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Lord Melbourne

Prime Minister 1834 - 41

William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was born 15th March 1779, and educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had few political convictions and was generally tolerant. These characteristics allowed him to cope as well as anyone could with Ireland during his time as secretary for Ireland 1827 - 28. But although Melbourne was tolerant, he was conservative in outlook, and certainly no idealist. In Earl Grey's administration 1830 - 34, Melbourne was made home secretary. While Grey got on with organising the historic Reform Act of 1832, Melbourne was given the job of suppressing unrest amongst struggling agricultural workers. In 1834 the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs tried to form a union, and use their combined strength to persuade land owners to increase their starvation wages. Melbourne supported the hard line taken by land owners, and by the presiding judge . The Martyrs were sentenced to transportation to Australia, and only a massive public outcry persuaded the government to reverse their sentence.


This then was the conservative and cautious man who took over as prime minister when Earl Grey resigned in 1834. Surrounded by strong personalities with fiercely different opinions, Melbourne followed his instincts, which always led him to do as little as possible. This policy, provided a calm centre to the storm. As Dorothy Marshall has written: "Lord Melbourne's capacity to do absolutely nothing unless driven, and then do as little as possible, was a definite asset" (The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P362). Melbourne was now to remain as prime minister until 1841. There were important advances in these years - the abolition of slavery, the first substantial Factory Act addressing the problems of women and children, and the first modest government grant to support education. But Melbourne's main achievement was that he simply survived. In an age of bewildering change unprecedented in human history, he provided symbolic stability. Melbourne came into his own in his relationship with the young Queen Victoria. Victoria as monarch was the ultimate symbol of continuity and stability, and Melbourne was in effect her equivalent in Parliament. He tutored the young queen in becoming a constitutional monarch, a great figurehead leader who had to master the difficult art of doing nothing. Queen and prime minister developed a close relationship. Between Victoria's accession in 1837, and her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, Melbourne was an unofficial king to Victoria's queen. These years represented the high point of his career, the prime minister playing a role for which he was perfectly suited. Victoria was young, needed guidance, and was charmed by Melbourne's urbane manner and good looks. Melbourne found relief in the company of a sensible young woman, who must have provided a welcome contrast to his turbulent wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, who had a famous affair with Lord Byron.

Melbourne had a small majority and argumentative colleagues. Ireland was a constant worry. His aggressive foreign secretary Palmerston was continually troublesome. Palmerston's disconcertingly energetic personality pushed Melbourne into a Middle Eastern foreign policy that was much too adventurous for his liking. But through it all there were three or four dining appointments with the queen every week, plus pleasant rides with her in Windsor Great Park. Melbourne's double act with the queen was not without its occasional problems. There was a scandal involving a lady in waiting, Flora Hastings, who was accused of pregnancy resulting from an affair with John Conroy, the head of the queen mother's household. In the event it turned out that Flora's appearance of pregnancy was the result of a tumour from which she later died. Victoria's unsympathetic treatment of Flora damaged her popularity. Generally, however, the dominant tone of the years 1837 - 40 was of a peaceful relationship for prime minister and queen, reassuring for themselves personally, and for the country as a whole. But eventually Victoria had to marry, and she could not marry Melbourne. Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg had long been groomed for the job, and after the royal wedding of 1840, Melbourne's role was effectively over. The final straw for his government was trouble between British and French settlers in Canada, and unrest in Jamaica linked to the freeing of slaves. Melbourne wanted to suspend the constitution of Jamaica, and when his majority on the Jamaica motion fell to only four, he resigned.



Windsor Great Park

For a while after his removal from office, Victoria continued to write to Melbourne. This, however, risked offending the new prime minister Robert Peel. Melbourne continued to live quietly until 1848 when a stroke ended his career. He died in November of that year. Judged in retrospect Melbourne's administration might not seem the most important or ground breaking. The official registration of births, marriages and deaths, is perhaps the most memorable piece of legislation to come out of the Melbourne years. Grey and his Reform Act, regularising electoral processes, appear more worthy of note than Melbourne's pleasant rides in Windsor Great Park with Queen Victoria. But it should be remembered that when Grey forced through the Reform Act he only did so because he foresaw a wider revolution if action was not taken. The motivation of the seemingly energetic Grey and the passive, conservative Melbourne were actually similar. Their basic aim was to put a break on change. Often we define success in terms of things done, with our conviction that history must be going somewhere. Melbourne didn't really see things like that. Life was not necessarily going anywhere, and was only for living. For Melbourne we might have to accept different rules, and see that success can sometimes be defined by things not done.