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Sex and Mr Gladstone

Trevor Fischer takes a second look at the Victorian prime minister's fascination with street-walkers.

Bill Clinton’s recent troubles have highlighted the difficulties politicians can encounter over sexual matters. Politicians and sex scandals have been headline news for centuries, yet some politicians manage to court disaster and survive. In this context, there are few more intriguing tales than that of Victoria’s most successful prime minister, William Gladstone. In public the epitome of respectability, his relations with women of easy virtue nevertheless raised eyebrows. His Foreign Secretary, Granville, once spoke of having known nine prime ministers, five of whom had committed adultery. Informed Victorians speculated privately whether Gladstone was one of the five.

Speculation centred on two aspects of Gladstone’s social life. He was the only prime minister to stalk the streets of London seeking to reclaim street prostitutes from a life of vice. Equally controversially, his friendships with notorious courtesans such as Skittles – Catherine Walters – and Lillie Langtry invited charges of hypocrisy. Gladstone became one of the few figures in British history involved in a posthumous libel action when, in 1927, his surviving sons clashed with the author Peter Wright. Wright had alleged Gladstone was immoral. Gladstone’s sons called Wright a liar, and Wright sued. He lost the case, the jury stating that the evidence produced in favour of Gladstone had completely vindicated the high moral character of the dead man.

Nevertheless, the verdict in the Wright case did not stop rumours circulating. Gladstone’s biographers have been unable to dispel the charge that Gladstone preached Christian virtue while engaging in erotic duplicity. His earliest biographer, John Morley, simply ignored the issues by providing an idealised picture of a perfect family man, happily married for nearly sixty years. Later biographers have debated the charges without effectively resolving them.

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