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Kimberley's Diamonds

John Powell on the colourful life of a Whig minister

In The Governing Passion, A. B. Cooke and John Vincent argued that the 'real work' of governing late Victorian Britain was 'largely in the hands of highly experienced Whig ministers... who were successful, interesting, and made almost an art of remaining in the shadows'.

Of these Whigs, few were more successful than John Wodehouse, 1st Earl of Kimberley (1826-1902), who served successively throughout the Gladstone and Rosebery ministries as Secretary of State for the Colonies, India, and Foreign Affairs. Not many led more interesting lives. Addressing joyous revolutionary crowds in northern Italy, hunting bear and dispatching spies in Russia, negotiating war and peace with Bismarck in Berlin, and defying Fenian death threats in Dublin, Kimberley was never short of instructive experiences. Yet he has remained perhaps the least understood among late Victorian politicians of weight, for he kept secrets, attracted no biographer, and has had his papers closed to research throughout the revival in Victorian studies during the past thirty years.

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