Lord Melbourne

Lord Melbourne

William Lamb, son of Lord Melbourne, was born in London in 1779. After being educated at Eton and Trinity College, he became a lawyer. As a young man, Lamb became a member of a group of Radicals that included Leigh Hunt, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Hazlitt, Henry Brougham, Lord Byron, and Thomas Barnes. Whereas Hunt, Shelley, Byron, Hazlitt and Barnes concentrated on writing, Brougham and Lamb went into politics. In 1805 Lamb became Whig MP for Leominster.

In the same year that he entered the House of Commons, Lamb married Lady Caroline Ponsonby. The marriage was not successful and 1812 Lady Lamb scandalized London society by having an affair with Lord Byron.

In 1827 George Canning, the Tory prime minister, offered William Lamb the post of chief secretary of Ireland. The following year he inherited his father's title and moved to the House of Lords. When Earl Grey and his Whig government took power in November, 1830, Lord Melbourne became home secretary. By this time Melbourne was a moderate Whig and had severe doubts about the wisdom of parliamentary reform. However, he decided to fight the case from within and did not resign from the government during the fight for the 1832 Reform Act.

William IV resented the fact that Lord Grey had forced the Reform Act on him. However, Grey was so popular with the general public that he was unable to take action against him. After Grey resigned in 1834 Melbourne was asked to became prime minister. Melbourne was not an ambitious man and had to be persuaded to take the post. William IV was now in a much stronger position and after four months the king dismissed the Whig government and appointed the Tory, Sir Robert Peel as his new prime minister.

As there were more Whigs than Tories in the House of Commons, Sir Robert Peel found government very difficult. Peel was only able to pass legislation that was supported by the Whigs and on 8th April 1835 he resigned from office. William IV was forced to reappoint Melbourne as his prime minister.

The following year Melbourne was involved in a serious sexual scandal. For many years Melbourne had been friends with Caroline Norton, the wife of a former Tory MP. George Norton, who had serious financial problems, went to see Melbourne and asked for £1400. When Melbourne refused, Norton accused him of having an affair with his wife. For a while the Tories thought that the scandal would bring Melbourne's government down. However, Norton had no evidence that his wife and Melbourne were having an affair and he was eventually forced to abandon his court case.

Lord Melbourne was opposed to some of the measures being advocated by some of the more radical Whigs such as Lord John Russell and Henry Brougham. This included the proposal for the secret ballot and the idea of state education. Russell, the Home Secretary in Melbourne's government, did manage to introduce some progressive legislation. His first measure concerned the reform of local government. For many years most English towns had been under the control of a self-elected body of aldermen and councillors. Under the terms of the Municipal Corporations Act, these men now had to be elected by the whole body of ratepayers.

In 1836 Lord John Russell was responsible for several new reforms including the establishment of the civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths, and the legislation of the marriage of dissenters in their own chapels. The following year Russell proposed a bill that would reduce the number of offences to which capital punishment was applicable.

William IV died in 1837. His replacement, the eighteen year old Queen Victoria, unlike William, was willing to listen to the advice of her prime minister. Melbourne, whose wife and only child had recently died, became her mentor. An apartment was made available for him at Windsor Castle and it was estimated that Melbourne spent six hours a day with Victoria. Her feelings for Melbourne were clearly expressed in her journal. On one occasion she wrote: "he is such an honest, good kind-hearted man and is my friend, I know it."

Some people objected to this close relationship. Melbourne's old friend, Thomas Barnes, the editor of The Times wrote "Is it for the Queen's service - is it for the Queen's dignity - is it becoming - is it commonly descent?" In the autumn of 1837 a rumour circulated that the 18 year old Victoria was considering marrying the 58 year old Melbourne. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she was growing very fond of Melbourne and loved listening to him talk: "Such stories of knowledge; such a wonderful memory; he knows about everybody and everything,; who they were and what they did. He has such a kind and agreeable manner; he does me the world of good."

In 1839 Melbourne resigned after a defeat in the House of Commons. Sir Robert Peel, the Tory leader, now became prime minister. It was the custom for the Queen's ladies of the bedchamber should be of the some political party as the government. Peel asked Victoria to replace the Whig ladies with Tory ladies. When Victoria refused, Peel resigned and Melbourne and the Whigs returned to office.

Melbourne resigned as prime minister in 1841. Queen Victoria wrote in her diary that she was "deeply affected" by this event. They continued to exchange letters until pressure was applied on Queen Victoria to bring an end to the relationship. Lord Melbourne died in 1848.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Journal of Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council.

11th November, 1831: In London there would probably have been a great uproar and riot, but fortunately Melbourne, who was frightened to death at the Bristol affair, gave Lord Hill and Fitzroy Somerset carte blanche, and they made such a provision of military force in addition to the civil power that the malcontents were paralyzed.

(2) Journal of Charles Greville, Clerk of the Privy Council.

7th January, 1832: The moderate party in the Cabinet consists of Lansdowne, Richmond, Palmerston, Melbourne and stanley. Palmerston and Melbourne, particularly the latter, are now heartily ashamed of the part they have taken about Reform. They detest and abhor the whole thing, and they find themselves unable to cope with the violent party, and consequently implicated in a series of measures which they disapprove; they do not know what to do, whether to stay in and fight this unequal battle or resign.

(3) William Lovett, Life and Struggles (1876)

One of the most remarkable processions that perhaps ever walked through the streets of London, was got up by the Consolidated Union to present an address to King William IV and Lord Melbourne in favour of the poor Tolpuddle labourers. The address was signed by 250,000 persons. About 120,000 persons walked in procession from Copenhagen Fields to the Home Office, it was refused by Lord Melbourne on account of the great numbers accompanying it.