes about Henry’s knighthood. In 1883, there was a ‘fiasco’, he says, when Gladstone ‘had inadvertently offered Henry Irving a knighthood only later to find that this offer had been vetoed by his aristocratic cabinet on the grounds that Irving had left his wife and had a questionable relationship with his leading lady’. Subsequently, it seems, Irving agreed to pretend the offer was unacceptable to him, and all relevant government documents were altered to support the ‘refusal’ scenario. ‘All, that is’, says John Irving, ‘except one’ - i.e. Hamilton. He wrote in his diary on 27 June 1883, ‘. . The idea of knighthood for Irving abandoned. Lord Granville and others threw cold water on it.’ (John Irving credits Professor John Pick who spotted the information and wrote a paper on the affair.) It was to be another 12 years before Irving became the first ever actor to be knighted.

According to the ODNB biography, Hamilton began to experience increasingly severe symptoms of vascular disease in 1889. In 1890, he consulted the famous French physician Jean-Martin Charcot, who, according to his diary (7 Dec 1890), diagnosed him as having ‘clodification of the arteries of the leg’. Hamilton died at the Hotel Metropole, Brighton, on 2 September 1908.

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